Graphic Novel: The Dalai Lama’s Escape to India

How did the Dalai Lama escape to India, with 20 of his most trusted men in 1959, barefoot in the icy Himalayas?

Graphic Novels
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Graphic Novel: The Dalai Lama’s Escape to India
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(This graphic novel was originally published on 19 March 2018. The Quint is republishing this from its archives to commemorate the birth anniversary of the Dalai Lama on 6 July 2022. )

China cornered Tibet in 1959, ready to take it over. How did His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama escape to India, from Tibet in 1959? Read on.


Who Is the 14th Dalai Lama?

The man who would become the 14th Dalai Lama, was born into a farming family in Taktser in Tibet’s traditional Amdo province, on 6 July 1935. The Dalai Lama was given the name Lhamo Thondup at birth, the literal translation of the name means ‘wish-fulfilling goddess’.

Taktser, a small village that overlooked a valley, had very few settlements at the time. The unpredictable weather in the area made agriculture a difficult prospect. So, the region was primarily used by nomads.

I remember pulling at my father’s moustache once and being hit hard for the mischief. But he was also a kind man. He never bore grudges. 
His Holiness, the 14th Dalai Lama

The Dalai Lama had 6 siblings: two sisters and four brothers. His oldest brother, Thubten Jigme Norbu, was recognised as the reincarnation of Taktser Rinpoche, another one of the high lamas.

His youngest brother, Tenzin Choegyal, was recognised as the reincarnation of another one of the high lamas, Ngari Rinpoche.

When the Dalai Lama was two years old, a search party appointed by the Tibetan Government arrived in the Amdo province. The party, guided by the 13th Dalai Lama Thupten Gyatso, and led by a number of signs, discovered young Lhamo.  

After a three-month journey with the search party, the young Lhamo arrived in Lhasa, and was conferred the title of the 14th Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of the Tibetan people.


Why Did the Dalai Lama Escape to India?

China had made several attempts to invade and conquer Tibet over the centuries. In the 1950s, China’s efforts to subjugate Tibet had grown more aggressive, with many parts of the nation falling under Chinese control. This was a key factor in the Dalai Lama’s escape to India.

As the army drew closer to complete domination of Lhasa, a letter was sent to the Dalai Lama from Chinese General Zhang Chenwu, on 10 March 1959. The letter carried an invitation to attend a dance performance, but said that the Dalai Lama was to come alone, and with no protection or bodyguards.

Given the odd nature of the request, the Dalai Lama’s most trusted advisors suggested he mount an escape from Tibet. A consultation with the Nechung Oracle confirmed their worst fears, that the Dalai Lama’s life was at risk.

The Dalai Lama’s escape to India, thus, was based on his advisors’ suggestions.


Why Did the Dalai Lama Escape from Tibet?

The Dalai Lama’s escape to India, from Tibet, began on 17 March 1959. By then, word of the Chinese General’s letter had spread, and tens of thousands of Tibetans had surrounded the Dalai Lama’s palace in Lhasa.

Dressed as a soldier, the 14th Dalai Lama made his way through the crowds, and met twenty of his most trusted officials at the border of Lhasa.

The small band of men carrying Tibet’s future on their shoulders, then left, accompanying his holiness in the Dalai Lama’s escape to India. For the next two weeks, the world had little information on the whereabouts of the Dalai Lama.


Sick of waiting for the Dalai Lama to surrender himself, Chinese forces began firing cannons at the the Dalai Lama’s palace. Chinese soldiers clashed with Tibetan civilians, leaving nearly 2,000 Tibetans dead.

The Chinese soon dissolved Tibet’s government, and declared Chinese rule on the nation.

Meanwhile, two weeks after his escape from Lhasa, the Dalai Lama had reached Chutangma, just miles from Tawang, Arunachal Pradesh.

The band of men spotted a small army outpost of the Assam Rifles, and were received by soldiers stationed at the outpost, finally safe.

Two weeks later, on 20 April, the Dalai Lama met Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru in Musoorie, and told him about his harrowing escape.

India’s decision to offer asylum to the Dalai Lama became a key factor in angering the Chinese, and raising tensions between India and China.

Ultimately, the tensions culminated in the Indo-China war of 1962. But, one thing that was certain was that no other foreign leader’s arrival in India, was ever as dramatic as that of His Holiness, the 14th Dalai Lama.

(With inputs from TIME Magazine, The Indian Express, and

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