When the Nazis sent scientists to the Himalayas
In 1938, Heinrich Himmler, a leading member of Germanys Nazi party and a key architect of the Holocaust, sent a five-member team to Tibet to search for the origins of the supposed Aryan race. Author Vaibhav Purandare recounts the fascinating story of this expedition, which passed through India.
Adolf Hitler believed that "Aryan" Nordic people had entered India from the north some 1,500 years earlier, and that the Aryans had committed the "crime" of mixing with the local "un-Aryan" people, losing the attributes that had made them racially superior to all other people on earth.
Hitler regularly expressed deep antipathy for the Indian people and their struggle for freedom, articulating his sentiments in his speeches, writings and debates.
Those who swore by the idea of a white Nordic superior race were believers in the tale of the imagined lost city of Atlantis, where people of "the purest blood" had apparently once lived. Believed to have been situated somewhere between England and Portugal in the Atlantic Ocean, this mythical island allegedly sunk after being struck by a divine thunderbolt.
All the Aryans who survived had supposedly moved on to more secure places. The Himalayan region was believed to be one such refuge, Tibet in particular because it was famous for being "the roof of the world".
In 1935, Himmler set up a unit within the SS called the Ahnenerbe - or Bureau of Ancestral Heritage - to find out where people from Atlantis had gone after the bolt from the blue and the deluge, and where traces of the great race still remained and could be discovered.
Two of the teams members stood out from the rest. One was Ernst Schafer, a gifted 28-year-old zoologist who had been to the India-China-Tibet border twice earlier. Schafer had joined the SS soon after the Nazi triumph of 1933, long before Himmler became his patron for the Tibet expedition.
Schafer was crazy about hunting and loved to gather trophies in his Berlin home. On one hunting expedition, while attempting to shoot a duck from a boat he and his wife were in, he slipped when taking aim and shot his wife in the head accidentally, killing her.
The second key man was Bruno Beger, a young anthropologist who had joined the SS in 1935. Beger would take measurements of the skulls and facial details of Tibetans and make face masks, he said, "especially to collect material about the proportions, origins, significance and development of the Nordic race in this region".
The ship carrying the five Germans docked at Colombo in Sri Lanka early in May 1938. From there, they took another one to Madras (now Chennai) and a third one to Calcutta (now Kolkata).