Fig.1:  ‘Theos Bernard and Tibetans’, 1936, from Penthouse of the Gods. Fig.1: ‘Theos Bernard and Tibetans’, 1936, from Penthouse of the Gods.

Stories of Tibet in the West are at once diverse and predictable: they work to authenticate the individual position of the traveler, while retaining fundamental elements that reinforce a common tale of Tibetan mystery.[1] In what ways have early twentieth-century photographs of foreigners costumed as Lamas contributed to these narratives? This essay examines photographs that appeared in books written by travelers to Tibet, such as the academic and yogi, Theos Bernard, the Japanese monk Kawaguchi Ekai, and French explorer Alexandra David-Néel.[2] I argue here that the photographs were marshaled as keys to the “secrets of Tibet,” serving to authenticate (and sometimes rupture) the photographer’s travel narrative, ultimately constructing Tibet as a site of personal transformation.

Portraits of cultural cross-dressing have been a powerful frame to demonstrate the adventuresome character of the traveler-hero as well as a visual means to ignite our own fantasies of spiritual transformation in a faraway land.[3] Here the Orientalist chimera of dress-up portraits promulgated by early photographers such as Roger Fenton is brought to bear on the inner transformation of self as expressed through the outer comportment of the body. But because Bernard, Kawaguchi, and David-Néel each traveled to Tibet, their clothing goes beyond dress-up and whimsy, and is meant to signify their intimate awareness and proximity to the foreign culture.[4]

The spiritual exploits of the self-styled “White Lama,” Theos Bernard, perhaps most transparently engaged in spiritual-sartorial coding, will be emphasized in this essay. Bernard was born in 1908 into a family with an unusually keen interest in yoga and Buddhism. His father had studied yoga and tantric philosophy, as had his uncle, Pierre Bernard, also known as “Oom the Omnipotent.”[5] Following in the family footsteps, Theos Bernard earned a Masters of Arts degree in 1936 at Columbia University, where he took philosophy and anthropology courses and completed a thesis titled, “An introduction to Tantrik Yoga.” His doctoral dissertation, Hatha Yoga: The Report of a Personal Experience, was completed in one year following his trip to Tibet.[6]

Both his father and his uncle had a strong influence upon Theos and played a part in the development of his life-long dream: to build and direct a center for Tibetan Yoga Studies in New York. To make his yoga center plan come to pass, Bernard needed to assure his potential donors and followers of his authoritative knowledge of Tibetan Buddhism while attending to his own spiritual development. With an eye to his future, Bernard sought to make connections with the higher echelons of Tibetan society. Bernard’s Uncle Oom was instrumental in allying Theos with a supportive marital partner, Viola Wertheim, who was a member of the Clarkston Country Club where “Oom” was a guru.[7] When the 28-year-old Theos departed for Tibet shortly after graduating in 1936, Wertheim generously funded him, to the extent that he was able to move about in high style, meeting both Indian and Tibetan leaders.[8]

Equipped with a new small format Leica camera, he received official permission to enter Tibet, Lhasa, and even the Potala Palace.[9] Bernard used his time in the Land of the Snows to study and acquire Tibetan texts and come into a new identity as the White Lama — a personal transformation process carefully documented in thousands of photographs (Fig. 1 and Fig. 2). During his stay, Bernard took an astounding 326 rolls of film (11,736 exposures) as well as 20,000 feet of motion picture film (now housed at the University of California, Berkeley Bancroft Library).[10] Bernard’s near obsessive documentation leads one to assume that his sojourn in Tibet was a lengthy one, when, in fact, Bernard was in Tibet for only three months.[11]

Fig. 2:  Theos Bernard, ‘Tibetan Children’, c. 1936, from Penthouse of the Gods. Fig. 2: Theos Bernard, ‘Tibetan Children’, c. 1936, from Penthouse of the Gods.

Early travelers were often torn between maintaining their position as photographer and advancing their position as photographed subject. Bernard, Kawaguchi, and David-Néel’s personal spiritual aspirations subsumed their ethnographic desires, and thus they readily relinquished their role behind the camera in order to sit before it, usually without crediting those who took the photographs. To stress his insider status among Tibetans, Bernard’s book, Penthouse of the Gods: a Pilgrimage into the Heart of Tibet and the Sacred City of Lhasa, released in 1939, relies heavily on his photographs, as well as portraits of himself taken by anonymous Tibetans.[12] Bernard took the majority of the photographs; yet, he is posed in so many shots that he presumably relied on one of his servants to assist in recording his presence (Fig. 3).

