Under the Dalai Lamas’ government of Tibet (1642-1959) the avowed aim of politics was to serve religion. But sometimes it was religion that served politics. Based on a voluminous Tibetan-language literature (much of it ritual texts), this talk will look at the manner in which Guandi, the Chinese god of war, was incorporated into the pantheon of Tibetan Buddhist protectors during the 18th and 19th century. It will show how this development in the religious/literary sphere, which was led by (mostly Mongolian) Geluk lamas with links to the imperial court, closely mirrored the various stages in the establishment and consolidation of a Qing Protectorate in Tibet and the presence of Chinese military garrisons there. The talk will also try to show that as Qing military power weakened during the second half of the 19th century, the identity of Guandi and the temples devoted to him in Inner Asia, became increasingly overgrown and obscured by his superscription as a completely different figure, namely Gesar Gyalpo/ Geser Khan, the eponymous hero of Tibetan and Mongolian epic traditions. By the time of Tibet’s independence (1913-1951), the identity of Guandi and the temples originally devoted to him in Tibet, had been all but forgotten.
The Bodyguard regiment (Tib. Ka dang sku srung dmag sgar) was created by the 13th Dalai lama around 1913-1914 and dissolved, with the rest of the remaining Tibetan troops, in 1959 after the 14th Dalai Lama’s flight into exile. When started, it was the first regiment (regiments were named in alphabetical order, hence “Ka”) in the newly organised and numerically increased army. It complemented the former Ganden Phodrang force of 3000 Tibetan soldiers, called “rgya sbyong” (lit. “trained by the Chinese”) at least since the end of the 18th century.
This paper will present a first attempt at a historical study of the Bodyguard regiment, based on an ensemble of Tibetan oral and written autobiographical accounts (notably some thirty-five interviews with Tibetan soldiers who served before 1959 in the Bodyguard regiment, and five book-length and article-length accounts of the Tibetan Bodyguard regiment’s officers published in the Tibet Autonomous Region and in India), as well as on British archival sources. Beyond the study of its organisation, its social composition and development over its period of existence, the presentation will particularly underline how this regiment was conceived as a showcase of the project of military modernisation launched by the 13th Dalai lama, functioning as a “model regiment” for the other permanent Tibetan troops, while retaining certain specificities related to its primary – and highly prestigious – role as the personal bodyguard to the Ganden Phodrang government’s ruler.