The Idea of Tibet : a highland tragedy

Introduction – The Idea of Tibet

We must begin by situating Tibet. Should we not then ask – where is Tibet? There are many connotations to this question. Let us begin with the most obvious.


Tibet, the common sense answer would hold, is located in between the ancient civilisations of China and India in a high mountainous region that separates the two. But in another sense we could say, Tibet, rather than separating the two unites them. It is all a matter of perspective. Is Tibet the high elevated mountainous zone of physical geography and the strategic imaginations of great powers, or is it an amalgamation of the towns and villages that spring from the innumerable routes of trade and livelihood that criss cross the region? The former is a separator, the latter a synthesiser of cultures, experiences and ways of life. The question we have been asking can be rephrased as this : is Tibet the land or the people? This is a complex question.

The answer to this question will, however, lead to the solution of the riddle we began with – where is Tibet? If, like me, the reader identifies Tibet first and foremost with its people the riddle becomes even more perplexing. The only sensible answers that I can think of now is that Tibet, as an idea, is out of place. The Dalai Lama and his Tibetan government is in exile in Dharamshala but there is another government in the Tibetan Autonomous Region in Western China. This conflict of identities is only a more visible manifestation of the million tragedies, of individuals and families separated from each other and their homes, that continue to haunt the idea of Tibet.

What is this idea of Tibet that I keep referring to? In fact, here lies the germ of the tragedy of Tibet – the idea of Tibet has never been of its own making. Tibet has for a long time been represented and constructed as ‘a land that lies in between’ and hardly ever in its own right and, in deed, almost never by itself. The ‘in-betweenness’ is in many ways the tragedy of Tibet which continues in our age.

In the popular imagination, Tibet – the sound of this name – resonates with alluring romance, the sonorous ringing of the gong and the mystical whiff of incense – but that is the Tibet of the holiday package or the new age spiritualism industry. Or, one could say that these images and sounds the popular imagination associated with Tibet today is a re-packaging of the past to satisfy our voyueristic curiosities of the Orient, to create an illusion which prevents us from seeing that, in our ways large and small, we are all, in Peter Hopkirk’s words, ‘trespassers on the roof of the world.’ The Tibet we are enchanted by is not, in many ways, its own land. Our Tibet is a construction of circumstances and circumstances which most often have been in control of and moulded by ‘Great Powers’ for whom the ‘roof of the world’ has been a mere ‘table top’ – to use a crass analogy – for another round of the ‘Great Game.’

Tibet in Context

The impression of Tibet as an inaccessible highland notwithstanding the region has been witness to human presence for a very long time. Some of the earliest humans who inhabited the Indian subcontinent had passed through the Tibetan high plateau more than 20,000 years ago. It is quite astonishing to find that megalithic rock burials from upto 3,000 years ago exist in the higher reaches of Tibet which, even in our age, are difficult to excavate because of their locations. It must have been some feat for our ancestors who leave us these remarkable monuments to their rugged adaptability.

Tibet had emerged as a unified kingdom from a multiplicity of disparate tribes by the 7th century. The hardy Tibetans, once organized, turned up in the region as a formidable miltary power, striking out from their highland ramparts and spreading Tibetan influence far and wide. Tibetan influence, at its farthest, was felt as far north as the Ferghana Valley in Central Asia, the far reaches of Kashmir in the north-west, with Ladakh and Gilgit-Baltistan still largely Tibetan in their cultural orientation, skirmishing with the Kingdoms of Nepal in the west, threatening the Pala kingdoms of Bengal in the South, of the Asom in the south-east, the Chinese regions of Sichuan and Yunnan in the east, and across the Silk Road routes and cities of the Takla-Makan desert to the frontiers of the Mongol tribes.


The 7th century also brought Buddhism to Tibet. Buddhism was to slowly replace, and in many aspects syncretically assimilate the existing Bon religions and other animistic traditions of the disparate Tibetans and drastically change the nature of Tibetan society, in one possible interpretation, giving rise to a Tibetan nation. Tibetan society gradually also became more settled and inward looking. The spread of Tibetan culture, however, only accelerated with this change with lamaism, the Buddhism of Tibet, becoming the dominant religio-cultural tradition of the soon to be powerful Mongolia.

