In Memory of an Unknown Hero: Lha-nga Tseten Namgyal

Lha-nga Tseten Namgyal (inset) on school holiday with his Tsarong cousins. Darjeeling-Kalimpong Road 1951.                                         (Photo courtesy: George Tsarong)
Lha-nga Tseten Namgyal (inset) on school holiday with his Tsarong cousins. Darjeeling-Kalimpong Road 1951. (Photo courtesy: George Tsarong)


By Paljor Tsarong

Lha-nga Tseten Namgyal (Tsenamla) recently passed away on April 18, 2018. He was a brave patriotic man who took part in underground political activities against the Chinese even before 1959. After almost 20 years of hard life in Chinese prisons, one would think he would emerge a broken and reformed person. Incredibly, he once again joined a secret resistance organization. Being a confident and modest man, he never felt the need to extol his deeds and so it is only fitting that we Tibetans know about him and remember this brave patriot. I would like to share with you all a very short account of his life.

Tsenamla was born in 1937 at Lha-nga, Shigatse. His father Sonam Wangdü was born on Khortsang Estate in Phempo. His uncle’s name was Namgang. Namgang was later named Dasang Damdü; he married into the Tsarong household and became Kalön, Master of the Mint, and Commander-in Chief of the Tibetan army.

Tsenamla was about 8 years old when he became a young monk household (shaktsang) member of Nyewog, a large monk aristocratic official of Tashi Lhünpo. His brother Paljor Gyatso was also there. There he learned how to read and write though he also learned from his parents. He lived the general life of a young monk, memorizing and reciting the prayers.

When he was twelve, his uncle Tsarong felt that he should get some modern education and so sent him to Darjeeling and put him under the care of his daughter Tess (Tsering Yangzom) who was married to Jigme Dorji of Bhutan. Tsenamla was the oldest student in Kindergarten at Darjeeling’s St. Joseph’s and missed home very much. The following year he was shifted to Mt. Hermon where his cousins, the daughters of Tsarong and Taring were.

Chinese soldiers had occupied Lhasa in 1951 and in 1953 they were already demanding the return of Tibetan students studying in India as they did not want them to get a British “imperialist” education. So Tsenamla and his cousins all had to return to Lhasa and were sent to Chinese schools. The conditions were very primitive compared to the elite boarding schools of Darjeeling that they attended. Tsenamla went to Sèshim School and later Chitso Labtra at Lhasa.

While in India his father had passed away and his mother was running the Tsarong Estates of Lha-nga and Paljor Lhünpo. She now needed help and so Tsenamla was soon taking full responsibility of running the estates. Just like his father, Tsenamla administered the estates most efficiently. He used to go to do the accounts at Lhasa. They would be done very quickly since his uncle Tsarong habitually got up at 3 in the morning to get his private work done before attending office.

In the latter part of 1958, during one of his trips to Lhasa, Tsenamla joined the very secretive political organization called the “Allied Freedom Party” (Rawang Nadrel Tsokpa). The Chinese had now occupied Tibet for 8 years and wounds of occupation were beginning to fester. The group’s ultimate aim was to make occupation difficult for the Chinese but they disguised their agenda by overtly stating that their mission was to support the people in their fight against the ruling class. Tsenamla was recruited into this organization by Maya Tsewang Gyurmey, who was a government official and a relative of his wife. Others in the party were the lay official Jhandreyla, the monk official Narkyi Ngawang Thondup, Manang Abo, the well-to-do trader from Markham and others. It was difficult to say how big the organization was since each cell consisted of just two persons, the main person and his recruit. The latter would enlist a reliable person who was not even known to the original person. In this way the Chinese could not destroy the organization since one only knew one’s recruit and no one else. However, through messages the members would get together to coordinate activities. Tsenamla’s work was to go to Shigatse and start a branch there.

In 1959 Tsenamla had come to Lhasa to do the accounts with his uncle. On March 10th there was much commotion in the city and people were saying that the Chinese were going to take the Dalai Lama to their military headquarters. Tsarong asked Tsenamla to see what all the commotion was about. As he got to Bagho Kanning he saw people dragging the dead body of a Chinese looking man. Only later did he come to learn that it was Chamdo Phakphala Khenchung. He reported everything to Tsarong, who soon left to attend the meetings at Norbulingka. At that time Tsarong’s youngest daughter Dondup Dolma came to Tsarong House in a car with a few Chinese soldiers. “Where is Pala?” she asked. Tsenamla told her that he had gone to the meeting at Norbulingka. “How unlucky he is!” she said and then she grabbed her younger brother Phüntso Gyaltsen by the arms and took him away. Dondup Dolma was married to Shölkhang Jedrung and he had long joined the Chinese side believing that Tibet’s future lay with China and not fighting her. Tsarong thought otherwise and when he found out that his son was taken under protection to the Chinese quarters he sent maid servant Pemba to call him back. Phüntso Gyaltsen returned and would soon be imprisoned for the next 20 years.

