The Stamps and Postal History of Tibet

Peter Dorman
Peter Dorman

Located in Central Asia, Tibet is a vast mountainous country of nearly 500,000 square miles. To the south lie Myanmar, India, Bhutan, Sikkim, and Nepal; to the west lie Jammu and Kashmir, to the north-west Turkestan, and the north-east and east China.

In the north of the country lie the Chang Thang ranges, a vast area of high mountains and treeless grassy tracts sparsely inhabited by nomadic Tibetans with their herds of sheep and yaks. The south and east are more fertile, and barley is grown on the farms.

Tibetans are a Turko-Mongolian people. The population in 1950 was between three and six million.

The early history of Tibet is one of warring tribes. The capital, Lhasa, was established in 640 AD, and Buddhism was introduced by the King, Srong-sten Gampo. In 1644 the Mongols, under Kushri Khan, invaded and established the Dalai Lama of the Yellow Hat Gelug sect as the supreme temporal and religious leader. The current Dalai Lama is the fourteenth reincarnation.

In the early twentieth century Tibet became involved in the Great Game. Fearing Russian involvement and annoyed at Tibetan border incursions into British India and Nepal, the British organised a punitive expedition led by Colonel Francis Younghusband. The Dalai Lama, the thirteenth, fled to China. A treaty was signed on 7th September 1904 establishing British trading posts at Gyantse and Yatung in the south and Gartok in the far west. The Dalai Lama eventually returned to Lhasa. In 1910 the Chinese established a postal service with overprinted Chinese stamps, and the Dalai Lama fled to India. After the revolution in China the Chinese garrison in Lhasa mutinied. They were captured by the Tibetan army and expelled into India.

The thirteenth Dalai Lama returned once more to Lhasa and established a Tibetan postal system with locally produced Tibetan stamps. He died in December 1933, and in 1935 the fourteenth and current reincarnation of the Dalai Lama was found.

On 6th October 1950 the Communist government of China invaded with an army of over forty thousand men. The Tibetan government continued to operate but became under increasing pressure from the Chinese occupying forces. On 10th March 1959 the Tibetan uprising in Lhasa was put down after three days of fighting. The Tibetan government collapsed and was replaced by harsh Chinese rule from Beijing. Tibetan guerrilla fighters, supported by the USA, waged an effective but ultimately futile war against the Chinese occupiers until 1974.

Introduction to Tibetan stamps, Postal markings, and Postal History

The independent government of Tibet issued only three sets of definitive postage stamps. A set of five in December 1912, a set of two in 1914, and the last set, of five in May 1933. Only twelve stamps in all so that sounds pretty simple, but it isn't. Each stamp or cliché in the sheet was hand carved, so with sheets of the first and third sets comprising twelve stamps and the second set six stamps we actually have thirty stamps. Then there are the numerous different printing inks or paint resulting in over 200 clearly differentiated shades bumping the total up to over two thousand. The third set was carved in individual blocks which were bound into a printing block of twelve. The binding frequently broke giving rise to numerous settings and subsettings as the cliché were re-bound in a different order and at slightly different angles to one another, so each pair or multiple has to be carefully checked to determine the setting. Also, a sixth stamp was prepared in 1912 but not issued until 1950. Then there are five Wireless Telegraph stamps in individually carved sheets of four, in various shades and inks. Also six so-called Official stamps appeared in 1950 in sheets of eight or twelve. Whatever they are they are not Official and may have been devised by Nepalese merchants. And a strange three trangka stamp about which very little in known.

Preceding all this, between 1910 and 1918, Chinese stamps were used in Tibet. These were overprinted in 1910 with eleven different values.

An overview of the post offices, postmarks, and registration marks: In 1912 and shortly after the Tibetan Government opened fourteen, or possibly sixteen, post offices. Twenty-two postmarks are known, some in English and Tibetan and some in Tibetan only. There may be a few more. The postmarks provide for the postmaster to add in manually the day and the month, and sometimes the hour. Unsurprisingly this was seldom done. The year was never entered. Nine different Registration marks are known, and often this was drawn by hand. Thirteen new postmarks, again in Tibetan and English or Tibetan only, are known from 1933, and eight new Registration marks.

