Mr, Chumphel, Dhekushoe — The Devil Gambler: A Story of Old Tibet


[Mod L. <Gr. nostos, a return + ALGIA] 1. a longing to go back to one’s home, home town, or homeland; homesickness 2. a longing for something far away or long ago or for former happy circumstances. (Webster’s New World Dictionary)

Societies usually evolve gradually, slowly responding to political, economic, and cultural influences. In the twentieth century, however, rapid technological progress has sometimes drastically speeded up this process. Thus in the increasingly urban and technological United States of the second half of this century, people have found themselves yearning for simpler times, or at least what they imagine as simpler times, in a country formerly of open spaces, exciting and adventurous. We North Americans have solidly enshrined our vanished past as the ‘Old West,’ America’s unique cocktail of history and myth. It’s been epitomized best, perhaps, in the words from the American country tune: “Don’t fence me in.”

This ‘golden age’ developed depth and color directly as nomadic Indians and hardy pioneers yielded to fast automobiles and paved interstates. I cannot speak with any certainty for the children of the 1980’s, but as a child of the 1950’s, I grew up with and thrived on images of the wild west.

So it was with much the same pleasure I’ve taken all my life in Hollywood Westerns, that I listened to Sonam Ngodup, a Tibetan refugee in northern India, tell me the story of his father, Dhekushoe, the famous (or according to some, infamous) ‘devil gambler’ of Tibet. As I listened to him, images flooded my mind of Doc Holiday, of Mississippi riverboat gamblers, of men and women who didn’t like rules and who didn’t like fences. It was easy to imagine John Ford making a movie about Sonam’s father, played by soft-hearted tough guy Robert Mitchum, or craggy Jack Palance, or Paladin Have Gun Will Travel.

When the Chinese invaded in 1950, Tibet was barely a part of the twentieth century at all. Having isolated herself for centuries, there weren’t even any motorized vehicles in the country, save a car or two that had been gifts to the 13th – Dalai Lama, playthings hidden away in the Potala, the royal palace. Tibet was a land in a time warp, pursuing its idiosyncratic Buddhist path. Tibet wasn’t so much hostile to the outside world, as it was indifferent to it.

Then in 1950, the Tibetan world, probably the most exotic and secretive society on earth, shattered. Chairman Mao’s newly victorious armies stormed across Tibet’s mountains, and by 1959 and the flight of the 14th Dalai Lama into India, the Chinese were relentlessly stamping out an ancient way of life. By the Cultural Revolution of the mid-sixties and early seventies, Tibet was a victim of full-scale genocide, its culture laid waste, and tens of thousands of monks and lay people systematically murdered or worked to death in labor camps.

Though the Chinese managed to keep their oppression secret for a long time, for those who wish to know of the horrors of the occupation, the pain and the suffering, there is now abundant documentation. The story that follows is only indirectly about Tibet today, or about the results of the Chinese conquest. This is rather a portrait of old Tibet, a small portrait of a vanished world. It is a piece of nostalgia.

Old Tibet is. surely gone forever, even should the Tibetans some day regain their independence. But, just as the yearning for independence lives on in the hearts of Tibetan refugees in exile in India and abroad throughout the world, so too does the memory of the life-style of old Tibet. As many refugees as there are, so are there that many stories that could be told – though as I found out, to many of these people their stories are still so horrifying and tragic, that silence is preferable to the trauma of remembering so much pain.

Of the various refugee communities in India, the cultural and political center is the tiny village of McLeod Ganj, perched above the Indian hill station of Dharamsala in the North Indian state of Himachal Pradesh. Here the Dalai Lama lives, presiding over the Tibetan government in exile. Here, as in the other Tibetan settlements, the exiles strive to keep alive their culture, their religion, and their struggle for political self- determination.

It was in McLeod Ganj in the summer of 1988 that I met Sonam Ngodup. He was 37 years old. He’d been a refugee in India since 1955. His name translates loosely as Sonam, “luck,” and Ngodup, ‘jewel found-‘ Sonam’s father was from Kham, in east Tibet. Everything about Tibet seems exotic. But it’s the region of Kham, the home of the proud, fierce Khampas, that most stirs the imagination.

