Remembering and Celebrating a True Son of Tibet
Dipping mercury combined with occasional rain added a layer of physical discomfort to the numbness triggered by Pala’s abrupt death on Christmas Day. Amala, disconcertingly calm and collected, worried about the forecast for December 28th. Her worries proved unfounded as Clement Town woke up to a beautiful cremation day. The pyre logs had a touch of dampness, but they burned with such intensity as if conspiring to accelerate Pala’s passage through Bardo in less than 49 days. The flame and smoke hugged and danced skyward. At that instant, I was transported with the sky above morphing into a giant mosaic of tiny screens each channeling key events embracing the long arc of Pala’s herculean life.
The first screen to stutter to life has a grainy image of a precocious nine-year-old making a three-month pilgrimage on foot from his birthplace of Auka in Tsawa Dzogang (Eastern Tibet) to Lhasa in 1931. This trip would forever take him away from home and family. Upon reaching Lhasa the family pay their respects to Tsawa Jampa Dhaye, a relative and learned Sera monk. The monk sees something in the boy and asks the parents to enroll him into Sera Jey Tsawa Khangtsen. The monk takes the boy under his wings and the two develop a profound relationship that would immutably transform the boy’s life.
Images of the cavernous Great Assembly Hall of Sera Monastery appear on another channel. The boy stays at Sera for eight years juggling the schedule of a regular monk while also taking on a growing role of an attendant and assistant of his teacher. Towards the end of the 1930’s, the boy’s life takes another important turn. Tsawa Jampa Dhaye was developing a growing reputation for prodigious mastery of the scriptures and many even saw shades of Milarepa, one of Tibet’s greatest saint, in his life of absolute renunciation, hardship and uncompromising discipline. The Sera leadership wanted Jampa Dhaye to pursue the highest Geshe degree and position him to become the Ganden Tripa, the spiritual leader of the Gelug school of Tibetan Buddhism. However, Jampa Dhaye was not interested, as he had no interest in any title or position. He was finally able to persuade the Sera leadership to send him to Chamdo Monastery to set up a dialectics school. Jampa Dhaye withdrew his application for Lharampa degree, received a lesser Geshe degree, and departed for Chamdo in 1939.
Another screen comes on with a picture of a young man on foot escorting his teacher on a horse and making the long journey to Chamdo. A moment later, a large group of travelling monks appears at a distance. Upon closer look, it is the caravan taking the four-year-old Fourteenth Dalai Lama to Lhasa. It was in Chamdo that the young man became his own person and everyone now came to know him as Chamdo Jampa Kalden, the primary aide to Geshe Jampa Dhaye. For the next nine years, he immersed himself in the service of his master. He made the daily morning water offerings, mopped, washed, cooked, fetched water, screened all visitors and attended to every need of his master. He was also able to teach himself how to read, write and do basic math.
Geshe la, who was quite renowned by then, had many visitors from Chamdo and distant places. A major daily activity was inventorying the day’s donations. The offerings were split into food and valuables. Geshe la never touched money and other valuables, as he believed this was against his spiritual practice and status as an ordained monk. All cash and valuables were handed over to the Chamdo Gompa treasurer that same evening. A small portion of the food items, mainly tsampa and butter, were kept for personal use. The rest was distributed to needy monks. When he couldn’t give away certain items, he would pray and ask Buddha’s permission for holding on to items overnight. Geshe la led an austere life. He dressed in patched robes and was against accumulating possessions and titles. He died in November 1948 at a relatively young age of 57. The Gelug tradition lost a precious jewel as he discouraged the monastery from finding his reincarnation.
Geshe la clearly foresaw the dark days ahead and in a clarion call for Tibetan unity, he quoted the scripture. “Buddha in his teachings explained that the Buddha Dharma is like a lion. No one will attack and eat a lion. It will only be destroyed from within through old age, illness and eventual decay. Similarly, the Chinese will come, but they will not be able to destroy Tibetan Buddhism. That destruction can only be caused by Tibetans themselves.”
