Cover image for Born in Lhasa
Born in Lhasa
Taklha, Namgyal Lhamo.
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
Ithaca, N.Y. : Snow Lion Publications, [2001]

Physical Description:
222 pages, 24 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations ; 23 cm
Personal Subject:
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
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Item Holds
DS786 .T285 2001 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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Namgyal Lhamo Taklha recounts her remarkable life in Born in Lhasa . She describes her childhood in a Tibet that no longer exists and chronicles her life and work on four continents. It is an engaging history of the Tibetan diaspora--dramatic and filled with anecdotes. Taklha's autobiography differs from those of other prominent Tibetans because she discusses the unexpected challenges of living in America and Europe.

Author Notes

Mrs. Taklha married the immediate elder brother of His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama. She is a member of the elected Parliament of the Tibetan Government-in-Exile & serves as Minister of Health. She lives in Dharamsala, India.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 2

Publisher's Weekly Review

In this touching, amiable and undemanding autobiography, Namgyal Lhamo Taklha, sister-in-law of the Dalai Lama, recounts her childhood in Tibet in the 1940s before the Chinese invasion as well as her life's chapters in India, Switzerland, the United States and back to India. As a student, refugee, translator, highly placed government health-care professional and consultant in Hollywood (for Scorsese on Kundun), Taklha surely appreciates the truth that life is change, an understanding embraced by her fellow Buddhists. Likely the greatest value of this work is in its detailed portrait of the veritably irreclaimable world of Tibet before Chinese occupation: the sights, smells, rituals and landscape of a precious culture now largely lost save through captured memories such as these. Taklha does not trade deeply on her in-law status to His Holiness, and readers yearning for intimate family glimpses of the 14th and current Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, will be disappointed. Although he is present in this narrative, he is cherished, revered and distant. Heir to two distinguished Tibetan lineages, Taklha's story is her own, filled with the twists and turns and triumphs that few experience on this grand scale of politics, spirituality, geography and grace. (June) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Isolated, defenseless, and underpopulated, Tibet attracts the compassion of the world because China is intent upon destroying it as a nation and a culture and has been populating it with Han settlers. Many Tibetans have fled to northern India, Bhutan, and Nepal. Taklha, the wife of an older brother of the Dalai Lama, lived in Tibet as a child, fled to India with her family when the Chinese seized power, and has since worked for the Tibetan government-in-exile and various refugee groups. Well written and informative, the book is filled with the details of daily life in Tibet and in the refugee communities where Tibetan culture and nationhood are preserved. The author is a sympathetic observer of people, and her affection for her countryfolk and many others shows clearly. The reader will find the Tibetans portrayed here generally hopeful and cheerful in spite of their ongoing hardships. This straightforward, highly readable book will appeal to casual readers, but will also attract scholars interested in the author's history. Recommended for both public and academic libraries. James F. DeRoche, Alexandria, VA (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Chapter One Born in Lhasa I was born into the Tsarong family on the 22nd day of the fifth month of the Water Horse year in the Tibetan calendar (1942). My family members told me that it was a joyful and auspicious day not only because I was the first Tsarong grandchild, but also because the monthly supply of oil, barley, peas, and wheat had arrived that day from our family estate in Tsang. I suppose my birth would have been more welcome if I had been a boy--the heir of the Tsarong family. I could have followed my ancestors and taken a prestigious position in the Tibetan government. Nonetheless, I was lovingly received.     My mother often told me about my birth. She was only sixteen and had been married just a year. As was the custom in Tibet, the birth was a family affair; no modern doctors or nurses attended. Assisted by my two grandmothers and a maid, my mother suffered through thirty hours of labor. Her only comforts were sweet words from her relatives, strong butter tea, the smoke of holy, sweet-smelling herbs, and her inner strength. As the excruciating pain prevented her from lying quietly, she paced around the room, willing me to arrive. When the moment came, I slipped into my maternal grandmother's hands.     In contrast to the efficient, sometimes impersonal hospital births in the West, births in Tibet required special rituals. To keep evil spirits from carrying away the soul of the mother or of the child, the mother was made to inhale smoke from a burning mixture of incense and juniper branches, different herbs, and barley powder. Pieces of hair or cloth from holy lamas were also burnt with this mixture, and the smoke was carried around the room. Butter and barley dough were mixed with water and then shaped into a dice or a fish, which the expectant mother was made to swallow while one of her maternal male relatives was called on to recite a special mantra to facilitate the delivery.     