URGELLING, India — He drank wine, cavorted with women and wrote poetry that spoke of life’s earthly pleasures.
He was the Sixth Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of the Tibetans and reincarnation of Chenrezig, a deity embodying compassion.
He would sneak out of the Potala Palace in the heart of Lhasa, the Tibetan capital, for midnight trysts. He renounced his monastic vows in the middle of his stewardship of Tibet. He was later kidnapped by Mongolian warriors allied to the Manchu Chinese court and died in captivity about three centuries ago at the age of 33 — or so one story goes. Another tells of his winning his freedom and wandering the Tibetan lands as an ascetic.
So goes the legend of Tsangyang Gyamtso, one of the most popular historical figures among Tibetans and the most colorful of the long line of Dalai Lamas. His poetry is among the most iconic in Tibetan literature.
In this remote area of the eastern Himalayas, the mystique surrounding the Sixth Dalai Lama is magnified a hundredfold. He was born here in Urgelling, called Ugyenling in Tibetan, a village in the lush hills that border Bhutan and the Tibet Autonomous Region of China. The dominant ethnic group here is the Monpa, a Buddhist people who speak a language closely related to Tibetan but consider themselves distinct from the Tibetans on the high plateau.
The two-story childhood home of the Sixth Dalai Lama was turned into a pilgrimage shrine centuries ago. Candles flicker in front of the main altar, and prayer flags adorn a large tree outside.
“He’s pure Monpa, the only Monpa to be a Dalai Lama,” said Jamparema, 60, a hunched woman in a striped red dress who was pouring oil out of brass candleholders in the altar room. Since her youth, she said, she had taken care of the shrine.
The fact that the Sixth Dalai Lama came from this area, called Tawang, is one of the reasons that China gives in asserting that Tawang is a part of Tibet, and thus part of China. Indian officials say the land was ceded to British-ruled India by Tibetan leaders in the Simla Convention of 1914.
Given the precedent of the Sixth Dalai Lama, some people here mention Tawang as a possible birthplace for the next Dalai Lama. The current one, the 14th — who fled to exile in India in 1959, passing by this village on his route — has said his reincarnation could very well be born outside of Chinese-ruled Tibet.
The shrine here has traditional thangka paintings of most of the 14 Dalai Lamas. Nine white stupas in a room on the ground floor supposedly house remains of the Sixth Dalai Lama’s relatives.
As for signs of the Sixth Dalai Lama himself, there is a small wooden box with a stone inside that has a faint footprint — supposedly his, even though he was taken from this area before he turned 3. He never returned.
A small museum in the sprawling Tawang Monastery, which sits above here at 3,050 meters, displays necklaces of turquoise and other precious stones said to have belonged to the Sixth Dalai Lama’s mother.
Long ago, the leader of Tawang Monastery came here to Ugyenling to collect the family’s possessions. He was afraid they would be spirited away by Tibetan officials in Lhasa, said Gombu Tsering, 70, the museum’s caretaker.
“The Tibetan government would have sent a spy from Lhasa to collect all this,” he said. “That’s why we collected it. A shoe of the mother was taken by a spy.”
The Sixth Dalai Lama had a complicated relationship with Lhasa, according to the definitive biography of him, “Secret Treasures and Hidden Lives,” by Michael Aris, a Tibet scholar at Oxford University. Aris, who died in 1999, was the husband of Daw Aung Sang Suu Kyi, the opposition leader in Myanmar.
“It is difficult to think of a more enigmatic or elusive figure in Tibetan and Himalayan history,” Aris wrote.
The Sixth Dalai Lama’s path to the throne in Lhasa was far from linear. His predecessor was the first leader to unify all of Tibet into a vast state since the collapse of the early Tibetan empire in the ninth century. The Fifth Dalai Lama died in 1682, and his reincarnation was identified here the next year.
But for various reasons, the Fifth Dalai Lama’s death was kept a secret for 15 years by Sangye Gyamtso, the chief regent. A monk who resembled the Dalai Lama even lived in the lama’s apartments and impersonated him when Mongolian leaders came to visit, wearing an eyeshade of horsehair to mask his appearance, Aris wrote.
The Sixth Dalai Lama, once he was identified by a search committee, was taken with his family across the Himalayas to a remote town called Tsona, where they lived under a form of house arrest for the next 12 years. That was to help maintain the veil of secrecy surrounding the death of his predecessor. The boy studied Buddhist texts in strict isolation; even visits from his own relatives within the compound were carefully controlled.
When he was finally enthroned in 1697, at age 14, he was thrust into the greatest spotlight in all of Tibet, something for which his reclusive childhood had left him ill prepared.
He rejected all the trappings of his title. That meant renouncing his vows, wearing jewelry and growing his hair out.
Gray Tuttle, a professor of modern Tibetan studies at Columbia University in New York, said in an interview that the Sixth Dalai Lama, if he had focused on ruling the land, could have consolidated the gains made by his predecessor and transformed Tibet into a strong state with the ability to resist Chinese encroachment.
“This is where the Sixth Dalai Lama really could have played an important role, but because of his lack of training, lack of being raised as a Dalai Lama, he went off and did these other activities,” Tuttle said. “But the Tibetans loved him for that, loved his writings.”
Even today, and even in the West, his poetry resonates. Last year, The Harvard Advocate, a literary magazine, published a selection of his work, as translated by Nathan Hill and Toby Fee. The first poem is perhaps his best known:
From top the eastward peak;
arose the clear white moon:
her immaculate face
turned and turned in my mind