The Dalai Lama’s 1959 escape amid suggestions of fratricide

Mayank Chhaya-


Mayank Chayya

On the 63rd anniversary today of the Dalai Lama’s escape from Lhasa, Tibet to India, Indica News is offering an exclusive excerpt from ‘The Dénouement: The 14th Dalai Lama’s life of persistence’, the only authorized biography of its kind by Mayank Chhaya.


Sometime in late 1950 as the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) prepared to overrun Tibet, a handful of its officers met Thubten Jigme Norbu. Their mission was to win Norbu over to their side and play him against his more illustrious sibling.

The deal being offered to Norbu by the Chinese interlocutors was breathtakingly cynical. “Overthrow your brother and we will make you the governor general of Tibet,” is what he was told by the officials. As if this was not startling enough the officials suggested something even more cynical — fratricide as a possible option should the Dalai Lama refuse to cooperate.

“They said they would destroy everything Tibetan, its religion, its culture, its customs and so on [in case we did not cooperate]. Norbu, 84, who runs a Tibetan cultural center in Indianapolis, Indiana, remembered vividly. They said if His Holiness does not cooperate with the Communists then I should kill him. I had to exercise a great deal of self-control in the face of such an abominable suggestion. They said those who committed such acts for the cause of communism would be rewarded with high office. I don’t know why but I always hated communism,”

“It was clear that the Chinese did not like anything about us Tibetans. They would come to me every day and tell me all sorts of things. They would criticize everything, from our habits to our clothes. They would comment on our monks’ robes saying we wasted so much cloth. They would say just wear a jacket and pants. They would then criticize religion in general and Buddhism in particular,” Norbu said.

Tibet came into Beijing’s crosshairs immediately after the rise of the Communist Party in China in 1949. Soon after the Communists took power, China’s political elite began plotting ways to “liberate” Tibet from “imperialist forces and the reactionary feudal regime in Lhasa.”  Tibetan chronicles before the Tibet was invaded have references to “supernatural” indications of the trouble ahead. One report said that during mediation in the Ganden monastery the Dalai Lama saw the statue of Yamantaka, the deity of terror and destruction, move its head and look to the east with a fierce expression. There was a series of natural disasters, including a powerful earthquake and droughts. There were also reports of freak births to both humans and animals. Temple edifices were reported to have crumbled for no apparent reason.

Among the prominent reasons used to justify their impending action against Tibetans – their habits of dress not being the least of them– the Communist Party spoke of the practice of slavery or serfdom in Tibet. In the same breath they also accused Tibetans of human sacrifice. While slavery or serfdom did exist in Tibet, where poor families often sold their children to bidders paying them shoring or the “price of mother’s milk”, it was equally prevalent in China as well. According to many estimates there were up to four million children in servitude in China in the 1930s.

There is some evidence that the ghastly ritual of human sacrifice existed in Tibet but it predated the arrival of Buddhism. In any case it did not enjoy any official sanction from the Tibetan government or the Buddhist clergy. What kept the stories about human sacrifice alive was a burial practice that some Tibetans followed. When young boys died prematurely their bodies were buried in a standing position under important buildings. In some cases instead of actual bodies images were buried. But this was not a cruel religious tradition; it was merely a form of burial.

Determined as it was to bring Tibet under its control, the Communist regime did not take much time to act. By October 1950, the PLA had entered Chamdo, the capital of Kham province and headquarters of the Tibetan Army’s Eastern Command. Kham was practically overrun by the PLA, which took the province’s Governor Ngawang Jigme Ngabo prisoner.  Simultaneously, the Chinese army was also quietly infiltrating Tibet’s northeastern border province of Amdo, ever careful that its action not attract international attention.

The mounting Chinese military presence forced the 15-year-old Dalai Lama and a band of his high government officials to evacuate the capital and set up a provisional administration near the Indian border at Yatung. The Chinese understood that the Dalai Lama’s action could send a wrong signal within and outside Tibet. In July 1951 the Dalai Lama and his select government officials were persuaded by Chinese officials to return to Lhasa.

“Even at that early age my recollection is that of a determined Chinese army bent upon taking control of Tibet. We were persuaded to return with the idea that we could still ward off any further inroads by the Chinese,” the Dalai Lama recalled some 45 years after the fact. Less than two months after the Dalai Lama and his officials invested their faith in the Chinese promises, 3,000 Chinese “liberation forces” took over Lhasa in September 1951. During the next three years Beijing moved rapidly to consolidate its hold over Tibet stationing 220,000 PLA troops there by 1954.

