British Barbarians, Tibetan Prophecies

You probably know about the Younghusband Mission to Lhasa. Quite a few books have been written about it, though with the honorable exception of Patrick French’s biography of Younghusband, they tend to stick to the voluminous official and unofficial accounts published in English. This is a pity, because there’s no doubt that many Tibetans had strong feelings about Younghusband’s sacking of Gyantse and invasion of Lhasa. This came home to me forcefully when I read the Nechung Oracle’s pronouncement on the invasion while looking through the biography of the 13th Dalai Lama Thubten Gyatso.

This massive biography, in two volumes, was written by Purchog Rinpoché (the tulku of the more famous Purchogpa who was the 13th Dalai Lama’s principle tutor). As a fairly traditional namtar or sacred biography it mostly deals with religious topics, but a foreign army marching into Lhasa could hardly be ignored. The biography tells us how  the Dalai Lama and a group of trusted advisers and religious teachers fled the advance of the British, leaving the throne-holder of Ganden monastery to negotiate a treaty.

One of the people fleeing with the Dalai Lama was the Nechung Oracle, a monk chosen as the medium or oracle for the deity Dorjé Drakden, who was consulted before any important decision was taken. I think the oracle at the time of the invasion was Orgyen Thinley Chöpel, a Nyingma monk from Central Tibet’s biggest Nyingma monastery, Mindrolling. (An interesting figure in his own right: in his youth he had travelled to Eastern Tibet, where he met one of the greatest scholars of the nineteenth century, Jamyang Khyentsé Wangpo, and received from him a statue of Padmasambhava which was later housed in the Jokhang.)

Once the Dalai Lama, the Nechung Oracle, and the rest of the court-in-exile were a safe distance from Lhasa, the oracle was consulted, and he spoke in emotional terms of the invasion:

Urged on by spirits and demons,
The British, with their false God, their wealth and manpower,
Came to this Snowy Land surrounded by mountains
With their barbaric army.
These events, the like of which I’ve never seen before
Have broken the heart of this old devil.

The sense of shock and outrage felt by the Tibetans at the invasion of their sacred land is striking. The oracle had more to say, but I won’t translate any more of the speech here. I’ll put the full text in Tibetan below, and if you’d like to try your hand at translating more of it, please do, and let me know how you get on!

*  *   *

The better-known English-language sources on the Younghusband Mission do (it must be said) give us a lot more of the details behind the invasion. These sources include Younghusband’s telegrams to Curzon which were recorded in the “Blue Book” of official correspondence. The telegrams show Younghusband’s hawkish tendency and his frustration with the obstacles thrown into his path by the Dalai Lama. He writes:

The real opposition we are encountering is that of the Dalai Lama and his followers, the monks at Lhasa, who declare that they are concerned for the preservation of their religion, in other words of their priestly influence by which the Tibetans are at present strangled. The influence of the Chinese has vanished completely, the present weak Ambam being confronted with a young and headstrong Dalai Lama; nor is it likely to be revived when the new Ambam arrives at Lhasa (which he is expected to do in the next few days) as he is not supported by Chinese troops. To influence the Dalai Lama, therefore, we must rely on our own efforts. (Further Papers Relating to Tibet, p.1: telegram of 4th February 1904)

As a good imperialist, Younghusband suggests that his is a moral mission as well as a political one, a mission to liberate the Tibetans from oppression. After this, and many more telegrams, Younghusband got the permission to proceed on to Gyantse, and then as it became clear that the Tibetans had no intention of negotiating, to Lhasa itself. On the 13th July, Lord Curzon telegrammed the Secretary of State thus:

To-morrow the Mission will commence advance to Lhasa… We are authorising Younghusband to secure the signature of the Dalai Lama to Convention embodying terms finally approved, and to sign it himself, subject to ratification by His Majesty’s government. (Further Papers Relating to Tibet, p.31: telegram of 13th July 1904)

Naturally, the Dalai Lama had different ideas. As the British Army approached Lhasa, he decided to escape. His biographer explains his decision to flee Lhasa, stating that if he met with the British, peace terms would be made according to their discretion, and the rule of Tibet would be taken over by the British. He goes on to say that the Dalai Lama’s other reason for leaving Lhasa was to go and consult with the emperor of China — but in fact the Dalai Lama travelled to Mongolia, sending his trusted envoy Dorjiev to seek the help of the Russians, before travelling on to Kumbum monastery and then to Wutaishan, not arriving in Beijing until 1907.

