Archive | October 2014

“The Rumi Skandher beg, who is like the vast, open skies…”


I never saw a more strange man than him. He lives like a hermit among his Tibetan and other works, in the house of the Asiatic Society, which he seldom leaves.

This post corrects a terrible injustice I committed in my book on Bamiyan, most of which is nevertheless fair and reasoned and even potentially worth a read. On p. 143 I claimed that the “first Europeans to set eyes upon Bamiyan were William Moorcroft and his companions George Trebeck and George Guthrie in August 1824.” I was wrong, as was gently pointed out to me by Edmund Melzl, who knows more about Bamiyan’s history than anyone. In actual fact Bamiyan had received a visit more than two years before Moorcroft from another European, a Hungarian scholar from Transylvania named Alexander Csoma de Kőrös.

I wasn’t the first to overlook Csoma; in fact you could say he was cursed to being overlooked. In March 1822, for example, British agents reporting from Maharajah Ranjit Singh’s capital at Lahore in the Punjab recorded the arrival of three European travellers, two feringhis, the Napoleonic veterans Jean-François Allard and Jean-Baptiste Ventura, looking for employment with the Maharajah’s army, and a ghora, Alexander Csoma. The choice of words is significant, feringhi suggesting status and nobility, ghora a dismissive term for a common-or-garden white man without any distinguishing features.

In a way Csoma asked to be ignored: a naturally reticent man, his “principal trait of character was his regrettable diffidence,” according to his biographer Theodore Duka, “…and his own too modest estimate of himself.” “This has often served as justification for disparaging his unique accomplishments,” Duka adds. He dressed scruffily (“a suit of blue clothes, which he always wore, and in which he died,” according to one witness), and in later life consistently refused any of many offers to supplement his very limited finances. His diet was mainly rice and tea mixed with butter and salt in Tibetan fashion, and his living habits, as the opening quotation indicates, were by his own choice basic in the extreme.

But if Csoma was a peculiar man, it arguably took just that kind of man to achieve what he did achieve.

For starters, no normal person would have walked from Transylvania to Tibet. Everything about Csoma’s education pointed to a comfortable life as an academic quietly employed in his homeland. He was an accomplished scholar, though more by dint of application than natural brilliance: by the end of his life he had mastered somewhere in the vicinity of twenty languages. A successful academic career in Hungary had been rewarded with two years at the prestigious University of Göttingen in Hanover, but as big an influence on Csoma as his formal education was the intensely nationalistic atmosphere of early nineteenth-century Europe, whether in Hanover or Hungary, a nationalism understood in terms of language communities, and thus bound to interest a linguist like Csoma. He later described the motivation for his journey eastwards as “to search for the original seats of the Hungarians, to collect historical data about their deeds, and to observe the analogies which various Oriental languages present with our vernacular.” (A fascinating article by Imre Galambos, ‘“Touched a nation’s heart”: Sir E. Denison Ross and Alexander Csoma de Kőrös’, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society 21 (2011), 361-75, describes among other things the role played by Csoma in later Hungarian nationalist feeling.)

At any rate, Csoma became determined to apply his academic training to the national interests of Hungary, specifically by pinpointing the Asian origin of the Magyars. “The most ancient homeland of our ancestors,” he declared, lay in “Greater or Little Bokharia,” in other words Bukhara and its environs, north of Afghanistan, and the Tarim Basin to the East, now in the Xinjiang region of China. In November 1819, despite tempting employment opportunities at home, the thirty-five-year-old Csoma set out to test his theory.


Travelling mostly on foot, occasionally by horse or by boat when seas or rivers were available, he made his way to Constantinople, Alexandria, “to Larnica, in Cyprus, thence to Sidon, Beyruth, and then, on another vessel, to Tripoli and Latakia, whence, travelling on foot, on the 13th of April I reached Aleppo in Syria,” Mosul, Baghdad, (on horseback) Hamadan and Tehran. Thence, dressed as an Armenian Christian, and with a miniature Johnson’s Dictionary given him by the British Envoy in Tehran, he headed for Mashad and Bokhara, where he believed the ancestral home of the Hungarians might lie. Here, though, his itinerary took an unanticipated turn: “affrighted by frequent exaggerated reports of the approach of a numerous Russian army,… I left Bokhara… and with a caravan I came to Balk, Kulm, and thence by Bamian; on 6th of January, 1822, I arrived at Kabool.”

