Three Tibetans in Ireland

This is the piece that Dervla Murphy wrote for OX-TRAVELS, published in 2011 by Profile Books, which contains three dozen stories of MEETINGS OF REMARKABLE TRAVEL WRITERS, all royalties were pledged by all the writers to the coffers of Oxfam.


On a cold grey day at the end of March 1964, shortly after my return from India, I first met a Tibetan in Western surroundings – the foyer of a central London hotel. I had been working for some months in Dharamsala, then an overcrowded and under-funded refugee camp for Tibetan children, and that moving encounter with the Tibetan way of being made me feel slightly apprehensive about Lobsang. How would this young man, only five years out of Tibet and three months out of India, be reacting to our Western ways? But I needn’t have worried; by the time our refugee-elated business had been concluded I knew that Lobsang was in no danger of being ‘tainted’ –  he was simply adjusting to his new circumstances to the extent required by good manners.

As we walked through St James’s Park my companion explained his background. The second youngest of eight children, he was born in 1943 in Lhasa where his civil servant father practised as an oracle. Only in retrospect can one fully appreciate the uniqueness of Lobsang’s generation of Tibetans. Born the son of a government oracle, he is now the grandfather of an IT-savvy seven-year-old.

In 1945 Lobsang was orphaned and two years later adopted by his father’s brother, an austere uncle, an Incarnate Lama of the Gelugpas who had founded two monasteries. At one of these – Tubung Churbu, twenty miles west of Lhasa – Lobsang spent his school holidays in a small community of a hundred monks, some of whom were his contemporaries. Although one can’t have an informally relaxed relationship with an Incarnate Lama, his Abbot uncle’s unspoken affection comforted him. During term time a warmhearted Lhasa aunt mothered him and three of his brothers. 

When the Lhasa Uprising began in March 1959 Lobsang’s only sister (a pioneering agronomist) was murdered by the Chinese and he fled to Tubung Churbu; his family was sufficiently prominent for every member to be at risk. The monks were preparing to follow the Dalai Lama to India and two weeks later the Abbot set out with twenty-five young lamas, his sixteen-year-old nephew and a train of sixty mules carrying a library of ancient Sanskrit manuscripts and a famous collection of t’ankas [traditional Tibetan Buddhist paintings on silk scrolls].  To avoid the Chinese, refugee caravans used perilous passes over high mountains and this comparatively short journey took more than three months. Half the mules were lost through injury. Lobsang and his friends suffered acutely from loneliness and grief; they already sensed that their exile would be permanent. He described himself as ‘caught between two fears’. Would the Chinese successfully pursue them? And what awaited him at journey’s end? He spoke only Tibetan and a little Chinese and could not begin to imagine the world beyond the mountains. He was then unaware of the significance of money; always his needs had been provided for yet soon he was to be unsupported …   

But not immediately: at Kalimpong Uncle arranged for his nephew to lodge with Sherpa Tenzing of Everest during the monsoon, while learning Nepali, Hindi and English. The Abbot continued to Benares where he was soon to hold the chair of Sanskrit Studies at the Hindu University. His t’anka collection had survived the journey and a year later formed one of the main attractions at Delhi’s International Exhibition of Oriental Art.

In November Tenzing helped Lobsang find a job as houseboy to an expat family – an unremarkable move by our standards, but in Tibet this youth had been attended by personal servants who wouldn’t allow him to put on his own boots. At this stage he found himself being scornfully regarded, in some refugee circles, as too naïve to make the most of his connections. In fact he wished to equip himself with some means of helping the tens of thousands of illiterate Tibetans then drifting about northern India in bewildered misery. After nine months he had saved up enough to leave the Americans (despite their offer to double his wages) and become a voluntary worker at Mrs Bedi’s School for Young Lamas. There Joyce Pearce of The Ockenden Venture discerned his capabilities and offered him the opportunity to help settle orphans in European homes, which is what brought him to London.

Before we said goodbye at Waterloo station Lobsang had accepted my invitation to spend his summer holiday in Ireland, on the smallest of the three Aran Islands. 