*  *  *

As for Younghusband, after securing the trading agreements that had been the original reason for invading Lhasa, he and his army swiftly returned to India. In the next few months the British government (many of whom had opposed the invasion from the start) quickly took the treaty apart, reducing many of the gains Younghusband had fought for. As representatives of the Manchu court arrived post-haste in London and protested that the Tibetans were not allowed to sign treaties on without Chinese permission, a new treaty was drawn up, ratified by China and Britain (it was, of course, entirely ignored by the Tibetans).

The Younghusband Mission instilled a lasting fear among the rulers of China that the permeability of Tibet’s border with India could leave China wide open to attack. The weak and bankrupt Manchu court had been happy to ignore Tibet for the last century, but in the wake of Younghusband’s invasion they made Tibet one of their main strategic priorities. In 1908, mere weeks after the Dalai Lama returned to Lhasa, a Chinese army occupied the city, and the Dalai Lama fled again, this time to India.

According to the 13th Dalai Lama’s biography, this was all prophesied by Padmasambava. The previous Dalai Lama (the 12th) Thrinley Gyatso is said to have received the prophecy directly from the Lotus Born himself. Padmasambhava told the 12th Dalai Lama that unless he took a wife, he would die young (he did), and  predicted the rebirth of the next Dalai Lama. He then spoke these words:

The king will roam foreign lands and a foreign army will come to Tibet;
You the ruler of Tibet will travel to the country of China,
And the ruler of China will send the Chinese army to Tibet.

*  *  *


1. Thub bstan rgya mtsho’i rnam thar (written in 1940, published in India in the 1950s). TBRC id: W3087.
2. The Blue Book, or, Cabinet and other confidential papers relating to Tibet, 27 February 1903 – 26 April 1905. B.P.13/41.(13.)
3. Patrick French. 1994 Younghusband: The Last Imperial Adventurer. London: HarperCollins.
4. Charles Allen. 2004. Duel in the Snows: The True Story of the Younghusband Mission to Lhasa. London: John Murray.

*  *  *


1. The Nechung Oracle Lobsang Namgyal (1894-1945), from the Tibetan Album (who also have a brief biography). Note that this is not the Nechung Oracle who was consulted in 1904.
2. “A British outpost in Tibet watches for reinforcements” (Getty Images, retrieved from this BBC page on the Younghusband Mission).

Tibetan texts

The Nechung Oracles words, from the biography of the 13th Dalai Lama, vol.I, f.395a.1 (the translated section is between the asterisks):

hrī: slob dpon phyag na pad+mo yi//
sku tshe mi ‘gyur rdo rje’i khrir//
ngoms par bzhugs pa bka’ drin che//
*dam sri ‘byung pos rgyud bskul te//
lha log dbyin ji mi nor dpung//
gangs ris bskor ba’i kha ba’i ljongs//
hang shed dpung ngos ‘di nyid kyang//
mtshungs med kyi bya gzhag ‘di ‘dra la//
‘gyur srid na ‘dre rgan tsi t+ta ‘gas//*
‘di ‘dra rigs tsam rigs tsam yang//
nged dmar nag gnyis po sri zhu la//
‘bral med kyis mi mngon dbyings nas kyang//
snying dum bur gyur pa’i las ‘dra zhing//
yin kyang don g.yar dam rdo rje’i rgya kha nas//
‘gyur med kyi ‘phrin las ‘jug pa yang//
snga dus nas da lta’i dus ‘di bar//
bstan dang dga’ ldan chab srid//
slod dpon sku ‘phreng rim pa dang//
da lta’i slob dpon ‘di nyid bar//
sri zhu’i gnas la rgya ma grol//
mdud pa ‘doms shing ‘phrin las la//
nyin mtshams yug tu sku’i grib bzhin//
‘grogs pa’i ‘phrin las zhus zin na//
da dung de dang de mtshungs pa//
sri zhu’i bya gzhan phra rags rnams//
sngar bzhin ‘phrin las ‘gyur med zhu//
cung zad bstan dang sems can gyi//
dam tshig la rag bsod nams dman//

And Padmasambhava’s prophecy, from vol.I, f.384b.3-4:

rgyal po mthar ‘khyams mtha’ dmag bod la ‘ong :
bod rgyal khyod ni rgya yi yul du ‘gro :
rgya nag rgyal pos rgya dmag bod du gtong :

20 thoughts on “British Barbarians, Tibetan Prophecies

  1. This is a really interesting perspective to have, as my sole contact with this campaign was via the cataloguing of the medal group of a Ghurka soldier who took part in the British assault on Gyantse, and was as fully and lunatically heroic as the Ghurkas are popularly supposed to be. The standard literature on the medals of course gives little space to the moral dimension of the British rhetoric, or to the feelings of the Tibetans, so it’s enlightening to have it told from that angle.

