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History of Tibet from the origins to 1959

The Roof of the World from Antiquity to the exile of the fourteenth Dalai Lama in India.

the traditional Endless Knot
The traditional Endless Knot
graphics by the author
Tibet was inhabited by the Homo sapiens since the Upper Paleolithic and Neolithic, a fact testified by some settlements, stony manufacts and tools.

The ancient history of Tibet, like that of other areas in the same region, has a historiographical foundation that losts itself in myth.
Among the various ancestral tales, the most well-known tells the tale of the origin of the Tibetan people as a result of the relationship between the Bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara and a demoness. She gave birth to the beings referred as the original founders of the Tibetan tribes.

About the beginning of the monarchy, the sources agree that the origin had to be divine, and sees in the traditional chronology gNya' khri bTsan po (Nyatri Tsenpo, year 127 BC) as the first divine king, descended on earth through a "sky rope" to the castle of Yum bu bla sgang [1] (Yumbulhakhang) in the Valley of Yar kLungs (Yarlung).

According to the mythological chronicles, passing the various generations it had been a transition from a divine monarchy to a semi-divine one, and finally to a fully human one.
The first written records are mostly focused on the figure of the monarch Srong brtsan sgam po (Songtsen Gampo, c.600-649), considered the first historical king of Tibet, ambitious and modernizer, proponent of a policy of expansion combined with a pronounced centralism.

It dates back to 635 the initiative of the Minister Ton me bsan bu ta (Thönmi Sambota) aimed to provide Tibetan language of a writing system based on the Indian languages. Some other innovations include the introduction of a system of weights and measures, justice's reform, society's feudalization and the establishment of a powerful army.

While peace in the south of the country was ensured by the diplomatic policy, elsewhere Tibetan armies were moved in direction of today's areas of Kaśamira (Kashmir) of La dwags (Ladakh) and Zangs skar (Zanskar).
In 638, having gained sufficient strength, Songtsen Gampo decided to directly attack China, reaching the lowlands of Sichuan and obtaining by such position of force the marriage with the imperial princess Táng Mung chang (Wénchéng).

The princess has been seen by later chronicles as a manifestation of White Tārā, a Buddhist goddess.
Similarly, also his Nepalese wife Khri btsun (Bhrikuti Devi), daughter of Ṭhākurī king Aṃshuvarmā has been seen by posterity as a manifestation of Green Tārā.

Upon a time the king professed the shamanistic Bon religion, but tradition says he was urged by his foreign spouses to convert to Buddhism.
The legend tells that the princess Wencheng discovered the body of a demon extended over the entire surface of Tibet, with his evil heart located to the bottom of a lake. Once drained it, she built a temple in the center, referred to what is nowadays identified as the temple of gTsug lag khang (Jokhang).
Among the many chapels built throughout the country, it stands that of Ra mo che (Ramoche), where was placed the precious statue of Jo bo Rin po che, carried from China to Tibet by the same princess.
The value of such tales is characterized by a strong symbolism, aimed at exalting Tibet as a regional power and to highlight the prominent role that would take the Buddhist religion in Tibet's subsequent history.
The two brides, the Chinese and the Nepalese, would also confirm the growing military importance of the ruler of Yarlung and his will to establish diplomatic relations with the neighboring countries.

The contacts with China permitted to introduce some innovations to the tibetan Court, such as ink and paper for writing along with the use of porcelain and silk dresses.

Under the subsequent kings Khri srong lde brtsan (Trisong Detsen, c.742-797) and Khri ral pa can (Ralpachen, c.806-836) the country continued to extend in direction of many oases of the Silk Road.
The Tibetan army defeated the Táng Emperor again in 763, reaching the imperial capital Chang'an (the modern Xī'ān). Tibet required to renegotiate the boundaries and asked for the payment of a strong annual tribute.
The Tibetan Empire reached its greatest extent in 810 when Samarkand was captured, obtaining in this way, but only for a short period of time, the complete military control of the Silk Road.

