The Tibetan Empire existed during the 7th, 8th, and 9th centuries A.D., and ruled an area considerably larger than the Tibetan Plateau that stretched mostly to parts of East Asia, Central Asia and South Asia.
At its height, the empire's influence and control of territories stretched from modern-day Sikkim, East Turkistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Bangladesh, north Pakistan, north Afghanistan, north India, north Nepal, Bhutan and parts of China.
- "This first mention of the name Bod, the usual name for Tibet in the later Tibetan historical sources, is significant in that it is used to refer to a conquered region. In other words, the ancient name Bod originally referred only to a part of the Tibetan Plateau, a part which, together with Rtsaṅ (Tsang, in Tibetan now spelled Gtsaṅ, has come to be called Dbus-gtsaṅ (Central Tibet)."
Traditional Tibetan history preserves a lengthy list of rulers, whose exploits become subject to external verification in the Chinese histories by the seventh century. From the 7th to the 11th century a series of emperors ruled Tibet – see List of emperors of Tibet. Throughout the centuries from the time of the emperor Songtsän Gampo the power of the empire gradually increased over a diverse terrain so that by the reign of the emperor Ralpacan, in the opening years of the ninth century, its influence extended as far south as Bengal and as far north as Mongolia.
The varied terrain of the empire and the difficulty of transportation, coupled with the new ideas that came into the empire as a result of its expansion, helped to create stresses and power blocs that were often in competition with the ruler at the center of the empire. Thus, for example, adherents of the Bön religion and the supporters of the ancient noble families gradually came to find themselves in competition with the recently introduced Buddhism.
Namri Songtsen and founding of the Dynasty
The power that became the Tibetan state originated at the castle named Taktsé (Wylie: Stag-rtse) in the Chingba (Phying-ba) district of Chonggyä (Phyongs-rgyas). There, According to the Old Tibetan Chronicle a group convinced Tagbu Nyazig (Stag-bu snya-gzigs) to rebel against Gudri Zingpoje (Dgu-gri Zing-po-rje), who was in turn a vassal of the Zhangzhung empire under the Lig myi dynasty. The group prevailed against Zingpoje. At this point Namri Songtsen (also known as Namri Löntsän) was the leader of a clan which one by one prevailed over all his neighboring clans. He gained control of all the area around what is now Lhasa, before his assassination around 618. This new-born regional state would later become known as the Tibetan Empire. The government of Namri Songtsen sent two embassies to the Chinese Sui Dynasty in 608 and 609, marking the appearance of Tibet on the international scene.
Reign of Songtsän Gampo (618–650)
Songtsän Gampo (Srong-brtsan Sgam-po) (c. 604 – 650) was the first great emperor who expanded Tibet's power beyond Lhasa and the Yarlung Valley, and is traditionally credited with introducing Buddhism to Tibet.
When his father Namri Songtsen died by poisoning (circa 618,) Songtsän Gampo took control, after putting down a brief rebellion. Songtsän Gampo proved adept at diplomacy as well as combat. The emperor's minister, Myang Mangpoje (Myang Mang-po-rje Zhang-shang), defeated the Sumpa people ca. 627. Six years later (c. 632–33) Myang Mangpoje was accused of treason and executed. He was succeeded by minister Gar Songtsän (Mgar-srong-rtsan).
The Chinese records mention an envoy in 634. On that occasion, the Emperor requested marriage to a Chinese princess but was refused. In 635-36 the Emperor attacked and defeated the Tuyuhun (Tibetan: ‘A zha), who lived around Lake Koko Nur, and who controlled important trade routes into China. After a Tibetan campaign against China in 635-6, the Chinese emperor agreed (only because of the threat of force, according to Tibetan sources) to provide a Chinese princess to Songtsän Gampo.
Circa 639, after Songtsän Gampo had a dispute with his younger brother Tsänsong (Brtsan-srong), the younger brother was burnt to death by his own minister Khäsreg (Mkha’s sregs) (presumably at the behest of his older brother the emperor).
