I had the honor of meeting and interviewing Gyaltsen Phensok, who was formerly a cook for His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama. He now resides in Denver in the home of his nephew and grandnephew. Gyaltsen generously agreed to tell me his story of working for the Dalai Lama as one his cooks in the Norbulingka Palace in Lhasa before, during and after the Maoist invasion of Tibet in 1959. As Gyaltsen does not speak English, his nephew and grandnephew kindly served as translators.
Gyaltsen Phensok was born in Lhasa, Tibet in 1933 to an aristocratic family. He became a monk at the age of eight and a student of the 14th Dalai Lama. His grandfather had worked in the kitchen of His Holiness, the Dalai Lama, so naturally Gyaltsen aspired to follow in his grandfather’s footsteps. In those days, most of the people who worked in the kitchens of His Holiness were monastics like Gyaltsen.
Q: How did you come to work in the kitchen of His Holiness, the 14th Dalai Lama?
Gyaltsen: In 1958, at the age of 24 years, there were nine or 10 candidates applying for the kitchen position. Generally, the cooks for His Holiness were selected from aristocratic families. In those days, all candidates had a type of background check before they were considered for such a position.
As candidates, we all went to the Norbulingka Palace, the summer palace of the Dalai Lama that is situated close to the Potala Palace. We were lined up in order of our eligibility or accomplishments. I was the fourth one in line. We stood in front of one of the windows at the palace from where the Dalai Lama could see us. There was no verbal interview as our backgrounds had already been checked, but His Holiness looked us over carefully through his window and then pointed to the candidates of his choice. So that is how I was chosen. The third person in line was also chosen to share this position with me.
Q: Did you have a formal title as cook?
Gyaltsen: I had a variety of titles to describe my position. For instance, Tsidun means a monastic official, who is staff in the Tibetan government. My title was also Tsutop, which is Tibetan for kitchen, but as a worker in the kitchen, one would say Tsutopa. Then Shema, was specific to the worker who handled dairy products, which was part of my duties. So, I was also called Tsutopa (kitchen staff), but the type of work I did was Shema.
Q: Can you describe what your duties were?
Gyaltsen: Well, there were two people who performed my job, and we would alternate days between working in the Norbulingka Palace and in the Dzomora. The Dzomora was the building complex where the female yaks or Dzo are kept, as well as the living quarters of those who worked there.
I would supervise the workers who would do the milking of the Dzo, as well as those who made the yoghurt. These products were only for the His Holiness and officials in the Palace. We would ensure the highest quality of the Dzo; the milk; cream; and the yoghurt. On alternate days I would work at the Palace, where my primary job was to make the tea and make sure it would be served each morning for His Holiness and all the officials at the Palace.
Tea was served between 9am through 11am each day. I would also stay the remainder of the day and help in the kitchen, sometimes providing ceremonial rice (sweetened white rice with butter). The executive chef had the primary responsibility of preparing the meals for His Holiness.
Q: What kind of foods would His Holiness eat?
Gyaltsen: In the morning His Holiness would have tea, then tsampa (roasted barley flour) with dried cheese and butter. Sometimes he would have tea and bread. There were different types of bread in Tibet, one was a flatbread called kokun, and another was amdo bhaley, which is Amdo style baked bread. The palace had greenhouses that provided fresh vegetables year round, and His Holiness would be served a variety of these as side dishes. Some of these vegetables included cauliflower, bitter melon, spinach, tomatoes, daikon and more.
Q: Would His Holiness eat momos or Thukpa?
Gyaltsen: The word Thukpa (noodle soup) is the term used by the general population, but different words were used when directed towards aristocrats. There is an honorific terminology of how you spoke to those of higher class. The terminology was not only used when referring to food, but in all ways when conferring respect upon those aristocrats.
So, instead of the word thukpa, one would use the word shey-thuk. Momo (a meat filled dumpling), is again the common term, and sheymo is the honorific. His Holiness would really enjoy noodles, and there was a wide variety of styles. There would be thinner noodles called Gya-thuk, which is a Chinese-style noodle; Pi-shi, which is a meat filled wonton placed in a soup; and then-thuk which is a flat pulled noodle. There was also shabhaley, which is a savory turnover-like dough filled with meat, which is generally pan-fried.
Q: Since Tibetan Buddhists do not kill animals, who were the butchers in Tibet?
Gyaltsen: Generally the butchers in Lhasa were Muslims. That is primarily where you would get your meat. The Muslim butcher for His Holiness was a higher level priest within the community, who had the authority that allowed him to kill and butcher the animals.
Q: Since there was political intrigue at that time in Tibet, did the Palace have to worry about people poisoning His Holiness?
Gyaltsen: There was definitely a concern in Tibet that these things could happen, but since those that worked in the palace kitchen had extensive background checks, they never had to worry about the cooks. In terms of His Holiness, there were a couple of steps in between preparation and service, where attendant tasters would sample the food before it would be served. The food would not go directly from myself to His Holiness. The tasters would check for quality and for safety. For instance, once the yoghurt I served was a little sour, the taster relayed that information to me, and I put a little sugar in the yoghurt. So quality control was also a concern of the tasters.
Q: Can you tell me your experience when the Chinese invaded Lhasa in 1959?
Gyaltsen: The uprising started on the first day of the new month of the year of 1959. The night before that, one of the dzomas had a calf, and the milk from this dzo was considered very high quality and precious. It was my turn to bring the milk to the palace, so I went there that morning and found the environment in chaos because the Chinese were now within the city of Lhasa. The uprisings had started and the riots had begun. The higher level ministers were having a meeting and it was my responsibility to serve the tea as well as the milk from the birth of the calf. In the early afternoon I was looking out one of the windows at the Norbulingka Palace and saw one of the ministers being killed by the Tibetans, who believed him to be a spy for the Chinese. The minister’s dead body was being dragged down by the courtyard.