War, bloodshed, suffering and great courage dominate the images over the next ten years leading up to 1959. On the eve of the War of Chamdo in 1950, the Tibetan government replaced Lhalu Tsewang Dorjee with Ngabo Ngawang Jigme as the Governor of Kham. Lhalu, a student of Geshe Jampa Dhaye, was a friend. Pala safely escorted Lhalu to Lho Dzong, a twelve-day horse ride north of Chamdo. Tibetans raided the armory in Sipathang and looted firearms and ammunition before burning it. Pala managed to get his hands on a few as well, which he later passed on to Tibetan resistance fighters in Derge. Chinese soldiers entered Chamdo in October 1950 and found a city abandoned by Ngabo.
The Chinese used the period immediately following the invasion of Chamdo to lull the populace into believing that their intentions were peaceful and they were committed to preserving the Tibetan way of life. Various community-oriented projects were launched including a people’s cooperative store and road building. Pala worked at the store from 1951-1952 as a representative of Chamdo Gompa. He also represented the monastery on a Chinese road building body chaired by Ngabo. During this time he learned to speak Chinese and quickly developed a reputation for being a capable leader.
The loss of his teacher and growing wariness of Chinese intentions drove Pala to Lhasa in 1952. He spent the next three years reinventing himself as a businessman and visited India several times. In the meantime, China’s true intentions became obvious. Constructing road that would facilitate a full-scale invasion and occupation of Tibet was an obvious priority and this goal was accomplished by 1955 as the road now ran from Sichuan to Lhasa. Various reforms were imposed on Tibetans. Hostility against the Chinese grew and rebellion erupted first in Derge in 1954 and soon engulfed most of Eastern Tibet. Lhasa was filling up with fleeing Tibetan resistance fighters. Khampa and Amdo businessmen began raising funds to offer a jewel studded golden throne to His Holiness the Dalai Lama at the Kalachakra Initiation in April 1956. Using this as a cover, resistance leaders furtively began discussing and setting up Chushi Gangdruk, the organization that would initiate a widespread guerrilla resistance movement against the Chinese. Pala, representing Chamdo, was one of the leaders who was there in this formative stage of the organization.
The Chamdo he returned to 1956 was a far different town. Gone were the friendly Chinese policies. Fear and suspicion reigned. Pala worked for Chamdo Gompa and also set up a small business on the side. Trouble soon caught up with him when one day the Chinese authorities summoned him. They learned of his activities in Lhasa with Chushi Gangdruk, the business trips to India, and most damaging of all the trafficking of weapons to resistance fighters in Derge. They gave him a few days before he was to be taken to Chengdu. Realizing that a trip to Chengdu would lead to his arrest, he fled Chamdo with his two nephews in October 1958. The journey to Lhasa was dangerous as Chinese soldiers were everywhere looking for Tibetan resistance fighters. Near Lhari Go, they ran into Chinese soldiers who fired on them. Two Muslims from Siling that they were traveling with got killed. Another two were arrested. But, Pala and his nephews escaped and made it safely to Lhasa. They arrived in time to witness Monlam and His Holiness the Dalai Lama receiving his Geshe degree.
Lhasa reminded Pala of Chamdo on the eve of Chinese invasion. The city appeared deceptively festive with the Monlam Chenmo in session and the impending awarding of His Holiness’ Geshe degree. But, tell tale signs of trouble brewing cloaked the city like a thin layer of ice over a deep abyss. The Chinese were reinforcing and erecting barracks and fences all over the city. Heavily armed PLA soldiers were stationed on top of many prominent buildings. The city was on edge in the weeks leading to March 10 and all it needed was a trigger, which came in the form of word on the street of an evil Chinese plan to kidnap His Holiness.
Pala was not only a witness to this tumultuous phase in Tibet’s history, but also an active participant in the making of the history. The beleaguered Tibetan government invited representatives from different groups for briefings and meetings at Norbulingka. He went as a representative from Chamdo. A core group comprised of government officials and three representatives each from the three provinces, three Tibetan armies (Drapchi, Kusung and Gyangtse) and the three monasteries (Sera, Drepung and Ganden) was formed to find a peaceful solution to the crisis in Lhasa. The group headed by Tsarong held regular planning meetings at the Lhasa Printing Office and also met with His Holiness. Surkhang and Lhalu attended some of the meetings as well. Pala participated in this group as one of the Khampa representatives. They distributed information, supported the work of various protest groups such as the women’s association, and reached out to foreign representatives and consulates.
