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Mission to the roof of the world: Asya Chorley describes the relationship between China, Britain and Tibet in the early twentieth century, and shares the unique experiences of the first European women to be invited to Lhasa by the XIII Dalai Lama.


'Never in the history of Anglo-Tibetan relations has our prestige stood higher or the Tibetan attitude been more friendly.'

So wrote a relieved Colonel Leslie Weir (1883-1950) in his report to the Government of India at the conclusion to the British Mission to Lhasa in 1932, yet only three years earlier Weir remarked on the situation with Tibet that 'our prestige has gone back woefully since I was last here'.

Weir's experiences in Lhasa are a fascinating example of the see-saw dynamic that dominated Tibet's relations with Britain in the early twentieth century. The relationship was dictated by issues of autonomy, territorial security and, crucially, the attitude and responses of China. However, his missions were not just of political significance. In 1930 he was accompanied by his wife, Thyra, and in 1932 by both his wife and eighteen-year-old daughter, Joan Mary. They were the first European women to be granted an official invitation by the Dalai Lama and both made written and visual records of their trips. Their documents provide an exceptional insight into life in Lhasa at the time; unusually they are written from a female perspective and are not circumscribed by either a political agenda or the possibility of publication.

From the early eighteenth to early twentieth centuries Tibet and China had co-existed in a tacit relationship, rooted in the common religion of Buddhism. China respected Tibet's political and cultural autonomy and Tibet acknowledged the Qing dynasty as 'overlords'. Imperial presence in Lhasa was limited to a Commissioner (Amban) whose role was to monitor possible conflict between Tibetan policies and Chinese interests. By the end of the nineteenth century the connection had become mainly symbolic; from the Tibetan perspective the potential threat to its independence came not from China but from the other great imperial power in central Asia, Britain.

The Tibetan government's distrust of Britain dated back to the end of the eighteenth century and the mistaken assumption that Britain had supported Nepalese attacks on Tibet. This resulted in the 1793 decree prohibiting the presence of foreigners in Tibet. So began a long period of isolation and a series of extraordinary attempts by explorers from all over the world to penetrate the mysteries of the 'Forbidden Land' (including covert expeditions, sent in the 1860s by the Government of India, for the purpose of 'information gathering').

As the nineteenth century progressed, the Tibetan government became increasingly concerned by the Government of India's growing influence and control in the Himalayan border states and principalities. (In 1861 the ethnically Tibetan principality of Sikkim, on the main trade route between Tibet and India, became a British protectorate.) Equally disturbing was the presence of numerous Christian missionary settlements in the border regions.

Tibet's political and cultural identity was defined by its Buddhist religion. Essentially a theocracy, it was ruled, in a sometimes uneasy alliance, by the Dalai Lama, responsible for both spiritual and temporal matters, and the Panchen Lama whose authority was entirely spiritual. The deep suspicion that Britain was motivated not only by territorial ambitions but by the desire to convert Tibet to Christianity had a powerful impact on its attitudes and policy. In fact British policy during this period was shaped by consolidation rather than expansion. Interest in Tibet was motivated by defensive (the security of the 'Jewel in the Crown') and commercial concerns and scientific curiosity about a country which remained largely unknown.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, a series of events occurred which led to a dramatic end to the impasse that had dominated relations between the two countries in the previous century. The Viceroy of India, Lord Curzon, frustrated by the Chinese failure to force Tibet to open up contact with his government and to control Tibetan border violations on the Sikkim frontier, and alarmed by the potential threat to Himalayan border security posed by an apparent alliance between Lhasa and imperial Russia, decided to take action. In 1903, with the agreement of the Chinese, a mission under Colonel Younghusband (1863-1942) was dispatched to Tibet. Curzon's intention was to create a diplomatic opening that would allow Britain to assess the extent of Russian influence while also persuading Tibet that British interest was friendly and commercially motivated. However on arrival at Khampa Dzong, Younghusband was greeted by Tibetan officials who insisted that the mission withdraw and the news that troops were assembling on the border. Curzon responded by transforming the diplomatic mission into an armed expedition and in summer 1904, Younghusband and his party had the privilege of being the first British men to reach Lhasa since 1811.


