Lajang Khan had finally got hold of the prize. He was now the uncontested king of Tibet. But how long could it last? Sticking to his denunciation of the deceased Tsangyang Gyatso as a fake Dalai Lama, he now produced a monk of the same age and declared that this was the real sixth Dalai Lama. This alternative Dalai Lama was met with indifference by the Tibetan people; it was widely held that he was in fact Lajang Khan’s own son. The Tibetan aristocracy was split along regional lines, as usual, with the nobles of Tsang generally supportive of their new Mongol king, and those of U generally hostile to him. It was a tense period.

Lajang also had the emperor of China breathing down his neck. He knew that there were many Mongols who disliked his puppet Dalai Lama as much as the Tibetans and would happily see him toppled, so he was quite dependent on the support of the Kanxi Emperor. A Manchu assistant was sent to keep an eye on Lajang. This official only spent a year in Tibet before his post was discontinued, but it was long enough for him to carry out his main task; to gather enough information to draw a map of Tibet. The official returned from his Tibetan sojourn with a bundle of sketches, which were handed over to the Jesuit priest Father Regis. The Jesuits used the sketches in the atlas of China that they presented to the Kanxi Emperor. When Kanxi’s atlas was published in 1718, Tibet was included in the map of China, a sign of things to come.

Meanwhile, reports were arriving in Lhasa that the rebirth of Tsangyang Gyatso had been identified in Litang, far away in Eastern Tibet. At first Lajang just ignored this distant development, but when he heard that other Mongols, his own relations who were jealous of his new power, were declaring their support for the boy, he sent his men to Litang. Fortunately the seventh Dalai Lama’s father, a shrewd political operator, fled with his son to the kingdom of Derge, where Tibetan and Mongol soldiers could protect the boy. Meanwhile, the emperor was keeping his eye on this new Dalai Lama too. He could be a useful pawn in the elaborate strategic game that he was playing with the Mongols and Tibet.

The troubling appearance of a new Dalai Lama meant that the lamas of the Gelug school were even less inclined to support Lajang. There was also the matter of the latter’s friendly relations with a group of Christian missionaries. The Jesuit mission led by Father Ippolito Desideri arrived in Lhasa in 1716, three and a half years after he had received the blessing of Pope Clement XI in Rome. Lajang was happy to talk to Desideri, who even dared hope that the khan might be converted to Christianity, writing: ‘Though intellectually so acute, he was docile, not clinging obstinately to the errors of his sect, but admitting the truth of some of the points elucidated, and then assuring me that when absolutely convinced of the falsity of their religion and the truth of our Holy Faith he would not only conform to the laws of Jesus Christ but insist on his court and kingdom doing likewise.’

Most likely the khan was being polite, and Desideri wildly optimistic. There had been Christian missions in Tibet since the previous century, and there would be more in the future, but by any standard they were all failures, managing only a handful of conversions and leaving little behind them when they departed again for Europe. Desideri was the most intellectually acute of these priests, and his writings remain among the very best accounts of Tibet by an outsider. He cast an occasionally sympathetic and almost objective eye over the culture and religion of the Tibetans in Lhasa, although he was always puzzled by the Tibetans’ adherence to their strange religion. Having studied Tibetan works of philosophy, he understood something that his brothers had not. The religion of the Buddha was not merely a form of idolatry, but something even worse – atheism. This pernicious doctrine the good father could only rationalise as a devious stratagem of the Devil himself: ‘The other capital error, source of all the false dogmas believed in by this people, is the absolute and positive denial of the existence of any God or of any uncreate and independent Being. The infernal enemy, with subtle artifice, has so adorned this monstrosity as to make it appear to them of the most sublime importance, the final step towards perfection, and the only path leading to eternal bliss.’

