Escape to Exile: The Dalai Lama’s journey to India



Young Dalai Lama

On the night of March 17th, 1959, a 23 year old young man slipped out of his bedroom window in Lhasa and into the dark, cold night. His name was Tenzin Gyatso, but to millions around the world, he was the 14th Dalai Lama, the sole and post powerful spiritual leader of Tibet. The Dalai Lama’s escape marked the end of an era in Tibet and the beginning of a long exile for the Tibetan leader.


Arunachal Pradesh winters

Tibet had declared itself an independent nation in 1913, but China refused to recognize this and maintained that Tibet was a part of China. In 1949, the Communist Party of China came to power and claimed Tibet as a part of the People’s Republic of China. In 1950, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) marched into Tibet and occupied the country. They forced the Tibetan government to sign the 17-Point Agreement, which recognized Chinese sovereignty over Tibet while granting the Tibetans autonomy in their internal affairs. However, the Chinese government failed to implement the agreement and instead began a process of repression and cultural assimilation in Tibet. The 14th Dalai Lama, only 15 years old at the time, assumed the role of the head of the Tibetan government.

As China continued to exert its influence over Tibet, the Dalai Lama grew increasingly concerned about the loss of Tibetan autonomy and cultural identity. Despite the tender age, the Dalai Lama had been negotiating with the Chinese government to try and establish a peaceful resolution, but the situation had reached a breaking point.


Dalai Lama writes in his autobiography that, General Zhang Jingwu, a Chinese official, extended an invitation to hold the Chinese dance troupe performance at the Chinese military headquarters, and the Dalai Lama confirmed his acceptance. The date was set to 10 March, 1959 at the last minute and Dalai Lama’s bodyguards and other officials were not informed. Upon communication, the Chinese officials, on 9 March, insisted that they would handle the Dalai Lama’s security and that the performance was to be conducted “in absolute secrecy” and without any armed Tibetan bodyguards, causing suspicion and fear that plans were being laid for a Chinese abduction of the Dalai Lama. By custom, an escort of twenty-five armed guards always accompanied the Dalai Lama and the entire city of Lhasa would line up whenever he went. Word of this spread from Norbulinka Palace into the city of Lhasa.

On 10 March, thousands of Tibetans gathered around the Palace to urge Dalai Lama to not go to the performance and the protests increasingly grew to be anti-Chinese. This mobilization forced the Dalai Lama to turn down the army leader’s invitation. These protests soon turned into an uprising that demanded for Tibet independence from the Chinese Government. As a cautionary measure, he was soon advised to escape from Tibet. Preparations began from 15 March with 3000 of the Dalai Lama’s trusted bodyguards leaving Lhasa to position themselves along an anticipated escape route into India.

On 17 March, 1959, the Chinese fired two artillery shells towards the palace, and hit the gardens, narrowly missing the main palace. This was when the Dalai Lama took the tough decision to leave his homeland. In the dead of night, wearing a soldier’s uniform with a gun slung over his shoulder, the Dalai Lama left the Palace. They walked for hours through the dark and snowy mountains, dodging Chinese patrols and hiding in caves when necessary. The sought refuge in monasteries, tiny villages where locals hosted and provided them shelter and protection.


Finally, after nearly two weeks of gruelling travel, the Dalai Lama and his party crossed the border into India at Khenzimane Pass on March 31. The party took a couple of days to reach Tawang in west Arunachal Pradesh. The Dalai Lama stayed four days in Tawang where he had the opportunity to visit the beautiful monastery Tawang Gompa and Urgyeling, the place where the 6th Dalai Lama, Tsangyang Gyaltso spent his first years. The Dalai Lama later proceeded to Bomdila where he was officially received by an envoy of the Indian Government a welcome message from Nehru. After a few days of rest, the party left for the plains of India.
Tawang Monastery
On April 18, 1959, the Dalai Lama, his family, trusted ministers and around 80 other Tibetans crossed safely into India at Tezpur, Assam, to be greeted by Indian officials and a Press corps of nearly 200 media correspondents. In the ongoing exhibition “Sisters of Tezpur” on the Tezpur Mahila Samiti (Women Society), we get an opportunity to read personal testimonies of women who hosted the Dalai Lama and his party.
Meenakshi Bhuyan recounts her memories of the Dalai Lama in Tezpur, 1959. Women were actively involved in providing food, shelter and protection to the party that had arrived from Tibet. To know more, visit the Exhibition “Sisters of Tezpur” in Tezpur Mahila Samiti, Tezpur. Credits: Northeast Lightbox & Meenakshi Bhuyan
The significance of the Dalai Lama’s escape has been profound. It was a symbol of hope and a turning point in the Tibetan struggle for independence. During a visit to Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh in 2017, the Dalai Lama became emotional as he reminisced about his journey from Tibet in 1959 and his stay in the region. He expressed his sentiments by saying, “I see a place where I had enjoyed freedom for the first time.” These hills of northeast India were the place where the Dalai Lama first crossed over into India 59 years old and these places hold immense significance today, from culture and religion to Indo-China border relations.

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