Legendary ‘bearded Khampa’ George Patterson dies

George Patterson

George Patterson (right) with Thubten Samdup (left), the Dalai Lama’s Northern Europe Representative, and Mary Beth Markey (middle), President of ICT.

, who earned legendary status as the ‘bearded Khampa’ for his support to Tibetan resistance fighters, and who became one of the first people to report the Chinese invasion of Tibet, died in Scotland yesterday (December 29). George Patterson, who received ICT’s Light of Truth award in March, 2011, was in his nineties.

George Patterson, a Scot from Falkirk, first travelled to Tibet as a Christian missionary in 1947. With the Tibetan border town of Kangting as a base he travelled extensively in East Tibet, living among the Khampas and learning the language while treating them medically. With the Chinese Communist invasion of Tibet imminent in 1950, and his medical supplies depleted, at the request of Khampa leaders he travelled across Tibet from east to west by a previously unexplored and treacherous route to alert the governments of India, Britain and USA regarding the expected Chinese invasion and to seek help for the Khampas in their resistance, arriving in India in March, 1950.

In a letter presented with the Light of Truth award, a simple butter-lamp symbolizing the light the recipient has shed on the cause of Tibet, the Dalai Lama’s Special Envoy Lodi Gyaltsen Gyari said: “It is my honor to convey to you in writing the decision of the Board of the International Campaign for Tibet to award you the Light of Truth, the highest recognition in the Tibet world of service to Tibet. The Board of Directors, chaired by Mr. Richard Gere, took the unanimous decision with great enthusiasm and, on their behalf, I offer you heartfelt congratulations. It gives my added pleasure as a Khampa to be the person to officially bring this news to you, Khampa Gyau [‘bearded Khampa’], the name by which His Holiness the Dalai Lama fondly and humorously called you.”

Opening his speech with some words in the Kham dialect, George Patterson said that he had never really expected to receive the Light of Truth award because he “had not thought he had done anything to deserve it”. In a moving statement about his life, surrounded by family and friends, Mr Patterson gave an account of his journey across Tibet into India to obtain medical supplies and alert the world to the imminent Chinese invasion of Tibet: “My decision [to do this] meant I would have to cross the worst terrain tin the world at the worst time of year – midwinter – and without a map, to get across a thousand miles across [high mountain ranges]. At that time of year there were Siberian winds and snow and in the intense cold during the night, you hear the rocks splitting as they changed from the daytime heat to the night-time cold. That has an effect on the person. I had to become used to sleeping with the horses or the yaks – I much preferred the horses.”

George Patterson documented in his speech the response from Western governments to the crisis in Tibet, which ranged from disbelief to an unwillingness to engage. Unable to return to Tibet because of the Chinese occupation he remained on the Indian-Tibetan border towns of Kalimpong and Darjeeling from 1950-61, actively studying the life and politics of the Himalayan and Central Asian peoples and remaining deeply committed to the plight of the Tibetan people. At one point when he was asked to help by the Khampas, he said: “I was George Patterson from a small village in Scotland, I had left school when I was just approaching 14, and now was being asked to negotiate between countries at the highest level.”

Mr Patterson, who authored more than seven books, traveled back into Tibet in the mid-1960s with a camera on a dangerous mission to document a raid on a Chinese military truck convoy by Tibetan guerillas. The resulting film, ‘Raid Into Tibet’, became the only available film of Tibetan resistance efforts in Tibet from the remote Mustang area from 1960 to 1974.

George Patterson’s late wife Dr Meg also became well-known for her ground-breaking work in Asia, and developed a new treatment for drug addiction (NeuroElectric Therapy, or NET) which is still used today.

 

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