In not utilizing Gendun Chhompel’s work, ideas and voice, did Tibetan people lose out on a committed nationalist, especially during the last years of their freedom, a time when they needed it the most?
I am indebted to Shri Claude Arpi and his well-researched book “1962 and the McMahon Line saga” for this article, and I will quote from this book often.
Late scholar Gendun Chhompel’s life and death symbolized the Tibet of the first half of twentieth century. The conservative clergy did not demonstrate requisite foresight and statecraft, with a few exceptions, the most notable being the late 13th Dalai Lama, who had forewarned his people what trauma lies ahead, with his prophetic testament of ‘long and dark shall be the night’. The aristocratic estate owners had utilized the drawbacks of the society to their advantage. There were the common Tibetan people, although striving hard for spiritual liberation, but oblivious to the momentous changes that swept the world, and hence, ill-prepared to deal with them. Finally, there were a handful of brilliant and progressive young Tibetans wanting to bring changes in Tibet. They may not have known how to bring the changes, but tried, and were broken at the end of their effort.
Unlike India or China, Tibet had never been colonized for any significant length of time, that is, until the Chinese PLA brought in destruction starting 1950. While India and China had imperialist powers to throw out, Tibetans had none to drive out. While long period of independence had allowed the Tibetan people to concentrate on spiritual refinement, they also missed the strong winds of nationalism that blew across Asia, which did help the erstwhile colonized Asian countries such as India to at least start rebuilding their society. Another disadvantage that the Tibetan people had, although it can be argued that the Tibetan ruling elite actually preferred it by an overwhelming majority, was that the major colonial power present in Asia during the first half of twentieth century, Great Britain, strictly preferred maintaining Tibet’s status-quo, which meant that Tibet remained isolated. Fresh ideas from outside world were hard to come by, and when they came, Tibetan ruling elite viewed them with a certain amount of suspicion. Gendun Chhompel’s life and struggles need to be viewed in the above context.
Gendul Chhompel was born in Amdo province of Eastern Tibet in 1903. He joined a branch of the Labrang Tashikyil monastery called Yama Tashikyil when he was still very young. Later he joined another monastery called Ditsa, where he was recognized as an incarnate, and was came to be known as ‘Alak Ditsa’. Then he joined the main Labrang monastery, he was already famous as a great scholar. Even when he was in his twenties, he also came to be known also for his non-conformist ways. He invented matchbox boats and tested them in the nearby lake! He was reprimanded by the authorities of the monastery for this! Later he also fabricated flying objects! He demonstrated his keen interest in history, along with arts and painting, too. Later, he went to Drepung monastery and studied under the famous scholar, Geshe Sherab Gyaltso.
When still in his twenties, Gendun left for India, to become a wandering monk. For the next twelve years he visited ‘Aryabhumi’, as India was known to the Tibetan people. He traversed length of the country, from Kashmir valley and the North-western frontier provinces (now Pakistan), to as far south as Sri Lanka. Everywhere he studied the people, their language and wrote about their history.
In northern India, he looked for the remnants of the ancient kingdom of Oddiyana. In Sri Lanka, he studied Pali language and southern Buddhist tradition, and he wrote about Vinayana traditions.
He was not only a prolific writer, but was also an expert in drawing maps. Taking advantage of his exhaustive travel, he drew the first Tibetan maps of Buddhist pilgrimages in India and he published a book on this, which is still used today by Tibetan pilgrims. His fantastic memory, his sense of history and his insatiable curiosity took him to many holy places in India, in particular Varanasi and Patna. He studied Sanskrit, Hindi and English.
Venerated Indian poet of that era, Shri Rabindranath Tagore, had offered him a teaching post at his university in Shantiniketan (in present-day Indian state of West Bengal). However, Gendun loved being on the roads and hence, refused. He traveled non-stop in India, wrote continuously about his political views. He established friendship with noted Indian scholar Rahul Sankrityayana, with whom he traveled to Tibet in 1938, in search of old lost Sanskrit manuscripts that were no longer available in India but were preserved in Tibetan monasteries for over a thousand years. Gendun returned to India, and helped indexing the manuscripts too, these are in Bihar museum. At a time when sectarian tension was spreading in Tibet between different Buddhist faiths, Gendun was broad enough to not only read Indian texts such as Bhagavad Gita, Rig Veda, Dhammapada, Ramayana and Kamasutra. He even read the Bible and the Koran. Ironically, Gendun had also established deep friendship with Rapga Pandatsang, the Khampa nationalist and founder of the Tibetan rebel political party called ‘Tibet Improvement Party’. It was this relation with Rapga, and Gendun’s frequent visits to Rapga’s house in Kalimpong (in present-day Indian state of West Bengal) that aroused the suspicion of the British colonial rulers of India.