In the 1960s Inisheer’s only roads were narrow dirt tracks, the traffic consisted entirely of donkeys, water was drawn from wells, clothes were homespun, everyone spoke Irish – and there two of my books were written by candlelight. It seemed to me that a Tibetan would find himself at ease on Inisheer, an intuition soon confirmed by Lobsang. 
Our two and a half hour steamer journey from Galway, on a cloudless August morning, was Lobsang’s longest sea voyage. When we anchored, a fleet of currachs – frail little craft of wood-lathe and tarred canvas – immediately surrounded us to ferry passengers and goods ashore. Boat-days were then quite an event for the 280 or so islanders and inevitably Lobsang’s arrival provoked uninhibited curiosity. This slightly discomfited me but afterwards it transpired that the refugee had observed a family weeping as they said goodbye to an emigrant daughter and had been more aware of this sad feature of Inisheer life than of his own conspicuousness.

For three weeks we shared a friend’s cottage (Daphne was the only outsider living permanently on the island), washing at the well three-quarters of a mile away, cooking over an open turf fire and sleeping on the floor. Lobsang enthusiastically took on many of the daily chores and had soon dug a splendid latrine for use with turf ash. He also volunteered to collect dung to supplement our expensive imported turf but here ethical complications arose; cowpats containing insects were ineligible for burning. Observing this, Daphne and I discreetly abandoned forays to collect barnacles and periwinkles. 
After sunset we sat around the glowing hearth and returned to Tibet with Lobsang. He had seen more of his own country than most non-nomadic Tibetans.  In 1956 Uncle had taken him on an eighteen-months’ journey to a sacred mountain in west Tibet. This pilgrimage of a Very High Lama to a Very Sacred Mountain generated a caravan of 100 horses and mules and 300 yaks, carrying camping equipment and stores for sixty monks and servants. West Tibet’s barrenness made it necessary to carry so much food – mainly tsampa [roasted flour], cheese, dried meat and compressed vegetables, plus emergency fodder for the animals. 

At nightfall everyone but the Abbot helped set up camp – excellent training, Lobsang remarked, for him and his otherwise pampered young companions (all fledgling lamas). Several flooded rivers had to be forded, the equines swimming through the swift icy water, the yaks being ferried on square, flat-bottomed boats of wood and yak-hide. Excitements were few- a panther killing a dog, or hundreds of wild horses galloping across the steppes. Recalling that happy and peaceful journey, Lobsang had to pause occasionally to control his emotions. Already he realised that even as we spoke Buddhist Tibet was being changed forever. From him I learned that the sudden violent dispossession prompting a refugee flight is peculiarly traumatic. Apart from the loss of a settled home and traditional occupation, and separation from close friends and familiar places, it is the death of the person one has become in a particular context. Three years after our Inisheer interlude, Lobsang noted: ‘Every refugee must be his or her own midwife at the painful process of rebirth’.


By May 1965 I was back with the Tibetans, running a children’s feeding programme in Pokhara’s refugee camp, overlooked by Machhapuchhare. On 12 May, as I walked between ragged cotton tents, occupied by recently arrived nomads from west Tibet, piercing squeaks drew my attention to an object lying on the palm of Ngwanag Pema’s hand. It was very small, very black and very vocal. Moments later I had exchanged the equivalent of ten-and-sixpence (50 pence in new money) for a twelve-day-old Tibetan bitch to be delivered once she was weaned. I wondered what the astrologists would make of the coincidence that this pup and I had entered Nepal on the same date: 1 May.

Six weeks later Tashi moved in to my mud-floored room in the bazaar and I took time off to help this refugee adjust to her new environment. All afternoon she lay on my lap while I wrote but hours passed before her look of puzzled distress began to fade. Then at last she wagged her tail – a brief and doubtful wag, but a wag’s a wag for all that and this sign of dawning trust enchanted me. A night of unmothered whimpering would have been understandable yet Tashi slept soundly, curled up on my stomach. As she was much too young to be left alone I carried her everywhere, for the next month or so, in a cloth shoulder-bag.

By mid-September Tashi’s furry cuddlesomeness had been replaced by a silky strokability. Her build was distinctive; one tactless Irish friend was to describe her as ‘a stocking left too long on the needles’. Her black coat had elegantly symmetrical white and tan markings and her admittedly ridiculous brown feathery tail curled up and over her back. Several schools of thought debated the delicate question of her breed. A local ‘expert’ pronounced her to be a smooth-haired Tibetan terrier which was absurd; but Ngawang Pema – hoping to sell the next litter to foreign visitors – agreed with him. An Indian UN official, who himself bred Afghan hounds, defined her as a Miniature Himalayan Sheepdog – a theory reinforced by Ngawang Pema’s occupation. Personally I regarded her as a perfectly good Tibetan mongrel or pi-dog. However, anyone besotted enough to go to the immense inconvenience and expense of transporting a dog from Nepal to Ireland must be tempted to pretend, as a face-saving device, that the import belongs to some rare Central Asian breed of enormous snob-value. Therefore the form I filled in on 15 September, to begin the arduous process of obtaining Irish citizenship for Tashi, boldly proclaimed her to be a Miniature Himalayan Sheepdog.

