Charles Alfred Bell

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For other people named Charles Bell, see Charles Bell (disambiguation).
Sir Charles Bell

Sir Charles Alfred Bell, KCIE was born October 31, 1870 in Calcutta and died March 8, 1945 in Victoria, Canada. He was a British-Indian Tibetologist educated at Winchester College who became known as "British India's ambassador to Tibet." [1] After joining the Indian Civil Service, he was appointed Political Officer in Sikkim in 1908. He soon became very influential in Sikkimese and Bhutanese politics, and in 1910 he met the 13th Dalai Lama, who had been forced into temporary exile by the Chinese. He got to know the Dalai Lama quite well, and later wrote his biography (Portrait of the Dalai Lama, published in 1946). At various times he was the British Political Officer for Bhutan, Sikkim and Tibet.

In 1913 he participated in the Simla Convention, a treaty between Great Britain, China and Tibet concerning the status of Tibet. Before the summit, he met in Gyantse with Paljor Dorje Shatra, the Tibetan representative to the British Raj at Darjeeling and advised him to bring to Simla with him all documents concerning relations between China and Tibet, as well as Tibetan claims to land occupied by China. Bell was designated to assist the Tibetans in the negotiations, with Archibald Rose assigned to be his counterpart for the Chinese.

In 1919 he resigned as Britain's political officer in Sikkim to devote himself full-time to his research. However, London sent him to Lhassa in 1920 as a special ambassador.[2]

After travelling through Tibet and visiting Lhasa in 1920, he retired to Oxford, where he wrote a series of books on the history, culture and religion of Tibet. Some of the photographs that he took in Tibet can be found in the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford. Some of these were included in the 1997 book Tibet: Caught in Time.

His English-Tibetan colloquial dictionary was first published in 1905 together with a grammar of colloquial Tibetan as Manual of Colloquial Tibetan.

Peter Fleming mentions Bell in the introduction to the book Seven Years in Tibet by Heinrich Harrer, Flamingo imprint 1997, specifically his surprisingly close relationship to the 13th Dalai Lama even though he was a foreigner.


  1. ^ Alex McKay (2001). "'Kicking the Buddha's Head': India, Tibet and Footballing Colonialism". In Dimeo, Paul; Mills, James. Soccer in South Asia: Empire, Nation, Diaspora. p. 91. 
  2. ^ Michael and Barbara Foster (1987), Forbidden Journey: the life of Alexandra David-Neel, Harper & Row, ISBN 9780062503459 


  • Manual of Colloquial Tibetan. Calcutta: Baptist Mission Press, 1905. (Part II, English-Tibetan vocabulary; later editions 1919 and 1939)
  • Portrait of a Dalai Lama: the Life and Times of the Great Thirteenth by Charles Alfred Bell, Sir Charles Bell, Publisher: Wisdom Publications (MA), January 1987, ISBN 978-0-86171-055-3 (first published as Portrait of the Dalai Lama: London: Collins, 1946).
  • Tibet: Past and Present. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1924
  • The People of Tibet. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1928
  • The Religion of Tibet. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1931
  • Tibet: Caught in Time. Reading: Garnet, 1997. Contains photographs by Charles Bell and John Claude White

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