Karavansara

East of Constantinople, West of Shanghai

For all the Gold in Tibet – part 1

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Let’s leave on a tangent, for a while. A couple of posts, no more.

As we mentioned in the last post of the Challenge, in his plan to make Tibet a technological power, the 9th Panchen Lama had found an ally in an American called Gordon B. Enders.
Enders was to supply the Panchen Lama with plane-loads of modern gear – from radios to tractors – and to start up the industrial revolution in the Himalayas.
But what about footing the bill?
How would all those tonnes of stuff get paid?

“Unknown to most of the world, the monasteries of Tibet have been collecting gold dust for at least six or seven centuries. This gold belongs to the ruling power because the Church and the Government are the same in Tibet. How much gold has thus been accumulated, it is hard to say, but it has been estimated to be about $100,000,000.”
(Gordon B. Enders, interviewed in New York, 1936)

22372ik4vrmk9f_orig_GOLD DUST

But the story of Tibetan gold is much older tha the 9th Panchen Lama and Gordon B. Enders…

The Legend of Tibetan Gold

It all started, probably, because of Herodotus.
In his Histories the father of historiography describes a place, in the East, where ants dug-up the gold dust that made the Persian Empire so rich.

Here, in this desert, there live amid the sand great ants, in size somewhat less than dogs, but bigger than foxes. The Persian king has a number of them, which have been caught by the hunters in the land whereof we are speaking. Those ants make their dwellings under ground, and like the Greek ants, which they very much resemble in shape, throw up sand-heaps as they burrow. Now the sand which they throw up is full of gold.
[The History of Herodotus (Rawlinson), The Third Book, Entitled Thalia]

The gold-digging ants appear in a number of Medieval bestiaries, and have been to object of ridicule for almost one thousand years.
C’mon, furry ants as big as foxes?

img228

And yet, apparently this is not as wild as it seems – in the Dansar plain, between Pakistan and India, there is an animal that digs burrows and brings up gold dust as part of the proceedings – only, it’s not an ant, it’s a marmot.
tumblr_nmyszluUBl1rhavdko2_400Researchers claim Herodotus – who never saw the critters – got a bad translation from the Persian, and thus became the laughing stock of biologists and historians for centuries.

Anyway, be it ants, marmots or lizards, the legend of the mountains north of India, and especially the Tibetan plateau being rich in gold was always very popular.
Legend had it the Tibetans were so used to gold they did not know what to do with the stuff. Some said gold nuggets were some kind of tuber, like potatoes, and could be planted to produce more.
Or maybe there was a gold-nugget tree that grew only in Tibet.
There was only one thing both East and West agreed upon: the Tibetans were loaded.
And indeed, gold ingots had been used as currency by the Tibetans well before the 17th century, when the main Tibetan currency became Nepalese silver coins.

And there might be a simple, marmot-free explanation for this fact: for centuries, the Tibetans controlled a number of key locations along the Silk Road, taxing the hell out of travelers and merchants.

main_image_silkroad_image_by_radio86__0

And as our friend Peter Fleming notices in his News from Tartary, a gold bar is an easily concealable, not-too-encumbering way to carry value.
And in the ancient world, gold was accepted everiwhere.
So, maybe the gold dust that according to Gordon B. Enders had accumulated “for at least six or seven centuries” might simply be the result of the toll paid by travelers along the Silk Road.

And of course there’s the actual gold that’s mined or collected from alluvial deposits – part of the abundant mineralizations (gold, copper, silver, molybdenum) that make up a large portion of the natural resources of Tibet1.

So, after all, the legend of the Tibetan Gold was no legend at all – and if the means for acquiring that gold had become the stuff of legends, the actual abundance of the precious metal was a  fact.

And for a fact, in 1936, the 9th Panchen Lama said he was ready to spend that fortune in gold, and Gordon B. Enders was very happy to cast himself in the role of the intermediary.

But more about Gordon B. Enders in a forthcoming post.


  1. and it is certainly ironic that right now, at least officially, no gold is being mined in Tibet by Chinese companies. But of course, officialdom not always means truth. 
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Author: Davide Mana

Paleontologist. By day, researcher, teacher and ecological statistics guru. By night, pulp fantasy author-publisher, translator and blogger. In the spare time, Orientalist Anonymous, guerilla cook.

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