    I deal with a lot of war medals, and they all contain the inbuilt problem for the modern observer that they commemorate the exceptional and heroic done in the name of a now-discredited and objectionable cause. It’s a real `hate the sin but love the sinner’ problem.

  2. When I went to Tibet in 1984, I had hardly heard of the Younghusband Expedition, and so was quite unprepared for the depth of (quite amicable) anti-British feeling that I encountered. Almost all Tibetans that I met, on hearing that I was British, would berate me for Younghusband’s trangressions.

  3. Hi S.,

    Do you think the “lha log” that qualifies the English here, and would seem to mean ‘wrong god’ actually ought to read instead as “lta log” or ‘wrong views’ or a counterproductive way of looking at things? Are they here considered ‘heretics’ from a Buddhist perspective?

    Just trying to cause a little more trouble between the English and the Tibetans an hundred years later on. Forgive me.


  4. Jonathan,

    Nice to hear from you again, and thanks for the link to the medal, which is really rather handsome. I quite agree with you about the Gurkhas. The vast majority of the Younghusband Mission were Indian sepoys, and Sikh and Gurkha soldiers, who may now be described as equally victims of British imperialism. At least the British government is now giving the Gurkhas the right to retire in the UK (


    Yes, there’s a little museum commemorating the resistance in Gyantse, in case anyone forgets (but no museum in Lhasa commemorating other acts of resistence). I think the fact that “we” withdrew again quickly tempers the anti-British sentiment. My favourite story from this episode is that the British soldiers were met by Tibetans clapping and shouting, and doffed their hats to accept the applause — of course the Tibetans were clapping and shouting in the traditional way to drive out the evil spirits.


    I guess if it’s lta log we’re assuming scribal error. It has the benefit of making good sense (although isn’t log lta the usual formulation?). But I like the sense that the deity is offended by the Brit’s monotheistic adherence to their own false deity. (Incidentally, though I translated ‘dre rgan here as “old devil”, I wouldn’t usually translate ‘dre as “devil” which has its own monotheistic connotations).

    Thank you all for your interesting thoughts,

  5. Dear S.

    I was taking the phrase lta log dbyin-ji to correspond to the phrase lta log Bon[-po]. This phrase I’ve encountered a few times. Let me dig up examples, since somebody or another might feel skeptical.

    Here’s one from the ‘Jigs-byed Chos-‘byung (Lhasa Zhol ed.), folio 240 recto:

    sprul sku’i zhal nas / rgyal ba’i bka’ yin pas mi rung gsung / yab kyis ‘o na ‘di ci yin zhes gsungs pas / ‘di ni lta log bon po’i dpe cha yin ‘dug gzungs nas bzhengs song /

    And another example from the 1986 printing of the Mkhas-pa’i Dga’-ston, p. 161, in a story about Emperor Dri-gum:

    mu stegs lta log bon gyi byin rlabs chungs //
    rgyal po’i thugs su bdud ris gdon gsol gyur //

    In these cases I read “lta log bon” as a shortened version of “lta-ba log-pa’i Bon[-po], so there’s nothing the matter with the syntax.

    It’s not that lha log, meaning ‘wrong god’ is an impossible phrase. I just haven’t encountered it, have you?


  6. Well, no, I’ve never seen lha log before. I’m inclined to think you’re right. But how would you translated lta log dbyin ji?
    “Blinkered British”?
    “Addled Englishmen”?

  7. Hmmm. OK pal, I think in general when Buddhists talk about ‘counterproductive viewpoints’ they mean viewpoints of non-Buddhists. It stands to reason. It tells us that those poor dears, the British, instead of heading toward Buddhist Enlightenment were intent on going in the opposite direction. Some think they still are. Any way to insert a smiley in this bloody comment box? I’m positively convinced that making insults based on national or ethnic origins doesn’t help people on their way to Enlightenment, but then neither do military invasions. Happy Losar for now. Time to crack open that Gewurtzraminer chilling in the fridge. We’ll sort this out later. Amicably if at all.

  8. I’m sorry if this is a little off the topic, but do the prophecies you mentioned have anything to do with the one we are always hearing about, that when the Iron Bird flies, Tibetans will leave Tibet?

    I have been searching for a source for this without any luck. I’d hoped to have it for a book about Tibetan lamas coming to America, but time is running out.

    If you could help, I’d really appreciate it.

