Tibetan History


Geographical Formation of Tibet

The true history of any region cannot be fully understood without knowing the basic characteristics of a region and its inhabitants. The Tibetan plateau neighbors the mighty Himalayan ranges with average altitudes ranging between 4000m and 5000m. It has a large number of the world’s highest peaks including Mt. Everest which is located on the Tibetan border.
This is why Tibet is often called “the roof of the world” or “the third pole”. Tibet represents about a quarter of its motherland Chinese territory with only 1/500th of its population. It is a land of extreme living conditions and low population density. The low population is due to its high altitude and cold weather. Snow-capped mountains can be seen throughout the plateau and most Asian Subcontinent rivers originate from snowmelt.
Tibet occupies the site of the ancient Thetis Sea (Tethys), which separated the old Asiatic and Australian continents millions of years ago. The displacement of the tectonic plates broke the Australian plate into three parts. The north which became India was detached and in rapid displacement towards the north raised sediments of the sea of Thetis (Tethys) and formed the Tibetan plateau and the Himalayas.
The central plate formed the Australian continent and the southern one constituted the Antarctic continent. In the shock of displacement, basalt and hard stones accumulated the Himalayas. The sediments that form the Tibetan plateau are not solid, which means the plateau is constantly eroding. The majority of Tibet does not have an outlet for seawater. Therefore, the creation of large salt lakes and stockpiles remained and became the basis of foreign trade in Tibet.
The largest rivers of India and China flow on the plateau. These rivers all carry considerable amounts of alluvia which is why the water runs with a reddish color. The silt within these waters also contributes to the richness and fertility of the surrounding countries. It should be noted that all ancient civilizations were born the same.
Indeed, rivers were the first sprouts of human civilization. Tibet’s flowing rivers brought vast quantities of silt. The Tibetan civilization first began on the bank of the Brahmaputra or Yarlung Tsangpo River in Yarlung Valley.

The myth about Tibetan evolution

Classical local mythology describes Tibetans as descendants of a monkey and a rock-ogress. It was in a cave on the Gonpo Ri hill in the Yarlong Valley of Tsedang (Southern Tibet). Here, the sublime Avalokiteshvara, conferring layperson’s vows upon a magical monkey, dispatched him to meditate in Tibet. There, beside a black rock, in devoted contemplation of the profound Dharma of emptiness, a rock-ogress, suffering from her karma, approached him.
Before she departed, she developed a carnal desire for the monkey. Later, disguised as a woman, the ogress returned and said to the monkey, ‘Let us be married!’ But the monkey replied, ‘As I am a disciple of the sublime Buddha, it would break my vows to become your husband’. ‘If you reject me monkey, I will have to commit suicide because I am destined in my previous incarnation to be turned into a demon.
Soon I will become the wife of a devil and give birth to countless devil sons and grandsons. At that time, the plateau will be plunged into a world filled with devils, and thousands of people will be killed”. Exclaimed the rock-ogress as she threw herself at the monkey’s feet.

The monkey was struck by the dilemma and returned to Mt. Pota to seek guidance from Mother Buddha. She said: “This is destiny and this is an auspicious sign. It is a kindness to marry her and reproduce offspring on the plateau. As a Buddha, you should not hesitate to conduct kind deeds. Get back to marry the ogress.”

Then they got married and brought six baby monkeys into the world at first. They each had different hobbies and dispositions. These six babies, according to some stories, led to the existence of six main tribes in Tibet, according to some stories.

Others have said that each was reborn from one of the six classes of beings. The monkey children were reborn from among the denizens of the hell realms, possessed a stern disposition, and could withstand severe hardships. The child from the realm of hungry ghosts had loathsome features and an insatiable appetite.
The one reborn from the animal realm was stupid and vulgar. The monkey-child from the human realm was endowed with increasing wisdom and sensitivity. The one from the realm of demigods was aggressive and jealous, and the monkey-child from the realm of gods was patient and virtuous.

Later when the number of offspring multiplied exponentially by reproduction, and they had eaten up all the natural fruits and created a hunger crisis, they were able to overcome their hardships with the kind help of the mother Buddha and they were able to cultivate crops.

