Filed in Relationships

Born in Tibet

A Lasting FriendshipBetty Rogers

In the summer of 1951, Heinrich Harrer began writing his classic Seven Years in Tibet in a hotel room in Kalimpong, India, only months after fleeing the Chinese invasion of Tibet. A newly independent India, fearing the Red Army now at its border, soon ordered Harrer home to Austria and a war-devastated Europe. In his native Alps, the renowned mountaineer completed his dramatic story: trapped by the outbreak of war while mountaineering in India, Harrer escapes a British prisoner-of-war camp, and survives a two-year flight through the Himalayas to Lhasa. There he becomes friend and teacher to the young Dalai Lama. Since its publication in 1953, Harrer's story has unwittingly contributed to the myth of Tibet as an exotic and inaccessible Shangri-la.

Harrer's book virtually introduced the Dalai Lama to Westerners and, in a tale stranger than fiction, revealed the culture and people of the remote kingdom. His portrait of the Dalai Lama presented an unspoiled, modest boy untroubled by the wealth and power at his disposal. "His manner of life was ascetic and lonely, and there were many days in which he fasted and kept silence," Harrer wrote.

Almost forty years later on April 17, 1991, Harrer and his wife Carina would warmly greet the Dalai Lama backstage in Washington D.C.'s Lisner Auditorium. The old friends retired to the green room where roars of laughter spilled through the closed door. The day before, George Bush had become the first U.S. president to meet the exiled Tibetan leader. Later that evening the voice of His Holiness was broadcast into Tibet for the first time since his 1959 exile on the Voice of America Tibetan Service, launched in March under Congressional mandate.

The following day, the white-haired Harrer stood erect under the dome of the U.S. Capitol rotunda at the end of the Dalai Lama's address to members of Congress, tears rolling down his immobile face. As the Tibetan leader left the platform that he had just shared with a bipartisan coalition of top Congressional leaders, the Dalai Lama grasped Harrer's hands and said with emotion, "This is our best day since we left Lhasa." Harrer would repeat in press interviews over the next days, "When we were in Lhasa, I was the teacher. But now he is my teacher and guru. From him, I learn patience and tolerance."

Heinrich Harrer has lived, for the past 40 years, in Liechtenstein near the Swiss border. The retired mountaineer will celebrate his 79th birthday on July 6, a birthday coincidentally shared with the Dalai Lama, and celebrated by Tibetans as a holy day.

In his 1989 biography, Freedom in Exile, the Dalai Lama called Harrer the first "inji," or Westerner, that he would know as a friend. "Heinrich Harrer turned out to be a delightful person with blond hair such as I had never seen before. I nicknamed him 'Gopa' meaning 'yellow head' ....he spoke excellent colloquial Tibetan and had a wonderful sense of humor, although he was also full of respect and courtesy. As I began to get to know him better, he dropped the formality and became very forthright, except when my officials were present. I greatly valued this quality."

Of his assignment as "tutor" to the Incarnation of the Bodhisattva of Compassion Harrer wrote, "My life in Lhasa had now begun a new phase. My existence had an aim. I no longer felt unsatisfied or incomplete. "

"Many people say I was the tutor of His Holiness," Harrer now says, "but I wouldn't say this myself. We were just friends and he was interested to hear from me and I had a chance, for the first time in my life, to use my training as a teacher of geography. And we made drawings and photos and pictures."

The thirty-seven-year-old iron-willed "professor" made an unusual companion for the fifteen-year-old ruler, who was held so sacred by his subjects that they would not look directly at his face. "In his first years as Dalai Lama, he was raised by monks who had never left Tibet," Harrer says. "They taught him religion, meditation and whatever was important to the Tibetan government. And suddenly comes Heinrich and explains to him other things like how the earth is round. How to shake hands. I was a small link between his medieval world and his future life in the West."

The two learned English together listening to BBC broadcasts, experimented with photography and built a film cinema where the Dalai Lama ran a projector showing films from the Indian Embassy archives. Harrer remembers the boy's fascination with a documentary on General MacArthur, as well as the moment when they first heard together the lines from the Laurence Olivier performance of Shakespeare's Henry IV, "uneasy lies the head that wears the crown."

"I tried to tell him, now you are living here a happy life, but it will not always be easy to be king," Harrer says today after more than 1.6 million Tibetans have died under Chinese occupation, and over 6,000 monasteries have been destroyed. "And no one, absolutely no one, has experienced as he has how uneasy it is to wear a crown."

The monastic leadership of the old Lhasa theocracy was suspicious of a foreigner meeting alone with their young ruler. Harrer had, fortunately, already won their respect and permission to remain in Lhasa, despite a ban on foreigners, because he and traveling companion, Peter Aufschnaiter, had arrived by a Himalayan route no Tibetan would ever dare in winter. The enterprising escapees survived 40° below temperatures, making fires out of yak dung and sleeping huddled together on the frozen ground. Only by sharing body heat did the two men remain alive.

Harrer explains, "We didn't have boots like we had in Europe. So your feet got blue and brownish and they got frozen. And in the evening we massaged our feet and sometimes, not often, said tomorrow we will give up. But the next day without a word we'd go on."

Share with a Friend

Email to a Friend

Already a member? Log in to share this content.

You must be a Tricycle Community member to use this feature.

1. Join as a Basic Member

Signing up to Tricycle newsletters will enroll you as a free Tricycle Basic Member.You can opt out of our emails at any time from your account screen.

2. Enter Your Message Details

Enter multiple email addresses on separate lines or separate them with commas.
This question is for testing whether you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.