Ancient Tibet
Once thought to be the mysterious Kingdom of Shangri-la, Tibet is the highest elevated country on earth, with a culture that has been devoutly Buddhist for centuries


The Ancient Cultures of the Himalayas

Demon Mask; Carved Wood 17th Century

High above the loftiest peaks in the world, is the ancient land known as Tibet. For thousands of years a unique culture has flourished in some of the most remote mountain valleys of the world, and Tibet can claim to be the literal rooftop of the earth, with the average land being over 13,000 feet above sea level. The Tibetans were one of the last theocracies in the world, with the spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama being the nominal head of state for this vast Kingdom. Tibet was also the last Buddhist theocracy as well, and would probably still claim this title had the country not fallen under suzerainty of China in the 20th century. This invasion remains controversial to this day, with both Chinese and Tibetans claiming very opposing viewpoints of the historical connection between these two people. One thing is certain though, and that is that their is deep uncertainty whether this ancient culture will survive into the future unless the assimilating and repressive forces of change do not allow for greater freedom of the Tibetan people.

Birth of Tibet

Tibet was a distinct nation and maintained its own government, religion, language, laws and customs. Over the centuries, some countries, including China, Britain, and Mongolia have sought to exert control over Tibet, with periodic and partial success. The general history of Tibet begins with the rule of Songtsän Gampo (604–50 CE) who united parts of the Yarlung River Valley and founded the Tibetan Empire. He also brought in many reforms and Tibetan power spread rapidly creating a large and powerful empire. In 640 he married Princess Wencheng, the niece of the powerful Chinese emperor Emperor Taizong of Tang China.

A view of the Potala palace, the historic seat of the Tibetan government

Under the next few kings who followed Songsten Gampo, Buddhism became established as the state religion and Tibetan power increased even further over large areas of Central Asia while major inroads were made into Chinese territory, even reaching the Tang's capital Chang'an (modern Xi'an) in late 763. However, Tibetan troops' occupation of Chang'an only lasted for fifteen days after they were defeated by Tang and its ally, the Turkic empire Uyghur Khaganate.

A map of ancient Tibet

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 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. However, after Gao Xianzhi's defeat by the Arabs and Qarluqs at the Battle of Talas river (751), Chinese influence decreased rapidly and Tibetan influence resumed. In 821/822 CE Tibet and China signed a remarkable peace treaty. A bilingual account of this treaty including details of the borders between the two countries are inscribed on a stone pillar which stands outside the Jokhang temple in Lhasa.[14] Tibet continued as a Central Asian empire until the mid-9th century.

As Genghis Khan's Mongol Empire expanded toward Europe in the west and China in the east in the thirteenth century, the Tibetan leaders of the Sakya school of Tibetan Buddhism concluded an agreement with the Mongol rulers in order to avoid the otherwise inevitable conquest of Tibet. They promised political allegiance and religious blessings and teachings in exchange for patronage and protection. The religious relationship became so important that when Kublai Khan conquered China and established the Yuan dynasty, he invited the Sakya Lama to become the Imperial Preceptor and supreme pontiff of his empire.

The sophisticated armor of the Tibetan Horseman

The relationship that developed and still exists today between the Mongols and Tibetans is a reflection of the close racial, cultural and especially religious affinity between the two Central Asian peoples.This relatively brief period of foreign domination over Tibet occurred 700 years ago. Tibet broke away from the Yuan emperor before China regained its independence from the Mongols with the establishment of the native Ming dynasty. Not until the eighteenth century did Tibet once again come under a degree of foreign influence.

The Ming dynasty, which ruled China from I368 to I644, had few ties to and no authority over Tibet. On the other hand, the Manchus, who conquered China and established the Qing dynasty in the seventeenth century, embraced Tibetan Buddhism as the Mongols had and developed close ties with the Tibetans. The Dalai Lama, who had by then become the spiritual and temporal ruler of Tibet, agreed to become the spiritual guide of the Manchu emperor. He accepted patronage and protection in exchange. This "priest-patron" relationship, which the Dalai Lama also maintained with numerous Mongol Khans and Tibetan nobles, was the only formal tie that existed between the Tibetans and Manchus during the Qing dynasty. It did not, in itself, affect Tibet`s independence.

A Tibetan Stupa high in the Himalayas

On the political level, some powerful Manchu emperors succeeded in exerting a degree of influence over Tibet. Thus, between I720 and I792 the Manchu emperors Kangxi, Yong Zhen and Qianlong sent imperial troops into Tibet four times to protect the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan people from foreign invasion or internal unrest. It was these expeditions that provided them with influence in Tibet. The emperor sent representatives to the Tibetan capital, Lhasa, some of whom successfully exercised their influence, in his name, over the Tibetan government, particularly with respect to the conduct of foreign relations. At the height of Manchu power, which lasted a few decades, the situation was not unlike that which can exist between a superpower and a neighboring satellite or protectorate.

