17 March 1959: The Dalai Lama escaped from Tibet to India


Tibetan spiritual leader Tenzin Gyatso, better known as His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, escaped from Tibet to India on 17 March 1959.  

Born on 6 July 1935 in a farming family in a village in northeastern Tibet, Lhamo Dhondup (his name at the time), was at the age of two years recognised as the reincarnation of Thubten Gyatso, the 13th Dalai Lama. According to Tibetan Buddhist belief, Dalai Lamas are Bodhisattvas, enlightened beings who are reborn to serve mankind. 

Tenzin Gyatso’s monastic education started when he was six.

In October 1950 the Chinese army reached the area near the Dalai Lama’s territory. The same year in November the 14th Dalai Lama formally became Tibet’s temporal ruler. He reached out to China, even going as a delegate for a session of the National People’s Congress in 1954. He also held the post of deputy chairman of the Congress’ Standing Committee.  

During a trip to India in 1956 he asked Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru if the latter would grant him political asylum if the need arose. In 1956 there was a rebellion in the Tibetan-populated region of eastern Kham in the province of Sichuan. America’s secret agency CIA supported the rebels in their campaign. In 1959 there was an uprising in Lhasa,Tibet. With China cracking down on the rebellion, the Dalai Lama and his aides started their journey to escape Tibet, with the help of CIA agents, on 17 March 1959.

They crossed over to India on 30 March 1959, and reached Tezpur (Assam) on 18 April.

One of the world’s most famous exiles had started.  

Peter Jackson, a foreign correspondent with the Reuters, who was stationed in India at the time and together with his wife Adrienne Farrell broke the story of the Dalai Lama’s escape to India, wrote in February 2009: “Fearing that the Chinese would seize the Dalai Lama, crowds of Tibetans, some armed, surrounded the Norbulingka Palace, where the Dalai Lama was staying. He decided to escape to India. On 17 March 1959, he dressed as a Tibetan layman, and slung a rifle over his shoulder. With a dust storm providing cover, he walked out, unrecognized, from the palace. The Dalai Lama and his officials, who had also escaped from the palace, rode out of the city on horses to join his family for the trek to India.”

Since then the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan-government-in-exile are based in Dharamsala, Himachal Pradesh. Besides being the Tibetans’ most revered spiritual leader, the 14th Dalai Lama, a Nobel Prize laureate, is a global symbol of peace and tolerance.

In an interview to FT Magazine in November 2013, he said: “Whether they (the Chinese) love me or not, the Tibetan problem is there. It’s not only the Tibetan problem, but it’s the problem of the People’s Republic of China. They have to solve this. Using force failed. So they must now carry out a policy to respect Tibetan culture and Tibetan people.”

Also on this day:

1946 — Prithviraj Chavan, Chief Minister ofMaharashtra, was born

1990 — Saina Nehwal, Indian badminton star, was born  

1962 — Kalpana Chawla was born  

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