A Photographer from Buryatia

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This paper introduces Russian scholar Gombozhab Tsybikov, a Russian explorer of Tibet from 1899 to 1902. Tsybikov specialized in ethnography, Buddhist Studies, and is mostly credited for being one of the first photographers of Tibet, including Lhasa.

Keywords— Tibet; Lhasa; mapping; photos; politics; Buryatia

The glory of the first discoverers and first photographers of Lhasa belongs to Russian scientists-travelers. In March 1901 in Lhasa, two natives of the Russian Empire met with the same secret mission – Gombozhab Tsybikov and Ovshe Norzunov. Both of them returned from the journey unscathed and brought a treasure – unique photographs of the Tibetan capital and the surrounding area. To get to Tibet – a sacred land for all followers of Buddhism and people seeking spiritual perfection – today almost anyone can. But it was not always so. At the end of the 19th century, Tibet was one of the most closed, mysterious and impossible places. Since the end of the XVIII century, the authorities of Tibet zealously guarded the borders of the country-hermit from foreigners – “pilins.” In the 1860s and 1880s, the British authorities began sending specially trained scouts of “pandits” (“learned man with specialized knowledge”) from India to Tibet . Their mission was quite dangerous: at any time, local authorities could declassify and execute them. For example Sarat Chandra Das, an English scout, a Hindu by birth, first arrived in Shigatse and settled in the Dashi-Lhumbo monastery, the residence of the Panchen Lama. Here in 1879, he made an acquaintance with the first minister of the Panchen Lama, Sinchen, who was simultaneously the head of the Tantric faculty of the Kumbum monastery and did not conceal his admiration for European ideas and inventions. Thanks to the support of the latter, Sarat Chandra Das was able to take another secret trip in a year, but the fact of the secret visit of S. Das Lhasa was discovered by the Dalai Lama’s Lhasa government, as a result of which all the Tibetan accomplices of S. Das were brutally punished. Also Russia had made several attempts to unravel and conquer Tibet. The first to penetrate into the inaccessible region was the great Russian traveler Nikolai Przhevalsky (1839-1888). Nikolai Mikhailovich, who associates with us, above all, with the wild horse he discovered, made four trips through the deserts of Central Asia. 11 of the allotted 50 years of his life he spent on the road. But Przewalski was moved not only by curiosity and the thirst for discovery. All this time he was on military service, having served as a result up to a rank of the Major-General of the General Staff of the Russian army. The purpose of his expeditions, whose participants were mostly military, was to find the most convenient ways for the transfer of troops to China. During the third tour of Asia (1871-1873) Przhevalsky decided to penetrate for this purpose into Tibet. Despite the objections of the Tibetan government, the expedition managed to get to the territory of the country. But the closer the travelers came to the capital, the more heated the situation was. Local population to this attempt of strangers and gentiles to enter the sacred places reacted extremely hostile, the clergy were indignant. Therefore, after passing the Tan-La Pass and being only 300 km from Lhasa, Przhevalsky was forced to turn back.

In 1891-1894, Tibet was visited by Baaza Bagsha (worldly name Badma Menkedzhuyev). In 1898-1900 and 1902-1903 – by Bagsha Purdash-Ochir Dzhungruev; in 1904-1905 by Captain Naran Ulanov and Bagsha Dambo Ulyanov. Attempts to get to Central Tibet by such major travelers as V. V. Roquehel, G. Bonvalo, S. Hedin and others, failed, and the famous French traveler Dutrail de Rans 5 June 1893 paid for such a life attempt.

In the late XIX – early XX centuries Tibet in the Anglo-Russian-Chinese relations figured as one of the important points of controversy. The situation was complicated by the intensification of Japanese imperialism. By this time, Tibet was closed by the Qing government of China and the Lhasa authorities of the thirteenth Dalai Lama for the entry of foreigners. But the Peking and Lhasa rulers made one exception in favor of natives from Asian countries, professing Buddhism, who could be admitted to Lhasa.

This exception was used primarily by the British colonial authorities in India, which began to send specially trained agents to Tibet such as Nain Singh, Kisheng Singh, Lama Uchchen-Zhao, etc.

