Snow Leopard crouched and huddled himself shivering in the piercing cold winds that danced all around him and the glowing woodfire that did its best to give a little warmth in the dead of night at an altitude of seventeen thousand feet close to the Lanak La mountain pass in the Himalayan region. His mission was critical to the success of the Empire’s dominance in this cold and mystical Sino-Indo-Tibetan sierra terrain.
The year is 1900, the beginning of the twentieth century, an era when the British and the Russian Empire of the Tsars were competing for supremacy in Central Asia. This political and diplomatic confrontation between the two superpowers during this epoch was dubbed as ‘The Great Game.’
The Qing Dynasty established by the Manchus in China had been the undisputed overlords of Tibet for the past one hundred and eighty years by then. Their control over Tibet began in 1720 when the Kangxi Emperor of the Qing dynasty sent an expedition army to Tibet in response to the occupation of the region by the forces of the Oirat Mongol people of the political entity Dzungar Khanate of the Eurasian Steppe.
Together with the Tibetian Polhanas of Tsang and Khangchenné Sonam Gyalpo, the first important representative of the noble house Gashi in Tibet, and the Government of Western Tibet they were able to expel the Dzungar forces.
From the Kumbum Monastery Tibetan gompa in Lusar, Huangzhong County, Xining, Qinghai, China, the Qing brought with them Kelzang Gyatso and installed him as the 7th Dalai Lama in Lhasa’s Potala Palace.
From that time onwards the Qing appointed imperial residents or high officials known as Ambans stationed with two thousand troops in Lhasa who reported to the Lifan Yuan, a Qing Government agency established to oversee the domain. During the Qing supported era, the Dalai Lamas comfortably dominated the Tibetian region.
Tarasankar Sen, code name Snow Leopard was not the first person to cross the Lanak La for queen and country and perhaps would not be the last to do the same. William Moorcroft an English veterinarian and explorer employed by the East India Company, travelled extensively throughout the Himalayan region, Tibet, and Central Asia, finally reaching Bukhara, in present-day Uzbekistan, crossing the mountain pass eight decades ago in 1820.
Now, it was Snow Leopard’s turn to cross the Lanak La mountain pass, a well-established frontier point between Ladakh in India and Tibet, and somehow cover the remaining distance of more than twelve hundred kilometres on one of the world’s coldest, toughest, highest, and harshest terrains and enter the forbidden city of Lhasa to execute his mission.
He was also not the first spy of the British Empire to the region. Pundit Nain Singh Rawat was undoubtedly the first and the greatest explorer employed by the British to explore Central Asia and the Himalayan terrain. The Pundit’s contributions to British exploration and espionage were legendary in this mystical mountain domain.
‘Pundit’ in the Hindi language meaning an expert or critic in a particular field, also referring to a high caste of Hindu Brahmins, was a code name used by the British to refer to spies in the region.
On his first survey expedition to the domain in 1865, Nain Singh for the first time in history had closely estimated the altitude of Lhasa at 3,420 meters, simply by boiling water, which was pretty close to the actual 3,540 meters, given the crude method of calculation. He was also the first person to fairly estimate the geo-position of the forbidden city through celestial observations. Due to Singh’s efforts, Lhasa finds a place on the map of Asia today.
Nain Singh’s cousin Mani Singh, who was also a part of his first expedition in 1865, separated during the survey and travelled through western Tibet gathering intelligence. He too was a great British spy in the region. Kishen Singh, another of his cousin was also a famous pundit explorer in this geographical domain.
Following this Nain Singh embarked on a second expedition this time to explore western Tibet in 1867, and then back to the forbidden city of Lhasa through a more Northern route on a third and final expedition for three years from 1873 to 1875, marking the end of his exploration days.
In May 1877 Nain Singh was awarded the Royal Geographic Society’s Patron’s Medal “for his great journeys and Surveys in Tibet and along the Upper Brahmaputra. Much later in history in June 2004, an India postage stamp featuring him would also be released. Then afterwards, the Nain Singh Range of mountains on the southern side of Lake Pangong would be christened thus in his honour immortalising his name.
Lying in front of the glowing woodfire Snow Leopard thought, would his name also be mentioned in the pages of history along with Nain Singh and his cousins. His mission to the ‘roof of the world’ was secret, and he knew even if successful, its occurrence could never be made public. The British could never openly acknowledge his accomplishments. He knew that the news of what he was assigned to do would never see the light of day.
