Tibet in India: A people’s history of the Tibetan resistance

Political activist Jamyang Norbu describes life in Dharamshala, headquarters of the Tibetan government in exile, in Echoes from Forgotten Mountains.

Published : Jul 22, 2023 15:54 IST - 8 MINS READ

A scene from the celebrations of the 75th birthday of the Dalai Lama in 2010 in Dharamshala.

A scene from the celebrations of the 75th birthday of the Dalai Lama in 2010 in Dharamshala. | Photo Credit: PTI

In October 1950, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) of China crossed over into Tibet, overpowered the Tibetan forces, and captured the border town of Chamdo. The next year, Tibet was made to sign the Seventeen Point Agreement with China authorising the PLA presence and the Central People’s Government rule in Tibet. Five years later, a section of Tibetans rebelled, starting off a war that would last till 1973.

The history of the Tibetan armed resistance to Chinese occupation from 1957 to 1973 has been largely suppressed because it went against the Dalai Lama’s advocacy of non-violence. But it was an important movement where Tibetans trained themselves in military tactics and fought the Chinese incursion, helping the Dalai Lama escape safely from Tibet to India in 1959. Tibet had an unlikely ally in the fight—the US, which had its own reasons for helping the Tibetan cause. In these years of the Cold War, the US was eager to find all possible ways of stemming communist China’s increasing might and the resentment of the Tibetans worked to its advantage. When the US stopped its support to the cause in the 1970s as abruptly as it had offered it, the resistance fell through and was forgotten over the years.

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Tibetan political activist and writer, Jamyang Norbu, grew up in West Bengal’s Kalimpong hill town, an old trade hub where intelligence agents of different nationalities—British, American, Chinese, Russian—converged in the turbulent and colourful 1960s. Eager to join the Tibetan resistance, he started working first in Dharamshala, doing translations and gathering intelligence, and then in Nepal’s Mustang, where the Tibetan fighters had regrouped after being scattered by repeated ambushes of the PLA. But by the time Norbu was in Mustang, the fight had started losing steam with the withdrawal of US support and Nepal no longer willing to offer them refuge.

Tibetan youth participate in the Tibetan Uprising March at Mcleodganj, Dharamshala, in 2014.

Tibetan youth participate in the Tibetan Uprising March at Mcleodganj, Dharamshala, in 2014. | Photo Credit: PTI

Norbu puts together a comprehensive and authoritative account of the Tibetan resistance in Echoes From Forgotten Mountains, which is history, adventure, family lore, all rolled into one. Norbu’s style is engrossing—his 2000 novel, The Mandala of Sherlock Holmes, is easily one of the best Sherlock Holmes spin-offs, and the salient features of this fictional narrative can be found in his new book too. Both are intimate, in-depth, and utterly compelling.

In Echoes From Forgotten Mountains, Norbu works the accounts of resistance fighters, secret agents, soldiers, peasants, merchants, beggars into a people’s history of the Tibetan struggle. In this extract from the chapter “March Winds”, Norbu describes his first direct involvement with the underground movement as he migrates to Dharamshala, the headquarters of the Tibetan government in exile, and joins the Dance and Drama Society for Tibetan refugees.


March is stormy in Dharamshala, the small north Indian hill station that is the headquarters-in-exile of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government. March is also the month when Tibetan refugees in this town and elsewhere commemorate their national struggle against China’s military occupation of Tibet—a violent struggle culminated in the desperate Uprising of 1959 and the flight of the Dalai Lama to India.

Cover of Echoes from Forgotten Mountains

Cover of Echoes from Forgotten Mountains | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

It had begun to rain on that morning of March 10, 1968—my first experience of this annual rite of remembrance—and the fife and drum band of the Tibetan Dance and Drama society was losing snap in inverse proportion to the rain that the drum-heads (and the musicians) were steadily absorbing. school children in thin cotton uniforms shivered in the rain, while the adults, dressed in drab cotton versions of their national dress or odd combinations of ill-fitting gift clothes, waited patiently, clutching paper flags or holding placards and banners that proclaimed, “FRee TIBeT” or “CHInA OUT OF TIBeT”. The only pleasant touch to this gloomy scene was provided by a row of marigolds in CARe milk powder cans arrayed before the Dalai Lama’s small tent. His Holiness spoke briefly and precisely. This was the first time I had heard him speak, and though I don’t recollect what he said exactly, I remember being moved and impressed. The same could not be said for the speeches that followed. The cabinet’s statement was read in a mumble that buzzed irritatingly over the defective P. A. system. A monk, I think the deputy-speaker of the exile Tibetan parliament, came next, chanting a singsong litany couched in ornate classical Tibetan. He was incomprehensible.

Every year, Tibetan communities throughout India and elsewhere enact a variation of this ritual, which generally concludes with a procession through the closest town or city, where fierce slogans condemning Communist Chinese leaders from Mao to Xi Jinping have, through the years, been shouted, generally to the bemusement of Indian shopkeepers and passers-by.

