The Quest for Shangri-La
Christopher McIntosh, Dr. Phil. (Oxon.)
Centre for the Study of Esotericism
University of Exeter, United Kingdom (emeritus)
The name Shangri-La was coined by the English writer James Hilton in his classic novel “Lost Horizon”, first published in 1933. Since then the name has become a synonym for an exotic, paradisical never-never land. The word is clearly derived from the legend of Shambhala. According to this tradition, Shambhala is a hidden center, located somewhere in the mountains of Central Asia, inhabited by a group of highly evolved sages. The legend had an important geopolitical aspect in the context of the struggle between Russia, China and Britain for control of Central Asia in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. At the same time, the various indigenous peoples of the region were constantly struggling to fight off the great powers. In this struggle, the Shambhala mythology was constantly invoked.
When the Bolsheviks came to power in Russia they attempted to exploit the Shambhala mythology as a way of bringing the Mongol-Tibetan region under Russian and communist hegemony. Around the same period a crazed White Russian warlord, Baron Ungern-Sternberg, was recruiting followers in the region by claiming to be acting on behalf of Shambhala. Another figure linked with the Shambhala legend is the Russian painter Nicholas Roerich who in the 1920s and 30s led expeditions through Central Asia and Mongolia, hoping to establish a new country that he envisaged as the earthly manifestation of Shambhala.
The Shangri-La/Shambhala narrative has its counterparts in both the East and West, involving other legends of remote, hallowed places. This paper provides a searching investigation into this narrative, tracing its origins and development and comparing its eastern and western versions. The paper is a revised and expanded version of a lecture delivered at the 2015 conference of the European Society for the Study of Western Esotericism, on the subject of Western Esotericism and the East, held at the University of Latvia, Riga.
Keywords: Shangri-La, James Hilton, Shambhala, Central Asia, Nicholas Roerich, Monsalvat, Never-Never-Lands
How to cite:
McIntosh, C. (2022). “The Quest for Shangri-La.” Journal of Comparative Studies 15 (44), 16–31. https://doi.org/10.59893/jcs.15(44).003