Rows on the roof of the world

Peter Stanford on trouble in Tibet; Kundun: a biography of the family of the Dalai Lama by Mary Craig, HarperCollin s, pounds 17.99

When the Chinese army marched into the Tibetan capital, Lhasa, in 1951, monks were seen knotting their shawls and hitting the invaders. Against guns and tanks, such a gesture symbolised both the optimism and the futility of Tibetan resistance to the desecration of their homeland. At the time, Tibet was a semi-feudal theocracy with a rag-tag army, competing factions of monks and a 15-year-old peasant boy as its leader. Mary Craig writes movingly of the 14th Dalai Lama's attempts to turn back the Chinese. But a schoolboy who liked playing with Meccano sets was no match for Mao Zedong.

Exiled after a further brave, but doomed, uprising in 1959, he continues to travel the world, pleading with international leaders to help him. Statesmen smile and shake their heads in horror, but look away when he asks for more than words.

The god-king has been powerless to persuade the world to take on China. Perhaps this has something to do with his office, which belongs more to the realm of children's fiction than to friction between superpowers. We are enchanted by the idea that on the death of one Dalai Lama, a search is undertaken for the child who, as the reincarnation of the dead leader, will be his successor. Yet as a form of government, such a system appears to have little to do with reality.

Craig manages to balance both these thoughts as she tells her tale of the search for the reincarnation of the mildly reformist 13th Lama, who died in 1933. It ended in a remote northern village, with a three-year- old peasant boy, Lhamo Dhondup.

Sacrilegious though it may be, I couldn't help thinking of families where one member wins millions on the National Lottery as I read Craig's remarkably frank account of how his family lost their heads when the finger of fate singled out Dhondup. His father, Choekyong Tsering, for example, began demanding land from the Regent, when transplanted from his mud-floored hut to a palace in Lhasa. He developed an appetite for rich food and fast horses. When he died prematurely in 1947, it was suggested he had been poisoned by a court faction using a herb known as Mad Elephant.

Craig has written before of the plight of Tibet, in her excellent study Tears of Blood, but this family portrait has an epic quality. She will convince the hardest heart that here is a tragedy that we should care about. When future generations come to chart the tyrannies of our century, they will wonder why the Chinese in Tibet were not spoken of in the same breath as Stalin and Hitler.

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