Dazzling Whiteness: Antonio de Andrade’s First Look at Tibet

10 May 20 | Posted in Arts and Letters, Events, History

“It was all dazzling whiteness to our eyes, and we could make out no sign of the route we were to follow.” – Antonio de Andrade, S.J.  

Father Antonio de Andrade (1580-March 19, 1634) was a Jesuit priest and explorer from Portugal. From 1600 until his murder in 1634, he was engaged in diplomatic and missionary activity. Andrade set out from India in 1624 in search of rumored Christian communities beyond the Himalayas. He was the first confirmed European to reach Tibet, but two others may have preceded him several hundred years earlier. The first was Marco Polo in the service of Kublai Khan (1280-1295). Odoric of Pordenone, OFM, an Italian Franciscan friar and explorer, claimed to have traveled extensively throughout Asia in the early 14th century.  He may have visited Tibet between 1323-1328 on his way back to Italy.  

Andrade was one of the first Jesuits attached to the court of the 4th Mughal emperor, Jahangir (1605-1627).  He was head of the Jesuit mission in the capital, Agra. Andrade learned to speak Persian, the language of merchants along the trade routes from India to the north, and along the Silk Road to China. From these travelers Andrade heard intriguing rumors of a lost community of Christians in Tibet, the remnants of early evangelizing missions. He decided to try to contact them.

On March 30, 1624, Fr. Andrade and Br. Manuel Marques left with Emperor Jahangir who was on his way to Kashmir. When they were in Delhi on May 11, they discovered that a group of Hindu pilgrims was leaving for the temple of Badrinath, in what is now the northern part of the present-day Indian state of Uttarakhand. Andrade decided to take advantage of this unexpected chance to travel to Tibet. Disguising themselves as Hindus, Andrade and Marques joined the caravan.  They made their way north up the Ganges to Hardwar, “the Gate of Vishnu,” up the Alaknanda gorges to Srinagar in Garhwal and finally through the perilous Mana Pass. Braving hunger, snow blindness and frostbite, they crossed the pass at an altitude of 18,000 feet and became the first recorded Westerners in Tibet.

Andrade arrived in Tsaparang, capital of the western Tibetan Kingdom of Guge at the beginning of August 1624.  King Tri Tashi Dakpa extended a warm welcome to him and his companions. The king was fascinated by the foreigner’s story and his exotic religion. Although he was not interested in converting from Buddhism, he asked Andrade to remain and allowed him to build a small “house of prayer.”

Andrade and Marques left less than a month after they arrived since they needed to return to India before the snows blocked the passes.  They went back on August 18, 1625 with other Jesuit missionaries and supplies. With support from the king, the mission flourished. In 1627 Andrade received an invitation from the King of Utsang in Lhasa to visit his land. He also received an invitation from the King of Ladakh, the kingdom neighboring Guge on the west.  There is no record that Andrade went to Lhasa, although he may have visited Ladakh. Andrade was recorded as visiting Tholing, a half-day’s trip from Tsaparang. He traveled with King Tri Tashi Dakpa who went there to visit his brother, the chief lama of the Tholing monastery. 

Between 1624 and the 1630 Andrade made several journeys back and forth between India and Tibet. Accounts of his adventures, written in 1624 and 1626, were published in 1626. His vivid observations of the dangerous journey over the Himalayas, impressions of Tibetan society and Buddhism had a significant influence on Western knowledge and attitudes toward Tibet. A modern English translation of Andrade’s writings was published in 2017: “More Than the Promised Land” – Letters and Revelations from Tibet by the Jesuit Missionary Antonio de Andrade (1580-1634).

Andrade left Tibet in the spring of 1630 after he was appointed Father-Superior of the Jesuit province of Goa in India.  Shortly after his departure the Kingdom of Guge was attacked by the King of Ladakh. Andrade heard about the conflinct but was unable to return because of his post in Goa. The trouble may have started with the lamas in Guge, who were unhappy about King Tri Tashi Dakpa’s preferential treatment of the Jesuit missionaries. It is possible that the lamas and Buddhist monks, led by the king’s brother, encouraged intervention by the King of Ladakh. In spring 1631 Andrade sent Fr. Francisco de Azevedo to Tsaparang as inspector to Tsaparang. The Jesuit returned a year later with his report.  The loss of the presence of a friendly king, combined with the previous loss of Andrade as a strong leader led to the deterioration of the effectiveness of the mission. In 1631 lamas opposed to the Tibetan Christian community (nearly 400 members) destroyed the mission station at Tsaparang. Over the next decade the missionaries were persecuted or expelled, the Tibetan Christians were sent to Ladakh, and, by 1640, the mission was destroyed.

On February 4, 1633 Andrade sent a letter to Rome about the mission’s problems. Shortly after he was freed of his duties as the Jesuit Provincial and asked permission to return to Tibet.  However, just as he was getting ready to leave in January 1634, he was appointed as Inspector for Japan and China.  Andrade never returned to his Shangri-La.  He died on March 19, 1934.  Contemporaries said he drank poison mixed with his drinking water around a “fortnight,” or two weeks before he died.  His death was painful.

What person or group wanted to kill him can only be speculated.

Andrade’s assassination was attributed to a servant or hired Moorish assassin. The killer was used by a local merchant family or Portuguese native to escape punishment by the Inquisition.  Andrade was the local Inquisitor. His investigations included an accusation of heresy against a Portuguese native, Joao Rodrigues. Rodrigues’ son was a servant in the Jesuit compound and allegedly poisoned the water Andrade drank.  The case could not be proved, but the young man fled to Manila.  A “new Christian” merchant was also a suspect.

“Murder in the Refectory: The Death of Antonio de Andrade, S.J” by Michael Sweet, was published by The Catholic Historical Review in January 2016. It makes the case that Andrade was murdered by a handful of Jesuit malcontents. An Inquisition inquiry into Andrade’s death that was brought to light in the 1990s suggests that the murder was committed by priests and brothers who had been punished by Andrade for their infractions of Jesuit rules. The motive was personal animosity.  They got away with it.

Andrade’s explorations and mysterious murder remind me of another famous explorer:  Merriweather Lewis, who died of gunshot wounds on the Natchez Trace in 1809.  It may have been a simple robbery, but historians and others have suspected political intrigue was behind his death.

 

 

 

 

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