Tibetans and zeppelins. Notes on some articles from the Kalimpong-based Tibetan newspaper kept at the Collège de France’s Library of Tibetan Studies

Translated by Liz Carey Libbrecht.

The Collège de France’s Library of Tibetan Studies has a large collection of one of the earliest Tibetan newspapers, the Mirror of News from different Countries (Yul phyogs so so’i gsar ‘gyur me long), widely known in English as Tibet Mirror. In a culture that for centuries had vested the written word with the sole function of transmitting religious and sacred knowledge, endeavours to develop journalism proved both innovative and difficult. Yet, the fact that the publication was founded in Kalimpong provided it with set of favourable conditions. This northern Indian city, which had long had many commercial and cultural links with Tibet, was also a window onto the modern world. Having been published from 1925 to 1963, the Mirror of News was a witness to several great upheavals. It is therefore a great source of information, especially on non-religious subjects on which little is otherwise known, or which are covered less in more traditional Tibetan writings. For example, Dorje Tharchin (1890-1976), the founder of the newspaper, published news for his Tibetan readers about the chaotic situation in China after the fall of the Manchu Qing dynasty and, later, about the Second World War, the independence of India and China’s invasion of Tibet.

In 2009, Columbia University in the City of New York digitized the vast collection of Mirror of News issues it had gathered and put it online. The College de France’s Library of Tibetan Studies took part in this project in 2011 by lending the issues in its possession to complete Columbia’s collection. Since then, in the wake of the first international symposium that brought together in 2016 all specialists on the Tibet Mirror, the Library of Tibetan Studies has been developing a search engine and a database that will be available on the Collège de France’s Salamandre platform and will initially cover the seventy-five issues of this newspaper held at the Collège de France. In order to enlarge this work, in 2018, an international agreement was signed with Dharamsala’s Library of Tibetan Works and Archives which holds one of the largest collection of issues of Tibet Mirror and a database on all the illustrations of this newspaper is currently being compiled.

One of the leading specialists on the Tibet Mirror, Isrun Engelhardt, has already noted that its founder always displayed great interest in aeronautics1. The aim of this article is to supplement the work she did on the issues of the newspaper dating from the Second World War, in which there are many descriptions, photos and sketches of the aircraft then in service. To this end, we have mainly studied the oldest issues kept at the library, namely all twelve issues of volume five, covering the period from 27 June 1930 to 17 May 1931.

Dorje Tharchin’s interest in airplanes seems to have been initially motivated by mail routing between England and India2. To my knowledge, however, the first illustration of an airplane that he offered his readers was in the issue dated 26 July 19303. Tharchin published a small article entitled “Airplane, airplane”, illustrated with a drawing of an airplane. He wrote:

From Berlin.

On 20 July [1930], sixty aviators from European countries were preparing to fly for twelve days. Among these people who would fly around Europe there were seven English aviators, including two women: “Le di ‘be li” and “Mi se su pu nar”. The flight around Europe totals 4,700 miles. If one flies 4,700 miles in twelve days, how many miles does one fly in one day?4

Figure 1

Dorje Tharchin was referring to the second international touring airplane competition held in Berlin from 18 July to 8 August 1930. The competition, which included a tour of Europe and various technical events, did actually begin on 20 July. Although Tharchin mentioned the technical feat of flying the 4,700 miles (and it was indeed a difficult race, as only thirty-five of the sixty competitors made it to the end), it seems that he meant above all to point out the presence of two women. The two pilots were Lady Mary Bailey (1890-1960) and Winifred Spooner (1900-1933). This highlights one of the problems encountered in indexing these Tibetan newspapers. Including a phrase such as “mi se su pu nar” (Miss Spooner) in the dictionary currently in progress was of little use. Indexing could be carried out only after the foreign term that was transcribed into Tibetan had been identified. Yet, although Tharchin played an important role in the establishment and dissemination of some Tibetan transcriptions of foreign names (especially names of famous people and places), the spelling of these transcriptions could vary considerably5. To conclude our review of this short article, we note that Tharchin did not publish the results of this competition, in which Winifred Spooner actually came in fourth and Mary Bailey thirty-first. In parallel to this newspaper, Tharchin also published numerous textbooks for young Tibetans. His concern for the development of education is perhaps reflected in the little arithmetic exercise at the end of this article. Information about airplanes nevertheless remained largely anecdotal rather than focused on shedding light on a new technology. In the following article, Tharchin referred more seriously to the fact that the Chinese Nationalist Government (Guomin zhengfu 國民政府, transcribed into Tibetan as “sgo ming ‘bring phug”) was considering the possibility of using airplanes to better define its borders between Tibet and Mongolia6.

