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Lhasa, Eternal City (1)

Sunday, Jun 2, 2013
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PLA bombardment of Potala Palace. Sketch by Tibetan trainee at Camp Hale. Roger E. McCarthy collection.

Tsering Woeser-la’s recent clarion call ““Our Lhasa is on the Verge of Destruction! Please, Save Lhasa!”, stirred me to undertake this modest history project. I thought it would be worthwhile to provide, as aide mémoire, brief overviews of the different periods in the destruction of the Holy City, which began when the Red Army first marched into Lhasa on the 9th of September, 1950. What is happening right now, no matter how devastating and tragic, is merely the latest in a series of phases in Communist China’s long-term national endeavor to turn the Holy City of Lhasa into a fully Chinese metropolis and drive its native citizenry, and the Tibetan people as a whole, into a kind of functional extinction. The “Eternal” in the title of this three-part essay is not meant to be ironic. The seeds of Communist China’s downfall are being sown in the very foundations and walls of the hideous shopping malls and plazas being erected in Lhasa right now. Full explanation in Part 3.


I was child of nine in Darjeeling when the Great Lhasa Uprising took place. All the fearful grown-up talk I overheard then, of the street-fighting and the bombardment of the Norbulingka and the Potala by Chinese artillery, scared and confused me. One strange line from those adult conversations has stayed in my mind: “Sidung chenmo tambe tangsha (the great mausoleum has been pierced). Years later I came to learn that an artillery shell had had gone right through the mausoleum of the Great Fifth Dalai Lama in the Potala without exploding.” But at the time when my mother explained to me that the mausoleum was where the Fifth Dalai Lama’s body was entombed, it seemed a deliberate and terrible act of desecration, like the Roman soldier piercing Christ’s body with his lance. My religious concepts and imagery were, at that time, a little mixed, because of my education at St. Joseph’s College.

The devastation that Lhasa suffered in ’59 was extensive. The exile government had a program to collect eye-witness reports from refugees, but the city’s destruction was never properly documented. I am not going to try and fill in this lacunae here. I just want to share some anecdotes with the reader to give them a feel for the scale and severity of the devastation. At least half-a-dozen independent eyewitnesses told me that the Potala and the Zhol village below it received numerous direct hits from the incessant barrages of Chinese artillery fire. According to the late Chinese Colonel, Jiang He-ting (Lobsang Tashi) who joined the resistance, PLA field artillery batteries were located at Pithing, Northoe-lingka, Dhip (across the river), Drapchi (Drawothang), Dzongkar, and Silingpu (PLA headquarters). Another informant claimed that the PLA had additional artillery units at Rangkyongjong (the TAR compound) and Lingka Sarpa.

Fighters on the roof of the Jokhang got a clear view of the shelling of the Potala. One former Lhasa policeman told me that after every artillery barrage the great palace would disappear in a cloud of smoke and dust. But then some minutes later it would miraculously reappear, to great joy of the distraught Tibetan observers. The immense walls managed to absorb the impact of the shelling but the Shachenjok and Deyang Shar sections of the Potala were badly damaged. The Chinese did not shell the Jokhang as Chinese positions were very close to the Tibetan ones within the Bharkor area, but mortars appear to have been used by both sides along with rifles and machine guns.

The smaller buildings of the Norbulingka were were extensively damaged by artillery fire, but were also more easily repaired or rebuilt after the uprising was put down. Practically the entire Tibetan population of the city was forced to join in the cleaning-up operations. By 1962, when two English left-wing journalists Stuart and Roma Gelder were invited to Lhasa they declared that nothing had been damaged in the “brief” rebellion. What nails the lie in their whitewashing assignment is their account of the fighting on the Iron Hill (Chokpori). “It took only three hours and one company of infantry, supported by machine-gunners, to take Iron Hill.”

