Zangbu and the Lama Survey.

John Keay’s TLS review (November 13, 2020; archived) of Himalaya: A human history by Ed Douglas contains the following passage:

If “grasping after the particular” is indeed a Western trait, Douglas’s compendium turns it to good account by enlivening Himālaya’s disjointed history with a host of minor characters. Some are outsiders – explorers, philologists, plantsmen, sportsmen, mystics and mountaineers. Others are native observers whose testimony is often too oblique for standard works on “the mystic land of the lamas”. Who has heard of Zangbu Rabjamba, for instance, an early-eighteenth-century monk who “translated a Chinese work on European astronomy into Tibetan”? Before that, Zangbu had been engaged in conducting a survey covering the whole of Tibet. It anticipated similar exercises by the Survey of India in the nineteenth century and, during it, Zangbu evidently kept a journal. But we know of this work only by hearsay, and “the whole Tibetan contribution to the scientific understanding of their own country, the so-called ‘Lama Survey’, has faded from view”. Such unsung endeavours are a delight. They pop up in the text like marmots, the furry ground-squirrels of the Tibetan upland that bob from view before you can reach them, though not before their burrows have wrenched an ankle from its socket.

I like the marmot comparison (marmots at LH), but I’m curious about this Zangbu Rabjamba and his survey. I learn from Hosung Shim’s “The Zunghar Conquest of Central Tibet and its Influence on Tibetan Military Institutions in the 18th Century” (p. 75, n. 74; incidentally, the article has a very useful Appendix 1: Place Names in Different Languages) that rabjamba = Manchu ramjamba and Tibetan rab ’byams pa ‘doctor of Buddhist philosophy’ (we discussed Dzungar/Zunghar/Zungar/Junghar/Jungar/Dzhungar in 2017), so that’s Zangbu’s title… although now I learn from the more cautious Mario Cams in his Companions in Geography: East-West Collaboration in the Mapping of Qing China (c. 1685-1735) (p. 122) that La-mu-zhan-ba 藏布喇木占巴 “possibly stands for the Tibetan academic title of Rabjamba” (my emphasis). Cams also says “I have found no biographical information,” so I guess Zangbu is a dead end. As for the survey, googling “Lama Survey” gets me Clements R. Markham’s 1876 Narratives of the Mission of George Bogle to Tibet and of the Journey of Thomas Manning to Lhasa, which has a section (p. lxi) on the survey:

Kang-hi, therefore, resolved to have another map constructed, and accordingly two lamas were carefully trained as surveyors by the Jesuit Fathers at Peking, and sent to Tibet with orders to include the country from Sining to Lhasa, and thence to the sources of the Ganges, in their survey. The result was a map of Tibet, which was submitted to the Fathers, in 1717, and though not without faults, it was found to be a great improvement on the former attempt. From it the Jesuits prepared the well-known maps which were forwarded to Du Halde, and from which D’Anville constructed his atlas. The Lama Survey of Tibet still continues to be the basis of our geographical knowledge of that country, although it is rapidly being superseded by the efforts of Colonel Montgomerie and his native explorers.

Needless to say, all thoughts about any of this are welcome.


  1. Jen in Edinburgh says

    I’m reading a book by John Keay about the Himalayas at the moment, and I definitely know more about the various mountain ranges than I did before! But I’m really just commenting on serendipity rather than having anything intelligent to say.

  2. La-mu-zhan-ba 藏布喇木占巴

    藏布喇木占巴 is actually Zang-bu La-mu-zhan-ba, which makes the sentence less mystifying.

  3. Jen in Edinburgh says

    Apropos of not very much, ‘Colonel Montgomerie’s native explorers’ were, I think, the first group to be known as pundits in English – a word which now seems to be largely restricted to football.

    (And George Bogle is a lovely name.)

  4. Actually, more mystifying. The text should have read 喇木占巴 La-mu-zhan-ba, which is the title in question. The name 藏布 Zang-bu should have been omitted for the sentence to make sense.

    The appendix of place names is somewhat lacking.

    For instance, Tengri-nuur just means ‘Heavenly Lake’ in Mongolian. If it’s the one in Tianshan, then the Chinese name is exactly that, 天池 ‘heavenly pond’. There are 天池 in various parts of China.

    Khara usu just means ‘black water’. The Manchu name has been borrowed from the Mongolian, since neither khara nor usu appear to be Manchu.

  5. I always recommend Samuels’ “Civilized Shamans” whenever Tibet comes up In truth, it’s quite a demanding book and I’ve only read parts of it, but what I’ve read has greatly impressed me.

    One of his themes is that Tibet was a “stateless society” and that Tibetan Buddhism was likewise decentered. The Dalai Lama represents Tibet to outsiders, and he is indeed a holy man and a great religious leader, but among Tibetans his is one of many holy men, and for many not the first among them.

    In one place he enumerates the various types and ranks of Tibetan holy men, and it’s a considerably longer and more chaotic list than you’d get from someone with a primarily Buddhist orientation.

  6. David Marjanović says

    pundits in English – a word which now seems to be largely restricted to football

    And to American political commentators, especially the (90%) less intelligent ones.

  7. 藏布 zàngbù is now used to transliterate Tibetan གཙང་པོ (Wylie transliteration: gtsang po) “river” in river names of Tibet, as in the Chinese name of the upper course of the Bhramaputra 雅鲁藏布江 yǎlǔ zàngbù jiānɡ, the Yarlung Tsangpo.

    I wonder if the name of our surveyor was gtsang po, and his name had a specifically Buddhist resonance here. (I was also wondering whether it was a kind of title, like རྒྱ་མཚོ rgya mtsho (or Gyatso in common usage) “ocean” (cf. dalai in Dalai Lama, from Mongol dalai “ocean”), but I couldn’t find any evidence of that.)

  8. I forgot to post this, but “Civilized Shamans” (expensive!) is apparently available free online.

  9. January First-of-May says

    as in the Chinese name of the upper course of the Bhramaputra 雅鲁藏布江 yǎlǔ zàngbù jiānɡ, the Yarlung Tsangpo.

    As it happens, around the same time as Colonel Montgomerie’s explorations (give or take a few years), Jacques Eliacin François Marie Paganel set out to – in his own words – “follow the course of the river Yarou-Dzangbo-Tchou, which waters Thibet for a distance of 1500 kilometres, flowing along the northern base of the Himalayas, and to find out at last whether this river does not join itself to the Brahmapoutre in the northeast of As-sam.”

    This appears to be a different transliteration of Yarlung Tsangpo (in fact the Chinese name is even closer), in which case whether this river does in fact “join itself to the Brahmapoutre” is an interesting philosophical question.

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