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Rare Photos Reveal Tibet 100 Years Ago

Contemporary Tibet conjures a mysterious mental image. Situated at the highest elevation on Earth, it is historically hotly contested territory with a large nomadic and religious population. So imagine how much more mysterious it was 100 years ago — when travel was difficult and few foreigners were granted entry.

Now part of Tibet's unseen history is coming into light, with an auction in London on Tuesday of photographs taken more than a century ago, during the 1903 British mission to Tibet. The photographs, taken by British political officer John Claude White, are the first known images to have left the country.

  • An album of extremely rare photographs taken in Tibet circa 1903 is being auctioned by Bonhams in London. These are the first known photographs to ever come out of the country.
    Hide caption
    An album of extremely rare photographs taken in Tibet circa 1903 is being auctioned by Bonhams in London. These are the first known photographs to ever come out of the country.
    Courtesy of Bonhams
  • The photographs were taken by John Claude White, an officer during a British campaign in Tibet. It was the first time the British had been given access to the country.
    Hide caption
    The photographs were taken by John Claude White, an officer during a British campaign in Tibet. It was the first time the British had been given access to the country.
    Courtesy of Bonhams
  • According to the auction news release, "Officially the mission's purpose was to settle a border dispute between Sikkim and Tibet, but it turned into a full-scale invasion with the aim of establishing a strong British presence." Britain's goal was to prevent Russia from gaining power.
    Hide caption
    According to the auction news release, "Officially the mission's purpose was to settle a border dispute between Sikkim and Tibet, but it turned into a full-scale invasion with the aim of establishing a strong British presence." Britain's goal was to prevent Russia from gaining power.
    Courtesy of Bonhams
  • The British essentially forced their way into what had historically been a very closed country. And during the expedition, led by Major Francis Younghusband, nearly 700 Tibetan monks were killed at the village of Guru.
    Hide caption
    The British essentially forced their way into what had historically been a very closed country. And during the expedition, led by Major Francis Younghusband, nearly 700 Tibetan monks were killed at the village of Guru.
    Courtesy of Bonhams
  • David Park, Bonhams director of books, maps and manuscripts says in the news release, "These are amazing early images of a country which was long closed to the West."
    Hide caption
    David Park, Bonhams director of books, maps and manuscripts says in the news release, "These are amazing early images of a country which was long closed to the West."
    Courtesy of Bonhams
  • The album has been passed down through generations of the photographer's family.
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    The album has been passed down through generations of the photographer's family.
    Courtesy of Bonhams
  • Much remains to be discovered about this highly secretive culture, but these images provide an incredibly unique insight into what life was like in Tibet at the turn of the century.
    Hide caption
    Much remains to be discovered about this highly secretive culture, but these images provide an incredibly unique insight into what life was like in Tibet at the turn of the century.
    Courtesy of Bonhams

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David Park, director of books, maps and manuscripts at Bonhams, discussed the mysterious photographs with Morning Edition host Renee Montagne — like this one of a group of Tibetan nuns:

Tibet, circa 1903

A portrait of Tibetan women circa 1903 is one of many in the album being auctioned. Courtesy of Bonhams hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy of Bonhams

"Their heads were shaved, apparently, and they wore these astonishing wigs on top," Park said. "They seem to be quite happy even though they're being photographed by an invading force."

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