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yul phyogs so so'i gsar 'gyur me long

Kalimpong, Dorje Tharchin, and “The Tibet Mirror”

Kalimpong, West Bengal. Like Tashkent a thousand years earlier, Kalimpong in the early Twentieth century was one of those cultural junctures — the meeting place of age-old civilizations and a crossing over point between radically different worlds. Below and to the south lay the jungles and lowlands of British India and most prominently of all, Calcutta, where hill-stations such as Kalimpong met their commercial port, where the whole population of India — Lepchas, Nepalis, Bengalis, British, Chinese, Malaysians and a whole host of traders, missionaries, soldiers and bureaucrats — daily swarmed over each other in pursuit of their lofty and not-so-lofty goals. Above and to the north lay the mountain ranges of Tibet, a kingdom like no other, perched atop the high Himalayas, far above the mundane world below, a place that six million people called “home”; from the narrow valleys of Ladakh and Guge near Kashmir in the west, to the wide open plains of Amdo and the Chang-tang on the border of China to the east, Tibet was a ethereal, 1.2 million square mile land-mass whose natural borders were visible from space. Kalimpong was where those two worlds met.

Called “Da-ling Kote” by the local Bhutias after the old fort on the 4,000 ft. ridge line, for most of its pre-history, Kalimpong was originally little more than the stockade (“pong”) of a Bhutanese minister (“Kalön”). It was only with the annexation of the area by the British in the late-19th century with the hopes of opening trade routes did the small village formed around the ruins of the old fort begin to grow. In the wake of the 1904 Younghusband invasion of Tibet, Kalimpong took on greater significance as trading post as the wool trade shifted markets from the administrative capital of the region, Darjeeling, to its new economic capital, Kalimpong, slightly closer the Tibetan passes of Jelep-la and Nathu-la, with easy transport south to Calcutta for shipping to the textile mills of England and eventually, America.

Though still in many aspects a trading post and missionary enclave, by the 1930s Kalimpong had much to offer a Tibetophile. Most notably, Kalimpong was home to the only Tibetan language newspaper in the world, “The Mirror” or “Me-long,” as it was known in Tibetan. It was also home to the newspaper’s editor and the de facto center of the Tibetan ex-patriot community in Kalimpong, Dorje Tharchin, known affectionately to all and sundry as Tharchin Babu.

Tharchin was a unique man. Born in 1890 in the village of Pu in the region of Khunu, Tharchin was the son of one of only a handful of Moravian Christian converts in the western Tibetan borderlands of Spiti. Tharchin had spent the early years of his life in Khunu being educated in missionary schools (taught in a mixture of Tibetan and Urdu ) until the death of his parents in the early years of the century, before finally leaving his village at the age of twenty when he decided “to go to Tibet and study the Tibetan language.” Relocating himself several hundred miles south to the soon-to-be British capital of Delhi, Tharchin sought work to earn money in order to go to Tibet. After a brief bought with malaria, however, he returned north to the British “summer capital” of Simla at the mouth of the Kulu valley close to his old home in Khunu, whereupon recovering, he went to work as a common laborer on the construction of the Hindustan-Tibet road. Spending his time between Simla and Delhi, by the late 1910’s Tharchin was fully ensconced in his identity as a Christian and could often be found preaching in one of the cities’ local bazaars.

On one occasion, Tharchin reported, he was preparing to preach in a bazaar in Delhi when, looking at the last page in his bible, saw the phrase “Printed at the Scandinavian Alliance Tibetan Mission Press, Ghoom, Darjeeling.” Discerning its import with the help of a friend, Tharchin saw an opportunity to get closer to Tibet and immediately wrote a letter (in Tibetan) to the Press in Ghoom, which was being run by members of the Free Church of Finland at the time, asking for an apprenticeship in their printing press. Moving to West Bengal, for several years Tharchin worked for various missionary organizations. By 1917, he had managed to secure a Government scholarship to attend school and so relocated himself to Kalimpong to enter into the “Teacher Training” program being operated by the Scottish Union Mission. Having recently published two small Tibetan language primers, a Tibetan Primer with Simple Rules of Correct Spelling and The Tibetan Second Book, his knowledge of Tibetan brought him to the notice of W.S. Sutherland, a missionary who had spent the better part of forty years in the area of Kalimpong running a combination orphanage and missionary school, where Tharchin was put to work teaching Tibetan to a mixture of Bhutia and Tibetan boys in the orphanage. Eventually Tharchin was asked to remain on in Kalimpong as permanent teacher of Tibetan at the Scottish mission.

Far more significantly however, in the midst of these activities, Tharchin would commence work on what would be his greatest achievement eventually earning him worldwide notoriety. It was on one occasion, in August of 1925 that while working for the Scottish Union Mission, Tharchin noticed “a Roneo Duplicator lying idle in the office of Dr. Graham” and asked him if he could take it, thinking to produce his own newspaper in Tibetan. Graham offered it to Tharchin, though offered little encouragement saying that his office staff had failed to get it working the entire time they had had it. Nonetheless, undaunted Tharchin began tinkering with the duplicator attempting to get it working. After two months of work in his spare time, Tharchin was finally greeted with success, and on October 10th, 1925, Tharchin produced the first issue of his own Tibetan language newspaper, “The Mirror — News From Various Regions.” Following a brief hiatus, Tharchin commenced regular publication of his newspaper the following February with monthly issues to follow and while receiving encouragement and advice from all around, his first real commendation came a year later, when he received a letter from His Holiness the Thirteenth Dalai accompanied by a gift of twenty rupees stating that he was receiving Tharchin’s newspaper, “was very glad and added to continue it and send more news which would be very useful to him.”

For the next thirty-eight years, Tharchin would publish The Tibet Mirror from his offices in Kalimpong. What had begun as a personal vision and occasional medium for Christian propaganda going into Tibet soon morphed into a chronicle of world events, and by the 1950s had become a vehicle for the fight for Tibetan freedom against the Chinese. Tharchin's Tibet Mirror offers a unique insight into Tibet in the mid-twentieth century covering the years leading up to the Chinese invasion of Tibet and the opening years of its occupation.

At the present time no complete run of the newspaper is held by any institution or individual. Through the generous cooperation of the family of Dorje Tharchin and various institutions, libraries and private collectors from around the world, we are pleased to host and make available for the first time a near complete run of The Tibet Mirror for scholars and students alike.

Paul G. Hackett.
Columbia University.
October, 2008.

Return to the index page for The Tibet Mirror to see available issues of this newspaper.


©2007 Columbia University