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).
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 :