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]

Swallowing breakfast as quickly as possible, I put on my best clothes, and had hardly finished when the Dungkhor Chola Kusho, accompanied by a servant, arrived. Having provided myself with three bundles of incense-sticks and a roll of khatag [scarves], we mounted our ponies and sallied forth. As we crossed the doorway we saw a calf sucking, and several women carrying water. My companions smiled, and Chola Kusho remarked that I was a lucky man, as these were most auspicious signs.

Arriving at the eastern gateway of Potala, we dismounted and walked through a long hall, on either side of which were rows of prayer-wheels, which every passer-by put in motion. Then, ascending three long flights of stone steps, we left our ponies in care of a bystander—for no one may ride further—and proceeded towards the palace under the guidance of a young monk. We had to climb up five ladders before we reached the ground floor of Phodang marpo, or “the Red Palace,” thus called from the exterior walls being of a dark red colour. Then we had half a dozen more ladders to climb up, and we found ourselves at the top of Potala (there are nine stories to this building), where we saw a number of monks awaiting an audience. The view from here was beautiful beyond compare: the broad valley of the Kyi chu, in the centre of which stands the great city surrounded by green groves; the gilt spires of the Jo-khang and the other temples of Lhasa, and farther away the great monasteries of Sera and Dabung, behind which rose the dark blue mountains.

After a while three lamas appeared, and said that the Dalai Lama would presently conduct a memorial service for the benefit of the late Mera Ta lama (great lama of Meru gomba), and that we were allowed to be present at it. Walking very softly, we came to the middle of the reception hall, the roof of which is supported by three rows of pillars, four in each row, and where light is admitted by a skylight. The furniture was that generally seen in lamaseries, but the hangings were of the richest brocades and cloths of gold; the church utensils were of gold, and the frescoing on the walls of exquisite fineness. Behind the throne were beautiful tapestries and satin hangings forming a great gyal-tsan, or canopy. The floor was beautifully smooth and glossy, but the doors and windows, which were painted red, were of the rough description common throughout the country.

A Donyer approached, who took our presentation khatag, but I held back, at the suggestion of Chola Kusho, the present I had for the Grand Lama; and when I approached him I placed in his lap, much to the surprise of all present, a piece of gold weighing a tola [a unit of mass weighing 11.66 grams]. We then took our seats on rugs, of which there were eight rows; ours were in the third, and about ten feet from the Grand Lama’s throne, and a little to his left.

The Grand Lama is a child of eight with a bright and fair complexion and rosy cheeks. His eyes are large and penetrating, the shape of his face remarkably Aryan, though somewhat marred by the obliquity of his eyes. The thinness of his person was probably due to the fatigue of the Court ceremonies and to the religious duties and ascetic observance of his estate. A yellow mitre covered his head, and its pendant lappets hid his ears; a yellow mantle draped his person, and he sat cross-legged with joined palms. The throne on which he sat was supported by carved lions, and covered with silk scarves. It was about four-feet high, six-feet long, and four-feet broad. The state officers moved about with becoming gravity: there was the Kuchar Khanpo, with a bowl of holy water (tu), coloured yellow with saffron; the Censor-carrier, with a golden censor with three chains; the Solpon chenpo, with a golden teapot; and other household officials. Two gold lamps, made in the shape of flower vases, burnt on either side of the throne.

When all had been blessed and taken seats, the Solpon chenpo poured tea in his Holiness’s golden cup, and four assistants served the people present. Then grace was said, beginning with Om, Ah, Hum, thrice repeated, and followed by, “Never losing sight even for a moment of the Three Holies, making reverence ever to the Three Precious Ones. Let the blessing of the Three Konchog be upon us,” etc. Then we silently raised our cups and drank the tea, which was most deliciously perfumed. In this manner we drank three cupfuls, and then put our bowls back in the bosoms of our gowns.

After this the Solpon chenpo put a golden dish full of rice before the Dalai lama, and he touched it, and then it was divided among those present; then grace was again said, and his Holiness, in a low, indistinct tone, chanted a hymn, which was repeated by the assembled lamas in deep, grave tones. When this was over, a venerable man rose from the first row of seats and made a short address, reciting the many acts of mercy the Dalai lamas had vouchsafed Tibet, at the conclusion of which he presented to his Holiness a number of valuable things; then he made three prostrations and withdrew, followed by all of us.

As I was leaving, one of the Donyer chenpo’s (or chamberlain) assistants gave me two packets of blessed pills, and another tied a scrap of red silk round my neck—these are the usual return presents the Grand Lama makes to pilgrims.

This is an excerpt from Journey to Lhasa, published by Speaking Tiger in 2017.

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