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Untold stories from the Dalai Lama’s first India visit

This excerpt from the new authoritative biography of the Tibetan leader reveals little-known facets of his life—including a vivid account of his first visit to India on Jawaharlal Nehru’s invitation

Being received by the Chögyal of Sikkim while the Panchen Lama, seen here to the left of the Dalai Lama, looks on. Gangtok, 1956. Photo courtesy: Office of his holiness The Dalai Lama
Being received by the Chögyal of Sikkim while the Panchen Lama, seen here to the left of the Dalai Lama, looks on. Gangtok, 1956. Photo courtesy: Office of his holiness The Dalai Lama

Following Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s intervention in 1956, Chairman of the Communist Party of China Mao Zedong had executed a U-turn on the proposed trip to India, and the Dalai Lama was informed that he would be permitted to go after all. Although Mao took the precaution of scheduling two consecutive visits to India by the Chinese premier Zhou Enlai during the time the Dalai Lama was to be in the country, the Chinese made the further decision not to send a large delegation to accompany the Precious Protector. As Deng Xiaoping—later to emerge as Mao’s successor—wrote, this was to be “a test" for the Dalai Lama. Mao meanwhile spoke candidly of the risks this entailed at a meeting of the Communist Party Central Committee: “It must be anticipated that the Dalai Lama may not come back, and that in addition, he may abuse us every day, making allegations such as ‘the Communists have invaded Tibet,’ and that he may go so far as to declare the ‘independence of Tibet.’ " Yet the prospect held no terror for Mao: “Shall I feel aggrieved at the desertion of one Dalai? Not at all...What harm will his departure do to us? None whatsoever. He can’t do more than curse us."

Traveling overland by car via Shigatse, where he joined up with the Panchen Lama, the Precious Protector spent a short time at Dromo, the Tibetan border town he had last seen in 1951, before continuing the journey on horseback, up the steep track that led to the Nathu Pass, before it plunged down into Sikkim on the other side. The carcasses of mules that had “probably perished from exhaustion" and “clusters of sinister-looking vultures" hopping among them that were a perennial feature of the Tibetan trade routes might have served as a prophetic warning of the fate that was to befall Tibet.

The Dalai Lama (centre) with the two tutors, Ling Rinpoché (left) and Trijang Rinpoché. India, 1956. Photo courtesy: The Office of H E Kyabje Ling Rinpoché
The Dalai Lama (centre) with the two tutors, Ling Rinpoché (left) and Trijang Rinpoché. India, 1956. Photo courtesy: The Office of H E Kyabje Ling Rinpoché

India was a revelation, however. “People," the Dalai Lama immediately saw, “expressed their real feelings and did not just say what they thought they ought to say." The arrangements were, from his perspective, rather chaotic compared with the regimentation in China, but the enthusiasm of the people won him over. Everywhere he went, he was greeted by huge crowds of well-wishers, many of whom had traveled long distances just to get a glimpse of him.

From the Indian point of view, the Tibetan delegation was something of a revelation too. The task of hosting them “was not made easier by the fact that the Lamas’ followers were explosively sensitive to the smallest niceties of protocol and were ready to draw daggers at the merest suspicion of a slight," according to one Indian official. Another challenge was the Indians’ awareness that any “accident" that might befall the Dalai Lama would be hugely advantageous to the Chinese—a mishap that would be relatively easy to arrange and then to lay at the door of the Indian government. His security was thus a constant source of anxiety, exacerbated by the tumultuous enthusiasm shown for the Tibetan leader whenever he appeared in public. A glimpse of this can be seen in the newsreels shot during his visit and in the recollections of some of those delegated to look after him.

One of the earliest known images of the 14th Dalai Lama, Kumbum Monastery, 1939. Photo courtesy: Center for Asian Studies, Arizona State University
One of the earliest known images of the 14th Dalai Lama, Kumbum Monastery, 1939. Photo courtesy: Center for Asian Studies, Arizona State University

Describing an occasion when he escorted the Panchen Lama to his quarters in Gangtok, Nari Rustomji (a government official) wrote: “We had hardly passed the Palace gates before a crowd that seemed like the entire population of Sikkim lunged madly forward, man, woman and child, with arms vainly outstretched, for a touch of the vehicle we were travelling in. I seriously feared our station wagon would be overturned, but there was no remedy as the police, themselves devout Buddhists, were too overawed by the Presence [a common epithet used by Tibetans both for the Dalai and the Panchen Lamas] to dream of controlling the crowds. Coins, currency notes, ceremonial scarves, amulets came whirring through the windows...until at last we were compelled to close them in self-defence. Our security arrangements might have served well enough for common or garden mortals, but certainly not for the Living God, whose only protection now was his own divinity."

