Tibetan History

Tibetan History, like many other remote places on earth, is a vague subject with multiple sources and stories, and even more supernatural stuff to count. Tibet’s geographical condition, being surrounded by high mountain ranges, secluded it from the outer world for centuries. Prehistoric Tibet and the stories behind are still mysterious or mythical due to lack of evidence. Zhang-Zhung in west Tibet, where the Guge Kingdom is now, used to be the dominant power of all of Tibet before Yarlung Dynasty took up the step to rule, and that Zhang-Zhung is also considered to be the birthplace of the ancient Tibetan Bon Religion.

Prehistory and Myths

The Archaeologists have recently made a number findings in Tibet that explain prehistoric human inhabitation on the Tibetan plateau, they have gathered that Tibetans have the plateau for more than 21 thousand years, The Tibetans first settled along the middle reaches of the Yarlung River (Brahmaputra River) in Tibet. Evidence of the new and old stone age culture was found in archaeological excavations at Nyalam, Nagchu, Nyingchi and Chamdo. According to ancient historical documents, members of the earliest clans formed tribes known as “Bos” (or “Pos”) in Lhoka, located on the middle and lower reaches of the Yarlung Valley in southern Tibet near the present-day border with Bhutan. There also many pieces of evidence that shows Tibet has been inhabited since the Late Palaeolithic era. During the mid-Holocene (11.700 years ago to present), Neolithic immigrants from northern China largely replaced the original inhabitants, bringing with them elements of Neolithic culture and technology, although a degree of genetic continuity with the Palaeolithic settlers still exists.

In a later myth, first attested in the Maṇi Ka’ ‘Bum, the Tibetan people are the progeny of the union of the monkey Pha Trelgen Jangchup Sempa and rock ogress Ma Drag Sinmo. But the monkey was a manifestation of the bodhisattva Chenrezig, or Avalokiteshvara while the ogress, in turn, incarnated Chenrezig’s consort Dolma.

Zhang-Zhung kingdoms and Bon Religion

Zhang-Zhung, now Guge, was the culture and kingdom of all of western Tibet, which has survived long before Buddhism in Tibet, Zhang-Zhung is also claimed to be the birthplace of Bon religion which in turn has influenced the philosophies and practices of Tibetan Buddhism. Zhang-Zhung, as a kingdom was powerful enough to conquer all the neighbouring kingdoms of 18 in total at a time, the culture, however, controlled the major portion of Tibetan Plateau. Tibetans practised Bon for centuries even after the rise of the so-called Yarlung Dynasty or Tibetan Empire until Buddhism was fully supported by the majority, which took a long long time.

The kingdom’s reign lasted until when Songtsen Gampo conquered the whole region and more in the 7th century.

Yarlung Dynasty and Tibetan Empire

Meanwhile, in Yarlung valley, another kingdom had risen to become Yarlung Dynasty, though with only a little evidence to prove its existence until the 32nd king of Tibet Namri Songtsen in the 7th century. But Tibetan mythology points out a lot of story lines from different sources, many of those place Nyatri Tsenpo as the first king of Yarlung Dynasty, he was a legendary progenitor of the so-called “Yarlung dynasty”. His reign is said to have begun in 127 BC. In traditional Tibetan history, he was the first ruler of the kingdom. Yumbulakang, the first Tibetan building, is said to be built for him. But due to lack of material evidence, Nyatri Tsenpo’s origin, what happened to him and his descendants until the rise of Tibetan Empire in the 7th century are still being clarified among Tibetologists.

Namri Songtsen was the first king of Tibet who really started to make really marks on the history of Tibet and his descendant followed and kept the glory until the Era of Fragmentation, Namri Songtsen gained control of all the area around what is now Lhasa, before his assassination around 618. This new-born regional state would later become known as the Tibetan Empire. The government of Namri Songtsen sent two embassies to the Chinese Sui Dynasty in 608 and 609, marking the appearance of Tibet on the international scene.

Namri’s son Great Songtsen Gampo, the 33rd king of Yarlung Dynasty, was enthroned as the emperor of Tibet at a wee age of 13 when his father was assassinated by poisoning. Songtsen Gampo proved himself to be adept at diplomacy as well as combat, the emperor with the help of his ministers brought the neighbouring kingdoms to submissions one by one through force or by will.

The emperor later sent a group of 16 young scholars to India to learn Sanskrit, the emperor wanted to translate explore the basket of Buddhism scripture that the 28th king Thothori Nyantsen received (legendary has it that the scriptures fell from the sky on the palace’s roof). Most of the scholars he sent to India died on way, and when the group returned home there was only one no scholar, and that was Thonmi Sambhota who later invented Tibetan Script and helped Songtsen Gampo write the laws of Tibet.

