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."
"That day was the start of a real emotional roller coaster, many anxious moments and a lot of introspection," he says. "I realized, if what His Holiness was saying went through, it could be me stepping into his shoes."
Several weeks later, Mr. Sangay was elected as the next Kalon Tripa.
When I ask how he feels about taking over the temporal duties of a man regarded by his followers as a living god at a time when Tibet stands at such a crossroads, Mr. Sangay replies that it is his leh, or karmic destiny.
On the thorny question of his spiritual succession, the Dalai Lama is said to be still considering alternative scenarios. According to his nephew and official spokesman, Tenzin Takhla, his uncle will be convening the latest of several meetings of senior lamas to discuss this issue in Dharamsala in September.
Meanwhile, Tibet has been rocked by growing demonstrations against the discrimination suffered by the six million Tibetans living within China. Since the violent crackdown on protesters in Lhasa in 2008, human-rights groups report that there are now more Tibetan political prisoners in Chinese jails than at any other time in recent history. According to GuChuSum, an organization that helps former political prisoners who have escaped from Tibet, there were at least 824 named political prisoners in detention in March, 2011. The whereabouts of many more is unknown.
In the face of this unrest and the increasing tensions among those in the 145,000-strong exile community, Mr. Sangay was seen as a much-needed shot in the arm for the exile leadership. At Harvard, he specialized in international human-rights law and much of his energy has been devoted to bringing Tibetan and Chinese academics together.
Despite his self-effacing manner, those who know Mr. Sangay describe him as "extremely ambitious," an unusual trait in Tibetan culture, which values humility as one of the highest virtues. He is married to a descendent of one of the founding kings of Tibet, who was also born in exile, and they have a three-year-old daughter.
Mr. Sangay tells of how hard it was, given his impoverished background, to win the approval of his wife's parents for her hand in marriage. "I told my wife's father, 'I am nothing now and maybe I don't deserve your daughter. But one day I'll show you I will be someone.' Fortunately he took me at my word," he says, a broad smile spreading across his handsome features.
As our plane touches down, Mr. Sangay slips on a pair of aviator sunglasses and emerges onto the tarmac, swinging his finely cut suit jacket over his towering, athletic frame – he has become an avid fan of American baseball. A starker contrast to the balding, berobed holy man whose political role he has assumed would be hard to imagine.
To millions of Buddhists around the world, the Dalai Lama is the 14th reincarnation of the supreme Buddha of Compassion. Globally, he is regarded as an icon for peace; in 1989, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his opposition to violence in his quest for Tibetan self-rule. These are large shoes to fill.
Until now, the moral weight the Dalai Lama has carried has kept the situation from becoming more volatile. One sign of the concern many felt at the prospect of this restraining influence diminishing were the pleas, culminating in a formal petition by the government-in-exile, that he change his mind about ceding his temporal power. When the Dalai Lama refused, he was asked to consider continuing as a "ceremonial head of state" with a constitutional role similar to that of the British monarchy. "If you give me a queen, maybe I will reconsider," the aging monk quipped before declining the request.
While his supporters lauded the Dalai Lama's decision to democratize his people's leadership, at a time when autocrats around the world are brutally clinging onto power, a few outspoken critics believe now is not the time for him to go. "I see nothing wonderful in a shepherd abandoning his flock midway through the desert," says Llasang Tsering, a former president of the Tibetan Youth Congress, who refers to himself as "the resident devil" of Dharamsala because he dares to voice a different view from the Dalai Lama's.
Mr. Tsering believes that it is time for Tibetans to admit that the Dalai Lama's Middle Way has not worked and change to more confrontational tactics. "China has no need to negotiate with a bunch of poor refugees," he argues. "People are dying for true freedom in Tibet and they need international support. They need it now before it is too late. Tibet is not just about the fate of six million people, it is about control of the roof of the world, an area two-thirds the size of Europe with vast mineral reserves, where all the major rivers of Asia have their source and where China has untold numbers of strategic missile bases."
But given China's economic clout and the fact that Beijing threatens ill-defined consequences for any country that agrees to formal contact with the Dalai Lama, a sudden wave of official support for Tibet by the international community seems a forlorn hope. Despite being feted as a man of peace, not least by adoring Hollywood stars, most of the Dalai Lama's contact with foreign leaders is in an informal capacity as a religious figurehead. This spiritual back door will not be open to Mr. Sangay.
In addition to battling international indifference, Mr. Sangay will also have to contend with increasing tensions between older and younger Tibetans.
Growing numbers of the younger generation – increasingly frustrated, tech-savvy and radical – now support full independence. "Tibetan youngsters are increasingly educated and aware of their rights. They are fed up of Tibetans being depicted as some kind of exotic tribe," says Tenzin Tsundue, a Tibetan writer and freedom activist.
Still, Mr. Sangay insists he will stick to pacifist principles in tackling the leadership challenge he now faces. "Look what Gandhi achieved with his non-violent movement. I do believe eventually Tibet can succeed too. If it does, this will be the most beautiful story of the 21st century," he says, throwing his arms in the air as if in supplication.
Christine Toomey is a freelance writer based in London.