Fig. 3a: ‘Theos Bernard’, from Penthouse of the Gods. Fig. 3a: ‘Theos Bernard’, from Penthouse of the Gods.
Fig. 3b: ‘Theos Bernard’, from Penthouse of the Gods. Fig. 3b: ‘Theos Bernard’, from Penthouse of the Gods.
Fig. 4: ‘The While Lama Theos Bernard’, c. 1936, frontispiece for Penthouse of the Gods. Fig. 4: ‘The While Lama Theos Bernard’, c. 1936, frontispiece for Penthouse of the Gods.

The frontispiece of the Penthouse of the Gods shows Bernard in full monk’s regalia, including ceremonial hat and robes, which he went to great lengths to have made in Tibet (Fig. 4).[13] Of his body, only his lower arm is showing, just enough to reveal his skin and the prayer beads about his wrist. The three-quarter profile of his face highlights his western features, as he stands before a tree-filled background, through which the sun casts an auspicious light behind him. The caption beneath the photograph reads: “The White Lama - Theos Bernard,” providing a clarification and reinforcement of his unique identity and role as culture broker. Occupying the entire page, the frontispiece gives the viewer a sense of proximity to the author that was augmented by physical contact between the reader and the author’s book. He is one of us, and yet one of them. Christopher Pinney has described how “the possibility of dialogical encounters between photographer and sitter in which the intimacy of the event created some additional force capable of collapsing colonial distance.”[14] In this case, Bernard’s frontispiece works to both collapse and reinforce international power relations and ethnic difference.

In chapter three Bernard writes: “The abbot of the monastery expressed deep gratification that a foreigner should take an interest in their teachings, and he felt that it was the way of the Great God that I had come to Tibet at this particular time.”[15] His comment impresses upon the reader that his visit was held as a divine intervention confirmed by the authoritative words of a highly ranked local. Once in Lhasa, Bernard describes being accepted as a reincarnation of Padma Sambhava, a saint of Tibetan Buddhism, which enabled him to take part in religious ceremonies he otherwise would not have witnessed. Claiming to reveal new information about Tibet was paramount to Bernard, since he could not claim to be the first Westerner to have traveled there. Instead, the American asserts himself as a Tibetan guru who had unlocked numinous secrets that travelers who preceded him, like Sir Charles Bell and William McGovern, were not permitted to see.[16]

Bernard’s photographs show in remarkable detail the clothes and headgear of the Tibetan ruling class.[17] It is clear that these close-ups required a physical proximity and patient willingness on the part of the sitters, who were associates of Tsarong Lacham (Fig. 5). To be sure, taking these photographs required a certain audacity. That Bernard, a white, male foreigner, was able to capture images of elite Tibetan women - from the rear view - suggests Bernard’s privileged access, as well as his willingness to invoke it. He also treats his “subjects” with a different visual language than that of his own self-portraits. This reverse headshot shows the costume in scientific detail in a manner that marks the sitter as a “specimen,” a noticeable contrast from the three-quarter view snapshots of the author. In one image included in Penthouse of the Gods, Bernard poses, surrounded by a sea of young monks (Fig. 6). He holds his camera casually, as if expressing the naturalness of his shutter-happy presence and the Tibetans’ easy acquiescence as photographed subjects. His tall stature and bearded face are foils to his Tibetan outfit, further contrasting with the youthful faces of the monks, and emphasizing a tension between his close physical presence and marked cultural distance.

Fig. 5:  Theos Bernard, ‘Headdress Worn by Noblewomen of Central Tibet’, 1936, from Penthouse of the Gods. Fig. 5: Theos Bernard, ‘Headdress Worn by Noblewomen of Central Tibet’, 1936, from Penthouse of the Gods.
Fig. 6:  ‘The Author Photographing Among the Lamas’, c. 1936, from Penthouse of the Gods. Fig. 6: ‘The Author Photographing Among the Lamas’, c. 1936, from Penthouse of the Gods.

Yet this level of interaction was likely a point of envy for other travelers, especially women. The French adventuress, Alexandra David-Néel, was limited in her access to Tibet, both in terms of its people and its sacred places. Because France did not hold diplomatic influence in Tibet, David-Néel was forced to travel in secret and spent a fair amount of time in hiding.[18] Moreover, women were forbidden entry to the Potala Palace and her travels were circumscribed by imposed gender expectations. In 1912, meeting the thirteenth Dalai-Lama in India, she said: “A Western woman acquainted with Buddhist doctrines seemed to him an inconceivable phenomenon. If I had vanished into space while talking to him, he would have been less astonished.”[19] She visited the Tibetan border regions in 1914 and returned to the region in 1924, disguising herself by blackening her hair with Chinese ink and darkening her face with soot.[20]

David-Néel’s text also reflects her compromises between moving freely and observing the Tibetan way of life, and observing her role as an “insider:”

Tibetans had accepted me as a Lady-lama... so in order to enjoy the confidence, respect and intimacy which my religious garb brought me, I was compelled to behave in close accordance with Tibetan customs, especially religious ones. This was a serious hindrance, and often deprived my observations of a great part of their scientific interest.[21]

This statement reveals the clash between the photographic eye of the dominant power,[22] and the camera’s role in capturing and transferring the spiritual magic of Tibet. Economies of spiritual desire are cross-cut by colonial practices, recasting savagery as spirituality that is then mined through intimate contact with, and knowledge of Tibet.