My contact at Dharamshala was my cousin Tenzin Gyeche-la, the oldest son of my uncle sonam Tomjor, and now the assistant private secretary to the Dalai Lama. He had become a monk since I had last seen him when he was in his senior year at Mount Hermon school. To my admiring young eyes, he had looked very cool then, wearing a pair of tight “drainpipes”, a brilliant purple silk jacket with a bold logo at the back (like out of West Side Story) and his hair in a not-quite-elvis quiff. now neatly shorn and in a simple maroon robe, he conveyed quiet efficiency and dedication. Besides his official duties, he had, with his younger brother Tenzin namgyal, set up a popular news magazine, Sheja or “Knowledge”, to inform and educate the refugee population. He had written to me earlier that they needed editorial help at Sheja, but when I got to Dharamshala, he asked me if I would like to work at the Dance and Drama society.

In this picture taken on September 7, 1959, the Dalai Lama offers a traditional Tibetan white sash to the then Indian Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, in New Delhi, during his first visit to Nehru since his arrival in exile in 1959.

In this picture taken on September 7, 1959, the Dalai Lama offers a traditional Tibetan white sash to the then Indian Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, in New Delhi, during his first visit to Nehru since his arrival in exile in 1959. | Photo Credit: AFP

This society had its origins in the performing group at Kalimpong, which raised funds for Tibetan refugees in 1958 and 1959, and promoted awareness of Tibetan culture to Indians and others. now, the Lhasa musicians, opera singers, and various performers of the group were requested by the new exile government to come to Dharamshala and become a national institute. The society was quite successful in the beginning, but the year before I came to Dharamshala, it had nearly been shut down because of fractious differences among senior staff and performers, many of whom had been dismissed or transferred from the society. In a bid to save it, Tenzin Gyeche-la had taken over the administration, and he needed someone to run the society’s office and do whatever paperwork was required.

Followed by a burly Kashmiri porter (Ali) carrying my suitcase on his back, I walked up the hill from the small town of McLeod Ganj, the Tibetan section of Dharamshala, to the Dance and Drama society. It might be mentioned here that the town was named after the Lt Governor of Punjab (1865–70), sir Donald Friell McLeod. “Ganj” being the Urdu for neighborhood or enclave. The first mile of the walk on the rough unpaved road took me through a steep mountainside forest of towering deodar pines, where packs of chattering rhesus monkeys groomed each other in the sun and scolded passers-by. In the winter, the rhesuses would move further down the valley, and the deodar forest would echo with the hoots of the black-faced, silver-haired Himalayan langurs. They would jump from tree to tree, sometimes bounding off the roof of refugee dwellings before disappearing like fleeting apparitions into the winter mist. In between the trees were tents, shacks, and the kind of jury-rigged shelters you find in slum neighbourhoods throughout the world. But many of these humble makeshift dwellings had bright flowers (planted in a variety of tin cans) on windowsills and minuscule front porches.

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The town was essentially a refugee camp, or what they called a Displaced Person or DP camp during the War. There was even an official Camp Commandant, an Indian bureaucrat, whose main job was to distribute food rations to all Tibetan DPs: the refugees living in the tent shelters, officials of the exile government, the Tibetan nursery, the Transit school, the Dance and Drama society, and even the Dalai Lama and his entourage. The rations were not exciting: dal, rice, onions, chili peppers, sugar and tea leaves, but adequate when you fleshed it out with the occasional consignment of CARe milk powder, Bulgur Wheat, Wisconsin Cheese and spam. The Camp Commandant even provided the sweepers to keep the town clean, a real doctor and a clinic to provide free treatment and free medicine, and language teachers (respectfully addressed as guru-ji) who, with the serendipitous influence of the local cinema hall (Himalaya Talkies) soon got Tibetans speaking Hindi, in a fashion of their own.

Exiled Tibetan Buddhist monks perform a debate on Buddhist dialectics at Kirti Monastery in Dharamshala, in December 2019.

Exiled Tibetan Buddhist monks perform a debate on Buddhist dialectics at Kirti Monastery in Dharamshala, in December 2019. | Photo Credit: ASHWINI BHATIA/ AP

The Government of India (GOI) also set up large boarding schools at all major hill stations: Darjeeling, Kalimpong, shimla, Mussoorie, Dalhousie, Mount Abu and Dharamshala. These provided an english medium based modern education to many thousands of refugee children. Though public education in India was run along strictly secular lines, the GOI recognized that Tibetan identity was closely bound to its unique Buddhist culture. so, these schools employed geshes and lamas to provide formal religious education to Tibetan children. every paisa for this exemplary project came from the Indian taxpayer. Nehru’s government may have failed dismally to support the Tibet issue in the United Nations, but there can be no question of the more than generous treatment of Tibetan refugees by the government and people of India.

Excerpted with permission from Echoes from Jamyang Norbu’s Forgotten Mountains: Tibet in War and Peace (India Viking, July 2023).

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