Personal Essay

A Tibetan Take: Sherlock Holmes Through a Revolutionary Gaze

By Anjali Alappat

There are some books that just stick with you, even if you have little knowledge of the broader context. The Mandala of Sherlock Holmes by Jamyang Norbu is proof of that. I first read the book when I was in high school. My mother had bought a copy and enjoyed it, and I quietly added it into my collection (its ownership was hotly disputed. We now have two). It left a deep impression on me. So deep that I felt inspired to revisit it during the Covid-19 pandemic, twenty odd years later.

The Mandala of Sherlock Holmes (1999) is set in the two years that Holmes was presumed dead. In The Adventure of the Final Problem (1893), Holmes and Moriarty engage in a vicious fight, topple over the famed Reichenbach falls, and are declared dead. In reality, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had tired of writing about the great detective, and by committing literary murder, had hoped to pursue other writing projects. The outcry was so great that Holmes was summarily resurrected.

In The Adventure of the Empty House (1903), where he makes his reappearance, Holmes explains, “I travelled for two years in Tibet, therefore, and amused myself by visiting Lhassa and spending some days with the head Llama. You may have read of the remarkable explorations of a Norwegian named Sigerson, but I am sure that it never occurred to you that you were receiving news of your friend.”

Norbu seizes the opportunity to flesh out those missing years, painting a picture of a fantastical journey. The grand adventure—which includes beautiful landscapes, travel, magic, and the forces of darkness—is in many ways at odds with the pragmatic, deeply scientific Sherlock Holmes that we all know and love. It’s a truly unusual tale, and all the more so when you consider who authored it.

A well-known Tibetan writer, activist, and revolutionary, Jamyang Norbu was born in Lhasa in 1949. His family was forced to leave the country, as China had begun annexing Tibet. They eventually settled in Darjeeling where Norbu completed his schooling. When he was 19, he signed up to be part of the guerilla resistance forces battling the Chinese on the Tibet-Nepal border. He later moved to Dharamshala, where the Tibetan government-in-exile is based, and became one of the leading political voices of the Tibetan diaspora.

Jamyang Norbu at a protest outside the Chinese embassy in 2011. Photo by Sonam Zoksang.

Norbu has made a name for himself as a writer, and as a vocal critic of the 14th Dalai Lama, whose ‘middle way’ path he considers ineffectual at best. He strongly believes in a free and democratic Tibet, safe from the whims of occupiers and religious figures alike.

A passionate spokesperson for all Tibetans, Norbu, who is now in his seventies, is still a revolutionary. Most of his work is centred around the Tibetan freedom struggle. He has also spent years decrying the idea of Tibet as a far away mystical land filled with shamans and magic, the way that many in Western countries perceive it. It’s all too easy for outsiders to romanticise the struggles of the people, rather than understanding the day-to-day issues they face. So, writing a novel about Sherlock Holmes, a prominent white man who represented the Empire, visiting India and Tibet seems distinctly out of character. Filled with questions, I turned to his award-winning book to get my answers.

Inside the Mandala

This chapter of the Great Game (as famously coined by Kipling) begins with Holmes’ arrival in Bombay in 1891. Posing as a Norwegian named Sigerson, he’s trying to avoid the remnants of Moriarty’s criminal syndicate, which persists even after the death of their leader. Holmes disembarks from his ship and promptly becomes embroiled in a gory murder mystery, which puts him in the narrator, Huree Chunder Mukherjee’s, path. Huree is a spy for the British, and is fascinated by Holmes’ methods. The two strike up a friendship, and decamp to Shimla where they attempt to lie low. During his stay there, Holmes becomes intrigued with eastern philosophy and is determined to visit Tibet.

Victoria Terminus in Mumbai where Holmes and Huree catch their train to Shimla. Photo by Arya Jalundhwala.

Picturesque Shimla, where Holmes and Huree ‘lay low’ for a few months. Photo by Pawan Khatri.

Huree agrees to accompany Holmes on this treacherous journey for a variety of reasons. Tibet is on the verge of political upheaval, with the threat of Chinese usurpation looming large, and he is asked to learn more about the situation and report back to his masters. He is also instructed to keep an eye on Holmes, who is already considered a magnet for chaos. So, the two set off together and after a long and dangerous journey, they reach Lhasa and are invited to visit the Dalai Lama’s summer residence. They are given an audience with the Yonten Lama, secretary to the Dalai Lama.

