“And then we saw, rising steeply on a rocky prominence in the midst of the valley, a fort-like dominating structure, with gilded roofs, which we knew could be none other than the Potala, the Palace of the Dalai Lama,” wrote Col. Francis Younghusband, as he approached the outskirts of the “Forbidden City” of Lhasa in l904. He was leader of a British expeditionary force launched the year before from India to assure that Tibet did not ally itself with Czarist Russia against Britain.

“The goal of so many travellers’ ambitions was in sight!” Younghusband wrote. He and his expeditionaires had just won the race to Lhasa, becoming the first British to reach the closely guarded city in nearly a century. Almost every one of the few Westerners who had managed to penetrate this elusive city had a similar cathartic feeling upon first gazing on the fabled Potala, the Dalai Lama’s majestic winter palace, which sits perched triumphantly on Red Hill on the edge of old Lhasa.

Its golden domes “shone in the sun like tongues of fire,” wrote London Daily Mail correspondent Edmund Candler, who arrived on the outskirts of Lhasa with Younghusband that day.

Indeed, Lhasa without the Potala would be as unimaginable as Athens without the Acropolis or Beijing without its Forbidden City. It is the quintessential emblem of Tibet, a concrete manifestation of the Dalai Lama himself, who once lived inside. Over the past two centuries, no single image has done more to imbue Lhasa with its aura of enigma, mystery, and romance than this holy palace on its perch limned by towering mountains and the cobalt blue Tibetan sky.

It was from this fabled city—or we might more accurately say, from this almost mythological place—that His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama fled forty years ago. Slipping out of his summer palace disguised as an ordinary Tibetan peasant, he managed to elude the People’s Liberation Army during a nighttime sandstorm, then rode for three weeks over the Himalayas on horseback. In what he later recalled as “a daze of sickness and weariness and unhappiness deeper than I can express,” the young twenty-five-year-old arrived, at last, in India.

This was not, in fact, the first time a Dalai Lama had been forced to escape from Lhasa to avoid invading foreigners. Indeed, the present Dalai Lama had himself fled once before, in 1950, as Mao’s victorious armies began “liberating” Tibet. The Thirteenth Dalai Lama, his predecessor, had also been forced to flee in 1910, when he took refuge in Sikkim after Chinese troops dispatched by the ailing Qing Dynasty entered Lhasa in an effort to reconsolidate their control over Tibet. And, only six years before that, he had been forced to flee to Mongolia with the arrival of the Younghusband Expedition, the only Western army ever to invade Tibet.

This colonial expeditionary force was launched by George Nathaniel Curzon, viceroy of India from 1899–1905, who believed that Russia’s ultimate ambition was “the dominion of Asia.” When British officials sought to make direct contact with the Dalai Lama to win assurance of Tibet’s continuing neutrality, their letters were repeatedly rejected. So, Curzon decided to force the issue. “As it is clear that they do not mean business,” he wrote to Lord Hamilton, secretary of state for India, “we propose to send a mission up to Lhasa to negotiate a new treaty. . .It would be accompanied by sufficient force to ensure its safety.”

Curzon placed the expedition under the command of Col. Francis Edward Younghusband, a dashing young military officer from the King’s Dragoon Guards, born in 1863 in a British hill station in the Himalayan foothills. Long attracted to the uncharted expanses on the other side of the Himalayan massif, Younghusband had crossed central Asia from Beijing to Kashmir as a younger man, a trip that had made him “nearly burst with excitement.”

While Younghusband was a military man, he was also possessed of a deeply felt spiritual, even mystical side which made him keenly interested in Tibet and its unique form of Buddhism. Indeed, many Europeans of his generation and such groups as the Theosophical Society were coming to feel that India and Tibet possessed an ineffable sacred dimension of which the West had been defoliated during its industrial revolution.

Younghusband (third from the left) in 1890 after an adventure in Turkestan. Photo courtesy of The British Library.
Younghusband (third from the left) in 1890 after an adventure in Turkestan. Photo courtesy of The British Library.