In some homes, peacock feathers and hair from a bear were burnt and the ashes were added to a bowl of water. A male relative of the mother was made to say a special mantra, blow on the water, and then urge the mother to drink it. According to Tibetan beliefs, the child is usually born soon after this ritual. Medicines from herbs, roots, and minerals were also given to the mother to ease her delivery.     Tibetans are very superstitious by nature, and there are many superstitions about births. For example, a birth is auspicious if the child is born in an unbroken amniotic sac. My younger brother, Tseten Gyurmey, was born this way, and he was later recognized as a reincarnated Buddhist teacher, the Drikung Kyapgon Chetsang Rinpoche. He was born on the fourth day of the sixth Tibetan month, a very special day according to Tibetan Buddhism--the day when Buddha taught the Four Noble Truths. When my brother was delivered in the sac, he did not seem to be alive. By chance, the English physician of the British Trade Mission, Dr. Guthrie, had been called to attend the birth. When the family thought that the baby was dead, Dr. Guthrie took over. After hanging my baby brother upside down and whacking him on the bottom, Dr. Guthrie displayed a wailing baby boy. My mother is forever grateful to this physician.     After any delivery, a new baby was bathed or oiled and dressed in a soft loose gown and wrapped in a blanket. A tiny piece of butter was put on the baby's tongue before the child was brought to the mother's breast. To revive the mother, relatives fed her hot soup from bone or lamb meat, and melted butter. Traditional Tibetan doctors say that the mother's wind energies are disturbed by the birth and must be resettled with warm food and rest.     Two days after my birth, my maternal grandmother hosted a special purifying ceremony, or bahng sel , for me The family priest chanted prayers and carried a branch of kusha grass that was dipped in milk and shaken over my mother and me and then around the room. Bowls of boiled rice with raisins and droma (a tiny sweet-potato-like root) and butter tea were served to my parents. As they showed me off to their friends, they received traditional white greeting scarves called khatas and gifts of silk clothing for themselves and for me.     Because my parents observed Tibetan customs, I was taken on a special outing the first time I left our house. My mother consulted an almanac to see which day would be most auspicious for this jaunt. She dressed me in my best robes, wrapped me in a silk blanket, and embellished my costume with charm boxes, sea shells, specially blessed strings from holy persons and a silver pendant called a melong . I was then protected from evil. A smudge of soot was streaked on the tip of my nose as another form of protection from menacing spirits. My mother dressed in her finest silks and jewels and embarked on a day of visits to various temples and to her family home. These same rituals, I am sure, were repeated by my mother with my younger sister, Norzin, and with my three younger brothers.     I treasure my earliest memories of Tibet--my childhood days seem to have been washed in the gleaming Kyichu River, the "River of Happiness," and left to float in the crisp, pure Lhasa air. My four siblings and I were swaddled in familial love and sweet comforts. An active child, I loved to be outdoors or with the adults in my family. I was not popular with our servants because I kept them running. Sometimes, when they needed a rest from the five of us, they locked us in our rooms. I often outsmarted them by finding a knitting needle or some other sharp object and jimmying the door open. Once, when that trick did not work, I climbed out onto a window ledge and shouted at a passerby to help me down outside.     My sister Norzin, who is a year younger than I am, was much easier to handle. Quiet and patient, she never uttered a harsh word toward anyone. Although she was not a pretty child, she became an elegant and beautiful woman. Tsewang Jigme, who was born a year after Norzin, was also quiet and obedient--dubbed "our golden boy" by all of the servants. Next in line came Tseten Gyurmey, who, as I have said, was recognized as a reincarnated lama. He was far more intelligent than the rest of us. The last in our brood was the naughtiest--Tseten Paljor. Seven years younger than I, Paljor was very cute and forever mischievous. He too gave our maids tremendous trouble.     We five grandchildren did not spend much time with our parents or grandparents, because they were often busy. Our elders did have, nonetheless, a great impact on our upbringing. I always think of my father as a man of few words, very kind, gentle, and polite. He was a gentleman with everyone. Often hidden away in his office or his darkroom, he spent hours taking and developing photographs and making films of Tibet. He also loved to tinker with mechanics; he took apart and rebuilt radios, motorbikes, and even a jeep imported from India.     