The Chinese Princess Wencheng (Tibetan: Mung-chang Kung-co) departed China in 640 to marry Songtsän Gampo's son. She arrived a year later. This is traditionally credited with being the first time that Buddhism came to Tibet, but it is very unlikely Buddhism extended beyond foreigners at the court.
Songtsän Gampo’s sister Sämakar (Sad-mar-kar) was sent to marry Lig-myi-rhya, the king of Zhangzhung in what is now Western Tibet. However, when the king refused to consummate the marriage, she then helped her brother to defeat Lig myi-rhya and incorporate Zhangzhung into the Tibetan Empire. In 645, Songtsän Gampo overran the kingdom of Zhangzhung.
There is some confusion as to whether Central Tibet conquered Zhangzhung during the reign of Songtsän Gampo or in the reign of Trisong Detsän, (r. 755 until 797 or 804 CE). The records of the Tang Annals do, however, seem to clearly place these events in the reign of Songtsän Gampo for they say that in 634, Zhangzhung and various Qiang tribes "altogether submitted to him." Following this, he united with the country of Zhangzhung to defeat the Tuyuhun, then conquered two more Qiang tribes before threatening the Chinese region of Songzhou with a very large army (according to Tibetan sources 100,000, according to the Chinese more than 200,000 men). He then sent an envoy with gifts of gold and silk to the Chinese emperor to ask for a Chinese princess in marriage and, when refused, attacked Songzhou. According to the Tang Annals, he finally retreated and apologized and later the emperor granted his request,
It is recorded in the tradition of Tibet, that after Songtsen Gampo died in 650 A.D., the Chinese Tang dynasty attacked and took control of Lhasa, "but they could not sustain their presence there in the hostile environment, so they soon returned to China."
Reign of Mangsong Mangtsän (650–676)
Between 665–670 Khotan was defeated by the Tibetans, and a long string of conflicts ensued with the Chinese Tang Dynasty. In the spring of 670, Tibet attacked the remaining Chinese territories in the western Tarim Basin. With troops from Khotan they conquered Aksu, upon which the Chinese abandoned the region, ending two decades of Chinese control. They thus gained control over all of the Chinese Four Garrisons of Anxi in the Tarim Basin in 670 and held them until 692, when the Chinese finally managed to regain these territories.
Emperor Mangsong Mangtsen (Trimang Löntsen' or Khri-mang-slon-rtsan) married Thrimalö (Khri-ma-lod), a woman who would be of great importance in Tibetan history. The emperor died in the winter of 676–677, and Zhangzhung revolts occurred thereafter. In the same year the emperor's son Tridu Songtsen (Khri 'dus-srong btsan or Khri-'dus-srong-rtsan) was born.
Reign of Tridu Songtsän (677-704)
In 685 the minister Gar Tännyädombu (Mgar Bstan-snyas-ldom-bu) died and his brother, Gar Thridringtsändrö (Mgar Khri-‘bring-btsan brod) was appointed to replace him. In 692, the Tibetans lost the Tarim Basin to the Chinese. Gar Thridringtsändrö defeated the Chinese in battle in 696, and sued for peace. Two years later in 698 emperor Tridu Songtsän invited the Gar clan (over 2000 people) to a hunting party and had them executed. Gar Thridringtsändrö then committed suicide, and his troops joined the Chinese. This brought to end the power of the Gar family.
From 700 until his death the emperor remained on campaign in the north-east, absent from Central Tibet, while his mother Thrimalö administrated in his name. In 702 China and Tibet concluded peace. At the end of that year, the Tibetan imperial government turned to consolidating the administrative organization khö chenpo (mkhos chen-po) of the north-eastern Sumru area, which had been the Sumpa country conquered 75 years earlier. Sumru was organized as a new "horn" of the empire.
During the summer of 703, Tridu Songtsän resided at Öljag (‘Ol-byag) in Ling (Gling), which was on the upper reaches of the Yangtze River, before proceeding with an invasion of Jang (‘Jang), which may have been either the Mosuo or the kingdom of Nanzhao. In 704, he stayed briefly at Yoti Chuzang (Yo-ti Chu-bzangs) in Madrom (Rma-sgrom) on the Yellow River. He then invaded Mywa, which was at least in part Nanzhao (the Tibetan term mywa likely referring to the same people or peoples referred to by the Chinese as Man or Miao) but died during the prosecution of that campaign.