In the absence of the XIII Dalai Lama, who had fled to Mongolia, the Tibetan government quickly capitulated to the British and in September 1904 the Anglo-Tibetan Convention was agreed. It represented both the end to Tibet's diplomatic isolation and a strong message that the Government of India had a place on the 'Roof of the World'. The terms included the establishment of three British trade agencies in Gyantse. Yatung and Gartok, and an agreement that no foreign power should be allowed political influence in Lhasa without consultation with the British. On securing the Convention the British mission immediately withdrew. However, the British government underestimated the impact the Younghusband expedition and following settlement would have on China's attitude to Tibet. Despite being on the edge of collapse, the Qing dynasty embarked on an aggressive policy to re-assert its authority. Tibetan territory in Sichuan province was annexed and the Amban assumed a more active role in Lhasa. In 1909, Beijing permitted the Dalai Lama to return from exile to Lhasa, while simultaneously making plans for an invasion of Tibet to ensure that he would become an imperial puppet. As the Chinese army entered Lhasa in 1910, the Dalai Lama fled to India. The British government's response was typically ambivalent. Although he was allowed to remain in Darjeeling for the next three years, under the supervision of the political officer, Charles Bell, Britain refused to offer any tangible support against China. It is likely that it was only Bell's commitment to Tibet's future, and the deep friendship that had developed between Bell and the Dalai Lama, which allowed amicable relations between Tibet and Britain to continue.

By 1913, as a result of the chaos caused by the sudden revolution in China and the downfall of the Qing dynasty, the Dalai Lama resumed power in Lhasa and declared that Tibet no longer had any obligations to the new Chinese Republican government. But, learning a lesson from the recent invasion, the Tibetan and British governments realized that some sort of accommodation had to be reached with the new China, whose goal was the reunification of the old empire. A tripartite conference was convened at Simla and the following year (1914) a draft agreement was devised that was to provide the context for diplomacy and action in the region for the next thirty-five years. Although it was agreed that Tibet would return to its earlier position as an autonomous state under Chinese suzerainty, the failure to achieve any compromise over disputed territories on China's western border left the relationship between the two countries unresolved.

With Tibet's political status now secure, the Dalai Lama, supported by the British government, embarked on a radical modernization programme. The main aims were to ensure the protection of Tibet's borders by transforming the ineffectual army and to create an infrastructure which would allow Tibet to participate in the modern world. It was also intended that the prospect of a strong Tibet would induce China to co-operate with the new border arrangements proposed by the Simla Convention. The chief architect was the Dalai Lama's old friend, Charles Bell. From 1920-21 as Resident in Lhasa, he advised and gave practical assistance on a wide range of initiatives that would link Tibet with the British. To support the creation of a new army, supplies of arms and ammunitions were sent from India and military training was provided in Gyantse. Help was provided to set up a police force in Lhasa. Work began on a telegraph line from Lhasa to Gyantse, where a British school was established for the education of Tibetan noble children. There were plans for a postal system, the opening of a mint and the development of motor transportation. British influence also had a social impact: some army officers adopted Western styles of dress, and tennis and polo were introduced; the Dalai Lama agreed to an Everest expedition (1921) which opened up the prospect of an end to the ban on foreigners.


Not surprisingly, these rapid changes and the open association with the Government of India provoked considerable unrest. The main opposition came from the monasteries. Naturally conservative, they saw these developments as a move towards secularization and a threat to Buddhism; they also suspected that a revitalized army would be used to challenge their position. The final rift came with the Dalai Lama's plans to raise money by abolishing the monastic tax privileges and insistence that the Panchen Lama pay the long overdue taxes on his estates. In 1923 the Panchen Lama fled to China, and for the following decade the Nationalist government used him as leverage in their dealings with the Dalai Lama and as an example of the dangers of British influence in Tibet.