The self-described Lady-lama parlayed her travels into many books including, My journey to Lhasa: the personal story of the only white woman who succeeded in entering the forbidden city (1927), Magic and Mystery in Tibet (1929), Initiates and Initiators (1929) and With Mystics and Magicians in Tibet (1957).[23] My Journey to Lhasa, and Magic and Mystery in Tibet are filled with accounts of the mysteries of Tibet that push the limits of believability, including taking photographs of the Dalai Lama in which he failed to appear because of his overwhelming spiritual power, or rumors of corpses that had come to life and murdered those who did not correctly enact rituals.[24]

David-Néel wrote that she chose not to bring a camera into Lhasa, for fear that use of it would further compromise her disguise, as she claimed it had in the past.[25] Photographs included in her book were taken outside of Lhasa, causing some to doubt that she entered Tibet at all (Fig. 7).[26] Adding to the ambiguity surrounding David-Néel’s photography, she fails in her writings to identify the type of camera she used, and does not state whether or not she was the sole photographer. In addition, her self-described “scientific interests” were at times overwhelmed by her desire to present herself appropriately. In approximately six photographs that appear in her books, she relinquished photographic control to sit before the camera, defining and heightening her role as lady guru through the context of the image (Fig. 8).

Fig. 7: ‘Alexandra David-Néel Near the Tibetan Border’, from My Journey to Lhasa. Fig. 7: ‘Alexandra David-Néel Near the Tibetan Border’, from My Journey to Lhasa.
Fig. 8: ‘Alexandra David-Néel and Aphur Yongden’, from Initiations and Initiates in Tibet. Fig. 8: ‘Alexandra David-Néel and Aphur Yongden’, from Initiations and Initiates in Tibet.
Fig. 9: Alexandra David-Néel, ‘A Tibetan Ascetic’, from Magic and Mystery in Tibet. Fig. 9: Alexandra David-Néel, ‘A Tibetan Ascetic’, from Magic and Mystery in Tibet.

Like Bernard, David-Néel emphasizes her difference through titles, captions, and text. For example, in a photograph titled “A Tibetan Ascetic” the subject’s body and face are turned away from the camera (Fig. 9). His image stands in shadow against the white monastery, which reinforces her textual description that the monk has, and will return again to meditate in what David-Néel describes as “complete darkness” (a phrase the author repeats twice in the description). David-Néel’s distance from him is emphasized by the long shadow she casts into the shot while taking the photograph. Rosalind Morris writes: “In this normativizing aesthetic, shadow is a kind of defacement, a wound in the transparency which ought to define the photograph and the communicative relation it was thought to facilitate by those who embrace it.”[27] As a female foreigner, coming close to a Tibetan monk was a rare occurrence. This photograph, along with roughly six others, appears in several of her books, suggesting that she did not acquire as many images as Bernard, and made full use of those she did obtain.[28]

Other travelers to Tibet, like Kawaguchi Ekai (1866-1945), a Buddhist monk from Japan who also traveled in secrecy, only rarely had the opportunity for photography. Kawaguchi came to Tibet out of an interest in translating Buddhist scripts in 1900, and traveled around the country clandestinely for three years.[29] The Zen monk arrived in the country at a much earlier time than David-Néel or Bernard, and was unable to capture the same quality of photographs. Kawaguchi’s camera would have been more cumbersome than Bernard’s Leica camera, and he relied on photogravures for his book (Fig. 10).[30] The few images included in his text lack any sense of geographic specificity. Kawaguchi also often relies on illustrations to attempt to authenticate key points in his trip, such as his audience with the Dalai Lama (Fig. 11). The illustration of the moment of physical contact between the Dalai Lama and himself shows an offering table between the elevated Dalai Lama and the monk, a sacred boundary that is crossed when the spiritual leader reaches his hand out and touches Kawaguchi’s head, as if in blessing.

Fig. 10: ‘The author as a Tibetan Lama at Darjeeling on his Return’, from Three Years in Tibet, 1909. Fig. 10: ‘The author as a Tibetan Lama at Darjeeling on his Return’, from Three Years in Tibet, 1909.
Fig. 11: ‘Kawaguchi Ekai’, from Three Years in Tibet, 1909. Fig. 11: ‘Kawaguchi Ekai’, from Three Years in Tibet, 1909.