Concerning religious matters, the king Trisong Detsen send the invitation to the early Indian Buddhist masters to travel to Tibet to spread Buddhism. Among them there are enumerated the theoretical Śāntarakṣita and the esoteric Padmasambhava (Gurū Rinpoche, the Precious Master). The prevalence of Indian doctrines originated during the council known as the "debate of bSam yas" (Samye), convened by the same sovereign in 794 to resolve the disagreements between the followers of Indian-inspired buddhist schools and the followers of Chinese schools.

In 822 was ratified the ending treaty of armed conflicts between Tibet and China, along with the demarcation of their areas of influence. On the pillar of Lhasa, the only one of three original copies to be preserved up to now, it's written: "The whole region to the east of that being the country of Great Tibet, from either side of that frontier there shall be no warfare, no hostile invasions, and no seizure of territory [...] Between the two countries no smoke or dust shall appear. Not even a word of sudden alarm or of enmity shall be spoken and, from those who guard the frontier upwards, all shall live at ease without suspicion or fear [...]» [2].

The decline of the Tibetan empire became clear towards the middle of the ninth century, with the apostasy of King Glang dar ma (Langdarma) and the repression of Buddhist religion, which followed the disintegration of the territorial unity.

After the extinction of the Yarlung Dynasty, Tibet faced a period of instability, combined with the weakening of the administrative system and the establishment of the first structured Buddhist orders that will hold, in alternating future periods, both spiritual and temporal power.
It is the age of the "Tibetan Middle Ages", that of the social and political fragmentation, but also that of the excellent masters, poets, saints and those who returned from the great voyages in India and spreaded religion, arts and poetry. Among them can be mentioned Atīśa (Atisha), the Indian master who introduced the doctrine of Buddhism in western Tibet; Rin chen bZang po (Rinchen Zangpo), teacher and translator, Mar pa (Marpa), another key translator of texts from Tibetan and Indian languages and founder of the lineage bKa' rgyud (Kagyu), the saint Mi la Ras pa (Milarepa), healer, magician and poet.
This is the era of the "revival of Buddhism", even if it was its first real spread of popular diffusion, before relegated relegated to the Court and the nobility.
In this period lived Thang stong rGyal po (Thangtong Gyalpo), engineer and builder of suspension bridges, some still in use, and founder of Ache Lhamo, the Tibetan opera.

Tibet, now broken up into numerous independent principalities and disappeared as a military power, began to be permeated by the influence of Buddhist religion, becoming closer to the Indian spiritual sphere with the translation and study of Sanskrit texts.

In 1056 was formed the bKa' gdams (Kadam) order, simultaneously with the re-structuring of the rNying ma (Nyingma) order.
In the thirteenth century, led by Abbot Kun dga' rGyal mtshan (Sakya Pandita), major importance was gained by the religious school Sa skya (Sakya), founded in 1073.

During that period, both the Muslim armies of northern India and the Mongol hordes of Genghis Khan manifested the will to subjugate Tibet: while the firsts were stopped by the Himalayas, the latter found no obstacles or resistance. Some local princes voluntarily offered the act of submission.

The Mongol armies, following their path to the east, stopped just in front of the pacific ocean. China was conquered and Kublai Khan (1215-1294) was raised to the dignity of the first emperor of the Yuan Dynasty.

In 1240, Godan, son of the chief Ögedei and grandson of Genghis Khan, reached Tibet and gave the power to the lama Sakya Pandita in exchange for the recognition of Mongols' sovereignty and religious education for himself and his successors. The Sakya school thus arised to a position of political prominence gaining the support of Mongol tribes, particularly against the indigenous dynasties of central and western Tibet.

Later, in 1260, Sakya Pandita was appointed as Grand Imperial Preceptor by Kublai Khan, with the power to preach Buddhism throughout the territory ruled by the Yuan Dynasty.
It was thus created the personal bond that Tibetans call mChod (priest) and Yon (protector), survived until the proclamation of the Republic of China in 1912. This institution, keystone of the following claims, implied the superiority of the Chinese emperor in the sphere of civil affairs and the primacy of the Tibetan lama in the the spiritual affairs, in a mutual teacher-student relationship.