Even if Lajang Khan showed only polite interest in Desideri and his religion, this was another reason for the Gelug lamas to distrust him. He had shown a cavalier disregard for their institution of the Dalai Lamas; might he now even abandon the Buddhist path entirely? As a result, the lamas of the great Gelug monasteries, Drepung, Sera and Ganden, now began to plot the downfall of Lajang. Their great ally in this plan was the king of the Junghar Mongols, a rising power in Mongolia and a thorn in the side of the Kanxi Emperor. He was also a Buddhist devoted to the Gelug school and supportive of the exiled seventh Dalai Lama. As he gathered his troops for an invasion, the Gelug lamas of Lhasa sent young monks north to train as soldiers.

The Junghars rode to Lhasa in 1717, where Lajang’s army, headed by a very capable general of whom we will hear more later, held them off for two months. But there was also a propaganda war going on. The Junghars claimed to be bringing the seventh Dalai Lama home; in fact, they had not yet managed to get hold of him, but this rumour was nonetheless enthusiastically spread about by the lamas of the Gelug monasteries. Though the Panchen Lama remained loyal to Lajang, popular support among the monks, and most of the laypeople too, now dwindled to nothing.

With the Junghars now at the walls of Lhasa itself, it was treachery that finally brought about the fall of Lajang. On a dark November night, ladders were dropped down the fortified walls. The Junghars climbed up them and massacred the remaining troops loyal to Lajang. The khan himself fled to the Potala. He was an old man now, overweight and a heavy drinker. His days of heroic deeds in battle were long gone; he knew that the Potala could not hold out against the Junghars, and that if he stayed everyone in the palace would be killed.

So Lajang decided to leave the Potala in the dead of night with just three companions; the rest of the inhabitants were to go in a different direction. The Junghars soon discovered his escape and rode after the khan. As he approached a ditch in the road, his horse took fright and fell down, taking its rider with it. Two of the fugitives had matchlock guns which they fired at their pursuers. When their ammunition ran out, they used the guns as clubs as the Junghars descended upon them. Lajang fought with his sword, cutting off the arm of one of his attackers, before he was fatally stabbed and fell down dead.

Now the Junghars had Lhasa in their hands. For the Gelug lamas who had let them in, the result was a bitter disappointment. The seventh Dalai Lama was still in Eastern Tibet, as far away as ever, while the Junghars proved cruel overlords. As Desideri wrote, the Junghars ‘during the whole of 1718 did nothing but practise unheard-of atrocities on the people of the kingdom’. One ugly activity brought to Tibet by the Junghars was religious persecution. Loyal to the Dalai Lama and the Gelug school, they were fiercely hostile to the Nyingma.

Riding without compunction into the precincts of the Nyingma monasteries in Central Tibet, including the great Mindroling to which the fifth Dalai Lama had given so much support, the Junghars cut down the monks. Nyingma abbots, including Lochen Dharmashri of Mindroling, one the greatest scholars of his time, were executed. The Nyingma monasteries, though politically no threat, were attacked for their acceptance of lamas who were not monks and for their use of fierce magical rituals. Statues of Padmasambhava were a particular target. The Junghars even had the temerity to teach virtue to the Gelug school. They formed an inquisition into the great Gelug monasteries, expelling anyone who was not a monk, and any lamas whose behaviour was called into doubt. It soon became clear that these new Mongol rulers were far worse than the last ones. The Junghar occupation of Lhasa had become intolerable for everyone. The Tibetans lacked the fighting power to oust them, but help was on its way.

Far away in Beijing, the Kanxi Emperor had received a letter from Lajang Khan urgently requesting help against the Junghars. Unaware of the khan’s death in the interim, he began amassing his troops. When he did hear that Lajang was dead and that the Junghars had taken Lhasa, the emperor realised that he would have to mount an invasion rather than merely a relief operation. Perhaps it was time to bring his pawn into play. The emperor therefore made enquiries about the seventh Dalai Lama. The boy was now twelve, and it was his father who negotiated with the emperor. Yes, they would be willing to come to Lhasa with the Manchu army, if the seventh Dalai Lama finally received official recognition.

