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History of Tibet (Po)

Human beings first inhabited to the Tibetan Plateau at least twenty thousand years ago, although some archaeological data suggests that human beings may have first inhabited Tibet as early as half a million years ago.

Buddhism has always played a vital role in the history of Tibet. For centuries, almost all the historians in Tibet were Buddhist monks. Therefore, the history of Tibet itself is largely focused around the history of Buddhism in Tibet.

It is interesting to note that Tibetans themselves call their land rather than Tibet. The name Tibet is derived from ancient Chinese references to Tubo.

The Founding of the Tibetan Empire (7th Century)

According to the earliest known historical records in Tibet, the Zhang Zhung people migrated from the Amdo region into the region now known as Guge in Western Tibet. The Zhang Zhung were the first known practitioners of the Bön religion, a pre-Buddhist animistic religion that is still practiced by some Tibetans. The Zhang Zhung continued to dominate the culture and religion of Tibet until the 7th century AD.

Namri Löntsän (also known as Namri Songtsen) and his son, Songtsän Gampo, are widely considered the co-founders of the Tibetan Empire (7th century). Although traditional Tibetan history records 31 kings who reigned before Namri Löntsän, it is possible that his predecessors only ruled Lhasa, the Yarlung valley and its surrounds rather than greater Tibet.

Namri Löntsän was a member of the Yarlung tribe, who lived in the Yarlung valley south-east of Lhasa - a valley made fertile by the Yarlung Tsangpo river (known as the Brahmaputra river in India). The Tibetan plateau was, at this time, a mosaic of clans. The energetic Namri Löntsän united some tribes of is valley and quickly progressed into the expansion of his territories, setting up the basis of future military exploits.

Songsten Gampo's statue at YerpaSongtsän Gampo: When Namri Löntsän died by poisoning, circa 618 AD, his son Songtsän Gampo took control after quelling a brief rebellion.

Songtsän Gampo (born circa 604 AD, died 650 AD) was the first great emperor who expanded Tibetan power beyond Lhasa and the Yarlung Valley, annexing the regions dominated by the Zhang Zhung for centuries. He is traditionally credited with introducing Buddhism to Tibet.

Tibetan history records a long list of emperors between the 7th and the 11th century. From the time of the King Songtsän Gampo, the power of the Tibetan empire gradually increased.

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9th to 11th Century

Map of Tibet in 800 ADIn the opening years of the ninth century, in the reign of the emperor Ralpacan (815 - 838 AD), Tibet's influence extended to Bengal in the South and Mongolia in the North.

King Ralpacan is important to Tibetan Buddhists as one of the three Dharma Kings who brought Buddhism to Tibet. He was a generous supporter of Buddhism and invited many craftsmen, scholars and translators to Tibet from neighbouring countries. He also promoted the development of written Tibetan and translations, which were greatly aided by the development of a detailed Sanskrit-Tibetan lexicon called the Mahavyutpatti which included standard Tibetan equivalents for thousands of Sanskrit terms.

It was under the reign of Ralpacan that the political power of Tibet was at its greatest extent, and Tibet entered into treaties with China on a mutual basis. Ralpacan was apparently murdered by two pro-Bön ministers, who then placed his anti-Buddhist brother, Langdarma, on the throne.

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Buddhism during Langdarma's reign

Prayer wheels at Sakya MonasteryDuring the reign of Langdarma three monks had escaped from the troubled region of Lhasa to Mt. Dantig in Amdo. Their disciple Muzu Saelbar, later known as the scholar Gongpa Rabsal (832-915), was responsible for the renewal of Buddhism in northeastern Tibet.

Guardian lion at Sakya MonasteryGongpa Rabsal is considered the progenitor of the Nyingma school of Tibetan Buddhism. According to tradition, one of Ösung's descendants, who had an estate near Samye, sent ten young men to be trained by Gongpa Rabsal. Once trained, these young men went back to central regions of Tibet and spread the faith. This eventually resulted in 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. The Tsurphu Monastery, home of the Karmapa sect of Buddhism, was founded in 1155.

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The Mongols and Sakyas

Sakya PanditaWhen Langdarma died, there was a controversy over whether he would be succeeded by his alleged heir Yumtän, or by another son (or nephew) Ösung. A civil war ensued, and the Tibetan empire began to break up. Central rule was largely nonexistent over the Tibetan region from the end of Landarma's reign in 842 AD to 1247, when the Mongols invaded Tibet and almost all Tibetan states submitted to the Mongols. Prince Godan, grandson of Genghis Khan, befriended the prominent Sakya lama, Sakya Pandita.

Prince Godan received various initiation rites and the Sakya sect of Tibetan Buddhism became the religion of the ruling line of Mongol khans. In return, after the Mongol invasion of 1247 led to the submission of almost all Tibetan states, Sakya Pandita was appointed Viceroy of Tibet by the Mongol court in 1249.

The hegemony of Sakya Pandita and his successors (various Sakya lamas) over Tibet continued into the middle of the fourteenth century, although it was briefly challenged by a revolt of the Drikung Kagyu sect in 1285.

Tibet would be ruled by a succession of Sakya lamas until 1358, when central Tibet came under control of the Kagyu sect. By the 1370s the lines between the schools of Buddhism were clear.

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The Gelugpa Sect

The following 80 years or so were a period of relative stability. They also saw the birth of the Gelugpa school (also known as Yellow Hats) by the disciples of Tsongkhapa Lobsang Dragpa. During this time, the Ganden, Drepung, and Sera monasteries near Lhasa were established.

After the 1430s, the country entered another period of internal power struggles.