By 1271 Tibet thus become a protectorate of the Mongol Empire.
The loss of political autonomy originated a significant internal division, causing many new conflicts and supporting the rise of clan Phag mo gru (Pamotrupa), a feudal secular family. The latter defeated militarily the Sakyas in 1358, retaining the rule over central Tibet until 1435.

During the fifteenth century the influence of the Sakya school was declining not only on the side of political power, but even on the side of doctrine in favor of the dGe lugs (Gelug) reformed order, founded in the late fourteenth century by abbott Tsong kha pa (Tsongkhapa).
The third abbot of 'Bras spungs (Drepung), bSod nams rGya mtsho (Sönam Gyatso) received the honorary title of the Ta le (or Dalai, "Ocean [of wisdom]") during a meeting with the Mongol leader Altan Khan. This honor was also awarded retroactively to the two predecessors, thus originating the lineage of the Dalai Lamas [3].

The Míng China wanted to maintain peaceful relations with Tibet, a factor used by the emperors to maintain consensus among his Buddhist subjects. The emperor Yǒnglè wanted in particular to maintain a spiritual relationship with the schools Karma bKa' rgyud (Karma Kagyu), and Gelug.
From the political point of view, the Ming recognized to the the Pamotrupa family the sovereignty over central Tibet, and to the princes of Ling and Go 'jo (Gonjo) the rule on eastern Tibet (1407). Such acts, however, never implied a real vassalage relationship, being only some mere titles of honor aimed at increasing the prestige of the tibetan princes and of the same chinese monarch.

In the fourth decade of the fifteenth century, the decline of Pamotrupas fostered the rise of the Rin spungs (Rinpung) clan, which dominated the scene of the civil power until 1565.
Since that date the kings of gTsang (Tsang) succeeded to the rule of the majority of the Tibetan territory until the political advent of the Gelug religious school.

Caesaropapism in Tibet dates mostly back to the reign of the fifth Dalai Lama Ngag dbang bLo bzang rGya mtsho (Lobsang Gyatso, 1617-1682) who united the characteristics of a temporal and spiritual leader. To 1642 dates back his recognizing as ruler of the country by the Mongol leader Gushri Khan.

During the same period a new dynasty seized the power in China after the fall of the Míng. They were the Qīng, originally rulers of the Manchurian area. The first Manchu Emperor, Shùnzhì, invited Lobsang Gyatso to Beijing. After some hesitation he decided to undertake the journey, arriving there in 1652.
Sources vary widely on the description of the meeting: the Chinese said that the Dalai Lama did an act of homage to the emperor, while the Tibetans said that it were only a simple handshake between two persons of the same role.
The only point of convergence was about the mutual assignment of some honorific titles that did not involve any form of submission [4].

In the seventeenth century, Tibet enjoyed a long period of stability due to the unification under the government of the fifth Dalai Lama, although the factor of territorial cohesion disappeared in a few years after his death [5].
His successor, the sixth Dalai Lama Tshangs dbyangs rGya mtsho, did not undertake the strong domestic and foreign policy that would have insured the support of the Mongol tribes. He was instead a sensitive person and man of letters, very little inclined to cenobitic life, and did not have any expertise with the art of war. He was eventually assassinated at a young age.

During such period the country was joined by some Christian missions, especially that of the Jesuit Ippolito Desideri (1684-1733) and that of the Capuchin Francesco Orazio Olivieri da Pennabilli (Orazio della Penna, 1680-1745). The latter was the author of a Tibetan-Italian dictionary, the first ever compiled in a European language, for a total of over thirty thousand translated words.

The Chinese Emperor Kangxi. © Lorenzo Rossetti
The Chinese Emperor Kāngxī
graphics by the author
Because of the looming threat of Mongols on Tibet, towards the beginning of the eighteenth century the Tibetan government invoked the intervention of China. Emperor Kāngxī (1654-1722) wanted to establish the protection of the Celestial Empire on Tibet as a reward for the successful military action.
Two Amban (senior officers) were taken to Lhasa, and stayed there for the next two centuries.

