The story of the Tibetan Bible may be summarised as follows:
Dr A. W. Heyde and Mr Pagel, members of the Moravian church, felt called to preach the Gospel in the closed land of Tibet. Their first attempt to enter the forbidden land was from western China and ended when they were set upon by bandits and robbed. They then travelled to India and climbed the Himalayas to Darjeeling, but this time they were turned back by Tibetan border guards.
Over the next year or so they made repeated efforts to enter Tibet, constantly moving westwards, until in 1858 they came to the Luba Valley near Leh. There they found a small Tibetan settlement that had grown up around the home of a Tibetan nobleman called Tempu Gergan.
Tempu had been Minister of Finance during the minority of the Dalai Lama and when, a few months after taking power in 1855, the young Dalai Lama was found dead, it was suspected that officials of the regency were responsible for giving him poison. Tempu had fallen out with the State Oracle and when the Oracle accused him in full seance of being the guilty man, Tempu was not surprised. He had made his preparations and was ready. Much of his wealth had already been sent secretly out of Lhasa and he was able to slip out of the building and escape just in time.
The journey from Lhasa to the Luba Valley was an arduous one, but once outside Tibetan jurisdiction Tempu and his household settled down. Three years later they welcomed the two strangers and when Tempu saw how disappointed they were at being unable to enter his homeland, he invited them to live with him, promising to teach them the Tibetan language and help them translate their holy book in exchange for their medical skills.
Unfortunately, although the two men quickly became proficient in spoken Tibetan, the task of translating the Bible was more difficult than they had imagined. In the first place there was the problem of which dialect of Tibetan they should use: Tempu and his family spoke the Lhasa dialect, but it was not well understood by people in either east or west of the country. Amdo Tibetan, which was the eastern dialect, was regarded as barbaric by the people of Lhasa and was even less understood by those in the west.
The solution appeared to be to use Classical Tibetan as found in the Kanjur, the holy book of Tibetan Buddhism. However there were still problems, for the words of the Kanjur frequently had meanings that were opposed to Christian ideas. For example, the word for "god" referred both to divine beings and also to the living buddhas such as the Dalai Lama. By using this word, the Biblical statement "Jesus is God" becomes nothing more than an affirmation that Jesus is on the same level as any other reincarnation. It was the same with the word for "prayer", which in Tibetan included not only the endless chanting of the phrase "Om mani padme hum", but also the fluttering of prayer flags or the turning of the ubiquitous prayer wheels.
In addition Classical Tibetan was rapidly becoming obsolete and would be as difficult for the ordinary Tibetan to understand as Shakespearian English is for the modern-day Englishman.
In 1885 Tempu's wife Droma gave birth to a son, to whom was given the name Sonam. As the boy grew older he enjoyed listening to the Bible stories told by the two missionaries and became interested in their religion, possibly as a result of hearing his father discuss the Bible with them as they wrestled with the problems of translation.
When Tempu died in 1897, followed a short time later by his wife, the twelve-year old Sonam openly declared his intention of becoming a Christian and was baptised, taking the Christian name of Yoseb (Joseph). He asked his missionary friends to send him to school where he could learn Christian doctrine and Western science. In his absence Hyde, Pagel and an expert in Oriental languages, Dr Jaeschke, continued to struggle with the translation. They made slight progress, for about this time they finished the Gospel of John and had it printed at Kyelang in Kashmir.
When Tempu died Heyde and Pagel felt that there was nothing further to keep them in the Luba Valley and moved to Leh, where they established a small Tibetan church. Despite this success, however, they were greatly discouraged by the fact that their translation of John was not well received. People in the east could hardly understand the language and the translation was stilted and difficult to read.
When Yoseb Gergan finished his education at the age of 21 he turned down the offer of a good position with the British government and returned home, intending to settle down on the estate he had inherited. Heyde and Pagel asked him to come to Leh to serve as pastor of the Tibetan church and for some time Yoseb was uncertain what he should do, but as the result of a dream he decided to accept the call. He divided his estate among his servants and retainers and moved to Leh.
There he found that Dr Jaeschke had died and been replaced by another Oriental scholar, Dr Francke, who was continuing to work on translating the Bible, but though his efforts were better, they were still not good enough. Yoseb, as well as his pastoral duties, worked with Dr Francke, but progress was very slow and unsatisfactory.
One day Yoseb encountered an old monk in an isolated temple and overheard him chanting from an ancient book of myths and legends. The dialect was one that appeared to pre-date both Classical Tibetan and the various contemporary dialects. Although nearly forgotten, it was familiar enough to be understood by all and, even better, it had words for "god" and "prayer" and other concepts that were free of the Buddhist connotations associated with the more familiar words.
