The Thumbnail Book Reviews

by John Q McDonald --- 14 November 2018

Tales of Tirah and Lesser Tibet

by Lilian A. Starr

First off, let us clarify that "Lesser Tibet" refers to Ladakh, the region of Northern India that borders Kashmir and Chinese administered Tibet. In the derisive nomenclature of British imperial India, the term seems to denote a lower place, wilder, less civilized. More recently, Ladakh is often termed "Little Tibet" and that is more like what you'll find on an internet search. Ladakh is an enclave of Tibetan culture and Buddhism that fell outside the Chinese invasion of Tibet. As such, it remains an exotic land of Buddhist religion, culture and architecture. Perhaps it is what Tibet may have been like if it had remained unmolested. It is hard to say for sure.

Anyway, in this book, we get to travel back to Ladakh and regions of what is now northern Pakistan and mountainous Afghanistan in 1923. The landscape is harsh and beautiful, and occupied by loosely affiliated Muslim tribes. That much may not have changed a whole lot. It was, after all, not far from here that the Taliban in 2001 blew up ancient giant Buddhas carved from the living rock. In 1923, Lilian Starr was a Protestant missionary working in a hospital in Peshawar in what was then the frontier of British India. It was a tough posting. Her husband was murdered at their doorstep. And still she persisted, taking on greater responsibility for the hospital he had run. The book itself was spawned by a violent event near Peshawar and by Starr's involvement in its resolution. Padding out the story is a description of her life in Peshawar and a journey she took across Kashmir and into Leh, Ladakh. These take the form of a highly edited diary followed by her description of the no-doubt nerve-wracking journey into a region called Tirah, a mountanous area outside the British frontier but also not under the control of Afghanistan.

The British encountered resistance to their rule, or what they themselves saw as their bestowal of Christian civilization on a savage country. Indeed, this kind of cultural chauvinism drove British imperialism, and Lilian Starr's account is saturated with her certainty that Protestant Christianity was superior to Muslim savagery and Buddhist idolatry. It can be a bit painful to read such outdated arrogance. And yet, that was the context of Starr's day. In any case, a Muslim tribe, humiliated by a British raid on an arsenal of stolen weapons, set out to restore their image by attempting to kidnap a British official. The man was away at the time, which was tragic for his wife, who was murdered, and his daughter, Miss Ellis, who was kidnapped and taken to Tirah. The event galvanized the British community in India and was followed in the press back home. Hoping to avoid a serious guerilla war, the local officials perhaps wisely chose a complex attempt at iron-fisted diplomacy, including the participation of Lilian Starr, who was duty-bound to volunteer. She was seen as a softening element, appealing to the Muslim abhorrence of violence against women (seen as a weakness at the time) to prevent an outbreak of fighting. After a long journey into Tirah, and a few days negotiation, really the best thing for the tribal leaders to save face was to turn over Miss Ellis and hope the whole episode would be forgotten.

Perhaps the episode was forgotten by history. We don't see much about Mrs. Starr after this adventure and after her book came out. One wonders what came next for her. Miss Ellis reappears decades later, traveling back to the lands of her tragic adventures. In the end, perhaps it is just a footnote in the story of British imperialism in central Asia. Starr's writing is sketchy, befitting the diary from which it grew. The reader may find oneself trying to pick out the fragments of period detail that come through. Srinagar, for example, must have been a wondrous place a century ago. Starr's report is still a window on the time and the place, as seen from a very particularly biased point of view.

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