That Kawaguchi’s photographic posturing is comparable to that of Bernard and David-Néel’s is revealing. Tibet, it seems, was seen as a conduit of spiritual mystery even within Asia. Kawaguchi made use of his ethnicity to manipulate the guises of intimacy and foreignness. In Tibet, he describes that his Tibetan disguise was readily accepted because of his Asiatic face, while upon his return to Japan he was celebrated for his brave adventures in uncivilized territory, albeit in the name of promoting pan-Buddhist interests. Despite the success of his disguise, Kawaguchi’s photographs do not suggest a sense of camaraderie or community with other Tibetans; the land is instead represented as distant and unreachable.

Kawaguchi’s writings were originally published in Japanese as serial articles that appeared daily in the Mainichi newspaper over the course of 156 issues, and thus were not directed to a Western audience. His articles were then collected and published as two volumes by the Hakubunkan publishing house in Tokyo, and Kawaguchi began to consider translating the book into English but felt that government reports of the British expedition rendered his book redundant.[31] Annie Besant, the president of the Theosophical society, wrote to Kawaguchi to add his translation to the record, because rather than a “western point of view” he could acquaint the reader with a “point of view of an Asiatic, intimately acquainted with the manners, the customs, and the inner life of the people.”[32]

From the outset, it seems that the Japanese rector stood to gain from his double-exoticism. If Bernard was exoticized in the eyes of Western readers as the White Lama, Kawaguchi was all the more so, being an Asian man and an actual Buddhist priest. To the Japanese, however, his view of Asia was a reflection of Japan’s colonial desires and his position in relation to Tibetans was understood to be that of an outsider. Kawaguchi’s text and photographs state plainly that he was never at home in Tibet and in fact suffered from a lack of intimate acquaintance with the “inner life of the people.”[33] For example Kawaguchi goes on at length about his problems adapting to the environment, to the lack of food, and falls into a patronizing tone, referring to Lhasa as a “metropolis of filth” inhabited by thieves and criminals.[34] Similarly, his photogravure and illustrations disassociate the author from “the natives,” as Kawaguchi is predominantly shown alone, never sharing space with Tibetans.

Although images of Tibetan people are brought closer to the viewer in Penthouse of the Gods than they are in Three Years in Tibet or With Magicians and Mystics in Tibet, Bernard nonetheless consistently depicts Tibet as otherwordly. Indeed, his books relied commercially on the notion that Tibet was inaccessible and exciting, thereby intimating that only a White Lama such as himself could guide the way to the authentic Tibet. In fact, Bernard was able to parlay his experiences in India and Tibet into a lecturing circuit, magazine interviews, and several publications, as well as a popular yoga practice (Fig. 12). He depended on his identity as a white man, albeit transformed, to maintain purchase on his commercial appeal.

Fig. 12: ‘ “The White Lama” Theos Bernard’, originally published in Family Circle, 1938. All rights reserved. Fig. 12: ‘ “The White Lama” Theos Bernard’, originally published in Family Circle, 1938. All rights reserved.

The frequent appearance of photographs of Bernard in the magazine The Family Circle reveals his willingness to commodify spirituality and assumptions of exoticism. For example, an advertisement for an upcoming issue reads: “In the next issue, Theos Bernard reaches Lhasa, becomes the only White Lama in history, witnesses the almost unbelievable rite of air burial of the dead, and had other amazing experiences!”[35] Not only does the piece sensationalize Bernard’s account of Tibet – particularly by emphasizing the photographs and descriptions of “the rite of the dead” – Bernard also seems to have also willingly complied with this framing. Not at all put off by the commercialization of his message in The Family Circle, Bernard agreed to many other interviews at later points in his career, almost always featuring photographic portraits. Indeed, The Family Circle took full advantage of his charming good looks — Bernard’s visage was emblazoned on the cover of the magazine four times in 1938-1939 — an image that was presumably a source of delight for the predominantly female readership (Fig. 13 – 16). Similarly, The Family Circle writers strategically played up the nuances of power underpinning the image of the Western male in Eastern attire, as evidenced in the text. In the August 23, 1939 issues, the interviewer describes Bernard’s “bright and virile American countenance smiling above his gorgeous lama’s robe.”[36]

Fig. 13: Originally published in the April 22, 1938 edition of Family Circle. All rights reserved. Fig. 13: Originally published in the April 22, 1938 edition of Family Circle. All rights reserved.
Fig. 14: Originally published in the April 29, 1938 edition of Family Circle. All rights reserved. Fig. 14: Originally published in the April 29, 1938 edition of Family Circle. All rights reserved.
Fig. 15: Originally published in the November 18, 1938 edition of Family Circle. All rights reserved. Fig. 15: Originally published in the November 18, 1938 edition of Family Circle. All rights reserved.
Fig. 16: Originally published in the August 25 1939 edition of Family Circle. All rights reserved. Fig. 16: Originally published in the August 25 1939 edition of Family Circle. All rights reserved.

