The Legend

Legend holds that the first Tibetans were born from the mating of a monkey emanation of Avalokiteshvara, a patron deity of Tibet, and an ogress of the rocks. This mating is said to have occurred at Zodang Gongpori Cave in South Tibet. From this mating came six children who later multiplied into 400, then divided into 4-6 main tribes. Over time, the monkeys evolved into humans, maintaining both their paternal ancestor's compassion and their maternal ancestor's aggression. Further legend claims that, in the beginning, there were non-humans in power in Tibet, but as their power declined, these "monkey-tribes" took control of the land. These 4-6 tribes eventually formed the twelve ancient kingdoms. Sources suggest that these tribes took control around the 700's (BC) and continued to hold sway until 247 BC.

The Kings


Nyatri Tsampo

In 247 BC, a young man walked down from the mountains. He was an odd young man. Stories say that he had webbed fingers, and that he had eyes like a serpent. When he closed his eyes, the lower lids came up instead of the upper lids coming down. When some local farmers met him walking down from the mountain, they asked him, "Where did you come from?" He pointed up towards the top of the mountain from which he had come. These people were all followers of the Bon religion, and were strongly connected to their Sky God. So, they naturally assumed this strange mutant-like being was a sky god and they carried him into their village on a throne carried at their necks. His name was Nyatri Tsampo, "neck-throne king," and the local tribes made him the first king of Tibet. He was believed by many to be of divine origin and to have been immortal. Legend says that when he died, he rose into heaven on a sky-cord, with no need for a tomb. Others claim that he was of Indian origin, the son of an Indian King, who, because of his strange mutant qualities, was banished from his home and crossed the mountains on foot looking for a new life. Nyatri Tsampo was the first of the seven Heavenly Kings called Tri (247-100BC). These were the first seven Tibetan kings, who were all believed to be immortal, and thus had no need for burial or entombment, all rising to heaven on their sky-cords at the end of their time on earth. Toward the end of this period, the Silk Road opened in the north.

The Arrival of Buddhism

The 8th king, Drigum Tsenpo, "Sword Slain," was said to be under the influence of an Iranian shaman and is said to have accidentally cut his own sky-cord while in a contest of swordsmanship. Thus he became the first mortal king, and from then on the kings were interred in the Chongye Tombs. He and his son were known as the 2 Celestial Kings called Teng (100-50 BC), followed by the 6 Earthly Kings called Lek (50 BC -100 AD), the 8 Middle Kings called De (100 -300 AD), and the 5 Linking Kings called Tsen (300-493 AD). The "Tsen" kings are significant in that up until this point, kings had restricted their marriages to other royalty, and thus were thought to be of godlike quality. During the "Tsen" kings' reigns, kings began to marry among the Tibetan subjects, and were considered to be mortal. During these times, many industries were developed, including metalwork, bridge building, agriculture, animal husbandry, and irrigation. The development of taxation and trade allowed Tibet to prosper, and the value of horses began to rise. A rich Tibetan folkloric tradition was established and Bon priests, or bards, known as "Shen" began to narrate epic tales and sing mysterious riddles throughout the region. During the reign of the last Linking king of Tsen, Lhatotori, the 28th King of Tibet, Buddhism entered Tibet in the form of a list of sutras and other sacred objects falling from the heavens and landing on the palace roof. Since no one could understand their meaning, they were known as the "awesome secret." After this time, Buddhism began to trickle into the country, mingling with the primarily Bon local belief system.

Songtsen Gompo

For the next 200 years, through military and political maneuverings, and the establishment of diplomatic and trade relations, much of the Tibetan plateau became unified, with some kings controlling nearly half of the twelve ancient kingdoms that were said to constitute Tibet. In 617 AD, Songtsen Gompo, the 33rd King of Tibet, ascended the throne and succeeded in unifying all of Tibet for the first time in recorded history. At this time Lhasa became the capital of the Tibetan Empire and the Potala Palace was constructed as Songtsen Gompo's primary residence.  During the course of his unifying actions, and mutual attempts to strengthen relations between Tibet and her neighbors, Nepal and the Tang Dynasty of China, Songtsen Gonpo married two important brides - Princess Wencheng, daughter of the Tang Emperor of China and Princess Bhrikuti, daughter of the King of Nepal. Both the Tang and the Nepali peoples were deeply entrenched in Buddhist thought by this time, and as their dowries, the princesses each brought with them a statue of Shakyamuni Buddha. Songtsen Gompo built two important temples in Lhasa, one to house each statue. Jokhang Temple is the home of Princess Wencheng's statue and Ramoche Temple houses Bhrikuti's statue. Due to his exposure during his unification attempts and also due to the influence of his foreign queens, Songtsen Gompo also became immersed in Buddhist spiritual pursuits, and the spread of Buddhism throughout Tibet became more rapid. The king built a series of temples at important power places throughout the country. These are known as the earliest Buddhist temples in Tibet. Another important task accomplished by Songtsen Gompo was the importation of a writing system to the then solely oral Tibetan tradition. He sent his minister, Tonmi Sambhota, to India to study Sanskrit. From his study, characters were developed to represent the Tibetan language, and Tibetan writing was born.A series of military campaigns were undertaken under Songsten Gompo, spreading the influence of the Tibetan Empire far and wide. This can be evidenced by the preservation of Tibetan Buddhist manuscripts and paintings in the Dunhuang Caves in Gansu province of northern China.

