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The History of the Tibetan Empire and Its Dazzling Rise to Prominence

The History of the Tibetan Empire and Its Dazzling Rise to Prominence

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One of the overlooked regions in modern historiography is ancient Tibet, an area of great historical importance with a very rich and diverse heritage. Today, the historical area of Tibet is divided amongst several Asian countries, chiefly India, China, Bhutan, and Nepal. But did you know that at one point the Tibetan Empire was independent of any other power, and stretched over a territory far greater than its modern boundaries? This part of Tibet’s history is unique, and the empire owed its prominence to a line of capable and powerful rulers. Today we sketch out the history of the short-lived Tibetan Empire, the man who was instrumental in its rise, and above all, its eventual demise.

A modern road leading through the vast Tibetan Plateau where the Tibetan Empire has its earliest roots in local pastoralist tribes. (lihana / Adobe Stock)

A modern road leading through the vast Tibetan Plateau where the Tibetan Empire has its earliest roots in local pastoralist tribes. ( lihana / Adobe Stock)

How Exactly Did the Tibetan Empire Emerge?

The Tibetan Plateau  is one of Earth’s most iconic regions. It stretches approximately 1,000 kilometers (620 mi) north to south and 2,500 kilometers (1,600 mi) east to west, making it the world’s largest and highest plateau. Its natural borders are the Taklamakan desert to the north, and the Himalayan range to the south.

 

 

Of course, the Tibet region is well known for being the home to the world’s highest mountain, iconic  Mount Everest with a height of 8,848.86 m (29,031.7 ft). As such, the Tibetan Plateau is often called the “Rooftop of the World.” And even though it is so high, and in several regions quite inhospitable, the Tibetan plateau was nevertheless home to many diverse ethnic groups. Many of these were pastoral nomads, continuing age-old traditions that were dominant in these regions. Through time, a distinct Tibetan culture began developing amongst these peoples, and in time, the Tibetan Empire emerged as the greatest civilization and cultural group to flourish in Tibet.

The Tibetan Empire existed from roughly 618 to 842 AD and reached its greatest extent in the 780s. Like the stories of so many of the world’s empires and kingdoms, the story of the Tibetan Empire’s formation likewise begins with an uprising. The core of the state and the might that would later characterize the Tibetan Empire, originated at Taktsé Castle.

The Old Tibetan Chronicle  and generations of preserved Tibetan legend both state that it was from this “castle” that the very first Tibetan kings ruled from. According to legend, it was built by the 9th emperor (ruler) of Tibet, one Chatri Tsenpo. Taktsé Castle became the central base of the Tibetan monarchy and its power. It was the Tibetan capital for a long time, even though today only ruins remain.

Either way, it was from this castle that the seeds of rebellion were sown, and Tibet embarked on the path to an empire. The  Old Tibetan Chronicle  states that a ruler by the name of Tagbu Nyazig, rebelled against one Gudri Zingpoje. The latter was probably a king of Tibet, and a vassal of the powerful neighboring Zhangzhung Empire. Nevertheless, Tagbu Nyazig managed to defeat Gudri Zingpoje. History is terribly murky in these matters, and what little was preserved in the  Old Tibetan Chronicle  is largely mixed with legend. 

Either way, from these factual slivers we can deduce that around the time of this rebellion power in Tibet experienced a great shift. During this period, one of Tibet’s regional clan leaders took advantage of this shift, and the power vacuum that most certainly ensued, and ascended to the top as the most powerful ruler. His name was Namri Songtsen, and he, together with his clan, managed to expand his control and influence over a large region, mostly around what is today the city of  Lhasa.

However, it is documented that around 618 AD Namri Songtsen was assassinated. This provides clear insight into the history of the region. It was certainly a tumultuous period filled with intense power struggles. But even though this regional leader was killed, the expanded state he established was powerful enough to stay afloat and later emerge as the foundation of the Tibetan Empire. It officially declared itself as a dominant player after sending two official delegations to the Chinese  Sui dynasty  in 608 and 609 AD.

