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Travels of Marco Polo - Tibet

The descriptions of Tibet as recorded by Marco Polo are interesting. He and his early contemporaries contribute much to our understanding of the cultures they encountered, some of which I have been able to use in preparing the text for Dream Weavers - Textile Art from the Tibetan Plateau.

The notes provided with the text place the Polo's observations in perspective, comparing what he notes with practices in other cultures. It is an interesting read, not without some humour as well as useful information.


You ride for 20 days without finding any inhabited spot, so that
travellers are obliged to carry all their provisions with them, and are constantly falling in with those wild beasts which are so numerous and so dangerous. After that you come at length to a tract where there are towns and villages in considerable numbers.[Note 1] The people of those towns have a strange custom in regard to marriage which I will now relate.

No man of that country would on any consideration take to wife a girl who was a maid; for they say a wife is nothing worth
unless she has been used to consort with men. And their custom is this, that when travellers come that way, the old women of the place get ready, and take their unmarried daughters or other girls related to them, and go to the strangers who are passing, and make over the young women to whomsoever will accept them; and the travellers take them accordingly and do their pleasure; after which the girls are restored to the old women who brought them, for they are not allowed to follow the strangers away from their home.



"You must know too that the traveller is expected to give the girl who has been with him a ring or some other trifle,something in fact that she can show as a lover's token when she comes to be married. And it is for this in truth and for this alone that they follow that custom; for every girl is expected to obtain at least 20 such tokens ..."


In this manner people travelling that way, when they reach a village or hamlet or other inhabited place, shall find perhaps 20 or 30 girls at their disposal. And if the travellers lodge with those people they shall have as many young women as they could wish coming to court them! You must know too that the traveller is expected to give the girl who has been with him a ring or some other trifle,something in fact that she can show as a lover's token when she comes to be married. And it is for this in truth and for this alone that they follow that custom; for every girl is expected to obtain at least 20 such tokens in the way I have described before she can be married.
And those who have most tokens, and so can show they have been most run after, are in the highest esteem, and most sought in marriage, because they say the charms of such an one are greatest. [Note 2] But after marriage these people hold their wives very dear, and would consider it a great villainy for a man to meddle with another's wife; and thus though the wives have before marriage acted as you have heard, they are kept with great care from light conduct afterwards.

Now I have related to you this marriage custom as a good story to tell, and to show what a fine country that is for young fellows to go to!



The people, as I have told you, have a language of their own, and they are Idolaters, and they border on Manzi and sundry other regions.

There is an enormous veneration felt throughout China and Mongolia for the holy places in Tibet. These men, one of whom wears a fox skin cap, while the other exhibits jewlled charms, a trumpet and prayer wheel, are on the road from Tashi Lhumpo, near Shigatse.


Note 1--M. Gabriel Durand, a missionary priest, thus describes his journey in 1861 to Kiangka, via Ta-t'sien-lu, a line of country partly coincident with that which Polo is traversing: "Every day we made a journey of nine or ten leagues, and halted for the night in a _Kung-kuan_. These are posts dotted at intervals of about ten leagues along the road to Hlassa, and usually guarded by three soldiers, though the more important posts have twenty. With the exception of some Tibetan houses, few and far between, these are the only habitations to be seen on this silent and deserted road.... Lytang was the first collection of houses that we had seen in ten days' march." (_Ann. de la Propag. de la Foi_, XXXV. 352 seqq.)

Note 2--Such practices are ascribed to many nations. Martini quotes something similar from a Chinese author about tribes in Yunnan; and Garnier says such loose practices are still ascribed to the Sifan near the southern elbow of the Kin-sha Kiang. Even of the Mongols themselves and kindred races, Pallas asserts that the young women regard a number of intrigues rather as a credit and recommendation than otherwise. Japanese ideas seem to be not very different. In old times Aelian gives much the same account of the Lydian women. Herodotus's Gindanes of Lybia afford a perfect parallel, "whose women wear on their legs anklets of leather. Each lover that a woman has gives her one; and she who can show most is the best esteemed, as she appears to have been loved by the greatest number of men." (_Martini Garnier_, I. 520; _Pall. Samml._ II. 235; _Ael. Var. Hist._ III. 1; _Rawl. Herod._ Bk. IV. ch. clxxvi.)
["Among some uncivilised peoples, women having many gallants are esteemed better than virgins, and are more anxiously desired in marriage. This is, for instance, stated to be the case with the Indians of Quito, the Laplanders in Regnard's days, and the Hill Tribes of North Aracan. But in each of these cases we are expressly told that want of chastity is considered a merit in the bride, because it is held to be the best testimony to the value of her attractions." (_Westermarck, Human Marriage_, p. 81.)--H.C.]