Csoma would later become an expert in Tibetan language and culture, and hence in Buddhism, at a time when that religion was very poorly understood in the West. He wasn’t yet an expert when he saw the Buddhas of Bamiyan, but later, with hindsight, he understood what he had been looking at:

There is yet in ancient Bactria, at Bamian, on the road between Kabool and Balk, a large colossal statue, with two others of smaller size at a certain distance from the first, hewn in the mountain-rock. It is very probable this was a representation of Buddha, or Shakya, with his disciples represented in painting on both sides of the wall. The painting is in the same style as is usual amongst Tibetans or amongst the Christians of the Greek Church, to represent saints, with the radiant or solar circle round the head.

Csoma was the first of many Europeans to visit Bamiyan in the first half of the nineteenth century, when it was in the process of becoming one of the most famous places on earth, but, odd as it may seem, very few of them recognised the statues as images of the Buddha.

Kabul, Peshawar, then to Lahore with Allard and Ventura. Csoma was trying an alternative route to his mythical Hungarian homeland, and from Lahore he climbed via Kashmir to the high-altitude Buddhist enclave of Ladakh, “Little Tibet,” hoping to cross the Himalaya to Yarkand in the Tarim Basin. But Csoma, at times a strange combination of anxiety and reckless adventurousness, got cold feet in the Himalaya: “I ascertained the road to Yarkand was very difficult, expensive and dangerous for a Christian.”

But on the road back to Lahore, on July 16, 1822, he had an encounter which changed everything. William Moorcroft is one of the most intriguing of the early European explorers of Central Asia, theoretically engaged in a search for fresh bloodstock for the East India Company’s horse stud in Calcutta, but in his own mind at the cutting edge of British efforts to counter Russian designs on Britain’s possessions in India. He persuaded Csoma (in Latin, since one language Csoma didn’t have at this stage was English) to return with him to Leh, the capital of Ladakh, and with Moorcroft’s encouragement Csoma became fascinated by the Tibetan language and culture he encountered there.

To cut a very long story short, after seven years of intense study at a series of Buddhist monasteries in Zanskar and Kinnaur, under the guidance of a Tibetan Lama, Sangye Puntsog, Csoma produced a dictionary and grammar of Tibetan, eventually published in Calcutta in 1834. These publications are considered to be the foundational texts of the academic discipline of Tibetology.


An impression of Csoma’s working conditions in monasteries like the striking Phugtal Gompa in this photo comes from Dr James Gerard, who encountered and befriended Csoma whilst travelling in the Himalaya introducing inoculation against smallpox and indulging his wide-ranging scientific interests. Gerard would later travel with Alexander Burnes to Bokhara, via Bamiyan. Here in the Himalaya he describes finding fossil shells at high altitude, and a deodar tree “29 1/2 feet in girth”, but Alexander Csoma was “far from the least remarkable of the many objects which have passed before me in this journey”, “like one of the sages of antiquity, living in the most frugal manner, and taking no interest in any object around him, except his literary avocations.” During his first period of research, Gerard records, “[Csoma], the Lama, and an attendant, were circumscribed in an apartment nine feet square for three or four months; they durst not stir out, the ground being covered with snow, and the temperature below the zero of the scale. There he sat, enveloped in a sheep-skin cloak, with his arms folded, and in this situation he read from morning till evening without fire, or light after dusk, the ground to sleep upon, and the bare walls of the building for protection against the rigours of the climate.” Later, as the librarian of the Asiatic Society of Bengal in Calcutta, Csoma adopted a lifestyle not much less reclusive.

Csoma had his motivations for his strange journey across Asia, as we have seen (and they are well described in this excellent short biography). Extending the boundaries of the British Empire wasn’t one of them. But there’s no doubt that his patron Moorcroft saw in the study of Tibetan something of political value. Moorcroft was considered a hawk and a maverick by the British authorities, and they kept him at arm’s length, but his perception of the political value of the study of Tibetan was mainstream enough: “This will not only promote the commercial and political prosperity of Great Britain and her Indian possessions,” we hear elsewhere, “but may effect the still more important end of teaching to yet semi-barbarous tribes the advantages of industry and civilisation.” It was an issue Csoma was aware of, and in the preface to his dictionary he insists that “he had not been sent [to Zanskar] by any Government to gather political information.” But there were reasons nevertheless for the British authorities’ enthusiastic reception of his project, and for the resources they provided to ensure its publication.