Chinese cannon shells began landing on Norbulingka past midnight on the eastern and southern corner of the complex. His Holiness’ Palace and around 1000 Tibetan soldiers were both located in the southern corner. His Holiness had already left Lhasa by then. Pala and some of the Chamdo men left Norbulingka, took up position on the hill below Chokpori and waited for the Chinese soldiers. Realizing they were lightly armed, he took some of the men to the Norbulingka armory and retrieved two machine guns and boxes of bullets. He began firing the machine gun even though he had never used one before. The sky lit up as Chinese shells hit the Chokpori Medical College and the Potala. After two nights of firefight, Pala and those that survived fled as they were badly outnumbered and outgunned. They tried crossing the Tsangpo on horseback, but were gunned down by Chinese machine gun fire. Most in his group perished including Chamdo Yabtsang. Pala was shot thrice on his right leg, arrested, and taken back to Norbulingka.
He spent the next three months in Norbulingka prison working on a vegetable field. He was tortured, beaten and made to sit through extended confession sessions. “We know you participated in counterrevolutionary activities, you attended meetings at the printing press. We know that the group that met above the press was responsible for planning the flight of the Dalai Lama,” barked the Chinese interrogators. He steadfastly denied and explained they were mistaking him for someone else. It was a miracle that the Chinese could not confirm his real identity, as that would have meant certain death. After three months the inmates were moved to a new and larger labor camp on the eastern outskirts of Lhasa. They were forced into slave labor and worked on constructing the Nachen Thang hydroelectric plant. For the next nine months he had to dig and haul earth from the nearby mountain to the dam site. Each worker had to complete 200 trips a day. Failure to complete the required trips would subject the inmate to Thamzing (public humiliation) and other punishments. It was long hours of back breaking labor. Many became ill and died.
Pala had a black Omega wristwatch that drew the camp warden’s attention. He decided to give it to the warden as a gift. This move paid off as one day the authorities encouraged inmates below the age of forty to sign up for transfer to a Borax mine in the Changthang area of Tibet. They spoke positively about this place and how those enrolled would no longer be treated as prisoners, but viewed as workers and even be paid. Pala signed up. However, he withdrew his name when one day the warden pulled him aside and questioned why he had enrolled. Most Tibetans who went to work on the Borax mine never returned. According to one survivor, more than 54,000 inmates died of starvation, hard work, and the harsh environment. Those who tried to flee were shot and killed.
As the hydroelectric project neared completion, authorities began relaxing some of the harsh labor camp regulations and now inmates were even allowed visits by family members on Sundays. The loosening of control encouraged Pala to plan his escape. Though his plans had been to escape alone, responsibility was again thrust on him in form of a young monk he befriended in the camp. The monk turned out to be Panchen Otrul Rinpoche. In 1951 Rimpoche was taken to Lhasa as a possible 10th Panchen Lama. In fact he was the first choice of Ganden Phodrang. However, a candidate from Amdo was eventually selected. The Tibetan government gave Rinpoche the title of Panchen Otrul, which means ‘Panchen Candidate.’ Rinpoche’s family members requested Pala to take the young Rinpoche with him to India. The two with the help of Rinpoche’s family members managed to escape in 1960. They hid in caves during daytime, walked at night, and made the long and arduous journey to freedom on foot via Bhutan. Pala left Tibet with just his pouch of tsampa.
Images of the flight to freedom recede replaced by another channel showing Dharamsala in the early sixties and the Tibetan government setting up its base. Pala was employee number four of the Department of Information. In 1961, His Holiness the Dalai Lama made an important statement in Dalhousie where he shared his vision of a more egalitarian and democratic Tibetan society. He said “in order to make Tibet a rich, strong and vigorous nation, the special privileges and the large estates enjoyed, whether by monasteries or aristocratic families will have to go and every one will have to learn and live with and help the common people.” The Department asked Pala and another colleague to tour all the Tibetan camps in Nepal, explain and distribute a booklet of His Holiness’s Dalhousie statement, and also to share his experience in Tibet.