Trisong Detsen

During the reign of Trisong Detsen, thought of as one of the greatest of the Tibetan kings, Buddhism was formally established as the state religion. As the king sought to promote Buddhism throughout his land, he invited Buddhist representatives from India to help found Tibet's first monastery at Samye. According to legend, during the building of this monastery, there were many obstacles that occurred due to hostile non-Buddhist forces, or demons. Every day they would work hard building this structure, and every night the "demons" would tear it all down again, so that in the morning there was only a pile of rubble. In an attempt to counteract these obstacles, the king invited Padmasambhava, the foremost practitioner of Tantric Buddhism and the meditative tradition in India, to come to their aid. Padmasambhava performed a meditative ritual during which he bound the hostile "demons" of Tibet under an oath of allegiance to Buddhism. This binding allowed the construction of the monastery to be completed without further difficulty, and the first Tibetan monks were ordained. The memory of this binding can be seen in Tibetan artwork in monasteries and temples in the form of protector deities. These deities take the shape of horrifying monsters ("demons") in garish colors with many eyes, many heads, and long sharp teeth. These were the demons who once sought to thwart Buddhism, but who are now bound to forever protect it. The establishment of this first monastery and Buddhism as the official state religion of Tibet was of enormous historical significance. The demilitarization of Tibet can be traced back to this event.


The End of the Empire

In the early 800's (AD), the 41st king was assassinated by his disgruntled brother Langdarma, who then became the 42nd king. With Langdarma’s ascension to the throne came a resurgence of the Bon religion which had had strong factions waiting in the wings for a chance to regain control from the now Buddhist majority. His reign ended in a dispute for the throne that dissolved any central authority in Tibet, thus ending the great empire and plunging the land into 300 years of chaos. During this period of anarchy, Buddhist tradition was maintained in certain isolated areas, and perhaps due to this isolation, a number of different branches of Buddhist thought began to emerge.

The Shift to a Spiritual Administration 

Enter the Mongols

In the 1200's, as the Mongolian Army swept across Asia, the Tibetans decided to offer their services to the Mongols as "spiritual advisors" in an attempt to avoid the fate of annihilation suffered by so many other kingdoms. In 1244 Genghis Khan established a "patron-priest" relationship with the Sakyapa Administration (the Buddhist school that was in control at that time). Therefore began the tradition of the Tibetan spiritual leaders administering the land as representatives of an external militarized empire. Numerous administrations followed and for the next 700 years, factions from the various Buddhist schools vied with each other (and with other secular factions) for control of the land, relying on the military backing of the Mongol princes who remained deeply involved in Tibetan political life.


Tsongkhapa and the Dalai Lamas

Je Tsongkhapa was born in Kumbum, and at the age of 6 became a monk at Shachung Monastery. He later moved to Lhasa, where he became the founder of the Gelukpa School, the Yellow Sect of Tibetan Buddhism. He built Ganden Monastery in Lhasa and two of his close disciples founded Sera and Drepung Monasteries. One of these disciples later became the first Panchen Lama. Another disciple of his was Gendun Drupa, who was found to be an emanation of Avalokiteshvara, and who later became the first Dalai Lama (although at this point he was not called the Dalai Lama). Tsongkhapa and the Gelukpa School continued to be extremely influential, and the successive emanations of the Dalai and Panchen Lamas lent much prestige to the Gelukpa School and helped to cement their relationship with the Mongols. The third Dalai Lama traveled to Mongolia to become Spiritual Advisor to Altan Khan and was given the Mongolian title Dalai Lama, which means "Ocean of Wisdom." This title was then retroactively conferred to his previous incarnations. His fourth reincarnation (Dalai Lama IV) was reborn as the grandson of Altan Khan, thus securing the backing of the Mongol armies in the civil wars then raging in Tibet between the Buddhist schools and the Zhigatse princes. During the time of the 5th Dalai Lama (1600's AD), the Mongols (backing the Gelukpa school) succeeded in defeating the opposing factions and left the governance of the Tibetan Plateau in the hands of the fifth Dalai Lama assisted by powerful regents--a pattern which continued for the next 300 years. In successive centuries, there were many political shifts with the Manchus taking over administration of the empire from the Mongols.

Recent History

Central Tibet is currently called the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) or Xizang, a province of the People's Republic of China. The Tibetan Plateau and the Tibetan cultural region stretches into four other Chinese provinces--Qinghai, Gansu, Sichuan, and Yunnan. While the history of this region is complex, we have here given a brief summary of the historical background of the Tibetan people. If you would like to learn more, please consult historical texts, or ask us for advice on where to find further information. 


  • Travel Wild Tibet

©2020 by Travel Wild Tibet