1959, a year every Tibetan remembers with sadness and regret was a turning point in the history
of the Roof of the world. With the Chinese Communist occupation of their country and the
genocidal destruction that followed peace and freedom came to an end for the six million
Tibetans. The only ray of hope in this bleak outlook was the safe arrival of His Holiness the
Dalai Lama in India.
Here is an account his holiness the Dalai Lama’s escape told by one of those most closely
associated with is Risking his life and the safety of his family Kunga Samten Dewatshang a leader
of the Chushi Gangdrug guerrillas, escorted the Dalai Lama from the Norbulingka summer palace
right under the Chinese army’s nose on the first lap to freedom. This is the story of a
courageous man, a typical Khampa, a native of eastern Tibet who recalls a way of life that is now
And yet there remains hope. This is also a story of resilience of people who, having lost almost
everything managed to recreate their lives and pass on their faith and values to their children.
Crucial to this success has been the abiding inspiriting if the Dalai lama’s presence. And having
been able to escape.
Dorjee Wangdi Dewatsbang is one of the first formally trained Tibetan architects. He has a
private architectural practice in New Delhi and is currently engaged in several projects that
endeavour to preserve the spirit of Tibetan architecture which is being systemically destroyed I
Tibet. In addition to his architectural work, he takes a keen interest in Tibetan affairs.
With the Chinese occupation of Tibet and the wanton destruction that followed, a whole way of
life has vanished Now there are fewer and fewer people alive who have adult memories of Tibet as
it was before its peace was shattered. Consequently the memories of persons so rich in experience
as Kunga Samten have great value. They offer those who never had the opportunity to see it for
themselves a vivid picture of life in Land of Snow.
In telling the story of his own life, Kunga Samten sheds light on the life of a typical Khampa
family its place within the community its relationship to the local monastery and so forth. He
tells of the freedom and enterprise with he set about rebuilding his family’s fortunes. Entering
into trade led him to travel widely in Tibet and to become acquainted with our neighbours in
China and India. He describes the rich landscape he passed through and the delightful creatures,
plants, and trees to be seen on the way. In his account of the pilgrimages on which he took his
wife he relates in detail the monasteries, temples, and other holy places they visited. He tells
of his exploits to oppose the invading Chinese and his subsequent quieter days in exile.
Sadly, so much of this has changed. Tibetan families no longer have the freedom to live as they
did in Kunga Samten’s time. They have to follow the dictates of an unsympathetic foreign
occupying force. Many of the religious sites he describes visiting no longer exist, and those
that do are but a pale reflection of the places they used to be. Even the environment has been
destroyed. The birds and animals have been hunted or driven away and the forests cleared.
All of the would be grounds for despondency except that one element in Kunga Samten’s story has
not diminished and that is the courage resilience, and determination of the Tibetan character. He
displayed a confidence and self-assurance that enabled him to succeed. Today, too, Tibetans’
determination to regain our lost freedom burn s strong. I have a personal debt of gratitude to
Kunga Samten because he was a leader of those brave Tibetan guerillas who led me and my party
against great odds, to safety here in India. The courage he and his companions displayed
throughout Tibet remains an inspiration to us all never to give up the struggle.
When I was growing up I used to enjoy hearing my pa-la talk about life in Tibet. He would tell us
stories about his childhood in Kham, eastern Tibet, about his brothers and sisters and other
members of his family, about his life as a monk and later his success as merchant and trader. All
these stories led inevitably to the tragic Chinese invasion of Tibet which turned life in our
homeland upside down and provoked the formation of the Chushi Gangdrug resistance movement. It
was as a member of the group that my Pa-la had the opportunity to escort His Holiness the Dalai
Lama from the Norbulingka Summer palace on the first part of his journey to freedom.
I was born outside Tibet one of the first generation of Tibetans to grow up in exile. These
stories excited me and allowed me to travel in my imagination to my true homeland. In pursuing my
urge to know more, I discovered how little had been written about Kham or eastern Tibet.
Whenever my pa-la talked about His Holiness’s escape, he was filled with a sense of achievement.
From his favourite seat in our living room as we sat around the warmth of the fire glasses of
would relate everything that has happened over a few glasses of arak, the locally distilled
liquor of which he was fond, so vividly it was as if it had happened yesterday. He told the story
with such passion that my sisters and I listened detail. We thought we should set down his story
properly. When we suggested this to him, he brushed it aside, saying, ‘That’s not important.’ He
thought it was significant enough that he had actually contributed to Tibetan history by
participating in His Holiness’s escape from Tibet. He felt His Holiness had already written down
whatever needed to be said in his autobiography, My land and My people. In himself he was content
to have been able to serve his country successfully and was more concerned with his hope for the
We didn’t give up reasoning that his recollections as an actual participant in the events he
described, would have their own value, and that his memoirs would shed a great deal of light on
the Khampa way of life. We were aware, in a way that he was not, how important such information
is to those of us who have not yet seen Tibet for ourselves.
After endless persuasion he finally agreed to let us write his story down. Over the years my
sisters and I took notes as he talked. Sadly, he passed away in 1985, before we had finished our
first draft. But thereafter I felt I had a duty to complete the work. I had to consult many other
people who had known my father, some of whom had been his companions in the resistance. I
interviewed many of them at length and I would particularly like to express my gratitude to Genbu
Norbu, Gyapon Kelsang Damdul, Ratug Ngawang, Aso, Lawu Bhuga, Aku kelsang, Daki lama, and Gyen
yadrug for the patient assistance they gave me. My mother was invaluable in answering whatever
unexpected questioned occurred here and there.
Between completing my studies and trying to set up a professional practice, I was not able to
devote as much time as I would have liked to this book. Nevertheless, it remained alive in the
back of my mind. I have finally brought the book to completion with great support and
encouragement of my family. I as especially to my mother, without whose help it could not have
been done, and my sister, Tinlay Choedon who even from abroad would end our every conversation
with an enquiry about progress on Pa-ls’s book.
I have tried to present my father’s story on the basis of everything he held me and the
recollections of his friends. I hope I have been successful in preventing any of my own
judgements or opinions from seeping into the account. It is my sincere hope that this book will
help people from al walks of life to understand the plight of Tibet. I hope too that it may
contribute in some way to fulfilling the hopes and dreams of six million all one day be reunited
in a free and independent Tibet.
Finally, I would like to thank Mr Tsering Wangyal for patiently typing my manuscript and for
making many pertinent improvements, Jeremy Russell for painstakingly editing the final draft and
all the many others who have generously given their help.
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