Reign of Tride Tsuktsän (704–754)
Gyältsugru (Rgyal-gtsug-ru), later to become King Tride Tsuktsän (Khri-lde-gtsug-brtsan), generally known now by his nickname Me Agtsom ("Old Hairy"), was born in 704. Upon the death of Tridu Songtsen, his mother Thrimalö ruled as regent for the infant Gyältsugru. The following year the elder son of Tridu Songtsen, Lha Balpo (Lha Bal-pho) apparently contested the succession of his one-year-old brother, but was "deposed from the throne" at Pong Lag-rang.
Thrimalö had arranged for a royal marriage to a Chinese princess. The Princess Jincheng (金成) (Tibetan: Kyimshang Kongjo) arrived in 710, but it is somewhat unclear whether she married the seven-year-old Gyältsugru or the deposed Lha Balpo. Gyältsugru also married a lady from Jang (Nanzhao) and another born in Nanam.
The Caliphate and Göktürks became increasingly prominent during 710–720. The Tibetans were allied with both. Tibet and China fought on and off in the late 720s. At first Tibet (with Göktürk allies) had the upper hand, but then they started losing battles. After a rebellion in southern China and a major Tibetan victory in 730, the Tibetans and Göktürks sued for peace.
In 734 the Tibetans married their princess Dronmalön (‘Dron ma lon) to the Göktürk Qaghan. The Chinese allied with the Caliphate to attack the Göktürks. After victory and peace with the Göktürks, the Chinese attacked the Tibetan army. The Tibetans suffered several defeats in the east, despite strength in the west. The Göktürk empire collapsed from internal strife. In 737, the Tibetans launched an attack against the king of Bru-za (Gilgit), who asked for Chinese help, but was ultimately forced to pay homage to Tibet. In 747, the hold of Tibet was loosened by the campaign of general Gao Xianzhi, who tried to re-open the direct communications between Central Asia and Kashmir.
By 750 the Tibetans had lost almost all of their central Asian possessions to the Chinese. In 753, even the kingdom of "Little Balur" (modern Gilgit) was captured by the Chinese. However, after Gao Xianzhi's defeat by the Caliphate and Qarluqs at the Battle of Talas (751), Chinese influence decreased rapidly and Tibetan influence began to increase again. Tibet conquered large sections of northern India during this time.
In 755 Tride Tsuktsän was killed by the ministers Lang and ‘Bal. Then Tagdra Lukong (Stag-sgra Klu-khong) presented evidence to prince Song Detsän (Srong-lde-brtsan) that they were disloyal and causing dissension in the country, and were about to injure him also. Subsequently, Lang and ‘Bal really did revolt. They were killed by the army and their property was confiscated."
Reign of Trisong Detsän (756–797 or 804)
In 756 prince Song Detsän was crowned Emperor with the name Trisong Detsän (Khri sron lde brtsan) and took control of the government when he attained his majority at 13 years of age (14 by Western reckoning) after a one-year interregnum during which there was no emperor.
In 755 China had been greatly weakened by the An Shi Rebellion, which would last until 763. In contrast, Trisong Detsän's reign was characterized by the reassertion of Tibetan influence in Central Asia. Early in his reign regions to the West of Tibet paid homage to the Tibetan court. From that time onward the Tibetans pressed into the territory of the Tang emperors, reaching the Chinese capital Chang'an (modern Xian) in late 763. Tibetan troops occupied Chang'an for fifteen days and installed a puppet emperor while Emperor Daizong was in Luoyang. Nanzhao (in Yunnan and neighbouring regions) remained under Tibetan control from 750 to 794, when they turned on their Tibetan overlords and helped the Chinese inflict a serious defeat on the Tibetans.
