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The Dalai Lama: 65 Years of Tibetan Resilience

For Tibetans, the Dalai Lama remains a beacon of hope for a future free from oppressive Chinese rule that seeks to erase their identity, culture, and religion.



His Holiness the Dalai Lama watches as the candidates for ordination at his residence in Dharamsala, India on March 26, 2023. (Inside image ©The Office of His Holiness the Dalai Lama by Tenzin Jamphel)

On March 31, 1959, the 14th (present) Dalai Lama of Tibet arrived in India on a shaggy-haired yak by crossing the border at Khenzimane. Spending perhaps the darkest and most gruesome last night in his homeland, the Dalai Lama traveled arduously for a fortnight following his departure from Lhasa. 

Upon arrival in India, the first Indian post that the Dalai Lama reached was at Chuthangmu, north of Tawang (then part of Kameng Frontier Division). Following a stay in Bomdila, the Dalai Lama traveled to the hills of northern India. There, he set up the Tibetan Government-in-exile in April 1959, his residence from then till date.

Indeed, the Dalai Lama has traveled far. It is 65 years since that passage to India, and over a century of India's deep-rooted relationship with Tibet, the country. Ever since he led the Tibetan people as a 24-year-old through the shattering Chinese invasion of Tibet, he has lived his entire life in the dream that perhaps, one day, he would see a Tibet freed from the clutches of communist Chinese rule. Contemporary Tibet's isolation, culturally, and situationally remains tragic.

The 14th Dalai Lama fled from Tibet to Tawang in India in 1959. (©The Office of His Holiness the Dalai Lama)

Historical Ties

The history of Chinese betrayal of Tibet goes far back. Prior to the present Dalai Lama, his predecessor, the 13th Dalai Lama (1876–1933) fled first to Mongolia in 1904, and thereafter to China. Upon his arrival in Peking, as it was called then, the Chinese did not accord him the same honor that his antecedents had received from the previous Mongol Emperors. 

From the earliest times, the political relations between Tibet and China were based primarily on the special personal equation shared by the chair of the Dalai Lamas and the Mongol Emperors.

With the collapse of the Manchu Dynasty in 1912 following the Chinese rebellion, the relationship ceased to exist. By 1909, the new Chinese military administrator Chao Erh-feng was actively pushing troops towards Lhasa launching attacks in three Tibetan provinces.

Upon the 13th Dalai Lama's return to Tibet from China, the Chao — appointed "Resident of Tibet" — was known to be committing excesses through his troops. He was destroying monasteries, looting monastic properties, and tearing up sacred books. 

China's Betrayal

It was during this stint that the 13th Dalai Lama met Charles Bell whose work Portrait of a Dalai Lama (1946) remains amongst the finest accounts on Tibet and its chequered history. 

Bell's work chronicles personal conversations with the 13th Dalai Lama in which the latter described how the Chinese military converted leaves from holy Tibetan scriptures as soles for soldiers' boots. In the wake of the growing Chinese aggression and atrocities, the 13th Dalai Lama too, much like his successor, was compelled to flee to Darjeeling.


Subsequently, the Chinese Revolution of 1912 overthrew the Qing (Manchu) dynasty. This was also the time when the 13th Dalai Lama returned from India to Tibet. The Chinese Revolution directly impacted Chinese authority in Tibet. The strains started becoming visible when in 1913-14 during a conference held in Delhi, the Chinese, Tibetan, and British envoys (Henry McMahon, assisted by Charles Bell) held discussions. Most significant was the point that the Tibetans were to have greater self-determination. Although the agreement was initialed, the Chinese refused to proceed with the full signature.

The August 1912 agreement between the Chinese and Tibetan representatives in the presence of Gorkha witnesses discussed a "three-point" proposal. It clearly stated that the Chinese officials and soldiers would leave Tibet within 15 days. However, as he drew nearer to Lhasa in 1912, the 13th Dalai Lama uncovered that the government of China had broken its pledges of not interfering with Tibet or his position.

The 14th Dalai Lama at the Main Tibetan Temple in Dharamsala, India on September 5, 2023. (©The Office of His Holiness the Dalai Lama by Tenzin Choejor)

Tibet's Struggle and Hope

Basil Gould, a British trade agent posted in Gyantse from 1912-13, describes the life and times of Tibet in his notes published in November 1949. He wrote that the problem of Tibet's future was whether China would continue to seek to dominate and destroy Tibetan national identity, religion, and its distinct culture. Suffice to conclude that Gould's notes on Tibet's history have become its present-day destiny, in a fateful paradox.

History often tends to repeat itself. As Spanish philosopher Jorge Agustín Santayana wrote in The Life of Reason, "Those who cannot remember the past, are condemned to repeat it." I could best conclude by stating that there never was a long walk to freedom for Tibet or for the holy chair of the successive Dalai Lamas. 

Those working inside Tibet have witnessed the faith of Tibetans in making themselves more self-assured. They teach the Tibetan language at night when they are barred from teaching it during the daytime. They travel as far as needed to provide decent healthcare to all remote Tibetan communities, while the Chinese state apparatus has reportedly abandoned them. The Tibetans inside Tibet would want to be the best stewards of their homeland, in the hope against hope.


Author: Dr Monika Chansoria

Learn more about Dr Chansoria and follow her column "All Politics is Global" on JAPAN Forward, and on X (formerly Twitter). The views expressed here are those of the author and do not reflect the views of any organization with which she is affiliated.