The invention of Shangri-La

- through Francois Leclercq

Published on

James Hilton, in his novel The lost horizons, imagined in 1933 a paradise hidden in the icy expanses of the Himalayas.

The lost horizons. It is a superb title, which the novelist James Hilton gave, in 1933, to his most famous work. The plot follows a British Empire official, Hugh Conway. He disappeared towards Afghanistan before reappearing, a year and a half later, upset and amnesic, in a Tibetan monastery in eastern China. One of his compatriots then collects his testimony while Hugh Conway regains his memory.

We won't tell the plot any further, to leave you the pleasure of (re)discovering these Lost horizons – a book also adapted for the cinema by Frank Capra in 1937. What matters is that James Hilton had just invented the name of a place as magical as it is timeless, Shangri-La, where his hero had stayed.

Shangri-La is described as a magnificent, inaccessible Tibetan monastery in the heart of the most secret stretches of the northern Himalayas, probably the Kunlun Mountains (1). It is reached by a hidden path, literally seeming to plunge into a precipice. At the heart of this so-called Blue Moon Valley, overlooked by a gigantic mountain in the shape of a pyramid, reigns a tropical climate which allows a prosperous community to live, feeding about fifty "lamas" under the leadership of a Christian monk. These sages have a particularity: their existence can last for several centuries, even if they are not immortal.

Shangri-La, city of serenity

The place also houses an important library, which its occupants regularly enrich with the most inspiring spiritual publications, written by humanity over the centuries. All links with the outside are not broken, there is always a lost traveler, or a determined sherpa, to bring new texts or visitors. The latter can thus access wisdom and happiness while aging more slowly… But the price to pay is not to leave. Let one of them flee this place, and his real age catches up with him, turning him into an old man and then into a mummy.

James Hilton had dreamed of Shangri-La as a timeless place, reserved for a handful of initiates, allowing all the wisdom of humanity to be preserved intact.

Since the publication of Lost horizons, reputedly the first paperback to become a bestseller, Shangri-La has gone through many versions. James Hilton was probably inspired by the writings of the Theosophical Society (2) and the accounts of the first Christian missionaries in China, in the 3th century, to create this imaginary place. Several authors have, however, hinted that this story could cover some aspects of reality. The search for secret monasteries in Tibet, the "beyul", has a long history, which has led to the writing of numerous books, in particular about the kingdom of Shambala (XNUMX). The name Shangri-La, synonymous with serenity, has also been given to the summer residence of the presidents of the United States (the resort has since been renamed Camp David) as well as to a chain of hotels and a company of aviation in Asia.

Lately, Chinese power has appropriated the myth. The old Tibetan village of Gyalthang (in Chinese Zhongdian, Yunnan province), which houses a very important Buddhist monastery, was renamed Shangri-La and rebuilt anew. The objective is to transform it into a tourist complex to attract crowds of curious people. Nobody knows what James Hilton would have thought of it, he who had dreamed of Shangri-La as a place out of time, reserved for a handful of initiates, allowing all the wisdom of humanity to be preserved intact.

photo of author

Francois Leclercq

François Leclercq is the founder of Buddhist News, a website which aims to disseminate information and practical advice on Buddhism and spirituality. François Leclercq was born and raised in Paris. He studied Buddhism at the University of Paris-Sorbonne, where he graduated in social sciences and psychology. After graduating, he devoted himself to his passion for Buddhism and traveled the world to study and learn about different practices. He notably visited Tibet, Nepal, Thailand, Japan and China.

Leave comments