Mr. Cooper's Journal, when on the banks of the Kin-sha Kiang, west of Bathang, affords a startling illustration of the persistence of manners in this region: "At 12h. 30m. we arrived at a road-side house, near which was a grove of walnut-trees; here we alighted, when to my surprise I was surrounded by a group of young girls and two elderly women, who invited me to partake of a repast spread under the trees.... I thought I had stumbled on a pic-nic party, of which the Tibetans are so fond. Having finished, I lighted my pipe and threw myself on the grass in a state of castle-building. I had not lain thus many seconds when the maidens brought a young girl about 15 years old, tall and very fair, placed her on the grass beside me, and forming a ring round us, commenced to sing and dance. The little maid beside me, however, was bathed in tears. All this, I must confess, a little puzzled me, when Philip (the Chinese servant) with a long face, came to my aid, saying, '_Well, Sir, this is a bad business ... they are marrying you._' Good heavens! how startled I was." For the honourable conclusion of this Anglo-Tibetan idyll I must refer to Mr. Cooper's Journal. (See the now published _Travels_, ch. x.)



"Among this people, too, you find the best enchanters and astrologers that exist in all that quarter of the world; they perform such extraordinary marvels and sorceries by diabolic art,"


The people are Idolaters and an evil generation, holding it no sin to rob and maltreat: in fact, they are the greatest brigands on earth. They live by the chase, as well as on their cattle and the fruits of the earth.

I should tell you also that in this country there are many of the animals that produce musk, which are called in the Tartar language "Gudderi". Those rascals have great numbers of large and fine dogs, which are of great service in catching the musk-beasts, and so they procure great abundance of musk. They have none of the Great Kaan's paper money, but use salt instead of money. They are very poorly clad, for their clothes are only of the skins of beasts, and of canvas, and of buckram. [Note 3] They have a language of their own, and they are called Tebet. And this country of Tebet forms a very great province, of which I will give you a brief account.
Note 3--All this is clearly meant to apply only to the rude people towards the Chinese frontier; nor would the Chinese (says Richthofen) at this day think the description at all exaggerated, as applied to the Lolo who occupy the mountains to the south of Yachaufu. The members of the group at p. 47, from Lieutenant Garnier's book, are there termed Man-tzu; but the context shows them to be of the race of these Lolos. (See below, pp. 60, 61.) The passage about the musk animal, both in Pauthier and in
the G.T., ascribes the word _Gudderi_ to the language "of that people," i.e. of the Tibetans. The Geog. Latin, however, has "_lingua Tartarica_," and this is the fact. Klaproth informs us that _Guderi_ is the Mongol word. And it will be found (_Kuderi_) in Kovalevski's Dictionary, No. 2594. Musk is still the most valuable article that goes from Ta-t'sien-lu to China. Much is smuggled, and single travellers will come all the way from Canton or Singan fu to take back a small load of it. (_Richthofen_.)



In all parts of the world, superstitions connected with snakes are to be found. The brazen serpent of the Children of Israel, the snake symbol of Bacchanalia, and the snake gods of Mexico and Australia indicate the universality of the awe and cult of mysticism, in its various forms, that have centred in this uncanny reptile. In the photograph, a crude representation of a snake has been made, and upon the head rests a crown. The effigy is hauled from place to place... the whole ceremony creating great excitement in the remote Tibetan villages.


This province, called Tebet, is of very great extent. The people, as I have told you, have a language of their own, and they are Idolaters, and they border on Manzi and sundry other regions. Moreover, they are very great thieves.

The country is, in fact, so great that it embraces eight kingdoms, and a vast number of cities and villages.[Note 4] It contains in several quarters rivers and lakes, in which gold-dust is found in great abundance. Cinnamon also grows there in great plenty. Coral is in great demand in this country and fetches a
high price, for they delight to hang it round the necks of their women and of their idols.[NOTE 5] They have also in this country plenty of fine woollens and other stuffs, and many kinds of spices are produced there which are never seen in our country.

