Continuing to educate myself about Tibet (roundup of posts here), I always admire the writings of Jamyang Norbu. I’ve cited the useful volume Zlos-gar that he edited, as well as his vivid comments on lhamo opera. His website contains a wealth of information—including the text of a lecture he gave on Women in Tibet.
This may seem a strange way to stress the maturity of Tibetan culture before the Chinese occupation, but his article The Lhasa ripper is a fascinating vignette on the “dark underbelly” of Lhasa society before the Chinese occupation, in the tradition of subaltern studies. Setting forth from the story of a serial killer murdering sex workers in late 1920s’ Lhasa, he goes on to cover begging and crime.
By this time the modern police force, recently formed, had met resistance from the monasteries and conservative faction. It was only reinstated in 1948.
Colonel Bailey, the British Political Officer in Sikkim, visited Lhasa in July 1924. In his report he mentions: “Laden La has organized a very creditable police for Lhasa city. The men are smart and dressed in thick khaki serge in winter, and blue with yellow piping in summer. They are stationed in different parts of the city [in police boxes—JN]. The fact of their presence has reduced crime in the city considerably and the inhabitants appreciate this.” The police force also had a bagpipe band (Tib: pegpa), which Bailey took credit for introducing.
It was mainly by chance that the “Lhasa ripper” case was solved in the mid-1930s. Jamyang Norbu relates variant accounts of the arrest of a minor monk official, a Nepalese national, after he was overheard.
In Part Two he broadens the theme:
I have long been interested in what might be called the “dark underbelly” of old Lhasa society: the professional gamblers, criminals, burglars, pickpockets, forgers, bandits, beggars, scavengers, and even the ladies of easy virtue, though some may object to their inclusion in this class. Granted, this particular dark underbelly wasn’t so “dark” or extensive as that of London or New York, and certainly not as exotic as that of old Peking or Shanghai, I suppose, but it was interesting in its own way because of its medieval flavor, and, as with all things Tibetan, its inevitable though nonetheless odd connection to religious life.
He introduces the kuma petty criminals, with their various specialities, such as thep-tre street urchins targeting peasants and pilgrims in Lhasa.
When the Communist Chinese occupation force took over Lhasa, I was told that many of the thep-tre shifted their attention to Chinese troops, relieving them of their watches, wallets, and fountain pens, and in the case of the officers, even pistols.
And outside Lhasa, the jhagpa armed bandits:
the chivalry of some of these bandits could be decidedly ambivalent – happily looting monasteries on the one hand while making lavish gifts to their own lamas.
And he has more on the celebrated “label” ladies of Lhasa documented by Isabelle Henrion-Dourcy, including this catchy audio track of Chushur Yeshe Drolma playing a töshe melody on the dranyan plucked lute:
In 1985 Jamyang Norbu staged a musical tableau in Dharamsala, depicting
a street scene in the Holy City where ordinary city folk, aristocrats, lamas and so forth go about their business, while in the background a line of ten dranyen musicians play and sing songs related to the unfolding scenes. I had also included a (pantomime) donkey carrying firewood, Drekar beggars, and two actresses playing the role of the famous singers of old Lhasa, Shimi Lemba (Cat label) and Porok Lemba (Crow Label).
I was taken to task for this production by a Dharamshala mob and later the exile-parliament, and charged with insulting the Dalai Lama on his birthday by showing donkeys and prostitutes. I attempted to argue, quite unsuccessfully, that these two famous ladies were not prostitutes but respectable entertainers belonging to the Nangma musical guild (nangmae kyidug) of Lhasa, who even performed at cabinet banquets (kashag thogtro) in the old days.
Next he evokes the professional and spiritual beggars. The Ragyabpa guild of professional beggars/scavengers/undertakers was a kind of halfway house for freed criminals;
It was said that the Ragyabpa would curse you if you didn’t pay [the mandatory tariff on entering Lhasa] and a Ragyabpa’s curse was considered malignant. This was essentially a kind of cultural extortion, resembling the practice of the transgender Hijra community in India that still derives its income from similar begging/extortion performance rituals.
Other professional beggars in Lhasa were the fiddlers (tse-tse tangyen), beggars with performing monkeys (trangbo-tre-tse), and wandering acrobatic dance troupes (khampa repa) who were not only skilled tumblers, drummers and dancers but claimed a spiritual connection to Milarepa. And he has more on the drekar and lama mani.
In a section on the chang beer taverns and a note on chang brewing, he notes:
Tibet was admittedly a politically backward and industrially undeveloped society, but the account of Lhasa beggars drinking beer that was at least clean and wholesome made me think of Gustave Doré’s engravings of the squalor and despair of working class London, and Hogarth’s famous print of Gin Lane (in the notorious slum parish of St. Giles) where the working poor destroyed themselves and their children by drinking manufactured spirits (frequently mixed with turpentine), foisted on them by a government whose primary concern was raising revenue from alcohol sale. I wrote about something much the same happening in Lhasa from the early 1980s onwards, “a ubiquitous alcoholism fuelled by the sale of cheap Chinese rot-gut, baijiu and sanjiu … pushing Tibetans into immediate unemployment and ultimate extinction.”
For more on alcoholism since the reforms, see here, following this article on the period from 1959 to 1978.
On pre-occupation Tibet Jamyang Norbu goes on to cite Hugh Richardson, Britain’s last representative in Lhasa and leading Tibet scholar of the day:
From fourteen years’ acquaintance with it I maintain that it was not deliberately cruel or oppressive. It did not need force to maintain itself … It had evolved a closely knit society with a balanced economy and higher standard of living with far less distance between rich and poor than obtained, say in India [and also say in China—JN]. There was a regular surplus of grain, and large reserve stocks. No one suffered the degrading conditions of life of which we read in the industrial revolution here or in Ireland.
* * *
While such a study debunks the obstinate view of an isolated, exotic, spiritual Tibet (cf. Tibetan clichés; cf. Echoes of Dharamsala), for me it offers further evidence that it was a real, mature society, warts and all—far from the simplistic Chinese polarity of exploiters and victims. One might suppose the current regime would regard this as welcome evidence of the iniquities of the “old society”—but it also opens a can of worms on the realities of life both before and since the Chinese occupation.
Note also Jamyang Norbu’s The mandala of Sherlock Holmes. And for a nuanced evocation, see Lhasa: streets with memories.