Alexander Csoma continued to research and write on Tibetan topics after his dictionary was published, and for a number of years he was an eccentric but well-liked librarian of the Asiatic Society of Bengal in Calcutta. But the original ambition that drew him from Hungary remained unsatisfied. In 1842 he left on a third attempt to reach the elusive Hungarian homeland, aiming for Lhasa via Darjeeling, and thence to the land of the Uyghurs (Xinjiang), whom he suspected to be the Hungarians’ Asian kin. But he developed malaria in Darjeeling, characteristically refused treatment, and died on April 11, 1842. A tomb was erected by the Asiatic Society with an epitaph which begins

H. J.


A Native of Hungary,

Who, to follow out Philological Researches,

Resorted to the East;

And after years passed under privations,

Such as have been seldom endured,

And patient labour in the cause of Science,

Compiled a Dictionary and Grammar

Of the Tibetan Language,

His best and real monument.

What always intrigues me about these European travellers in Central Asia is how they cope with the strangeness of the places they find themselves; how they convince themselves they have a right to be there, I suppose. A lot of Europeans saw it as the scene of the exploits of a great European hero, Alexander the Great, and made it theirs that way. For Csoma, “Bolkharia” was the original home of his people, a place where he would be able to say, “At last I am among Hungarians.” There may be a hint of this Hungarian yearning for the East in Aurel Stein’s sense of a home-from-home in the barren borderlands of China.

In general Stein was very much of the Alexander persuasion, but he felt a sentimental attachment also to his Hungarian forerunner. In 1899, visiting Darjeeling, Stein described to his brother Ernst an “evening walk to the well-cared for grave of poor Csoma de Kőrös. The lovely cemetery on a mountain slope would please Hetty [Stein’s sister-in-law] very much.” Then in 1913 Stein composed a moving tribute to the Hungarian émigré Theodore Duka, a mentor of Stein earlier in his career as well as the biographer of their fellow-Hungarian Csoma. Whenever possible, Stein liked to retreat to Mohand Marg, a high meadow in Kashmir where he pitched tent and wrote with his dog Dash at his feet:

How often, looking down from my favourite Alpine camp in Kashmir into the verdant Sind Valley, some 5,000 feet below me, have I thought of the poor Hungarian wandering as he passed here in 1822, and again a year later, on his way to Leh, the chief place of Western Tibet!

Even Stein can’t exclude that note of condescension that always seems to accompany “poor Csoma”. Contrast the words of one of Csoma’s Tibetan collaborators:

The Rumi Skandher beg, who is like the vast, open skies in his unshakable fortitude and his insight demonstrated in sciences, undertaking the arduous journey from the large ocean of the Orient to jasmine-covered Upper Tibet in his search for learning…

That’s more like it. Csoma didn’t ask for sympathy. He was pretty anti-social, he was more than slightly odd; but he founded a discipline.

Csoma excipit

The Fall and Rise of Field Marshal Haig

I think I said my next post was going to be Martial again.

Well, yes and no. I’ve written before on the impact of the First World War on my college, but the most famous Great-War soldier from Brasenose was the British Commander-in-Chief himself, Field-Marshal Douglas Haig, perhaps the most controversial figure the war produced. An undistinguished student at Brasenose from 1880 to 1884, Haig emerged with a Pass degree, despite apparently spending most of his time at Oxford on horseback, but received tutorials from, among others, Walter Pater; at which the mind truly boggles.

Oxford colleges, like every other British institution, were traumatized by the war, and when hostilities were finally over faced the same challenge of creating a memorial equal to the enormity of what had happened. Brasenose’s response should certainly strike us as peculiar, but it clearly made sense to the fellowship at the time.