But let us get to the zeppelins. As a quick reminder, we note that the first designs for these rigid airships were developed in Germany at the end of the 19th century. Zeppelins were used commercially from 1910 and played an important role during the Great War, particularly in bombing London. With the Treaty of Versailles in 1918 and the restrictions imposed on Germany, production was considerably reduced. It rose again to its golden age from 1928 to 1938 when England and the United States, in turn, embarked on this adventure.

The term “airplane” is usually translated into Tibetan as “sky ship”, gnam gru. Since rigid-hulled airships do not use the same technique as airplanes and their shapes differ considerably, one might have thought that Tharchin would have used a new term for this type of aircraft. But he did not seem to feel the need to create a new word, and used only the terms “large airplane” or “very large airplane”. For example, in the issue published on 7 July 1929, Tharchin stated:

At present, postal airplanes can fly from England to India in seven days. I have heard that an extremely large airplane is being built that will be able to make this connection while carrying forty people each time.7

In this article he was certainly referring to the R 101, the first rigid airship built on an order from, and under the direction of, the British Air Ministry. The project had begun in 1925, but various difficulties, including technical ones, delayed the manufacture of the aircraft, which was to be the largest of its time and bore the promise of facilitating postal and passenger transport links between different parts of the British Empire. Its “inflation” at the Cardington base north of London did not begin until July 1929. It lasted until 21 September. As the Tibet Mirror had indicated, the R 101 could indeed carry about 40 people, which was quite exceptional at the time. Two months later, Tharchin did call the new aircraft by its name, “R 101” (in Tibetan “ar 101”), and furthermore specified that it could carry a load of 40 tons8. The information was correct.

Between October and November 1929, the R 101 made several test flights over England. In June 1930, three flights of about 30 hours each were carried out again to check the aircraft’s solidity. Although not all of the tests were entirely conclusive, particularly with regard to the airship’s outer envelope, official permission was granted for the very first flight to Karachi to depart. It had been planned that the R 101 would symbolically leave English soil for India at the same time as the opening of the “Imperial Conference” in London, which brought together all the representatives of the British Empire. The British government’s hopes to bring the different colonies closer together through an entirely new transport system rested on the R 101.

On 4 October 1930, the R 101 took off from Cardington. It was to fly first over London, then Paris, Toulouse and Narbonne. However, just as it left the English coast, the first technical problems appeared. Gradually losing speed and altitude, the airship eventually crashed at Allonne, south-west of Beauvais, and immediately caught fire. Of the 54 people on board, 48 died. In the 21 October 1930 issue, Tharchin wrote in the section « Various news » (gsar ‘gyur sna tshogs):

Recent news from England: when the largest aircraft of the British supreme and high government, the plane known as the R 101, “ar one hundred and one”, left England on its way to India, while flying over the French border, one side of the plane struck a mountain, causing damage to the plane, which caught fire and crashed to the ground. Forty people, both nobles and inferiors, who were on board lost their lives.9

The accident report I consulted does not mention the R 101 hitting a mountain. Rather, it appears that bad weather conditions caused damage to the outer shell, which resulted in the aircraft falling. The fire mentioned by Tharchin is discussed below. The expression “nobles and inferiors” (drag shan) certainly refers to the fact that, in addition to the flight crew, there were such high-ranking figures on board as Secretary of State for Air, Lord Thomson, and British Director of Civil Aviation, Sir Sefton Brancker.

