Samuel van de Putte 7


KASHBA Asiatica

Ais Loupatty & Ton Lankreijer

Staalstraat 6

1011 JL Amsterdam

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Two months earlier, in Kathmandu, tears were flowing of silent grief, now in Lhasa they flow from exuberant joy. An old father who sees his son coming back from a three-year trade trip to India. Returning monks and pilgrims. A mother who at last has her husband back home safely. Friends who embrace each other. A man with news and gifts from his other family.

Sometimes the emotions run high.

Map of Tibet

Why the caravan members, both on departure and on arrival, are overloaded with hard-boiled eggs, Samuel doesn’t quite understand, but after years of neither meat nor fish he gratefully accepts a couple of them.

He also likes to join the circle that daily forms in the middle of the Newari district. He is almost startled by the young women who without any reserve settle down next to him and ask what trade he has brought with him.

The past ten years he seldom experienced such boldness. Except

Outside, in the harsh mountain light, a vast collection of high-built temples, monasteries and palaces dominates: the Potala.

Samuel, however, peers just as often through the city gate to Chagpori, or the Iron Hill, on top of which a single monastery sits: the recently completed medical centre.

In India and Nepal he already heard about it.

Thanka-detail with the Potala.

Early in the morning they climb the Iron Hill. The Newarese trader from Kathmandu, whom he has befriended en route, regularly does business with the monastery and will introduce him.

The trader, il Nevari as Samuel calls him in his notes, knows some of the chief monks personally.

As they climb higher, the scents become stronger and more pungent. In courtyards and on roofs, in corridors and sheds, in every nook herbs are hanging or lying to dry or are being milled by monks.

In between, small groups of young novices are playing, loudly memorizing their texts. When after four years they know the principles by heart, il Nevari explains, there are mutual discussions, in the afternoon. 'And that is funny,' he assures him.

Initially, the head monk and the group of teachers that shows the Newarese merchant and his strange guest around, are amused by Samuel's reactions. Yet it also becomes clear to them that this blue-eyed, ruddy stranger has seen – and understood – a very great deal of the world.

Within, Samuel is humming with joy: nothing better could have happened to him. Not only because medicine is close to his heart, but he also has to start living more frugally.

So far he has not found any trading house in Lhasa that could or wanted to redeem his letter of credit – despite the fact that Tibet has been peaceful and prosperous already for a decade.

Even the capuchins have been ridden with poverty for months on end – and that does mean something among friars. Besides, he prefers to keep his distance, the catholic monks in Lhasa are not that popular.

Since Pope Clement XI with his Ex illa demanded strict observance of the rules from converts as well in 1715 – and Tibetans, for example, were no longer allowed to enter any gompha or obey the Dalai Lama – the hard-earned goodwill was quickly lost again.

Throughout Asia actually.

Or as the Kangxi emperor already expressed it in 1721:

‘After reading this proclamation, I come to the conclusion that Westerners are petty indeed. It is not possible to debate with them, because they do not understand larger issues as we understand them in China.’

‘I have never seen such a document which contains so much nonsense. From now on, Westerners should not be allowed to preach in China, to avoid further trouble.’

A few years later, the emperors of Yongzheng and the Qianlong reached the same judgment and prohibited conversion or called for the friars to be deported. Not that they always stuck to that.

Some capuchins, after all, brought along interesting calculation

Samuel makes himself useful wherever he can. He stares his eyes out and tries to get acquainted with the language and the writing; no simple matter because the two differ considerably.

From far and wide, novices trek to the Iron Hill to be trained in medicine. In that respect as well, he only needs to join them.

He understands that Tibetan medicine was once copied from ayurvedic India. The following centuries, however, kings and local regents invited famous physicians to come over from Russia, China, Mongolia, Kashmir, Nepal – and even from the Byzantine countries.   

Until the day the decisive Dalai Lama V appointed the young Sangye Gyamtso as regent around 1670 – according to

Sangye considered medicine to be a lesson in compassion with all sentient beings, only to be understood in the light of the tragic. After all, buddhism ultimately stems from Gautama's observation of 2500 years ago, namely that living and suffering are inseparable.

But Samuel also notes that as soon as this medical science fails, all patients just as willingly turn to shamans, astronomers or the god of the land, of the lake or of the mountains.

Then the mantras whizzed around his ears: those cryptic, magical-mystical formulas whose words have once been phonetically copied from old Sanskrit and are no longer comprehensible to anyone. Like the Latin prayers in the churches at home.

The mantras remind him of the voces mysticae of Greco-Roman gnostics. Those, too, seemed to him mostly incantations to keep sickness and evil at bay.

Eventually it took Sangye Gyamtso twenty years to set up an coordinating institution. An institution that was to influence all medical knowledge in Asia for centuries to come. He died in 1705, some thirty years before Samuel's arrival.