In the mid-1920s the Dalai Lama, swayed by the conservative religious-led faction and frustrated by the failure of the British to pressurize China to agree to the Simla Convention, retreated. All evidence of British involvement in Tibet's internal affairs was removed and the push towards modernization collapsed. Further signs that Tibet was reverting to an isolationist policy were the refusal to grant invitations to British officials and the withdrawal of permission for future Everest expeditions. The Dalai Lama had been deeply offended by newspaper reports that certain scenes in the 1925 British film of the recent Everest expedition gave the impression of Tibet as a primitive, uncivilized country. Taking advantage of the vacuum created by the disintegration of Anglo-Tibetan relations, the Chinese government, seized the opportunity to regain its traditional role in Tibet. The Dalai Lama accepted the offer to open bilateral talks and two Chinese missions were invited to Lhasa in 1929 and 1930. The extent of Tibet's alienation from the British government was underscored when the latter was neither informed of the missions nor invited to play a part in any decision-making process with China.


These were the unpromising circumstances in which Leslie Weir took up his appointment in 1928 as political officer in Sikkim. Weir was already familiar with Tibet, having been Trade Agent in Gyantse (1909-12) serving under Charles Bell. He also had the opportunity at this time to meet the exiled XIII Dalai Lama. Weir considered Bell his 'Guru' and Bell was later to comment warmly on his work:

"His genial, kindly disposition helped him to establish relations of personal friendliness with the Tibetans, especially as he aided them in their troubles with the Chinese ... Dorje Pamo, the holiest lady in Tibet, regarded him as a real friend."

Weir was a modest and erudite Scotsman and an unusually gifted linguist, with a knowledge of thirteen languages. Unlike the majority of his contemporaries connected to Tibet, Weir left no memoirs, his motto being 'too much written and not enough done'. Fortunately, this attitude was not shared by his wife and daughter who both enthusiastically documented their experiences in Tibet.

Born in India, the son of a surgeon in the Indian Medical Services, Weir was educated in Scotland, England and Germany. After training at Woolwich, he joined the Indian Army in 1904, and transferred to the Political Department in 1908. In 1911, while on leave in Rangoon, Leslie met Thyra Sommers and they married the following year. Thyra is remembered by the family as a forceful and independent character who spoke her mind freely. While her journal and letters confirm this, they also reveal a lively and witty woman who was clearly an asset to her husband. After active service in Mesopotamia and the North West Frontier the Weirs spent the next ten years in various postings throughout central Asia, including Acting Resident in Kashmir.

On arrival at Gangtok, Sikkim, Weir's immediate priority was to secure an invitation to Lhasa. Although the Dalai Lama refused to grant one, in 1929 he did send the encouraging comment:

"It is not at all an attempt to slight you ... I would request you not to get disappointed by misunderstanding things."

However by 1930 an invitation was not only approved but included the unprecedented offer that Thyra should accompany her husband. Yet again the Dalai Lama's attitude to the Government of India would be dictated by internal and external factors. With the recent collapse in negotiations with China, his intention was to persuade Britain to return to its role as mediator and also to provide arms and ammunition. The British government was equally keen for the situation with China to be resolved. The growing alliance between the Panchen Lama and the Nationalist government, and the prospect that he could be used to regain control in Tibet, combined with potential Bolshevik interest in the region, revived fears over the security of the Himalayan borders.


Both Leslie and Thyra were well aware of the delicacy of their position as representatives of the British government. (Weir insisted on being provided with a larger than usual budget for gifts and entertainment.) The difficulties they faced were highlighted in a letter from Weir to the Government of India's Foreign and Political Office, in which he commented on the recent demotion from the cabinet of the pro-British former army chief, Tsarong:

"The degradation of Tsarong Shap-pe is attributed largely to his having been too friendly with foreigners and I believe the Dalai Lama told him so. Every official lives in mortal dread of the Dalai Lama and to save himself from Tsarong's fate is chary of showing outwardly too great a friendship for us ... Tsarong Shap-pe has very privately written to me reassuring me of ills friendship but, in view of recent events, he wants us to keep completely away from him. We did not bring Mary Tsarong from Gyantse to help Thyra as we had planned--it would not have been wise."

