Retired doctor’s family to meet Dalai Lama

Colonel Bruce Turnbull of the 23rd Sikh Pioneers Regiment.

Colonel Bruce Turnbull of the 23rd Sikh Pioneers Regiment. Objects gathered by him in Tibet as "souvenirs" in the course of the Sir Francis Younghusband "expedition" to Tibet in 1903-4, are to be returned to Tibet, as represented by His Holiness the Dalai Lama, during the Dalai Lama’s visit to Edinburgh later this month. Photographer unknown


EDINBURGH, Scotland, 12 June 2012

The sound they make is said to be an eerie, haunting kind of wail, the kind of bone-chilling howl that some might suggest is enough to wake the dead.

Perhaps that is not entirely surprising, given that the bizarre whistle, or kangling, is made from the thigh bone of a long-dead Tibetan monk.

Retrieved from a battleground, bound with carefully plaited leather, adorned with human skin and silver thread, the curious instrument was brought to Edinburgh more than 100 years ago, a keepsake from a time which, with hindsight, was hardly Britain’s finest hour.

Now, as the visit to Scotland by Tibet’s spiritual leader the Dalai Lama, approaches, it is to be finally returned home.

The foot-long bone whistle was among a collection of souvenirs from the roof of the world gathered by Edinburgh-born Colonel Bruce Turnbull of the 23rd Sikh Pioneers Regiment.

He was involved when the regiment took part in the infamous Sir Francis Younghusband expedition to Tibet in 1903-4, a venture into what was then a closed and deeply private nation where outsiders rarely ventured, which would end in violence, mayhem and bloodshed.

The religious artefact — along with a collection of other Tibetan objects — was eventually brought to Edinburgh and later ended up with a family member in London.

But now Col Turnbull’s grandson, Dr Michael Turnbull, has decided the Dalai Lama’s visit to Edinburgh later this month means the time has come to return it into Tibetan possession.

“It is an act of reconciliation,” says Dr Turnbull, 71, of Longniddry. “I think my grandfather probably did not understand quite what he was doing. It was a long time ago.

“Certainly, this is an item that has no real place in my home. It is time for it to go back to its own home.”

It was late March 1904 when his grandfather, the Merchiston Castle-educated son of a Scot who had gone on to become major surgeon general in Bombay, India, found himself at the heart of what has been called “one of the most shameful acts of British history.”

A formidable army, led by Colonel Sir Francis Edward Younghusband, had been formed to march on the closed country of Tibet, on the shaky premise that the Russians planned to expand their empire into that strategic part of Asia.

Around 3000 troops from the 23rd Sikh Pioneers Regiment, armed with machine-guns and accompanied by a further 7000 camp followers, poured into the Himalayan country to be met by locals, rich in religious spirit but armed with a rusty collection of 18th century flintlock rifles.

Who shot first is one of history’s great mysteries. Regardless, the result was bloodshed and carnage.

Some 700 lightly-armed Tibetan monks were killed in the village of Guru alone.

Overall, around 3000 Tibetans — some reports suggest 5000 — were slaughtered by Younghusband’s forces in an action sanctioned during what became known as the Great Game — the desperate race for influence in central Asia, at the heart of which sat the tiny mountainous nation.

By contrast, it’s said the British casualties amounted to five.

The hope had been to force the tiny country bordering colonial India to engage in trade and diplomacy with the British Empire, keeping any aspirations of the Russian Tsar firmly in check.

While it may have brought Tibet to its knees, the strategy was effective. In the capital, Lhasa, in August 1904, a treaty was signed effectively turning Tibet into a British protectorate.

Yet the British claims that the action had simply been intended to settle disputes over the Sikkim-Tibet border were derided by others as an invasion of Tibet.

Col Turnbull was, says his grandson, a young officer at the time without, of course, the benefits of hindsight.

“He was nominated for the Victoria Cross,” he adds. “There are illustrations in a magazine which show him dragging a wounded comrade to safety. So while it wasn’t perhaps the finest moment in British history, it wasn’t completely one-way traffic.”

Dr Turnbull, who was looked after by Col Turnbull and his wife, Jessie, after his mother died in a car accident when he was a child, has only vague recollections of his grandfather. “He died in 1952, I hardly knew him. But I do remember him as a stern and distant figure. At one point, he became deputy lord provost for Edinburgh Town Council.

“He adopted me, so to speak. I remember them taking me to St Peter’s Church for mass, even though they weren’t Catholic, but they respected the promise my father had given to my mother to raise me that way. I went on to do my PhD at New College, so they couldn’t have been too bad.”

Other items from Col Turnbull’s Tibetan collection had already been given to the National Museum by the family, including a striking three-feet -high, 17th century silver goddess and dozens of photographic slides taken during the expedition.

But the whistle — which is regarded by Tibetans to have special and magical qualities — had been kept at a London-based relative’s home.

He made the offer to return the relic to Tibet through the Edinburgh Inter-Faith Association which has helped organise the Dalai Lama’s three-day tour.

He has been granted an early morning audience with the spiritual leader on June 22, during which he will return the item.

Traditionally, a kangling is made from a hollowed-out thigh bone. Holes are made in the knee area to create a kind of trumpet while a mouthpiece is created at the other end.

Beeswax is often poured in to keep it dry and free from micro-organisms.

A kangling is used in various Himalayan Buddhist rituals.

“It might sound quite gruesome to have an instrument made from bone, but it’s not really,” said Dr Turnbull.

“To play this flute would have been a sacred thing to do. It is a precious church object and I’m very pleased that it is finally going home.”

Copyright © 2012 Johnston Publishing Ltd. Published in Posted in Features » Tags: , ,