In the study of Central Tibet and its capital Lhasa in the late XIX – early XX centuries very fruitful results were given by three Oriental scholars – people from Asian countries, namely, the Hindu Sarat Chandra Das, the Japanese Ekai Kawaguchi and the Buryat Gombozhab Tsybikov. In 1899-1902, on the instructions of the Russian Geographical Society, Buryat scholar and Buddhist, Gombozhab Tsybikov made his famous trip to Central Tibet, becoming the first representative of European science to visit the “land of snows”. Returning from the journey, Gombozhab Tsybikov wrote the fundamental work “Buddhist pilgrim at the shrines of Tibet” – the classic work of world Buddhology.

This trip was undertaken at the expense of the Russian Geographical Society in a complex international situation in the Far East.

Russia had long pursued an active foreign policy in the Far East. This also concerned Tibet, over which the threat of an English invasion loomed. Relations with Tibet were held back by the remoteness from Russia and mainly by the lack of well-surveyed ways of access to this country. Therefore, the tsarist government paid great attention to the study of the areas adjacent to Tibet, and the very territory of the country. This was important not only to maintain regular contact with it, but also to clearly show the degree of probability of using available ways for the transfer of British troops to Xinjiang, to the borders of Central Asia.

In the areas adjacent to Tibet, several expeditions were organized, operating under the auspices of the Imperial Russian Geographical Society. In addition to expeditions, other ways of obtaining intelligence information about the situation in Tibet were used. In this situation, the Russian government decided to intensify intelligence activities in this direction in order to thoroughly understand the current situation in the region and send secret scientists and scouts with secret missions under the guise of lamas and pilgrims. There were good reasons for that. England in relation to Tibet was pursuing an aggressive policy. In 1808-1889, carried out several military expeditions, and in 1904, using a favorable situation (Russian-Japanese war), began an open armed intervention. The Tibetans resisted stubbornly, but the forces were unequal, and the British occupied Lhasa. During the occupation of the capital of Tibet, the Dalai Lama XIII was forced to flee to Urga, the capital of Mongolia. Despite such a difficult foreign policy situation, Kalmyks often visited Tibet as pilgrims and under their guise.

Russian diplomacy made great efforts to prevent the establishment of complete control of Britain over Tibet. The position of St. Petersburg was that Tibet, while under the supreme authority of China, should maintain certain independence. This solution met the national interests of Russia.The information of Tsybikov, as well as other pilgrims from among the Kalmyks and Buryats, about the situation in Tibet aroused particular interest in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and in the Ministry of War. At that time, Russian diplomacy was aimed at stopping British expansion into Tibet and creating conditions for strengthening its positions in China Russia made great efforts to normalize the situation in Tibet, actively negotiating with China and Britain, seeking to restore the power of Dalai Lama XIII as soon as possible in the country. Well-coordinated diplomatic steps of the Russian government allowed in 1907 to conclude an Anglo-Russian agreement, according to which England recognized Tibet as part of China and pledged to maintain relations with him only through China.

Thus, China regained control over Tibet. An important role in this matter was played by Russian foreign intelligence, which under the most difficult conditions regularly supplied the government with the necessary information.

Gombozhab Tsybikov, also during early life surnamed Montuev, was born to a Buddhist family of Transbaikalian Buryats. Tsybikov studied medicine in Tomsk University, and met famous Buryat doctor Peter Badmayev who offered his support insisting that Tsybikov pursues a career in Asian affairs and studies in St Petersburg University. Preparing for this new major, Tsybikov spent some time in Urga at Badmayev’s Buryat school, studying Chinese, Mongolian, and Manchu languages. In 1895 he enrolled at the Oriental Faculty of the Imperial St Petersburg University with a grant from P. Badmaev and graduated summa cum laude in 1899. Tsybikov, in the patronage of Professor Pozdneev, in 1899 received an offer from the Russian Geographical Society (RGO) to make his way to Tibet under the guise of a traveling pilgrim from Mongolia. This risky expedition was overseen by the St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Tsybikov left Russia by way of Mongolia, for Lhasa, Tibet. Being a Buryat by birth, Tsybikov decided to make his trip in the clothes of a pilgrim, joining a large Mongolian caravan, which gave hope for the realization of his bold design. The leadership of the RGO took advantage of this unique opportunity by supplying the traveler with a significant amount of money and with a hand-held camera “Self-Worker” of Paris-based firm Pipon which he disguised, mounted in a drum for prayer. It was portable camera which could be photographed from hand and easily hid under clothes. In his luggage lay also the hidden thermometer Reaumur.