He is said to have had a number of wives, the most popular 2 are the Nepalese princess Bhrikuti (Balsa Kongjo) and the Chinese princess Wencheng (Gyasa Kongjo), both of whose influences are involved in the introduction of Buddhism to Tibet, Jokhang temple in Lhasa was built under Bhrikuti’s instructions facing towards her hometown, and Ramoche Temple under Wencheng’s.

But he never stopped expanding and ruling over all the territories under his command, therefore he became the originator of the Tibetan Empire. Tibetan Empire, between the 7th to the 9th century, from the time of Songtsen Gampo the power of the empire gradually increased over a diverse terrain. By the reign of the emperor Ralpachen, in the opening years of the 9th century, it controlled territories extending from the Tarim basin to the Himalayas and Bengal, and from the Pamirs to what is now Chinese provinces of Gansu and Yunnan.

In around 637, after a flood in Yarlung Valley, the emperor decided to build a palace on Mt. Potalaka or Red Hill in Lhasa and named it the Red Palace or Potala Palace. During his reign, not only did the emperor unified the several Tibetan kingdoms, he also introduced Buddhism in Tibet for the first time from India and invented Tibetan scripts with the help of Thonmi Sambhota. It was later believed that he was a manifestation of Avalokiteshvara, Songtsen Gampo is also the first of 3 Dharma Kings of Tibet. The birth of Songtsen Gampo is still to be pinpointed, his death, according to the Tibetan Annals, happened in 649, his tomb is in the Chongyai Valley near Yarlung.

End of Tibetan Empire and Era of Fragmentation

Tibetan Empire started to decline slowly after Songtsen Gampo, disintegrating one by one, eventually coming to an end with the assassination of the last emperor of Tibet, Langdarma in 841. However, there were some great emperors before the Era of Fragmentation who contributed the Tibetan Empire with great things.

In 755, Trisong Detsen’s reign started, he was the 37th emperor of Tibet and the second in the Three Dharma Kings, the emperor played a pivotal role in the introduction of Buddhism to Tibet and the establishment of the Nyingma or “Ancient” school of Tibetan Buddhism. He also set up the first community for Tibetan Buddhist monks in the Yarlung valley

The Tibetan Empire reached its greatest extent during the reign of Tri Ralpachen c. 815, until 838 CE, the 41st emperor of Tibet and the last of the Three Dharma Kings, he included parts of China, India, Nepal, the Kingdom of Khotan, Balti, Bruzha (Gilgit and Hunza), Zhangzhung, Hor-yul, Sog-yul, Yugur, and Kamilog (roughly equivalent to present-day Sichuan), as well as almost all of modern Xinjiang and Gansu. Ralpachen is also credited for his efforts in promoting literature and translating old Buddhist scriptures and tantras with the help of Tibetan and Sanskrit scholars from India.

With the assassination (or the unfortunate death) of Ralpachen in 838, his anti-Buddhism and pro-Bon brother Langdarma was enthroned, the last emperor of the unified Tibetan Empire. He is said to have ruled for a year and a half, during his reign he destroyed thousands of Buddhist relics, scriptures and even massacred Buddhist monks leading to his own assassination by a Buddhist hermit or monk named Lhalung Pelgyi Dorje in 841. His death was followed by civil war and the dissolution of the Tibetan empire, leading to the Era of Fragmentation.

With the demise of Langdarma leaving Tibetan Empire without an emperor, there was a controversy about who should take the throne between the last emperor’s two sons; Yumten and Woesung, a year later the brothers broke into a civil that led to the division of the empire into fragments. Woesung and his allies managed to keep control of Lhasa while his brother Yumten was expelled to Yarlung where he set up his own line of kings.

Woesung’s grandson Trikhiding later migrated to western Tibet (Zhang-Zhung area) and founded a local dynasty, his descendants later invited Atisha from Bengal in 1040, Atisha is considered as one of the most important Buddhist teachers in Tibet for his various works on Mahayana Buddhism and Sakya school Buddhism in the latter year. Atisha visited central Tibet and with his chief disciple Dromtenpa Gyalwa Jomney and established the Kadampa order and monasteries such as Reting near Lhasa.

Meanwhile, in the central Tibet, the central rule was largely non-existent over the Tibetan region from 842 to 1247, Buddhism was in a very critical situation after years of demolition and hostility from Bon religion, during that period of time, numbers of small states rose from their regional power. However during the reign of Langdarma and his attempts at putting an end to Buddhism in Tibet, three monks had escaped the emperor’s tyranny to north-eastern Tibet, Amdo, those three monks were responsible for the revival Buddhism in the region.

One of Woesung’s descendants, who had an estate near Samye, sent ten young men to be trained by Gongpa Rabsal (the disciple of the three runaways). Once trained, these young men were ordained to go back into the central Tibetan regions of Ü and Tsang. The young scholars were able to link up with Atiśa shortly after 1042 and advance the spread and organisation of Buddhism in Lhokha. In that region, the faith eventually coalesced again, with the foundation of the Sakya Monastery in 1073. Over the next two centuries, the Sakya monastery grew to a position of prominence in Tibetan life and culture.