Younghusband and his cultural attaché L. Austine Waddell, who subsequently wrote many respected books such as Among the Himalayas and Lhasa and Its Mysteries, were already sufficiently fascinated with Tibet that both had made plans as younger men to try and reach Lhasa in disguise. Thus, Curzon’s invitation to Younghusband to become commissioner of the newly formed Tibet Frontier Commission and to organize a negotiating team and expedition proved irresistible. “Here, indeed, I felt was the chance of my life,” wrote Younghusband. “The thrill of adventure again ran through my veins.”

To impress the Tibetans with the full majesty of Britain’s far-flung imperial power, Younghusband ordered his 32nd Pioneers to appear, resplendent in full-dress uniforms. When neither these ceremonial effects nor more naked threats brought about resolution, Younghusband received permission from London and Lord Curzon via telegraph to press on toward the Tibetan trading center of Gyantse. “The advance should be made for the sole purpose of obtaining satisfaction,” his mandate read.

Younghusband’s initial expeditionary force included about 1,150 British, Indian, and Gurkha troops, four artillery pieces, and four rapid-fire Maxim guns under the command of Brigadier General James R. R. L. Macdonald. The expedition was also supported by some 4,000 yaks, 7,000 mules, and a complement of 10,000 porters. As the expedition, which extended for more than four miles along the mountain trail, progressed, a telegraph line was strung behind to keep the expedition in touch with New Delhi and London and which allowed the expedition’s four reporters to supply four British dailies with on-the-spot accounts.

“The lamas believe that . . . their religion will decay before foreign influence,” wrote Candler of the Daily Mail. “The Dalai Lama, they say, will die, not by violence or sickness, but by some spiritual visitation. His spirit will seek some other incarnation, when he can no longer benefit his people or secure his country, so long sacred to Buddhists, from the contamination of foreign intrusion.”Candler was also somewhat uneasy about the way the expedition was so obviously violating Tibet. “Tibetans are not the savages they are depicted. They are civilized, if medieval,” he wrote.

Expressing the ambivalence that Westerners would so often feel in the future as “civilization” was brought to Lhasa, Candler added, “There will always be people who will hanker after the medieval and the romantic, and who will say, ‘Why could we not have been content that there was one mystery not unveiled . . .?'”

Younghusband evidently shared some of the same feelings about his expedition. He frequently withdrew from others to be alone, read, and reflect upon the transcendental messages of such works as Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. “Important as was the task upon which I was engaged,” he wrote, “I all the time thought it of very much minor consequence in comparison with the great main, deeper, interest of my life in which I was now absorbed.”

Not withstanding these metaphysical concerns, Younghusband disregarded the entreaties of the increasingly desperate Tibetan negotiators to halt and pushed on in hopes of forcing them into a settlement. Unfortunately, the Tibetan lama/officials sent to negotiate were not sophisticated as diplomats, nor did they have a realistic sense of what they were up against in taking on the British Empire. Their military defenses and armaments were laughably primitive. Even worse, Tibetan soldiers had been issued a rescript, or charm, stamped with the Dalai Lama’s personal seal which, they were assured, made them invulnerable to the weapons of the invaders. Such a belief was a measure of the trust and devotion ordinary Tibetans placed in the person of the reincarnation of the Boddhisatva Avalokiteshvara.

During that winter of 1903–1904, British forces advanced into Tibet unopposed. When in January they reached the small mountain settlement of Tuna, Younghusband still hoped for a negotiated agreement. Frustrated by the Tibetan response that was still being dictated by the Dalai Lama, hundreds of miles away in Lhasa, Younghusband impulsively tried to negotiate directly with his counterparts by riding unannounced into the Tibetan camp. His entreaties failed to move the Tibetans.

On March 31st, the Tibetans blocked the mountain pass further along at Guru by building a crude stone wall across the trail. Again, the Tibetans pleaded with the British to retreat, and again Younghusband refused. “There was no possible reasoning with such people,” Younghusband remembered. “They had such overweening confidence in their Lama’s powers. . . .”

