The 14th and current Dalai Lama is Tenzin Gyatso, who lives as a refugee in India. The Dalai Lama is considered to be the successor in a line of tulkus who are believed to be incarnations of Avalokitesvara, a Bodhisattva of Compassion. The name is a combination of the Mongolic word dalai meaning "ocean" or "big" and the Tibetan word for "master, guru".
Since the time of the 5th Dalai Lama in the 17th century, the Dalai Lama has always been a unifying symbol of the Tibetan state, representing Buddhist values and traditions above any specific school. While he had no formal or institutional role in any of the religious traditions, which were headed by their own high lamas, the traditional function of the Dalai Lama was an ecumenical figure. The present fourteenth Dalai Lam has held together disparate religious and regional groups and has worked to overcome divisions in the exiled community. He has become a symbol of Tibetan nationhood for Tibetans both in Tibet and in exile.
From 1642 until 1705 and from 1750 to the 1950s, the Dalai Lamas or their regents headed the Tibetan government (or Ganden Phodrang) in Lhasa which governed all or most of the Tibetan Plateau with varying degrees of autonomy under the Qing Dynasty of China, in which Tibet had been under non-Tibetan suzerainty, and a period of disputed "de facto independence" between 1913 and 1951. In 1913, several Tibetan representatives including Agvan Dorzhiev signed a treaty between Tibet and Mongolia, proclaiming mutual recognition and their independence from China, however the legitimacy of the treaty and declared independence of Tibet was rejected by both the Republic of China and the current People's Republic of China. The Dalai Lamas headed the Tibetan government afterwards despite that, until 1951.