Songtsen Gampo: The first emperor of the Tibetan Empire. This statue of him is located in his meditation cave at Yerpa. (The original uploader was John Hill at English Wikipedia. /  CC BY-SA 3.0 )

Just Thirteen Years Old, But Fit To Be An Emperor

Namri Songtsen’s assassination was the result of an attempted  coup d’etat . He was poisoned, most likely by his enemies. However, it was his son Songtsen Gampo that managed to quickly crush these enemies and defeat the attempted coup. And it was Songtsen Gampo that would rise as the first and foremost leader of the Tibetan Empire after successfully solidifying his father’s achievements and further expanding his territories. He is regarded as the first emperor of the Tibetan Empire.

According to several semi-historical accounts that survived in Tibet, Songtsen Gampo was just 13 years old when his father was poisoned. Even so, he succeeded to the throne and crushed his opposition. As the ruler of the Tibetan Empire, Gampo was credited with numerous innovations and developments that greatly benefited his people and his empire. After completing the submission of the Tibetan Plateau and greatly extending his borders, Songtsen Gampo focused on cultural achievements.

It is stated that he sent his chief advisor and minister, Thonmi Sambhota of the Thumi Clan, all the way to India to be educated there, and devise a script for classical spoken Tibetan. The pattern chosen for the development of this script was based on the  Brahmi and Gupta scripts used in India at the time.

Thonmi Sambhota returned to Tibet and apparently spent a great deal of time in a hermitage developing his script. The result was the Tibetan script, which was used for the writing of the very first literary works in Tibet, historical records, and important court documents. Soon after, Songtsen Gampo decided to move the seat of his empire to a new and far better location in the Kyichu Valley, which is today the site of the major city of Lhasa.

The glorious Buddhist Jokhang Monastery in Lhasa was constructed during the early Tibetan Empire by Songtsen Gampo. ( vladimirzhoga / Adobe Stock)

During his rule, the Tibetan Empire became a major regional power, and began importing not only goods, but also scientific and cultural developments from India, Nepal, and China. Furthermore, he is credited with creating a major legal code, and a powerful, organized army. Also, during his rule the famous  Jokhang Monastery  in Lhasa was constructed. Today, the monastery is regarded as the most important religious center in all of Tibet.

A lot of Songtsen Gampo’s power lay in his strong army and large numbers of soldiers. During his rule, several major military campaigns were undertaken, which mostly solidified his power. Early on he led a brief campaign in northern Tibet, utterly defeating the Sumpa tribe. Between 635 and 636, the Tibetan Empire undertook a major military campaign against the Tuyuhun Kingdom, around the shores of Lake Koko Nur. This dynastic kingdom controlled several important trade routes into China. Songtsen Gampo was decisively victorious against this kingdom. 

Next in line for conflict was the Chinese  Tang dynasty  and its territories at the edges of the Tibetan Plateau. These two empires clashed between 635 and 638, and the Tibetans emerged victorious. The result of this victory was the marriage between the Chinese princess Wencheng and Songtsen Gampo (or possibly Songtsen Gampo’s son). The marriage happened around 640 AD, and that is when  Buddhism first arrived at the court of the Tibetan Empire, brought by the princess. Thus, Songtsen Gampo is traditionally credited with introducing Buddhism to Tibet.

A copper plated Sakyamuni Buddha statue from the Tibetan Empire period. (Mountain /  CC0)

The Tibetan Empire Reaches Its Zenith

By 645, Songtsen Gampo, with the aid of his sister, managed to conquer the neighboring Zhangzhung kingdom in western Tibet, incorporating it into his empire and further expanding its borders. Thus, he controlled almost the entire Tibetan Plateau, and was at the height of his power during this time. But by 649/650, this venerated emperor was dead.

He was succeeded by his grandson, Mangsong Matsen, as his own son died before him. During Mangsong’s rule, the expansion of the Tibetan Empire continued steadily. The Tuyuhun kingdom was finally fully incorporated in the boundaries of the empire around 667 AD. By 670, the Tibetans conquered the Khotan kingdom, a powerful Iranian Saka Buddhist state that was a lucrative stop on the  Silk Road .