Within six months of the Armistice the College had decided on a three-part memorial, a monument in the chapel recording the names of 114 men of Brasenose who had dieda portrait of Haig by William Orpen, the war artist and portraitist, and a stone inscription at the entrance to the College reading as follows:


This last one went up first, and was in place just inside the main gate by November 1920; the wooden memorial in the chapel followed sometime between then and May 1921; while Orpen’s portrait of Haig, after appearing in the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition in 1921, was hung in Brasenose Hall in January 1922. It was placed, significantly, on the east wall of the Hall, where images of the founders and most significant figures in College history are located. The painting had been partly funded by subscriptions from old Brasenose students, each of whom received a “photogravure” copy, a print, of Orpen’s work.

The striking thing, of course, is how unapologetically proud the College was of Haig in the immediate aftermath of the Great War, and to what extent he dominated Brasenose’s act of commemoration. This Brasenose man was the hero that had let the country to victory, the thinking seems to have been, and giving him the prominence he got was only appropriate.

Needless to say, the oscillations in Haig’s reputation over the years didn’t leave that confident assessment undisturbed. Stories are told about the portrait in Hall, though I’m not sure how true they are: that at a later stage it was removed from display, and only rehung when a descendant of Haig had happened to arrive as an undergraduate. It was certainly moved from the east wall, and now hangs in another corner of the room, quite easily missed.

As for the stone memorial in the Lodge, that was certainly taken down. When I turned up here a couple of decades ago it was under a tarp around the back of the College, and the College magazine from 1969 explains how it ended up there:

During the past year the Lodge-Entrance has been given a thorough refurbishing. Previously it had the appearance of a neglect dating back to its reconstruction in 1885, and the attention was overdue. (The only casualty in the operation was the plaque commemorating Field Marshal Earl Haig (1880) as the first among Brasenose warriors of 1914-18. Its legend, which may be found in The Brazen Nose of 1920, when it was erected, was often regarded as being not wholly in the happiest of taste. Its removal to make room for the Senior Tutor’s enlarged notice board, may or may not demonstrate superiority of the pen over the sword but is unlikely to cause a widespread sense of loss.)

An urbane account that omits as much as it says. You don’t take down a war memorial just to make space for a noticeboard, but then again you do take down a memorial lionising Field Marshal Haig in 1969. The Sixties had seen the First World War, at its fiftieth anniversary, returning to public attention, and Haig did not emerge well from it: there was a classic TV series, The Great War (1964), books like Alan Clark’s The Donkeys (1961) and A.J.P. Taylor’s The First World War: An Illustrated History (1963), and the musical Oh! What a Lovely War (1963). The dominant narrative became the one still familiar to us, lions led by donkeys. The film version of Oh! What a Lovely War was released in 1969, and did more than anything to crystallise the perception of Haig as a callous, upper-class buffoon, who was bound to be an acute embarrassment to his alma mater.

Now, though, another 50 years on, Haig is back on the wall again:

Haig inscr

It’s not so much that Haig is back in favour, though it’s true that more recent trends in Great War historiography make him a less toxic old member than he used to be. Really Haig’s back up there because it’s the centenary and it isn’t really acceptable to have a memorial, of any kind, hidden under a tarpaulin. Well, that’s my impression.

But just as the original commemorative plan in 1919 tells us fascinating things about how the war could be regarded in its immediate aftermath; and just as measures taken in 1969 characterize very vividly the view of the war and authority in general that prevailed fifty years later: so the recent re-erection of Haig’s memorial is a more complex, and telling, gesture than it may seem. It certainly hasn’t been returned to the College lodge. The place chosen for it might, to the uninitiated, seem equivalent to its original location: by a gate leading out onto High St. But in fact this is a very quiet part of College, and the gate isn’t used by students. In other words, the inscription has been placed in a position that looks like it’s on everyone’s route, “that those who pass may be put in mind of Field Marshal Earl Haig,” but is in fact well off the beaten track.

An entirely appropriate location for Field Marshal Douglas Haig in 2014, in other words.


Help me: is this funny?

The Roman poet Martial was an epigrammatist, meaning that he specialized in very short poems. In total he wrote about 1,500 poems that we still have, and he must have written a lot more. But they don’t come much shorter than the 24th epigram of Martial’s sixth book, published in AD 91:

Nil lasciuius est Carisiano:

Saturnalibus ambulat togatus.