Gendun’s greatest passions were ancient Tibetan history and drawing maps. Sadly, these were greatly responsible for his later troubles. His ‘The White Annals’ was a completely new interpretation of the early history of Tibet. He was able to consult the manuscripts of Denhuang and decipher the historic pillars in Lhasa, on which the history of the relations of Tibet and China had been written (incidentally, the same history that the Chinese communists are turning to their head, via their propaganda). Gendun traveled via Eastern Bhutan to reach Tawang. He probably visited Urgyenling, the birthplace of the sixth Dalai Lama Tsangyang Gyatso. Gendun was eagerly trying to find the ‘Chorten Karpo’s (white stupas) which were supposed to have marked the borders of the Tibetan empire in the seventh and eighth century. He was hoping to decipher the bi-lingual inscriptions that some of these stupas had, in order to gain insights into the history of the ancient Tibetan empire. Whether he saw the famous Gorsam Chorten, which was perhaps the Chorten Karpo of the ancient legend, is not known. In 1959, this was the same place where the 14th Dalai Lama entered India fleeing occupied Tibet. According to scholar Heather Stoddard, Gendun had found one Chorten bearing bilingual inscriptions in Tibetan and Indian scripts, indicating location of ancient Indo-Tibetan border.
Maps drawn by Gendun showing present-day Arunachal Pradesh and borders of ancient Tibetan empire, during his stay in Tawang, became sources of his trouble. This was at a time when British India and Tibetan government were negotiating about the fate of Tawang, whether British India would govern it as stipulated in the 1914 Simla accord, or whether Tibetan government will govern it. It is said that these maps fell in the hands of the the-then nationalist Chinese Kuo-Min-Tang government, which also had claims over Tibet and Northeastern India’s frontier regions (currently Arunachal Pradesh). This made him even more suspect in the eyes of the British. Additionally, Gendun had decided to travel to Tibet, via Tawang. At a sensitive time, such unusual choice of route made him even more of a suspect. British authorities had reported Gendun’s activities to Lhasa.
Gendun reached Lhasa in January 1946. He wore a torn Chuba. His only possession was his black box, in which all of his writings, paintings, sketches and notes were there.
Now, let us look at the ideas that Gendun carried. He was passionate about a united Tibet, with sufficiently strong military capabilities to defend themselves. His studies of ancient Tibetan history made him respect the ancient Tibetan kings, for their accomplishment of keeping Tibet united. In his view, Tibet had to fight to regain its lost glory. He was of the opinion that the Tibetan people from Amdo and Kham were much more patriotic than the people of central Tibet, because they had fought for centuries against the Chinese and knew them better. He felt that over a thousand years religion has dampened the Tibetan spirit. He used to watch the training of the minuscule Tibetan army very keenly. He had a clear vision of what the communists will bring to Tibet. He had followed the China’s civil war closely, and predicted that Mao will have to kill many people if he has to succeed. He had advised his disciples to go and study in China, because ‘It is good to study in India, a friendly country, but it is much more important to go to China, because it is essential to understand and know your enemy’. He had said that the Chinese had a long memory, they are the mortal enemies of the Tibetan people, they are building capabilities to subjugate Tibet and the Communists ‘are coming’.
Add his unusual appearance, copious writing, maps, sketches, paintings, radical ideas, with the suspicion the British had passed on to the Lhasa authorities! Gendun Chhompel was arrested by the Lhasa authorities in August 1946, imprisoned, and beaten. He was released in 1949, partly because Tibetan government could not prove any charges against him. There was another reason, too. The Tibetan government understood that they urgently need to write their history and popularize it, because China had started becoming increasingly noisy over their claims on Tibet. Tibetan government understood that it is important for them to substantiate their claim of independence with historical evidences. There was no one better to write history of ancient Tibet, than Gendun Chhompel!
But then, in 1949, Gendun Chhompel was a broken man. He took to drinking heavily. When the first Chinese PLA troops entered Lhasa in September 1951, Gendun was already blind and had only a few months left to live. When a friend described the Chinese troops passing under his window, he shouted in frustration to the effect that Tibet had got what they had bargained for in their centuries of negligence and infighting.
Would the history have taken a different turn had the Tibetan government paid heed to nationalists like Gendun Chhompel and their warnings? We will never know. However, one lesson we can learn is that nationalism is not dirty (to paraphrase Indian nationalist scholar Arun Shourie).