In all the issues, Bernard’s story is perhaps unintentionally promoted alongside an image of a popular movie actress. In the April 29th 1938 edition, he shares the cover space with the famous B-movie star, Dorothy Lamour, promoting her most recent film Her Jungle Love (Fig. 14). The cover is laid out as though Bernard, described as “First and Only White Lama” and dressed in his Tibetan robes, is sharing a gaze with Lamour, a popular symbol of primitivist eroticism. His large hat covers the letters of the magazine name, suggestive of his strength and virility. Bernard’s demonstrations of yogic poses (images that still circulate widely on the Internet and in books on yoga) show Bernard in skimpy attire, flexing and contorting in a manner that plays up a strong physical presence – a potency, it is suggested, that was conjured in Tibet (see Fig. 12).[37] Judging from The Family Circle’s coverage, reader enthusiasm was high. It was into this expectant climate that Bernard released his Penthouse of the Gods.

Bernard asserts through the frontispiece and the caption that he is a lama – as opposed to simply dressing as one (see Fig. 4). In photographs of Bernard, the subtext of sexualized corporeality is never far from the surface of the image – and is profoundly a part of the desire to enact personal intimacy with the mystical Other.[38] By bringing the materiality of the East (the soft silk of the Tibetan robe) close to his skin, Bernard illustrates himself as the embodied Orient, offering himself as a gateway to the faraway land. His entire book revolves around the theme of his authentic experiences and access, concluding with his ultimate transformation from outsider to White Lama. Chapter One, entitled “Ecstasy,” Bernard writes: “The ceremony was over, and a new world had been opened to me. Now it was for me to remain and reflect upon this volcano of subconscious power in the light of the teachings which had been previously given me....”[39]

Narrative structure further enhances the motif of transformation. Importantly, through this temporal distortion, as well as identification with the portrait, the viewer, too, becomes captivated by his or her own desire for transformation. In Penthouse of the Gods, Bernard opens the text with a present-tense description as he enters a retreat at the Potala Palace. This moment of meditative isolation was highly anticipated – indeed, it was the bait for the forthcoming publication in The Family Circle’s feature on Bernard. Without revealing the secrets of his final initiation, Bernard heightens the dramatic effect by using flashbacks to describe his entire journey through to Tibet and “into the heart of Lhasa.”

But Bernard was no different than other “pilgrims” to Tibet in his photographic self-positioning. While arguably less charismatic in her grim expression and staunch pose, David-Néel also presents herself in Tibetan costume in the frontispiece to the English edition of With Mystics and Magicians in Tibet (Fig. 17).[40] She poses somewhat stiffly in what appears to be a studio photograph, wearing black and white colored robes, and a pointed hat. It is unclear where the costume originates; for example, her jewelry in particular seems unlike the regalia of most Tibetan monks. Her over-sized necklace has three details of skulls. Also adorning her robes are unusual sticks made of bone or leather, one tucked into her cloth belt, the other dangling by a leather cord. Skulls and bones, rather than everyday Tibetan wear, fit the fantastical model of Tibet as strange and grotesquely uncivilized – an idea that was fueled by the aforementioned descriptions of the Tibetan mortuary practices that circulated widely at the time.[41] Though the costume was a pastiche, the overall effect was convincing evidence of her experience with “mystics and magicians.” Perhaps it is no surprise then, that David-Néel’s books were bestsellers, having capitalized on the booming interest in the occult at the time. Of her body of work, With Mystics and Magicians delves deepest into the paranormal. For example, she describes monsters that are kept within the heart of the Potala palace: “Other dread Malevolent and Invisible ones are chained by the powers of magic charms, and a perpetual watch has to be kept in order that the spells and other occult devices, whose strengths prevent the dangerous beasts from escaping, shall be recited and performed at the right time.”[42]

Fig. 17: ‘Alexandra David-Néel’, frontispiece of With Mystics and Magicians in Tibet. Fig. 17: ‘Alexandra David-Néel’, frontispiece of With Mystics and Magicians in Tibet.

Photography works to imply David-Néel’s mastery over these recitations and powers. David-Néel and Bernard represent themselves as initiate and storyteller through the photographic portrait placed at the beginning of the text. However, the photographs do vary from each other: the lady-lama portrait is much smaller and removed in comparison to Bernard’s image as White Lama (Fig. 4). While the tree-filled background in Bernard’s photograph pushes him to the forefront, David-Néel’s painted studio draws attention to her clothing as a mimetic dress-up, suggesting the failure that belies her projection of authenticity in such a photographic project (Fig. 17). David-Néel’s left hand is held at a right angle – a gesture that has an obstructive effect. Multiple layers of clothes cover her body, and her physical self, unlike Bernard’s forward posture, is reclusive. The shielded quality of the image speaks to her status as an older woman, and the restrictions of gender that influenced both her reception in Tibet and her experiences of it. Nevertheless, the image in conjunction with the introduction to With Mystics and Magicians in Tibet, further reinforces the notion of cultural metamorphosis: “Madame David-Néel has in fact become, as she herself says, a complete Asiatic, and what is still more important for an explorer of a country hitherto inaccessible to foreign travelers, she is recognized as such by those among whom she has lived.”[43] True enough the adventuress was known for her fluency in Tibetan and ability to translate religious texts.[44]

