The name Shangri-La first appeared in the novel Lost Horizon by James Hilton. The popularity of the term Shangri-La today is a testament to both the pull of this concept on the Western psyche and to the tremendous popularity of the novel in its day, which also lead to a 1937 film directed by Frank Capra.
The book is public domain and thus freely available on the Internet. Because it was written during a time when there was an overwhelming fascination in the West with the forbidden and mysterious Himalayan kingdoms, I was not surprised to find that the book speaks a lot more to Western cultural values than to Tibetan ones. But I was surprised to find that I enjoyed the book quite a bit.
Two British government officials, a missionary and a mysterious oil-prospecting American are being evacuated from Baskul after an uprising against the British. Their plane is hijacked and flown over the Himalayas, and crashes somewhere in the mountain ranges of Tibet. They find themselves in Shangri-La, an idyllic isolated valley ruled over by a benevolent lamasery. The lamasery is rich and mysteriously equipped with modern amenities like central heating and a modern library and there are rumors that the atmosphere of the valley allows people to live extraordinarily long life spans. There are also several European monks, including one who claims to have been a former student of Chopin. Without giving away too many of the plot twists, I can tell you that reading it felt like watching a combination of the first and last seasons of Lost. In fact, I would go so far as to say that I seriously doubt that the writers of Lost were unaware of the plot of Lost Horizon.
|Lost Horizon: Like Lost, except much, much more British.|
|Also, more classy mustaches.|
I would like to reveal one major plot twist, though, because it gets at the root of the term Shangri-La in our cultures and the particular nature in which the term represents the interaction between the West and the East. Conway, the highly intelligent and world-weary British protagonist, is eventually given an audience with the High Lama. In this meeting, it is revealed that the current monastery was founded three hundred years previously by a Roman Catholic friar who had been doing missionary work in Beijing. Over the course of a long life in the valley, the friar became enlightened and developed a particular fusion of Buddhism and Christianity by which he came to be regarded as an authority and demi-god by the Tibetan villagers living below. He also came across the method by which people in the valley live long life spans. Significantly, the lama notes that the anti-aging method works better on Europeans than on the native Tibetans. Sensing a coming world cataclysm (that would be WWII - good call, Hilton), he developed Shangri-La as a refuge of Western and Eastern knowledge and understanding, to preserve the pearls of human understanding against the coming onslaught. It is revealed that the High Lama is in fact the still-living friar, and that Conway has been chosen to be the new Jacob.
Here are some relevant quotes from the novel:
"And there came over him, too, as he stared at that superb mountain, a glow of satisfaction that there were such places still left on earth, distant, inaccessible, as yet unhumanized."
"It was, indeed, a strange and half-incredible sight. A group of colored pavilions clung to the mountainside with none of the grim deliberation of a Rhineland castle, but rather with the chance delicacy of flower petals impaled upon a crag. It was superb and exquisite. An austere emotion carried the eye upward from milk-blue roofs to the gray rock bastion above, tremendous as the Wetterhorn above Grindelwald. Beyond that, in a dazzling pyramid, soared the snow slopes of Karakal."
"Shangri-La was lovely then, touched with the mystery that lies at the core of all loveliness."
"'This ain't a bad place, when you get used to it. The air's a bit snappy at first, but you can't have everything. And it's nice and quiet for a change. Every fall I go down to Palm Beach for a rest cure, but they don't give you it, those places--you're in the racket just the same. But here I guess I'm having just what the doctor ordered, and it certainly feels grand to me. I'm on a different diet, I can't look at the tape, and my broker can't get me on the telephone.'" (This is the American talking, if you couldn't tell)
"'Te Deum Laudamus' and 'Om Mane Padme Hum' were now heard equally in the temples of the valley.'"
"There was a reek of dissolution over all that recollected world... The whole game was doubtless going to pieces... But here, at Shangri-La, all was in deep calm. In a moonless sky the stars were lit to the full, and a pale blue sheen lay upon the dome of Karakal."
"'Here we shall stay with our books and our music and our meditations, conserving the frail elegancies of a dying age, and seeking such wisdom as men will need when their passions are all spent. We have a heritage to cherish and bequeath.'"
Shangri-La has never been about Tibet. Right from the get-go it was about big city folk needing an escape from the maddening business and politics of their own world, to be found in an isolated paradise of wisdom and simple living. And even today that is exactly what Shangri-La represents: the ultimate vacation spot. That is why the word is seen on posters in Kathmandu that advertise cheap flights to Mustang or Tibet or Bhutan, the proclaimed last vestiges of uncommercialized, mystic, traditional perfection.