1959 | Dalai Lama in Siliguri

The relationship between Tibet and China was historically complex, and Tibet, high in the Himalayas, had enjoyed varying degrees of autonomy throughout its history — periods of closer ties to China punctuated by periods of greater independence – and the country had long maintained a unique cultural, religious, and political identity separate from the mainland China.

In the 19th century, Tibet was considered a vassal state under the suzerainty of the Qing Dynasty, which then ruled China. The dynasty’s collapse and the political instability that followed provided Tibet to assert greater independence. The 13th Dalai Lama would declare Tibet’s independence in 1913 and expel Chinese officials from the region.

That independence was short-lived. In 1950, Communist China would launch an invasion, quickly overwhelming the poorly equipped Tibetan army. The 14th Dalai Lama, who had assumed power at the age of 15, was forced to negotiate and signed an agreement that acknowledged Chinese sovereignty over Tibet but guaranteed a degree of autonomy for the region.  This agreement would also prove to be short-lived, as the Communist officials gradually increased their control over Tibetan affairs and implemented policies that aimed to assimilate the country into China. Monasteries and temples were destroyed, religious observances suppressed, and the nomadic Tibetans forced into settlements, leading to widespread unrest.

In 1959, a major uprising against the Communist rule erupted in Lhasa, the capital, the Chinese government responded with a violent crackdown. The Dalai Lama fled into exile in India.

Marilyn Silverstone was the only woman photojournalist to cover the lama’s arrival. She remembered hurrying to India’s far eastern Assam to cover the event:

When I got the confirming cable from Gamma Agency, I booked myself onto the plane they were chartering to take us journalists to Tezpur and back. At Tezpur it was a madhouse  —  for six days, we sweated and ran around in circles – no one knew anything, and we were sure the Indian government would just sprint HIM (Dalai Lama) past us. There was nobody who would or could, tell us anything.

Finally, on Friday, the plan was made known and we got our press cards. We piled into two buses and were driven to the Foothills camp of the Assam Rifles. There we found we were expected to stand way back from the scene. But at 07.45, the gate lifted open and THEY arrived. The stampede then began. It turned into a free-for-all, with all the Indian photographers practically smashed up against HIM so that no one could get a decent unimpeded shot.

After all the suspense, it was very exciting to see them arrive in the Jeeps. HIMSELF was absolutely sweet – smiled and laughed delightedly at the photographers and stood for them to take pictures, then moved on into the house. The big moment was for Heinrich Harrer [the Austrian Alpinist who had previously been the boy lama’s teacher in Lhasa and whose 1952 memoirs Seven Years in Tibet would later be turned into a movie starring Brad Pitt], who was brought by the Daily Mail. The Dalai Lama did a “double take” when he saw him, and later kept saying: “old friend, old friend”…

Off at the crack of dawn for Siliguri, where thousands of Tibetans from the hills waited with incense, banners, white scarves and a mournful Tibetan band, for the train to arrive. He came out in front of the station and mounted the usual podium – this time an enormously high one- and raised his hands in blessing, then came down and walked around it, re-entered the train which would probably carry him away from Tibet forever.’

It was on the station platform that Silverstone took the photo above, of the Dalai Lama being greeted by Robert J. Godet, an anthropologist and scholar on Tibetan culture (who was covering the lama’s arrival for Paris-Presse).

While awaiting on the station platform, Magnum photographer Brian Brake joked that he’d give Marilyn $500 if she would sneak into the train and get shots of the Dalai Lama. Silverstone, ‘in a split-second decision’, stepped aboard, with ‘no money, no passport, and no toothbrush – nothing but cameras and film’. A security officer saw Marilyn get on and chased her through the moving train, and caught her as she was trying to hide. After six hours of intense questioning, finally convinced Marilyn posed no threat, the police brought her back to Siliguri station and left her on the platform.

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Silverstone had been in India for mere months when she covered the events in Assam. She arrived on February 22, 1959 with a four-month assignment with The Lamp magazine — and then stayed in India for a further fourteen years. Years later, in 1977, she was ordained as a Tibetan nun, at the age of forty-eight, and later helped found a nunnery near Kathmandu— one of the first Tibetan Buddhist nunneries outside of Tibet.


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