Dalai Lama Escapes in a Jeep, 1959


As the Dalai Lama visits the United States during March 2014, I thought this would be an appropriate time for a look back at 18 April 1959. It was the day when the young Tibetan Buddhist leader known as "His Holiness" completed his escape from the Chinese crackdown on a nationalist revolt in Tibet, and began his exile in India by crossing the border at Tezpur in Assam State.

René Cutforth of the BBC was among the world press waiting in Tezpur, after hearing that the Khambas -- the horsemen who lived on the Tibetan plain -– were in revolt against the Chinese, and the Dalai Lama was fleeing the country.

Indian border"Just when we had given up all hope of anything happening, we heard that the Dalai Lama was on the way. It was five-thirty in the morning, and the rain was lashing down. Four hours later, the Dalai Lama and his party arrived. The first we knew of the Tibetans' arrival was the reedy hooting of a Jeep at high speed... a Jeep full of Gurkhas of the Assam Rifles, and close behind them a closed Jeep, out of which stepped the Dalai Lama."


LIFE 4 May 1959LIFE magazine was also on hand to cover the dramatic climax of the 3-week escape, and the Dalai Lama was on the cover of its 4 May 1959 edition. The article "The God-King Finds Safety" (see Google Books) described the arrival and its political implications, and included the photo above (250K JPEG).

A second article, "Flight in a Sandstorm: A Miraculous Escape," told the full story of the young leader slipping disguised out of his home in Lhasa, during a sandstorm which hid him from Chinese soldiers.

Escorted by Khamba bodyguards, the Dalai Lama and his party travelled hundreds of miles and over the 16,000-foot Chela Pass, by horseback, on foot and in small boats, before being met by Jeeps of the Indian Army which had penetrated 60 miles across the frontier.

DirectionsAnybody who thinks the journey might be easier in 2014 than it was in 1959, should check Google Maps, which will tell you "We could not calculate directions between Lhasa, Tibet and Tezpur, India."

See also a larger map (190K JPEG) showing the location of Lhasa and Tezpur in relation to India as a whole.

Willys wagonPhotographers scrambled for a good spot as the station wagon carrying the Dalai Lama pulled up in Tezpur. Can anyone identify the flags seen on the front of the vehicle in this LIFE photo?

Dalai LamaThe 23-year-old Dalai Lama was accompanied by his family and advisors, and welcomed by Indian officials and soldiers as he walked up a carpet made from army groundsheets. (Photo from Corbis Images.)

RefugeesAlso on hand to greet their young leader were hundreds of other Tibetan refugees, some of whom are seen in this unpublished photo from the LIFE archive, with the Jeeps in the background.

Newsreel footage of the arrival of the Jeeps is available at British Pathé.

1972That day in 1959 was not the last time the Dalai Lama rode in a Jeep. He is reportedly seen here inspecting troops at Chakrata, India, after authorizing the Tibetan units of the Indian Special Frontier Force to fight in East Pakistan in the Indo-Pakistan War of 1971. This brief, brutal conflict resulted in the liberation of Bangladesh from Pakistan.

2012Mike Boom of JeepGarage.org grabbed this shot four decades later in Chicago, as Jeep Grand Cherokees lined up to transport delegates including the Dalai Lama, at the 2012 World Summit of Nobel Peace Laureates.

Dalai Lama, Mikhail GorbachevThe Dalai Lama, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989, is seen here at that 2012 summit in Chicago, with Mikhail Gorbachev, former President of the USSR, who was the recipient of the prize in 1990. (AP Photo by Charles Rex Arbogast.)

In Thomas Laird's book The Story of Tibet: Conversations with the Dalai Lama, His Holiness talks about wanting to drive a Jeep when he was 16 years old. Now, as he approaches 80, he is probably happy to leave the driving to somebody else. But he undoubtedly remembers that Jeep ride across the border in 1959.

Thanks to Federico Cavedo for finding the LIFE article. -- Derek Redmond

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Last updated 27 June 2014 by Derek Redmond redmond@cj3b.info
All content not credited and previously copyright, is copyright Derek Redmond