It was exactly 2:30 in the wee hours of the morning of March 20 that the Chinese started firing their artillery. A hail of shells fell on the Potala, Norbulingka and parts of Lhasa city. That morning some Chinese soldiers broke through the walls from neighboring Langdün House and arrested Tsenamla, his relative Tsering and Phüntso Gyaltsen. By the 23rd, there were about 200 prisoners in Tsarong’s large compound. The three of them were taken to Silingpu, the military headquarters not far from Tsarong House. Tsenamla momentarily saw his uncle Tsarong, in hand and leg chains. “Don’t worry. You won’t have any trouble. You will be released,” he told Tsenamla. That was the last he saw his uncle for Tsarong was later secretly murdered in prison.

Imprisoned with Tsenamla in a large hall were some 100 or so aristocratic and monk officials, all in hand and leg chains. Some were put in cells with three prisoners in each cell. There were some 20 or so such cells with steel doors and windows constructed years ago for such an eventuality. The prisoners were subjected to endless and monotonous propaganda and re-education and told to admit their mistakes. After three months they took them out to dismantle all the Chinese artillery bunkers. There were intricate underground tunnels and fortifications that were excessive considering how weak the Tibetans were.

Around October 1959 Tsenamla was released. He stayed in Lhasa for about 20 days and then went to Lha-nga. There he found that his wife and family were thrown out of the main house and moved to a small shack. At that time the Chinese had started the “Three Antis and Two Exemptions (Ngogö Nyi Dang Chayang Sum), the campaign against corruption, waste and bureaucracy and exemptions from paying lease fees and high interest rates. He spent only three days with his family and was arrested again and kept under detention. The Chinese taught and instigated the people to begin struggle sessions (thamzing) against the landlords and their representatives. So he was struggled against though not beaten like many.

After some 6 months Tsenamla was released and he went to Lhasa. His wife was there also. He worked as a labourer and thought that he got paid some 30 Yuan per month. His cousin Küsang Lhakyi was in a very difficult situation. She was Tsarong’s daughter married to the high aristocratic Lord Shata who was serving a 20 year prison term. Tsenamla used to share his salary with her. One day he received a strange proposition from the Chinese. They had known that he had earlier been to India and so one day this Chinese officer asked him if he wanted go to India to see what those Tibetan reactionaries (Lokchöpa) were up to. He was being asked to become a spy. He thought it was an excellent opportunity to escape and so he agreed. He told his relative Tamla about it and made him promise to look after his family as he was going to India and never coming back. He told him not to tell anyone as it was a highly secretive matter. Nevertheless, Tamla reported it to the Chinese and Tsenamla was sentenced to 10 years in prison.

He spent two months in Taring House which had become a prison and was then transferred to Drabchi Prison. He was put into the Tasung Khang, a high security section. The prisoners received very little food and if they got soup with 7 pieces of broad beans (gyatrema), they would say that the food was not so bad that day. They got no lunch and in the evenings, a watery gruel (thukpa) flavoured with canned pork. One advantage of being high security prisoners was that they were not let out to work. Others had to labour outside and they were the ones who died. Everyday about 10 to 15 prisoners died as the food was not sufficient for the work they had to perform.

From Drapchi Tsenamla was sent to Thangkya in the Drikung area. About 300 prisoners were kept in tents surrounded by barbed wire and soldiers. Later the prisoners had to build the prison houses. There was a large agricultural area there that measured about 1000 Khe and they had to till it with spades since there were no draft animals. So, 8 prisoners pulled a plough. Gradually the numbers decreased until 4 prisoners pulled one plough. The food was poor but the prisoners managed at times to get some radish and radish leaves. Despite this many died and people in the area today say the place is haunted by ghosts of the dead prisoners. Tsenamla was an uncooperative prisoner and so around September 1962, along with some other 40 obdurate ones, he was shipped off to Po Tramo in the forested south east.