(Mary Tsarong was educated at the American School in Darjeeling and was the only English speaking woman in Tibet, she later became Joan Mary Weir's closest Tibetan friend.)

The Weirs reached Lhasa on August 4th, 1930, and stayed at Deke Linga, which Thyra described in her journal as 'a delightful place ... small garden ... and streams running nearby, through shady willow groves'. The next few days were spent anxiously waiting for a summons from the Dalai Lama:

"Could only go out quietly (and not to the city) as it was not etiquette to appear in public before the formal meeting ... L. was getting rather peevish over the delay."

Finally the summons came:

"We rode through the city in the early morning--crowds out to see me--the first European female to ride through Lhasa. Had difficulty getting through."

A few days later, Thyra received a personal invitation to meet the Dalai Lama.

"We entered the throne room, and there he was sitting on a marvellous throne. I was agreeably surprised over the appearance of the D.L. From photographs taken thirty years ago he appeared to be of the sickly 'Ghandi' variety, but here was a fattish man with a shaved bullet head, bright though slightly watery eyes--teeth rather defective as they had mostly fallen out. He received us most genially and I managed to make him smile over the description of my reception by the crowds in the city. My apparent hilarity seemed to cause astonishment and concern in the room where people all assumed attitudes of the most subservient character. We were given English tea, flooded with milk, and cream cracker biscuits. We talked of flowers, of his kind hospitality, of pictures. He wondered if my pictures could be as good as photographs. To which I replied in the negative.


The visit was considered highly successful by his staff because it has been so cheerful and H.H. was in such good mood. I wonder what he thought of the queer English female!"

Thyra also records visits to religious sites and provides a rare view of local customs, social behaviour, court politics and the relationship between the visitors and their hosts. It is clear that her presence raised the social profile of the mission.

"Visited the Cathedral [the Jokhang]--wonderful place, endless private chapels to various deities, full of magnificent idols bejewelled ... spooky rooms where the Loos live--Loos appear to control the destinies of not only monasteries but all humans ... We gave scarves to the big Buddha in the most important chapel, a wonderful place full of gold cups and the most precious jewels.

To Lunchar [Lungshar] (commander in chief) and his two wives, charming house, actually inside the Potala grounds. Lunchar in high favour with the D.L. at the moment ... The jewellery worn by these two wives was the finest I have ever seen ... of course their full dress was worn for our visit ... The two wives appear to be perfectly happy together, The former is only 38 and has bad fifteen children (10 dead), she is now having her sixteenth and seems to be quite cheerful about it. [Lungshar] is very unpopular and fears poison. I fancy he and Kumbela [the Dalai Lama's favourite] are rivals, hence the fear ... Visited Ngabo Sharpe [the Sharpes were members of the Cabinet]--an oldish man, very young wife--16--very shy and rather giggly. Women sat apart from the men ... Mrs Ngabo very interested in my style of dress, especially shoes, hair, stockings. Wants shoes like mine from Calcutta (lizard) ..."


While Thyra was establishing useful personal contacts, her husband's work focused on Tibet's relationships with China and Russia. Although he was reassured that the Dalai Lama was aware of the threat from Bolshevik Russia, the situation with China remained as unclear as ever. However, the mission was considered a success by both sides. Tibet received guarantees of supplies of munitions and silver (for currency) and the British government was thankful that contact had been re-established. After nearly two months in Lhasa, the Weirs returned to Gangtok. In 1931 they visited London to see their daughter presented at court and Thyra gave a well received lecture at the Royal Geographic Society, entitled 'Impressions of an Englishwoman in Lhasa'.