Despite being only 14, the 13th Dalai Lama is due to ascend the throne, and take on the role of being the country’s religious and political leader. Complicating the situation, the Chinese have been insidiously corrupting significant leaders, including the current Regent. To add to the problem, five previous incarnations of His Holiness died before they reached their majority, and the Chinese have been quick to prophesy that the 13th Dalai Lama would follow in their footsteps.

Out of their depth, the Yonten Lama and the rest of the Dalai Lama’s supporters look to Holmes for help keeping their leader safe. They also become aware of a new player in the game: a mysterious man who is revealed to be the legendary ‘Dark One’, a corrupt monk with dangerous magic powers. Implicated in the deaths of the earlier incarnation of the Dalai Lama and another monk, Gangsar Trulku, the Dark One was injured and imprisoned for his crimes, but the Chinese smuggled him out and sent him to the West. And he is revealed to be…you guessed it, Professor Moriarty.

Holmes, Huree, the young Dalai Lama, and his entourage make their way to a hidden temple. There, they are forced to confront Moriarty who is restored to full power and has summoned hellish creatures to do his bidding. Holmes is revealed to be the reincarnation of Gangsar Trulku. The two have been each other’s nemeses across lifetimes. And with the help of Huree’s trusty umbrella and Holmes’ quick thinking, Moriarty finally dies, consumed by his own creatures. Once the dust has settled, Huree escorts Holmes to the monastery that he presided over as Gangsar Trulku, and then returns to India. He never sees Holmes again in this lifetime.

Prayer flags flank a gateway in Tibet. Photo by Daniele Salutar.

A glimpse of the Potala Palace in Lhasa, formerly the winter home of the Dalai Lama. Photo by Xuyu Chi.

Sherlock enthusiasts know that Holmes eventually did return to England and destroyed the last of Moriarty’s crime syndicate. He returns to detective work, accompanied by Watson, and eventually retires to a cottage in Sussex where he raises bees. A rather prosaic conclusion to this spectacular, mystical tale.

Between the Pages

The Mandala of Sherlock Holmes is clearly the work of a passionate Holmesian. In fact, Norbu is even a member of the Baker Street Irregulars, a group of Holmes enthusiasts that was formed in 1934. Membership is granted by invitation only, and the group has had several notable members including Isaac Asimov, Karen and Poul Anderson, Michael Harrison, and Neil Gaiman.

But it’s worth noting that while The Mandala of Sherlock Holmes may not be satirical, it certainly has its meta moments. Norbu writes the preface as himself, purporting to be the editor of the book, which are the memoirs of Huree Chunder Mukherjee. Huree, whose first literary appearance was in Rudyard Kipling’s Kim, was modelled after a well-known Bengali spy and writer, Sarat Chandra Das. Though Kipling views Huree as slightly ridiculous, in Norbu’s hands he comes into his own. He has an extensive knowledge of science, politics, languages, and of course, street smarts. Norbu is a student of literature and history, and it shows in his careful rendering of this ‘babu’.

In choosing Huree as his narrator, Norbu makes a very deliberate choice. An intelligent man, though not quite at Holmes’ level, he is an excellent foil for the detective.

Especially since he is as much a product of the empire as Holmes is, albeit in a very different way. Described as a dhoti-wearing, English-speaking, umbrella-toting, scientifically minded man, Huree is full of contradictions.

He routinely spies on his own people for the benefit of a regime that treats him as a second-class citizen. As the foremost Indian authority on the Tibetan language, and well educated in spiritualism, science, and politics, he thinks nothing of being side-eyed by memsahibs as he enters hotels or being ejected from train compartments because he’s native. A true (and somewhat tragic) product of colonialism indeed.

A Colonial Device

What does colonialism have to do with Holmes? Quite a bit, I’m afraid. Holmes is a product of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s imagination after all, even if the mythos of the character has far outstripped the man who created him.

Doyle grew up in the era of the thriving British Empire. He visited Egypt in 1895 while it was occupied by the British, and volunteered as a physician during the Second Boer War in South Africa in 1899. He was knighted for his efforts, and wrote The Great Boer War about his experiences, unabashedly supporting Britain’s efforts. Though he neglected to mention the brutalities inflicted upon the local population, and the concentration camps that they were forced into by the Brits.

Doyle’s experiences shaped his writing in many ways. Characters that hailed from ‘less civilised’ countries like India, China and South Africa, were described in unflattering terms, always with shades of servility and suspicion. None of these characters are portrayed in a kind light. For example, in Sign of Four, Tonga, who is from the Andaman Islands, is described as a ‘black cannibal’ fanatically loyal to Jonathan Small. Small admits that he, on occasion, exhibited Tonga at sideshows and carnivals to earn money. This dehumanisation is glossed over by Holmes and Watson, but certainly impactful in hindsight.