  9. Dear Nora,

    You’re not off topic at all. That prophecy at the end also reminded me of the (in)famous “iron bird flies” prophecy. The short answer is no, although there are intriguing similarities (a prophecy from Padmasambhava, about the invasion of TIbet). Personally, considering that nobody has yet been able to identify this prophecy in a Tibetan souce, I suspect that it’s apocryphal. I discussed it a few years ago (how time flies!) in this post.

    Please also look at the comments and the links therein. If you want any advice, by all means use it in the book because it has become a part of the popular culture of Tibetan Buddhism in the West, but do mention that it has not been reliably sourced in any Tibetan work.


  10. Thank you for the kind help; this is encouraging. It’s helped me decide how to approach the issue.

    ‘Apocryphal’ was the term I used myself in referring to this quote but then censored myself: deleted it because lamas do not want to offend other lamas who embrace that concept… the deferential style of writing can be a little inhibiting.

    I had read some of links given, and I have to say I love this blog and those others. Yes, the Iron Bird prophecy should have been in Prisoners of Shangri-la, a great book.

    I too assumed the red-faced people were Tibetans because I have heard references to brown skin and rosy cheeks and know some monks who fit that description. Photographs of Tibetans in Tibet now sometimes show them with flaming red cheeks. Is it the cold air or altitude?

    Tibetans also describe themselves as “the black-haired” — at least I assumed they were referring to themselves, as in “king of all the black-haired.” It adds a nice touch of poetry.

  11. …”their priestly influence by which the Tibetans are at present strangled.” Hawkish, or just telling it like it ‘was’? Good imperialists did not have to be moralists; that was just an optional extra. They very often did without it. As the populations of both colonizer and the colonized grew more educated, it became more necessary to present an ethical justification for colonization, but from the beginning to the end, then as now, the main concern was money.

    It is interesting that the Tibetan oracle chose to characterize the British as theists. Although Christians were prominent among early English-language commentators on Tibet, the British colonial project was overwhelmingly secular in orientation, and missionaries (who always risked stirring up local resentment) were more tolerated than encouraged. If the Tibetans had been as keen to learn about the invaders as, say, the Japanese, the twentieth century might have turned out very differently for them.

  12. Dear I.S.

    The trajectory of the British Empire and its need to justify its actions on moral grounds is interesting. In India, moralizing seems to increase as the interests of the East India Company were taken over by the British government itself. And along with moralizing comes the unattractive streak of racialism, “the white man’s burden.” I rather like the way Kate Teltscher, in her book on George Bogle, contrasts the attitudes of Bogle, Hastings and their contemporaries, with Curzon, Younghusband, and that lot.

    The Younghusband expedition comes right at the end of the British Imperial era, and there was a lot of resistance to it from the British government, as against the Indian colonial government. With striking parallels to the buildup to the war in Iraq in 2003, strategic arguments came foremost (Russian guns in Lhasa, etc.), but moral arguments (oppression of the people by the lamas etc.) were used to strengthen the case.

    Did the oracle actually call the British theists? Have a look at Dan’s comments above. Perhaps the phrase was not “false god” but “false views”. It seems to me that the prevelant view in Lhasa at the time was that the British were enemies of religion (read Buddhism), and as you say, there was little interest in learning anything more specific about their belief system (compare and contrast again the eighteenth century, when the Panchen Lama was keen to learn about Christianity from Bogle).


  13. I agree with S. that there were some Tibetans (and Mongolians/Monguors writing in Tibetan) a few centuries back who were quite keen to learn about the rest of the world. Sum-pa Mkhan-po Ye-shes-dpal-‘byor (1704-1788), ‘Jigs-med-gling-pa (1729/30-1798), Thu’u-bkwan III Blo-bzang-chos-kyi-nyi-ma (1737-1802), and Btsan-po No-mon-han (1789-1839) are among them. I’m puzzled why exactly things would have turned out differently if there were more or less curiosity. Puzzled is the word. Did things turn out so great for Japan that Tibetans should have done like them? Still puzzled. An important sort of historical question for curious historians to ask, in any case. I’m just not sure there is any way to answer it.

  14. Sure, there were Tibetans who had some genuine interest in the rest of the world. It would be strange if there were none, given Tibet’s strategic situation. How useful was their knowledge (or, just as importantly, their culture of acquiring it)?

    Did things turn out ‘great’ for Japan? Who can say? Did they do better than the TAR of China in the last half of the twentieth century? It depends how you want to quantify it. The TAR comes out on top using what measure?