The six-month Nepal tour coincided with a large number of Chushi Gangdruk volunteers heading to Mustang. Many were stranded at the border as the Nepalese police denied them entry. So, instead of finding a receptive audience, he had to deal with an angry mob of resistance fighters who had run out of food and money, felt abandoned and were increasingly irate. They refused to let him go unless he could help address their problems. He had to summon all his skills and barely managed to mollify the mob. The Nepalese government, concerned with Tibetans massing in Mustang, asked Pala and his delegation to encourage Tibetans to return to India or stay in Nepal without engaging in political activities. The delegation ended up visiting all Tibetan areas including the hard stretch from Pokhara to Mustang on foot.
The next assignment was to establish and operate a people’s cooperative store later known as United Association’s Store in McLeod Ganj as the only store was the one run by Mr. Nowrojee. Pala traveled to different Indian cities to buy goods. The store provided a much-needed service to the community. It was also profitable and Pala was able to return the money they had received from His Holiness’s Private Office to buy the store within a few months of operation.
The relatively sedate work of managing a general store did not last long when responsibility of far greater import was again thrust on him and his life was abruptly steered on a different course. A discreet project of setting up a Tibetan paramilitary special force called Establishment 22 was initiated in 1962 shortly after the Indo-China War. The primary goal of this force was to conduct covert operations in Tibet. About 300 Tibetans, many members of Chushi Gangdruk, were the early recruits. The force was stationed in a cantonment town called Chakrata. The soldiers requested the Tibetan government to send two representatives as leaders. The other two officers were from Chushi Gangdruk. Dharamsala selected Pala, and Jampa Wangdue, an elderly Tibetan civil servant. New recruits soon started arriving – 300 to 500 a day. Early responsibilities included organizing the force and setting up things. Pala also underwent sky jump training and soon temporarily took on the role of a Jump Master where he trained Tibetans to jump from planes. He logged a total of thirty jumps during this instructor role. Mr. Wangdue returned to Dharamsala after two years. Pala assumed the most senior position (Dapon) commanding a force that now numbered 12,000. In the late sixties, Establishment 22 undertook numerous covert operations inside Tibet primarily to gather intelligence, track Chinese military movement and establish resistance cells.
The most significant event in the early years of Establishment 22 was Tibetan participation in the Indo-Pakistan War of 1971, which led to the independence of Bangladesh. When the participation of Tibetans was sought, Pala managed the process of building consensus within the Tibetan officers, explaining and securing the buy-in of rank and file, and informing Dharamsala. He and Major General S.S. Uban, the commanding Indian officer, went on a Recon Mission to the Indian-Bangladesh border prior to the war. They then met and discussed strategy and plans with the highest-ranking civilian leaders in the Indian cabinet including a meeting with Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. Pala was the General’s right hand person and oversaw troop movement, supply chain, and communications. He discussed and helped shape strategy and was the lone Tibetan decision maker at the military Headquarters. When not in the Headquarters, he was out on the battlefield encouraging the soldiers, giving them the support they needed, and rushing to see the wounded. The 3000 Tibetan soldiers who participated in the four-month war played an important role in securing independence for Bangladesh. 56 Tibetans were killed and over 200 were wounded.
Another memorable event was a peace mission in 1973. Things were not well in Mustang where Gyen Yeshi had set up a guerrilla enclave in 1960 with 3,000 men. An attempt to bring about a leadership change by having a younger man, Gyato Wangdu, become the leader was not accepted by Gyen. He broke away with about 250 followers and formed a splinter group. The two factions were at a standoff and factional war seemed imminent. The infighting was occurring at a time when the Nepalese government’s laissez-faire policy towards the Tibetan guerrillas was hardening as they came under increasing pressure from China. Dharamsala was concerned and asked its Secretary of the Security Department, Pala and another Khampa military officer to visit Mustang. They were sent to mediate and persuade Gyen Yeshe to a peaceful leadership transition of the Tibetan Mustang army. Gyen invited the delegation over to his base, which was located behind barely passable cliffs at elevations over 5000 meters. Pala drafted a detailed letter on behalf of the delegation and persuaded him to resolve the dispute peacefully. The wily old leader kept the group waiting for a few days, and eventually left his hideout without meeting them. The mission was unsuccessful. A month later the two factions fought and Gyen Yeshe ended up surrendering to the Nepalese government.