Carisianus is the most mischievous man alive:

He walks about in a toga during the Saturnalia.

This summer I spent a few days working through all of Martial’s epigrams, on the hunt for material to use at an event with Mary Beard at Cheltenham last week. Martial’s poems are superficially simple things, but can belie that appearance, often as intricate as any sophisticated gag; and of course they’re written for the pleasure of readers with a very different set of cultural assumptions. But 6.24 was one I quickly noted down on my piece of paper: an example of a very short poem with a clever but clear point, I thought: seven words, simple but funny, and perfect for our event.

What’s so funny about it? Whatever it is, it’ll certainly be less funny once I’ve tried to explain it. But it all hinges on the Roman festival of the Saturnalia in December. This was the most popular festival of the Roman year, a week in December featuring excessive eating and drinking (“exuberant gorgings and even more excessive drinking bouts,” according to one scholar), gift-giving and role reversal (masters would wait on slaves, for example, and slaves could speak freely to their masters), and special clothes: instead of the toga, the distinctive garment of the Roman citizen, everyone during the Saturnalia dressed in a suit of clothes known as the synthesis or cenatoria. We don’t really know what the synthesis looked like, but it seems to have been looser-fitting than the formal toga, and colourful, and whatever it was actually like, it symbolized the character of the Saturnalia, a time of uninhibited release.

Are you laughing yet? Probably not. But Martial’s joke is that by breaking the “rules” of the Saturnalia and wearing his toga instead of his synthesis, Carisianus is acting more in the spirit of the Saturnalia than anyone else. The word used of him, lasciuius, suggests uninhibited behaviour, in other words exactly what was expected of Romans at the Saturnalia. Carisianus is the most outrageous of the lot by virtue of acting totally square when everyone else is cutting loose. Geddit?

Well I thought I’d got it, and Mary Beard agreed (and she’s written a book on Roman laughter), and there was at least a ripple of amusement in our audience at Cheltenham as we tried to explain it.


© Marie-Lan Nguyen

But it turns out the Martial specialists don’t agree at all. Farouk Grewing, who’s written a commentary on Book 6, thinks the joke is much more complicated than this. What we’re meant to understand, according to him, is that Carisianus is actually a woman, specifically a woman who has been convicted of adultery and as punishment has to wear the toga. That was indeed a way of stigmatizing “fallen women” in Rome, the toga being, as well as the Roman citizen’s proper clothing, the garment worn by prostitutes (to distinguish them from respectable women, who wore the stola). Martial’s joke, according to Grewing, and Martial is certainly well capable of such viciousness, is that a woman dressed in a toga as punishment is mistaken for a man too uptight to dress down for the Saturnalia.

If so, as another scholar, Andreas Heil, points out,* Martial is being very oblique indeed, since there’s no indication anywhere in 6.24 that the protagonist is a woman, and Latin is meticulous about these things: the -us at the end of Carisianus and togatus indicate clearly that he’s a he. But Heil agrees with Grewing that a simpler reading of the poem is unsatisfactory: “It is hard to understand why wearing the toga at the Saturnalia should be proof of the special lascivia [mischievousness, naughtiness] of Charisianus.” Heil’s solution is that by telling us that Carisianus wears the toga at the Saturnalia, Martial is implying that he wears the synthesis the rest of the year: that is, Carisianus is lasciuus because on every day of the year other than the Saturnalia he dresses louchely, and behaves accordingly. A Roman citizen who habitually dressed in the synthesis  would be a very disreputable character indeed.

Now that all seems too complicated for me, but there’s no doubt Martial can be complicated. I’m planning to write another blog soon showing just how much can be going on in a seemingly simple two-line Martial epigram. But I think what matters here is that both Grewing and Heil feel a need to complicate the reading of 6.24 because a simpler reading of the poem doesn’t deliver enough of a punch. Isn’t funny.

But it is funny, right?

(A freer translation:

Carisianus is so shocking:

At the Saturnalia he goes round in a toga!)

*A. Heil, ‘Bemerkungen zu Martial: 6, 24. 6, 61. 6, 75. 9, 35 und 12, 5’, Philologus 146 (2002), 309-17, at 309-10.