How the great escape of H.H. the Dalai Lama in 1959 was planned

It is common knowledge among people who know something about modern Tibetan history that on the night of March 17, 1959, in the wake of increasing threats posed by the Chinese invasion, His Holiness the Dalai Lama made his great escape from the Norbu Lingka residence in Lhasa, for safety, eventually crossing over into freedom in India on March 31, 1959.

The broader details of this escape have been related primarily by His Holiness in his two memoirs. This blog post is about other aspects that have a human interest element. As much as the actual timing of the escape was sudden, a great deal of behind the scenes preparations were certainly made. Some Tibetan officials who were involved have given indications of such a preparation.

The Ramagang ferry used in His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s escape from Tibet in March 1959. Photo from The Tibet Album. 05 Dec. 2006. The Pitt Rivers Museum. <>

The mastermind was the then-Lord Chamberlain Thubten Woedhen Phala. He was using his position to undertake initiatives that the then-Tibetan government would not have been able to take formally. He was also strategic in his thinking covering the possibility of His Holiness seeking refuge in India. So some time before the escape, Phala had sent an official, Thupten Tsephel Tekhang, to the then-Indian Consul General in Lhasa S.L Chibber, to brief him on the situation. Although the Tibetan side was continuing to talk to the Chinese side on a solution, Phala’s message said that if this did not work out His Holiness would need to seek refuge in India and requested him to convey the same to the Indian government so that this could be considered when the time came. Chibber responded positively, asking to be informed of the timing and the route that would be taken, whether through Bhutan or through Nathu La in Sikkim. Chibber might have been following guidance provided in a cable that the Indian Foreign Ministry sent to him and the political officer in Gangtok (who oversaw Tibet) on March 15, 1959. The cable said, “Prime Minister is quite clear in his mind that, if the Dalai Lama seeks protection in Indian territory, we should give him asylum. You should not, however, reveal this to anybody at this stage.”

Phala also maintained secrecy of the plan by involving only a few people, and they were asked to take an oath (something considered sacred by Tibetans) even before they were told what the issue was. Among the two people he brought in first were the head of the bodyguard regiment, P.T. Takla, and a senior official (with a Dzasa title), Woeser Gyaltsen Kundeling. He was popularly called Kundeling Dzasa then. He is from a monastic community in Lhasa, two of whose heads have served as regents of Tibet.

Phala’s strategy included not seeking recourse to the normal governmental machinery for logistical support. Although the Tibetan government had a stable of around 200 horses and mules for transportation, none of these were commissioned to avoid information from leaking. Instead, Phala asked Kundeling Dzasa to manage the organization of the critical initial stage of the escape, from Norbu Lingka to the Ramagang ferry, from where the Kyichu river was to be crossed, including providing the necessary horses and mules. In addition to having known each other for a long time, Ramagang’s location was also close to Kundeling monastery, and so it made sense for Kundeling Dzasa to be involved.

The entourage members for the escape included the two tutors of His Holiness, Ling Rinpoche and Trijang Rinpoche; members of the Kashag; senior attendants to His Holiness; and the Yapshi family. However, only P.T Takla, Chikyab Khenpo (head of Ecclesiastical Affairs) Lobsang Rigzin Gadrang and the Lord Chamberlain Phala actually accompanied His Holiness as he departed Norbu Lingka that night (more on this later). The others were asked to gather in Norbu Lingka that night and sent in advance by trucks toward Kundeling monastery, from where they were taken to the Ramagang ferry. The day before the departure, the security guards at the Norbu Lingka gates were called to a meeting by Phala and were informed that during the nights there would be patrols going around, and the security guards should not switch on their flashlights or ask for identifications. They were also told that trucks were being sent the next night to collect armaments from the Potala and Shol and they should not be searched.

Phala also considered meals for His Holiness during the escape. He instructed the head of the Norbu Lingka kitchen to take along required materials and wait at the Ramagang ferry and accompany the entourage in case His Holiness decided to travel. Since the chef was not informed of the actual plan, it took some time for him to be able to connect with the entourage, it seems.

Kundeling on his part involved another, Tenpa Soepa, in the plan. Tenpa Soepa belonged to the Kundeling community. He has written his memoir and spoken about the great escape and mentioned code signals, like gun shot sounds and flashlight, to be used by people involved in the escape.

One of the tasks assigned to Tenpa Soepa la was to await at a bridge near Kundeling for a vehicle to arrive around 11 pm on the night of March 17 and to lead them to the nearby Ramagang Ferry. He did so and when the vehicle arrived, the two tutors of His Holiness, Ling Rinpoche and Trijang Rinpoche, as well as three ministers, Wangchen Gelek Surkhang, Gyurme Topgyal Shasur and Thupten Tharpa Liushar, were in it. Surkhang had a bag, which Tenpa Soepa helped to carry, and he was asked to be careful as it contained the official seals. From His Holiness’ memoirs, we learn that the bag would have contained his seal as well as that of the Kashag and some official documents.

At around 10 pm Tenpa Soepa la heard a gunshot from the other side of the river, a signal to indicate that everything was fine in the area and to proceed.

When His Holiness departed that night, he was first in the Takten Migyur Palace (popularly known as the new palace, having been constructed in the mid 1950s on a plan laid out by then-official Jigme Taring). His Holiness could only take two additional robes. From his room, he left for the chapel of the protecting deity Gonpo (Mahakala) accompanied by the head of bodyguards, P.T. Takla, and two guards. His Holiness has said that he always made it a point to pray in this chapel before going on long journeys. As the two guards were not privy to the escape plan, Takla sent them away while His Holiness was praying in the chapel.

His Holiness then subsequently left from the southern gate of Norbu Lingka, accompanied by Chikyab Khenpo (head of the Ecclesiastical Affairs) Gadrang, Lord Chamberlain Phala and head of security guard Takla. And the rest is history.

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Bhuchung K. Tsering

Bhuchung K. Tsering joined the International Campaign for Tibet in Washington, DC in 1995 and is currently the head of the Research and Monitoring Unit. He worked as a journalist with Indian Express in New Delhi, and as an official of the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) in Dharamsala, India, before joining ICT.
He is a member of the Task Force set up by the Central Tibetan Administration to work on issues relating to the dialogue process with the Chinese leadership. He was also a member of the team led by the envoys of H.H. the Dalai Lama in the discussions that they had with the Chinese leadership between 2002 and 2010.
He has contributed articles on Tibet and related issues to Indian, Nepalese, Tibetan, Swiss and American journals. He has also testified in Congress on behalf of the International Campaign for Tibet and spoken at Universities and Think Tanks.

1 CommentLeave a comment

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