Dalai Lama’s thrilling and life-threatening escape from Lhasa, 64 years ago today

By Mayank Chhaya-

Sixty-four years ago today 24-year-old Tenzin Gyatso, better known as the 14th Dalai Lama, escaped from his 1000-room residence of the Potala Palace on a harrowing three-week journey to India. Close to six and half decades after being forced to flee in the face of threats to his life, the Dalai Lama is as far away from his former home as he has ever been.

Although Tibet’s tensions with China were steadily building up since an army of 80,000 soldiers of the People’s Liberation Army had crossed the Drichu river east of Chamdo in October, 1950, it was on March 10, 1959 that things came to a boil for the Dalai Lama.

On November 17, 1950, the 15-year-old Dalai Lama was officially enthroned as the temporal leader of some six million Tibetans. The next nine years witnessed Sino-Tibetan relations steadily deteriorate with Beijing intensifying its stranglehold on what is one-fourth of China. According to the Dalai Lama’s official biography, “The next nine years saw His Holiness trying to evade a full-scale military takeover of Tibet by China on the one hand and placating the growing resentment among Tibetan resistance fighters against the Chinese aggressors on the other. His Holiness made a historic visit to China from July 1954 to June 1955 and met with Mao Zedong and other Chinese leaders, including Chou Enlai, Zhu Teh and Deng Xiaoping. From November 1956 to March 1957 His Holiness visited India to participate in the 2500th Buddha Jayanti celebrations. When the young Dalai Lama was taking his final monastic examinations in Lhasa in the winter of 1958/59 disheartening reports of increasing brutality against his people continued to pour in.”

It was on March 10, 1959, that Chinese General Zhang Chenwu invited the Dalai Lama to attend a theatrical performance by a Chinese dance troupe. On the face of it, it was an innocuous invitation. However, when the Chinese authorities revised the invitation new conditions that no Tibetan soldiers should accompany the Dalai Lama and that his bodyguards be unarmed, alarms went of in the Potala.

Here is an excerpt about what transpired from my authorized 2007 biography of the Dalai Lama ‘Man, Monk, Mystic’ published in close to 25 languages worldwide.

“I remember as 1959 began I was so preoccupied with the finals of Geshe Lharampa, [the doctorate in Buddhist philosophy with emphasis on metaphysics]. Metaphysics is a very tough subject and requires a lot of concentration. Even the Dalai Lama has to study seriously. He cannot cheat and pass,” the Dalai Lama said, laughing. “But I also had the events outside the Jokhang (temple) on my mind. Lhasa was not happy those days. People were angry at the presence of the PLA.”

On March 1, 1959, two junior Chinese army officers paid a visit to the Dalai Lama at the Jokhang, is the spiritual hub of Tibetan Buddhism. Built in 647 during the rule of Songtsen Gampo, the temple was also a place of learning for the Dalai Lamas. The ostensible reason for the visit by the two soldiers was to invite him for a performance and tea at the Chinese army headquarters. They wanted him to commit to a date right then. “I said I could do so only once the ceremonies surrounding my final exams were completed,” the Dalai Lama said.

Tempa Tsering (the Dalai Lama’s brother-in-law) put the invitation in perspective. “This visit was extraordinary for many reasons but I can tell you the two most important ones. For one invitations of such nature are always conveyed through the Kashag [the Tibetan cabinet]. For another, such parties were normally held at the palace and not at the military headquarters. Something was not right about that invitation,” he said.

“In those days of 1959 there was something odd in Lhasa’s air. You could sense that we were in serious trouble and that had nothing to with just the presence of a large number Chinese troops. They were merely symptoms of the time,” the Dalai Lama’s elder brother Thubten Jigme Norbu said.

Five days after the two junior army officers met the Dalai Lama at the Jokhang, General Tan Kuan-sen, one of the three military bosses of Lhasa, called the chief official abbot to inquire when the Dalai Lama would attend the performance at the army camp. After some back and forth March 10 was fixed. March 8 was Women’s Day on which the Chinese general Tan Kuan-sen used to hector the people of Lhasa and threaten to bomb monasteries unless the Khampas relented in their attacks.