Nain Singh in total walked about 2,543 kilometres or 3.16 million paces, each counted. As these surveys needed to be clandestine, Nain Singh and his brother Mani were trained in a number of undercover survey techniques for two years in Dehradun prior to their secret surveys.
They used these methods on their missions very successfully. Like the mercury for their thermometers were hidden in the bottom of a bowl. Notes were stored inside a prayer wheel. The survey gear was hidden inside their luggage. A string of prayer beads usually having 108 beads was modified to have 100 beads, and the pundits were trained to move one bead every hundred paces to count their steps. They were also trained to precisely stride a length of 33 inches per pace while walking across varying terrain.
Snow Leopard came from this lineage and training of British espionage. He was a byproduct of all the culminated techniques and experiences of his predecessors, Nain Singh and his pundit cousins and was a master of the espionage trade. Born of a high-class Bengali Brahmin father and Kashmiri Pundit mother, he grew up in the Kashmir region, where his father was posted as an Indian official of the East India Company for diplomatic reasons.
So Tarashankar grew up learning the many languages and cultures of the Himalayan region along with having close ties to the British through his father’s diplomatic engagements. In time he got recruited by the Raj to gather intel in this geographical domain and now on that cold winter night, he crouched and huddled in front of a glowing woodfire close to the Lanak La mountain pass waiting to journey onwards to the forbidden city of Lhasa on a secret mission for queen and country in the Himalayan region in the year of our lord 1900.
Lhasa was not always a forbidden city and Tibet was not always unwelcoming to strangers. In 1642, a team of Portuguese missionaries led by António de Andrade were the first Europeans to be welcomed in the region. They were even allowed to build a Church and slowly during the course of the eighteenth-century more Jesuits and Capuchins came from Europe. The western influence gradually felt opposition from the Tibetan Lamas who eventually expelled every European from Tibet by 1745.
After that very rarely were westerners openly allowed in the region for the next two-hundred-and-fifty-years. Scottish adventurer and diplomat, George Bogle was one of the very few who was able to enter this forbidden domain. He was the first to establish diplomatic relations with the country and to attempt recognition by the Chinese Qing dynasty and was also the person to introduce potato in Tibet in 1774.
After 1792, the country under the influence of the Chinese closed its borders to Europeans and in the nineteenth-century, only three westerners were able to visit the region. Thomas Manning, the first lay Chinese scholar in Europe was one of the three and the first Englishman to enter the Holy city of Lhasa in Tibet in December of 1811. Following which Évariste Régis Huc, French Catholic priest and Lazarite missionary along with Joseph Gabet were the only two Europeans to enter Lhasa once again on the 29th of January in 1846.
As the first rays of morning light kissed and calmed the chilly winds of the previous night Snow Leopard opened his eyes. Gathering his camping paraphernalia into the customised wooden-almirah-rucksack the British spy of Bengali origin disguised as a Tibetian monk continued with his mission to the forbidden city of Lhasa twelve hundred kilometres away.
Tracing the footsteps of Nain Singh’s previously taken route and overcoming many perils Snow Leopard managed the journey from the Lanak La mountain pass to Lhasa in a record six months’ time frame. During his journey, Snow Leopard too gathered much vital information about the region.
In June of 1900, he was finally at the main gate of the forbidden city of Lhasa. Snow Leopard looked in amazement at the beauty and grandeur of the Potala Palace high above the city and was simply mesmerised by the beauty of the place. He was able to convince two of the gargantuan monk sentries guarding the entrance to the city that he was a simple monk just visiting the holy city on a pilgrimage.
Gradually over time, Snow Leopard chronicled detailed intel on the city. He wrote everything in his native mother tongue of Bengali so that even if his writings were discovered it would not be easy for the Tibetans to translate.
After a year it was finally time for Snow Leopard to leave the city. He had been fairly successful in his mission. Now he had to return to Sikkim in Bhutan and hand over the vital intel to Lieutenant Colonel Sir Francis Edward Younghusband. He also had to confirm that Dalai Lama would still be in Lhasa when the Brits came.
The British were planning to invade Lhasa to force the 13th Dalai Lama Thubten Gyatso to sigh a trading agreement with them, which would prevent Tibetans from establishing a relationship with the Russians in this geographical domain. This would ensure the empire of Great Britain as the sole protectorate of Tibet, thereby gaining supremacy and critical control in the Central Asia region.