Also operating from 1904 to 1955 were four British, from 1947 Indian, post offices, with their own postmarks on Indian stamps and registration marks. Helpfully each postmark shows the full Day, Month, and Year.

The Younghusband Commission and Military Mission, 1903-4, used over forty postmarks on Indian stamps, nine registration marks, and eight other handstamps.

Tibet was never a member of the UPU, so all letters to or from India and Nepal also bear the stamps of that country.

Postal History 1671-1903

A rare letter from the second Panchen Lama dated 1671 was offered by Geoffrey Flack in his sales catalogue of May 2002. It relates to raising money for the renovation and building of statues. This edict was sent by Panchen Lobsang Yishi from the Tashi Lhumpo Palace in Shigatse.

Other recorded items are the Great Seal Of Tibet, or The Golden King; the Great Silver Seal of the Tibetan Regents, inscribed in Tibetan, Manchu, and Mongolian; a letter sent from the Chinese governor in Lhasa to the King of Nepal in late 1809; and letters from the twelfth and thirteen Dalai Lamas, the Panchen Lama and a Nepalese trader, dating from 1863.

The British Sikkim-Tibet Campaign 1888-9 is marked by correspondence from Captain Arthur Sandbach of the Royal Engineers, Bengal Sappers and Miners. A cover sent from Yantong, in Sikkim but close to the Tibetan border, dated 5th March 1861 is from this Sikkim Expedition and marks the start of British involvement with Tibet.

The failure of the Tibetan government to observe the terms of the Anglo-Chinese Trade Treaty of 1890 led to the British government setting up the Tibetan Border Commission in 1903. Sir Francis Younghusband was appointed leader of the expedition which advanced to Khamba-Jong in Tibet. Lieutenant F. M. Bailey was there with the job of training the 32nd Sikh Pioneers to be Mounted Infantry. Sir Francis withdrew to India, on December 11th 1903. Eight postmarks were used during this period between 9th July 1903 and 6th December 1903.

Francis Younghusband
Francis Younghusband

Younghusband Expedition, 1903-4

The British, under Lord Curzon, Viceroy of India, now decided to get serious. This Expedition commenced on December 12th 1903. It comprised 624 British Officers and NCOs, and many Indian troops, totalling 4,071. The expedition holed up in Tuna from 8th January until 29th March 1904 enduring extremely cold and wintery conditions. 8th April saw a fight at Guru, where 700 Tibetan soldiers were killed. The town of Gyantse was occupied on the 10th April and the expedition experienced random shelling from the dzong (fortress) above. This fortress was captured on 10th July and the Tsangpo River, close to Lhasa, reached on the 24th. Some 2,700 Tibetan soldiers had lost their lives. A Treaty between the British and Tibetan Governments was signed on September 7th 1904 and the expedition left Lhasa on September 23rd, arriving back in India on October 25th.

Thirty-two postal markings from Base Office, Temporary Post Offices, Field Post Offices, and Lhasa are known.

First Chinese Invasion 1909-1918

During 1909 the Chinese defeated the Tibetan army at Chamdo and occupied Tibet. The Dalai Lama, who had only returned from China in December 1909, now fled to India. The Chinese occupied Lhasa in February 1910, and proceeded to set up six post offices, in Lhasa, Gyantse, Shigatse, Yatung, Pharijong, and Chamdo. At first current Chinese stamps were used, the Imperial issue 1902-10. After a few months the Chinese found they were losing money, and therefore surcharged the stamps with new values in Indian pies, annas and rupees in three languages, Chinese, English, and Tibetan. The stamps surcharged are:

After the Chinese revolution broke out in October 1911 the Chinese forces and officials were thrown out by the Tibetans, most making their way to India from where they were repatriated. The Chinese post offices in Lhasa, Gyantse and Shigatse closed by December 1911, with Pharijong and Yatung closing in the early part of 1912. Chamdo, in the east, which had only opened in July 1911, continued to function until 1918 when Tibetan authority was restored.

(Part 2 will appear in the next newsletter)

Peter Dorman