Just 25 years before the Tsybikov expedition, Nikolai Przhevalsky refused to take photos because since then, camera together with the reagents and the stock of glass plates for negatives, weighed almost 300 kg. Tsybikov went to Lhasa under the guise of a pilgrim, joining a group of believers-the Buryats and Mongols, without devoting any of them to his research plans. The servant, hired by Tsybikov, was chicken-hearted halfway and left. According to the orientalist, every minute “fearing that something could not stand out from among his fellow Mongols and not give rise to even the slightest suspicion in him of a person involved in Europeans,” he only furtively made notes. Tsybikov concealed the true purpose of his arrival, even from his countrymen, whom he saw in Lhasa-Buryat pilgrims and calvary Ovshe Norzunov, who arrived in the retinue of the adviser to the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan ambassador to Europe, Aghvan Dorzhiev. The photographing and keeping the diary were made by Tsybikov in an atmosphere of the utmost secrecy.Tsybikov: “November 25, 1899. After dressing himself as a Buryat lama pilgrim, I left Urga for four hired camels with a party of the Alashan Mongols who came here to sell rice and millet. April 27 (1902 – Author.) I went to the Mongolian postal homeland and on May 2nd crossed the border of the Fatherland in Kyakhta. Taken with a photographic apparatus and a thermometer, Reaumur had to be kept locked up in a trunk up to Lhasa. With me, I always had only a small notebook where I took notes daily, even in this, hiding from prying eyes.”

Tsybikov reached Lhasa in early August 1900 and in the autumn of the same year began to shoot views of the” forbidden “capital of Tibet. By this time in Lhasa has already managed to visit under the guise of a Buddhist pilgrim to another Russian traveler – Kalmyk Ovshe Norzunov. Tsybikov described this meeting as follows: “Agvan Dorzhiev came from our patronymic along with his Buryat satellites and the Stavropol Kalmyk Ovshe Norzunov, who undertook to take photographs for the Imperial Russian Geographical Society. He is equipped with the same apparatus as I have been taking pictures since autumn. I hide the apparatus from him, as well as in general from all local residents, including the Buryats, my fellow countrymen.” Of particular importance is the fact that Tsybikov found Tibet in a “pristine state” He visited the most important monastic centers, made about 200 unique photographs and received an audience with the Dalai Lama XIII. Rising to the palace along a 15-kilometer road, Tsybikov, as it should, made 6 thousand bows, spending two days on this way, he was received along with other pilgrims by the head of Tibet – Dalai Lama.Tsybikov said:“After all the offerings, the Dalai Lama accepted the hadak and blessed me with the application of his right hand to my crown. At this time he was handed a string of silk cloth, he tied the knot and, blowing on it, put it on my neck.

Such a lace with a knot is called in Mongolian “tszangya”, and in Tibetan with “un-dud.”

This protective knot, sanctified by a blow after reading a special spell, is considered a talisman guarding against misfortunes. Tsybikov` travel started in 1899 and finished in 1902. In Tibet proper, mostly in and around Lhasa, Tsybikov spent 888 days from 1900 to 1901. There, he secretly made around 200 pictures.

From the journey, Tsybikov brought a library of 333 sacred books, and became the third person to take the capital of Tibet – Lhasa on photographic plates. He wrote two works about this journey: a report for the Russian Geographical Society, which was published in 1903, “On Central Tibet,” and subsequently translated into English and published in the Annual Report of the Smithsonian Institute; and the monograph, ” A Buddhist pilgrim at the shrines of Tibet”: from Diaries kept from 1899 to 1902. This work was not pub published until 1919. In the 1950s that interest in Tsybikov’s work arose in the Soviet Union, and in the 1970s it drew attention in Europe and America.His report offered an overview of his trip and research on Tibet. He had kept geographical, meteorological and natural history diaries, describing also covering topics such as Tibetan customs, politics, architecture, economics, and the military.