Yet David-Néel instilled a European influence on at least one Tibetan. In a fascinating about-face, she adopted a Sikkimese boy who was her travelling companion. Her book includes a portrait of the young Aphur Yongden (born 1899) in his French school uniform and spectacles (Fig. 18). In Mystics and Magicians, these two portraits are published back-to-back, allowing the reader to flip between the corresponding photographs, revealing that cultural cross-dressing is in fact a two-way street.

Fig. 18: From Mystics and Magicians in Tibet. Fig. 18: From Mystics and Magicians in Tibet.

Kawaguchi Ekai likewise included an image of author-as-lama, a photogravure that appears in the body of his Three Years in Tibet and is similar in style and size to David-Néel’s portrait (see Fig. 10). Kawaguchi, a Buddhist rector of a Monastery in Japan, had this image made in an Indian studio following his return from Tibet. He is represented in ornate headgear and a long decorative trail, a get-up differing slightly from another self-portrait in costume that appears in the book. While Bernard and David-Néel’s photographs emphasize an anthropological interest, Kawaguchi tends to prioritize his role as a Buddhist. By including several modes of Buddhist dress (in the frontispiece Kawaguchi includes a self-portrait dressed in Buddhist robes in India, while later in the book his portrait features the garb of a lama – Fig. 19) Kawaguchi presents himself as an Ambassador of pan-asian Buddhism, a concept which would have been pivotal to the Japanese government’s imperial rhetoric of The Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere.[45]

Fig. 19: Kawaguchi Ekai, ‘Performing Tibetan Ceremonies’, from Three Years in Tibet.Fig. 19: Kawaguchi Ekai, ‘Performing Tibetan Ceremonies’, from Three Years in Tibet.

The significance of the traveler-as-lama portrait is reinforced by the fact that many other texts about Tibet include a frontispiece image of a lama. Sir Charles Bell’s The People of Tibet shows an image of two “Living Buddhas” on the opening page, [46] and the American Lowell Thomas Jr.’s 1950 book Out of this World has a frontispiece of the young Dalai Lama.[47] This approach, it should be noted, is markedly different than that of the Italian Tibetan scholar, Giuseppe Tucci (1894 –1984). Tucci traveled with his own photographer, and seemed almost at pains to represent himself in scholarly mode, even when the environment may have dictated that local garments were more suitable. Still Tucci’s academic wardrobe seems the exception rather than the rule.[48] Therefore, we can understand these photos with Bernard as a White Lama, David-Néel as anchorite, and Kawaguchi as wandering mendicant, as a play on the long-standing practice of portraiture as a portal to Tibetan mystery. In the tangled web of power relations between Japan, the United States, France, and Tibet, traveler-as-lama photography offered the perfect flexibility, allowing the identity of the sitter to be understood as a normative yet outstanding member of the national community, one whose ethnic and national identities remain bound to their home countries, but whose spiritual growth in Tibet assured them special status at home. This flexibility further allowed the baggage of national hierarchies and oriental wanderlust to cluster around the reading of the image. Among these visitors to Tibet are divergences in belief, approach, gender restrictions, and religious practice; nevertheless, Bernard, Kawaguchi, and David-Néel shared an interest in Buddhism that was stronger and more grounded than many other travelers to Tibet. Rather than simply “dressing up” in the clothes of “otherness,” these portraits suggest that the authors were performing their attempted transformation, and locating the origins of transformation in the site of Tibet, their proximity represented by the touch of Tibetan cloth on foreign skin. As Bernard himself said, “... I was perhaps unduly proud of my new Tibetan costume.”[49]

The inclusion and placement of these images gives the reader a sense of acquaintance with the author, who will be the guide on their vicarious tour of Tibet. They provide a key point of intersection between the reader and the storyteller. Wrapped around the body, the robes worked to simultaneously package and present a spiritual experience. In the portraits, authenticity is made visible, comprehensible, and seemingly tangible through the melding of the explorer with the intimacy of clothing, exotic yet naturalized; its fit against the skin of the author is contact writ large.

