After yet another fruitful trip to the London Library yesterday, this morning I sat down to continue writing notes on ancient oracle sites – those places we have turned to since the dawn of time to find out what tomorrow might hold. My nose was stuck deep into one of my favourite sources, which is the English edition of a book written by Gombozhab Tsybikov, a Buddhist scholar and agent for the Russian Geographical Society of the late 19th century.
Tsybikov’s tale of his pilgrimage overland from his homeland in Siberia to Tibet remains fresh and exciting even at this distance and stands as one of the most inspiring first hand-accounts of pilgrimage I have encountered. On the one hand this ethnic Buryat was on a spying mission for Russia, and on the other hand a true pilgrim on a quest to see Lhasa, which at that time was closed to non-believers. He describes the people and the tribes he meets on his journey, the perilous mountain passes and the fast running rivers, the origins and rituals of remote monasteries along the way, and at his destination, his personal audience with the Dalai Llama.
One passage in Tsybikov’s account of his time in Lhasa is dedicated to the Nechung Oracle, the authoritative medium which is able to channel the will of the gods to the Dalai Llama and so help him in his decision making. He is not alone in this regard: in the ancient world, leaders readily consulted oracles in the course of decision making. Shang dynasty kings learnt their future from the cracks of ox bones and turtle shells submitted to the fire, while King Ashurbanipal of Mesopotamia kept a stable of astrologers who looked to the stars on his behalf.
In each of these examples, a highly systematic approach was followed, and the rituals and the cost of their undertaking served to underscore the value of the advice given. More than this, the oracular advice was recorded for posterity, and used as a resource to inform future generations of decision-makers. Containing an estimated 10,000 documents, not only on divination, but on every subject known at that time, Ashurbanipal’s library was one of the greatest in ancient history, rivalled only by the library of Ptolemy I in Alexandria, Egypt created several hundred years later.
Tsybikov’s journey to Tibet and back was to last almost three years and at the end he runs out of funds. Local superstition holds it to be auspicious to leave Tibet without money but Tsybikov doesn’t leave entirely empty handed. The dissemination of knowledge is so often a by-product of pilgrimage and the cultural and scholarly bounty Tsybikov brought back for his sponsors at the Imperial Russian Geographical Society was no exception. As well as his personal journals and photographic negatives, he sent back 333 Tibetan books. As Tsybikov begins to prepare for the journey home, the books are expertly wrapped in cloth and then sown into raw hides to protect them from their inevitable immersion into the rivers that lie ahead. Within these bundles lay the writings of lama scholars, on topics as various as astrology and medicine, reaching back almost a millennium.
What all this adds up to is that when we try and look through the fog which furls across the horizon for clues about the journey ahead, we might first look over our shoulder at the road already travelled. Books about the past can teach us much about the future and in this regard, our libraries offer a great place to start.