 He was of course familiar with vomiting, laxation and bloodletting for treating diseases. New to him, however, were the

These methods had been developed in Tibet out of necessity because ever since the mother of King Muni Tsempo died on the operating table, cutting into a body had been banned.

According to them, the capuchins did operate. According to their reports to Rome, they saw some fifty patients a day. They were merely doing anything to be allowed to leave, often sick and dispirited.

The Iron Hill did not have any herb gardens to Samuel’s astonishment. Once a year the students, along with the teachers and some encyclopedic booklets, left for the fields.

Once Samuel was allowed to join them.

Usually, the students leave early July and do not

In small groups of two, three or four, followed by a servant with a tent and a beast of burden, they stay away for about seven weeks to collect plants, roots and seeds.

By the end of the summer they return dragging their finds in

The one time that Samuel joins them, the young monks are looking for dyes. On the spot, the novices press the ingredients and boil them to thicken. He learns that one plant yields paint for the ordinary monk and another for the higher.

Caste systems Tibet never had, but class differences were prevalent in each and every hamlet. Some people were rich and powerful, others were peasants or slaves. The only 'caste' he had already learned to distinguish on the way coming here were the ones 'with whom you do not share your tea cup' - and he could often agree with that.

Debating monks

Only when novices more or less know the body and the main diseases, attention is focused on making the diagnosis.

Excessively fascinated, Samuel daily watches how the young learn to determine the patient’s pulse of the patient. And just as excessively it daily annoys him that he does not master the language. 

But he understands that pulse strokes can be thin, thick, fast, slow, limp, limping or tight. That they can feel deep, empty, rolled up or loosely.

Left the patient's illness as an evil spirit

Drawn pulsations

That some drift away, retreat, skip, interrupt themselves or are just hesitant in character. Pulsations may be violent or rather vague, prickly or boiling.

Sometimes they are like a sparrow, a lark or like a songbird.

Even though he does not know the words for most subtleties, he understands that a doctor must heed the rhythm and pattern of a patient. He must long remain with a patient to hold his arm and feel whether his physical energy is fading or rising during breathing.

 Even though he understands the lessons badly, Samuel attracts the  teachers’ attention more than the average student. He is meticulous, original and quick on the uptake - a man with life experience.

He also regularly meets Il Nevari. He loves joining him on a few business trips, not too far away.

On a piece of locally made paper they try to map the area to the east of Lhasa: there where the Yarlung Tsangpo river flows, the upper reaches of the Brahmaputra.

It is the age in which the world is trying to determine the source of every great river - for whatever life-sustaining, warminded or financial reasons.

The Newari friend knows the area and the language better than Samuel, the notes in Tibetan are his, but he is less of a stickler for detail. He sometimes records travel routes and their duration from memory.

They start mapping in 1730 but seven years later Samuel will write on the backside, a little annoyed, that he suspects many mistakes. He himself states place names phonetically, sometimes with an explanation in Italian.

Then the lamas of the Iron Hill receive an imperial invitation to come to Beijing. During the months of preparation for the journey, one of the lamas suggests to ask Samuel to come along. It may also be that Samuel caused the lama to come up with that idea, that is not entirely clear.

From other travellers he knows that western foreigners hardly ever get past the Great Wall, let alone reach Beijing.

In the company of a religious society that, moreover, is standing at the gate at the invitation of Emperor Yung-Cheng, he undoubtedly has more chance.

In the summer months of 1731 the caravan leaves for the green, fertile highlands of Amdo. They enjoy the valleys full of other plants, flowers and animal species.

Another few months later the roads descend into the lowlands along the Yellow River, where the Tibetan culture and landscape cease rather abruptly and the Chinese begin.

sometimes for young widows who had to provide for the survival of their families.

Along with hundreds of others, he daily joins the procession around the Jokhang temple. Large, fragrant shrubs wholly disappear into one of the fireplaces and subsequently to the four directions of the universe.

Inside, rancid yakbutter used for burning hundreds of lamps and lights, smokes and stifles; parts of the floor are as slippery as glass. The shuffling believers place mantras on pieces of paper, wood or textile at the feet of the statues.

Here and there a container with sand can be found, but it surprises him that the temple has never burnt down over the centuries.

They invite him to stay and even offer him a small, simple guest room.

methods, measuring instruments, maps and medical techniques as well.

rumors his very own son – to bring all the schools together within one institute.

thrilling treatment methods with needles and burning of herbs, in which even the Chinese imperial court turned out to be very interested.

go beyond a fairly nearby area with mountain meadows to the east of Lhasa.

crates and bags, packed with ice and snow, up the slopes of Iron Hill.


24 mrt. 2018 09:01

All photographs and texts ©Kashba  Ais Loupatty & Ton Lankreijer.Webdesign:William Loupatty