Meanwhile, during the exile of the seventh Dalai Lama bsKal bzang rGya mtsho (Kelzang Gyatso, 1708-1757) in eastern Tibet, a secular figure seized again the power in Lhasa: he was the military officer Pho lha bSod nams sTobs rgyas (Pholhana), loyal to China, who ruled from 1728 to 1747. Promoter of relative era of peace, he allowed the return of the Dalai Lama from exile, restored a little social peace and resumed the diplomatic relations with Mongols.
The country, geographically isolated and economically unproductive, was not the subject of close protection by China, mainly concerned to defend its territory against the attacks of neighboring countries.
The turning point came with the ineptitude of the son of Pholhana, Gyur med rNam rgyal (Gyurme Namgyal), who was finally assassinated by order of the Amban (1750). Thus it was restored the Celestial Empire's direct rule on Tibet, and the Chinese emperor Qiánlóng (1711-1799) decided to concede the power on Tibet to the seventh Dalai Lama.

In the meanwhile, the expansion policy pursued by Nepal during the years following the unification of the country (1768) by king Pŗthvī Nārāyaņa Śāha (Prithvi Narayan Shah) led to the Tibeto-Nepalese war. Tibetan weakness emerged in 1788 with the imposition by the Gorkha army of a heavy toll of war. Even in this case was decisive the intervention of China, quickly droving the Nepalese to the outskirts of Kathmandu.
As result of that victory, the relations between Tibet and China were further consolidated through the promulgation, by the will of Emperor Qiánlóng, of a 29 articles regulation (1793), focused on procedures for exercising the protectorate, defining in detail the hierarchy of positions, establishing the obligation of the Chinese imperial confirmation for the public Tibetan offices and establishing the system of the golden pot for the election of the most prominent religious offices.

The nineteenth century was a period characterized by an easing of Sino-Tibetan relations due to the internal problems of both countries: in China after Qiánlóng's death began a long process of decline of the Qīng Dynasty, while Tibet was the prey of the strong conflict between the aristocrat's families and religious orders. At the same time there had been some Nepalese, British and Russians attempts to dominate the country, almost all failed or harbingers of little successes.

In 1904 the British expedition led by Colonel Younghusband was able to penetrate first to Gyantse and then to Lhasa. The resulting agreement established a British priority on Tibet and the prohibition of interference by any foreign power.
The Dalai Lama repaired in the meantime in Mongolia. If at first China did not recognize the agreement, later it agreed to pay the compensation, wishing to reaffirm its sovereignty over the territory of Tibet.

With the subsequent Treaty of Peking (1906) Britain gave up its expansionist ambitions on Tibet, leaving the field open to China. The Chinese proceeded to militarily pacify the turbulent region of the eastern Tibetan ethnolinguistic area following some serious turmoils.

In 1910 the decadent Qīng empire decided to invade Tibet to hold its sovereignty, and the thirteenth Dalai Lama Thub bstan rGya mtsho (Thubten Gyatso) fled to India.
This attempt, however, was never carried out: the following year the Chinese monarchy was overthrown, and Sūn Yixiān (Sun Yat-sen) proclaimed the republic on January 1, 1912 assuming himself the presidency.
On October 28, 1912 the republican government promulgated a decree in which it asserted that even under the new political system, China would ensure protection to the Tibetan ruler and his people.
Thubten Gyatso, returning home, said that having been dissolved the personal bond between "priest and patron" linking the Dalai Lama to the Emperor, Tibet would have no longer enjoyed the protection of China.

On February 4, 1913 the Thirteenth Dalai Lama issued a proclamation that is widely considered the declaration of Tibet's independence: "We [Thubten Gyatso] returned safely to Our rightful and sacred country, and We are now in the course of driving out the remnants of Chinese troops from DoKham in Eastern Tibet. Now, the Chinese intention of colonizing Tibet under the patron-priest relationship has faded like a rainbow in the sky" and even "We are a small, religious, and independent nation [...] To safeguard and maintain the independence of our country, one and all should voluntarily work hard" [6].
These words were followed by the expulsion of the Ambans and the few Chinese officials still living in Lhasa.
The Government of the Republic of China offered a treaties' revision on the status of Tibet in order to adapt Tibet's status to the new institutional structure. The Chinese positions were entirely rejected by the Tibetan side.

