Tibetan aristocrat

Dewan Bahadur Palha se Sonam Wangyal more commonly known as Kusho Palhese (c.1873 - c.1936) was Bell’s most trusted and consulted advisor. We see glimpses of Palhese in Bell’s writings, both in the acknowledgements in his books and more clearly in Bell’s description of his relationship with Palhese in his, Portrait of a Dalai Lama, ‘My friend’s circle of acquaintances was enormous among high-born and low-born, monks and lay people. He was a shrewd judge of character…Again and again I was congratulated by Tibetans on the possession of this incomparable friend’ (Bell 1987: 25).

Palhese held a unique position as a British India employee and as a Tibetan aristocrat from the Palha family. The Palhas were one of the great aristocratic families of Tibet. They owned estates around the southern Tibetan city of Gyantse, had large properties in Lhasa and extended family members held critical monastic and lay positions across southern and central Tibet. Palhese is first noted in British Indian sources by Sarat Chandra Das, the pundit, who undertook undercover surveillance work in Tibet, visiting Lhasa in 1882. Palhese’s mother, unbeknownst to her that he was a spy, allowed Das to travel with her party (which included the nine-year old Palhese), to Lhasa and she later arranged an audience for Das with the young 13th Dalai Lama. Although Das left Lhasa undetected the subsequent publicity, back in British India, surrounding his secret visit angered the Tibetan government, particularly as there was a blanket ban on all foreign visitors to Tibet at that time. This left the Palha family in a very vulnerable position and many family members were severely punished by the Tibetan government with long, hard prison sentences.

It seems that Palhese began working for Bell sometime around 1903, at the time of Bell's land survey of Kalimpong and has also been described as working for several years as a clerical assistant at the Gangtok Residency, although Bell always describes him as a personal assistant. Bell described Palhese as, ‘a veritable encyclopedia of things Tibetan, high and low, especially on the secular side’ (Bell 1987: 25). In Bell’s Portrait of a Dalai Lama we find Palhese, amongst other things, advising Bell on the size of offering scarf or khata to send to the Dalai Lama, making offerings at Lhasa’s Jokhang on behalf of Bell, providing advice on Mount Everest and also explaining the concept of reincarnation.

Not only was Palhese an excellent cultural interpreter, but he also, probably around 1912-13, became a dealer in Tibetan material culture, exclusively supplying Bell with new objects for his collection from many of the Phala family homes in Gyantse and Lhasa.

He travelled to England in 1927 on a Tibetan passport (in IOC British Library MSS Eur F80/71) and spent what Bell, describes as a 'pleasant year together'. Palhese assisted Bell with his books, travelled to the highlands and lowlands of Scotland, visited London and made a trip to Windsor Castle (Palhese in his usual Tibetan clothes) that caused quite a stir amongst the other visitors. It seems he was often mistaken as being from China. His trip to England also corresponded with his possible attendance at the League of Nations conference and there is correspondence in the IOC at the British Library relating to this.

He met with and travelled with Bell when he returned to the Himalayas in 1933 - 34, and it was Palhese who recommended his Mongolian guide, a young man who would later be known as Geshe Wangyal, for when he travelled to Mongolia and Manchuria in 1934 - 35.

Although, we have no date of death, we know that Palhese had died by September 1936, as Bell receives a letter from Dr Graham (of Dr Graham homes, in Kalimpong), with sympathies, 'in the loss of such an admired and loyal friend' and in October 1937, Bell corresponds with Hugh Richardson to organise a bi-annual payment of Rs. 200/- for Palhese's very young son. Written by Emma Martin
  • Gender
  • Relationship
    described by, Previous owner
  • Nationality
  • Born
  • Place of birth
    Asia: Central Asia: Tibet [China]: Ü -Tsang: Gyantse
  • Died
  • Place of death
    Asia: Central Asia: Tibet [China]: Ü -Tsang
  • Cause of death
    Unknown or unrecorded
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