There were many uncertainties ahead. Where would the Dalai Lama and his retinue find refuge? What would happen to the Tibetan people? But as the noise of the shelling and bombing continued, the plan for the escape was set in motion.
Phala told everyone in the room to set their watches to his. As far as was possible, he had planned everything down to the last detail. He sent the Dalai Lama’s beloved cook Ponpo and his team away to a designated ferry point to await the rest of the party.
He wrote to the Indian representative in Lhasa, broaching the topic of the group coming to India as refugees. The letter never reached its destination. Then, he sent a message to the south of Tibet, where the Khampa rebels were mobilised, to say that they should expect significantly important people to be arriving soon.
Around the same time, [Jawaharlal] Nehru was telling the Parliament in Delhi that stories of civil conflict in Lhasa were nothing more than rumour. Three days later, on 20 March, the PLA shelled the Indian Counsel’s offices in Lhasa.
At the decided time, everyone followed the instructions they had been given. The Dalai Lama was dressed in his soldier’s attire. Diki and Tenzin Choegyal were dressed as male servants.
Tenzin recounted the incident in detail. “All the elders were very tense. My mother and sister, they were dressed as men, you know, in men’s clothes and moving about. I just found it extremely funny. Earlier on my mother had told me that we are going to a nunnery in Southern Tibet, but then I knew that we are escaping, rather than just moving. then she told me to go and put on my lay clothes, so I went.”
Phala had organised for small groups to leave at different times. The first party included Diki and Tenzin Choegyal. They were to exit via the south gate. “At about nine o’clock we left Norbulingka and started to walk. Time to go. Soldiers came, His Holiness’s bodyguards came. I think there were three or four of them. I had two monks who looked after me when I was in the monastery. I said goodbye to them and both of them said, ‘Don’t forget what you have memorised. try to recite and don’t forget’, because I had done quite a lot of memorisation back in the monastery. We started to walk towards the riverbank.”
As Tenzin Choegyal mentioned the next part, his voice rose, “then we left and my mother,” he pauses, “she walked, and then after some time she was provided with a pony. It’s not completely dark. After having crossed the river, I went down the river, saw Dewan Monastery afar, then I prostrated three times. I could see the outline on the right.”
Next, it was the turn of different officials, hidden under a tarpaulin cover in a truck, to leave.
Finally, it was the Dalai Lama and his immediate retinue’s turn. there was Phala, the chief abbot, the commander of the Dalai Lama’s personal bodyguard, Kusing Depon.
Meanwhile, lookouts returned to report that Diki and Tenzin had travelled safely to the river ferry.
Dunham says that the Dalai Lama was aware of the occasion’s significance. Citing the Dalai Lama’s biography, he says that the young leader, having changed into disguise, read the scriptures, acutely taking note of an extract about the need to focus on bravery and confidence.
The Dalai Lama needed to carry a limited number of his own possessions: one of these was an ancient painting, dating back to the time of the second Dalai Lama, that was rolled up in a long tube with a cloth handle.
There was a high wind; he could barely see, but he was given a rifle to carry as he approached the gate. With two soldiers to escort him, he left his compound.
A group of rebels recognised the Dalai Lama and insisted on forming a protective phalanx around him. Phala strictly forbade it, saying it would render the escapees too conspicuous. While the Lord Chamberlain and the devoted Khampas were arguing, the Dalai Lama slipped out and away.
This last party soon got to the coracles and crossed the Kyichu safely.
I asked the Dalai Lama how he was feeling the night of the escape, whether or not he was frightened to leave Lhasa and if he feared for his life.
“Oh, yes. some fear. Of course, some fear,” he said. “But then, before we finalised, I had some sort of hesitation. once we finalised, then there was no hesitation.
“So, then, I think, about noon 17th [March], we decided that we had to leave. so, at exactly ten o’clock according to Lhasa time, I left from Norbulingka. On the other side, there was quite a long road beside the river. On the other side was a Chinese military camp. We could see the Chinese guards.”
With the PLA right beside them, all the escapees had to extinguish their lights and torches. “In the dark like demons, like ghosts, we go like that. Really, really dangerous there. Danger on our lives.”
The Dalai Lama then spoke of two Tibetan officials who had been going around the palace checking security the previous few nights. “So that night also, you see, these two officials went to check. I, acting like these two officials’ bodyguard, carried one gun and went like that [sic]. Followed these two officials.”
