Flight of the Dalai Lama to Yatung

God-King of Tibet makes an epochal journey

Life magazine

In print, 23 April 1951

The young man on the white horse and his strange [sic] retinue moved slowly over the wind-swept Tibetan tableland into 16,000-foot-high mountain passes and through clouds of incense smoke, escorted by picturesque [sic] guards and heralded by long trumpets. The Dalai Lama, the “Living Buddha” and god-king of Tibet, was fleeing his capital, Lhasa, before Communist invaders. In his company was an Austrian engineer [Heinrich Harrer], whose pictures tell the remarkable story of the epochal flight.

Two months before, the Chinese Reds had invaded Tibet. The young Dalai Lama’s advisers remembered an ancient Tibetan prophecy while held that the line of Dalai Lamas, which began six centuries ago, would end with the 13th. The present Dalai Lama is the 14th. Since he is only 15, he had been ruling through a regent and had not yet been formally installed, a rite which customarily occurs at 18.

The oracles were consulted and they went into their epileptic-like, slavering [sic] trances. The consensus of their disjointed prophetic mutterings [sic] was that the Dalai Lama should be installed at once. In mid-November a gala holiday celebrated his coronation, and the people hung new prayer flags — cloths on which prayers are written and, moved by the wind, forever waft their message to Tibet’s thousands of gods.

On December 18 the Dalai Lama spent the day with his closest advisers in his huge winter palace. Late at night yak-butter tea was served him in his gold-and-silver-fitted porcelain cup and he drank cups of it until he said formally, “No more.” Then another cup was poured as a sign that he was expected to return soon. At 2 am, he slipped quietly out of the palace, accompanied by a few bodyguards, and rode to his summer palace where he spent an hour in solitary meditation. Then, with several hundred selected guards and attendants, he started his lonely trek through the winter darkness.

The land of Tibet

The land through which the Dalai Lama was fleeing is a museum piece among nations, in many ways a throwback to the early Middle Ages [of Europe]. Set in the remote heart of Asia, Tibet consists of some 500,000 square miles of towering plateau land, whose 16,000-foot average elevation makes it as thin of air as of population. Its three million people are so inwardly turned on their Buddhist faith that they have almost no material ambitions. Their country has no roads in the modern sense, almost no wheeled vehicles, no large-scale agriculture, no modern science. Virtually its only links with the outside world are caravan trails and a single telephone wire operated part time by one of the lamas [sic]. The land is governed by an all-powerful priesthood, headed by the youth who, according to enigmatic formulas was “discovered” [sic] 13 years ago to be the Dalai Lama.

Of what use to a conqueror was this meditative theocracy? The invading Chinese Reds had their reasons. To 20th-century Communist Russia, Tibet could make a useful airbase, half-way between Moscow and Indonesia. Some 2,000 miles of its southern border adjoins an ultimate target: the Indian subcontinent. It also had minerals, one of which may be pitchblende from which uranium is extracted.

China invade Tibet

The Chinese army moved toward Tibet from western China in early October, carrying their heavy equipment by yak and truck and, after some bitter but indecisive engagements, came to the city of Chamdo where the archaic Tibetan army waited to repel them. The Chinese massed before the city and one night lobbed a brilliant but innocuous display of star shells and rockets over Chamdo. The pyrotechnics terrified the Tibetans. Dogs barked, cocks crowed and the people cowered in their houses. The awed Tibetan general decided word must be carried at once to Lhasa that the enemy was attacking in strength. He also decided that he was the man to carry the word, and set out with his top aides. Left leaderless, Chamdo and much of the Tibetan army fell to the Reds wwihtout a drop of blood being shed. The general, recalled on his way to Lhasa by soldiers sent to inform him the attack was a fake, returned to Chamdo and was promptly taken prisoner by the Chinese troops occupying the city.

When word arrived at the Dalai Lama’s palce, his counsellors immediately began planning the escape route. When Lhasa learned that the Dalai Lama had left, the people remained calm, accepting the divine wisdom of his decision. In his palace rooms servants were careful not to disturb anything for at least a day, not even the dust. To do so would liken the Dalai Lama to the devils Tibetans periodically sweep out of their houses.

Journey to Yatung

Although the expedition’s destination, Yatung [Yadong], is only 284 miles from Lhasa, progress was painfully slow and the halfway point, Gyangtse was not reached until 26 December. Outside the major towns the Dalai Lama dismounted from whatever horse or mule he was riding (he presently developed saddlesores), got into a sedan chair and was borne into the settlement in state. High officials came out to bow before him, burned incense piles and begged the favor of his personal blessing, a head pat [sic]. On the second day the caravan passed the famous Jang monastery where 4,000 visiting lamas [sic] had gathered for annual prayers. When they heard the Dalai Lama was passing, they poured out, threw silver coins in his path and literally blocked the road with their prostrate bodies. Weeping bitterly, they begged their ruler to return to Lhasa. In a short speech he promised to return soon and they finally permitted him to go.

The Dalai Lama was accustomed to such violent veneration, but not to the great, wide world he was now seeing. A regular reader of Life, which a noble translates for him, he has a deep curiosity about New York’s skyscrapers. Wistfully he asked an adviser, would they glimpse the skyscrapers on this long journey? “Anything is possible if your holiness prays for it,” replied the adviser sincerely. The young ruler said he would pray.

