End of the Thirteenth Dalai Lama’s Rule

During the tumultuous rule of Thubten Gyatso, the Thirteenth Dalai Lama, Tibet faced threats from China, British India, and Russia. Thubten instituted important cultural changes in Tibet and gave Tibetans pride in their heritage, and he was widely considered the greatest and most powerful leader of Tibet since the Fifth Dalai Lama.

Summary of Event

Independent Tibet was governed by a theocracy headed by the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism, the nation’s predominant religion. This leader is called the Dalai Lama, which is roughly translated as “ocean of wisdom.” The first Dalai Lama was born to a herdsman in the western reaches of Tibet in 1391. He founded great monasteries of Drepung and Tashi Lhunpo, and it was believed that his spirit found its home in the body of another priest upon his death. [kw]End of the Thirteenth Dalai Lama’s Rule (Dec. 17, 1933)
[kw]Dalai Lama’s Rule, End of the Thirteenth (Dec. 17, 1933)[Dalai Lamas Rule, End of the Thirteenth (Dec. 17, 1933)]
Tibet;Thirteenth Dalai Lama
[g]Tibet;Dec. 17, 1933: End of the Thirteenth Dalai Lama’s Rule[08470]
[c]Religion, theology, and ethics;Dec. 17, 1933: End of the Thirteenth Dalai Lama’s Rule[08470]
[c]Government and politics;Dec. 17, 1933: End of the Thirteenth Dalai Lama’s Rule[08470]
[c]Social issues and reform;Dec. 17, 1933: End of the Thirteenth Dalai Lama’s Rule[08470]
Thubten Gyatso

Reincarnation is a fundamental aspect of Tibetan Buddhism. Under this view, death is almost never final, and the spirit of a living thing can be incarnated or reborn into the body of another creature, even if that creature belongs to a separate species. The Dalai Lama is said to be the reincarnation of the bodhisattva Avalokitesvara. A bodhisattva is an individual who has achieved enlightenment through hard training and a well-lived life. The usual reward for this achievement is entering Nirvana, the realm of enlightenment and total, absolute, infinite peace. Some individuals—including the Dalai Lamas—achieve enlightenment but decide to delay entering Nirvana until they have helped all other living things to achieve enlightenment. Calling the Dalai Lamas an incarnation of Avalokitesvara is a recognition of the belief that the Dalai Lamas are reincarnations of previous leaders who are no longer bound to the cycle of karma (which compels beings’ return to Earth) but who have decided to return to the world to help all beings achieve enlightenment.

The Thirteenth Dalai Lama, Thubten Gyatso, was born in 1876 in Thakpo Langdun in south Tibet to Kunga Rinchen and Lobsang Dolma, a herdsman and his wife. His status as the reincarnation of the Twelfth Dalai Lama was recognized in 1878, and he was enthroned in 1879 at the Potala Palace in Lhasa, Tibet’s capital. Upon reaching maturity, he was granted the political power of a Dalai Lama, although the political situation he inherited was a complicated one. Under the four Dalai Lamas who preceded him, monasteries had amassed too much power, and political corruption was rampant. As a result, the rulers had not possessed much power over Tibet or its people.

An important example of monasterial power in Tibet was the Great Prayer Festival, the Monlam Chenmo. Tibetans came from all over the country to see the festival, and they packed Lhasa. Tradition held that control of the city was given to one of the more prominent monasteries during the festival; this responsibility largely consisted of ensuring security and leading ceremonies and rituals. However, prior to the Thirteenth Dalai Lama’s ascendance, the monastery controlling the festival had begun to levy heavy taxes and fines on Lhasa’s lay population. As a result, during the festival most of the city’s residents fled to the country in order to avoid being virtually robbed of all their possessions. A story recounts an exchange in which the Thirteenth Dalai Lama summoned the monks in charge of the festival and required them to divulge the name of the person who had ordered the taxes. They replied that the Great Fifth Dalai Lama had given them their authority. Thubten’s response was to ask to whom the monks thought they were talking, a reminder that Thubten himself was the reincarnation of all the Dalai Lamas before him.