Yoseb asked to be allowed to borrow the book so that he could study its language, but the lama graciously gave it to him, pleased that it would continue to be valued after his own death. Using this ancient language as their key, Francke and Yoseb worked more quickly on a new translation of the Bible, a work Yoseb continued on his own after Francke returned to Europe. In 1935, after twenty-three years of effort, Yoseb finished the task. All that remained was to have the book printed.
When he contacted the Bible Society, however, he discovered a problem. There was no Tibetan typeface. Like the Urdu and Arabic Bibles, the entire document had to be written by hand in a clear and consistent script, and then either engraved or reproduced photographically. There was no facility in India to undertake such a massive project, so with great trepidation Yoseb sent his precious manuscript to the British and Foreign Bible Society (B&FBS) in London.
Before committing expensive resources to the project, the B&FBS wanted to have it checked and submitted it to Oriental scholars. In the days before photocopiers, it was laborious and time-consuming to make copies of Yoseb's manuscript, but this was done and as well as experts from the universities in Britain, the B&FBS sent copies to China and India where it was assessed by missionaries and scholars on the borders of Tibet.
The result was positive. "Never would we have believed a Tibetan text would be so readily accepted by the diverse Tibetan peoples," was the report. However a number of questions were raised which needed to be answered, but before Yoseb could be consulted World War II broke out and work had to be suspended.
During the war the precious Tibetan manuscript was send to Rippon in Yorkshire for safe-keeping and one night a 2,000 lb bomb landed outside the cathedral crypt, just four feet away from the Tibetan Bible. The bomb disposal squad could find no fault to explain why the bomb had not exploded and the sexton was convinced that God had protected the ancient cathedral and its contents.
By the time the war ended the B&FBS was struggling to rebuild and to carry out other projects that seemed more urgent. Prompted by Yoseb Gergan, who was now 60, the Indian Bible Society (IBS) requested that the manuscript be returned to them, as technological developments meant that they were now able to handle such work.
They were dismayed to find, however, that Yoseb had used cheap Tibetan paper which had suffered badly from the effects of time and damp. The paper had yellowed and it was impossible to obtain a clear picture of the writing. The only solution was to re-write the whole thing on special white paper - but in the aftermath of the war, such paper was in short supply and eventually the staff of the IBS produced their own paper by taking ordinary paper and coating it with a special mixture of chemicals and egg-white.
The manuscript and the special paper was sent back to Yoseb in Leh so that he could re-write it and at the same time make a few necessary corrections. After two years of labour, however, Yoseb suffered a stroke. Miraculously he recovered but he was too weak to continue writing and so two scribes - Gappel and Phunthsog - did the writing at his dictation. After a while they were supplemented by another two - Stobldan and Zodpa - with the result that it is possible to detect five different handwritings in the finished book. (The same applies to the Urdu Bible, where some pages are written in a fine, bold hand and others in a small, cramped hand. One of the minor prophets is particularly hard to read!)
On August 11, 1946, the work was finally finished and five days later Yoseb Gergan, one of the great saints of God, died.
The completed manuscript was sent to Lahore for printing, but the process of preparing the proofs revealed a number of problems, particularly in the final part of the book where pages had been corrected instead of re-written. Chandu Ray, secretary of the IBS, decided to send the proofs back to Leh so that one of the Tibetan scribes could correct them. This involved a 50-day journey by a courier (with another 50 days for the return trip) and a Tibetan called Sandrup set off, promising to return in four months time.
He never arrived (his body was found the following year where he had been overwhelmed by an avalanche) and after a long delay another set of proofs was prepared and second courier, a Christian called Bahadur, set off for Leh. As he crossed the final pass, however, a ferocious storm struck him, leaving him unconscious and deaf from the lightening and thunder that struck all around him. When he recovered he staggered into Leh only to find that water had been driven into the saddlebags and the proofs were nothing more than a mass of sodden paper.
A third set of proofs were sent, accompanied by intense prayer. Despite the rioting and fighting that had broken out as India and Pakistan separated, this parcel was entrusted to the regular postal service and to everyone's relief arrived safely. As he studied the proofs, Gappel found so many minor errors - for example, where the process of reproduction had missed out a thinner or fainter than usual tail to a letter, thus turning it into another sound entirely - that Gappel decided he would have to go to Lahore and correct the actual printing plates. Despite considerable opposition from his family, Gappel set out on horseback to travel though the mountains to Lahore.
Months passed and no word was heard of Gappel until a beggar came to the IBS office with a cryptic note that quoted the last verse of the Bible: "Come ... quickly come." When questioned the beggar revealed that it had been given to him by an old man who was living in a small hut, trapped between the Indian and Pakistani armies and in constant danger from both. As an obvious foreigner (Tibetans, like Chinese, have slanting eyes and stubby noses whereas hill-country Indians tend to have large hooked noses and wide eyes) he dared not venture out, but had entrusted his message to the beggar.