My mother was more outgoing than my father and spent more time with us--often disciplining us and keeping us on a tight rein. Amala (as Tibetans call their mother) was very pretty with translucent skin, a fair complexion, and a small nose. The bridge of her nose was very flat, and she loved to tell the story of how cats had once danced on it and flattened it. She spent hours looking in a hand-mirror, trying in vain to stretch the skin on the bridge of her nose to make it more prominent. She had a passion for make-up, and outlined her small eyes with eye liner from India. Married at age fifteen, she was not educated abroad as were my father and his sisters, but she loved to listen to Western and Indian music. She liked to feel modern and fashionable, and she went to great lengths to dress up for festivals. Glamorous in her brocade gowns and full set of jewelry, she looked like a glittering, movable statue encrusted with precious stones.     Also in the Tsarong house were my paternal grandmother and grandfather: Mola and Pola Tsarong. The management of the household was in Mola's generous hands. Ever busy, Mola could always be found knitting, praying, writing in her account book, surveying the house, or working in the garden. She always dressed in a simple, black hand-woven wool dress known as a sherma , and she was so kind and dignified that everyone adored and respected her.     The Tsarong family could be traced to my maternal grandmother's family, who were descendants of Yuthok Yonten Gonpo, one of Tibet's renowned physicians. However, my grandfather, Tsarong Pola, was the man most respected and considered the pillar of the family. Dasang Dadul, as he was known, was neither a celebrated physician like some of my forefathers, nor a genuine blue-blooded nobleman. He was a commoner from Penpo, a village in central Tibet. It is believed that he was born to a peasant family; his father died early and his mother remarried an arrow maker. Dasang Dadul was commonly known as the son of an arrow maker. At a young age, Pola, as we called him, was engaged as a retainer in the summer palace of the Thirteenth Dalai Lama. The Thirteenth Dalai Lama was so impressed by Pola's intelligence that he made him one of his personal servants.     In 1904, when the British army besieged Tibet under Colonel Younghusband, the Tibetan government implored the Dalai Lama to leave Tibet for his protection. Pola demonstrated his courage and loyalty as he traveled among the Dalai Lama's small entourage to Mongolia and China. In 1909, Pola became a national hero when Chinese troops came to invade Tibet. This time, the Thirteenth Dalai Lama fled to India to fight for Tibet's independence. At Chaksam Ferry, the Chinese troops were on the heels of the fleeing party when Pola and a small band of Tibetan soldiers fought the Chinese back and kept them from capturing the Dalai Lama. Later, Pola was appointed commander-in-chief of the Tibetan army.     When my grandmother's father, Tsarong Shapey, and her brother were assassinated in political turmoil in 1912, the Tsarong family was without a male heir. A close attendant of His Holiness the Dalai Lama who was a Tsarong family friend appealed to His Holiness that Dasang Dadul marry Tsarong Shapey's widow and become the head of the Tsarong family and estate. The request was granted, and His Holiness even gave Pola a dowry.     Eventually, because Tsarong Shapey's widow was not a direct descendant of the family, the senior family retainers insisted that Pola also marry one of the four daughters of Tsarong Shapey. He married the oldest--my grandmother. Later, Pola also married two of my grandmother's younger sisters, one of whom had become a widow at a very young age.     Pola was a man feared and yet loved by all. He was a forward-thinking man who believed in the importance of a modern education and who, like few Tibetans of the era, sent his children and grandchildren to schools abroad. He always made himself available to relatives and friends seeking his good advice. Like most families in Tibet, my grandfather, as the oldest member of the family, was the head of the household. Instead of my parents making the decisions about the children, it was Pola who had the final word.     Pola, however, was more than the family strong arm. He had a tremendous sense of humor and frivolity. He entertained us all and was able to cheer anyone's spirits. A strong man of average height and weight, he had broad, slightly stooped shoulders. His complexion was tan, and his eyes were delightfully expressive. When he was informally dressed, he wore baggy, Western-style pants and coats and a floppy hat. He was very industrious, always writing letters, greeting business partners, planning the next crop of fruit trees, or pruning tomato plants. Pola woke routinely at 3:00 in the morning, lit a kerosene lamp to do some paper work, then washed up and inspected his estate before dawn. The rest of us did not even wake for another four hours.     Our day began with breakfast in bed at seven o'clock. We ate bowls of roasted barley meal ( tsampa ) or boiled rice, and drank hot butter tea. Sometimes, we filled up on leftover fried meat pastries ( sha-bhalib ) or steamed meat-filled buns ( momos ). After breakfast, we were scrubbed and dressed by our maids before we greeted our grandparents and parents. We would then receive a daily supply of treats from my grandmother, who kept a tiny storeroom of delicacies--Tibetan sweet cheese, dried meat, dried fruits, preserved fruits from China, and candies and biscuits from India. Once in a while we would have candy, chewing gum, and chocolate sent all the way from the United States by my grandfather's pen pals-Mr. and Mrs. William Englesman from St. Louis, Missouri. The boxes took four or five months to travel from St. Louis to Lhasa, and we were always excited to open them. Bubble gum was sent with instructions in English that my father translated for us. I remember our servants cheering when my grandfather, my parents, and all the grandchildren held contests to see who could blow the biggest bubble. To me, America was another planet and bubble gum came from the moon.     