Sherlock Holmes, Axis Mundi and the Myth of Shangri-La

The Myth of Shangri-La: Tibet, Travel Writing and the Western Creation of Sacred Landscape is Peter Bishop’s study of two centuries of travel writing on Tibet. “Wisdom, guidance, order and archaic continuity” are the qualities about Tibet that held out hope for Westerners,” he says. Arthur Conan Doyle thought so too. He sent Holmes to Tibet for rehab, after apparently plunging to his death in the Reichenbach Falls at the hands of arch-criminal Professor Moriarity. Mr. Bishop’s comment: “Holmes historical reality and his presence in London were both so strong that only Tibet, outside constraints of time and space, could provide him sanctuary during his missing years.” Ah, yes, mysterious Tibet. Where else? Astrally projected, no doubt, mused Holmes devotees. It all makes sense.

With scholarly authority – more than 1,200 footnotes and over 400 citations in the bibliography – Bishop, a professor at the University of South Australia, investigates Tibet’s transformation, beginning in 1774 from a remote outpost on the fringes of Britain’s colonial empire to a mystical realm. Each era’s fantasies changed the Western World’s perception: a barren, frozen wasteland (18th C), an inspiring landscape of sublime beauty (Romanticism – early 19th C), a special place “in the clouds” at the “top of the world” (late 19th – early 20th C).

From the first traveller’s report in the late 18th century until the current Dalai Lama fled in 1959, Tibet was a center of “religion and religious power.” Seeking an alternative to Christianity, travel writers of the early 1900s prompted the West’s collective imagination to grasp Tibetan Buddhism, the Dalai Lama and Lhasa, the capital city.

Tibet became a sacred place with an axis mundi at its center, “the axis that connects heaven, earth and the Underworld.” Says Bishop,

Whilst apparently closed off and isolated from the mainstream of the world, Tibet seemed to exert an extraordinarily far-reaching spiritual influence… There always seemed to be more of Tibet – more of it geographically, and more of it in terms of its contradictions. Rationalists, Utopians, Romantics, primitivists, Humanists, Moralists and mystics would each be irresistibly drawn to something exemplary in Tibet, yet at the same time puzzled or repelled by something else that just could not be ignored. It presented the West with a true complexio oppositorum, a rich complexity of contradictions and oppositions. This complexio oppositorum was to provide the basis of Tibet as a sacred place in the Western imagination.

“Time and again travelers [to Tibet], no matter where they came from, felt that they were stepping into another world.” A world that James Hilton’s best-selling novel, Lost Horizons, set in a monastery high in the Himalaya, transformed into the fairy-tale utopia, Shangri-La, reaffirming “contemporary fantasies about Tibet.”

Knowing that “monks, rituals, monasteries and artefacts throughout the Himalayan region – from Tibet to Ladakh, Nepal to Darjeeling, Bhutan to Sikkim – have become the delight of photographers, trekkers and bargain-hunters,” Bishop reaches the end of his study with a poignant observation: “The myth of Tibet could no longer be trusted to Tibet, to the geographical place; instead it had to be transferred on to what was truly timeless and formless. That place alone could never be threatened.”


— Tucker Cox


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