IT is not often that one comes across a very special book. ‘Echoes from Forgotten Mountains — Tibet in War and Peace’, written by Jamyang Norbu, is one such work. We know the Tibetan author from his novel ‘The Mandala of Sherlock Holmes’, which won the Crossword Award. Some would have met him when he was the director of the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts in Dharamsala. He was then admired for his role in reviving the performing arts of Tibet endangered under Chinese occupation.
But Norbu’s new book is different; it is a detailed and accurate record of the Tibetan resistance against Communist China from the first months of 1950, when Tibet was invaded by the Chinese army.
Today, when Chinese propaganda blares the world over what Beijing would like us to believe that Tibet has ‘since time immemorial’ been a part of the Middle Kingdom, Norbu demonstrates it has not always been so. The Tibetans fiercely resisted the occupation of their fatherland (Tibetans called Tibet ‘phayul’ or ‘fatherland’).
For a nation to continue to survive despite the odds of the present days, ‘memory’ is crucial. It has been Norbu’s mission in life to record the memory of Tibet and he has done it brilliantly. He writes: “Tibetans are still not a very modern people, and many of them retain their native ability to recall their past in accurate and vivid detail. I have spent a considerable period of my life interviewing people for their personal stories. My inquiries also extended to less-private areas: music, dance, opera, costumes, ceremonies, crime, jurisprudence, rituals and especially travel…”
But first and foremost, by portraying the resistance against the Communist indoctrination, which started long before Beijing began to speak of the ‘sinisation of Tibetan Buddhism’, Norbu’s book gives a new lease of life to his nation.
At times, it worries me to see the young generation of Tibetans not knowing enough about the glorious past of their nation; do they realise that they belong to a race of warriors? Did not their great King Songtsen Gampo conquer a large part of Asia?
Norbu is from a martial family. His grandfather, Gyurme Gyatso, was one of the five young officials who while serving the 13th Dalai Lama volunteered to fight the Chinese in the beginning of the 20th century. Norbu recalls: “My grandfather was given the rank of Dapön or General. I have this old photograph above my desk of his at around twenty-six years of age, looking very dashing — very much the beau sabreur — a long Tibetan broad-sword stuck in the belt of his fur-lined robe… He is holding a Mauser automatic pistol in his right hand in a business-like fashion.”
This aspect of the Tibetan people has today been forgotten, with the West propagating the myth of Tibet as the most peaceful and compassionate nation on earth. The latter may be true, but the Tibetans also knew how to fight and they fought the Chinese intruders well.
Through his own experience, as well as countless interviews of freedom fighters, soldiers, farmers or traders, Norbu has reconstituted (in nearly 900 pages) the ‘lost history of the Tibetan struggle’.
Norbu’s work helps the reader (and especially the young generation of Tibetans) understand the complexity of Tibet’s modern history from the time Mao’s troops entered eastern Tibet, to the first uprisings in Kham and Amdo provinces, the creation of the ‘Four Rivers, Six Ranges’ resistance force and the March 1959 uprising of the entire population of Lhasa. The fact that Norbu served in the Mustang Guerilla Force sponsored by the CIA in northern Nepal adds heft to his first-hand account.
One of most tragic incidents recounted by Norbu is the revolt of the Lithang monastery at Kham in 1956. Already, in May 1950, one regiment of the ‘liberation’ army had walked into the area with 5,000 Chinese troops.
The author narrates the fighting led by a young chieftain, Yunru Pön, “who became the leader of his tribe when he was just fifteen years old… The chieftain and his warriors take an oath to defend Lithang monastery to the last man, and hold out against numerous Chinese attacks. Finally, the monastery is bombed to rubble and Yunru Pön announces to the Chinese that he is prepared to surrender. The Chinese commander is reassured when Yunru throws out his rifle to the Chinese. But our hero has a pistol hidden in the sleeve of his robe, which he whips out and shoots the Chinese commander. The other Chinese soldiers gun down Yunru Pön.”
This book is Jamyang Norbu’s labour of love, the result of a lifelong commitment to collect the ‘echoes’ of those who fought for a free Tibet. It is worth having in one’s library.