Tsybikov’s photographs of Tibet have also had an important influence. When these photographs were printed in popular journals, they revolutionized how the world came to be depicted. From a historical point of view, the most valuable of “Buddhist pilgrim at the shrines of Tibet” are such chapters of the “Buddhist pilgrim” as “Lhasa, the city and its main shrines”, “Lhasa people”, “Lhasa Life”, “Tibet Office”, “About the Dalai Lama” etc. Thanks to the travel of Tsybikov, oriental studies of Russia received new information about the ancient country and its capital. After returning from Tibet, Gombozhab Tsybikov devoted himself to teaching. In May 1903 Tsybikov read a lecture “On Central Tibet” in the premises of the Russian Geographical Society with a demonstration of 32 transparencies. Lecture and display of “species” of Tibet and Lhasa produced a real sensation in the scientific world.

Izvestiya IRGO published a Tsybikov lecture, and along with it lists of the best photographs of Norzunov and Tsybikov (45 and 32 units respectively). To the lists were attached 9 photographs of Norzunov with the views of Lhasa, the monasteries of Gandan and Tashilhumpo (the residence of the Panchen Lama). These lists, together with the photographs, were then printed as a separate print. The album published by the Russian Geographical Society at the end of 1903 included 50 photos of Norzunov and Tsybikov (29 and 21, respectively), which was a cardboard box with photographs, each of them which was pasted on a cardboard sheet. The publication was intended as a gift of the RGO to foreign geographic societies.

In 1905, the National Geographics magazine published Tibetan photographs donated by Gombojab Tsybikov and traveler Kalmyk Ovshe Norzunov. In fact, these pictures saved the magazine from ruin and helped him to find his corporate identity. In 1905, in the capital of Mongolia, the Dalai Lama met with Russian politicians and scholars about the annexation of Tibet by the British. Gombozhab Tsybikov participated in these negotiations as an interpreter and personally presented XIII Dalai Lama’s an album of the RGO. At one meeting the Dalai Lama asked whether they have met earlier, and said to Tsybikov that he has an interesting skull and that one day he wants to have it for kapala.

Tsybikov’s other activities between the traveling and the Russian Revolution (1917) were academical. He got his travelogue ready for publishing, taught Tibetan in Vladivostok University and started translating Lamrim Chenmo, the fundamental work of Je Tsongkhapa’s. In 1906, G. Ts. Tsybikov was invited to the Department of Mongolian Literature of the Eastern Institute, which he headed until October 1917. During this period he published the “Manual for the Study of the Tibetan Language”, where he collected and summarized the material on the colloquial Tibetan speech. This textbook survived three reissues and remained for a long time the only textbook of the spoken Tibetan language in Russia. After the Revolution Tsybikov became a deputy of the Constituent Assembly in the Far Eastern Republic, and the member of Government of Buryat Autonomous Oblast.

Expeditions and constant work have undermined the health of professor Tsybikov. He went to his native village near the Aginsk datsan, where he began to be treated by folk methods. He spent his last few years in Aga, and died in the Aga Hospital in 1930. Tsybikov was buried in the cemetery of datsan according to the old custom, on the surface of the earth. The bodies of the deceased were wrapped in pieces of cloth and laid on wooden supports. In the evening of his funerals, a group of 30 Tibetan khampas on horses were seen around the village. The next day after the funeral, the relatives saw that the professor’s body was beheaded. They considered that probably a kapala was made from Tsybikov` skull, as was predicted by the Dalai Lama. Today, in the place where the Aginsk datsan cemetery used to be, it’s a clean field.



  • A. Andreev, 2012 “History of the first photographs of Tibet and Lhasa”; (Андреев А. И. «История первых фотографий Тибета и Лхасы»)
  • A. Andreev, 2003, “Soviet Russia and Tibet: The Debacle of Secret Diplomacy, 1918-1930s
  • A. Andreev, 2006, Tibet in the politics of the Tsarist, Soviet and post-Soviet Russia (Андреев А. И. Тибет в политике царской, советской и постсоветской России)
  • I. Pidhainy, 2013, Tibet through the Eyes of a Buryat: Gombojab Tsybikov and his Tibetan relations
  • Borlan Lidzhiev, Tibetan mission of scout Norzunov, ( Тибетская миссия разведчика Норзунова) retrieved from: http://www.bumbinorn.ru/history_articles/1165134037- tibet_mission_48654.html
  • How the Buryat scientist became the personal translator of the Dalai Lama XIII. Retrieved from: http://gazeta-n1.ru/news/49435/
  • G. Tsybikov, 1981, A Buddhist Pilgrim at the Shrines of Tibet (Буддист-паломник у святынь Тибета)

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