It was the Khampas, many of them secretly trained by the CIA in Colorado, who made up the heart of the decade-long Choeshi Gangdrug guerilla war against the Chinese. Even today in India, Khampas seem different from other Tibetans, wilder, as if just superficially tamed to the niceties of polite society. Sonam Ngodup’s story is particularly a story of Kham, a reminiscence of his father the famous ‘Devil Gambler.’


Sonam Ngodup: Today, anyone from Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, or anyone who came from Kham, in Eastern Tibet, or any gamblers, or anyone over 50, or even His Holiness, the 14th Dalai Lama himself, would know the ‘devil,’ the great gambler, Dhekushoe, my father. Traditionally, well-to-do Tibetans love to gamble. Mah-jong, horse racing, dice and board games, archery, were all very popular.

In Tibet before the Chinese invaded, the rich loved to gamble so much that whole fortunes were easily won or lost. A rich family could lose everything, but still they wouldn’t stop. Actually, all Tibetans love to gamble. My father played all the games, but he was really famous as the ‘devil gambler’ for mah-jong, which came originally from China.

Interviewer: Even here in McLeod Ganj, I constantly see people gambling. I’m always hearing the shouting from a dice game where you bang down the cup with the dice. Everyone seems to love to play. Even the monks watch. Can you tell me a little about your father’s background, how he became a gambler.


Sonam Ngodup: So many things about my father I have heard from other people, but mostly my father himself, from time to time when I was a child, would tell me what it had been like in Tibet. My father was born in Kham, that’s eastern Tibet, into a semi, nomadic family, that both farmed and followed their grazing herds. The family wasn’t rich, but they were doing well enough. Life was good. My father was born about 1902. He had seven brothers and no sisters. Traditionally there weren’t enough women in Kham, which was one reason polyandry was practiced most widely there. I have no knowledge of my father’s brothers. Perhaps they were killed by the Chinese. I don’t know.

Life was not bad for the family, but my father was bored, and he always dreamed of going to Lhasa, to the big city, to lead a more exciting life. So I think it was at the age of 25, that one night he made up his mind to do it . He took a rifle and . my grandfather’s best horse. It was in the middle of the night, and he didn’t want to make any noise, so he didn’t take a saddle, but just threw a sheepskin on the horse. He only had a little money.It took him three months to reach Lhasa, traveling through wild country of bandits and dangerous animals. Kham, especially, was very wild and dangerous. He survived by hunting game, mostly hares. Once, three bandits attacked him and he shot one and chased the other one off. But he finally reached Lhasa.To survive in Lhasa, he joined the Tibetan army. But he didn’t like it, he didn’t like taking orders. But that’s where he started playing mah-jongg. Soon he became so good at it that he just deserted the army to become a gambler, though he had to stay out of Lhasa for some time to let things cool down.

He started gambling with business people and his luck was with him. He was very clever, very quick with his hands. No one could beat him. Slowly, slowly, he began to gamble with richer families, and then with the aristocratic families, with high nobles. He was even hired by members of the royalty to gamble for them. I heard that he gambled with one royal family and won their house, money, gold, and even a wife, though he didn’t keep the wife. One time, after a big win, he had a goldsmith make gold nails for his boots. These are some of the stories I heard from my father and my mother.

Int.: Why did your father have the nickname, the ‘devil gambler’?

Sonam Ngodup: Dhekushoe is a nickname from the- Tibetan noble families because my father was so good. Nobody could beat him. He was like a spirit at the gambling table. Dhe means spirit, really more than devil, and kushoe means a bird representing an evil spirit, or maybe better to say, a kind of invisible bird of ill omen. And it’s a bird that makes the sound, shuuu. But actually, this name was not to indicate something bad. That’s why maybe the name is better translated as ‘spirit trickster,’ because he seemed to win as if by magic.