In the following issue (November 10 edition), Tharchin published two drawings with the following captions:

Figure 2: Drawing of the “Lord of the second dakini” fallen to the ground.

This aircraft is 777 feet long [vertical inscription perpendicular to both drawings].
Drawings of the crash of the large airplane, the R 101, at the French border while flying from England to India; a crash we announced in last month’s newspaper. As we have done in the past, these drawings are based on clear models published in some newspapers.

Figure 3: Original photograph of the zeppelin

Figure 4: Original photograph of the zeppelin on land

These captions call for several comments. The R 101’s length was correctly stated. It was indeed 777 feet (236.83 m) long when it made this last flight, due to several additions made to the original design’s 731 feet (223 m). However, it was not the start of a fire that was the cause of the crash, but a defect in the airship’s outer envelope. The report from the investigation into the accident stated that the reasons why the R 101 burst into flames after it had touched down were specifically sought, since experience had shown that not all airships that crashed automatically caught fire.

In these captions, the strange vocabulary used by Tharchin to describe the R 101 is noteworthy; it seems to be imbued with a certain poetry, as if he wanted to show his admiration for this aircraft. Rather than the usual term “sky ship”, he used the expression “Lord of the second dakini” (mkha’ ‘gro gnyis pa’i bdag po). Dakini is a Sanskrit term denoting Buddhist deities who travel through space, hence their name in Tibetan, “Those who go into space” (mkha’ ‘gro). Thus, the “second dakini(in the sense of the “new dakini”) would be aircraft10. In addition, he mentions the R 101 “hovering in the sky” (mkha’ lding pa), which is usually associated with the eagle. Finally, the drawings themselves warrant attention. In order to make his newspaper more attractive, Tharchin increasingly resorted to illustrations11. However, he lacked financial means, which is why, especially in the early years, he very often had pictures of famous people or special events redrawn. The crash of the R 101 happens to be one of the earliest examples in the library’s collection. Several photographs from the time could have served as models for the drawings reproduced in the Tibet Mirror (see Figures 3 and 4).

The R 101 accident halted the British Empire’s plans for rigid airships. But Germany, in collaboration with the United States, was still in the running and zeppelins continued to travel the skies. As early as 1924, the Zeppelin factory had produced a new airship (the LZ 126) which had managed to reach the United States in 80 hours and 45 minutes. On the strength of this success, it built the famous Graf Zeppelin, which made many trips. Tharchin developed an interest in a trip it made in 1931, and particularly in the airship’s flight over Jerusalem. In the issue 17 May 1931, he published the following article:

Here is a picture of the great German airplane, the very famous “Graph dzep lin”, as it circles above the Holy Land. It flies over the big city of this country which is called ‘Ya ru sha len’.

The Protector and Refuge Yeshu Ma shi ka was born in this country and accomplished many extraordinary activities. He made the wheel of teaching turn by showing, among other things, the unspeakably loving spirit of his Precious Father. Later, not far from this city, in order to eliminate all the faults of the men of this world, with a deep and inconceivable suffering, he offered his body and his life and, having completely overcome death, the worst enemy of men, he guided all men to the lands of bliss. The place where he accomplished such good deeds is that land which is called the Holy Land.

Figure 5

Tharchin had therefore not chosen to present this information out of sheer scientific curiosity. Rather, the airship’s journey appears to be an opportunity for him to present Jerusalem. It should be noted that Tharchin had been raised by Moravian missionaries and was a Christian, and that the newspaper had originally been sponsored by the Church of Scotland. However, several studies have shown that the Tibet Mirror was not a Christian proselytizing newspaper12. Perhaps we should take into account the fact that between 1928 and 1931 Tharchin had to collaborate with a new and particularly rigid missionary, Doctor Knox. A word also on the terminology used in this article. Apart from the reference to the Hebrew term “Mashiach” (which becomes “Ma shi ka” in Tibetan) when speaking of Christ, the use of a clearly Buddhist Tibetan vocabulary to translate Christian concepts is noteworthy13. The expression “to make the wheel of teaching turn” (chos kyi ‘khor lo bskor ba) is a good example of this. The article is illustrated by a drawing depicting the Graf Zeppelin above the Holy City (cf. Fig. 5). The drawing of the airship is accompanied by the word “plane” (gnam gru). The absence of wings may not have allowed Tibetans to recognize an airplane in this object.