A week previously I had informed the Irish embassy in Delhi that on 3 December I planned to land in Dublin with a Nepal-born dog. In reply came a parcel of lengthy documents making it plain that Ireland’s Department of Agriculture is allergic to alien quadrupeds. One could visualise the thin-lipped bureaucrat who had devised all these regulations to wither any imprudent relationships cultivated by expats. Reading them hardened my determination to ‘import a domestic pet of the canine species into the State from a place abroad…separately confined in a suitable hamper, crate, box or other receptabcle which must be nose and paw proof and not contain any hay, straw or peat-moss litter’. Impatiently I completed the preliminary forms and wrote letters to ‘the approved quarantine premises’ and ‘the approved carrying agents’ while Tashi lay happily by my feet unaware that during the next few months a lot of people were going to make a very big fuss about a very little dog.

Throughout October and November all my ‘reminding’ letters to the Irish Embassy in Delhi and the Department of Agriculture in Dublin were ignored. By 26 November Tashi’s entry-permit should have been awaiting me in Kathmandu but it wasn’t. From there I sent many frantic cables to Delhi and Dublin, Tashi accompanying me every morning to the new ‘Indian aid’ Telephone and Telegraph office. While I drafted progressively less polite messages the staff eyed my companion derisively and commented on the unusual brand of lunacy revealed by the compulsion to import such an object to Ireland. After four days of impoverishing communications I ended my campaign defiantly; at 3.20 pm on 3rd December a black and-tan bitch from Nepal would land at Dublin airport with or without her visa which had been applied for on 15 September.

In Delhi we stayed with friends for a few days while Tashi received and recovered from numerous inoculations. At once she displayed characteristic Tibetan adaptability, both to her new surroundings and her new friends. In a bazaar near the Red Fort I bought the statutory ‘nose- and paw-proof’ basket which is still in use almost half a century later as a bathroom laundry basket. On the eve of our departure I cunningly took Tashi to Air India’s central office and introduced her to the Authorities. Nothing else was necessary; they immediately agreed that it would be superfluous to imprison such a very small passenger between Delhi and London. Moreover, it could easily be arranged to have an empty seat beside mine. And so it came about that Tashi, conceived in western Tibet and born in a nomad’s tent at the base of Machhapuchhare, now had the run of a Boeing 707. From where we are in 2011, it’s hard to believe that once upon a time air travel was easy-going.

At Beirut Tashi expressed the need for a grassy spot – and promptly disappeared into the darkness of the night. As engine trouble in Bombay had already delayed us by three hours the captain asked the passengers if they would be kind enough to forgive another delay – this time a short one – while Miss Murphy pursued her puppy. Ten stressful minutes later I was stumbling into the cabin clutching a trembling Tashi who apparently hadn’t much liked what she’d seen of the Lebanon. 

At Prague I chained her, lest she might have anti-Communist prejudices, and at London – feeling traitorous – I roped her in her basket and delivered her to the waiting RSPCA van. When she had been handed over to an Aer Lingus official he ruthlessly consigned her to the terrors of the hold, ignoring my pleas that she should be allowed to travel in her basket on my lap.

The scene at Dublin airport was surreal. My final defiant cable had activated a platoon of uniformed officials who were falling over each other in their anxiety to ensure that the infinitesimal Tashi did not break loose and overnight turn the nation rabid. A grotesquely large covered truck stood waiting to transport the mini-basket to the State Quarantine Kennels ten miles away and to my fury I was refused permission to accompany Tashi through the alien cold wetness of an Irish winter night.

Next morning I found that the kennels were exceptionally well run and during her six months’ isolation Tashi remained in perfect condition and grew a little more. Although my regular fortnightly visits delighted her she accepted my departures with composure – and at last came the day when she departed too, into breezy green fields and bright June sunshine. The joy she then showed at racing free can have been no greater than my own on seeing that little black body again unfurling its ridiculous brown tail in the wind.


Tashi was aged three and a half when Rinchen Dolma Taring came to stay with me in Ireland while writing her autobiography. (Daughter of Tibet: Kohn Murray, 1970; Wisdom Publications, London, 1986.) His holiness the Dalai Lama had given Amala four months leave from her job as Director of Mussoorie Children’s Homes. Time being so limited, we lived in isolation, working twelve hours a day with only one day off in February 1969, to celebrate Losar, the Tibetan New Year.

