Travel writing has always been plagued with spurious facts, exaggerated claims and barefaced lies, from fantastical beasts geographer Pausanias’s Guide to Greece in the second century AD to Louis de Rougement’s serialised Australasian adventures for the Victorian Wide World Magazine, most of which he gleaned from the reading room of the British Museum.
When it comes to accounts of exotic climes, however, none is quite so extraordinary – or enduring – as The Third Eye, written in 1956 by a person who called himself Tuesday Lobsang Rampa. This spiritual travelogue covers Rampa’s early life in Lhasa, his years in a Tibetan monastery, encounters with yetis, yogic flying and other Buddhist mysteries. The book sold half a million copies in its first two years, making Rampa something of a celebrity.
He did, however, have his detractors. Rampa’s wild claims – not to mention his West Country burr – led Tibetologist Heinrich Harrer to hire a private detective. What this gumshoe uncovered surprised even his employer. Not only had Rampa never been to Tibet, he didn’t even own a passport. He was a former plumber from Devon called Cyril Hoskin who damaged his back by falling out of a tree while owl-spotting. During convalescence he had, it seems, settled on a drastic career change.
The media was scandalised; Hoskin was unrepentant. Cheerfully admitting that he’d never been to Tibet, he now claimed that as he lay semi-conscious at the bottom of a tree that fateful afternoon, half-strangled by his binoculars, an elderly lama (monk) had floated by on the astral plane and the pair had agreed to swap bodies. (Whether, in 1950s Tibet, an elderly lama ever claimed to be a West Country plumber remains unverified.)
Rampa nevertheless garnered a global following. His 20 books range from an interstellar travel memoir entitled My Visit to Venus to Living with the Lama, transmitted to him telepathically by his cat, Mrs Fifi Greywhiskers.
History should not judge Rampa, who died in 1981, too harshly. Many leading Tibetologists admit that he set them on their paths, and the Dalai Lama has acknowledged Rampa’s role in drawing attention to the plight of his country. “The farther one travels, the less one knows,” sang George Harrison in 1968’s The Inner Light. With lockdown making travel writing almost impossible, fellow freelancers take note. A ripe imagination, decent broadband and a trickster’s cunning are perhaps all you need.
• The Third Eye (Ballantine Books, £7.99) remains the UK’s bestselling book on Tibet
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