You know, in those times, great fortunes were being lost byimportant Tibetan families. It got so out of hand that the Tibetan government came to know about, even the Dalai Lama heard about it, and in Lhasa they had to put a stop to all gambling for one whole year. Families were losing everything. But my father was very successful. One time he went to Kyerong, a town in Southeast Tibet, to see his first wife, and I heard that’s where he won a great fortune, and that he made a lady’s amulet box, what we call a gahu. He had it decorated with precious stones, and he also had a headdress made, with precious stones, to go with it. They say these were the finest such pieces ever made in Kyerong.

He became very rich. He donated a solid gold butter lamp to the Jokhang, the central cathedral in Lhasa. And he sponsored a very big Tibetan religious ceremony, a puja for Chenresig, the patron deity of Tibet. He sponsored 7,000 – 8,000 monks, and he invited the Dalai Lama. My father was not a very religious man, as practitioner, but he was still a man of great faith.

Int.: Tell me about your mother.

Sonam Ngodup: My mother was my father’s third wife. She was from a wealthy Lhasa family. Her name was Yeshi

Choedon. My father saw her, and he fell in love. But despite his wealth by then, my mother’s family was not willing to give her to a notorious gambler. So one day, when my mother was outside, my father just rode up, grabbed her up onto his horse, and carried her off screaming. Such behavior was not really uncommon for a Khampa. My mother already liked him, but still, this was too much. I think they went to Shigatee, which is Tibet’s second largest city, and married there and stayed for some months. Tibetan marriage is pretty informal. You just go to a lama or to the temple and simply make a vow and present katas to each other.

Int.: And then did the family accept him?

Sonam Ngodup: My mother’s family was very angry, but what could they do. My mother too, struggled at the beginning. She didn’t like my father’s roughness. But she came to love him.

Int.: When did your family actually come from Tibet?

Sonam Ngodup: We came in 1955.

Int.: Why so early? The Dalai Lama didn’t come until 1959.

Sonam Ngodup: Well, my father was gambling once with some Chinese officers, and one of these officers warned him that he should take his family and go to India. Actually, the problem was because of my mother’s family and its connection to royalty. It was very difficult for my father to leave. We had just built a new house in Lhasa, one of the first with big glass windows. I’ve heard the Chinese are now using this building for offices. In Tibet we had Russian horses, and we had about six or seven houses. So we lost almost everything to the Chinese.

But even in Kalimpong, in northeastern India, where we settled, we lived very well. We were among the wealthiest Tibetans in Kalimpong, in all India probably. We had many servants, and an old British car. We also owned a billiard room.

Int.: You would have been four years old in 1955. Do you remember anything from Tibet?

Sonam Ngodup: One thing I remember was my father galloping on his horse. I heard a gunshot. I didn’t see him shooting, but I saw the animal rolling on the ground. I think it was a fox. And also, you see here, this scar on my finger. I was about three and a half years old. I was very thirsty, and my mother gave me a china cup, and it fell and broke, but I tried to grab it as it broke and I cut my finger. These little things are all I have left of my country.

Int.: What did your father look like? How did he act? Can you describe some of the more personal things.

Sonam Ngodup: He was tall, as Khampas typically are, almost six feet. He was handsome and robust, thin but strong, and with a powerful voice. He was a smart dresser, especially once in India.

He didn’t look like a Khampa nomad anymore. He favored European dress; leather shoes, smart woolen trousers, white shirt, a longish jacket, and a fedora. And he smoked a long stemmed pipe designed to hold a cigarette vertically. The stem was silver and it ended in a human fist that formed a silver bowl for the cigarette. Only upper-class Tibetans would use such a pipe. My father smoked 50 cigarettes a day, and he smoked opium at night. I used to watch him as he would lie on his side on a bed, with a helper to prepare the opium. My father didn’t talk to me very much. When I was a child I was in an English medium school and when I’d come home I’d see him. We all lived in the same house, of course, but it was very big, and he was always occupied with his gambling and his friends. He had a separate area, and a special gambling room. Even the King of Bhutan used to come to our house to gamble. But my father also knew that gambling was bad, and he never let me touch gambling. And I never have, to this day. Instead, he encouraged me to box. In fact, if I got into a fight and got beaten up, he would beat me again. He was a very proud man of Kham.