Mongol Invasion and Sakya Dynasty (1240-1354)

When the Mongols invaded Tibet in 1240, Tibet suffered casualties of thousands of deaths and lost many Buddhist monasteries to the destructions of the invasion. In 1247 at the request of Godan (Genghis Khan’s grandson), Sakya Pandita and his two nephews served as delegates of Tibet’s political leadership at the suggestion of the Abbot of Reting Monastery, and when Sakya Pandita arrived at Godan’s court he cured Godan of an illness, and Godan then became his disciple and converted to Buddhism and learned the Tantras; thus began their special relationship that made the Pandita’s rulers of Tibet.

With the help of the Mongol troops, Sakya Dynasty ruled Tibet for a little less than 100 years, all the revolts were vanquished and punished severely, until the rule over Tibet by a succession of Sakya lamas came to a definite end in 1358, when central Tibet came under the control of the Kagyu order.

Myriarchy Rules and Rise of Gelug Sect

During Mongol and Sakya Rule over Tibet, the Mongol appointed a puppet ruler for Tibet and titled him ‘Ponchen’, however there some smaller powers fighting alongside during the final years of Mongol and Sakya rule, all of them were either myriarchies or small princely states. But the period was filled with more internal conflicts than a peaceful governing, the central power over Tibet as a country was anonymous throughout the period for almost 300 years.

Between 1346 and 1350, Jangchup Gyaltsen toppled the Sakyapa order and founded the Phagmodrupa dynasty centred at Nedong in Yarlung, during his time he introduced lots of new systems and enacted rules based on the laws founded by King Songtsen Gampo in the 7th century. In the following 80 years, various changes took place in Tibetan Buddhism with the appearance of Tsongkhapa (1357-1419), he founded the Gelug sect(also known as Yellow Hats) and built important Buddhist teaching centres like Ganden monastery east to Lhasa, later his disciples deeply followed his teachings and founded prominent monastic colleges like Drepung monastery and Sera monastery in the outskirts of Lhasa.

After that, internal strife within the dynasty and the strong localism of the various fiefs and political-religious factions led to a long series of internal conflicts. The minister family Rinpungpa, based in Tsang (West Central Tibet), dominated politics after 1435. In 1565 they were overthrown by the Tsangpa Dynasty of Shigatse which expanded its power in different directions of Tibet in the following decades and favoured the Karma Kagyu sect.

Dalai Lama Lineage Rule

Gelug sect continued through the disciples of Tsongkhapa and their disciples, eventually gaining all of spiritual and political power over all of Tibet mid-17th century. When Ganden Monastery was established, its first abbot was Gendun Druppa, the first Dalai Lama (posthumously titled), he was one of the most esteemed scholar-saint in the country at the time. It’s believed that Palden Lhamo, the protectress spirit of sacred lake Lhamo Latso, once promised Gendun in one of his visions that she would protect and guide his reincarnations lineage, it later became a custom to visit the lake for guidance on finding all the next reincarnation.

In 1578, Altan Khan, the king of Tumed Mongols and grandson of Kublai Khan, invited the Sonam Gyatso, third in the lineage of Gendun Druppa, to Koko Khotan. Sonam Gyatso gave teachings to a huge crowd, Altan Khan then awarded him with the title ‘Dalai Lama’, thus becoming the 3rd Dalai after his two predecessors – Gendun Druppa (1st Dalai Lama) and Gendun Gyatso (2nd Dalai Lama), both were titled posthumously.

With the accelerated spread of Buddhism in Mongolia, Yonten Gyatso, the fourth Dalai Lama (reincarnation of the third), took birth in Mongolia as the great-grandson of Altan Khan, he died at the age of 27 in Tibet.

It was during Lobsang Gyatso’s, the fifth Dalai Lama, time in the 17th century when he unified all Tibet protracted era of civil wars, (re)built the Potala Palace and also built military alliance with Gushi Khan who later helped the Dalai Lama defeat his opponents and other small princely states from trying to topple the Dalai Lama’s government. The fifth Dalai Lama passed away in 1682 but is was kept in secret until 1694 so as to complete the Potala Palace, it was believed that the people who built the palace did for their unshakable faith for the Dalai Lama and to prevent Tibet’s neighbour from taking advantage of the situation. Even to this day, the fifth Dalai Lama’s contributions are remembered, often recognised by the title ‘The Great Fifth’.

After the Great Fifth’s passing, the central power of Tibet remained with the Dalai Lama lineage and its regents, but most of the following Dalai Lamas lived only for short periods of time because of the political tension between Tibet and Qing Dynasty, the latter later slowly tried to take full control of Tibet and even did many times, but they were either stopped with the help of Tibet’s other neighbouring allies or slowly overpowered by the Tibetans, until the fall of the Qing Dynasty in 1912.