There's little in this room other than a white clad nurse and the overwhelming stench of phenol and Abott Gentsiou sitting mindfully in the corner, his hands folded serenely over his lap. The familiar Tibetan colours of maroon and gold swath his ageing form. He is concerned for his charge but also keen to remove him from such a public place back to the relative confinement and safety of the monastery. Knowing that he’s resting comfortably allows the sage to drowse.
The young man they watch over has never been in a hospital before. Then he’s never sustained such injuries before. As the blur of the room slowly comes into focus, he knows where he is. He’s well read, well educated even if his isolation has been enforced. Rarely does he venture beyond sacred walls and he’s going to be in huge trouble for having done it this time without the supervision of his Abbot and the protection of his entourage. Not to mention the wrath of the authorities if they find out about his reckless adventure. He just wanted to ride a bicycle beyond the walls, explore the city, feel like a normal kid. But this youth is far from normal.
His head hurts. As he raises his hand to feel the bandage wrapped firmly around his forehead, the nurse can’t help but notice the old scars on his wrists.
“Where did you get those?”
She asks but does not see the monk behind her shaking his head and cannot hear his thoughts “Do not speak, say nothing.”
The graze on the youth’s buttocks makes him shift position onto his right side to avoid the sting, as he slowly remembers the driver flinging him over the front of his bicycle. He’s confused and his head is spinning as the mandatory questions begin.
"Can you see my fingers? How many am I holding up?”
“Two” the youth correctly proclaims.
“Now just watch my index finger as I move it from side to side. Follow with your eyes.
The boy complies and all seems well – his concussion is not too debilitating.
“Do you remember your name?"
The nurse tenderly places her index and third fingers on the inside of his wrist and marks his pulse with a tiny silver watch, pinned to her uniform.
"I am Gendun Choekyi Nyima."
The nurse's downcast expression immediately rises as she takes a closer look at the youth. He is the right age, he’s definitely not Han…but to confess such a thing after all this time? Perhaps the concussion was too much. Perhaps the boy speaks the truth.
"Really?” She glances sideways at the pensive Abbot, “Then I must be Charlie Chan. That’s quite a bump on the head you've had there young man. Better keep that one quiet. There are people who might not think it as reverent as I do!"
The Abbot raises his head. The youngster should know better. The look of calm concern gives way to fury as he rises from his meditations, his robes all a flutter in his lurch towards the youth’s hospital bed.
“Silence!” he commands the youth before turning his attentions to the nurse, “Thank you nurse, that will be all?”
And with the wave of a dismissive hand, she closes the door behind her, but not before she hears the severe reprimand of a young man by an older sage. A young man recovering from an accident he should never have had, in a place he should never have been. and uttering a name he should have long forgotten. The cat, it would seem, is out of the bag.
The words break a mother’s heart but she knows she must. She leads him by a tiny hand, climbing the steps of Jokhang Temple in Lhasa. They are in the company of four Abbots, all of whom have been tasked to find the 11th Panchen Lama. All of whom are convinced this child is their friend, their mentor incarnate and soon to be the second most powerful Buddhist leader in the world. All oracles have confirmed it, all prayers have been answered, all indications are positive. If he passes this last test, he will spend his days here soon enough.
“I will have to,” the woman continues, “You have a higher purpose now Choekyi, but you will always be in my heart.”
The little boy ceases climbing the stairs and makes his mother bend to hear his whisper as he cups his mouth and breaths into her ear, "I am the Panchen. I sit on a high throne."
“Indeed you do little one. Indeed you do.”
His mother strokes his hair and gently pinches a ruddy cheek. Strange words from a strange child with an old soul, ring true.
He’s led into a large antechamber, the chants of Abbots practising the Umdze is deep and guttural all made more mystical by spinning prayer wheels and the clouds of incense smoke lapping the ornate ceiling. Tender but strange hands pry him from his mother and bid him sit quietly on the floor.
“Where are you from my child?” One Abbot ventures.
“I come from Tashilhunpo.”
This in itself is significant. Most reincarnations of the Panchen Lama hail from that area. This one is particularly preferred candidate and even in the absence of His Holiness, the test must continue. Chardel Rinpoche, the most trusted of the Dalai’s minions in Tibet begins his examination.
“Roll up your sleeves child,” Rinpoche asks.
There on the wrists of a six year old, are the rope burns once inflicted on his predecessor. The scars of torture where there should be none.
“How long have you had these marks?
“I died with them. I was reborn with them.”
A glance towards the child’s mother verifies his claim.
“It’s true sir. He was born with the scars of Lobsang Gyaltsen. They have grown with him these past six years.”
Rituals have been held, research undertaken, ministry has been conferred. The Dalai Lama has been forwarded a photograph of the flush faced boy in an orange anorak and a blue shirt. All portends are favourable. There is but one more test.