My role was not to ghost Amala’s book but to give editorial advice – a much slower process – and I soon realised that a Buddhist’s autobiography is a contradiction in terms if the writer is as ‘advanced’ as Amala. Her spiritual training had encouraged the obliteration of the Self and conventional autobiography requires a certain concentration on that entity. I recall our standing in the kitchen, beside a round table, and my laying a finger on its centre while saying, ‘You’re supposed to be here, in relation to this book. Everything else must derive its importance from being linked to you.’ Amala chuckled, dismissed this primitive notion and went on to write an idiosyncratic volume of layered social and political history with her family, rather than herself, at its centre.

Amala’s father, Tsarong Shap-pe Wangchuk Gyalp, was descended from a famous physician, Yuthok Yonten Gonpo, who, during the reign of King Trinsong Detsen (AD 755-7), studied Sanskrit medicine at Nalanda University in India. Yonten Gonpo’s block print biography of 149 leaves, containing some of his drawings and diagrams, was destroyed when the Red Guard attacked Lhasa’s Government Medical College. Tsarong Shap-pe married Yangchen Dolma – descended from the Tenth Dalai Lama’s family – and Amala was their ninth surviving child. In 1886 her paternal grandfather, Tsi-pon Tsaron, had been despatched to the Tibetan-Sikkimese border by the Dalai Lama to negotiate its demarcation with representatives of the Raj.

By 1903 the Raj was feeling extra-twitchy about a Russian take-over of Tibet and the Younghusband Mission set off to put British relations with that country ‘on a proper basis’. This alarmed the Abbots of Lhasa’s three great monasteries who regarded all outsiders as enemies of Buddhism. They urged the Thirteenth Dalai Lama to instruct Amala’s father, the senior lay Cabinet Minister, and his monk equivalent, to hasten to the Sikkimese border (a three weeks’ ride) and persuade the British to come no further. As a result, the Younghusband Mission became the infamous Younghusband Expedition which on its way to Lhasa in 1904 slaughtered some 500 Tibetan soldiers armed only with obsolete weapons. 
Later that year, Tsarong was one of the four Shap-pes [lay cabinet ministers] who signed a Convention with Britain – forbidding Tibet to have relations with any other foreign power. In 1912, when Amala was a toddler, her father and eldest brother – then a twenty-five-year-old junior Government servant – were murdered on the steps of the Potala. Some said Tsarong Shap-pe had made enemies by signing the Convention without consulting the Dalai Lama’s government. Others believed that he and his son were distrusted for ‘liking foreigners too much’ and introducing to the country novelties of ill-omen. When government business took Tsarong to India in 1907 he returned with sensational inventions – sewing machines and cameras.

Amala wrote and talked with honesty, tolerance and humour, describing a society that genuinely cultivated non-violence yet could be very bloody indeed. As the weeks passed I felt as though I had left Ireland, mentally and emotionally, and was living in a world that had survived, almost untouched by Outside, for more than a millennium – and had then been shattered forever a mere decade before Amala sat in my home distilling its essence on paper in her neat, firm handwriting. 
Just as the Tibetan language, in 1950, lacked the vocabulary to deal with a mechanized, industrialised, scientific era, so we lack the vocabulary to deal with Old Tibet. In that context, such words as feudalism, serfdom, autonomy, education – even religion – have a misleading resonance; the Lord Buddha is not, conceptually, the ‘equivalent’ of the Jewish/Christian/Muslim ‘God’. And of course ‘feudalism’ insults the complexity of Tibet’s social organization. 
Most Westerners are ill-equipped to comprehend a country in which all legal, social and political systems and institutions were based on the Buddhist dharma which had long ago been modified and adapted to produce that singular phenomenon known as Tibetan Buddhism. Although the pre-Communist way of life was not, as some like to imagine, ‘deeply spiritual’ – in the sense of being guided by devout, mystical scholar-priests – it was genuinely permeated by abstract spiritual values. Few lamas were ‘hypocritical parasites’ living off the labour of ‘cowed serfs’; only a small minority entered the monasteries for no other motive than to enjoy a life of ease.