Int.: What did you really think of your father when you were little?

Sonam Ngodup: Well, when I was little, you know, I used to get very scared of him. He could be frightening. But I loved him.

Sonam Ngodup: Everything changed when we left Kalimpong. Kalimpong is very near the Tibetan border.. In 1962, when the Chinese attacked the Indian border, my father shifted the whole family from Kalimpong to Calcutta: And it was there, that slowly, slowly, my father lost his luck… until we lost everything. Eventually, we even had to sell my mother’s bangles.

Int.: To give your father money to gamble?

Sonam Ngodup: Not to gamble. For us to live.

Int.: It’s difficult for me to imagine going from such wealth to such poverty. But I guess it happens to gamblers everywhere.

Sonam Ngodup: You see, my father didn’t only play mah- jongg. If he had only played mah-jongg, I don’t think he would ever have lost his wealth. But in Calcutta there wasn’t much mah-jongg, so he used to go to these Chinese casinos and play dice games. And every Sunday there was horse racing. He’d leave the house with 12, 20, 30,000 rupees in a tsampa a bag. He was losing badly and things got very bad, until finally it seemed better for us to come to McLeod Ganj. We had some friends here who lent us money and helped us rent a house.

Int.: Did your father work here?

Sonam Ngodup: No, he didn’t work, he gambled. My father never worked. But the stakes were small now, in his older age.

Int.: And through all this your mother stuck by your father? No matter what he did?

Sonam Ngodup: Yes. She never complained, she never said anything. She was very strong.

Int.: Tell me the story again, of how your father would smoke opium, and your mother would take the pipe and scrape the bowl.

Sonam Ngodup: I would secretly watch sometimes, because he would never let me sit there while he was smoking. My father used a hookah. You know, after smoking opium, it’s necessary to scrape the residue from the bowl. Then you boil down the scrapings to use them again. But my mother would take the scrapings and give them to the poor, people dependent on opium but who couldn’t afford it. My mother was a very kind woman. I was really raised by my mother. I used to steal cigarettes from the gambling room. My mom once caught me smoking with two other boys. She took me to the altar and made me promise never to smoke. I was eleven years old. I’ve never smoked since. My mother was also a very devout woman, much more than my father. Sometimes my father could be short-tempered and even violent. But he had a good heart. He could beat you in the morning, but by the afternoon, he would say it wasn’t your fault, and apologize. My mother was very different. She had such a gentle soul. She was beautiful, with a lovely singing voice. She had a very kind heart. It was my mother who got us to adopt more children. I had four adopted brothers. One is still in Delhi. Despite coming from a rich family, she was always hard working. She would rise between 5:00 and 6:00 A.M., burn incense, perform her prayers, clean and cook. She was never idle.

Int.: Your mother died here in Dharamsala?

Sonam Ngodup: Yes. She had a peaceful death.

Int.: Was your father an honest gambler?

Sonam Ngodup: Some people say he cheated. But mostly I know it was his luck and his skill. I’m sure all gamblers cheat sometimes. I don’t really know. He had his secrets. Actually, my father had many secrets. Besides gambling, they say my father had two other businesses. One was selling rifles. The other was selling opium. He had these big vases, about twelve of them. They had bases which you could screw on, and into which you could put bricks of opium. One day when I was about twelve years old, and I had just come home from school for the holidays, the Indian police came. This was in Kalimpong. They came to search our house. They caught my mother hiding a pistol, in parts, rolled up in a handkerchief, hiding it in her dress. We were fined for that. But they couldn’t find any opium. They only found my father’s pipes. My father said he had to smoke it. If he didn’t smoke, he got sick.

Int.: So your father was very clever, but he was also involved in some strange businesses, a little smuggling, opium, guns, and of course, mostly gambling. Sonam, did you ever see any American Westerns, you know, cowboy movies?

