The tale of an earthly paradise is among the most enduring myths in the world. From Sumerian epic to the 'islands of the blest' in Celtic literature, it has been a recurring theme through many bodies of literature and for thousands of years. Not surprisingly, then, modern people have also been drawn to the dream of a lost paradise where the ravages of time and history have been held back, where human beings live in harmony with nature, and where the wisdom of the planet is saved for future generations. In other words, to a Shangri-La.
The tale of a lost kingdom in the region of the Tibetan mountains first came to Western attention nearly four centuries ago. And like many a tale of hidden treasure, it starts with a mysterious map - this one lost, then rediscovered a hundred years ago in Calcutta. It was part of a remarkable manuscript that contained the autobiography of a 16th-century Western missionary at the court of the Moghul emperor Akbar. A Portuguese Jesuit missionary named Antonio Andrade, set out from Akbar's court, armed with the map, and at first followed yogis and wandering pilgrims on the road across the mountains.
The terrain soon became hostile, but Andrade did eventually find an impressive and wealthy kingdom - although no Christians lived there - and his account of his adventurous journey was rediscovered in Calcutta in the 19th century. The tale of Shangri-La is a modern tale, with a powerful appeal for today's world - but its roots lie deep in much older times. We live in a period when global problems threaten to overwhelm us, and instill us with fear. The appeal of the tales of Shambala and Shangri-La lies in their connection with this fear - both recognizing it and alleviating it - and this appeal is universal.
The stories reflect our desire that something of our world will survive, and that our connection with our past will not be entirely erased, even as we move faster and faster into an uncertain future. These are tales that we still need to believe in today.
Kemo D. 7