With respect to the two lamas’ personalities, Rustomji, himself a Parsi, recalled his impressions in his autobiography: “I have often been asked whether I was ever aware of supernatural forces emanating from the Lamas’ presence. I have to confess that, for all the eager and excited anticipation of their divine immanence, they remained, for me, two very charming and sensible young men, of gentle and considerate manner, inquiring and vigorous mind and irresistibly attractive personality."

The Dalai Lama An Extraordinary Life.
The Dalai Lama An Extraordinary Life.

This attractiveness was, he also noted, not lost on some of their young female devotees, perhaps inspired by folk memories of the dissolute Sixth Dalai Lama. “It was," he wrote, “evident from the homely talk" of some of his Sikkimese friends that “there were many in Lhasa who were as carried away by the youthful charm of the Lamas as by their divinity, and they told us tales of some of their more passionate young friends whose secret purpose in seeking the Dalai Lama’s blessing was that they might be nearer the object of desire...Could it really be, wondered the belles of Lhasa, that the Dalai Lama could be utterly immune to feminine allure? It was a challenge to Venus which provoked them to higher endeavours. The Panchen, too, was not without his admirers. And wicked gossip whispered that the chinks in his armour were already showing through."

But while the Panchen Lama’s susceptibility to female charms struck Rustomji, he noted that, though the Dalai Lama “had a delightful sense of fun...there was something not of this world, ethereal and ageless, in [his] expression that moved me all the more deeply."

From the moment he set foot in the country until the day he left, eleven weeks later, the question at the forefront of the Dalai Lama’s mind was whether to return to Tibet, or was now the moment to seek asylum abroad? There were strong feelings in both directions among those closest to him. In favor of staying in India were his older brothers Gyalo Thondup and Jigme Norbu—the first already based in India, the second having flown in specially from America. Sitting up with them until midnight, the Dalai Lama recalled, “Their views really shook me." Phala, too, the Lord Chamberlain, together with one of the former tsit tsab (chief ministers), took a similar line. On the other side were the four members of the Kashag and, less vociferously, the two tutors, while the representatives of the Three Seats were firmly in favor of returning to Tibet. Also of importance was the opinion of the people of Tibet, who could be assumed to favor his return. For them to be without the Dalai Lama was to be bereaved.

From Sikkim, the Precious Protector flew to Delhi, where his first engagement was to lay flowers and a kathag (a white silk scarf) at Rajghat, in honor of Mahatma Gandhi, whose memorial stands there. The experience affected him profoundly. “It was a calm and beautiful spot," he later wrote, “and I felt very grateful to be there, the guest of a people like mine who had endured foreign domination."

The next few days in Delhi were occupied with official receptions at which he was greeted by almost every dignitary in the capital. Not only was the Dalai Lama still nominally a head of state, but also the Tibetan leader was something more than a mere political figure. For many Indians he was an avatar, a holy man without compare. Though they did not share his religion, they nonetheless eagerly sought darshan of him: a blessing and a glimpse of the divine.

The Dalai Lama in Dharamsala, 2018. He has lived in India for over 60 years now. Photo courtesy: Office of his Holiness The Dalai Lama
The Dalai Lama in Dharamsala, 2018. He has lived in India for over 60 years now. Photo courtesy: Office of his Holiness The Dalai Lama

While he was in Delhi, the Dalai Lama met with Zhou Enlai, the Chinese premier, who was en route to a number of other Asian countries. As the Dalai Lama wrote in his autobiography, he found Zhou “as full of charm, smiles and deceit as ever." Besides telling the Tibetan leader of Mao’s recent decision to delay reforms indefinitely in the Tibet Autonomous Region, Zhou assured him that if the Dalai Lama would care to accompany him back to Beijing, Chairman Mao would be glad to see the Precious Protector again and to allay in person any fears he might have. As for Gyalo Thondup and Jigme Norbu (both of whom Zhou clearly suspected of agitating for the Dalai Lama to seek asylum abroad), should they happen to be short of funds, the Chinese embassy would be happy to supply the Dalai Lama with money to give them—though it would be better if he did not disclose its source. This last was a strange remark. For all his guile, it is clear that Zhou was a less astute judge of character than his adversary.