Chandu Ray asked the new Pakistan government for help, but with the fighting that was going on all along the border the officials declared that there was nothing they could do. Ray therefore decided that he would have to travel to Kashmir himself. He travelled by train to Amritsar - a perilous decision, as trains were regularly stopped by one side or the other and either all the Hindus or all the Muslims massacred. The fact that Ray was a Christian would, in the turmoil, be little protection.
There was a regular flight from Amritsar to Srinagar, but as Ray waited in the airport lounge with his ticket in his hand the government announced that all flights were cancelled. He immediately prayed and then spoke to the airport manager, pointing out that such a last-minute cancellation meant a lot of angry passengers who would, at the very least, demand a full refund of their tickets. The manager, who did not have that much money, quickly declared that the flight would proceed after all and the announcement would apply only to future flights.
Ray then made his way to the fighting line near where the beggar had told him Gappel was hiding. Presenting himself as an official of the IBS he obtained permission to distribute Christian books to the soldiers and gradually worked his way closer to the front. When evening came on he was very close to No-man's Land and accepted hospitality from a squad of soldiers. As they sat around the camp fire he handed out copies of the Gospels and explained the power of the Christian book. Seeing that his words received a ready reception from the bored soldiers, he told first of how the Bible had changed his own life and then told the story of the Tibetan Bible.
One of the Indian officers was sufficiently intrigued to offer to take Ray across the bridge into No-man's Land to look for the scribe, at the same time hinting that failure to find him would result in a charge of spying with the inevitable death penalty. Fortunately Gappel and the corrected proofs were still there and the officer escorted them back to the Indian lines. As they parted he remarked that Ray's name had made him suspect that Ray was from Pakistan and he had decided on taking him to search for the scribe in order to test whether he was an honest man or not.
Back in Srinagar, however, the government ban on civilian flights had come into effect. The road journey was difficult, dangerous and long, so Ray went to the government official in charge of issuing permits and told him the story of the Tibetan Bible. Initial anger and suspicion at the presence of a Pakistani gave way to amazement and the man gave him the required passes for the daily flight to Delhi.
Once in Delhi, however, a different problem arose. Gappel was used to the coolness of 10,000 foot mountains and the dry heat of the plains struck him like a blow. He quickly became feverish and it seemed likely that he would die! Ray and other Christians prayed to God for help and that afternoon the monsoon rains, normally as regular as clockwork, started several weeks early. Gappel revived sufficiently to catch the train to Lahore.
Lahore is slightly cooler than Delhi, but it was still too hot for poor Gappel, who grew increasingly distressed. By afternoon, when the air was still and even the crows drooped in the shade gasping for breath, Gappel was clearly heading for heatstroke. In desperation Ray contacted the ice factory and had a truck-load of ice delivered to the IBS office. The room where Gappel worked was lined with huge blocks of ice and with the fan stirring up a hurricane of freezing air the scribe set to work, beaming happily.
A sense of urgency possessed everyone at the press. As Gappel corrected each plate it was rushed away and fitted to the printing press. The manager and workers laboured for twelve hours a day to keep the pages pouring from the press and Gappel himself worked even longer hours, often as much as twenty hours a day. Ninety years after Heyde and Pagel first started to translate the word of God, the finished book was ready!
Gappel, stoutly refusing to risk his life in the "devil machines" of plane and train, bought a pony and set off for Leh with his saddlebags filled with Bibles. He was received with joy by friends and family who had long given him up for lost, and then entered the church to give thanks to God. For the very first time a Tibetan Bible was opened on the pulpit and the words of life were read to an eager and expectant congregation.
We may wonder why God permitted so many years to pass before His word was available in the language of Tibet. In part, no doubt, the delay was because the devil so actively opposed the work. It is no exaggeration to say that Tibet was the devil's kingdom, where his power was actively displayed. The fanatical opposition of monks and government meant that foreigners - including missionaries - were excluded from the country and printed literature sent in was either destroyed or ignored by an illiterate population.
Ten years after the Bible was printed, the Chinese communists, in an act of unprovoked aggression, invaded Tibet. Unlike the western "imperialists" they so loudly condemned, who might have invaded and controlled but who would have respected local religion and customs, the Chinese committed fearful atrocities, actively destroying monasteries and temples and massacring monks and nuns. Within a few short years the centuries-old power of Tibetan Buddhism was effectively ended and now the Christian gospel is being preached in Tibet by Chinese Christians and the Tibetan Bible is being read by a newly literate population.
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