The manuscripts were stashed away in remote monasteries and private homes in the Dolpo and Mustang regions of Nepal, some 200 miles northwest of Katmandu. Figaro Magazine, a French publication, called this area high in the Himalayas one of the last remaining enclaves of Tibetan culture. "This territory is the ultimate citadel of a tradition rooted deep in Tibetan history," the magazine quoted Tibetan studies scholar Klaus-Dieter Mathes as saying.
In this faraway corner of what used to be western Tibet and is now part of Nepal, sacred Buddhist texts have been taken for safekeeping since the 12th century. After the Chinese occupation of Tibet and the destruction of most of its monasteries, this sanctuary has become even more significant for the survival of these texts some of which are so sacred that the monks hesitated for a long time to show them to the German academics. "They are not to be read by the uninitiated," Sobisch explained. "This especially applied to manuscripts concerning sacred rituals."
However, Mathes managed to convince the Buddhist divines to have their treasures microfilmed, lest fire, water or insects ravage their contents forever. Copies of the microfilms have been deposited at the Oriental Department of the Berlin State Library and the National Archives in Katmandu. The researchers returned all the originals to their owners.
The way Sobisch described it, this scholarly rescue operation proved to be a great and often dangerous adventure reminiscent of the exploits especially of German researchers in the 18th and 19th centuries.
To get to this area involves four-week treks, negotiating mountain passes in altitudes of more than 15,000 feet, and camping in temperatures barely above the freezing point. The German explorers had to cope with mountain sickness, exceedingly thin air and even mortal dangers. "One of our scholars was severely injured in a fall," Sobisch said. Once they arrived, their troubles weren't over. One drunken villager charged Mathes with a long knife and destroyed his camera. The researchers also had to overcome the perils of superstition.
"Natural light is not good enough for microfilming. You need electric light. Hence our team had to carry a diesel generator way up into the mountains," Sobisch related. "Immediately, rumors spread that cranking up this machine caused stillbirths and the death of children."
In the end, though, the researchers reported a meeting of minds between Western scholars and Eastern sages: They agreed that was the only way imaginable to preserve one of mankind's most extraordinary cultural and religious assets--a treasure of Sanskrit, Tibetan and other writings on the history of Buddhism, on medicine, astrology, and even the art of breeding horses.