He was now in Prison Number 2 and there were 7 groups of some 300 to 500 prisoners in each group. Most of the prisoners were Khampas who had revolted in Kham and there were only 30 from Lhasa side and a few from Shigatse and from Tramo itself. They were kept in tents and in the military barracks. Later the prisoners built the prisons. Their main work was to cut trees and drag down the large logs. The felling site was about an hour’s walk under armed guards. They also had to gather plenty of firewood and during sowing and harvesting they were taken to the fields for agricultural work. Each prisoner got a monthly supply of 500 gms of tea, 250 gms of salt, some butter and 15 kgs of barley flour. They got a watery tea from the common kitchen. For the amount of work, the rations were nowhere enough and they managed to get some radish leaves and potatoes in autumn.

It was not just prison life and labor that was difficult but the Chinese kept toying with the prisoners mind, making them denounce the Dalai Lama and everything that they believed in. This made many prisoners become even bolder. During the 1962 Sino-Indian border war Tsenamla and others secretly rooted for the Indians and placed great hopes on them. They also said that the Americans were coming and they kept extending the year that they would arrive. It was all empty hopes, but at least it kept hopes alive and that was what was important in prison. It was almost impossible to escape from prison since there was the forest on one side and the bridge on the other side. A man once did try to escape, but he was shot by the guards and later they displayed his head, saying this was what would happen if they tried to escape. There were also many executions. Once 16 prisoners were shot including a high lama called Bonchen Aka. They had all earlier been involved in the revolt in Kham side.

Around 1972, Tseten Namgyal became a Lèmi, or a laborer. The work was the same but now he was no longer in prison but lodged in the laborer’s section under the prison administration. Three persons formed a common kitchen (tobtsang) where they cooked and ate together. They got 25 Yuan from which their allotted rations were deducted and from the left over money they bought cigarettes, soap, toothpaste, etc. As the rations were never enough Tseten Namgyal and his companions managed to steal vegetables from the villages and once they also sneaked out at night to dig up dead pigs which they were made to bury the day earlier.

It was around 1980 that Tsenamla’s sister’s husband had requested his transfer. Tsenamla arrived at Lhasa and continued his Lèmi (labourer) status and was housed at Sangyib which was under the Drabchi Prison administration. He was in the 5th Rukha, or section. He could visit his family on Saturdays but had to return by Sunday evening.

One would think that after almost 20 years as a prisoner Tsenamla would have become a model prisoner and a reformed person. Not a chance. While at Sangyib, he joined the secret underground group called the Three Regions Patriotic Anti-Communist Organization (Chösum Gung Gul Gyalche Tsokpa). They met every Sunday at Phuntsok’s house. The group’s aim was to create demonstrations and consult with Dharamsala. Namsogom was the leader of the group and others in the group were Thangpey and Jampa Tsültrim, old government officials who had been in prison for some 20 years. There was also Trakün, the father of a security worker in Dharamsala and others.[1]

In 1982 Tsenamla received a three month leave to visit relatives, as most of his Tsarong relatives were in India. It was just a pretext as the reason for his visit was to coordinate activities with Dharamsala. Tsenamla was returning to Lhasa but at Kathmandu while lunching at Lobsang’s (a contact man), a man came by and said that Namsogom had been arrested. It was a great surprise and a shock for Tsenamla. After making sure it was indeed their leader who was arrested, Tsenamla decided to return to India. There was no knowing who else was arrested and the danger of information being extracted under torture was too high to risk returning.

Tseten Namgyal spent the rest of his life in Dharamsala, working at the Tibetan Medical Institute. He was in charge of despatching medicines. He worked hard, always came to work on time, had the best interest of the institution in mind and gave it his best, as he did with any work he was involved in. Our Tsarong family members didn’t know much about his coming to India, because Tsenamla never really contacted us and because he felt he did not want to bother us or be a burden. Even after we came to know him in Dharamsala, he hardly visited. But if he heard that one of us was sick or needed some help, he was the first person to come and visit. That was the kind of person he was; honest, forthright, deeply loyal and full of integrity. And, as we Tibetans say, the kind of person you cannot find even if you search with a golden lantern.

Tsenamla passed away last week on April 18, 2018. We should all remember and pray for this brave patriot. He is survived by his wife, children and a number of grandchildren. I would like to express my sincere condolences to them and I know that they all will walk confidently and proudly into the future for Tsenamla would no doubt have inspired them and given them the strength to overcome anything.


[1] For the sake of anonymity certain names have been changed and incidents suppressed.



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