GREAT FIGURES OF THE MISSIONARY WORK – Bengal and the Kingdom of the Dragon (67)

– Joaquim Magalhães de Castro

In the course of their investigations into the mythical kingdom of Cataio, which they had so far failed to identify, the Jesuits João Cabral and Estevão Cacela would hear of another mysterious kingdom named Xembala, “close to another one called Sopo,” as we can read in Cacela’s Relation. The priest knew that the so-called Sopo kingdom was inhabited by the Tartars (Mongols), “as we understand by the war that this king has with China,” adding later that, although the kingdom of China was populated by many more people, “Sopo’s are more hardworking,” and so it was their habit to beat the Chinese in every battle they fought. In what concerns further geographical clarification of the surrounding region, Cacela’s letter states: “Neither China nor Tartary nor Tibet are known by these names. China is known as Guena, Tartary as Sopo, and Tibet as Potente.” And it is from this line of reasoning that Cacela comes to an important conclusion: Xembala and Cathay were one and the same kingdom. In his words: “And as the Kingdom of Cathay is very large and the only one that stays by this band next to the Tartars, according to the descriptions of the maps, we seem to be able with some probability to consider that it is what they call Xembala.”

For the first time, this fictional place called Shambala was described to Europeans (Shambala, a Sanskrit word, has the threefold meaning of “peace,” “tranquility” and “happiness”) whose myth would originate, centuries later, the Shangri-La described by English author James Hilton in his Lost Horizon, a novel that has been transposed to the big screen by Frank Capra (1937) and by Charles Jarrot (1973), which we will analyze here next week.

Just then, Cacela shows a desire to continue the journey, leaving Father Cabral in Bhutan to distract the monarch. The Jesuit admits of the enormous difficulties that he would go through until he reached the much desired territory, where, once the next stage was reached – that is, the arrival in Shigatse, in Central Tibet, and the establishment of a Catholic mission there – he intended to make a future trip. Cacela writes: “It is not possible for us to leave together, in view of the resolution of this man (i.e Shabdrung) that we should not go forward, and thus, to serve our Lord, Father João Cabral will stay in this house and church that the King gave us, preaching the Holy Gospel to these people …, and seeing together the fruit that this Kingdom may bring forth in souls …; and I with the help of the Lord, I will endeavor to pass into the Kingdom of Xembala, which may be either in it, or in one of those who stand in the midst of it, may God our Lord have prepared occasions for His greatest service. I will be warning Your Reverence next year of all we may have heard.”

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