The Tibetan proto-empire was to come to a rapid end after its heyday. The newly organised Mongolian tribes burst out of their Heartland and went on to create the world empire of the Mongols. The Mongols also went on to conquer China establishing the Sinicized Yuan dynasty. Tibet, too, was conquered by the beginning of the 13th century by the Mongols of the Yuan. With this Tibet became, for the first time, a part of the Heavenly Empire of China.


Since this is a current issue, and a very contentious one at that, one must offer a few comments on the association of Tibet with China. Most debates about whether Tibet was, or is, a part of China begin with a national-territorial frame of reference. This is an anachronism. The Chinese Imperial system was organized not on a national-territorial but what can be called an associational-tributary basis. We can understand this system as having three sets of concentric circles – with the Emperor and the Imperial seat at the centre drawing its legitimacy and authority from Heaven, the cultural core of the Han Chinese civilization forming the second circle around the Imperial seat, and a series of associated kingdoms and other pre-state polities forming the third circle around the cultural core. These polities were in an associational-tributary relationship with the Emperor of China, recognising his overpower, paying tributes and other forms of respect and, often, accepting in their courts the authority of a Resident Agent of the Emperor. The Resident Agent, not to be confused with the role played by an ambassador, was very powerful in these courts when backed by the might of the Imperial army which often intervened when the authority, or commands, of the Emperor were contravened. But whenever the Imperial core was weak or unstable, and unable to impose its authority through arms, the Resident Agents were powerless.

Returning to the narrative, Tibet remained under Yuan suzerainty until the end of the 14th century. From then on, with the power of the Imperial centre weakening, the Yuan dynasty being replaced by the new Ming dynasty after a series of wars, Tibet became more or less autonomous and remained that way till the beginning of the 18th century when it was again brought into the system of the Chinese Empire by the later Qing dynasty.

It was during the interceding years that in Tibet developed the politico-religious organization associated with Tibet during the colonial era. Namely, the Dalai Lama as the head of the state, the ‘God-King’ as he was called in colonial literature, and the religious bureaucracy of the Buddhist priesthood organizing the functions of the state. Now also began the development of the diplomatic system the region which was so ‘irrational’ and, consequently, threatening to the new national-territorial order of the British Colonial State.

Gendun Drup, 1st Dalai Lama
Gendun Drup, 1st Dalai Lama

This system was characterized by a series of overlapping, for want of a better word, authorities. While the individual rulers of the various kingdom represented temporal authority, the Dalai Lama represented both temporal and spiritual authority, somewhat akin to the Pope before Westphalia. So, while temporally his authority was limited within the territories of Tibet, what Charles Bell called political Tibet, even subject to, at times, to external powers, spiritually he was often ‘paid respects’ by various kingdoms, namely, the Mongols in Central Asia and smaller kingdoms like Sikkim and Bhutan to the south. These relationships were further complicated, for the external observer, when the later Qing dynasty re-asserted Chinese Imperial control over Tibet. Now, a Resident Ambassador – the amban – exercised significant control in Tibet’s, especially external, afffairs. This limited, to some extent, the Dalai Lama’s overall authority – in both realms. The conflicts of authority manifesting from the relations between political Tibet and the wider cultural Tibet would play a key role in its diplomatic trajectory in the coming years.

Towards the turn of the 18th century, the influence of the Ming Emperor on Tibet began to decline and the amban was reduced to a mere spectator at the court of the Dalai Lama in Lhasa. Now, correspondingly, the Dalai Lama began to assert his authority again. This threatened to come into conflict with British interests especially when the assertion sought to transcend the territorially organized frontier system of British India in the east. Specifically, the frontier buffer-protectorate kingdom of Sikkim. It was a purported Tibetan incursion into Sikkim that was stated as the primary reason for a British invasion of Tibet, under the guise of a diplomatic mission. Subsequent diplomacy ensured Tibet should remain entrenched under the suzerainty of the Chinese Empire, thus, limiting its intentions and operations as an independent actor.
Preliminary Assessment

Before we proceed with the discussion on the British association with Tibet a few comments to set up the frame if reference are in order.