  15. The 13th Dalai Lama acted correctly in both cases when he withdrew the other way. This is called utilizing the available ‘strategic depth’ which Tibet offered due to its size and neighbors. Also by not falling into their hands, the invaders’ ultimate and lasting success were foiled. Lastly by not capitulating in both cases which were hopeless, it proved to other neighbors that they should back Tibet’s independence at least for a while longer.

    Now back to the usual mistakes of historians. They often generalize: “Person-X was such-and-such and so-and-so.” Whereas people who live long periods often have varying and sometimes opposing phases. That is the mistake here on Younghusband and others. Younghusband was just another typical pathetic middle class on the make who ended up in the Raj. The East India Company in a way took over the British establishment and even Curzon was not too happy about it as the real evil historians with access know only fully well. Curzon though with some backbone in going up against the new powerbase to some extent, was more miserable than Younghusband. Younghusband massacred the local under-armed local army in the usual inglorious tradition of the evil empire. Tibet always had the mystique even back then, hence the greed of men like Younghusband for fame. On his return to Blighty he was no Kitchener or Gordon of Khartoum as that age had ended and he was no hero. However he was transformed and became one of the founders of what we now call the New Agers. He regretted his cowardly massacre and it does not say it in the wiki article but he later claimed to have seen deities in Tibet as well as Extra-terrestrials with their crafts.

    So he, like Curzon and most figures, had a few periods and can’t be simply generalized in the usual haphazard way. The real reason for the immoral invasion by the new power base back in London was to do with the “Great Game”. However there are certain evil spirits and forces behind them, still, and other lowly functionaries too as Tibetan Buddhists believe. But the Great Game is another whole story and this was the tail end of it. Agvan Dorzhiev who dreamed of the larger Mongolics union, including Tibetans and a few other areas, in alliance with Russia is seen as a Tulku. Curzon might have claimed it was him who pushed him over the edge but if he wasn’t there the invasion would have been sooner and more total.

    Even the Japanese had their man in Lhasa for a while. Like I said before things are deep and be careful of the decisions you make in your life as you might suffer a long time after death for it.

    Finally s Dilgo Khyentse said about the loss of Tibet: “attachment to an illusory country, how pointless.” And this is no ordinary country but Tibet which makes Buddhas and Bodhisattvas for many world systems. Take care.

  16. When talking about Empire, why add “Evil” — most people in the Anglophone world associate these two ideas reflexively. It’s overkill.

  17. Because unlike previous empires it transformed and morphed and continues by certain financial & political structures which are dominant now in the west affecting the whole world adversely. I’d say Hardt & Negri’s celebrated work, Empire, only scratches the surface. They should have applied their master’s theories even more. There are other reasons why this was the nastiest empire but nothing to do with Tibet as such and not relevant here. Also not all empires were particularly nasty, take Ashoka’s which didn’t start well (violently) but ended up doing good work including giving the subcontinent an identity through the centuries which still works for good.

  18. Dear Sam,

    Even before Mr Younghusband invaded their land, the Tibetans had developed a certain dislike of the British. This is obvious, for example, in a “Correspondence Relating to the Anglo-Tibetan War of 1888” dealt with by N. L. Nornang and L. Epstein in the Journal of the Tibet Society, vol. 2, pp. 77-104.
    In a letter to the krong dpon of Bhutan we read:

    lhag tu rang cag nang ba sangs rgyas kyi bstan lar log par ‘khu bas
    “Especially, because they have perversely insulted our Buddhist doctrines and mores” (p. 78).

    Just a little marginal note on the lha log vs. lta log question raiesed above. I think the bottle of ɡəˈvʏɐtstʁaˈmiːnɐ goes to the gentleman from the other place.



    P.S. The beginning of the letter is also worth considering (could it contain a prophecy about a former Prime Minister who also made the British invade a country?):

    “[T]hey are widely known to be evil deceivers, not of the sort that have learnt contentment to their desires and the good customs of shame, modesty and prudence which are suitable as the mark of a great nation.”

    Yours, Arno

  19. I recommend Wendy Palace’s “The British Empire and Tibet 1900-1922” which is an engaging read if nothing else. I also have Julie G.Marshall’s “Britain and Tibet 1765-1947 A select annotated bibliography of British relations with Tibet and the Himalayan States” which is indispensable to the field though these days I find politics a waste of precious human life. :)

  20. Greetings and many thanks for your fine work. I am writing to make the exceedingly minor point that the photo of the Nechung oracle that opens this blog needs to be reversed. Common error, when photos are generated from old slides, but it is the subject’s right shoulder (to the left of our image) that should be bared, or at least not draped in the covering robe.

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