Legends of Indo-Tibet Relations: A Glimpse into the Ancient Trans-Himalayan Bond Amidst the Sino- Indo Logjam

Relations between India and Tibet date back to the eras when the concept of modern political nation-state was yet to emerge and the history was remembered only by events but not recorded.

Legends of Indo-Tibet Relations: A Glimpse into the Ancient Trans-Himalayan Bond Amidst the Sino- Indo Logjam

India-Tibet: Mythological connection

The geographic contiguity of India and Tibet provided strong cultural integrity for extremely long periods of time as Tibet housed India’s most revered Lord Shiva and Mata Parvati. According to legends, lord Buddha travelled to this homeland of Lord Shiva. For Indians the Mount Kailash and Mansarovar Lake have always been and continue to be the ultimate destinations for Peace and Nirvana.

After Mahabharata, the bloodiest war of ancient history between Kauravas and Pandavas, despite winning the war, the Pandavas were neither happy nor elated over the victory. They walked across the snow-laden Himalayas to Tibet to seek peace and salvation at Kailash-Mansarovar. So did the survived Kauravas.

Another strongest bond which binds Tibet and India together is the Buddhist heritage. For Tibetans, India has been the Holy Land since ages. Although Buddhism spread out from India to many other countries, including China, much earlier than Tibet but it remarkably survived and thrived in Tibet in its fine altruistic dimensions as compared to any other country despite Tibet’s geographic seclusion and harsh environment.

The credit for this goes to the wisdom of Tibetan Kings like Trisong Detsen and Songtsen Gampo who decided to choose India as Tibet’s root source of teachers and Buddhist texts. They choose Sanskrit as the main language to develop Tibetan script and the language for translation of the entire range of Buddhist literature. They also had another neighbour China as an alternative, but those Kings decided to send Tibetan scholars to Nalanda and invited top-ranking Indian scholars like Acharya Shantrakshit and Guru Padmasambhava to adopt Buddhism.

It was one of those rarest events of human history that precious books formed the main baggage of many Tibetan escapees, especially the monks and scholars who formed a substantial chunk of the fleeing Tibetans.

No Tibetan those days, like Nepalese these days needed a visa or had to show his/her passport ever to visit Bodh Gaya, Rajgir, Nalanda, Sarnath or any other place in India where Lord Buddha put his holy feet. Barter trade too was common and unhindered since time immemorial across almost every crossable pass of the Himalayas that connected Indians and Tibetans along the entire India-Tibet border.

China’s Tibet Invasion

"China has successfully developed entire Tibet over the past six decades into a frontline military post along its newly established borders with South Asia."
The Dalai Lama’s escape to India marked a rapturous moment, not just in Tibetan history, but also in the evolution of Indo-Chinese relationship; Archival Image

In the recorded history of over 3,000 years before 1947, not a single inch of land along nearly 4,000 km long Himalayan borders of India had a common border with China even for a day. No Chinese was seen on the Indian Northern borders till 1951. Neither there was any border outpost nor any PLA soldier seen by Indian army at any point on the Indo-Tibetan border over the past millennia.

That was so because Tibet separated the two countries by a distance of over a thousand km width as a buffer state. That explains why the India-Tibet border had the distinction of being the most peaceful border in the world. No wonder that common Tibetan refers to India as ‘Gyakar’ which means White/Holy-land and China as ‘Gyanak’, Black/Unholy-land or Manhoos i.e. ominous land. Such glorious and reciprocal legends connect Indo-Tibetan ancestry.

In 1951, China occupied 2.5 million square km of Tibetan Plateau which is endowed with abundant natural resources. Ironically not only India failed in its sacred duty of standing by so friendly a neighbour, it inadvertently allowed an enemy to enter the Indian courtyard. Instead of Tibet, China became India’s new communist neighbour and a street bully. Thus Indo-Tibetan oneness lasted only until 1951.

In March 1959 China attacked Tibet for a complete military take over. Dalai Lama’s Patola Palace was surrounded and a final ultimatum served on him to surrender. Tibetans fought valiantly. Dalai Lama managed to come out alive from his Palace in disguise and finally escaped to India with eighty thousand followers who bravely fought through their great escape. He was barely 25 then. Massacre and suppression of gallant Tibetan followed after Dalai Lama’s escape.


Between March 1959 and October 1960, over 87,000 Tibetans were killed. 98% monasteries and nunneries were destroyed. 99% of the monks and nuns were disrobed. Amazingly six decades of harsh Chinese colonial rule that witnessed indoctrination, torture, brainwashing and physical dominance of population went un-noticed globally. Tibetan rose in revolt against the Chinese occupation and expected Indian help but got a cold shoulder.

