In search of paradise lost   

In search of paradise lost , A life in writing

Charles Allen tells John Cunningham about his quest for Shangri-La

The Guardian; Manchester; Feb 12, 2000; John Cunningham

Life was fine for Charles Allen when he was recording the memories of old colonials in India, Africa and Malaysia. Presented first as BBC radio documentaries, then packaged into books, the series - Plain Tales from the Raj, The Dark Continent and The South China Seas - were based on a simple formula.

It worked for years, made Allen's name as an oral historian and licensed him to poke over the embers of empire. His father was the sixth generation of Allens to serve the Raj. Charles inherited the colonial gene but, as a leftie student, had to find a different, distanced way of using it.

He's had his ups and downs since the 10 good years of the Plain Tales, but now, in his 50s, three constants in his work have come together in his book about Tibet: his addictions to Asia, mountains and unfashionable causes.

The book is about his search for Shangri-La; the name was coined in a 1930s novel, The Lost Horizon, by James Hilton, but it came to be attached to a legendary bit of paradise on earth, hidden away beyond the Himalayas in western Tibet.

Allen's own attempts to get there didn't quite succeed, and now he says he might never be able to go back. From the sanctuary of the British Library, which he uses as research base and semi-club when in London, Allen confides: `I'm an awful traveller. I'm constantly sick; I can't stand Indian food and I've lost part of one lung."

In spite of this, he looks totally robust, and his dogged approach to research is intact - that's why he's in the BL, the London building that, ironically, most resembles a Tibetan temple - working on another book on the sub-continent.

Allen is an amalgam of classic traveller - hoping to discover an unexplored or lost destination - and wayward expert, clinging to a theory that academics revile. It's like being harangued by Coleridge's Ancient Mariner, but thankfully Allen has the redeeming ability to admit the shortcomings of his quest, while maintaining his belief in his basic premise. This, as he explains over a calming cup of Earl Grey in the BL caff, is that underneath Tibet's Buddhist culture lies an older, shadowy religion, known as Bon, which also preceded the Hinduism and Jainism of the region. Allen is keen to point this up because from the heartland of Bon came the idea of a perfect paradise - Shambhala.

He explains that he'd overlooked the Bon civilisation when he wrote an earlier book on the region in 1981. This was A Mountain in Tibet, about Mount Kailas, the fabled site sacred to Hindus, Buddhists and Jains.

`I got it all wrong", he says. However in 1996 and 97, he made return journeys to try to find Shambhala. He was wiser in some ways, but not in others. A meal of rancid buffalo meat nearly scuppered the expedition. He met a Bonbo abbot who said the ancient, abandoned capital city of Kyunglung was only a day's hike off. But it eluded him, and he was cheated again when he returned with a TV crew in 1998.

`I'll always regret not making the extra effort and pushing on, but we had already run out of funds and time," he says. The team was almost on the outskirts of the decayed capital city of the little paradise.

`If we'd been allowed half a day more, we'd have discovered something really radical. We'd have got into the complex of caves and temples. It's like a troglodyte city." He's convinced this belongs to the earliest civilisation in Tibet. `But I can find no other Tibet expert who will back me up on this."

However, the travel chapters of the Shangri-La book alternate with his summaries of what has been discovered about the beliefs and practices of the Bonpo - followers of a creed which, he believes, could have had its origins in Iran.

The hardback wasn't widely reviewed when it appeared last year. Allen reckons that is because other experts don't like him rocking the boat. `There's been a resounding silence," he says. `It's a bit naughty, the way some of the leading Tibetologists here and in America have trotted out the [previous] Dalai Lama's view of history." That gives an essentially seamless account of Buddhism in Tibet. But, Allen reminds them, Buddhists persecuted Bons: `Tibetan Buddhists are not the good guys in this story."

Their religion is, he points out, an extraordinary hotch-potch of beliefs, practices, tantric texts, beasties, demons and superstitions.

Western academics don't haven't much interest in Tibet - `it's the poor boy of Asian studies" - nor in sorting out the layered muddle of religion, culture and politics.

Overall, we're too mawkishly sentimental in our attitude to Tibet, Allen concludes. But then he admits that he, too, is just as sentimental; just as hooked on the place. `It is wonderful, this combination of spirituality and harshness; of people living on the edge of existence who smile when they meet you."

The Search for Shangri-La is published by Abacus at pounds 7.99. To order it at the special price of pounds 5.99 (plus 99p p&p), call the Guardian Culture Shop on 0800 3166 102.

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