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The ubiquity of images

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The institution of the Dalai Lama is essentially a Tibetan creation. It was Lobzang Gyatso, the so-called “great” fifth Dalai Lama, who in the mid-seventeenth century consolidated Tibet’s warring tribes and established his position as the political, as well as spiritual, lodestone of Tibetan society, and it is Tenzin Gyatso, who now seems destined to be the “great” fourteenth Dalai Lama, who has become the primary icon for the Tibetan people in their struggle for political and spiritual freedom. Nonetheless, it was the Mongolian ruler Altan Khan who, seeking to establish ties with Tibetan Buddhist leaders, in 1578 bestowed upon Sonam Gyamtso the title Dalai Lama.

Despite several decades of Soviet repression, vajrayāna Buddhism is now enjoying a revival in Mongolia. In 2013, to celebrate more than three centuries of the close intellectual, spiritual and cultural relationship between Mongolia and Tibet, the International Association of Tibetan Studies convened their thirteenth seminar in Mongolia’s capital Ulaanbaatar. This book of archival documents in Mongolian, Manchu, Tibetan and Chinese, detailing the exile in Mongolia of the thirteenth Dalai Lama Thubten Gyamtso following the entry into Lhasa of the British army under Younghusband in August 1904, is an intriguing and most welcome result of this seminar.

Edited by the Ulaanbaatar-based historian Sampildondov Chuluun and the Cambridge-based anthropologist Uradyn E. Bulag, The Thirteenth Dalai Lama on the Run is a beautifully produced volume, a great resource of archival materials for scholars of Mongolia and Tibet during the final days of the Qing Empire. In the almost six hundred pages of full-color reproductions, we find a historical record in one hundred and fifty documents of two crucial years in the political development of Inner Asia. Indeed, Bulag’s introduction describes this period as “the dawn of Inner Asian modernity”, and the evidence he offers for this assertion is striking. The discourse of the “great game”, so favored by scholars of the region during this period, is seen in a new light through the personal and political rivalry between the Dalai Lama and the Jetsundamba Hutagt, the leader of Mongolia’s Buddhists, while the relationship between the Dalai Lama and two men who would be caught up less than a decade later in the proclamation of Mongolia’s post-Qing independence, namely the Buryat intellectual Agvan Dorzhiev and Chin Van Mijiddorjiin Handdorj, who would become Foreign Affairs minister in the Jetsundamba Hutagt’s government, is presented as pivotal in the development of modern Mongolian polity.

But the book also presents the reader with a more poetic approach to the study of early twentieth century Inner Asia. The pencil portrait of the twenty-nine-year-old Dalai Lama, reproduced both on the cover and immediately preceding the introduction, was executed by a Russian schoolteacher named Kozhevnikov (“not an accomplished artist, though the best one around” [p.22]), and was subsequently printed and widely disseminated in Mongolia. While Bulag tells us that the Dalai Lama was “dismayed” and “outraged” by what he clearly perceived as a cynical betrayal, it is important to realize that this was “the first and only image of the 13th Dalai Lama prior to 1910 when he was first photographed in India” (p.22). In granting this privilege to a foreign artist, and in requesting that the image be a portrait rather than a photograph, perhaps the Dalai Lama – who selected this more formal representation over others more casual and naturalistic – was looking to explore the idea of extending gradually the concept of the thang ka into more modern directions. Given the ubiquity of images of the current Dalai Lama, the implications in China of possessing such an image, the willingness of Thubten Gyamtso for his image to be recorded for posterity in a naturalistic form, his subsequent attempts to ban the circulation of its reproductions among the Mongolians, his ready agreement in 1910 to be photographed in India, and his shocked flight from the sound of a Chinese army officer’s camera on his return trip to Lhasa in 1906, we are left with the image of the thirteenth Dalai Lama, and of Tibet and Mongolia too, standing on the precipitous verge of the modern world, at once alarmed and fascinated by the possibilities opening up on the horizon.

Beyond their archival and scholarly value, these are also documents full of calligraphic and paleographic interest. There are precise and fine hands at work here, crass and careless and ugly hands, exquisite scribal hands, and hands clearly at pains to finish their work and do something more interesting. There are marginalia and hastily scribbled addenda, rewritings and rethinkings and corrections, the creation of history laid bare. This is a snapshot of early twentieth century diplomacy in Inner Asia, then, but it’s also a subtle and elegant snapshot of Inner Asian script culture at the time, a concrete record of the temperament and artistry and focus of individuals both named and unnamed, seeking to set down on paper details of events whose temporal brevity, more than a century later, belies still their profound social and historical significance.


Simon Wickhamsmith, Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey (


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