Beyond showing authorial transformation, photographs of author-as-lama function to offer access to the potentiality of fantasy to the viewer. The portrait presents the outsider with a visible entry point to the power of the text within, a power that is embodied in the authorial figure. Here, Tibet is unknown but envisioned, unreachable yet contained within the hands of the reader, the size conducive to a sense of control over the unknown. As we gaze and read, our own imaginations take over, and we ourselves are left open to imaginatively explore mystical metamorphosis. It is this possibility of transformation that writers such as Bernard, David-Néel, and Kawaguchi, seek to arouse in the reader mediated through the author’s cultural cross-dressing. These travelers rely on a sartorial language to verify their cultural transmutation as testament to the transformative effect of their travels and as an invitation to the reader to pass through the pages into Imagined Tibet.

Namiko Kunimoto is an Assistant Professor of Asian Art at American University in Washington, DC. She is author of "Shiraga Kazuo: The Hero and Concrete Violence" forthcoming in Art History from Blackwell publishing and is currently working on a book length study called, Portraits of the Sun: Gender, Violence, and Nation in the Art of the Gutai Group.


    1. This is a shortened version of a longer paper on the topic. My thanks to Patricia Berger, Nancy Lin, Max Woodworth, Elizabeth Ferrell and Mikiko Hirayama for their guidance and suggestions.return to text

    2. In the early twentieth century, Tibet was a fraught region (as it remains today) as European forces began to question Chinese control and plan their own encroachment. In 1904, Francis Younghusband led British troops into Tibet to attempt to secure a treaty before a pre-emptive strike against the Russians. Interest in Tibet seemed to be on the rise, and numerous foreigners secretly traveled across the border. return to text

    3. “Cultural cross-dressing” is a term used by Christine Guth in her fascinating article, “Charles Longfellow and Okakura Kakuzo: Cultural Cross-Dressing in the Colonial Context” positions: east asia cultures critique – Vol. 8, No 3, (Winter 2000): 605-636.return to text

    4. Establishing a renewed sense of self other through coded clothing has a long precedent. Okakura Kakuzō (1862-1913), author of Ideals of the East (1904) and D.T. Suzuki (1870-1966) both self-consciously exploited Westerners expectations of the orient, donning Japanese robes while touring in the United States (a practice that contemporary artists like Murakami Takashi have also taken up, most recently at a “Tea Ceremony” at the Museum of Modern Art, New York). In 1885, William Bigelow dressed as a Buddhist pilgrim and had a photograph taken of himself looking pensive, each foot set steadfastly on a boulder in the forest, speaking to his newfound transcendence. Their vestments not only spoke to their nationality, but also implied their elevated status in relation to Buddhist knowledge, as though spiritual transmission were activated and confirmed through the wardrobe. return to text

    5. Robert Clarke. The Bernard - Murray, Tibetan Collection. Unpublished essay, 2002.return to text

    6. Bernard graduated from Columbia in 1943. Theos Bernard, C. (1943), Unpublished dissertation, Hatha Yoga, Columbia University.return to text

    7. Bernard and Viola Wertheim were divorced in 1938. His second marriage was to Ganna Walska (divorced 1946), and his third to Helen Graham Park (1947).return to text

    8. Bernard dedicated Penthouse of the Gods to Wertheim. return to text

    9. Some have suggested that donations may have paved the way to his invitations. This success was also due in part to the favorable impression that Bernard must have made upon Tsarong Lacham, the wife of Tsarong Shapé, an official in the Tibetan government. Lacham invited him to stay and be his guide.return to text

    10. Clarke, “The Bernard-Murray Collection,” unpublished essay, 14.return to text

    11. Bernard’s trip to Asia lasted sixteen months, and he only received permission to enter Tibet after over a year. See Clarke, “The Bernard-Murray Collection,” unpublished essay and Paul Hackett,, accessed March 15, 2011.return to text

    12. Bernard, Penthouse of the Gods: A Pilgrimage in to the Heart of Tibet and the Sacred City of Lhasa. (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1939). The book was also published under the title Land of a Thousand Buddhas.return to text

    13. In this and other portraits, it is unclear who the original photographer was, although it does seem that all photos were taken with his camera. Because their inclusion in the book was Bernard’s decision, I attempt to discuss the photographs as part of his overall project of self-representation and spiritual transformation. return to text

    14. Christopher Pinney, Camera Indica (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997), 70. return to text

    15. Penthouse of the Gods, 65.return to text

    16. “Never before, I was told, had a foreigner been permitted to set foot across these sacred thresholds. The enormous deities are at all times guarded with locks of iron. Even Waddell, Sir Charles Bell, and David McDonald, who, of all Europeans, enjoyed the most intimate relationship with the Tibetans, fail to record any such opportunity.” Penthouse of the Gods, 97.return to text

    17. Bernard was not the only one to photograph sitters in a similar manner. Francis Younghusband has comparable photographs in his collection.return to text

    18. Ironically, David-Néel was allegedly refused entry to Tibet by Sir Charles Bell, which only encouraged her to secretly enter the country. Ibid., 221.return to text