While there is always a loud hue and cry on any/every human rights violation across the globe, none spoke for innocent Tibetans. Thanks to the wisdom of Pt Nehru who allowed them to enter India. Since then their number has grown to around 1.5 Lakh. About ninety thousand live in India and the rest live in Nepal, Bhutan, Europe and US as an insignificant minority.

Soon after entering India, Dalai Lama established ‘Central Tibetan Administration’ on 29th April 1959 in Mussoorie. It was later shifted to Dharamshala in Himachal Pradesh. It functions as ‘Govt of Tibet in Exile’. Dalai Lama continues to pilot the Tibetan political system from a deep-rooted theocracy to a democratic one.

Dalai Lama today is only the spiritual head of Tibet, leaving all political decision to members elected by Tibetan people. But govt of India doesn’t recognise Tibetan democratic govt in exile despite being a largest democracy itself.

As far as Tibet under the Chinese colonial rule is concerned, China has successfully developed entire Tibet over the past six decades into a frontline military post along its newly established borders with South Asia. After establishing innumerable army & air force bases and nuclear arsenals over the entire Tibet, Beijing is changing the demographic character of Tibet by bringing in and resettling millions of Han Chinese from the interior.

"We are finally fighting our enemy" said Nyima Tenzin in a call to his family before the operation
SFF Commandos pay their respects during the funeral of Nyima Tenzin in Leh; File Photo

Original Tibetans have been reduced to an almost meaningless minority in most major towns and cities. The world is completely silent towards Chinese colonialism of Tibet. It is strange and shocking that India allowed China to gobble up Tibet without caring for its own national security along its Himalayan borders. It helplessly watched Beijing using Tibetan territory as a launchpad for an attack on India in 1962 and for providing training, arms, sanctuary and other resources to Maoists and anti-India militant groups of Northeastern India inside Tibet.

Unfortunately, India remains nearly as much indifferent even today when China is using illegally occupied Tibet to channelise River Brahmaputra to divert its flow to mainland China and nibble Indian territory and use POJK as footbridge to access the Arabian Sea.

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Mao-Tse-Tung, the founder of Chinese Communist Party, on the eve of Tibetan occupation, had said, “Tibet is the palm we take over, then we go after five fingers; Ladakh, Nepal, Bhutan, Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh”. Eastern Ladakh misadventure was in line with China’s long-held goal. India successfully foiled her attempt to walk over the first finger.

On top of that, in a pre-emptive action, Tibetan SFF Unit known as Vikas thwarted PLA attempts to occupy tactically important heights on the Southern bank of Pangong Tso in Eastern Ladakh in which one of their Company Leader Nyima Tenzin attained martyrdom. The way they outsmarted PLA has rattled China.

Tibetan SFF has been fighting shoulder to shoulder with the Indian Army in Indo-Pak wars of 1965, 1971 & 1999 and is best suited for High Altitude warfare. Its military acumen of mountain warfare must be fully utilized in the current Ladakh standoff.

All these issues of Tibet, its geographic significance for India’s security, stability & national integrity, as well as India’s close historical and traditional ties with Tibet, give us every reason to rethink Tibet and relocate its position on our landscape. On the question of fighting the most difficult battle of liberation of Tibet from China, despite serious challenges, Tibetan cause should be at the forefront in today’s global fight against Chinese expansionism.

Activists and supporters of Indo-Tibetan Friendship Association take part in a candlelight vigil to pay tributes to the Special Frontier Force (SFF) soldier, Nyima Tenzin, at McLeod Ganj near Dharamsala, India; Photo Credits/ Sanjay Baid

Chinese tyranny of the last 60 years has lacerated the soul of the people of Tibet, that is why they continue their fight against slavery. Their demand is genuine which must be fully supported by India. India needs to come out of ‘Hindi-Chini Bhai Bhai’ syndrome and confront China in Tibet. Since monks and nuns are still regarded as troublemakers and are eliminated indiscriminately, these brutalities of China need to be highlighted globally particularly now when China is under world radar for spreading pandemic.

Additionally, Indo-Tibet geographical map must be displayed in all academic institutions and at all the Airports, Sea Ports and Railway Stations where the international travellers including Chinese see the relevance & reality of the sub-continental history.

(Col JP Singh (Retd) was commissioned in 4 Bihar on 13th June, 1971 from the IMA, Dehradun. He served in the Poonch sector during the 71 war, and has since held several prestigious appointments. This article was first published in the 'Financial Express' and has been reproduced in the larger interest of the military fraternity. Views expressed by the author are personal and do not necessarily reflect the view of Mission Victory India)

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