After some time, physical changes appeared as the tails were shortened, and gradually they could speak a common language. Finally, they evolved into human beings, the ancestors of the Tibetan people.

This story of human evolution in Tibetan culture is very popular. It was retold in many ancient scriptures as well as on the murals of some old temples like the Jokhang temple in Lhasa. As Charles Darwin said, we evolved from monkeys.

Tibet history

Humans have inhabited the Tibetan plateau for at least twenty years. This population was largely replaced around 3,000 BCE by Neolithic immigrants from northern China. However, there is “partial genetic continuity between the Paleolithic inhabitants and the contemporary Tibetan populations”. Some archaeological data suggests humans may have passed through Tibet at the time India was first inhabited, half a million years ago.

The earliest Tibetan historical texts identify the Zhang Zhung culture as a people who migrated from the Amdo region into what is now Guge in western Tibet. Zhang Zhung is considered the original home of the Bön religion. In the 1st century BCE, a neighboring kingdom arose in the Yarlung Valley. The Yarlung king, Drigum Tsenpo, attempted to remove the influence of Zhang Zhung by expelling Bön priests from Yarlung. They were assassinated and Zhang Zhung continued to dominate the region until it was annexed by Songtsen Gampo in the 7th century.

King Songtse Gampo

The first influential Tibetan king and successor to Namri Songtsen. He became king at 13 when his father Namri Songtsen was assassinated. Tradition says he was threatened by poison and escaped several assassination plots. To maintain Tibet’s unity, he traveled the country with his army.

Songtsen Gampo has three wives. The Tibetan woman named Mongsa Tricham gave birth to his only son Gungri Gongtsen. Later he married Princess Brikuti, daughter of Nepal’s king Amçuvarman. The newly crowned king sent an embassy to Chinese Emperor Taitsong, the second emperor of the Tang dynasty, to claim a Chinese princess. However, he was refused. Tibetans attributed this refusal to Tou-yu-hour. The Emperor of China had sent three armies to control them.

After 7 years of war and no revocation of Tibetan armies, the Emperor offered Princess Wencheng. According to Chinese annals, the Tibetan king traveled to meet his bride and practiced Chinese rites in Hong-yuan (Kansu). He was overwhelmed by the Chinese Empire’s splendor and customs. To express his thanks, he sent his prime minister to present a 7-foot gold statue weighing 1100 ounces.
Later a catastrophic flood destroyed all the villages in the Yarlung valley and covered the fertile soils with sand, causing the valley to lose its importance. The king settled in Lhasa and build an impressive palace known as Potala, or the red palace. This was for his Chinese wife Princess Wencheng.
Until the arrival of the 5th Dalai Lama, all the kings were headquartered here. By coincidence, this Potala name was the name of the place, in the south of India, where a saint lived named Avalokitesvara. This saint is a God of compassion or the Dalaï Lama, 10 centuries later, became the terrestrial representative of Buddha.

Nepalese and Chinese princesses were devoted Buddhists, competing to build temples and monasteries. They were deified later as incarnations of the goddess Tara, green Tara for Nepalese and white Tara for Chinese. There was a Buddha statue in each of the dowries as part of their dowry. In the newly built town of Lhasa, a large temple was built, called Jokhang. This temple was to shelter the statues of the 12-year-old Buddha made of solid gold which had arrived with a Chinese princess.

On its arrival in Lhasa, within 200m of the objective, the carriage sank on marshy ground. Ramoche, another temple, was built on this site. After numerous adventures, the Chinese statue arrived in Jokhang and later, the statue of the Nepalese Princess found its place in the temple of Ramoche. These temples still exist as do the statues.
With these marriages to foreign princesses, cultural exchanges naturally occurred. Ink, paper, and tea came from China, as did precious jewels from India. A Chinese Embassy on its way to Maghada was damaged while traveling through Bihar, India. King Songtsen Gampo then dispatched an army, destroyed the Bihar king’s army, captured him, and sent him in a cage to his friend the Emperor of China.
His successors took over the Tou-yu-houen territory bordering China. The Tibetan armies in 670 seized all Turkestan from the Chinese, before penetrating into Sichuan and Yunnan where they occupied 18 prefectures. Nepal was also conquered. A new period of peace began when Trisong Delsen married Chinese princess Kin-tch’eng.