After a Sikh soldier tried to stop the advance of a Tibetan general who had impulsively fired his revolver, shooting off the jaw of a Sepoy soldier, British troops unleashed a savage retaliatory fusillade. “Before a few seconds were over,” wrote Younghusband, “rifles and guns were dealing the deadliest destruction on them in their huddled masses.” British forces backed by the Royal Artillery and a Maxim gun unit of the Norfolk Detachment opened up on Tibetans armed with little more than old matchlocks and swords.

“I got so sick of the slaughter that I ceased fire . . .,” wrote Lt. Arthur Hadow, commander of the Maxim gun detachment. “I hope I shall never again have to shoot down men walking away.” Wrote Waddell: “The dead and the dying lay in heaps one over the other midst their weapons, while a long trail of piles of bodies marked the line of their retreat for half a mile or more.”

Younghusband with the Buddha statue given to him by the Tibetan Regent, Tri Rinpoche. Photo courtesy of The British Library.
Younghusband with the Buddha statue given to him by the Tibetan Regent, Tri Rinpoche. Photo courtesy of The British Library.

In less than five minutes, some seven hundred Tibetans had been killed or wounded, while the British suffered no dead and only thirteen wounded, including Candler, who had his head and one hand sliced by a Tibetan sword. For the Tibetans, he wrote, despite his wounds, “Prayers and charms and mantras, and the holiest of their holy men, had failed them. I believe they were obsessed with that one thought. They walked with bowed heads, as if they had been disillusioned with their gods.”

It was not until April that British troops finally arrived in the trading town of Gyantse. The next month, when a forward detachment of British troops reached the 16,600-foot-high Karo La, one of the last great mountain passes on the trail to Lhasa, they discovered that the Tibetans had set up a new line of resistance behind yet another stone wall.

At first, some three thousand Tibetans put up stiff resistance against a detachment of flanking Gurkha troops, killing a British captain and wounding over a dozen others. But finally, they proved no match for superior British firepower. Hundreds more Tibetans were killed and wounded while only four of the expedition’s troops died.

Meanwhile, back in Gyantse, the British encampment at Chang Lo had simultaneously come under attack from ground troops as well as from Tibetan soldiers encamped in the spectacular dzong (fort) that still towers over the city today. After several weeks of fighting, they ran out of conventional canon balls and were forced to fire stones down at the British.

British artillery finally breached the old fort and Gurkha forces were sent to scale its ramparts in a daredevil assault. Since it was raining, the antiquated matchlocks of the Tibetans proved useless, and another three hundred were killed or wounded.

Even then, the Tibetans did not seem to recognize the power of the enemy. Evidently oblivious to the severity of the challenge, the Dalai Lama in Lhasa wrote to the presiding lama at Gyantse, quaintly suggesting, “Will you request the English privately not to nibble up our country?”

London was deeply divided on the advisability of pressing on to Lhasa, but Younghusband archly told his emissaries, “I had the Viceroy’s order to go to Lhasa, and go there I must.” As they marched on toward the Holy City, the British again met resistance at the Karo La, where Younghusband’s mountain batteries opened up, and the poorly armed Tibetans suffered yet another bloody and humiliating defeat.

Candler described the battle as “surreal”: “Stretched on a grassy knoll on the left, enjoying the sunshine and the smell of warm turf, we civilians watched the whole affair with our glasses. It might have been a picnic on the Surrey Downs. . . .” Now, virtually no impediment lay between the long British column and Lhasa.

British troops finally approached the city. As Waddell started off that morning, he wondered if his feelings were not “akin to the emotions felt by the Crusaders of old on arriving within sight of Jerusalem.” Younghusband, too, was gripped by the significance of the moment. After all, he had become the first Englishman to reach the “citadel of Lamaism” in almost a century.

But, as they prepared to enter Lhasa on August 3, l904, Candler also felt that something ineffable was about to be lost. “Tomorrow when we enter Lhasa, we will have unveiled the last mystery of the East,” he wrote almost regretfully. “There are no more forbidden cities which men have not mapped and photographed.”