Notwithstanding Zhou’s assurance that there would be no reforms in the Tibet Autonomous Region, it left untouched the question of what was to happen in Kham and Amdo. The violent struggle now firmly under way there was certain to continue.

From Delhi, the Precious Protector traveled to Bodh Gaya, where, to his delight, he was able to spend several days conducting ceremonies at this, the most sacred of all Buddhist pilgrimage sites. A speech he made at this time is remarkable for its prescience. Noting that in one of the sutras, or scriptures, there is a prophecy made by the Buddha that 2,500 years after his parinirvana—or passing beyond suffering—the dharma would flourish in the land of the red-faced people, he explained that some held this to refer to its spread in Tibet, “but one scholar has interpreted otherwise. According to him the prediction refers to Europe." What the Dalai Lama could not have imagined at the time was that it would be he, more than anyone else, who would bring this about. Instead, his attention was focused when, on the last day of his stay at Bodh Gaya, unexpected news came that Zhou would be returning to Delhi the following day and sought an urgent meeting with the Tibetan leader.

The Dalai Lama in a photograph from April 1959, the year he received asylum in India. Photo: Getty Images
The Dalai Lama in a photograph from April 1959, the year he received asylum in India. Photo: Getty Images

At once the Dalai Lama sent a message to one of the young Tibetan government officials who had remained behind in Delhi. He was to leave immediately for the northeastern hill town of Kalimpong, where he was to discharge the medium of the Nechung oracle from his Scottish mission hospital bed, where he was being treated for arthritis, and bring him to Delhi the very next day. This was a tall order, given the distances involved and the as yet underdeveloped state of regional air links. Nonetheless, in spite of delays necessitating some frantic negotiation with airline officials and a frosty reception from the other passengers when they finally took their seats two hours after the scheduled departure, the Nechung medium and his two attendants successfully made it back to Delhi on time. It subsequently emerged that his advice was that the Precious Protector should now seek asylum.

Meanwhile, the Dalai Lama himself had fared less well. Arriving in Delhi by train earlier that evening, he had been hijacked by the Chinese ambassador. Without informing his Indian counterparts, the ambassador met the Dalai Lama at the train station and escorted him to his own car, which drove directly to the Chinese embassy. Meanwhile the rest of the Tibetan entourage took their seats in cars provided by the Indian government. The Tibetans arrived back at Hyderabad House, where they were quartered, aghast to find that they had mislaid their precious cargo. Only after frantic telephoning was the Dalai Lama finally located and retrieved from the Chinese embassy, where he had already had the first of what was to be several meetings with Zhou Enlai. It was a stunning diplomatic coup on the part of the Chinese.

These encounters with Zhou surrounded a critical meeting with Nehru at which the Precious Protector sought to determine the prime minister’s attitude toward a formal request for asylum. The Indian leader made clear his determination not to make any commitments that would harm India’s relationship with China. Indeed, so fully was his mind made up that he barely attended to what the Precious Protector had to say: “At first he listened and nodded politely. But...after a while he appeared to lose concentration as if he were about to [fall asleep]." The Dalai Lama explained that he had done all in his power to make the relationship with China work, but that he was now beginning to think it might be better to remain in India rather than return to Tibet. This evidently brought Nehru to his senses. He understood what the Tibetan was saying, he assured him, “but you must realise...that India cannot support you." His advice was rather that the Dalai Lama should hold the Chinese to the terms of the Seventeen Point Agreement and speak out forcefully when they failed to do so.

At his subsequent meetings with Zhou, the Dalai Lama gave no indication that he was considering applying for political asylum. Indeed, the (Chinese) transcripts of the meetings have him dutifully speaking in the first-person plural when referring to Chinese government policy in Tibet. Yet it is clear also that the Chinese premier was well aware that the Tibetan leader had been making inquiries. He cautioned the Dalai Lama that, if he stayed in India, he would be in political exile. “At first when you say something bad against us as strongly as possible, you will get some money. The second and third time, when you do not have much to say against us, you will get small sums of money, and in the end they will not have money to give you."

The opposing voices of the Nechung oracle and the Chinese premier were deeply unsettling, and when he left Delhi a few days later in the company of the Panchen Lama for a month-long tour of the country, the Dalai Lama was still in a quandary.

His schedule over the next few weeks consisted of visits to various important Buddhist pilgrimage sites, interspersed with sightseeing trips to several cities including Bombay, Calcutta, Bangalore, and Mysore. These visits to places connected with the founder of Buddhism had a profound impact on the Dalai Lama—none more so than at Vulture Peak in northeastern India, where the Buddha is believed to have preached the Mahayana, or Great Vehicle, for the first time. Here—possibly in prophetic anticipation of the thousands of monks he was himself to ordain over subsequent decades—the Dalai Lama enjoyed a vision during a meditation of monks reciting the Wisdom Mantra: “Om Ga-te Ga-te, Paraga-te, Bodhi Svaha."