In the meantime, the Kyrgyz negotiated an agreement of friendship with Tibet and other powers to allow free trade in the region. An attempt at a peace treaty between Tibet and China was made in 787, but hostilities were to last until the Sino-Tibetan treaty of 821 was inscribed in Lhasa in 823 (see below). At the same time, the Uyghurs, nominal allies of the Tang emperors, continued to make difficulties along Tibet's Northern border. Toward the end of this king's reign Uyghur victories in the North caused the Tibetans to lose a number of their allies in the Southeast.
Recent historical research indicates the presence of Christianity in as early as the sixth and seventh centuries, a period when the Hephthalites had extensive links with the Tibetans. A strong presence existed by the eighth century when Patriarch Timothy I (727-823) in 782 calls the Tibetans one of the more significant communities of the eastern church and wrote of the need to appoint another bishop in ca. 794.
There is a stone pillar (now blocked off from the public), the Lhasa Shöl rdo-rings, Doring Chima or Lhasa Zhol Pillar, in the ancient village of Shöl in front of the Potala in Lhasa, dating to c. 764 CE during Trisong Detsen's reign. It also contains an account of the conquest of large swathes of northwestern China including the capture of Chang'an, the Chinese capital, for a short period in 763 CE, during the reign of Emperor Daizong.
Reign of Muné Tsenpo (c. 797–799?)
Trisong Detsen is said to have had four sons. The eldest, Mutri Tsenpo, apparently died young. When Trisong Detsen retired he handed power to the eldest surviving son, Muné Tsenpo (Mu-ne btsan-po). Most sources say that Muné's reign lasted only about a year and a half. After a short reign, Muné Tsenpo was supposedly poisoned on the orders of his mother.
After his death, Mutik Tsenpo was next in line to the throne. However, he had been apparently banished to Lhodak Kharchu (lHo-brag or Lhodrag) near the Bhutanese border for murdering a senior minister.
The youngest brother, Tride Songtsän, was definitely ruling by 804 CE.
Reign of Tride Songtsän (799–815)
Under Tride Songtsän (Khri lde srong brtsan - generally known as Sadnalegs) there was a protracted war with the Abbasid Caliphate. It appears that Tibetans captured a number of Caliphate troops and pressed them into service on the eastern frontier in 801. Tibetans were active as far west as Samarkand and Kabul. Caliphate forces began to gain the upper hand, and the Tibetan governor of Kabul submitted to the Caliphate and became a Muslim about 812 or 815. The Caliphate then struck east from Kashmir, but were held off by the Tibetans. In the meantime, the Uyghur Khaganate attacked Tibet from the northeast. Strife between the Uyghurs and Tibetans continued for some time.
Reign of Tritsu Detsen (815–838)
Tritsu Detsen (Khri gtsug lde brtsan), best known as 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 from neighboring 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.
Tibet continued to be a major Central Asian empire until the mid-9th century. It was under the reign of Ralpacan that the political power of Tibet was at its greatest extent, stretching as far as Mongolia and Bengal, and entering into treaties with China on a mutual basis.
A Sino-Tibetan treaty was agreed on in 821/822 under Ralpacan, which established peace for more than two decades. A bilingual account of this treaty is inscribed on a stone pillar which stands outside the Jokhang temple in Lhasa. The full text of the treaty with its remarkable imagery describing the relationship between the Tibetan King and Chinese Emperor as one of "nephew and uncle" can be found at tpprc.org.
Reign of Langdarma (838–842)
The reign of Langdarma (Glang dar ma), regal title Tri Uidumtsaen (Khri 'U'i dum brtsan), was plagued by external troubles. The Uyghur state to the north collapsed under pressure from the Kyrgyz in 840, and many displaced people fled to Tibet. Langdarma himself was assassinated, apparently by a Buddhist hermit, in 842.
Main article: Era of Fragmentation
A civil war that arose over Langdarma's successor led to the collapse of the Tibetan Empire. The period that followed, known traditionally as the Era of Fragmentation, was dominated by rebellions against the remnants of imperial Tibet and the rise of regional warlords.