Out of the window of the small plane in which Lobsang Sangay was flying toward the Northern Indian hill station of Dharamsala, the snow-capped peaks of the Himalayas loomed into view. None of the other passengers on the plane gave him a second glance. Little did they know that this man was about to step into the shoes of one of the most instantly recognizable figures on the planet.
On Aug. 8, this towering and engaging 43-year-old took over the temporal duties of His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, who stunned his devotees in March when he announced that he would be retiring as leader of the Tibetan government-in-exile, a role he has held for the past five decades.
The story of how this came about unfolded as our plane followed the line of the Himalayas north. Mr. Sangay spoke in painful detail of the events that forced his parents to trek across these mountains when resistance to the Chinese People's Liberation Army proved futile. For years before this, the PLA had been brutalizing Tibet, especially targeting monasteries and nunneries in an attempt to break the people's deep Buddhist faith and bring the strategically critical territory within the communist fold.
When he was a boy, Mr. Sangay recalls, his father spoke of a river close to his monastery in eastern Tibet running red with the blood of slaughtered monks. His father had been a Buddhist monk for more than 20 years, but in the face of such savagery he abandoned monastic orders. He briefly became a resistance fighter before joining the tens of thousands of Tibetans who fled across the Himalayas into Nepal, following their spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, into exile.
Mr. Sangay's father met and married his mother at a refugee camp in Darjeeling, West Bengal, after she had been abandoned as a teenager because she had broken a leg while fleeing across the Himalayas.
Lobsang Sangay doesn't know the exact day on which he was born. Nor did most of the children who turned up with him for their first day of school, clutching the hands of parents too traumatized to mark such things as birthdays.
When it came to entering his details in the school register, his parents nominated the day of his birth as March 10. So did the parents of a third of his classmates. To Tibetans, March 10 is known as National Uprising Day, marking the height of the 1959 armed rebellion against Chinese domination of their homeland.
“The story of my life as a refugee is all there in not even knowing my own birthday,” Mr. Sangay reflects with the air of a man well acquainted with hardship.
Despite such harsh origins, he managed to fight his way out of poverty through his studies. When he excelled at school, his parents sold one of the family's three cows to pay for his education. After a stint at university in New Delhi, he won a scholarship to Harvard Law School, remaining there as a senior research fellow for the past 15 years. Then his life took an extraordinary turn when the Dalai Lama made his surprise announcement on March 10 – Mr. Sangay's 43rd “birthday.”
Mr. Sangay was in Dharamsala at the time. For months, he had been campaigning for a post called Kalon Tripa, or Prime Minister, of Tibet's government-in-exile, a role that has traditionally been little more than administrative. Little had prepared Mr. Sangay for the Dalai Lama's retirement announcement. For centuries, successive Dalai Lamas have fulfilled the dual role of supreme spiritual guide and political figurehead.
But as the current Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, has slipped into old age, the 76-year-old has made it clear that he wants to end the “culture of dependency” that has grown around him. “As early as the 1960s, I have repeatedly stressed that Tibetans need a leader, elected freely by the Tibetan people, to whom I can devolve power. Now we have clearly reached the time to put this into effect,” he announced on March 10. In future, he declared, political leadership would rest with whoever is elected Kalon Tripa.
When he heard these words, Mr. Sangay says, he sank into “denial mode.”