By 1932 Tibet's problematic relationship with China escalated into a crisis. The uneasy peace on the borders broke down when the Tibetan and Chinese governments sent troops to intervene in a conflict between two rival monasteries. After several skirmishes an armistice was agreed but hostilities erupted again when a maverick local warlord made incursions into Tibet. In the summer, provoked by the apparent duplicity of the Chinese, the Dalai Lama made an urgent appeal to the British government to intervene on Tibet's behalf. For Britain this was an important opportunity to reaffirm its influence and assess at close hand the dangers posed by China. That September, Weir embarked on his second mission to Lhasa, accompanied by both his wife and eldest daughter, Joan Mary.


Eighteen-year-old Joan Mary Weir had already joined her parents on a mission to Bhutan in 1931 after giving up her place at London University. But the trip to Lhasa was to have a more profound impact on her. In contrast to her mother's more prosaic style, Joan Mary's account sings with youthful curiosity, imagination and thoughtfulness. (Her gift for observation was recognized when, aged only twenty, The Illustrated London News published her detailed obituary of the XIII Dalai Lama, following his death in December 1933.) In a long letter to her former headmistress she writes:

"It hardly seems that we are in the world--we might be on another planet. Everything is so utterly different from, and untouched by, our western civilisation ... From Gyantse we visited the holiest woman in the world, 'Dorji Phagmo', whose name means 'The Diamond Sow-faced Goddess'.... The holy lady came down from her monastery ... and we spent three days with her. It is extraordinary what wonderful calm and composure some Tibetans have. All her life has been spent sitting cross-legged praying and meditating and blessing people. We took a gramophone with us--and some bendable records which have fierce American jazz tunes ... It was incongruous seeing this holy woman listening enchanted to a very dreadful man singing. I put on better tunes, but no--she must have one called 'Just a Gigolo' on all the time ... all our servants were gibbering with nervousness. I drew a sketch of her, I sat in her beautiful embroidered tent, and I've never known such a perfectly peaceful atmosphere ...

Buddhism in Tibet is very mixed with the original religion of devil worship and some chapels house terrible demons. Buddhists of Ceylon and Burma do not recognise it ... We came across the most wonderful country on our way here ... we climbed over a pass of nearly 17,000 feet high. I have never seen such a magnificent view as we saw from the top ... [a] huge octopus-like lake stretching hundreds of arms round hills that were like crumpled green velvet ...


We visited a very holy temple in Lhasa ... one chapel housed a fearsome female demon. Queen Victoria, they say was an incarnation of her. I don't think she would have been flattered. This was a horrid demoness with a grinning angry face, seated on the flayed skin of her son ... Everywhere running in and out of her ears and nose and mouth were hundreds of little white mice ... We were told ... that these mice were the souls of dead nuns who had been honoured in being allowed to serve this terrible demoness ...

I visited the Dalai Lama ... I cannot imagine a more beautiful setting than the room where he received us ... He was seated on a carpeted throne, cross-legged, and he wore an orange brocade and yellow waistcoat. Red, yellow and orange are holy colours ... Our Tibetan assistant stood nearby bent double, with his tongue hanging out with respect. The Delai (sic) Lama is God ...

We went to a party ... yesterday from 10.30am till 6pm ... we were given two elaborate Chinese meals, with hundreds of different dishes; some stuff like vermicelli is the main part of the meal. It seems that the more noise you make eating it the better: you can make wonderful suction noises with pieces of vermicelli, half a yard long ... What I shall do when I next go into polite society and vermicelli is produced ... I don't know!

There is a time for everything in Tibet: people never hurry.... They have adopted in their fashions and customs nothing European, and everything is as it has always been."

Weir's second mission required considerable skill and patience, Thyra wrote to her sister in October 1932:

"Leslie is having a tougher time than he anticipated with these peace negotiations. China is the stumbling block. They have been beating the Tibetan troops badly and don't see why they should desist ... In the meantime winter is descending on us and it is already bitterly cold--no fireplaces of course and that fierce journey ahead across the dreary wilds and passes to India. Leslie's time is very fully occupied seeing the Dalai Lama ... we haven't had a great deal of social activity owing to the stress of the times ... [but] now that Leslie is getting full support from Home and India we hope that China will see reason ... Leslie is certainly helping them all out of their troubles ... Leslie ranks as a Prime Minister here, fearfully important ..."