    19. David-Néel, Magic and Mystery in Tibet (New York: University Books, 1958), 4.return to text

    20. Hopkirk, Trespassers on the Roof of the World, (London and Tokyo: Kodansha International, 1995), 222.return to text

    21. David-Néel, With Mystics and Magicians, (London: John Lane the Bodley Head, 1931), 207.return to text

    22. For example see Malek Alloula, The Colonial Harem (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986). The book explores picture postcards of Algerian women produced and sent by the French in Algeria from 1900-1930s.return to text

    23. Indeed, David-Néel has continued to be a formidable heroine within French Culture, as the subject of books, a 2010 play, movies, and a facebook page with close to 2000 fans.return to text

    24. David-Néel, Magic and Mystery in Tibet (New York: University Books, 1958), 136.return to text

    25. Barbara and Michael Foster, The Secret Lives of Alexandra David-Néel, (Woodstock and New York: Overlook Press, 1998), 194.return to text

    26. Jeanne Denys, Alexandra David-Néel au Tibet, (Paris: la Pensée universelle, 1972).return to text

    27. Rosalind Morris, “Introduction” in ed. Rosaline Morris, Photographies East: The Camera and Its Histories in East and Southeast Asia” (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2009), 7.return to text

    28. For example, “A Tibetan Ascetic” appears again in Magic and Mystery in Tibet on page 252.return to text

    29. Kawaguchi should not be confused with another Japanese who visited Tibet during the same time period as a spy, Narita Yasuteru. However, Abhi Subedi cites letters by Kawaguchi wherein he refuses the government’s request for information and compliance. For more see Abhi Subedi, “introduction” in Ekai Kawaguchi: The Trespassing Insider, Katmandu: Mandala Book Point, 1999.return to text

    30. A process for printing from an intaglio plate prepared by photographic methods.return to text

    31. Kawaguchi Ekai. Chibetto ryokoki. (Tokyo: Hakubunkan, Meiji 37, 1904).return to text

    32. Three Years in Tibet, preface, (Benares and London: The Theosophical Publishing Society, 1909), vii.return to text

    33. Ibid., 49.return to text

    34. Kawaguchi. Three Years in Tibet, 413.return to text

    35. Stewart Robertson, “White Lama,” Family Circle 12, no. 16 (April 22, 1938): 16.return to text

    36. Family Circle 15, no. 8 (August 23, 1939): 21.return to text

    37. Yoga and health. 15 May 2004.)return to text

    38. Norman Bryson eloquently raised this issue while discussing the art of Kuroda Seiki: “Personal intimacy is presented as a force strong enough to dissolve the barriers separating Japan from the outside world: that, at any rate, it is the utopian aspect of these paintings, their promise—or their lure. For it is clear that such works are self-conscious, even ostentation displays of familiarity and intimacy with European culture: they assert their intimacy with pride, as proof or credentials of cosmopolitan identity.” “Westernizing Bodies: Women, Art, and Power in Meiji Yoga” in eds. Joshua S. Mostow, Norman Bryson, and Maribeth Graybill, Gender and Power in the Japanese Visual Field. (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2003), 108.return to text

    39. Bernard, Penthouse, 11.return to text

    40. In the French edition it is the first image that appears – all images are in the center of the book.return to text

    41. For example, pictures of above ground corpse disposal appear in David-Néel’s book, in Bernard’s text, in the The Family Circle articles, as well as in numerous other texts. In a somewhat disrespectful photograph of this practice, the image is mislabeled as a funeral, despite acknowledging in the text that a funeral service is held separately for the deceased. With Mystics and Magicians in Tibet, opposite 30. return to text

    42. With Mystics and Magicians (London: John Lane, 1931), 101.return to text

    43. Dr. A. D’Aronval. “Introduction” ibid., vi.return to text

    44. Hopkirk, 222.return to text

    45. The Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere (Dai-tō-a Kyōeiken) was a concept created and promulgated by the government and military of Japan in the 1920s and 1930s. It represented the desire to create a collaboration of Asian nations led by the Japanese. return to text

    46. Bell, The People of Tibet (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1928), frontispiece.return to text

    47. Thomas, Out of this World, (New York: Greystone Press, 1950), frontispiece.return to text

    48. A Norwegian Traveller in Tibet includes the Lama head of the Dorje-Drag-pa sect. Heinrich Harrer’s Seven Years in Tibet, shows the Dalai Lama’s mother perhaps as a stand-in for the leader of Tibet (if not for Mother Mary), and even the more recent 1996 text A Portrait of Lost Tibet includes a color frontispiece of the Dalai Lama.return to text

    49. Bernard, Penthouse, 296. Bernard frequently makes reference to his clothing in the book. For example, in the first chapter, entitled, “Ecstasy” the author compares wearing Tibetan vestments to “taking the veil.” Ibid, 21.return to text