And did those feet walk upon In­dia’s sa­cred land?

The Daily Telegraph - Travel - - FRONT PAGE -

child­hood and the be­gin­ning of his min­istry – study­ing Bud­dhism in In­dia. At the age of about 30, he’d re­turned to the Mid­dle East and the life that is fa­mil­iar to us from the New Tes­ta­ment.

It is clearly an amaz­ing claim. I was sur­prised that I knew so lit­tle of this book or its mys­te­ri­ous ri­ous au­thor, but I was able to learn n a lit­tle more about No­tovitch vitch him­self. His Wikipedia page claimed he was the he son of a Rus­sian noble­man. (This, I am cer­tain, is un­true true and the page has since been al­tered.) His s book on Je­sus had d briefly been a best­st­seller in Europe upon pub­li­ca­tion in 1894, but had been at­tacked by main­stream the­olo­gians, and No­tovitch had dis­ap­peared from view. The last thing I found out was that he had served a prison sen­tence in Siberia in 1901 for ar­ti­cles he’d writ­ten about the Rus­sian gov­ern­ment. But I also found books – no­tably Hol­ger Ker­sten’s rather loopy Je­sus Lived in In­dia – that sug­gested there might have been some­thing to his story.

No­tovitch said that he’d been shown the mys­te­ri­ous man­u­script at a monastery called Hemis in the re­gion of Ladakh, while con­va­lesc­ing there from a bro­ken leg. While this area has deep re­li­gious and cul­tural links with Ti­bet, it’s ac­tu­ally part of In­dia. Right up to the 20th cen­tury, the al­ti­tude and dif­fi­cult moun­tain passes pre­served the re­mote­ness of Ladakh.

It was be­yond most peo­ple’s ken – a dis­tant place that few peo­ple ever imag­ined vis­it­ing. But, for good or ill, the in­ter­net and the ex­pan­sion of air travel has given us all seven-league boots. I was able to book a direct flight from Delhi to Leh and find a ho­tel on­line in the town cen­tre.

Hemis monastery, where No­tovitch was laid up with his bro­ken leg, stands on a rocky moun­tain­side in a gap in the as­ton­ish­ing Zan­skar range of the Hi­malayas. I ar­rived there one Jan­uary morn­ing, af­ter a two-hour flight to Leh from New Delhi. In No­tovitch’s era, the long jour­ney by horse into the Hi­malayas would give trav­ellers time to ac­cli­ma­tise to the thin air.

Nowa­days, the abrupt ar­rival from nearly sea-level is wrench­ing. My ho­tel had an oxy­gen tank in the lobby for trav­ellers strug­gling with the al­ti­tude. Breath­ing heav­ily as I took my suit­case off the air­port carousel, I felt like I had aged 20 years in the space of the flight.

Be­fore the trip, I’d read a guide to Ladakh by the scholar Ja Janet Rizvi. Her book con­tained a brief d de­scrip­tion of ev­ery monast monastery in the area. And yet, in h her pages on Hemis, sh she didn’t even men­tion No­tovitch. I wrote to Dr Rizvi to ask h her about him. She replied briefly to say that she kn knew the story of Not No­tovitch and his lost go gospel, but found it far-f far-fetched and had never both­ered foll fol­low­ing it up.

When I ar­rived, it wa was win­ter but there had been lit­tle snow­fall. The land­scape was a dusty khaki with a sprin­kling of white on the high ground. The cloud­less sky was a sap­phire colour. I’d packed as though for Siberia in win­ter, but the days were so mild I didn’t need my warm clothes. The peaks of the Zan­skar range rose be­yond the brown walls of the val­ley. It was out of sea­son and my driver Gelt­sen seemed glad to find a for­eign tourist. We drove along the In­dus River, a thin rib­bon of blue in the bot­tom of a val­ley dot­ted with wil­low, poplar and apri­cot trees, and passed through set­tle­ments of Ti­betan ex­iles who had fled the Chi­nese oc­cu­pa­tion of their home­land.

Hemis is in a shady cul de sac of the moun­tains and snow had clung on there, block­ing the road up. Gelt­sen and I had to dig out the tyres of the car more than once as we drove up to the monastery. I was wheez­ing from the al­ti­tude and had a splitting headache. But I also felt a strange sense of ex­hil­a­ra­tion: the land­scape was vast and sub­lime, jagged white peaks fenced in the broad river val­ley.

The ex­te­rior of Hemis monastery is aus­tere and blocky, like a Six­ties hous­ing de­vel­op­ment, but its in­ner court­yards are of gar­ishly painted wood that sat­is­fied my sense of ex­oti­cism. Even in the 21st cen­tury, I felt a long way from home. Nawang Otsab, the deputy lama, was a thick-set man in his 40s wear­ing an or­ange woollen beanie hat and a shiny wind­cheater. He led us into a low-roofed up­per room heated by a wood-burn­ing stove. We sat cross-legged around a low ta­ble eat­ing dried apri­cots and cashew nuts while Gelt­sen trans­lated for me.

I ex­plained the pur­pose of my visit: a Rus­sian visi­tor had been to the monastery, and claimed to have found a man­u­script about Je­sus study­ing in In­dia. Did he know any­thing about it? Nawang Otsab nod­ded; yes, he was fa­mil­iar with the tale. In his mind – and that of oth­ers in Ladakh who knew of the claims – the story was that Je­sus had stud­ied in Hemis it­self. That’s not the story in No­tovitch’s gospel.

What was the like­li­hood, I asked, that such a man­u­script ex­isted in the

Young Ladakhi novice monks; writer Ni­co­las No­tovitch, top

The Hemis monastery is in Ladakh’s re­mote moun­tain re­gion

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.