Dark, windy wastes

The wind springs up early in the day across the treeless, almost lifeless Tibetan plateaus which, until recent geologic time, were ice sheets. By midday it sweeps with gale force, carrying sand or snow that stings and cuts travelers’ faces, obscures the sun and casts a bleak, twilight pall over the wastelands. To avoid these winds the Dalai Lama’s caravan usually started at 4 am or earlier, never travelled after 10 am One day they made only 6 miles; the most they did was 32. There were three major mountain passes, one of them 16,600 feet above sea level, to cross and swift rivers, negotiated by fragile boats made of yak skins. Against the gloomy cold (the average winter temperature in this area is 24° below zero) the young Dalai Lama wore a rich coat of dark red silk lined with fur, a fur hat and woollen muffler, although when he approached towns he sometimes changed into dressier silks. The expedition made frequent stops for tea drinking. Customarily the tea was boiled over a fire of yak dung, which is the national fuel since so much of Tibet is barren of wood.

At last a warm sanctuary in the sunny Chumbi valley

Two weeks after they left Lhasa the Dalai Lama’s party filed down from the windy heights through precipitous passes into the relatively warm and fertile Chumbi valley and reached Yatung, a cluster of villages only 6 miles from the Indian border. There he rejoined his brothers and his mother, Gyayum Chhemo, which means Great Mother of the Kingdom, who had left Lhasa two days ahead of him.

In Yatung the Dalai Lama’s family took up their normal life. For a month the Dalai Lama resided in the home of the district governor, now renamed the Heavenly Palace of Universal Light and Peace. However light and peaceful, it proved very cold as it lay in a high-walled valley that got few hours of winter sun each day. After a few weeks the Dalai Lama moved to the Dungkar Monastery where he currently lives in sunwarmed peace. There last month he received the holiest Buddhist relics in all Asia, bodily remains of the original Gautama Buddha (circa 500 BCE), brought from India for his veneration by a military guard.

How long the Dalai Lama will stay in Yatung in uncertain. With the country lying open to them, the Communists have slowed their advance, announcing that their only purpose is to protect Tibet from “imperialists.” They say they want the Dalai Lama to continue administering Tibet’s internal affairs. Some high lords and lamas who fled with him and who find living in Yatung less luxurious than in the palace (the Dalai Lama himself lives very ascetically) have recently been talking “back-to-Lhasa.” Since no help or encouragement at all has come from the UN [United Nations], to which Tibet appealed in the first days of the invasion, or from anywhere else, the Dalai Lama may be pressured into returning, to become one more in the succession of Moscow-pulled puppets. Thus in a very real sense he would fulfil Tibet’s age-old prophecy.

Holy white scarves and incense clouds

Despite hardships of the terrain, climate and the unaccustomed length of his journey, the Dalai Lama during the 15 days almost constantly found himself in a home away from home. His personal furniture was carried with him and the tsampa (parched barley flour) that he ate was, as usual, ground by his private millers. Wherever he went he was offered the yak butter tea of which the average Tibetan drinks 30 to 50 cups a day. a fact incomprehensible to foreigners since it is made of Chinese tea, boiled in water flavoured with soda, into which is churned salt and a generous helping of sometimes rancid yak butter.

At every stop the familiar white scarves, a Tibetan signal of deep respect, were proffered him or his aides to be blessed by the Dalai Lama or even looked at by him and returned to the overjoyed owner. This age-old veneration of such blessed white cloths once led to difficulties when the 13th Dalai Lama similarly fled his capital in 1910 in the face of Chinese invasion. He settled for a time in Kalimpong, India, where the sheets in which he slept were reverently taken each morning from his bed, torn to strips and distributed among his followers. Kalimpong still remembers his stay as the time of the great sheet shortage.

The present Dalai Lama proved very thoughtful of his subjects during the trip. At each tea stop he left 10 dotse ($30) as a present for assisting natives, and at overnight stops he left 20 dotse. However, once he had slept in a room in a private house, as he often did, that room could never again be used by ordinary beings but was preserved as a shrine.

Such reverence is befitting a god-king whose subjects believe he is the reincarnation of the original Buddha and who is “discovered” [sic] as such by a host of mystic signs. According to Tibetan religion, when a Dalai lama dies his spirit may roam for a time in the “heavenly fields” before reincarnating itself in a newborn child, and it is the delicate job of the land’s high lamas to find that child. After the 13th Dalai Lama died and was embalmed with salt, his face supposedly turned toward the northeast. Rainbows and clouds of a certain formation were also seen moving in that direction. So the high lamas sought out three boys in northeastern Tibet and subjected them to physical and occult tests, including the unknowing selection of holy objects from an assortment of things. Two-year-old Lhamo Dhondup, as he was then known, was thus recognized and brought to Lhasa with his family, and the strenuous training in Tibet’s religion and in his future administrative duties was begun. The capture of his sacred person by foreigners would be not merely a national disaster in Tibet but a religious catastrophe.

Copyright © 1951 Time Inc. Published in Life Magazine - Issue 23 April 1951 Posted in News » Tags: , , , , , ,