British characters who had visited other parts of the empire are often described as disfigured or destitute. Sometimes both. In The Adventure of the Blanched Soldier, Godfrey Emsworth is suspected of having leprosy, infected during the course of his time in South Africa. In The Crooked Man, Henry Wood is described as having a dark, fearsome face, crinkled and puckered like a withered apple. His disabilities are the result of horrendous torture at the hands of Indians, and he was later enslaved by ‘savage’ tribal folk in Nepal. And though Wood was betrayed by a fellow Englishman, it is to British soldiers that he turns to in the end.

Even Watson, who was injured in Maiwand, Afghanistan, returns to England under miserable circumstances—ill, poor, and with no support system. Fortunately, he meets Holmes soon after. Holmes is unmistakably a member of the privileged class, and helps transform Watson into a respectable member of society. The symbolism couldn’t be more obvious. Then again, Doyle was not given to subtlety. After all, he was friends with Kipling, and the two notoriously collaborated to create World War I propaganda. Yes, that Kipling, the one who coined the phrase ‘white man’s burden.’

Hard Truths

Given this context, and Norbu’s own views, it’s hard not to speculate that The Mandala of Sherlock Holmes is satire. A famous white man, accompanied by a brown sidekick, travels to the far east to fulfil a mystical quest. Naturally the European is the real hero and saves the day. By the time Holmes had been elevated to abbot status, I was chuckling out loud. But to Norbu’s credit, it is also an appeal. By casting Holmes in the leading role, Norbu has cleverly created a narrative that is of interest to an international English-speaking audience. And by making Holmes invested in Tibet, in its language, culture, religion, and freedom, he uses the much-hated ‘mystique’ that surrounds the country to Tibetan advantage.

Lhasa in Bloom. Photo by Eleanor Ye.

Reality is much grimmer than fiction. Though the 13th Dalai Lama, whose life Holmes and Huree purportedly saved, goes on to be a strong and capable leader, his successor was not so lucky. Eventually Chinese forces threatened to overwhelm Tibet and the young leader was forced to concede their sovereignty to keep the peace. In 1959, after an uprising in Lhasa that was violently quashed by Chinese forces, the 14th Dalai Lama and his followers were forced to escape to India, where they established their government-in-exile in Dharamshala.

It is approximated that between 200,000 and one million Tibetans died in the course of this takeover, and more than 1.5 million fled as refugees. At least six million remain in Tibet, living under oppressive circumstances. Norbu estimates that over 6,000 monasteries, monuments, and temples were destroyed during the invasion. And over the years, China has cracked down on Tibetan language, culture, and religion, making it almost impossible for them to preserve their roots.

Given the current state of the world, Norbu’s work seems more relevant than ever. The ongoing genocide in Gaza being broadcasted live, and the determination of Western media to ignore anything but the party line is a throwback in the worst way. After all, Tibet was officially annexed by China in 1950, only a few short years after the Holocaust ended. Western countries, while initially supportive of the Tibetan cause—the CIA even funded training for guerilla fighters on the Nepal-Tibet border in the 70s—soon grew disinterested in the freedom struggle, prioritising better relations with China. A grim reality that many smaller countries face when up against a world power or those backed by one.

Western Tibetan enthusiasts may mangle Buddhism, and turn a blind eye to genocide—cultural and otherwise—but Norbu will take any opportunity to speak for his people. Even if it involves playing into colonial and imperialist archetypes. Jamyang Norbu may not see Tibet free in his lifetime. But through The Mandala of Sherlock Holmes, filled with detailed descriptions of Tibet’s former glory, he showcases their story to a fresh audience, immortalising a country that is slowly fading from collective global memory.

References:

Defending The Roof Of The World: Jamyang Norbu’s Lifelong Quest For Tibetan Independence by Judith Hertog, The Sun Magazine, 2021.

Shelly Bhoil (Independent Scholar) (2013) De/Re/Mystification of Tibet in The Mandala of Sherlock Holmes, South Asian Review, 34:2, 91-109, DOI: 10.1080/02759527.2013.11932931

Siddiqi, Yumna. (2006). The Cesspool of Empire: Sherlock Holmes and the Return of the Repressed. Victorian Literature and Culture. 34. 233 – 247. 10.1017/S1060150306051138.

Dr. Rakhesh Jain and Ankita Sharma (2022), Redefining the Sherlock Holmes Canon as an Imperial Construct, International Journal of Multidisciplinary and Current Educational Research (IJMCER), 2581-7027, Volume 5, Issue 1.