The period in which the Thirteenth Dalai Lama rose to power was sometimes called the time of “the Great Game,” as the struggle to control Tibet came to be known. The British were suspicious of Tibet’s relationship with Russia, and they invaded Tibet in 1904, which forced the Thirteenth Dalai Lama to flee to Mongolia and then to China. The Chinese were afraid of British power in the region, and so they invaded Tibet. Upon learning that General Chao Er-feng of China had reached Lhasa in 1909, the Thirteenth Dalai Lama and some of his political leaders ran from Lhasa to India. After the Manchu Dynasty was overthrown in the Chinese Revolution of 1911, Tibet forced the remaining Chinese out of their nation, and the Thirteenth Dalai Lama returned to his homeland and gained considerable political power, the likes of which had not been seen since the Great Fifth Dalai Lama.

The British wanted to use Tibet as a buffer state between their territories in India and China, and in 1913 they organized the Simla Conference, the goal of which was to formalize Tibetan independence. However, this convention failed to secure China’s recognition of Tibet. A secret agreement in 1914 between India and Tibet established the McMahon line, the official boundary between Tibet and India, but China refused to recognize this border, and the agreement’s effectiveness was doomed. However, this did not prevent the institution of regulated trade between Tibet and the British.

In 1920, Sir Charles Bell of England visited Tibet and received permission for explorers from England to pass through Tibet on the way to Mount Everest. Tibet revoked these permissions from 1924 to 1933, however, after an adventurer exploited lamas and sold their photographs. Nonetheless, Bell enjoyed a friendship with the Thirteenth Dalai Lama and ultimately produced a biography on him.

Many of the reforms credited to the Thirteenth Dalai Lama were technological. While in exile in British India, the Thirteenth Dalai Lama became extremely interested in technology, and he tried to bring a basic degree of modernization to Tibet. From India he brought Tibet’s first telephone, set up the first Tibetan postal office in 1913, and sent four young Tibetans to Great Britain in order to learn about modern engineering.

The Thirteenth Dalai Lama’s rule also oversaw many cultural changes. He founded the first English school in Tibet in 1923 at Gyaltse and designed the Tibetan flag, which is still in use by the Tibetan government in exile today. On January 8, 1913, the Thirteenth Dalai Lama publicly expounded the five points of Tibetan independence, and he personally composed Tibet’s national anthem. He also increased Tibet’s military power: In 1914, he instituted special training for the Tibetan army. Two years later, he oversaw the establishment of the Tibetan Medical Institute, and in 1923 he set up a security headquarters in Lhasa in order to protect the Tibetans from invasions of their capital city. Thubten died on December 17, 1933, at the age of fifty-eight.


Thubten Gyatso was responsible for various cultural, economic, and political changes that did much to improve the Tibetan way of life. During his tenure, diplomatic relations between Tibet and Great Britain matured, but the threat of external dominance persisted. Just before his death in 1933, the Thirteenth Dalai Lama issued a statement in which he predicted difficult times for Tibet, and he could not have been more correct. In 1950, the Chinese army defeated the Tibetan military and invaded. The Tibetan government, led by Thubten Gyatso’s successor, the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, began to operate in exile in 1959 in Dharamsala, India. After this date, China claimed Tibet as part of its territory, while the exiled Tibetan government maintained that China was violating Tibetan sovereignty. Tibet;Thirteenth Dalai Lama

Further Reading

  • Bell, Charles. Portrait of a Dalai Lama: The Life and Times of the Great Thirteenth. 1946. Reprint. Boston: Wisdom, 1987. Biography of the Thirteenth Dalai Lama by a British man who befriended him.
  • Goldstein, Melvyn C. The Snow Lion and the Dragon: China, Tibet, and the Dalai Lama. Berkeley: University of California, 1997. Presents possible means for achieving an independent Tibet in light of the country’s historical development.
  • Gould, Basil. “Tibet and Her Neighbors.” International Affairs 26, no. 1 (January, 1950): 71-76. Sentimental article about the Tibetan people on the eve of the Chinese occupation.
  • Gupta, Karunakar. “The McMahon Line, 1911-45: The British Legacy.” China Quarterly 47 (July-September, 1971): 521-545. Article detailing the debate over the McMahon line, which was to divide India and Tibet.
  • Hansen, Peter H. “The Dancing Lamas of Everest: Cinema, Orientalism, and Anglo-Tibetan Relations in the 1920’s.” The American Historical Review 101, no. 3 (June, 1996): 712-747. Reexamines the diplomatic relationship between Tibet and England by adding the realm of cultural representation to traditional politics.

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