Sonam Ngodup: I used to see a lot.

Int.: When you tell me the story of your father it makes me think of the wild west of America. Your father seems like an American cowboy, an individualist, who didn’t like authority, who did what he wanted, very strong, very proud, not very religious but still a man of great faith.

Sonam Ngodup: Yes, he was very much like that. I have also thought that my father’s way of life was quite similar to your Western movies, especially when he was still in Tibet.

Int.: Can you tell me about your father’s death.

Sonam Ngodup: My father died at about 75. He was living in the Tibetan Old People’s Home in Bylakupe, in South India.

Like my mother, my father also had a peaceful death, I think in just the way he would have wanted it. He was gambling the very night he died, in a restaurant. Though the stakes weren’t so high, it was still for real. Real gamblers have to play for stakes, even if only for a cup of tea. When you play mah- jongg, four play, and one sits out his turn. It was my father’s turn to rest. He asked the landlady for a glass of black tea. He drank half of it and lay down. When his turn came, one of the other men came to wake him, but he was gone. So he died a peaceful death doing what he loved most. I was here in the north when I learned about his death. He was cremated Indian style in Mysore.

Int.: You speak of your father with great respect.

Sonam Ngodup: Though my father lost everything, and left me nothing, I am proud to be his son. Because he was so proud. I think with all his hardships, he really enjoyed his life fully. I am proud of his colorful life. I don’t regret anything. At this point, Sonam’s friend, Sonam Nyandak, joined us. Iasked him to speak a little about Dhekushoe.

Sonam Nyandak: I did not know Sonam’s father when I was very young in Tibet, but his father was a famous gambler there so I knew stories about him even then. Then we came to India and I was in the same school with Sonam in Dehradun, so when we had summer vacations and we came to McLeod Ganj, I stayed here with Sonam’s family and I came to know his father very well. Also, before that time, I did not know anything about mah-jongg, but I saw him play many times with other gamblers and I heard many stories about his skills and tricks. Everyone knew he had tricks but no one could ever catch him because he was like a magician.I was so astonished with Chumphel-la when he played. You know, Dhekushoe was his nickname, but no one would call him that to his face, only behind his back. Respectfully, we called him Chumphel-la, his real name. Chumphel means “to spread the dharma”; that is, religion. Anyway, I was so astonished with Chumphel-la when he played dice. Whatever he said, like that he would shoot a seven, he would do it. Whatever he called, that’s what he would throw. You can ask anyone. No one could challenge Dhekushoe in Tibetan dice, he was so expert. And the same with mah-jong. After two throws on the table, he knows exactly what you want. And he controls you. Chumphel-la was the teacher of the game because he teaches you about tricks. He always played to win, but he also had a very good heart. When you played with him, and you lost all your money, maybe he would sponsor you to let you keep playing, to get your money back.

Int.: So it was not so much taking the money, it was the winning he liked.Sonam Nyandak: Yes, that’s it. You know, in Tibet there was a great teacher called Agu Thom-pa. Maybe you know about him. He was the teacher who taught you how foolish you were. He would make a fool of you, just to show how you are a hypocrite. Dhekushoe also could do like that.

Int.: You’re comparing Dhekushoe to a great teacher?

Sonam Nyandak: I think so.

Sonam Ngodup: In the name Agu Thom-pa, Agu means ‘uncle’ and Thom- a means ‘shows.’Sonam Nyandak: When I play I try tricks, because you know, the game is for tricks. When you come to play, you have extra money, that’s why you play. You play to win. You never thinkto play and to lose, so if you can use tricks in the game, I think it’s fair. That’s why you are playing.

Int.: Is this just your attitude, or are you saying this is the wayTibetans think?Sonam Nyandak: I think it’s everybody’s way. To be tricky is the gambler’s tradition, or the gambler’s promise. We Tibetans believe so much in religion, but in the games religion has no part. Religion is the other side.