Actually the old Medical School on the Iron Hill, founded by the 5th Dalai Lama and completed by Desi Sangye Gyatso, was destroyed by artillery fire. About 77 soldiers of the Drapchi regiment, and some monks from the Medical School, led by Shengo (sergeant) Tashi Tsewang, son of famous Rupon (major) Anan Dawa*, defended the Iron Hill. PLA infantry attempted two mass charges up the hill but suffered heavy losses and were pushed back. These Chinese attackers also took heavy fire from Tibetans fighters in the Potala Palace. Tibetans on the Iron Hill had a couple of mortars that they used effectively. Finally the PLA directed nonstop artillery fire on the Iron Hill destroying the principal building and some temples. Tashi Tsewang and most of his men died at their post.

One Chinese shell overshot the Iron Hill and hit the large arsenal, Ghomtsoe Dorjeling, just below the Iron Hill and above the Drago Kani, the Gateway Stupa to Lhasa. The Drapchi soldiers at this arsenal had kept up a steady supply of ammunition to the troops on the Iron Hill and the Potala, before the one Chinese shell blew up the depot and killed everyone in it. The enormous explosion may have also caused major damage to the Gateway Stupa complex, which was torn down later.

The remaining temples and structures on the Iron Hill were also completely torn down some years later and replaced with a large Microwave VHF/UHF antenna.


In 1962, the same year the Gelders visited Lhasa, China’s State Council officially listed the Potala, Norbulingka, and other temples and monasteries, including the Lhasa Tsuklakhang, as Nationally Protected Monuments.

Destruction of Jokhang. From Woeser's "Forbidden Memory".

Then in 1966, on the orders of the chief secretary of the Regional Party Committee, the senior-most office of the Tibet-based administration, government offices, schools, and local administrative offices ordered their members to go and participate in the destruction of sacred objects at the Tsuklakhang. On 25th Aug 1966 “revolutionary masses of various nationalities” attacked the Jokhang.” Chairman (General) Wang Chimei gave instructions for the statues of the Chinese princess Kongjo, the Jowo, and others which had come from China to be spared.

Debris from Jokhang destruction collected for transportation to China. Photograph: Dalai Lama's first delegation to Tibet.

The Jokhang was occupied by Red Guards, and finally taken over by the PLA who used the temple as a pigsty. Some chapels were even used as latrines. The extensive decorations around the roof were torn down and nearly all the many hundreds of images and statuary thrown out of their chapels and broken up for the value of their metal.

Mao image in place of the Jowo at Ramoche Tsuklakhang. Photo: Warren Smith

The Ramoche Tsuklakhang was also desecrated, much of it destroyed and a large portrait of Chairman Mao erected at the central shrine space. Every monastery and temple in and around Lhasa and every oracle shrine was vandalized and desecrated, and in some cases completely obliterated.

There is really no need for further recounting of the destruction that took place in Lhasa and indeed throughout Tibet. For over the last two decades, Tibetans-in-exile have been overwhelmed by innumerable images and accounts of what His Holiness has called the “Cultural Genocide” in Tibet. Unfortunately the Tibetan leadership, in its eagerness to accommodate itself to the new reality of China’s power and wealth, is now asking us to overlook, even forget, all that has taken place. Woeser la’s book of photographs, Forbidden Memory: Tibet During the Cultural Revolution serves as a timely reminder why we must never ever do so. A Tibetan edition of the book has been recently published and can be downloaded free at her website.

Another sobering reminder of this horrendous period is provided in the autobiography of Rimbur Tulku, Experiencing the Consequences of Good and Bad Karma 2 volumes, (Tibetan Cultural Printing Press, Dharamsala 1988). All Tibetan must read at least the selection of excerpts (in English translation) that I once downloaded from a CTA website but which I cannot locate right now. It provides the most detailed and harrowing account we have to date on the the desecration of our Holy city.


*A hero of the 1918 war that freed a large part of Kham, Rupon Anan Dawa is celebrated to this day in a Khampa song:
Rupon Anen Dawa, Ling kyi patul drawa
Menda si-si lendu, namkhe thok thang drawa

(Major Anen Dawa is like a hero of the Gesar Epic
His Mauser pistol roars like thunder in the sky.)

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