“Behind this,” Rinpoche gestures to an ornate silk screen, “there are several objects. Precious things that belonged to the 10th Panchen Lama, Choekyi Gyaltsen. Only he would recognise them and their significance. Can you tell me what they are?”
The child puts a hand to his chin and concentrates. He shows no excitement or fear and accurately describes each sacred object in astounding detail, complete with anecdotal stories of their use. From the intricately carved singing bowl, the Kapala worn by the Panchen himself and to the tiny prayer wheel with an ivory handle now worn thin by constant use.
On May 14th, 1995, His Holiness himself announces Gendun Choekyi Nyima as his 11th Penchan Lama. Shortly after being named, he was taken into Chinese custody and a new Penchan chosen by ballot from a golden urn.
The question is prompted by the sound of oncoming vehicles and the frantic protection of a six year old boy by the Abbot Chadrel Rinpoche. The Abbot has been sent to retrieve the child for his final initiation as Pachem Lama. Chadrel has been protector of the golden child whose parents are still gripped with mixed emotions of pride and awe, and a sadness at the soon-to-be separation from their only son as he hones his priestly craft.
Since the announcement was made, there have been ructions among the Chinese. There’s a great uneasiness with the Dalai’s choice. He has pervasive influence, even from Dharamsala. An influence they are keen to quash. This operation however, is to be swift and secret.
A mother swathes herself in a wrap and shows concern upon her face at the noise of approaching vehicles. Cars in this pastoral community are rare but tonight they raise dust as they pull to a halt outside the young Doctor's home.
“I don’t know,” the child’s protector admits. “There are headlights.”
The Abbot peers tentatively through dusty glass.
Before the family’s fully roused, the door is forced open and grey suited militia spill like ants, agitated from their nest, into the house.
“The boy!” One barks as the drones execute their orders.
The commander’s eyes are unflinching. His minions heavily armed and stiff. Mother, father, child and protector are bundled quickly, quietly into waiting jeeps. The child wiping sleep from his eyes, confused but calm, cheeks flushed with the embrace of cold.
“Where are you taking us?”
His mother’s anxiety beginning to show. His father’s anger being suppressed by the muzzle of a gun.
“They are taking us where we can do least harm,” says the child. “They are hiding our people from the truth.”
Within hours, they are bundled on a clandestine flight and ferried to the capital. Parents separated from a son for less than altruistic reasons, and a small boy is imprisoned beyond the walls of YongHeGong monastery in Beijing
Officially the world is told:
"Gedhun Choekyi Nyima is a perfectly ordinary Tibetan boy, in an excellent state of health, leading a normal, happy life and receiving a good education and cultural upbringing. He is currently in upper secondary school, he measures 165 cm in height and is easy-going by nature. He studies hard and his school results are very good. He likes Chinese traditional culture and has recently taken up calligraphy. His parents are both State employees, and his brothers and sisters are either already working or at university. The allegation that he disappeared together with his parents and that his whereabouts remain unknown is simply not true."
“Your holiness, your holiness,”
The saffron and maroon robed man pulls back and sits squat on bruised knees. The familiar smile indicates that he is not perturbed by the interruption to his matins.
“Calm yourself Dev. What makes you disturb my prayer.”
The Indian is beside himself with excitement. His skin made all the darker by a beaming smile.
“It’s him…they've found him.”
The Lama rises with grace. He’s old, tired, exiled but the quiet tolerance of an excited servant is evident.
“The 11th… we've found him!”
The Indian is verily skipping with excitement on the spot, as his master rises and adjusts the shoulder of his robe.
"This is very odd. Most unusual. Most unusual.”
The Indian can hardly contain his excitement.
“Not the Chinese drawn Panchen. The real one your Holiness. The lost, the forgotten, the ….”
The calm demeanour of his Holiness is now turning to quizzical as he cocks his head and lays a calming hand on the Indian’s shoulder, steadying his impulsive behaviour. He’s never seen Dev behave this way. Never.
He walks over to an intricately carved bureau and retrieves the photograph which he’d considered so many years ago. A six year- old boy stares, rosy cheeks and wearing an orange zipped jacket over a blue shirt. His lips slightly parted; his large eyes looking startled into the camera. Gendun Choekyi Nyima, the son of a doctor, born in Nagchu, the one he and his oracle had agreed was the 11th incarnation of the Panchen Lama. The man who would find his own incarnation when the time came.
An overheard conversation in a tiny hospital room, and a sympathetic nurse has achieved what international diplomats could not…she found the 11th Panchen.
Exiled a world away, the discovery is a blessing and a conundrum, “What trouble have you brought me now?” he asks the photograph.