We children spent most of our time with our nurses and with the children of our staff in our garden and courtyard. For most of the day, our large garden became a fantasy land. We fashioned rags into dolls, drawing their faces with charcoal. We outlined our houses in the ground and decorated ourselves with hats, headdresses, and necklaces of willow branches and wild irises. We romped carefree for hours in our world of stones, twigs, branches, and dirt.     I cherished afternoon tea times when the entire family gathered with guests in our garden or in our grandparents' quarters and sat down to sweet Indian tea, pancakes, buns, and pastries cooked by the chef, Tsering Wangchuk. The adults recounted tales of personal gossip, of business, and of politics, and I ached to hear stories about unknown, faraway places like India, China, and the United States. I was very curious about the outside world.     In autumn, we watched the kite-flying competitions. Kite-flying was a serious sport in Lhasa. If someone was caught flying a kite out of season, he was fined or forced to build roads or public toilets. During open season, the whole town turned out in celebration. Wandering through the market place, or Barkhor, a few days before the start of kite season, you could see all the new kites laid out in preparation. Made of square bamboo frames and handmade Tibetan paper as delicate as Japanese rice paper, these kites were painted in several different patterns: the "bearded one" had two solid borders painted on each side of the kite; the "screwed-eyed one" had two circles of different hues painted on each side of the kite; and the "tailed one" sported a long paper tail. I remember the menacing fighting kites whose strings were coated in glue and powdered glass. When they were sent aloft, they dove and swirled into a tangle of bamboo, shredded paper, and sharp string--the last kite to stay in the sky earned its owner great applause and wads of gambled money. These kite-flying adventures were never without a few mishaps. During all the cheering and running about, many spectators tumbled off rooftops onto the hard, dusty earth.     For an unfailing source of entertainment, my siblings and I often tried to catch Pola in his storeroom. He would set up shop for us and display semiprecious earrings and rings, old tin boxes that once held fancy British cookies, notebooks from India, pencils, penknives and other wondrous knickknacks. He would not give us his goods for free, so we begged our parents or Mola for money and then learned the art of bargaining. Pola was great fun. Once he told us that he was in a trance, and that an oracle spirit had entered his body. He huffed and puffed and chased us all over the house. I remember the time he caught my brothers Jigme and Rinpoche and swatted them forcefully on the bottom. They escaped in tears and ran for comfort to the rest of the family.     Sometimes, we wrapped ourselves up in Pola's loose cloak, and he would tell us dirty tales of the notorious "Uncle Toenpa" of Tibet. My mother used to be furious on such occasions, but she held her tongue out of respect for the head of the family.     On holidays, we often visited my mother's childhood home. My mother's family was descended from one of the oldest noble families in Tibet. The Ragashar family (also known as Dhokar) could be traced from the Ghazie lineage. According to Tibetan lore, the Tibetan people originate from the union of a monkey, an emanation of the deity of compassion named Avalokiteshvara, and an ogress, an emanation of Arya Tara. They had six sons, and the Ghazie family descends from one of the sons; the family is traced back through the male descendants only.     My grandfather, Ragashar Pola, was serious and taciturn, and his behavior set the tone of the house. Whereas the Tsarong house servants (except for the older ones) kept their hair short and were casual, the male servants of Ragashar house were stiff and formal, keeping their hair in long braids and wearing gold and turquoise earrings. Ragashar Mola came from the Sikkimese royal family. She was a tall, heavy woman--very frank, cheerful, and kind. Always in motion, she marched throughout the house with a heavy ring of keys. When she dressed up for holidays, she was massive in her tall headdress and bulky jewelry of the Tsang region--a monument in Lhasa society.     We loved these visits to Ragashar. Mola fed us our favorite dishes and sent us home with special treats. When we were low on pocket money, Pola would reach his hand under his beautiful brocade seat cover and draw out cash notes to give us.     Ragashar House was in the center of the city, and my grandparents' rooms faced the Jokhang Temple and looked right down to the Barkhor. We would spend hours observing the different kinds of people prostrating or circumambulating the temple. We watched as nomads clad in sheepskin robes carried ancient silver prayer wheels. There were peasants from nearby villages in white woolen robes and crushed felt hats, and women and children in black woolen robes. Many monks and nuns strolled around the temple in a mix of maroon and yellow. The fine ladies of Lhasa were dressed to attract attention.     