So the emperor despatched a golden seal written in Manchu, Tibetan and Chinese to the Dalai Lama and his father, and they left with the army for Lhasa. The Junghar presence in Tibet had already degenerated into groups of armed brigands roaming the land; these were easily picked off by the Manchu army. In October 1720, a great procession entered the ruined Potala; comprising Manchus, Chinese, Mongols and Tibetans, it was headed by the young seventh Dalai Lama. Thanks to the Kanxi Emperor, the Mongol threat had been banished and the line of the Dalai Lamas had been preserved. But at what price?


Pholhane was an aristocrat from one of the Tsang families who had supported Lajang Khan. In his youth he had received his religious education from the Panchen Lama on the one hand and from the Nyingma monks of Mindroling on the other. He then entered into the usual career of a young nobleman in government, working as an accountant, next as a judge, and then as an officer in Lajang’s army. He so impressed Lajang that he was made a general, and in this role he staged a spirited, though ultimately futile defence of Lhasa against the Junghars. After the fall of the city, Pholhane plotted the Junghars’ overthrow with other Tibetan nobles. Though his plan came to nothing, he would be an obvious choice for political office when the government of Tibet was reconstituted. When the Kanxi Emperor’s army arrived victorious in Tibet, it was welcomed by the Tibetans. There were no uprisings, and there was no need to send the army out to subdue other districts. After the shame of Lajang Khan’s puppet Dalai Lama and the atrocities of the Junghar occupation, this well-disciplined Manchu army bringing the real Dalai Lama back to the Potala was widely welcomed.

So it was that the Manchu emperor came to have a free hand in remodelling Tibet. He poured money into rebuilding the Potala, not just repairing the damage caused by the Junghars, but making it even more glorious than before. At the same time he radically reorganised the country, bringing most of Eastern Tibet under direct Manchu administration. Amdo was now to be part of the province of Qinghai, and most of Kham was absorbed into the province of Sichuan. This was a major change, effectively an annexation of part of the Tibetan cultural area to the Manchu empire, but no protest emerged from the ragged remains of the Central Tibetan government.

Once the army had done its work, the emperor stationed a garrison in Lhasa, and reformed the Tibetan government as a council of three Tibetan ministers. The Dalai Lama was not allowed a role in government (though his father soon became a very influential figure). As for Pholhane, though not on the council, he was widely respected and took a major role in shaping the new Tibet. One of the first motions he put before the council was to fund the repair of the hundreds of Nyingma monasteries and temples attacked by the Junghars. But in this he met deep opposition, not least from the Dalai Lama and his father.

Then, in 1722, the Kanxi Emperor died. The Dalai Lama, who owed his position to the emperor, personally performed the extensive funeral rituals. But things now changed. The new Manchu emperor, Yongzheng, much less keen than his father on building an empire, immediately ordered the Manchu garrison to leave Lhasa. The Tibetans would have to stand on their own, and indeed they did. Pholhane demonstrated his mettle yet again when he led a successful military expedition to quell a Mongol rebellion. Yet despite his loyalty to the Manchu emperor, Pholhane also showed that he was willing to challenge his orders. When an edict arrived from the new emperor ordering the closure of all Nyingma monasteries, nobody in the court dared to speak out against it except Pholhane. It seems that certain Gelug lamas at the Manchu court were pursuing their own sectarian agendas, and the emperor may have been alarmed by stories of the fierce magic wielded by Nyingma adepts. But Pholhane stood up before the envoys and made an impassioned plea for tolerance, reminding them that Tsongkhapa, the fifth Dalai Lama and the first Panchen Lama had all showed great respect towards the Nyingma. Pholhane’s plea was so eloquent that the Manchu messengers made no objection; in fact, his words were drafted into a letter to Yongzheng and the order was rescinded.

The council that now ruled Tibet was in the process of tearing itself apart. Formed of nobles from different parts of the country with different vested interests, it was headed by Kangchene, a hot-tempered, arrogant and overbearing figure who could arouse strong hatred. But Kangchene had the full support of Pholhane – both had served under Lajang and fought against the Junghars, and both believed that a strong Manchu presence was the best thing for Tibet. The other two chief ministers were both anti-Manchu and personally disliked Kangchene. Frustrated and angry, they hatched a plot to assassinate him.