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Two factors will be prominent in the British reaction to Tibet. First, a ‘cartographic anxiety of blank spaces’ – with Tibet being one of the last unknown lands on the British Indian frontier. Second, an Orientalist conception of the inherent duplicitousness of the Asiatic. The first fuels the drive for gaining knowledge of the terrain, the land and its routes of access despite resistance from the Tibetans. The second leads to an implicit denial in dealing directly and honestly with the Tibetans, where British overtures for diplomacy are not diplomacy at all, but an all or nothing demand for accepting the terms they dictate. This is tragically displayed in the so called diplomatic mission, led by Francis Younghusband, to Tibet in 1903-4 which rather than being a diplomatic mission was an expeditionary force with the sole purpose of coercing the Tibetans into accepting British terms and to gain access to Lhasa. The harrowing details of the expedition lead one to wonder whether barbarism and duplicitousness more aptly describe British dealings with Tibet than the other way round.

The details of how these representations and constructions of Tibet played out in actual politics are too vast a subject to be addressed here. However, in British dealings with Tibet these ideas always played very important roles in moulding attitudes and expectations. I leave aside this discussion for now. But a brief mention of these imaginations and attitudes is necessary and should engage ones thought, especially as one considers the shifting narratives of Tibet.

It was a complete ignorance of local realities in Tibet that led to successive British policies towards the country. To the ignorance of terrain, we can add, more importantly, the ignorance of the local lived geographies of Tibet. For example, Tibet’s denial of access to Lhasa to any foreigners was fundamentally on the basis of the religio-cultural importance of Lhasa, the seat of the Dalai Lama. This, however, was perceived as evidence of conspiracy and intrigue. One wonders, really, what was behind the desire to reach Lhasa. Was it really strategic or merely an urge to shatter the obstinacy of an Asiatic ruler who refused to treat the British with a privilege they thought they rightfully deserved? Also, one should recognize how the ‘in-betweenness’ of Tibet continues to remain the primary frame of reference. Tibet is never engaged in its own right.

And nowhere is this more evident than in Lord Curzon’s views on the strategic importance of Tibet.

Interpretations of Tibet I : the 19th Century

George N. Curzon, Governor-General of India (1899–1905)

The British Colonial state’s interest in Tibet was primarily motivated by the intention to secure this aspect of the eastern frontier system. A Tibet which acted as an independent state, fuelled by purported Russian arms and aid, would tend to create instability in the region, especially in cases where there existed a case of overlapping suzerainty, as in Sikkim. Tibet was not, in Curzon’s view, a buffer state in the traditional sense. For Curzon a buffer state must have contiguous borders with two great powers, thus, acting as an inviolable frontier between them. The British interest in Tibet must be looked at from a different perspective.

Curzon, in the Romanes lecture, in the section on artificial frontiers stressed the importance of protectorate buffer states in the Indian territorial system, especially the Princely states scattered around the country, most of them as enclaves within the larger geobody of British India. It is interesting to read in the text that most of these states, he gives the example of the Rajput States, were once identified as buffers between the advancing British territorial control and a hostile power – the Maratha hordes during the 18th century before they were pacified or conquered. These states, in Curzon’s poetic language, ‘were engulfed in the advancing tide, remaining embedded like stumps of trees in an avalanche, or left with their heads above water, like Islands in a flood.’ On the east, Curzon adds, Nepal, Bhutan and Sikkim played the same role.

In Curzonian thought, we see two crucially inter-related goals for a frontier system. First, the maintenance of order within the territorial system. Second, the elimination of threats possibly originating from the frontier. An uncontrolled frontier region makes both these concerns very real. We can add two more related concerns, one, the cartographic anxiety of blank spaces, and, two, the instability of an undefined geobody. The interactions between all these factors come into play with regard to Tibet.

These are addressed by the following strategies. First, Tibet is diplomatically bound in treaty with Britain granting access to the Kingdom. Second, China’s suzerainty over Tibet is stressed. Third, and leading from the previous two, the status of Sikkim is clarified as within the territorial and sovereign domain of British India.

Interpretations of Tibet II : the 20th Century

The strategic thinking on Tibet we have spoken of in the above section draws primarily from Curzon’s Romanes lecture delivered in 1905. Since Curzon was instrumental in developing and implementing British India’s policy towards Tibet, indeed, all of the ‘Indian frontier system,’ as he calls it in the lecture the lecture reveals not just the theoretical understanding behind the policy but also reveals future trends in policy.