The Weirs were required to remain far longer in Lhasa than intended. They finally returned to Sikkim in December. Joan Mary later recalled that, when Weir wrote to the Dalai Lama explaining how fortunate they had been to miss the snow falls which had blocked all the passes to India, His Holiness replied 'It wasn't luck at all, I prayed for it'.

The strength of the personal connection between the Weirs and the Dalai Lama was demonstrated by Thyra's gift to him of one of her paintings.

"I packed off my picture of the Potala to His Holiness ... framed in what seemed to me a devastating gold frame and mount. But it had to be gold for him and when all finished it didn't really look so bad. It was quite a large picture--full view of the palace--reflected in water in the foreground, the golden roofs catching the last rays of an orange sunset. I have copied it (contrary to my ideas on painting) because many people thought it my best, so I'll want it for reproduction some day."

The 1932 mission represented a turning point in relations between Tibet, Britain and China, Negotiations between Tibet and China were reopened and continued through the decade. For the remainder of the 1930s, there were both regular British and Chinese missions to Lhasa, and in 1937 an unofficial British Residency was established. Tibet began to open its doors to foreigners and permission was granted for expeditions to Everest. But the potential for a mutual accommodation between Tibet and China was undermined by the weak and divided government of the Regency in Tibet and the challenge of the new Communist government in China.


In 1950 the decades of diplomacy and intimidation came to an abrupt end as the question of Tibet's status with China was finally, and tragically, resolved through invasion. The ensuing modernization programme again caused resentment and unrest and in 1959, the XIV Dalai Lama, like his predecessor, was forced into exile in India. In the last fifty years, with the radical changes to the political map of Central Asia, Western attention to Tibet has diminished. The country no longer benefits from the consideration it received in the early twentieth century, when, if only for strategic reasons, its autonomy was considered an essential feature of stability in the region,

For the Weir family the missions had both a professional and personal impact. Weir's role in Tibet was recognized by an immediate promotion to Resident at Baroda, and he and Thyra were honoured with the awards of the C.I.E. and the gold Kaisar-i-Hind respectively. The connections established during the missions became strong personal friendships and continue, uninterrupted by invasion and exile, with the current generation. This includes the present Dalai Lama, who on hearing of the death of Joan Mary in 1994 wrote to the family:

"I am very saddened to learn about the passing away of Joan Mary. She was a close friend of the Tibetans and when ever she had the opportunity she spoke about Tibet and the Tibetan people. Since she had been to Tibet before its invasion by the Communist China her accounts of what Tibet was like in the past was of special significance. I would like to convey my condolence to the family. We join them in sharing in the irreparable loss."

Further Reading

Sir Charles Bell, Portrait of a Dalai Lama: The Life and Times of the Great Thirteenth (republished Wisdom, 1987); T. Dodin & H. Rather, eds, Imagining Tibet: Perceptions, Projections and Fantasies (Wisdom, 2001); Melvyn Goldstein, A History of Modern Tibet, 1913-1951: The Demise of the Lamaist State (University of California Press 1991); Peter Hopkirk, Trespassers on the Roof of the World (John Murray, 1982);Thomas Laird, The Story of Tibet: Conversations with the Dalai Lama (Atlantic, 2007);Alex McKay, Tibet and the British Raj: The Frontier Cadre, 1904-1947,(Curzon, 1997); Hugh Richardson, Tibet & its History (Shambhala, 1984).

Asya Chorley is a freelance researcher and writer, currently working on the Weir Archive. Future projects include an exhibition of paintings, photographs and documents from the Archive. The author would like to acknowledge the contribution of Maybe Jehu to this article.
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Author:Chorley, Asya
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Date:Jul 1, 2008
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