A Bengali Spy for the British Empire Recalls His Audience With The Thirteenth Dalai Lama

31 January 2018

In the late nineteenth century, the British were keen on exploring Tibet—a land that had shut itself off from outsiders. The trade routes between India and Tibet were monopolised by Tibetans and the hill tribes of the border regions. The only others who were granted access to these routes were Buddhist monks. As a result, the British began to send spies, selected from among the hill people and disguised as monks, into Tibet. Sarat Chandra Das, born to a middle-class Bengali family in 1849 in Chittagong, in East Bengal (now Bangladesh), was one such spy.

Having completed his schooling in Buddhism and learnt fluent Tibetan, Das was more successful in his missions than any other spy, or Pundits, as they were called. He visited Tibet twice—in 1879, for four months, and again in 1881, for 14 months. During his second journey, Das took extensive notes of Tibetan lives and culture, which was first published in 1902 as a book titled, “Journey to Lhasa.” In the following extract from the book, Das recalls visiting Lhasa for an audience with Thupten Gyatso, the thirteenth Dalai Lama of Tibet, then a boy of eight years.

In the afternoon I called on the Lhacham, and was sorry to learn that her second son had smallpox. I told her how disappointed I was at not having been able to get even a glimpse of the Kyabgong; the “lord protector” of Tibet, the Dalai Lama. “Alas!” I added, “I have not acquired a sufficient moral merit in former existences to be able to see Shenrezig in flesh and blood!”

“Do not be cast down, Pundib la; though it is not an easy matter for even the Shape and nobles of Tibet to see the Dalai lama, I will arrange an audience for you.”

Early the next day a gentleman (ku-dag), who was a Dungkhor of Potala, called on me, and said that the Kusho Lhacham of Phala had arranged with the Donyer chenpo of Potala for an audience for me with the Dalai lama, and that I must get ready as soon as possible. [Dungkhor and donyer are terms for members of the Tibetan middle-class who belong to old families who have contributed in marked degree to the welfare of the country, or possessed great wealth for generations]

Sarat Chandra Das was a linguist and a Buddhist scholar. As a British spy, he visited Lhasa twice. Other than his reports of these expeditions, Das wrote spiritual and scholarly tracts and compiled a dictionary of the Tibetan language.

Keywords: Tibet spy Dalai Lama