Sonam Ngodup: Once you start gambling, you have to forget about religion… while you’re gambling.Sonam Nyandak: If you don’t have money, then you shouldn’t gamble. No, you shouldn’t! But when you have money to play, you also have the desire to win money. Your aim is to win, whether you use a trick to win or whether you do anything else to win. If you are seen it is shameful, but without being seen, like Dhekushoe, I think it is fair.

Int.: So if you catch someone, he should be ashamed, but if you get away with it, it just means you’re a good gambler?Sonam Nyandak: Yes, a good gambler, because… anyway, you have to be tricky. It’s the way of the whole world. During the game there is no kindness, no sympathy for anyone, because you think you should win, and you will win even if you have to be tricky.

Int.: So Dhekushoe is like Agu Thom-pa, a great teacher, teaching about life, not about religion, but about life.

Sonam Nyandak: About the life, yes.

Int.: You knew him personally, too. Tell me what he was like.

Sonam Nyandak: About religion, he was not a learned man. Hedidn’t even read Tibetan very well. But I respected himbecause one day I learned something special from him. I came back from Dehradun with Sonam, and it was the first time I slept in Sonam’s father’s house. In the house there was a very, very holy book called Doeje Choe-pa. When Chumphel-la woke up, he washed, and then he sat in the lotus posture and acted like he was reading the book. Everyday he turned the pages like he was reading. So I asked my teacher, a very high lama, about this. I said, if someone cannot read, but just turns the pages of the Dorje Choe-pa a, what is the use of that. But my teacher said, that is the highest universal thinking, and he benefits as if he were reading that book because he has the faith, and he sits there in lotus position and he closes his eyes, and he turns the pages. My teacher told me a story. There was a nun, very old, staying in a convent. She didn’t know how to read and write but she was always chanting the mantra of Tara, even though she didn’t really know it correctly, or completely. Then, after years, she saw Tara herself, a vision of Tara. Then all the people looked to her, as she had this vision of Tara, and all the people were surprised, and they showed her great respect. She didn’t even know that Tara was with her, she was just always chanting like that. Then one day a monk came before her, and he says, “0h, what are you reading?” And she says, “I’m reading the mantra of Tara.” And the monk says, “0h, but it’s incomplete that way.” So she felt very upset because before she was acting from her heart, she was chanting Tara, she thought completely and correctly. But then when she knew this reality, then she was so upset and the Tara vision was lost. It was lost because of that monk. So my teacher gave me this advice. If you see Chumphel-la reading, don’t tell him anything, don’t say, why aren’t you chanting correctly, or that you do not know how to read properly. You must not say-these things. This wisdom I learned from Chumphella. There’s one thing I would say. It’s good to trick the man who thinks he knows it all. Dhekushoe went from a beggar to a king and back again. Dhekushoe was not a bad man, he was a teacher. He taught lessons about life, just like Agu Thom-pa. He destroyed pretention, he destroyed the pretender, the man who shows off. It’s this man he took pleasure in tricking. Pretention is like boiling water. You put a few drops of cold water in it, and the water goes down. In this way, Dhekushoe deflated the ego. I believe that teachers come in many forms. Even Bodhisattvas come in many forms. The trickster teaches humility, he brings down pretention.

Int.: You remember Dhekushoe very fondly.

Sonam Nyandak: Yes. And he was a lucky man. That much I know. A couple of hours after I had finished talking to the two Sonams, Sonam Ngodup returned. He had been speaking to an older man from Lhasa, a contemporary of his father, now living in McLeod Ganj after twenty years in a Chinese prison. Sonam had tried to get him to talk to me, but he was too busy playing mah-jongg, though he did speak to Sonam when it was his turn to rest. He said he knew Dhekushoe as a great gambler, and as a trader of guns and horses, and that Dhekushoe loved horses. He said that Dhekushoe knew all the important Tibetans, all the highest nobles, and won much from them; that Dhekushoe would sometimes win everything, but he could also lose everything. But all the royalty loved Dhekushoe because he was witty, fun-loving, and joked all the time.