Q: Can you describe the Dalai Lama’s departure?
Gyaltsen: His Holiness left Lhasa on the eighth day of that month and we helped to prepare his small envoy. On the second day of the uprisings, a minister named Phala made me and others swear an oath of secrecy. That is when we became aware that His Holiness was planning on leaving. I and others pretended outwardly that everything was routine, or normal. I continued my regular duties during those days leading up to his departure, as well as after he and his envoy left. When I went to the palace, I would see the preparations being made for his departure. I helped pack utensils, and other items that was needed for his trip.
The night that His Holiness was to depart, it was my turn to serve the yoghurt. Generally it would be served in his room upstairs, but because His Holiness was exiting by the kitchen, the yoghurt was left for him there. We did not know the exact time of his departure. The last time I saw His Holiness before he left was on the seventh night, the night before he fled. I was doing my regular duties of preparing the yoghurt and taking it upstairs to the Dalai Lama. As I was walking upstairs I looked out onto the veranda and saw His Holiness seated there, gazing outwards. I thought this may be the last time I would see him, so as I was walking there, I said a silent prayer or monlam for His Holiness’ long life, and a wish to see him again.
We continued our regular routines for three days after the Dalai Lama’s departure, keeping the appearance that His Holiness was still at the Palace.
Q: What did you do after those three days?
Gyaltsen: I and others had thought about escaping as well. We started packing and planning our escape. A group of monks and I tried to leave, but soon realized it was futile as we were boxed in by the Chinese and they were also bombing the city. We had no idea of how to get safely out of the city in these circumstances, let alone escape to India. Sometime during this chaos it happened to be my working partners turn to serve at the palace, as we were still keeping up the appearance that His Holiness was present. That day my partner went up towards the palace and was captured by the Chinese and imprisoned. It was sheer luck that I was not on palace duty that day.
Q: What happened after the uprising and the Chinese takeover of Lhasa?
Gyaltsen: I was actually kept at the Norbulingka Palace for about five years, until 1964. I and others were confined by the Chinese to that area, working on maintenance, cleaning up debris, assuming caretaker duties. Sometimes the Chinese military would come to the Palace with the Panchen Lama, and I was chosen to serve tea because of my experience.
The military would create this false appearance during these visits, and have the Dalai Lama’s golden throne set up for display. This was not the norm when His Holiness was present there. The military then toured the palace, as if they were tourists. Up until 1964 the Chinese left His Holiness possessions intact, but after that they came in and ransacked the palace.
From that point on the staff were released from that area, but because I and others were from the higher nobility, the Chinese put us in labor camps. In the camps, one does not have any possessions and we were rationed very minimal food. We lived in the stables in Lhasa. Our movements were restricted and supervised. Every night the Chinese soldiers would torture some of those imprisoned in the camps, beating them, pulling their hair, and other harsh attacks. One Tibetan even tried to commit suicide. There was so much suffering!
Q: When did you leave Tibet?
Gyaltsen: In the late 1970s and early 1980s the Chinese government had relaxed their policies and allowed Tibetans to get visas to visit family members in India. There was a legal process in order to receive this visa. First you needed a letter of invitation from a family member in India, and then one had to secure a guarantor family member in Tibet. The idea was that this guarantor would ensure that one would return to Tibet after visiting family in India. If one did not return to Tibet, the guarantor relative would receive repercussions from the Chinese government. During this time period there were many people leaving with visas for India who did not return. In reality there were few repercussions for the guarantors. So, In 1985 I also left for India.
Q: When did you see His Holiness again?
Gyaltsen: In 1986 His Holiness gave the Kalachakra initiation in Bodhgaya and I attended this ceremony. At one point His Holiness gave a mass audience to thousands of Tibetans and while in a blessing line, His Holiness saw me right away and spoke to me. I was amazed that His Holiness still recognized me among thousands of Tibetan faces and after 25 years!
Q: Did you ever serve His Holiness again?
Gyaltsen: Yes, in 1986, an old friend of mine was working in the kitchen of His Holiness in Dharmsala, India and wrote to me about an opening, asking if I was interested. Of course, I said yes. This was not the same position that I had in Tibet. Here at Namgyal Monastery, the Dalai Lama’s monastery in Dharmsala, my position in the kitchen was to cook lunch and dinner for the bodyguards and staff who worked at the monastery. Namgyal Monastery, like Norbulingka, had special cows that were kept for His Holiness’ milk and yoghurt, but the milking was now done by retired Tibetan soldiers.
Q: Were you still a monk?
Gyaltsen: No, after 1964 when I was discharged from service at the Norbulingka palace and sent to the Labor camp, I disrobed. At Namgyal Monastery, the cooks no longer had to be monastics, but many of those cooks had a connection to His Holiness that went back to his kitchen in Tibet.
Gyaltsen, along with two of his relatives, left India for the United States in 1996. He is now retired and lives with his family in the Denver area. He still enjoys cooking Tibetan dishes, like momos and shey-thuk, as well as Tibetan-style curry and barley flour with Tibetan tea. When asked about his hopes and dreams for Tibet, Gyaltsen stated that he would like the Chinese to ease the prosecutions of Tibetans and respect their religious and human rights. He sees the terrible suffering of his people and prays for their well-being and happiness. He also prays that the global Tibetan community be united, peaceful, and prosperous and help those left behind in Tibet.
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Editor: Travis May
Photo:Provided by author