But the young Dalai Lama had a distinctive feature that made him stand out among people – his eyewear. “At that time, one problem – I wore these glasses. so, if I wear the glasses, people may notice.” There was only one alternative – to remove the one item that might reveal his identity. But without them, he could hardly see. And he wasn’t used to carrying a weighty weapon. “Without glasses, really difficult. With that gun. More walks, more walks, that gun becomes heavier, heavier, heavier. Then I escaped.
“Then, these two officials, when they reached the gate, they shouted, ‘oh, we are checking! now open door.’ They open, then salute and then go outside. And then we reached outside, the little bit of distance from gate area, then nobody now noticed.”
When it was safe enough, religious hierarchy took over, and the Tibetan officials switched places with their revered leader. But the group was still in extreme danger.
‘So, then I become head. these two officials then follow me. Very, very tense. then, after, [I] reached other side of the river, even more risk. then, few hours by a horse, but on horse there were also sound of their hoofs. We cannot prevent that. Chok, chok, chok, chok,’ he mimed horses trotting. ‘then we saw some Chinese soldiers. they just smoked.’ He mimes a Chinese soldier looking up and smoking in a nonchalant way. ‘then we feel, “okay, now.” then, next morning we reach one pass. so then, after passing, after we cross that pass, then no danger. no immediate danger. then, there, everybody, quite relaxed.’23
Within a short space of time, the Dalai Lama was able to make out in the silhouettes of his family, his tutors, his cabinet and his staff.
Thirty mounted, impressive-looking local Khampa warriors were guarding them and waiting for the Dalai Lama with arms straight out in front of them in obeisance, holding traditional white scarves of greeting.
The escape party decided to travel in three groups. Young Tenzin and his family would go ahead, next the Dalai Lama and his group would follow, and finally, a set of tutors and members of the Kashag would bring up the rear. everyone in the party mounted their horses and rode hard through the night. they only got to their first stop as the sun was setting the next day.
They were heading for Lhoka, where the rebels, 80,000 of them, were holding strong. The fugitives had to negotiate 19,000-feet passes through the Himalayan mountains, which were still nearly impassably full of winter ice.
Though the Dalai Lama still advocated non-violence, the Tibetan rebels were armed and dangerous.
Any one of them, disgusted by the behaviour of the Chinese and frustrated with their young religious leader’s exhortations of peace, could have turned traitor and informer. It would have been easy for a rebel to have handed the relatively unprotected high lama over to the PLA. But this didn’t happen. Instead, villagers helped as best they could, feeding and sheltering the party in the humblest of circumstances. they would line the roads and bow. one remembered placing hay and dung across the ice to provide a safer passage to the escaping party.
The Dalai Lama’s mother fared terribly in the cold. Her skin peeled and she was barely able to stand. the family sheltered in a twelfth century monastery at Rame.
The horses they rode were not fit for the punishing journey as they were court animals used to being pampered. they began to collapse. As some of the steeds were dying, when the party came to a village, they asked if they could use local pack animals. But in the end, forty village men and women decided to help the escaping group by carrying the baggage across the mountains for them.
Heading south, on 20 March, the Dalai Lama and his party met some Khampa warriors who were on horseback. to their leader, Ratuk Ngawang, he offered words of encouragement, urging them not to be put off by belittling words from any authority. The Dalai Lama referred to the Khampa effort as being “necessary” and that it would not be futile in any way.
While the Dalai Lama and his party headed south, Athar and Lhotse were riding with all their might in the opposite direction towards him, having been summoned by Phala. This summons is one that did reach them.
Talty states that on 22 March 1959 they met with the Dalai Lama and gave him information about how the CIA had trained the rebels at Camp Hale, how Athar and Lhotse were in touch with Washington, and that President Eisenhower was being kept informed of events.
Khampa Ratuk Ngawang made sure that the Dalai Lama and his party were escorted safely through his territory, and then turned back to fight the PLA. This was how it went. As the Dalai Lama journeyed south, Khampa rebels provided a devoted, armed escort through the areas in which they operated. But as he said farewell to each group, the Dalai Lama knew that there was only a slim chance of the rebels surviving their battles with the PLA.
Excerpted with permission from An Officer and His Holiness: How the Dalai Lama Crossed into India, Rani Singh, EBury Press.
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