Among this people, too, you find the best enchanters and astrologers that exist in all that quarter of the world; they perform such extraordinary marvels and sorceries by diabolic art, that it astounds one to see or even hear of them. So I will relate none of them in this book of ours; people would be amazed if they heard them, but it would serve no good purpose.



"They have also in this country plenty of fine woollens and other stuffs, and many kinds of spices are produced there which are never seen in our country".

"Grace and line an dnew fangled fashions find no place in the costumes of Tibet. Both sexes wear an outer garment like a dressing gown. The cloth is woven of wool on a simle loom ...". Photo by John Claude White.


These people of Tebet are an ill-conditioned race. They have mastiff dogs as bigs as donkeys, which are capital at seizing wild beasts [and in particular the wild oxen which are called "Beyamini", very great and fierce animals] They have also sundry other kinds of sporting dogs, and excellent lanner falcons [and sakers], swift in flight and well-trained, which are got in the mountains of the country.[NOTE 6]

As regards Tebet, however, you should understand that it is subject to the Great Kaan. So, likewise, all the other kingdoms,
regions, and provinces which are described in this book are subject to the Great Kaan, nay, even those other kingdoms, regions, and provinces of which I had occasion to speak at the beginning of the book as belonging to the son of Argon, the
Lord of the Levant, are also subject to the Emperor; for the former holds his dominion of the Kaan, and is his liegeman and kinsman of the blood Imperial. So you must know that from this province forward all the provinces mentioned in our book are subject to the Great Kaan; and even if this be not specially mentioned, you must understand that it is so.



"They are very poorly clad, for their clothes are only of the skins of beasts, and of canvas, and of buckram."


Note 4.--Here Marco at least shows that he knew Tibet to be much more extensive than the small part of it that he had seen. But beyond this his information amounts to little.

Note 5.--The cinnamon must have been the coarser cassia produced in the lower parts of this region (See note to next chapter.) We have already (Book I. ch. xxxi.) quoted Tavernier's testimony to the rage for coral among the Tibetans and kindred peoples. Mr. Cooper notices the eager demand for coral at Bathang: (See also Desgodins," La Mission du Thibet", 310.)

Note 6.--The big Tibetan mastiffs are now well known. Mr. Cooper, at Ta-t'sien lu, notes that the people of Tibetan race "keep very large dogs, as large as Newfoundlands." And he mentions a pack of dogs of another breed, tan and black, "fine animals of the size of setters." The missionary M. Durand also, in a letter from the region in question, says, speaking of a large leopard: "Our brave watch-dogs had several times beaten him off gallantly, and one of them had even in single combat with him received a blow of the paw which had laid his skull open." (_Ann. de la Prop de la Foi_, XXXVII. 314.) On the title-page of vol. i. we have introduced one of these big Tibetan dogs as brought home by the Polos to Venice.

The "wild oxen called "Beyamini" are probably some such species as the Gaur. "Beyamini" I suspect to be no Oriental word, but to stand for "Buemini", i.e. Bohemian, a name which
may have been given by the Venetians to either the bison or urus. Polo's contemporary, Brunetto Latini, seems to speak of one of these as still existing in his day in Germany: "Autre buef naissent en Alemaigne qui ont grans cors, et sont bons por sommier et por vin porter." (Paris ed., p. 228; see also Lubbock, "Pre-historic Times" 296-7.)

Mr. Baber ("Travels", pp. 39, 40) writes: "A special interest attaches to the wild oxen, since they are unknown in any other part of China Proper. From a Lolo chief and his followers, most enthusiastic hunters, I afterwards learnt that the cattle are met with in herds of from seven to twenty head in the recesses of the Wilderness, which may be defined as the region between the T'ung River and Yachou, but that in general they are rarely seen.... I was lucky enough to obtain a pair of horns and part of the hide of one of these redoubtable animals, which seem to show that they are a kind of bison." Sir H. Yule remarks in a footnote (Ibid. p. 40): "It is not possible to say from what is stated here what the species is, but probably it is a "gavoeus" of which Jerdan describes three species. (See _Mammals of India_, pp. 301-307.) Mr. Hodgson describes the Gaur ("Gavoeus gaurus" of Jerdan) of the forests below Nepaul as fierce and revengeful."--H.C.]