Section of mural depicting the victory of Tang general Zhang Yichao over the Tibetans at Dunhuang. ( Public domain )

However, from this point onward a long period of conflict with the Chinese Tang Dynasty began. The Tibetans once more managed to gain an upper hand after managing a string of decisive victories in the Tarim Basin, removing Chinese presence from the region and incorporating it into their empire.

However, after the death of Emperor Mangsong Matsen, successes developed into stagnation and trouble. He was succeeded by his minor son, Tridu Songtsen, while actual power was in the hands of the empress regent, his mother.

Soon after the emperor's death, minor uprisings amongst the Zhangzhung peoples began, which had to be quelled. The conflict with the Tang Chinese continued, and the Tibetans now lost control over the Tarim Basin. Peace between the two sides was achieved soon after the Chinese were crushingly defeated in 696.

By the year 700, the Tibetan Empire and the Zhou Chinese were also at peace, and Tridu Songtsen embarked on a series of campaigns in the northeast regions of his empire, mostly against the Nanzhao kingdom. However, he died while on campaign, around 704.

The next decades in the history of the Tibetan Empire followed a roughly similar pattern. The deceased emperor was succeeded by his underage son (again), Tride Tsuktsen. During his rule, the conflict with the Chinese resumed at intervals, mostly during the late 720’s.

Around this time the rising prominence of the  Umayyad Caliphate  and their conflict with the Turgesh Turkic confederation reached Tibet and China as well. The Tibetans were also drawn into this conflict. They allied themselves with the Turgesh, while the Chinese sided with the Umayyads. The conflict lasted for a good number of years, with varying results for both sides.

Nevertheless, by 790 and the rule of Tride Tsuksen’s son, Emperor Trisong Detsen, the Tibetan Empire once more reasserted its domination of the Tibetan Plateau and Central Asia. By 790, it reached its greatest extent when China experienced a period of internal strife.

The Tang-Tibetan Treaty Inscription (front side), which was erected in 823 AD, stands outside the Jokhang Monastery. (Inhorw /  CC BY-SA 3.0 )

The Abrupt End Of A Great Empire

History always teaches us the same lesson: empires rise and then they fall. After the reign of Trisong Detsen, around 820, the Tibetan Empire was at the height of its political influence in the region. However, all of this was soon to collapse.

During the reign of the Emperor Langdarma, the Tibetan Empire was troubled with conflicts on its borders, and with increasing religious strife with pro-Buddhist and pro-Bon factions. And as quickly as it emerged, the Tibetan Empire collapsed when Emperor Langdarma was assassinated in 842 AD. The issue of his succession turned into a large-scale civil war, and then into a series of rebellions against the fragile remnants of imperial Tibet.

What ensued was a fragmented territory ruled by regional warlords, dissolving what was once a large empire into a series of small tribes and kingdoms. The centralized rule of the Tibetan imperial dynasty was quickly displaced, and their power collapsed like a set of dominoes. After a little over 200 years of existence the great jewel of the Tibetan Plateau, the venerable Tibetan Empire, ceased to exist.

Alas, such examples are dime a dozen in the history of the world. Large empires come and go. They rose from the fires of conquest and war only to find their demise in the very same way. The turbulent history of Tibet and  Central Asia , populated with an endless range of ethnicities and small kingdoms, was a clear example of how fragile such an empire could be.

When there are too many players in the game, the rules quickly become muddled and hazy. The rulers of the Tibetan Empire similarly attempted to rule over a huge number of distinct tribes, clans, ethnicities, and kingdoms. In the end these complexities could not be controlled, and the empire fell.

Top image: The Jokhang monastery in Lhasa was founded by the first emperor of the Tibetan Empire.                  Source:  Pav-Pro Photography  / Adobe Stock

By Aleksa Vučković

References:

Beckwith, C. 1993.  The Tibetan Empire in Central Asia.  Princeton University Press.

Bell, C. 1992.  Tibet Past and Present.  Motilal Banarsidass Publishing. 

Powers, J. and Templeman, D. 2020.  Historical Dictionary of Tibet.  Rowman and Littlefield.

 

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