Here, we will not discuss the Nazi takeover of the use of rigid airships once the Third Reich succeeded the Weimar Republic in 1933. Suffice it to say that the golden age of these aircraft ended tragically in 1938 with the Hindenburg, a German airship that caught fire in mid-air as it arrived in America. Tharchin announced the disaster in the 6 September 1938 issue, and alongside his article was a drawing of a photograph of the aircraft before it took off (Vol. IX, No. 2, p. 7)14.

It appears from this brief inquiry that, at that time, while Tharchin was fascinated by aircraft, he showed a more limited interest in their technical characteristics. The fact that he never created a neologism to denote airships and thus distinguish them from airplanes is evidence of this. Tharchin himself may not have had sufficient scientific knowledge at that time to understand the differences in technology, but one must also bear in mind his readership. The newspaper Tibet Mirror was not only aimed at the Tibetan community living in India, especially in Darjeeling and Kalimpong, which was relatively open to news and novelty from the West, it was also sent to Tibet and regions inhabited by folks of Tibetan culture where scientific knowledge was far from being highly developed. Over the years, it seems that the way Tharchin presented aeronautics evolved, as he later published diagrams that were far more technical, especially during the Second World War.

Pour citer cet article : Françoise Wang-Toutain, "Tibetans and zeppelins. Notes on some articles from the Kalimpong-based Tibetan newspaper kept at the Collège de France’s Library of Tibetan Studies," in Colligere, 14/05/2020, https://archibibscdf.hypotheses.org/8614. Consulté le 29/10/2020.

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  1. Engelhardt, Isrun, “Reflections in the Tibet Mirror: News of the World 1937-1946”, in Tuttle, Gray (ed.), Mapping the Modern in Tibet, International Institute for Tibetan and Buddhist Studies, 2011, pp. 205-264: 227. []
  2. He refers to this problem in two issues in 1927 (vol. IV, No. 2, p. 3). Later, in his 10 April 1929 issue, he mentions the first liaison service between London and Karachi which had begun on 30 March (cf. vol. IV, No. 1, p. 3). Actually, only part of the service was by air; it was operated by Imperial Airways. The other part was covered by train. []
  3. The second illustration of an airplane was published a year later in July 1931 (vol. VI, No. 12, p. 8). This issue is unfortunately not kept at the Library of Tibetan Studies. I obtained this information from Isrun Engelhardt who was able to consult it at the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives in Dharamsala. See Engelhardt, 2011, p. 227. []
  4. Vol. V, No. 2, p. 3. []
  5. Engelhardt, 2011, p. 221. []
  6. Vol. V, No. 2, p.3. []
  7. Vol. IV, No. 4, p. 3 []
  8. Vol. IV, No. 7, p. 6. []
  9. Vol. V, No. 5, p. 2 []
  10. I thank Françoise Robin for her proofreading of this article and more specifically for reading this passage. []
  11. Engelhardt, 2011, pp. 225-226. []
  12. Engelhardt, 2011, pp. 230-232. []
  13. n translations of Christian texts into Tibetan, see John Bray, “Language, Tradition and the Tibetan Bible”, The Tibet Journal, vol. XVI, No. 4, pp. 28-58. []
  14. Unfortunately, this issue is not kept in the library. I obtained this information from Isrun Engelhardt who was able to consult it at the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives in Dharamsala. See Engelhardt, 2011, p. 227. []

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