The introduction of Buddhism from India and the invention of Tibetan writing adapted from Bali and Sanskrit are two of the most important contributions to the development of Tibet’s kingdom and its culture.

King Songtsen Gampo sent ministers to India and neighboring countries to develop the Tibetan written language by studying other languages. Many of them died. Then a minister, Thon-mi Sambhota, in AD 640 decided to study Sanskrit in Kashmir. On his return, he devised an entirely different syllabus of 30 consonants and 4 vowels to suit his own Tibetan language. Thon-mi Sambhota created eight Tibetan grammar treatises, two of which survive today.


Langdarma assassination and end of King’s dynasty

In 836, King Ralpachen was strangled by his brother Langdarma under Bön’s traditionalist pressure. Langdarma took his place and sent away the foreign monks. A few years later he was assassinated by a monk disguised as a dancer during a festival in 842. He was struck by a poisoned arrow that pierced through his neck and nailed him to his seat. This ended the king’s dynasty in Tibet, called Tsenpo Dhurab in Tibet.

Tibet divided or second diffusion of Buddhism (842-1247)

After the assassination of Langdarma, the central state collapsed and the whole society was in chaos. Yomten and Namde Osung struggled for their father Langdarma’s legacy. Yomden and his mother with their group attempted to assassinate Namde Osung who had fled to far-western Tibet. Buddhism was in a very critical situation after years of demolition and hostility from the Bon religion. During that time, many small states rose into regional powers.

In 912, Namde Osung (one of Langdarma’s sons) annexed Purang and Guge and established a kingdom with the capital in Guge. At that time the Guge kingdom was the dominant kingdom on the Tibet plateau. Gradually, the kingdom’s power reached further into Ladakh and became powerful in that region.

Later at the end of the 10th century, the religious king of the Guge kingdom-Yeshe O sponsored the revered translator Rinchen Sangpo to construct Buddhist temples at Tsaparang and Toling. It was known as a phase of the Buddhism renaissance in Tibet. In the 11th Century, the king invited the Bengali scholar Atisha(982-1054) to Guge and revitalize Buddhism in Tibet. Then Atisha visited central Tibet and with his chief disciple Dromtenpa Gyalwa Jomney established the Kadampa order with new monasteries such as Reting near Lhasa.

As a result of civil wars among its rulers, Guge, Purang, and Ladakh deteriorated until they were finally dominated by the Sakye monastic regime in 1277.


Mongol invasion and Sakyapa order ruled Tibet (1235-1349)

During Genghis Khan’s reign, the Mongol military power became very strong and conquered almost the whole of Asia. They eventually extended their rule to Europe as far as Hungary. In the beginning, they raided Tibet several times and destroyed many monasteries.


Godan Khan (grandson of Genghis Khan) met Sakya scholar Pandita Gunga Gyaltsen in the Kokonor region. There was a priest-patron relationship between the politically powerful Mongols and the spiritually rich Buddhist Buddhists in the Kokonor region. After a short time, Tibetan Buddhism became Mongolia’s state religion. To pay gratitude to his spiritual leader Sakya Pandita, Godan Khan sent troops to Tibet and defeated all local powers. Sakaypa ruled Tibet for 100 years.


The rise of the Phagmodrupa (1350-1434)

Between 1346 and 1350, Tai Situ Changchub Gyaltsen toppled the Sakyapa order and established the Phagmodrupa dynasty centered at Nedong in Yarlung. During his time he introduced new systems of administration and enacted rules based on those founded by King Songtsen Gampo in the 7th century.

In the following 80 years, various changes in Tibetan Buddhism were also undertaken by Tsongkhapa (1357-1419). He founded the Gelugpa sect (also known as the Yellow Hats) and built significant Buddhist teaching centers like the Ganden monastery close to Lhasa. Later his disciples deeply followed his teachings and founded prominent monastic colleges like Drepung Monastery and Sera Monastery near Lhasa.


