It must surely be one of the oddest bits of historical flotsam cast up by India’s exotic, but restive northeast. The artifact in question – seldom seen by outsiders – now holds pride of place on a wall in the Shillong* headquarters of India’s paramilitary unit, the Assam Rifles. There in a regimental ballroom, surrounded by other martial memorabilia – a menacing throne carved from the roots of a massive tree, a rack of horns from a wild mithun, a collection of other trophies stretching back to colonial times – in a glass case is an ornate revolver, whose curious history is this: it once belonged to the Dalai Lama.
The accompanying plaque reads:
Personal pistol of his Holiness Dalai Lama
presented by him to Assam Rifles
for assuring his safe arrival to Mishamari
after his escape from Lhasa in 1959
The eager subaltern who gave me the grand tour set the scene. Under growing pressure from the Chinese military, the Dalai Lama, then still a young man, slipped out of the Potala Palace in Lhasa under cover of a sandstorm in the spring of 1959. He made his way south by horseback across a 17,000 ft. pass to the Tsangpo valley and then, with the assistance of the CIA, approached the mountain frontier of northeast India on the night of March 31. (India and China would later fight a border war over this very turf in late 1962.) By order of a reluctant Indian Prime Minister, Pundit Jawaharlal Nehru, a detachment of the Assam Rifles had been hurried into the Himalayas to meet the ‘Living Buddha’ in his flight and to conduct him to safety.
Having finally reached sanctuary at the Chuthangmu Pass, the Dalai Lama, in a ceremonial gesture of confidence and gratitude, handed over to the Assam Rifles officer-in-charge a revolver that had been in his possession. (Customarily, formal Tibetan greetings are rather marked by the exchange of silk scarves.) Nothing else is known of how His Holiness came to be armed, who had provided him this device of last resort, or even if he was capable of using it either on himself or others. But, in time, the revolver was passed on to superiors who suspected its historic interest, and they found a home for it on this hilltop military base.
Having divested himself of his ornate pistol, the Dalai Lama went on to honors as a Nobel Peace Laureate.
The take away must surely be something like this: whatever the ‘broomhandle’ secret in my robes, being divested of it can yet lead to the loftiest aspirations.
*Shillong is the hill station capital of India’s Meghalaya state (‘home of clouds’), heartland of the Khasi ethnic group. Less well-known than Darjeeling in neighboring Bengal, Shillong has long provided a cool retreat during the steamy summer monsoon. The nearby town of Sohra once laid claim to being the rainiest spot on earth, having recorded in a single year (1860-61), 1042” of rain, most of it falling June-September. Ironically, the inhabitants of Sohra now experience severe shortages of clean water.