What had not been foreseen by these ardent warrior-pilgrims was the way in which their idealizations of Lhasa from afar would quickly be tempered by the reality of actually being there. The city’s unclean state and the evident oppressiveness of the theocracy proved a surprising letdown for most of Younghusband’s men.

Candler found the city “squalid and filthy beyond description, undrained and unpaved. Not a single house looked clean or cared for.” Even the Jokhang, the most venerated shrine which lies at the very center of the city, appeared “mean and squalid at close quarters, whence its golden roofs were invisible.” Candler was especially disenchanted with Lhasa’s ruling Buddhist theocracy. “I must confess, that during the protracted negotiations at Lhasa I had little sympathy with the Lamas,” he disdainfully wrote. “One or two looked as if they might be humane and benevolent—men who might make one accept the gentle old Lama in Kim as not impossible fiction. But most of them appeared to me to be gross and sottish. . . . No wonder that, when one looks for mystery in Lhasa, one’s thoughts dwell solely on the Dalai Lama and the Potala.”

“Of the higher Lamas,” Younghusband arrogantly wrote, “my impression was not favorable as regards their intellectual capacity or their spiritual attainments.” He doubted whether Lamaism, which he now viewed as having been born as an institution of “sloth and decadence,” had “on the whole been a success.” Only grudgingly did he acknowledge that “deep down under the dirty crust there must be some hidden source of strength of these Lamas, or they would not exert the influence they do.”

Close-up of Younghusband leading the British march into Lhasa. Photo courtesy of Royal Geographical Society.
Close-up of Younghusband leading the British march into Lhasa. Photo courtesy of Royal Geographical Society.

Candler, at least, still yearned to hold on to some small part of the West’s comforting illusions about Tibet. He was, for instance, relieved that the Dalai Lama had succeeded in escaping to Mongolia so that his mythology, at least, would not be made mundane by being forced to sign an accord with Younghusband like an ordinary mortal. For Candler, the Dalai Lama’s flight to Mongolia was a providence that only “deepened the mystery that envelopes him and added to his dignity and remoteness; to thousands of mystical dreamers it has preserved the effulgence of his godhead unsoiled by contact with the profane world.” On September 7, 1904, the British signed the Lhasa Convention in the Potala ending the whole misbegotten incursion. No one even seemed to remember that the casus belli had been the alleged Russian presence in Tibet, or that no Russian arsenal, troops, or, indeed, sign of any Czarist presence at all, had been found in Lhasa. Nonetheless, Lamoshar Lobsang Gyaltsen—or Tri Rinpoche, the monk from Ganden Monastery whom the Thirteenth Dalai Lama had designated as Regent in his absence—graciously gave Younghusband a small statue of Buddha at the final signing ceremony, saying that “when we Buddhists look on this figure we think only of peace.” All he asked was that henceforth when Younghusband looked at this statue, he “think kindly of Tibet.” Younghusband was deeply affected by this gesture and cherished the gift for the rest of his days.

The experience of invading Tibet and taking Lhasa by force had been a disillusioning one for almost everyone involved. “Civilization has roused her from her slumbers . . . and the long sealed shrine, with all its grotesque cults and its idolized Lama, shorn of his sham nimbus, have yielded up their secrets, and lie disenchanted before our Western eyes,” wrote Waddell upon returning to India.

As it turned out, Younghusband, Curzon, Candler, Waddell, and others were not completely right about Lhasa being forever dispossessed of its mystery and allure by the Younghusband Expedition. What they had not taken into account was the urgency of maintaining myths so much yearned for in the West. In a Western world that would soon be submerged in two world wars and the bloodiest century that “civilization” was ever likely to experience, the need to imagine a land that was peaceful, spiritual, serene, beautiful, and removed was too great to be displaced by the mere reality of what a few reporters and military men brought back from a bloody little expedition into an imagined paradise.