The day agreed upon by the plotters was in August 1727, when the council was sitting in its office in Lhasa. Kangchene, completely unaware of the plot, smiled and joked with his fellow council members as one of his attendants handed him a letter. This was the sign. As Kangchene bent to read the letter, a minor official grabbed his long hair and pulled back his head. The other two ministers drew knives from their clothes and advanced, while their attendants burst through the door with swords; Kangchene was stabbed hundreds of times. He dragged himself towards the door, but died on the floor as the blades continued to fall upon him. The plotters then captured Kangchene’s wife and sister-in-law, and killed them too. Anyone who had shown loyalty to Kangchene was killed or thrown in prison.

Fortunately for Pholhane, his wife had recently become seriously ill and he had left the council to be at her bedside on his estate. While performing Buddhist rituals for her, he received a mysterious letter from one of the Dalai Lama’s tutors, written in the form of a prophecy but clearly advising him to stay away from Lhasa. He consulted the Nyingma lamas, who also spoke mysteriously of bloody visions. When news of the coup came to Pholhane he knew the plotters would soon be after him as well. He therefore left his estate and began to raise an army. The Panchen Lama, whose monastery was nearby, tried to dissuade Pholhane from this course of action, but his arguments met with an angry response. The ensuing civil war lasted nearly a year.

In the end, Pholhane was victorious thanks to his brilliant strategic mind and his diplomatic abilities, which brought a Mongol clan into his service. Once again the war ended with a siege of the Potala. This time, the ministers gave themselves up, and at the request of the Dalai Lama their lives were spared. Shortly afterwards, another army sent by the Manchu emperor arrived. Together Pholhane and the Manchu envoys reorganised the government of Tibet again. First of all, the emperor insisted that the Dalai Lama should leave Lhasa. Though he had played no active role in the uprising, he was considered too dangerous as a rallying point for anti-Manchu rebels.

So with the greatest courtesy it was ‘suggested’ that the Dalai Lama should travel to Eastern Tibet, for the good of the people. The Dalai Lama ended up in a military garrison near his home town of Litang. His father, correctly seen as the real troublemaker, was brought before the emperor chained to his two wives. But this wily politician made the best of the situation, and was actually given an honorary title before being released to rejoin his son. With the Dalai Lama out of the picture, the Manchu envoys now elevated the Panchen Lama, granting him sovereignty over Tsang and Western Tibet in an attempt to create a political counterweight to the Dalai Lama. The emperor also appointed two Manchu officials, called ambans, to live in Lhasa and keep an eye on the Tibetan government. At the head of this new government was Pholhane, now widely regarded as king of Tibet.

Pholhane’s rule, which lasted until 1747, was peaceful compared with what had gone before, and he is remembered as one of Tibet’s great statesmen. Tibetans remember him too for his sponsorship of the first printed edition of the Tibetan Buddhist canon, produced at Nartang monastery. Pholhane was wise enough to allow the Dalai Lama to come back to Lhasa after four years in exile. The Dalai Lama returned to great celebrations and elaborate ceremonies, but he was now under firm orders to keep to religious matters. It was the seventh Dalai Lama’s last move across the chessboard. He would not leave Central Tibet again. As for his father, that ingenious and troublesome man had to agree to live in a village three days’ journey from Lhasa, and to visit his son just once a year.

