Lamas or teachers are senior monks (or nuns). Lay Tibetans can also become lamas. Well-versed in the sacred texts, a lama must also possess the requisite skills for conducting rituals. Lamas are believed to be reincarnations of former teachers. Once a little-known religion confined to its tiny nation, Tibetan Buddhism ironically achieved worldwide recognition when it was forced into exile by China’s Communists. The acknowledged face of Tibetan Buddhism today is the current Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, the fourteenth of his line, who lives in exile in India.

On 6th July, 1935, a baby boy was born to a poor farmer in the tiny village of Taktser, Tibet. Growing up, little Lhamo Thondup would often sit astride a window sill and declare he was travelling on horseback to Lhasa, a place he had never seen.

When Lhamo was three, a government deputation from Lhasa visited Taktser. Tibet’s spiritual head had passed away and several mystic signs had manifested themselves pointing to the direction of Taktser as the home of their new leader. Mysteriously, the boy seemed to know the group leader, Kewtsang Rinpoche and the name of his monastery. When they showed Lhamo a collection of objects, the child picked out the ones belonging to the deceased leader and claimed, “It’s mine, it’s mine.” In 1940, Lhamo was taken to Lhasa and inducted into the monastic order. He was renamed Jamphel Ngawang Lobsang Yeshe Tenzin Gyatso and assumed the title of the fourteenth Dalai Lama.

“Lama” is a venerated Buddhist teacher, the Sanskrit counterpart of “Guru”, a term conferred upon a monk or nun once they have attained a certain level of spirituality. “Lama” can also be part of a title, such as Dalai Lama or Panchen Lama – these spiritual leaders are believed to be tulkus, or reincarnated bodhisattvas.

“Dalai” in Mongolian is “ocean” (“Gyatso” in Tibetan); with Lama, the title translates into a leader of tremendous spiritual depth. Belonging to the Gelug school of Tibetan Buddhism, the Dalai Lama is believed to be the reincarnation of the bodhisattva, Avalokiteshwara, The Compassionate One (or Chenrezig, in Tibetan), revered as Tibet’s patron deity. From the 17th century up to the late 1950’s, the Dalai Lamas also exercised political authority over large parts of Tibet.

But back to the story of Lhamo, or Tenzin Gyatso, as he was now called. After his induction as a monk, the youthful leader pursued his education in logic, medicine, Sanskrit, Tibetan art and culture and above all, Buddhist philosophy. His adolescent years though, were interrupted rudely when China came calling, to assert its historic suzerainty over this idyllic kingdom. In 1950, the fifteen-year-old Dalai Lama was hurriedly proclaimed as Tibet’s temporal head in an investiture ceremony at Lhasa’s Norbulingka Palace.

Tibetan delegations to western powers, asking for political support, came back empty-handed – Britain tacitly acknowledged China’s claim to Tibet, while America decided to remain neutral. The Dalai Lama sent a delegation to Beijing, a last-ditch attempt to persuade the Chinese against full-scale invasion. But the delegation’s leader, Ngabo, who had no authority to negotiate, was forced into signing the infamous 17-point “ Agreement for the Peaceful Liberation of Tibet”.

From 1951 to 1959, Dalai Lama met every Chinese leader from Mao Zedong to Chou En-lay, Chu Teh and Deng Xiaoping to regain Tibet’s independence. Meanwhile he had also to placate his increasingly restless resistance fighters, angered by Chinese brutality.

In March 1959, the Nechung Oracle predicted a grave threat to the young leader’s life. In disguise, the Dalai Lama left Lhasa for India. Later that year, he formally rejected the 17-point Agreement. Tibet’s government-in-exile was established in Dharamshala (India).

In 1989, after he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, Tibet’s struggle for freedom shot into the world’s spotlight. In 2006, The Dalai Lama declared that his government was open to accepting “autonomy” for Tibet, rather than complete independence. China, though, remained unmoved.