Tibet History

Around 40 million years ago, movement in the earth’s crust formed the Himalayas and a high-altitude plateau that is known as “Tibet” located between two ancient civilizations, China and India. Tibetan history can be traced back thousands of years back. However, the written history only dates back to the 7th century when Songtsan Gampo, the 33rd Tibetan king, sent his minister Sambhota to India to study Sanskrit who on his return invented the present Tibetan script based on Sanskrit.



“Shang Shung Kingdom” was built by people that migrated from the eastern Tibet region to western Tibet. Guge was the capital of “Shang Shung Kingdom.” The “Shang Shung culture” was the culture originally associated with the Bön religion, that had influenced philosophies and practices of Tibetan Buddhism and the original ruler of central and western Tibet.

By the first century B.C., another Tibetan kingdom arose in the Yarlung valley. Drigum Tsenpo – the King of Yarlung Kingdom, attempted to remove the influence of “Shang Shung”. However, the attempt failed and “Shang Shung” continued to dominate the region until it was annexed by King Songtsen Gampo in the 7th century.

Namri Songtsen was the leader of a clan that defeated his neighboring clans and co-founded the Tibet Empire with his son Songtsen Gampo. During this time, two ambassadors were sent to China in 608 and 609 (Tang dynasty), marking the official creation of Tibet.
Songtsen Gampo, the son of the Yarlung King of Namri Songtsen, united the Yarlung River Valley and founded the Tibetan Empire. He married Chinese and Nepalese princesses and Buddhism was introduced to Tibet for the first time.
The second emperor of the Tibetan Empire was Mangsong Mangtsen, but the real power was left in the hands of the minister.
The annals of the Tang Dynasty say that Khri ‘dus-srong btsan was eight years old in 679 AD when he began his reign. Due to his youth, he was enthroned with the minister Khri-‘bring, to act as a regent.
He was officially enthroned in 712 AD. He is usually known by his nickname “Mes-ag-tshoms” (‘Old Hairy’) and he married another Tang dynasty Princess of “Jincheng.” He supported Buddhism shown in the building of five Buddhist temples during that time.
Trisong Detsan was one of the Three Dharma Kings of Tibet who invited two Indian scholars to Tibet, established Nyingma, or the ‘Ancient’ school of Tibetan Buddhism.

The Three Dharma Kings were Songtsän Gampo, Trisong Detsen, and Ralpacan.

The Reign of Mune Tsenpo
Mahayana Buddhism was established as a dominant doctrine during the Great Debate of Samye.
He is referred to as the ‘Son of God’, and was a great supporter of Buddhism inviting many craftsmen, scholars and translators to Tibet from neighboring countries. Buddhism had developed well during this time, and the Tibetan Empire reached its greatest extent including parts of China, India, Nepal, Khotan, Uyghur territory and almost all of modern Gansu.
Langdarma was the last emperor of the unified Tibetan empire, had been anti-Buddhist and a follower of the Bön religion. He banned Buddhism when Bon adherents reacted strongly against the religion. He was assassinated by a monk in 842 AD.
Upon the death of Langdarma, a civil war ensued, Tibet broke into several small kingdoms, and Buddhism had survived in the Kham region. The Second Diffusion revival of Buddhism began with an invitation of Indian scholar Atisha to Guge. Some young people were sent to study Buddhism, and returned to central Tibet, in 1073. Shortly after, Sakya monastery was built, in the 2nd centuries that followed the Sakya monastery grew to a position of prominence in Tibetan life and culture. Meanwhile, The Karmapa Sect of Tsurphu Monastery was founded in 1155.
At the end of the 1230s, the Mongols turned their attention to Tibet. At the time, Mongol armies had already conquered Northern China, much of Central Asia, and as far as Russia and modern Ukraine. In 1247 Sakya was appointed the Mongolian viceroy for Central Tibet, even though the eastern provinces of Kham and Amdo remained under direct Mongol rule. When Kublai Khan founded the Yuan Dynasty in 1271, Tibet became a part of it.

During this time, Tsongkhapa Lobsang Dragpa found Gelukpa sect, also known as the Yellow Hat Religion, and the first monastery of Gelukpa of Samye monastery was built, and the others including, Ganden, Drepung, and Sera monasteries were built near Lhasa.

In 1578, The abbot of Drepung, Sonam Gyatso, received the Mongol title of Dalai Lama. The title ‘Dalai Lama’ has traditionally been translated as the Ocean of Wisdom.

The first Europeans of Portuguese Jesuit missionaries arrived in Tibet during this time. They were allowed to build a church and introduce Christianity after the order of Guge King, who diluted the thriving of Gelukpa and to consolidate his position. However, all missionaries were expelled at lama’s insistence in 1745.

Mongolian King of Güshi Khan acted as a “Protector of the Gelukpa sect ofTibetan Buddhism and helped the Fifth Dalai Lama establish himself as the highest spiritual and political authority in Tibet destroying any potential rivals. The construction of the Potala Palace began under the reign of the Fifth Dalai Lama.

The Qing Dynasty put Amdo under rule in 1724, and incorporated eastern Kham into neighboring Chinese provinces in 1728.

In 1751, Emperor Qianlong installed the Dalai Lama as both spiritual leader and political leader of Tibet leading the government, namely Kashag.

In 1791, the Nepalese invaded Tibet, with assistance of Tibetan troops, Qing dynasty’s army defeated Nepalese troops.

In 1792, the Qing dynasty emperor issued a 29-point decree tightening Qing control over Tibet. The Dalai and Panchen Lamas were no longer allowed to petition the Chinese Emperor directly but could only do so through the Ambans.

By the mid 19th Century Manchu power weakened. Fear raise of Russian interest to control Tibet as a gateway to India. In 1904, a British force invaded Tibet and reached Lhasa and the 13th Dalai Lama fled to Mongolia returning in 1907 when peace concluded between Tibet and the British.

The British invasion alarmed Manchu rulers in China. The Qing dynasty government in Beijing then appointed Zhao Erfeng, the Governor of Xining, Army Commander of Tibet to reintegrate Tibet into China. He was sent in 1905 on a punitive expedition. His troops destroyed many monasteries in Kham and Amdo, and a process of reintegration of Tibet into China begun.

The British invasion occurred in 1904, but its influence continued well into the end of the Qing dynasty. In 1947, the British withdrew from India. In 1949, the Chinese government announced that Tibet was a part of China, then PLA launched into Tibet.

In 1965, Tibet became an Autonomous Region of China.

During China’s Cultural Revolution, Buddhist monasteries in Tibet suffered damage – either through outright destruction or neglect.

Since the early 1980s, Deng-Xiao-Ping’s new policy of tolerance led to the rebuilding of many monasteries and revival of religious practices. Tibetans have been allowed to reactivate and repair surviving monasteries which can be seen in the brief timeline below:

In 1979, the Jorkhang temple, the most sacred shrine in central, re-opened for worship.
In 1980, the first organized group tours arrived in Tibet.
In 1984, Tibet finally opened to independent foreign travelers.

From 1990 to the present Tibet opened to tourists arriving from China and from abroad through Nepal.