During his leadership, Establishment 22 enjoyed a stellar reputation and was held in high regard. They were able to host several senior Indian civilian and military leaders. Though he had to deal with the difficult issue of Tibetan participation in the 1971 war, Pala worked with his colleagues and framed the Tibetan involvement as a voluntary participation to support the oppressed people of Bangladesh. A delicate situation was skillfully handled and this combined with the bravery displayed by Tibetans on the battlefield earned the gratitude of the Indian government. Pala worked hard after the war to improve working conditions of the soldiers and was able to secure land, housing and small businesses as part of retirement package for the soldiers. After several requests to step down, he was finally allowed to leave the establishment in 1976.
The road after military service led back to Dharamsala. In his second stint there, he ran the Security Department as its General Secretary. He held this position until he voluntarily retired in 1987. During his ten-years of leadership, he redefined the work of the department by building a deep and mutually beneficial relationship with Indian security counterparts at the highest level. He was able to do this because of the relationships he developed while serving in the army. He expanded the scale of the department’s work, groomed young leaders, built a wide network of contacts and assets, and injected a muscular dimension to the department’s work.
Throughout the late sixties and seventies, a noxious combination of sectarianism and outsized personalities made for a tense relationship between the Tibetan government and some of the community members. Things came to a head when a community leader was killed in Clement Town in 1977. A large group of tough and angry out of town Tibetans descended on Gangchen Kyishong – the headquarters of the Tibetan Government and barged into the meeting hall where the Tibetan Ministers and staff had convened. According to many witnesses, there was total silence as no one dared to confront the meeting crashers. Pala rose and lectured the mob on respect, etiquette, and the right way to bring up grievances. This emboldened one or two others in the meeting to speak up as well. The mob backed off and a charged situation was diffused.
As he hit his mid-seventies, the knees that had logged thousand of miles covering the rugged terrain of Tibet and Nepal and which had been shot at by the Chinese soldiers began to hurt and slow him down. Still he kept an active schedule – doing his daily practice, religiously listening to the Radio Free Asia, Voice of America and Voice of Tibet news services, devouring all the Tibetan language newspapers, and graciously hosting a steady stream of people calling on him for guidance in matters big and small. In the weeks before he died, he was awestruck by the sacrifices of the self-immolators in Tibet and felt the freedom movement was entering a new phase – one that he was optimistic Tibetans will eventually prevail.
Pala was a fervent loyalist and at the same time an independent thinker. He was a person of impeccable integrity, character and discipline. While he was always thinking of expanding the boundaries of his work, he was ever mindful of his limitations since he had not received a proper education. Yet for all his lack of modern education, I viewed him as one of the most educated and progressive person I have ever met. Furthermore, he was a great husband, father and raised a successful family. As the family went through some of his belongings, we were struck by how little he had and needed. He had lived the teachings of his Master. He escaped Tibet with a pouch of tsampa and left unencumbered by wealth or material possessions.
The screens and images finally faded until all that was left was the lucid blue sky. I awoke from my reverie and realized my siblings and I were the lone holdouts at the crematorium. Everyone had left. The shrunken pyre had left behind an enlarged deposit of ash and other remains. As I walked home that day, I couldn’t help but marvel at the multiplicity of roles thrust on this man – student, monk, attendant, entrepreneur, freedom fighter, labor camp inmate, escapee, soldier, jump master, war veteran, security chief, community elder, husband and father. In seeing these myriad roles and events play out, I received a ringside view of my father’s life and got acquainted with a slice of Tibet’s recent history.