In all of his struggles, his eventual rise to the position of sole ruler of Tibet, and his subsequent steady hand on the reins of power, Pholhane made careful decisions, balancing the needs of Tibet against the wishes of the Manchu court. His judgement, it seems, never failed him, except in one crucial matter: the question of who would succeed him. Like many before him, Pholhane wanted to found a dynasty; also like many others, he seriously overestimated the ability of his chosen heir to carry on his work. When Pholhane’s son Gyurme Namgyal stepped into his father’s shoes as de facto king of Tibet, he made a serious faux pas straight away. He managed to arouse the suspicion of the Manchu emperor by despatching a letter stating that he wanted to send monks to Eastern Tibet, now under Manchu rule, to give the Gelug school a more prominent role there. The emperor rightly saw this as a ploy to manufacture a greater political role for himself in Eastern Tibet, and refused. He also sent a trusted advisor to act as amban and report on the new Tibetan ruler. The amban’s report was not at all favourable: Gyurme Namgyal was apparently an obstinate man, an unpopular ruler, and the Dalai Lama could not stand the sight of him.

Things quickly went from bad to worse, as Gyurme Namgyal had his own brother assassinated. When the respected minister Doring Pandita tried to reason with him, Gyurme Namgyal grabbed a spear and threw it at him. When it missed and wounded a horse instead, he grabbed another, and missed again, this time killing an attendant. It seems that this new king of Tibet suffered from serious mental instability, and many wondered where his volatile temper would lead their land. Finally, the Manchu ambans, fearing for their position under this wild young ruler, decided to take matters into their own hands.

They invited Gyurme Namgyal to their residence, and while one of the ambans reproached him bitterly for his behaviour, the other drew his sword and ran him through. The ambans quickly sent a message to Doring Pandita, telling him what they had done, and that he should assume power straight away. This came as a complete surprise to the minister, who went to confer with the Dalai and Panchen Lamas. But events elsewhere were moving fast. As news spread through Lhasa of the murder of their sovereign by the ambans, an angry crowd gathered. Gyurme Namgyal might not have been popular, but he was a Tibetan, and his murderers were Manchus.

There was no dissuading the mob. The Dalai Lama sent a message, but it was ignored. The ambans’ residence was set on fire, and when the ambans emerged, they were attacked. They fought hard, but could not win against the mob. One amban died fighting, the other committed suicide. The upshot was inevitable: the Manchu emperor sent an army into Lhasa again. The ringleaders of the mob that had killed the ambans were caught and publicly killed in the cruel and slow execution known as ‘death by a thousand cuts’. The emperor was minded to appoint new ambans to head the Tibetan government, a move that would have transformed Tibet into a colony of China. But he saw that this would be difficult to achieve and would only infuriate the Tibetans, so it was decided instead to let the Dalai Lama resume his old role as the head of the Tibetan government. Under him, a council of four ministers (two monks and two laymen) called the Kashag would take care of the day-to-day running of the country. At the age of forty-three, the Dalai Lama having for so long been a pawn of the Manchus, now at last came to wield real power.

This reorganisation of the Tibetan government lasted for some two hundred years, until the Communist takeover in the 1950s. It allowed the Manchus to include Tibet in the outer reaches of their empire without having to administer it directly. Tibet would have its own government, religion, language and culture. No taxes would be paid to China, and the ambans were to play only a minor role in Tibetan politics, largely functioning as observers who reported (not always honestly) back to the emperor. And while he was not an ambitious leader like the Great Fifth, or a popular figure like the sixth, the seventh Dalai Lama proved equal to his new role as head of the Tibetan government. This may have come as a surprise to some, but he had obviously learned some useful lessons from his politically astute father.

Still, the seventh Dalai Lama’s power was very limited compared with that of the Great Fifth. The sixth Panchen Lama now ruled over Tsang and much of Western Tibet. Eastern Tibet had been annexed by the Manchus and on the ground was ruled by independent kingdoms such as Derge and Nangchen. The Dalai Lama’s domain was thus effectively limited to the Central Tibetan region of U. Even here, the next five Dalai Lamas would not wield any real power; this which would be in the hands of regents, abbots and ministers. And they would be under the supervision – in theory at least – of the Manchu emperor. Not until the twentieth century would a Dalai Lama once again reign supreme in Tibet. In the meantime, the Tibetans would have to deal with changes that were occurring all over the world, as they found themselves precariously balanced between emerging and voracious new empires.

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