Curzon speaks of the British commitment to treat Tibet as a part of the Chinese territorial order. This was institutionalised in 1906 by an Anglo-Chinese treaty and in 1907 during an Anglo-Russian convention which recognized Chinese suzerainty over Tibet.

Events in the 20th century, however, unfolded rapidly and the world political situation changed drastically enough for British strategic circles to rethink their Tibet strategy. The most important upheaval was, of course, the First World War. But before that, in 1910-11, the Chinese ‘invaded’ Tibet to enforce their claim over ‘their’ province, causing inflicting massive bloodshed and sending the Dalai Lama fleeing, for the first time in the 20th century, into India. Tibet continued to burn with the populace taking to guerilla warfare. The tensions in Tibet abated only when the faltering Chinese Empire was replaced by the Republican government which promised to respect Tibet’s autonomy.

However, even this ‘newer’ situation of affairs was all to brief. For the World War had brought in its wake a new ‘spectre’ that was to haunt the World for well into the last decades of the century – Communism. With the birth of the Soviet Union and the rising tide of the Maoist ‘revolution’ in China strategic thinking in Britain about the role of Tibet for the security of India, and even Asia at large, began to change. No one represented this more than Olaf Caroe.

Olaf K. Caroe (R) with India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru

The key-phrase in Caroe’s strategic thinking is the ‘Defense of Asia’ which he believed was centred in India which it would be best if it was British India but even if India was to become independent Caroe hoped for a friendly successor state. In Caroe’s view, India’s security was fundamentally dependant on a system if buffer states which would prevent any great power from approaching ‘too close’ to India. He classified two types of buffers – an inner ring, comprising of the borderlands with Afghanistan, Nepal and Bhutan, with Burma added to them, and an outer ring, which included Persia and Tibet. The great powers in Caroe’s imagination were Russia, of course, but also, very importantly, China. Caroe felt that China’s potential as a great power had been, very negligently in his view, ignored. In this Caroe is largely right as even Curzon, the quintessential frontiersman, had initially rebuffed the idea of China as a great power capable of territorially pressing India or Inner Asia. It was only much later, with the rise of Communism, that strategic thinkers, began to take the threat of China seriously.

For Caroe, Tibet played a key role in the frontier defense system of India with regard to China. Tibet added strategic depth to India’s defence if the Himalayas. It was important for this reason that India commit to the maintenance of Tibetan autonomy, a position starkly different from Curzon’s prewar approach. His position regarding Tibet’s relationship with China was somewhat confused. He regarded Tibet to be more or less under Chinese suzerainty but gradually this relationship had evolved into a nominal, mostly ceremonially associated, one.

Caroe’s views on the strategic importance if Tibet represent an important dimension with regard to the strategic imagination associated with Tibet. But again it reminds us if the almost perpetually cogent view of the in-betweenness if Tibet, always conceived of as strategic terrain.

China in Tibet, Tibet in China

The People’s Liberation Army of the Communist Party of China ultimately rolled into Tibet in 1950. The purported reason was the liberation of Tibet, from colonialism and, curiously, from itself. The underlying justification, of course, was that the new republic of China was merely re-claiming a land which had always been part of the old China. We can also consider other reasons.

For this exercise we can apply the reverse of everything we have consider edge regarding the strategic importance if Tibet to India in the above two sections. The ‘re- integration’ of ungovernable peripheries was, essentially, of the same, if not more, importance to the new Chinese regime. There can be another, psycho-historical, understanding of China’s motivations. It was widely believed that throughout history, China was strongest when it was united, when all three circles of the Heavenly Empire were in harmony. Otherwise, China had always been vulnerable to outsider powers. Semi-autonomous, peripheral regions would provide easy entry points to hostile powers which a newly consolidated China could never allow.


After a decade of this Chinese movement Tibet was formally integrated into the People’s Republic of China as an Autonomous Region. Hundreds of thousands of Tibetans subsequently fled into exile, including the most important Tibetan of all! the Dalai Lama. To the present, Tibet continues to remain a contested region. The idea of Tibet remains out of place, divided by its history, geography and tragedies.


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