Ringpung rule (1478-1565)

Phagmodrupa’s rule was succeeded by the Ringpung prince. The Ringpung prince was well known from the reign of the 5th king of the Phagmodrupa administration Drakpa Gyeltsen (1409-1434). Later the Phagmodrupa king was defeated by the Ringpung king and became the most powerful ruler in Tibet. At that time the king of the Ringpung had a very close connection with Zhamarpa which is a branch of the Karma Kargy School.

Tsanpa ruler (1565-1642);
In 1565, the power of the Ringpung was taken over by the prince of Samdrutse, which is the modern Shigatse, and ruled Tibet for less than two decades.
Beginnings of the Dalai Lama lineage

Dalai Lama is the Mongolian translation of the Tibetan name Gyatso, or “Ocean”, which means “Ocean of Wisdom”, which was given to Sonam Gyatso by Altan Khan of the Tümed Mongols in 1578.

The third head lama of the Gelug school, Sonam Gyatso (1543-1588) converted Altan Khan to Buddhism. It is commonly believed that Altan Khan originated the title, Dalai Lama, meaning “Ocean of Wisdom,” in 1578 to be given to Sonam Gyatso. Others point out that since Gyatso is Tibetan for “ocean,” the title “Dalai Lama” simply might have been a Mongol translation of Sonam Gyatso’s name — Lama Gyatso.

In any event, “Dalai Lama” became the title of the highest-ranking lama of the Gelug school. Since Sonam Gyatso was the third lama in that lineage, he became the 3rd Dalai Lama. The first two Dalai Lama received the title posthumously.

It was the 5th Dalai Lama, Lobsang Gyatso (1617-1682), who first ruled Tibet. The “Great Fifth” formed a military alliance with Mongol leader Gushri Khan. When two other Mongol chiefs and the ruler of Kang, an ancient kingdom in central Asia, invaded Tibet, Gushri Khan routed them. He declared himself king of Tibet. In 1642, Gushri Khan recognized the 5th Dalai Lama as Tibet’s spiritual and temporal leader.


The traditional list of ancient Tibetan rulers includes 42 names. The first 26 rulers may belong to legend, as there is insufficient evidence of their existence. However, modern scholars believe that the kings from this region. from 27 to No. 32 were historical. The rulers from No. 33 to No. 42 are well documented in many reliable Tibetan, Chinese, and foreign sources.

A unified Tibetan state did not exist before kings number 31, 32, and 33. The earlier rulers, known as the Yarlung dynasty, were probably just local chiefs in the Yarlung Valley area, certainly not Tibet’s emperors. Traditional Tibetan titles for the emperor include Tsenpo (“Emperor”) and Lhase (“Divine Son”).

In the list, the common transliteration is given first, and the academic one is in brackets.


Name of the kings


1 Nyatri Tsenpo
2 Mutri Tsenpo
3 Dingtri Tsenpo
4 Sotri Tsenpo
5 Mertri Tsenpo
6 Dakrri Tsenpo
7 Siptri Tsenpo
8 Drigum Tsenpo
9 Chatri Tsenpo
10 Esho Lek
11 Desho Lek
12 Tisho Lek
13 Guru Lek
14 Trongzhi Lek
15 Isho Lek
16 Zanam Zindé
17 Detrul Namshungtsen
18 Senöl Namdé
19 Senöl Podé
20 Senöl Nam
21 Senöl Po
22 Degyel Po
23 Detrin Tsen
24 Tori Longtsen
25 Tritsen Nam
26 Tridra Pungtsen
27 Tritog Jetsen
28 Lha Thothori Nyantsen
29 Trinyen Zungtsen
30 Drongnyen Deu
31 Tagbu Nyasig 579-619
32 Namri Songtsen  ?-629
33 Songtsen Gampo 60?-649
34 Gungsrong Gungtsen 638-655?
35 Mangsong Mangtsen 653-676
36 Tridu Songtsen 676-704
37 Me Agtsom 680-743
38 Trisong Detsen 755-797
39 Muné Tsenpo 797-799?
40 Sadnalegs c. 800 or 804-815?
41 Ralpacan 815-836
42 Langdarma 836-842