Tibetans were once fabled warriors. Their empire, at the summit of its power in the eighth century, extended to northern India, western China and central Asia. The Arabs, making inroads into central Asia, were in awe of them. And China, according to an inscription commissioned to memorialise Tibet’s conquest of the Tang Chinese capital of Changan in 763, ‘shivered with fear’ at their mention. But the Tibet annexed by Mao Zedong in the 20th century bore no trace of its imperial past.
When the People’s Liberation Army struck in 1950, Tibet, having metamorphosed over a millennium into a reclusive hagiarchy, possessed neither the vocabulary to parley with the communists nor the strength to resist them. Its response to this worldly threat was to retreat into ritual.