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Sonam Gyatso and the Dalai Lamas

Sonam GyatsoIn 1569, Altan Khan, the Mongol Emperor, invited a Buddhist monk named Sonam Gyatso to his court. Sonam Gyatso was an Abbot at the Drepung Monastery, widely considered one of the most eminent lamas of his time.

Sonam Gyatso refused to go to the Emperor's court, and sent a disciple instead. In 1573, Altan Khan took some Tibetan Buddhist monks prisoner. He invited Sonam Gyatso to Mongolia again in 1578, and this time the monk accepted the Emperor's invitation. They met at the site of Altan Khan's new capital, Koko Khotan (Hohhot), and Sonam Gyatso gave teachings to a huge crowd there.

Sonam Gyatso became the first Dalai Lama, but since he was the third member of his lineage, he became known as the "Third Dalai Lama." The previous two titles (First and Second Dalai Lamas) were conferred posthumously upon his earlier incarnations.

Sonam Gyatso's message was that the time had come for Mongolia to embrace Buddhism; that from that time on there should be no more animal sacrifices; the images of the old gods were to be destroyed; there must be no taking of life, animal or human; military action must be given up; and the immolation of women on the funeral pyres of their husbands must be abolished.He also secured an edict abolishing the Mongol custom of blood-sacrifices.

Sonam Gyatso publicly announced that he was a reincarnation of the Tibetan Sakya monk Drogön Chögyal Phagpa (1235-1280) who converted Kublai Khan, while Altan Khan was a reincarnation of Kublai Khan (1215-1294), the famous ruler of the Mongols and Emperor of China, and that they had come together again to cooperate in propagating the Buddhist religion.

Yonten Gyatso (1589 – 1616), the fourth Dalai Lama and a non-Tibetan, was the grandson of Altan Khan. He died in 1617 in his mid-twenties.

Lobsang Gyatso, the Great Fifth Dalai Lama, (1617-1682) was the first Dalai Lama to wield effective political power over central Tibet. The fifth Dalai Lama unified Tibet under the control of the Geluk school of Tibetan Buddhism, after defeating the rival Kagyu and Jonang sects.

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Europeans in Tibet

António de AndradeThe first Europeans to arrive in Tibet were Portuguese missionaries who first arrived in 1624 led by António de Andrade, and were welcomed by the Tibetans who allowed them to build a church. The 18th century brought more Jesuits and Capuchins from Europe who gradually met opposition from Tibetan lamas who finally expelled them from Tibet in 1745.

However, at the time not all Europeans were banned from the country — in 1774 a Scottish nobleman, George Bogle, came to Shigatse to investigate trade for the British East India Company, introducing the first potatoes into Tibet.

By the early 19th century the situation of foreigners in Tibet grew more precarious. The British Empire was encroaching from northern India into the Himalayas and Afghanistan and the Russian Empire of the tsars was expanding south into Central Asia and each power became suspicious of intent in Tibet. In 1840, Sándor KorÖsi Csoma arrived in Tibet, hoping that he would be able to trace the origin of the Magyar ethnic group.

By the 1850s Tibet had banned all foreigners from Tibet and shut its borders to all outsiders.

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20th Century to the Present

Francis YounghusbandAt the beginning of the twentieth century the British and Russian Empires were competing for supremacy in Central Asia. To forestall the Russians, in 1904, a British expedition led by Colonel Francis Younghusband was sent to Lhasa to force a trading agreement and to prevent Tibetans from establishing a relationship with the Russians.

Despite a mutual agreement between the Tibetans and Younghusband not to attack each other, Younghusband attacked, and the British soldiers mowed down the Tibetans with machine guns as they fled. In a telegraph to his superior in India, the day after the massacre, Younghusband stated: "I trust the tremendous punishment they have received will prevent further fighting, and induce them to at last to negotiate."

When the British mission reached Lhasa, the Dalai Lama had already fled to Urga in Mongolia, and Younghusband found the option of returning to India empty-handed untenable, so he proceeded to draft a treaty unilaterally. The treaty included clauses requiring Tibet to open its border with British India, allow British and Indian traders to travel freely, and not to impose customs duties on trade with India.

In the years that followed, Britain, Russia and China signed treaties and agreements amongst themselves deciding the fate of Tibet without Tibetan participation or consent.

However, conditions improved somehwat and the Dalai Lama was about to return to Lhasa from Amdo in the summer of 1909, when the Chinese decided to send military forces to Lhasa to keep control over him. The Dalai Lama once again fled, this time to India, and was deposed by the Chinese.

The 13th Dalai Lama returned to Tibet from India in July 1912 (after the fall of the Qing dynasty), and expelled all Chinese troops.

In 1913, the 13th Dalai Lama issued a proclamation that stated that the relationship between the Chinese emperor and Tibet "had been that of patron and priest and had not been based on the subordination of one to the other. We are a small, religious, and independent nation."

From 1912 to 1949, Tibet enjoyed a period of de facto independence, while China endured its Warlord era, civil war, and World War II.

From 1950 to 1959, Chinese influence and dominance over Tibet increased once again, until things came to a head in 1959 when the 14th Dalai Lama fled Lhasa, Tibet, for Dharamsala in India where he lives to this day.

Since the 1950s, Tibetans have made their way to India, Canada, Switzerland and many other countries. With the spread of Tibetan people worldwide, Tibetan Buddhism has also captured the hearts and minds of the West, with many new stupas and monasteries being established all over the world.

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Source: This synopsis of the history of Tibet was sourced from Wikipedia.org under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License. Read a more detailed history of Tibet at Wikipedia.org.

All the photographs are from Wikipedia.org except "Prayer wheels at Sakya" and "Guardian lion at Sakya", both © Everest Kailash Treks & Tours.

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