In 1913, Tibet and China were invited separately to the Śimla conference, convened by Great Britain in order to discuss on Asian geopolitic questions. Great Britain claimed to be able to recognize the sovereignty but not the independence of Tibet, but China left the conference without waiting for his end.
On the other hand, it informally arised the idea of an autonomous and independent outer Tibet with Lhasa as capital, and an inner Tibet formed by the populations of Tibetan ethnic group and language under the tutelage of China.

From 1913 to 1933 it was not allowed the presence throughout the country of Chinese military troops and officials. During the following period there has been the renewed presence of a Chinese delegation in Lhasa, never recognized by the Tibetans as an external sovereignty representative. The country therefore remained in a state of de facto independence until 1951.

In China, after the death of President Yuán Shìkai, the Guómíndǎng (Kuomintang) nationalists of Jiǎng Jièshí (Chiang Kai-shek) and the Communists of Máo Zédōng (Mao Tse-tung) were involved in a long power struggle that was only interrupted during the Japanese invasion. In 1949, after the victory of chairman Mao Tse-tung, generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek fled to the island of Formosa (Taiwan).

The Thirteenth Dalai Lama Thubten Gyatso
The Thirteenth Dalai Lama Thubten Gyatso
graphics by the author
During this period Tibet voluntary self-insulated, almost ignoring the happenings of the world (and also these of the neighboring countries).
The reform agenda pursued by the thirteenth Dalai Lama and the Minister Tsha rong (Tsarong) concerning transports, education, communications, money and public administration was short-lived because of the clergy's strenuous opposition. The country found thus itself, at the turn of mid-twentieth century, completely unfit for the future challenges.
Following the death of Thubten Gyatso in 1933, bsTan 'dzin rGya mtsho (Tenzin Gyatso), born in 1935, was recognized as the new Dalai Lama. Between 1933 and 1951 there was a period of internal turmoil dominated by the conflict between supporters of the two regents' factions, that of the abbot of Rva sgreng (Reting) and that of the abbot of sTag brag (Tagtra), who took the rule of Tibet during the minority of the fourteenth Dalai Lama.

Once ended the civil war in China, the Government of the People's Republic of China directed a military campaign aimed, according to the propaganda, to the "liberation" of Tibet, considered as the servant of the "imperialist yoke" [7].
The Tibetan army, small in number and poorly equipped, was unable to resist to the onslaught of a modern army, hardened by many years of war.
After a few months, the People's Liberation Army entered Chamdo (Eastern Tibet) almost without obstacles.
The Dalai Lama was integrated in the Chinese government as "Vice-President of the National Assembly of the People's Republic of China" [8], a high-sounding but purely honorary title.
The old Tibetan government, while remaining formally in office, lost the executive power that was took over by a military junta.

Since 1951 the needings of the Chinese troops in Tibet became more and more consistent that happened a famine, exacerbated by the agrarian reform and the promotion of exogenous crops instead of the traditional barley.

The inhabitants of Lhasa, meeting in the Mi mang Tsong du (popular assembly), began increasingly to criticize the administration of the Chinese military, not only against the rising food prices but even against the methods of recruitment in the army and the limitation of the powers to the Dalai Lama.

Tibetan Prime minister kLu khang ba (Lukhangwa) resigned in 1952 following the request of the military junta to integrate the Tibetan army in the People's Liberation army and to replace the Tibetan flag with that of China. No one was more appointed after him and the office remained vacant [9].

In 1954 the Dalai Lama went to Beijing to participate to the National Assembly of the People's Republic of China. He had in the meanwhile some talks with Mao Tse-tung, hoping for a resolution of the problems and in a cautious appeasement between the two parts.
Contrary to the premises, when the delegation returned home, the relationships continued to worsen because of the growing people's unhappiness: then occurred the first sporadic protests and sabotages carried out by former soldiers of the Tibetan army and by hiding civilians. The union of these forces will constitute, years later, the corps of resistance known as Chu bzhi sgang drug (Chushi Gangdruk "four rivers and six mountains").