Reporters such as Candler of the Daily Mail and Percevel Landon of The Times and expeditionaires such as Younghusband and Waddell all wrote accounts of their experiences in Tibet. And yet, despite the popularity of each work, as the drama of l904 faded from memory, the mystique of the Potala, the Dalai Lama, and Lhasa nonetheless continued to grow almost unabated. What would be remembered from all the accounts was not their criticisms of a filthy, corrupt, oppressed, and backward Tibet, but the exoticism and spiritual otherness of the remote world that these few Occidentals had, at last, penetrated and described, however ambivalently. No one would better illustrate this process than Younghusband himself.

Indeed, on Younghusband’s last day in Lhasa he experienced a revelation of sorts that did much over the years to strengthen Western views of Tibet as possessing spiritually curative powers. Just before leaving the city, Younghusband tucked the Buddha statue given to him by Tri Rinpoche into his saddlebags and for a last time rode out into the mountains overlooking the Potala. There, sitting alone, “I gave myself up to all the emotions of this eventful time,” he later wrote in his memoir India and Tibet. “My task was over and every anxiety was passed. The scenery was in sympathy with my feelings . . . and as I now looked toward that mysterious purpley haze in which the sacred city was once more wrapped, I no longer had cause to dread the hatred it might hide. From it came only the echo of the Lama’s [Tri Rinpoche’s] words of peace. And with all the warmth on me of that impressive farewell message, and based in the insinuating influences of the dreamy autumn evening, I was insensibly suffused with an almost intoxicating sense of elation and good will.”

Then, Younghusband appears to have undergone an epiphany that affected him for the rest of his life. “The exhilaration of the moment grew and grew till it thrilled through me with overpowering intensity. Never again could I think of evil, or ever again be at enmity with any man. All nature and all humanity were bathed in a rosy, glowing radiancy; and life for the future seemed nought but buoyancy and light.” At this moment he became “convinced past all refutation that men are good at heart, that evil in them was superficial . . . In short, that men at heart are divine.”

Younghusband’s mystical revelation would help etch the imagination of future generations of Westerners with a sense that, whatever its shortcomings, Lhasa nonetheless held a profundity of hidden redemptive spiritual power. If it could conquer the heart of its conqueror so effortlessly, then what Western heart might resist its transformative powers? Even as Younghusband was knighted for his controversial expedition, he retreated into mysticism. After a flirtation with theosophy, he developed a bizarre and complex religious philosophy all his own that he hoped would imbue men “with the impulse of a truer, greater, nobler, more virile religion drawn from life itself.” And when he died in l942, he had his body laid to rest under a tombstone inscribed with a bas-relief of the city of Lhasa. At his request the Buddha figure given to him by Tri Rimpoche was placed atop his coffin.

After the Younghusband expedition, Lhasa once again closed its doors to the West. Tibet had been invaded, but had not become a colony like much of the rest of Asia, which meant that it, almost alone, remained apart. The next foreign military interlopers did not arrive until l950, after Great Britain had left India. China, which had had a long historical relationship with Tibet that it viewed as establishing its sovereign right over the vast territory, dispatched troops to “reunite the motherland” soon after Mao Zedong and the Chinese Communist Party won the civil war against Chiang Kai-shek and his Nationalist Party. As brutal and as unwarranted as the Younghusband expedition was, it had virtually none of the long-term deranging effects on Tibetan culture and society of China’s far more prolonged and extreme regimen of communist revolutionary “liberation.”

The Fourteenth Dalai Lama’s exile is a palpable loss that every Tibetan feels, and no amount of Chinese rhetoric about “liberation” can erase this. The fact that we as Westerners go on dreaming our old dreams of Lhasa as a still guarded, secret city redolent of tradition, religion, and exoticism—recently reinforced by such big-budget Hollywood movies such as Kundun and Seven Years in Tibet—is more of a testament to our own reluctance to abandon our own reassuring fantasies about Tibet. Foremost among them is the yearning to believe that somewhere the world still harbors a magic kingdom of the spirit set apart from our own modern hurly-burly that yet has to power to induce mystical transformations in our own lives just as it did for Francis Younghusband almost a century ago.