The visits to India’s industrial centers were of less interest. In news footage shot during this part of the visit, we see the Dalai Lama being shown around an industrial engineering project. He adjusts repeatedly an obviously uncomfortable workman’s safety helmet, and it is clear he is not enjoying the experience....

Doubtless the Indians’ intentions were to show the Tibetans that China had nothing on them in terms of material progress, but what impressed the Dalai Lama most was the enthusiasm of the people for their young democracy. The viewer of the contemporary footage is struck by the self-confidence of the crowds that attended the Precious Protector’s every public appearance. (Pilgrims could travel at half price on the railways.) On each arrival, the Dalai Lama is garlanded and presented with bouquets of flowers as the press fight for photographs and crowds cheer. In contrast, faithful Tibetans stand meekly patient in hope of catching a glimpse of the Precious One. Yet it is also instructive to look at the demeanor of the Dalai Lama himself. The pressure he felt himself under is palpable. At the Dehra Dun Military Academy he sits, evidently somewhat reluctantly, next to a copiously beribboned general, doubtless comparing the military might on display with what he had seen in China. As the presidential steam train lent to him for his journey draws slowly away from the station, he can be seen smiling and waving somewhat awkwardly in unfamiliar Western style. Following a visit to the Taj Mahal, he takes his place uncertainly behind Nehru on an elephant’s back. At the Air Force Academy he follows a more obviously eager Panchen Lama in taking a turn sitting in a training aircraft. In Calcutta he is taken to watch—without very much enthusiasm—the horseracing at the anachronistically named Royal Calcutta Turf Club. It is a relief to see him riding a miniature train with a delight exceeded only by that of the Panchen Lama, who altogether forgets the dignity of his office, veritably whooping with joy. One has a sense that here is a young man embattled, overburdened even, yet also someone determined to do his best whatever the circumstances.

The India trip ended, as it had begun, in Kalimpong. The Dalai Lama took up residence in the very same house as that occupied by the Great Thirteenth in 1911, following his own flight to exile in India when the Chinese sent an army into Lhasa. As it had long been, the town was a nest of spies (to use Nehru’s own words). To add to its febrile atmosphere was the presence of hundreds of refugees, mainly from Kham, desperate for the Dalai Lama to call them to arms. Prominent among these refugees was Gyalo Thondup, who had by now come to terms with John Hoskins, the twenty-nine-year-old head of the CIA’s Far East Division. America was by now very interested in Tibet as a way to cause trouble for the Chinese Communists. Hoskins, who was based at America’s Calcutta consulate, did not have a very favorable first impression of GT. “There was a lot of submissiveness rather than dynamism," he noted. Yet in spite of this poor initial impression, Washington decided the CIA should support the training, equipping, and insertion of an initial eight (later reduced to six) Tibetan agents. Hoskins gave Gyalo Thondup the task of recruiting the men, and he in turn involved his elder brother, Jigme Norbu. The six recruits were all Khampas, of whom four were ex-monks, one of these former ecclesiastics an especially fiery character by the name of Wangdu, who in his youth had shot a man dead for that age-old crime of “disrespect." The agency’s estimation of GT changed over time. When eventually the CIA program came to an end, its then operations director requested that Gyalo Thondup “please arrange for your next incarnation to be Prime Minister of a country where we can do more to help you!," noting that he had been extraordinarily successful in obtaining both material and political support from the United States.

It is certain that by now the Dalai Lama knew something of the CIA’s interest in supporting a resistance movement in Tibet. But Washington had not been unequivocal in championing the Tibetan cause, having failed in recent communications to make clear that it would back a resolution at the United Nations calling for Tibetan independence. Nor was it certain that the United States would recognize a Tibetan government in exile. Had Washington’s assurances been more explicit, it seems possible the Dalai Lama would have ignored the majority of his advisers, who favored returning, risked Nehru’s ire, and formally requested asylum. But in the absence of such assurances, the Tibetan leader remained uncertain.

Edited excerpts from The Dalai Lama—An Extraordinary Life, forthcoming from HarperCollins India. The writer Alexander Norman has collaborated with the Dalai Lama on several best-selling books, including the autobiography, Freedom In Exile.

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