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Scholar and Patriot
Tethong Sonam Tomjor (1924–1997)

Thursday, Jan 1, 1998
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Tethong Sonam Tomjor Wangchuk was that rarity in the Tibetan world: a traditional scholar and a genuine modernist. Well-versed in Tibetan history, religion and medicine, he was a gifted classical Chinese scholar and widely read in Western history and literature. He died on 18 October 1997 at Dharamshala. He was seventy-three. He never held high office and published little or nothing, but for those who knew him intimately, the opportunity to listen to his numerous discourses and stories were uplifting and enlightening experiences in the poverty, isolation and intellectual bleakness of Dharamshala in the sixties and seventies.

Sonam Tomjor was an informed and entertaining raconteur. He would hold forth on such far-ranging topics as the calligraphy of Tang Taitsung, the possibility of the great Chinese poet Li Po (Li Bai) being the illegitimate son of a minor Tibetan embassy official in Changan, Ataturk’s modernisation of Turkey, the influence of Fabian Socialism on Churchill’s social policies, and Tibetan oracles and protective deities, about which he had a fund of strange and often irreverently funny stories.

In his discussions on Tibetan history he always had the telling anecdote that gave life and immediacy to his words. I am sure that even those not intellectually inclined will remember him for his fund of ghost stories. Quite a few of these were from the great Chinese collection of supernatural tales, Liao Tai Chi Yi, but most were original Tibetan stories of ghosts, witches and oracles that, unfortunately, no one then thought of recording.

Sonam Tomjor was born in 1924 in Lhasa to Tethong Gyurme Gyatso and Dolma Tsering (née Rong Dikiling). When he was just a year old he was taken to Kham where his father, who was governor of Derge (later governor general of Eastern Tibet) was campaigning against the Chinese. His early education was at the hands of his parents and family retainers. His more formal studies were under Lama Gelek, the abbot of a monastery in Derge. He also started to learn Chinese then.

Returning to Lhasa at the age of eight, Sonam Tomjor was enrolled at the small Yukhang School. Simultaneously, he began to take English lessons at an informal school set up by Babu Gompo-la of Sikkim. He resumed his Chinese studies under the tutelage of Lao Si-la (?), the son of a former Manchu official in Lhasa, who also tutored other aristocrat children. Later, he received weekly English lessons from Hugh Richardson, the British representative in Lhasa. Two Mongols, Sogpo Geshe Gongarkyap and Horkhang Geshe Chodrak, instructed him in Buddhist philosophy.

Sonam Tomjor joined government service at the age of sixteen, but continued his scholarly pursuits, in the main, with his close friend Gendun Choephel, the Amdowa scholar who was the principal intellectual influence on his life. Sonam Tomjor later served as a major (rupon) in the Guards regiment.

In 1949 he obtained a transfer to the staff of the Tibet Trade Mission in Kalimpong. In that small frontier town he came into contact with such Western scholars as Prince Peter of Greece and Denmark, George Roerich, Rene de Nebesky Wojkowitz, Herbert V. Guenther and also Reverend Tharchin, the editor and publisher of the Tibet Mirror, who had been a good friend of his father’s.

Sonam Tomjor was a patriot and constantly felt the loss of his country, unfortunately to a point where it affected his physical and emotional well-being. He detested Mao Zedong and Chinese Communism and it was from him I first learnt that the Chairman’s poetry (then praised by all Western China experts) was actually quite mediocre.

Sonam Tomjor had great respect for Fabian Socialism — and Bernard Shaw and the Webbs. He admired H. G. Wells, and attempted (somewhat unsuccessfully) to encourage Tibetans to read Wells’ The Outline of History. He was not a great reader of novels, though he enjoyed Dickens tremendously. Once commenting on the universality of Dickens’ characters he said it was funny how even in Lhasa in the old days he would sometimes come across a Uriah Heep or a Mrs. Plumblechook. He also liked reciting the quatrains of Omar Khayyam’s Rubaiyat.

After the Communist occupation, the Chinese authorities in Tibet requested him to return to Tibet to be the principal of their new school in Lhasa. He declined the offer and instead worked with such Tibetan émigré leaders as the former Prime Minister Lukhangwa, Gyalo Thondup, Tsipon Shakabpa, and others who were continuing the freedom struggle in India. When the Dalai Lama came into exile in 1950, Sonam Tomjor sold his home in Kalimpong and left for Mussoorie to serve His Holiness. He taught at Mussoorie school and was the first Principal of the Tibetan school at Simla. But his perennial depression made him unable to continue in government service.

Yet his guidance and example were influential in directing his brother T. C. Tethong (at present kalon), and his sons Tenzin Gyeche (private secretary to the Dalai Lama) and Tenzing Namgyal (former Kashag chairman) into serving the Tibetan exile government during its difficult years. Among other young Tibetans in Dharamshala then, who looked up to him as a mentor and friend, were Sonam Topgyal (now Kashag chairman) and Lodi G. Gyari (the Dalai Lama’s envoy in Washington DC).

Though not directly involved, Sonam Tomjor was an intellectual influence in the formation of the Tibetan Youth Congress. I know for certain that he was inspirational in the naming of the organisation. He insisted on the word “Congress” which he felt had a great tradition behind it, as in the American Continental Congress, the Indian National Congress and the African National Congress. He advised against the term “League” which he felt was ill-omened as in the League of Nations, or uninspiring, as in the Muslim League and the Gorkha League.

When I first started to work for the Tibetan community in exile in the mid-sixties, I was a callow teenager with enthusiasm and idealism but little else. My uncle Sonam Tomjor opened my eyes to the complexity and depth of Tibet’s history and the wonder and richness of its civilization. It is my hope that his notes will be properly preserved by his heirs and will see publication in the near future.

Sonam Tomjor is survived by four sons: Tenzin Gyeche, Tenzing Namgyal, Kunga Namgyal and Phuntsok Namgyal. His former wife, Sonam Peldon of Samdrup Phodrang, lives in Dharamshala.

Tibetan Review, January 1998

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