Charles Alfred Bell: The Second British Political Officer of Sikkim

C A Bell -The second Political Officer of Sikkim

Charles Alfred Bell was born in Calcutta (now Kolkata) India, on 31 October 1870 - the son of Henry Bell of the Indian Civil Service (ICS). He was Educated at Winchester school and New College, Oxford. After accomplishing his studies, Charles also joined the ICS in 1891 and spent the next nine years in various posts in Bengal, Bihar and Orissa, before being transferred to Darjeeling in 1900. It was in Darjeeling; Bell came to be familiar with the Tibetans settled there and began to learn their language. His devotion towards the Tibetan language leads to the publication of his first book, A Manual of Colloquial Tibetan, a two-part grammar-phrase book and dictionary in 1905.
Gangtok British Residency picture taken by C A Bell

 Apart from a Tibetan scholar, Bell also had a passion of photography. During his stay in Tibet, he has taken many photographs related to the daily lives of the Tibetans, which are greatly helpful for the study of Tibetan culture and civilization. In 1904-5 he was put in charge of administration of the Chumbi Valley, which had been temporarily ceded by Tibet to Britain under the terms of the Younghusband Mission. It has to be mentioned here, the Chumbi valley was once a part of Sikkim which was later transferred to Tibet after the Anglo-Chinese convention.

After the retirement of Sir James Claude White, Charles Bell was appointed as the Political Officer of Sikkim in 1908. The most momentous event during Bell's tenure as Political Officer was meeting the Thirteenth Dalai Lama in 1910. Due to the political hostility between the Chinese and the Tibetans his Holiness the 13th Dalai Lama was forced to flee Tibet and he sought refuge in Sikkim. As Political Officer of Sikkim, Bell provided necessary assistance to his Holiness during his exile. The two formed an intimate and lasting friendship, which later proved objectionable to the British in their future negotiations and dealings with Tibet after the Dalai Lama's return to Lhasa in June 1912.
Bell continued as Political Officer for Sikkim, Bhutan and Tibet until 1918. During this time he continued his communications with the 13th Dalai Lama and advised him on the modernization policies he was developing for Tibet. Bell was widely acknowledged in British circles as the primary authority on Tibetan matters at this time.
Sky burial in Tibet Pic. C A Bell
After 1918 Bell took leave from the Civil Service and devoted himself to the study of Tibet, spending the next two years in Darjeeling. Although for many years he had an open invitation from the 13th Dalai Lama to visit Lhasa, the British Government did not allow him to do so. In 1920 Bell was finally given Government permission to visit the Tibetan capital as part of a diplomatic mission, arriving in Lhasa on 17 November. Bell's role was to advise the Tibetans on foreign policy. "The Dalai Lama showed his more than friendly intentions by receiving Sir Bell, at the very first interview, informally, sitting with him at a small table in his private apartment, with no witness present.
Nepalese in Lhasa Pic. Charles Bell 
Bell remained in Lhasa for the best part of a year. After his return, in 1921, he left the ICS and applied himself to writing about Tibet. In his retirement, Bell published several books on Tibetan culture and history - Tibet: Past and Present (1920), followed by The People of Tibet (1928), and The Religion of Tibet (1931). Bell also continued his personal correspondence with the Dalai Lama.
In 1934 Bell returned to Tibet once again and this time with his wife, Cashie. Unfortunately he was too late to meet his old friend again, for the 13 th Dalai Lama had passed away in December 1933. Bell continued his travels in Central Asia during the next few years visiting Mongolia, Manchuria and Siberia. Fittingly, Bell's final work was a result of the strong bond that he had formed with the 13 th Dalai Lama since their first meeting in 1910. The book, Portrait of the Dalai Lama, was completed only a few days before his death in Canada (where he had recently migrated) on 8 March 1945.
Picture of Rabden Lepcha who accompanied Bell during his visit to Lhasa 
Sir Charles Bell was probably the most influential British officer to serve in Tibet. He set the groundwork for Anglo-Tibetan relations, and his visit to Lhasa in1920 paved the way for subsequent British officials to travel to Tibet. Bell's strength lay in the way he was able to immerse himself in Tibetan culture and language, becoming, in his own words, "in a large measure Tibetanised". This earned him the respect and acceptance of the many Tibetans. As one Tibetan official "When a European is with us Tibetans I feel that he is a European and we are Tibetans; but when Lonchen Bell is with us, I feel that we are all Tibetans together".
The above article is compiled by Claire Freeman, Curatorial Assistant, Pitt Rivers Museum (Emphasis added) The photographs with this post bears copyright of Pitt Rivers Museum University of Oxford.