Tibet’s nobility was based mainly in Lhasa where each of the 200 or so families had to provide one layman to serve as a government official alongside a monk colleague – the two having equal status and responsibility. In theory, families lacking a male to fulfil this duty forfeited their land, all of which was leased from the state. There was however an escape clause. With His Holiness’s permission, a son-in-law could change his forenames, take his wife’s family name and save the day. After the assassination of Amala’s father and brother, a peasant named Chensal Namgag – a favourite of the Thirteenth Dalai Lama – married one of her older sisters and was ennobled. Subsequently he married another sister and in 1928 he married Amala and fathered her first child. (Most Tibetan marriages were monogamous but polygamy and polyandry were equally acceptable though the latter was more common.) In 1929 Jigme Sumtsen Wang-po, Prince of Taring, arrived on the scene: a politically desirable second husband for Amala. Chensal Namgung helped to arrange the marriage of this third wife to her handsome young prince. When my daughter and I stayed with the Tarings in Mussoorie in 1974 they were still very obviously in love.

The upward mobility of Chensal Namgang – son of a small-holder and arrow-maker – was not unusual. Old Tibet was free of European-style class barriers. Rich and poor visited each other’s homes and formed friendships if personally inclined to do so. A monk from the humblest background, if suitably gifted, could rise high in his monastery’s hierarchy. The families of Dalai Lamas were automatically ennobled; only two of the fourteen came from the hereditary nobility. The same schools served the children of nobles, traders, craftsmen and peasants; an erring young noble might find him or herself being chastised by a peasant prefect. Family servants gave heeded advice about who should marry whom, and other important matters. Each craft – artists, goldsmiths, moulders, masons, boot-makers, tailors, carpenters, weavers, dyers – had its own respected guild. Many craftsmen were richer than some senior noble officials and the guild leaders were always seated above the younger nobles at official Palace occassions.

Even more remarkable was Tibet’s cultural history as outlined by Amala – the Buddhist-powered evolution of a pacifist state. Long ago, Tibet’s warriors were renowned: brave and ferocious. The Chinese recorded nineteen serious Tibet versus China conflicts between AD 634 and 849 and the Tibetans were almost always the aggressors. At one stage Tibet’s army crossed the River Oxus, invaded Samarkand and prompted Harun Al-Rashid, the Caliph of Baghdad, to ally himself with the Chinese.

Buddhism began to put down deep roots after the death in 842 of the anti-Buddhist Kind Lang Dharma. In 1249, when the Sakya Pandita came to power, it was unthinkable that anyone could rule Tibet without the support of a Buddhist sect. The change from militarism to a society influenced by non-violent principles was gradual and sometimes faltering yet there was no fudging on a par with Christianity’s conveniently elastic ‘just war’.  However, Tibet was riven for centuries by sectarian rivalries and inter-monastery jealousies, occasionally leading to brief battles. But those lamentable aberrations were recognised as such at the time; physical violence was no longer taken for granted as a legitimate means of settling disputes. And since the mid-seventeenth century the institution of the Dalai Lama had brought To Tibet an extraordinary degree of social stability, described by the Chinese invaders as ‘stagnation’.

Some of Amala’s recollections made me wish that I, too, had been born in Tibet in 1910. I would have happily settled for incarnation as a lady’s maid if that job required me to ride for twelve days to a country estate, crossing a landscape of incomparable beauty where human beings were scarce and animals plentiful: bears, wolves, bighorn sheep, musk deer, wild yak. On every side roamed huge herds of chiru [a Tibetan antelope], gazelles and wild asses; by the many lakes dwelt an abundance of birds. It delighted Amala that most creatures showed no fear of approaching caravans. Hugh Richardson, a British Trade Consul who lived in Lhasa during the 1940s and was a close friend of the Tsarongs, noted: ‘The majority of people make efforts to live as much as possible with nature, not against it’. Because the Chinese live otherwise Tibet’s wildlife is by now on the verge of extinction.

To spend four months in the company of only one person, collaborating in the intrinsically intimate task of memoir-writing, is a rare experience. (I’m not counting the non-verbal members of the household, Tashi and my new-born daughter.) By some mysterious process of osmosis that time of close companionship with Amala changed me – not in any obvious way, but inwardly and permanently. Yet I was never tempted to ‘become a Buddhist’. There is a theory – I forget, if I ever knew, who first articulated it – that the Tibetan diaspora, though so heartbreaking for so many, must benefit the rest of the world. I can easily believe that the majority of Tibetan exiles, living out of the limelight and perhaps no longer readily identifiable as Tibetans, are continually enriching the various communities amongst whom they have settled.

On the sad day of Amala’s departure, Tashi accompanied us to Cork airport. Her tail dropped as her compatriot disappeared. They had become mutually devoted. 

The End