The culmination of the tensions was the uprising of Lhasa on March 10, 1959 [10].
In fear of an attack or of the deportation to China of the Dalai Lama himself, the Tibetan government planned to escape to India, while thousands of people gathered around the summer Palace of Nor bu gling ka (Norbulingkha).
On this occasion the Chinese artillery began bombing the building, but the Dalai Lama already fled secretly, with the favour of the darkness and disguised as a soldier, and took his way to India.
The caravan went to south through the Himalayas, crossing the Indian border and arriving after a few days to Tezapura, city of Assam [11].
The Tibetan government was declared illegal by the People's Republic of China on March 28, 1959.

The Dalai Lama was welcomed as a religious leader from the Indian Prime Minister Javāharalāla Nehru (Jawaharlal Nehru) and there was set up a special train that travelled westward to the town of Massūrī (Mussoorie).

There Tenzin Gyatso officially formed the Tibetan Government in exile, and his first act was to recognize no more the "seventeen points agreement" (the conditions imposed by China in 1951).
After the short period of Mussoorie, the interim government of Tibet found its permanent seat in Dharamaśālā (Dharamsala), in which it operates nowadays with its democratized institutions: the bKa' shag or Kashag (Council of Ministers), the Assembly of Tibetan people (parliament elected by the Tibetans in exile) and the judiciary court for the settlement of disputes within the refugees' community.

In the following years and until today the lives of Tibetans in Tibet and those of Tibetans under China remain divided and, more rarely, can meet. The fracture of 1959 has also rise a problem of legitimacy of the involved parts (the Chinese government, the government in exile) that from a purely political conflict, has also moved to the social, religious and ethnic point of view, eventually involving the local communities and the Buddhist hierarchies.

For the history of Tibet from 1959 to the present day see also the Tibetan question (in Italian).

  1. For the transliteration and/or Romanization of names of places, things and people from the Tibetan has been used the Wylie system. For Chinese has been used the Pinyin with an indication of tones and finally, for the words derived from Sanskrit, has been used the IAST system. In brackets are also shown the more widespread phonetic transcriptions.
  2. The pillar still exists and is located in the city of Lhasa, near the temple of the Jo khang. The text is available in English on the website of the Tibet Justice Center,
  3. The abbot of Drepung was also recognized as the leader of the Gelug Order. The first two Dalai Lama, awarded retrospectively of that dignity were therefore dGe 'dun grub (Gendun Drup, 1391-1474) and dGe 'dun rGya mtsho (Gendun Gyatso, 1475-1542).
  4. L. Deshayes, Storia del Tibet, Newton Compton, Roma, 1998, p.126
  5. On the death of the fifth Dalai Lama, the regent Sangs rgyas rGya mtsho (Sangye Gyatso, 1653-1705) did not disclose the news to not destabilize the country, announcing instead a retreat of the monarch. The truth was discovered only after fourteen years, when it was no longer possible to deny the evidence of the death of Lobsang Gyatso.
  6. The text of the statement is available in English on the website of the Tibet Justice Center,
  7. Radio Beijing, broadcast of October 25, 1950. Cit. in P. Verni, Dalai Lama. Biografia autorizzata, Jaca Book, Milano, 1990, p.88
  8. At that time the political address of China was still the one to seek legitimacy through integration of high-ranking Tibetans in the new structure of the socialist state.
  9. In the old Tibetan system of government known as the dGa' ldan pho brang or Ganden Potrang (Ganden Palace), to that position corresponded another of of religious nature. The resignation of the secular Prime Minister Lukhangwa was also followed by those of bLo bzang bKra shis (Lobsang Tashi), its counterpart belonging to the clergy
  10. In a far from peaceful atmosphere, the Dalai Lama was invited to attend a theatrical performance at the Chinese garrison. However, it was specified that would not be permitted the presence of any personal guard.
  11. It seems plausible that the Chinese army had no real interest in stopping the flight of the Dalai Lama, now regarded as the last obstacle to be removed before proceeding with the implementation of the Maoist reforms in Tibet.