On the morning of March 9 two Chinese officers visited the commander of the Dalai Lama’s bodyguards., requesting that the commander meet Brigadier Fu at the military headquarters. What Fu had to tell the commander was portentous. Fu said the Dalai Lama’s visit to the army headquarters from the Norbulingka Palace would have to be without any ceremony. No bodyguards would be allowed to accompany the Dalai Lama and no Tibetan soldiers would not be allowed inside the headquarters.

“That seemed like a clear signal since His Holiness was always accompanied by a retinue of 25 armed guards on such visits. People of Lhasa would invariably line up the route of his journey. What the Chinese were asking us to do sounded very suspicious,” Tsering said.

“I was told by my aides that the Chinese were up to no good. I did not want to make an issue out of it since I wanted to gauge the Chinese mind,” the Dalai Lama said. However, Lhasa’s citizenry thought otherwise. On the day of the scheduled visit some 300,000 Tibetans surrounded the palace in order to prevent the Dalai Lama from visiting the Chinese headquarters.

“I remember the huge crowd outside the palace. I remember people were quite anxious. I remember that they did not want me to leave the palace because they feared for my safety. They thought I might be forcibly taken to Beijing to attend the Chinese National Assembly. Looking at their emotions I had no choice but to decide against the visit to the army headquarters,” the Dalai Lama said.

That decision turned out to be fateful. From that point onward life started spiraling out of control in Lhasa. Two days later thousands of women took to the streets carrying banners “Tibet for Tibetans”. A delegation of women presented an appeal for help to the Indian Consulate. An Indian diplomatic source, who was present at the time, said, “Although the people in Lhasa seemed feisty and determined to take on the Chinese, it was obvious to anyone who bothered to go beyond the obvious that the Tibetans had already lost their land to the PLA. I knew we were seeing the last days of an autonomous Tibet.”

With the Dalai Lama turning down the invitation, the battle lines were drawn in Lhasa between the Tibetans and the Chinese. Mimang Tsongdu members went around barricading narrow streets even as the Chinese troops were fortifying their positions.

The Dalai Lama and his aides began to plan a move that was to change his life and the history of Tibet for ever. They decided to escape.

“I knew my stay in Lhasa was no longer tenable. In my private moments I felt sad that I had no option but to leave,” the Dalai Lama recalled nearly 40 years (t is 64 years now) later, sitting on an ochre-colored sofa in his private study in McLeod Ganj one afternoon. He looked reflective, nostalgic and somewhat emotional. “You see too much was going on for me to stay. My aides thought if I had to leave in order to stay alive.”

According to Tibetan records, on March 15, 3000 of the Dalai Lama’s bodyguards left Lhasa to take up their positions along his likely escape route. The Khampa tribesmen, whom the Chinese wanted the Dalai Lama to rein in, deployed some of their most trusted men at strategic points. Nearly 50,000 Chinese troops were breathing down in Lhasa armed with heavy arms and outnumbering the Tibetan forces several times over.

On March 17, Lhasa woke up with knots in its stomach.  Something seemed amiss. By the afternoon, the Chinese gave up all pretense of a “peaceful accession” of Tibet. The army fired two mortar shells at the summer palace of Norbulingka. Their rounds fell short of the palace walls but landed close enough for the Dalai Lama to make up his mind.

“Everybody in the palace said I ought to leave immediately. I was not sure since I wanted to stay back for the people of my country. I was told if I stayed alive I could still make a difference,” the Dalai Lama said.

The penultimate hour came at 10 p.m. that night. In an action fraught with symbolism the time the Dalai Lama was forced to discard his ochre robes and instead wear a soldier’s uniform and carry a gun. He set out on the long journey to India. Two days later fierce fighting broke out with poorly armed civilian Tibetans engaging the Chinese troops in hand-to-hand combat. Hundreds of shells were fired at the Norbulingka. Tibetan sources say thousands were killed in the next few days. Two hundred members of the Dalai Lama’s bodyguards were executed publicly by a firing squad. Three of Lhasa’s most important monasteries, Ganden, Sera, and Drepung were bombed and severely damaged. According to one estimate over 86,000 Tibetans were killed in a span of a few days in the aftermath of the Dalai Lama’s escape.

After two weeks of treacherous mountainous journey on horseback, the Dalai Lama and the officials accompanying him reached the Indian border at Khenzimane Pass on March 31, 1959.

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