The Fabulous Pandatsang Family Remembered

June 16, 2018 By Thubten Samphel*

Dr. Carole McGranahan of Colorado University, Boulder. Photo/Tenzin Dalha/TPI

Dr. Carole McGranahan of the University of Colorado, Boulder gave a fascinating talk on 15 June on the fabulous Pandatsang family of Tibet, focusing on the figure of Rabga Pandatsang who founded Tibet’s political party. Her jam-packed audience consisted of the researchers of the Tibet Policy Institute, other staff of the Central Tibetan Administration and members of Tibetan NGOs.

The talk organized by the Tibet Policy Institute was titled Tibet’s First Political Party: the Pandatsang Family and the Sources of Tibetan History. Dr. McGranahan said she spent 23 years of research on the topic which would be folded into a book in a couple of years.

The Pandatsangs of Markham, a trading family involved in the wool trade between Tibet and the outside world, operated their business on “a global scale.” According to Dr. McGranahan, the family had their trade agents in America, Britain, China and Kalimpong which was the main outlet for their wool business channeled through the port of Calcutta. For the Tibetan workforce who operated within the Pandatsang family,”the earth was Pandatsang, the sky was Pandatsang,” a colourful indication of the breadth and scale of the Pandatsang’s global trading reach.

Of the Pandatsang brothers, one of them, Rabga, grew out of his family business into an intellectual and political figure. From his perch in Kalimpong, famous for its mule train from Tibet, Rabga witnessed the tremendous changes in the world: the II World War and the subsequent de-colonization. For Rabga, Tibet could save itself from being overrun by others by changing and reforming its political system. He drew his inspiration from the thoughts of Indian leaders like Subhas Chandra Bose and Sun Yat-sen, who founded the Republic of China. Rabga had Sun Yat-sen’s Three Principles of the People translated into Tibetan. Rabga believed the three principles of the people, of nationalism, democracy and livelihood and his Tibetan translation were meant for “all people under foreign domination.” According to Dr. McGranahan, Rabga was deeply “anti-colonialist and Tibetan nationalist.”

Rabga Pandatsang founded the Tibet Improvement Party (TIP) in 1939 in Kalimpong but it became active only in 1944. The aim of TIP, according to Dr. McGranahan, was the unification of Tibet, introduction of secular education, construction of motorable roads and hospitals and clinics.

Before the fall of Chamdo in 1950, Rabga wrote a letter to Robert Ford, the British radio operator in Kham. In the letter, Rabga lamented that “the nation is lost. It will be many years before we rise again.”

Rabga Pandatsang died in 1975 at the age of 74 in Kalimpong.

Dr. McGranahan’s talk was followed by a stimulating question and answer session. Dr. McGranahan is a cultural anthropologist and specialist on Tibet. She is the author of Arrested Histories: Tibet, the CIA and Memories of a Forgotten War.

A rapt audience for Dr. McGranahan’s talk. Photo /Tenzin Dalha/TPI


*Thubten Samphel is the director of the Tibet Policy Institute, a research centre of the Central Tibetan Administration


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