When I was about eight years old, Norzin and I enrolled in a private school in Lhasa. The government schools in Lhasa were founded exclusively to educate men for jobs as monastery officials, lay officials, or doctors of traditional medicine. Co-educational private schools were run by learned men of different backgrounds. Private schools did not charge any fixed sum for tuition, and they were open to children from all social backgrounds. There was no discrimination against anyone. On the day of admission, if the new student's family could afford it, they gave a cash gift to all the students as well as to the teacher. Bags of barley, tea bricks, and clothing were also presented to the teacher. An auspicious day of entrance was chosen by an astrologer and then in a small ceremony, the new student served tea and rice to each student, and presented a ceremonial white scarf ( khata ) to the teacher.     I was not blessed with great powers of concentration, and I struggled through the tedium and difficulties of school. Accustomed to running all over our garden and courtyard, I always felt confined in a school room. The curriculum was rather monotonous. We were taught reading, writing, grammar, and arithmetic, along with many, many prayers. Much of our early years were spent learning the complicated Tibetan alphabets. Sitting cross-legged and hunched over our work, we were made to draw lines on our chalkboards by pressing chalk-covered strings against the board's surface and then copying letters over and over. As soon as we finished one board full of letters and were corrected by the teacher, we started all over again. Eventually we graduated to writing words and then sentences, and after a year or two, if we proved to have decent handwriting, we were allowed to write on paper.     The school administrator was a man named Phala Chantso Kusho, who was the treasurer of a noble family named Phala. Because Chantso Kusho was busy with his duties at the Phala House, his eldest son looked after the affairs of the school and served as headmaster. This headmaster was in his early twenties and miserably strict and arrogant in his constant show of power. If any student giggled or whispered in class, he forced the guilty party to prostrate for an hour. If he was really angered, he would whip the boys and smack the girls on the palms of their hands.     One of his most bizarre rituals took place at the end of the examination period. Students were lined up according to grades and then hit with a bamboo strip--boys on the cheek, girls on the palm of the hand. The student who received the highest mark was hit by the teacher, the second received a whack from the teacher and the student who came first, and so on down the line. The students with the worst grades would end up crying and bleeding from this torture.     Rivalry was very prevalent among the different schools, and street fights often broke out between the older boys after classes. We all carried knives to sharpen our bamboo pens, and these became the weapons of the school wars. I remember one day when boys from the Ngarongsha school stood waiting in an alley for boys from my school. When they confronted each other, they argued and then began stabbing each other. Our maid arrived in time to see the fight and scurried Norzin and I into the next alley and away from the aggressors.     At this time in our life, we witnessed a very important and memorable event--both a happy and sad occasion. When my second brother, Tseten Gyurmey, was proclaimed to be the reincarnation of the head of the Drikung Kagyu sect of Tibetan Buddhism, he was only three years old. There was great excitement when several important-looking monks called on the family to request that my brother be released to their care and taken to Drikung. Several visits were made. There was whispering among the maidservants that my mother was reluctant to send our little brother to a monastery to live among strangers. After a few days, we heard that my grandparents, especially my maternal grandfather, had insisted that the child be given to the monastery, as the Regent Thaktra had given the final approval for my brother to be the reincarnation of the late Drikung Chetsang Rinpoche. Moreover, my mother recalled an incident that occurred on a pilgrimage she made to a holy place when she was expecting my brother. She met a holy man who told her that the child she was carrying would have an early death or become a very famous man. Remembering this, she worried that if she did not allow my brother to go to the monastery, something harmful might happen to him.     When the time came for Rinpoche to leave for the monastery, he was dressed in a monk's robe, a gold silk gown, and an intricately decorated flat papier-mâché hat. Not all little lamas were permitted to wear this hat; this was special to the higher ranking lamas. It took a little coaxing to get him to wear the stiff leather and brocade pointed boots. (Continues...) Excerpted from Born in Lhasa by Namgyal Lhamo Taklha. Copyright © 2001 by Namgyal Lhamo Taklha. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Table of Contents

Prefacep. 7
Introductionp. 9
1. Born in Lhasap. 13
2. The Tsarong Homep. 25
3. Festivalsp. 34
4. China and Tibetp. 47
5. In Transitp. 54
6. Darjeeling--Dorje Gardenp. 60
7. Lhasa Under Red Army Bootsp. 68
8. Freedom at Lastp. 81
9. Tibetan Refugeesp. 90
10. New Delhip. 101
11. In the Belly of the Iron Birdp. 112
12. Little Tibet in Switzerlandp. 128
13. On the Roadp. 143
14. On Madison Avenuep. 158
15. Dharamsala: Place of Refugep. 175
16. Wheel of Lifep. 190
17. Hollywoodp. 204
18. The Setting Sunp. 220