Etimology of Shangri-La

Shangri-La is a fictional place described in the 1933 novel Lost Horizon by British author James Hilton. In the book, “Shangri-La” is a mystical, harmonious valley, gently guided from a lamasery, enclosed in the western end of the Kunlun Mountains. Shangri-La has become synonymous with any earthly paradise but particularly a mythical Himalayan utopia — a permanently happy land, isolated from the outside world. In the novel Lost Horizon, the people who live at Shangri-La are almost immortal, living years beyond the normal lifespan and only very slowly aging in appearance. The word also evokes the imagery of exoticism of the Orient. In the ancient Tibetan scriptures, existence of seven such places is mentioned as Nghe-Beyul Khimpalung.[1]


The use of the term Shangri-La is frequently cited as a modern reference to Shambhala, a mythical kingdom in Tibetan Buddhist tradition, which was sought by Eastern and Western explorers; Hilton was also inspired by then-current National Geographic articles on Tibet, which referenced the legend.

The phrase “Shangri-La” most probably comes from the Tibetan ཞང་,”Shang” – a district of Ü-Tsang, north of Tashilhunpo[2]” + རི, pronounced “ri”, “Mountain” = “Shang Mountain” + , Mountain Pass, which suggests that the area is accessed to, or is named by, “Shang Mountain Pass”.Etymology of Shangri-La


Several places in the Himalaya in Nepal have claimed to be the location for Hilton’s fictional Shangri-La, largely to attract tourism.

In China, the poet Tao Yuanming (陶淵明) of the Jin Dynasty (265-420) described a kind of Shangri-La in his work “The Tale of the The Peach Blossom Spring (simplified Chinese: 桃花源记; traditional Chinese: 桃花源記; pinyinTáohuā Yuán Jì). The story goes that there was a fisherman from Wuling, who came across a beautiful peach grove, and he discovered happy and content people that lived completely cut off from the troubles in the outside world since the Qin Dynasty (221–207 BCE).[3] In modern China, the Zhongdian county was renamed to Xiānggélǐlā (香格里拉, Shangri-La in Chinese) in 2001, to attract tourists. The legendary Kun Lun Mountains (昆侖山) offer another possible place for the Shangri-La valleys.

A popularly believed inspiration for Hilton’s Shangri-La is the Hunza Valley in northern Pakistan, close to the Chinese border, which Hilton visited a few years before Lost Horizon was published.[4] Being an isolated green valley surrounded by mountains, enclosed on the western end of the Himalayas, it closely matches the description in the novel. A Shangri-La resort in the nearby Skardu valley is a popular tourist attraction.

Today, various places claim the title, such as parts of southern Kham in southwestern Yunnan province, including the tourist destinations ofLijiang and Zhongdian. Places like Sichuan and Tibet also claim the real Shangri-La was in its territory. In 2001, Tibet Autonomous Regionput forward a proposal that the three regions optimise all Shangri-la tourism resources and promote them as one. After failed attempts to establish a China Shangri-la Ecological Tourism Zone in 2002 and 2003, government representatives of Sichuan and Yunnan provinces and Tibet Autonomous Region signed a declaration of cooperation in 2004. Also in 2001, Zhongdian County in northwestern Yunnan officially renamed itself Shangri-La County.

Bhutan, which until 1999[dubious – discuss] was largely isolated from the outside world and has its unique form of Buddhism, has been hailed as the last Shangri-La.[citation needed]

Another place that has been thought to have inspired the concept of Shangri-La is the Yarlung Tsangpo Canyon.

Television presenter and historian Michael Wood, in the “Shangri-La” episode of the PBS documentary series In Search of Myths and Heroes, suggests that the legendary Shangri-La is the abandoned city of Tsaparang, and that its two great temples were once home to the kings of Guge in modern Tibet.

American explorers Ted Vaill and Peter Klika visited the Muli area of southern Sichuan Province in 1999, and revealed that the Mulimonastery in this remote region was the model for James Hilton’s Shangri-La, which Hilton learned about from articles on this area in severalNational Geographic magazine articles in the late 1920s and early 1930s written by Austrian-American explorer Joseph Rock.[5] Vaill completed a film based on their research, “Finding Shangri-La”, which debuted at the Cannes Film Festival in 2007.

On December 2, 2010, OPB televised one of Martin Yan’s Hidden China episodes “Life in Shangri-La”, in which Yan said that “Shangri-La” is the actual name of a real town in the hilly and mountainous region in northwestern Yunnan Province, frequented by both Han and Tibetan locals. Martin Yan visited arts and craft shops, local farmers as they harvest crops, and sampled their cuisine.

Modern usage

There are a number of modern Shangri-La pseudo-legends that have developed since 1933 in the wake of the novel and the film made from it. The Nazis had an enthusiasm for Shangri-La, where they hoped to find an ancient master race similar to the Nordic race, unspoiled byBuddhism. They sent one expedition to Tibet, led by Ernst Schäfer in 1938.[clarification needed]

Another pseudo-legend involves the Ojai Valley as the location for the 1937 Frank Capra film Lost Horizon. The outdoor scenes of the villagers of Shangri-La and a cavorting Ronald Colman and Jane Wyatt were in fact filmed in nearby Sherwood Forest (Westlake Village) and Palm Springs. The exterior of the grand lamasery was built and later dismantled on the Columbia Ranch in Burbank, California.[6][dead link] However, according to film historian Kendall Miller in the photodocumentary bonus feature on the “Lost Horizon” DVD, an aerial shot of Ojai Valley taken from an outlook on Highway 150 was used to represent the Shangri-La valley.

United States President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, being considerably fond of Hilton’s novel, named the presidential retreat, now known asCamp David, “Shangri-La” in 1942. After the Doolittle Raid on Tokyo in April 1942, when asked where the bombers came from, he quipped “Shangri-La”. Later in the war, the United States Navy would launch an Essex class aircraft carrier named the Shangri-La (CV 38), as a result of this reference.

In 1937, Lutcher Stark, a Texas philanthropist, started building his own Shangri-La in Orange, Texas. His Shangri-La was an azalea garden situated alongside a cypresstupelo swamp. By 1950, thousands of people were traveling to Orange to visit Shangri La, and many magazines published photographs of it. In 1958, a major snowstorm struck east Texas, destroying thousands of azaleas and closing the garden for 40 years. The garden has recently been renovated and is now open to the public once again.[citation needed]

Use as metaphor and figure of speech

Shangri-La is often used in a similar context to “Garden of Eden“, to represent a paradise hidden from modern man. It is sometimes used as an analogy for a life-long quest or something elusive that is much sought. For a man who spends his life obsessively looking for a cure to a disease, such a cure could be said to be that man’s “Shangri-La”. It also might be used to represent perfection that is sought by man in the form of love, happiness, or Utopian ideals. It may be used in this context alongside other mythical and famous examples of somewhat similar metaphors such as The Holy GrailEl Dorado and The Fountain of Youth.

Politically and geographically, the independent and previously independent nations isolated from the West, such as TibetNepalBhutan,SikkimTuvaMongolia, the Tocharian Tushara Kingdom of the Mahābhārata and the Han Dynasty outpost Dunhuang have each been termed Shangri-Las.


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