Apart from providing vital information about the city, Snow Leopard was also to ensure that the Dalai Lama remained in the city when the British troops came, this was perhaps most important. There was, however, only one problem. During his stay at Lhasa Snow Leopard had come to admire the 13th Dalai Lama for his intellectual reformation and skilful political prowess.
He had come to respect how the spiritual leader had restored the lost discipline in Tibetan monastic life. He had come to appreciate how the Lama had increased the number of lay officials in his Government to avoid excessive power being placed in the hands of the monks. While spying Snow had started to admire and fall in love with the land and the people.
Now he was torn between his duty towards the Raj and his newfound admiration for the Dalai Lama and his peaceful and progressive thoughts for the region. The Leopard had all the necessary information in his hand to trigger the invasion, but could he do it? Could he come to see the subjugation of the very people he had come to love and respect?
By this time the Leopard had also managed decent access to, and fair acquaintance with, some of the high-ranking monks of the Potala Palace. Agvan Lobsan Dorzhiev a Russian-born monk, study partner and close associate of the 13th Dalai Lama, a minister of his Government, and his diplomatic link with the Russian Empire was one of the persons Snow Leopard had come to befriend.
After passing many sleepless nights thinking about his mission and his newfound love for the region, its leader, and the people, Snow Leopard ultimately made up his mind to defect. He went to Agvan and shared in detail about Colonel Younghusband’s plan to invade Tibet and force the Dalai Lama to sign a treaty that would only benefit the British and not the mass of Tibetan people.
Taking the Leopard’s advice, Agvan was able to ultimately convince the Dalai Lama to escape to Urga in outer Mongolia before the British came. Though Snow was able to play a critical role in providing the intel to help the 13th Dalai Lama escape, he was unable to stop the British invasion.
On the 11th of December in 1903, a well-trained regiment of the British army departed from Gangtok in Sikkim under the command of Brigadier-General James Ronald Leslie Macdonald and marched eighty kilometres to reach Guru, near Lake Bhan Tso on 31st of March 1904. Here Macdonald’s army met with a Tibetan force of three thousand strong, armed with hoes and antiquated matchlock muskets.
The day would come to be known as the Massacre of Chumik Shenko, where around seven hundred Tibetans lay dead and about a hundred and sixty-eight lay wounded with annihilating rounds of bullets fired from automatic maxim guns by the British forces. Following this after further confrontations on the 3rd of August in 1904 British troops finally entered Lhasa only to find the Dalai Lama absent.
During the entire campaign, the British lost two hundred and two men killed in action and another four hundred and eleven to other causes such as diseases, whereas around three thousand Tibetans were massacred in this whole bloody business.
Colonel Younghusband though ultimately got the ‘The Anglo-Tibetan Treaty of Lhasa’ signed by Tibetan officials present at the Potala Palace on the 7th of September, it was later publicly repudiated by the Ambans. As the treaty was not signed by the Dalai Lama, it was not wholeheartedly accepted by the Tibetan people.
The future outcome of events would have been much different if the Dalai Lama had been present and was forced to sign the treaty himself. It is here where Snow Leopard played an important part in changing the course of history in Tibet.
Britain announced that it accepted Chinese claims of authority over Tibet after forcing an indemnity of 7.5 million rupees on them. The treaty further demanded that Tibet recognise the Sikkim-Tibetan border, allow the British to trade in Yadong, Gyantse, and Gartok, and that Tibet have no relations with any other foreign powers, in order to turn the country into a British protectorate.
The Empire of Great Britain had seemingly “won” and had received the agreements it desired, but without actually gaining any tangible results. The Tibetans had lost but witnessed China humbled by its failure to defend Tibet from foreign incursion.
Younghusband’s treaty was largely considered irrelevant. In fact, the reaction was fiercest in London in condemnation of the war, which was dubbed as a deliberate massacre of unarmed men.
With all given and said, no one ever heard of Tarasankar Sen, code name Snow Leopard, the British spy of Bengali origin, a monk in disguise who mysteriously came to Lhasa and helped the 13th Dalai Lama escape the British invasion in 1904 and changed the course of history in Tibet.
Copyright © 2021 TRISHIKH DASGUPTA
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