In April 1956, the Chinese set up the Preparatory Committee for the Autonomous Region of Tibet in Lhasa, headed by the Dalai Lama. “Quite craftily the purpose of the committee was described to be to modernize the country. It was not lost on the discerning members of the Tibetan government, including the Dalai Lama, that the committee was in effect expected to toe the Chinese lines on any imminent claims that they would make,” Tempa Tsering, a brother-in-law of the Dalai Lama and an influential functionary of the Tibetan government-in-exile, said.

In the late fifties, Lhasa became increasingly politicized and a nonviolent resistance grew with the rise of Mimang Tsongdu, a popular and spontaneous citizens’ group. Posters denouncing the occupation went up across town. Stones and dried yak dung were hurled at Chinese street parades. During that period, when the directive from Beijing was still to woo Tibetans rather than oppress them, only the more extreme Mimang Tsongdu leaders and orators faced arrest.

By February 1956, many areas in eastern Tibet were in ferment as local Kham and Amdo guerrillas inflicted heavy casualties on the Chinese army. The attacks forced the army authorities to relocate 100,000 forces from western to eastern Tibet. Attempts at disarming the fierce Khampa tribesmen escalated the resistance to the level where the PLA was compelled to begin bombing the area. Monasteries were pillaged and nobles, monks, and guerrilla leaders were arrested. Many of them were publicly tortured and executed to send a wave of terror down on others who might have contemplated joining the resistance.

The fighting in distant Kham and Amdo forced thousands of Tibetan refugees to flee to Lhasa, already inundated with 30,000-strong PLA troops who were watching nervously as the capital’s population grew dramatically. Hundreds of temporary shelters and camps sprung up on the outskirts of the capital. In the next few months revolt began brewing across Lhasa. Tens of thousands of guerrillas and ordinary Tibetans in and around Lhasa began locking themselves into combat with the Chinese troops as winter came in 1958. By end of 1958 a full-scale revolt was staring the Chinese military command in the eye. Finally, they had to pull out their trump card—threaten to bomb the Dalai Lama’s palace if the revolt was not contained.

“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 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,” 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 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.  Two days later they reached Tawang, which was the headquarters of the North East Frontier Agency (NEFA). The region is now known as Arunachal Pradesh, one of  India’s twenty seven states.

“We were all very tired. I remember I had an attack of dysentery, a problem I found was quite common to India. I was in India, the land of our spiritual inspiration. I was both happy and sad, sad that we were forced to leave our home but happy that we were in India where Buddhism began,” the Dalai Lama said.

On April 3, India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru told parliament that New Delhi had granted asylum to the Dalai Lama, his family and others who had accompanied him.

On April 18, the Dalai Lama along with his mother, sister, brother, three ministers and some 80 others left for Tezpur, Assam. He was received by Indian officials and nearly 200 journalists who had gathered there to cover what they called “the story of  the century.”

“I remember journalists were curious about everything, about who I was, how I propose to deal with the occupation of Tibet, when I planned to go back. These days when I think about that time I tell myself that the questions have not changed. I am still in India and the Chinese are still in Tibet,” the Dalai Lama said in a rare wistful moment.

Among the pronouncements that the Dalai Lama made at Tezpur was a strong repudiation of the Seventeen-Point Agreement* of May, 1951, which he said China made him sign “under duress” in Beijing.

The Dalai Lama and his entourage did not quite know what the future held for them in India. They did not know where they would be resettled. They did not know how long they would live in the country. The only thing they knew was that they were refugees, very important but refugees nevertheless. “It struck me immediately that I had lost my home. At that point I did not know how long my exile would be but I sensed it was not going to be a short one,” the Dalai Lama said. The entourage was told by the government of India that the Dalai Lama would be offered an exile home in Mussoorie, a scenic Himalayan hill town in north India. It was known that that would at best be a temporary arrangement. The Dalai Lama’s staff was indicated that Nehru had decided that eventually they would be shifted to a quaint Himalayan hamlet called McLeod Ganj in the state of Himachal Pradesh. “It did not really matter where as long as the place was not very hot,” the Dalai Lama said.

(Excerpted from the only authorized biography of the Dalai Lama of its kind ‘The Dénouement: The 14th Dalai Lama’s life of persistence’ by Mayank Chhaya. The chapter was written years before the demise of Thubten Jigme Norbu, the Dalai Lama’s elder brother in 2008. The book can be bought at )