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About a "Neverland" inhabited by happy and wise people and its representations in Tibetan and Russian myths.
In 1959 after the "democratic reforms" of Chinese government most of the Tibetan monasteries, relics and pieces of art were destroyed and lots of citizens were repressed. Disturbed Tibetans raised a rebellion that ended unsuccessfully and led to the escape of thousands of citizens from the region and the establishment of the Government in Exile in India.
After these events Western people got an opportunity to get familiar with Tibetan culture. General public received the access to the teachings that were considered secretive before, a lot of hard-to-get sources were published.
In particular, Tibetan-Shengshung, dictionary became available. It included an ancient world map that has no connection to reality at a first glance. For example, a mysterious Shambhala was placed on the map. It drew attention of a Russian orientalist Leo Gumilev (1912-1992). In his article named "Shambhala in legends and history" we find the description of a research that was held by the historian in order to unveil the secret behind the origins of Shambhala's legend.
He conducted a detailed study of the map, correlation with the four winds, establishment of the geographical correlations, finding out the time when the source was created. Gumilev found out that it was done during the rule of Seleucid dynasty in Syria. Syria sounds like Sham in Persian, while "bholo" can be translated as "top", "surface". Consequently, according to Gumilev, Shambhala can be translated as "domination of Syria" which reflects the reality during the relevant period. But was the scientist right? Do the tales about a serene country lost in the mountains have such prosaic basis?
Supposedly, Shambhala is located somewhere in the Himalaya or nearby regions. Mentions of it are found in the sources of pre-Buddhist Tibet. According to the legend, Shambhala is located in a beautiful valley lost in the mountains, the citizens of it are wise and beautiful, they are unaware of disasters, there is the rule of justice there, and Shambhala only be found by those who are pure in heart. It is thought that a traveler who is heading towards Shambhala will face some obstacles: a rockfall or an abyss will always make him change his destination as only few are worthy to enter this sacred place.
There is a version that Shambhala is located somewhere in the Himalayas
The first mention of Shambhala is found in the Ancient Indian epos Mahabharata, although Shamhala isn't the name of a country there, but of a small Vedic village, where according to the prophecy Vishnu's future manifestation will be born:
The hour will chime, and twice-born named Kalki Vyshnuyashas will come to living, endowed with superior power, intelligence and strength. He will be born in dignified brahmin family in Sambhala village and with the power of his spirit he will resurrect different means of transport, armor and weapons. This king, conquering with Dharma, will receive superiority and bring peace to unruly world. Shining brahman, high of his thoughts, after presenting himself to the world, will bring disasters to an end. Thus universal ruination will become the beginning of new Yuga.
Later the concept of Shambhala was changed in the Buddhist tradition turning into a mountainous country ruled by a wise king: this interpretation is firstly found in Kalachakra Tantra (Sanskrit: Tantra of the Wheel of Time). It also presents an apocalyptic myth about a great battle between Good and Evil, which will happen during the rule of the 25th king of the legendary country.
Mandala of Tantra of the Wheel of Time, Sera Monastery, Tibet
There is also a theory according to which Shambhala is a clear, unspoiled state of a soul, the state of unity between a man and God, freedom.
Anyway that belief takes its roots from deep Ancient times. As Russian historian Shaposhnikova points out, the amount of layers in the myth testifies its great age, and it can be compared to the Flood myth (that is found in completely different cultures and has real historical grounds) in its areas of spreading.
All versions of the legend have something in common. For example, it's thought that the citizens of the hidden country use the diverse networks of tunnels to communicate with the outer world. Nicholas Roerich wrote:
"There are a lot of caves on the summit of the Himalayas and as it's said these caves lead to the underground passages. Some people even saw a stone door that never opened because it wasn't the time yet. Deep passages lead to a spectacular valley".
Russian researcher had devoted a lot of time to the studying of this question. According to one of the theories, the solution to this secret was the main target of Roerich's five-year Central-Asian expedition. Russian scholar thought of similarity to the legend of Shambla of a belief that was popular in the the XVIII century in Russia. That was the belief of Belovodye. Roerich supposed that this myth was brought to Russia by Asian resettlers, and that its routes should be looked for in the Buddhist world.
Soviet writer Shishkov wrote:
"There is a marvelous country, its name is Belovodye. Songs are sung, and tales are told about this place. It may be in Siberia, may be across Siberia, may be somewhere else. Across the steppes, the mountains, the everlasting taiga you should walk, for the East, for the Sun you should head and if you were given the happiness from the birth, you will see Belovodye by your own eyes. The soil is rich, the rains are warm, the sun is generous, the wheat grows by itself the whole year: no need to plow or plant. There are apples, watermelons, grapes, and in the flowers and grass there are countless herds – take them. And nobody rules it, all the will in it, all the truth lives there, this country is marvelous".
N. Roerich. Shambhala Song
The legend became popular among the Old Believers who ran from the government's terror, taxes and prison. Escaped peasants, prisoners and recruits often went to look for the mysterious land.
It is said that the legend of Belovodye was spread mostly by the Old Believers-wanderers: those people didn't accept church and public authorities; they tried to isolate themselves from the world, didn't pay taxes and tried to avoid other obligations. They ran to forgotten places of Siberia and other regions. There were some codified descriptions of the routes towards the land of freedom and truth that was often thought to be situated somewhere in Altai.
In Russian chronicles there's a tale of a monk Sergiy, who had stayed in Byzantium for a few years and then brought news about a beautiful far-away country to Russian Prince Vladimir. Prince ordered Sergiy to take some people and go and look for the country, but the travelers didn't return neither in a year, nor in a decade. Long time after that an old man appeared in Kiev naming himself as a long gone monk and described the hard and dangerous road to the country of freedom to which, again, only pure-hearted people could go. As the precise location is unknown, many travelers disappeared in South Siberia's mountains, in Middle Asia's deserts, some Old Believers went further into China looking for freedom.
Katun river in Altai mountains
Later Belovodye started to be associated with a concrete region in Altai – the glens of the rivers Bakhturma and Katun. That land officially belonged to noone as in the XVIII century Russia and Qing Empire had no established borders. This region was free of taxes and duties, people ran there to escape from government, prison, church. The population there was called wallers or the mountaineers.
We live in a rapidly changing world. As of today there is every possible piece of land marked on the map, the regions that were hard to reach are now easily populated. Traveling is fast and comfortable and doesn't threaten the life of a traveler. But who knows, maybe somewhere in the mountains there is a village of happy and wise men? Maybe it's not a coincidence that even now Tibetan citizens avoid some routes? Or maybe Shambhala is a state of mind of a free person?