The Ruins of Guge

The Guge ruins in the Tibetan highlands

Located in the Ngari Region of Tibet, the Ruins of Guge Kingdom are the ancient summer palaces of the ancient Guge Kingdom of Tibet. While these ruins were once an imperial estate which fell into disrepair after the civil revolt and the invasion of the allied armies of eight foreign countries, the Guge kingdom also encountered civil strife and foreign attacks which fragmented the once prosperous state. However, the legendary kingdom hasn't been totally lost as much can be learned about it from its remains.

Established in about the 10th century, the Guge Kingdom was founded by one branch of descendants of a nearby crumbled Kingdom. It was ruled by about 16 kings with armies of tens of thousands of soldiers during the over 700 years in which it flourished. Then in the 1660s, conflicts resulting from power disputes within the imperial family emerged which engendered restlessness in society and induced civil uprisings. To win power in the disordered state, the brother of the king asked the ruler of the neighboring country Ladakh (the present Kashmir) to send his army to help. This army overthrew and conquered the kingdom. Only years later was power returned to Tibet. During its lifetime the Guge Kingdom played an important part in the economic and cultural development of Tibet. The kingdom advocated Buddhism, and many versions of this religion were created here and their teachings were spread from here into the heart of Tibet. The kingdom also served as a major center for Tibet's foreign trade.

An ancient painting in the ancient temples of Guge

The Ruins of Guge Kingdom now extend around the sides of a mountain more than 300 m. (984 ft.) high. Explorers have found over 400 rooms and 800 caves here, as well as some fortresses, secret paths, pagodas, arm storerooms, granaries and all kinds of burial places. Except for some temples, all the roofs of the rooms have collapsed, leaving only the walls. The ruins are surrounded by a city wall and a fortress marks each of the corners. Palaces, temples and local residences are distributed from the top to the bottom and only secret roads lead to the top, a layout designed to indicate the supremacy of the king and to ensure the safety of the palaces. Due to its great research value, the Ruins of Guge Kingdom have been listed under the first group of Cultural Relics of National Importance under the Protection of the State.

Perhaps the most interesting aspects of the Ruins are the five temples and palaces – the White Temple, Red Temple, Samsara Temple, Imperial Palace, and Assembly Palace. Many inscriptions, statues and murals are displayed inside these. The most complete and valuable artifacts remaining are the murals, which are mainly pictures of Sakyamuni, the king, queen, prince and other royal servants. Beside, in the sanctuary pictures of the cultivation of male and female Esoteric Buddhas can be found. The margins are painted with dozens of nude Dakinis. The colors and lines of the murals can be compared with those of the Mogao Caves in Dunhuang City, Gansu Province. Most of the statues here are golden and silver Buddhist statues, among these the Silver Eyes of Guge is of the highest achievement.

Tibetan Buddhism

Buddhism, which is today a world religion based on the teachings of Buddha Sakayamuni (ca. 560-480 B.C.E). His teachings aimed to suggest ways to reduce suffering and to ultimately escape the bondage of the cycle of rebirth. By the time Buddhism was introduced officially into Tibet in the seventh century, it had become a complex religion with many schools of teaching, a pantheon of gods, and elaborate rituals. Along with the Buddhist religion the Tibetans also adopted from the Indian Brahmi a system of writing that facilitated the copying of Sanskrit texts and treatises.

The central valley of Lhasa, overlooking the Potala palace

Tibetans are unique on the planet in that their national life is wholly dedicated to Buddhism. For them the Dharma is all in all. Their culture was laboriously transformed over the thousand-year period from Srong btsan sgam po (early seventh century) to the Great Fifth Dalai Lama (early seventeenth century) from a normally ethnocentric, warlike, imperialistic national culture to a universally Buddhicized spiritual, peaceful culture. Essentially ,they have been unilaterally disarmed for over 300 years. Their material development has been systematically neglected in favor of their spiritual development. For centuries, the main line item in the budget of the national government has been support of the monasteries and the studies and the practices of the monks and nuns. The wheel was purposely never used for transport, but only for generating prayers, the energy of OM MANI PADME HUM. Their rulers have been spiritual lineages of wisdom and compassion, triumphing over dynastic blood lineages.

Unlike Buddhists in other countries, Tibetans are remarkably eclectic and do not deny the validity of any school. Although they primarily follow the Vajrayana (also known as Mantrayana and Tantrayana) form of Buddhism, their acceptance of the early form of the religion is implicit in the strictly celibate monastic system imposed by the great reformist monk-teacher Tsongkhapa (1357-1419) and the importance given to the group of sixteen arhats and to moralistic stories of previous births of the Buddha known as jataka and avadana.

An early 20th century photograph of an ethnic Tibetan family

Although the idea of the guide teacher, or guru, is of Indian origin, and is of enormous importance in Hinduism and Jainism as well, it manifested in Tibet in unique ways. Almost every painting and applique in this exhibition includes one or more representations of monks, known as lamas, and mystics. Some paintings consist mostly of monks of a particular lineage responsible for transmitting a particular teaching. They share the surface of the work with gods and goddesses and we are left with no doubt that they have attained divine status. This idea of lineage, whereby a teaching is passed from one generation to the next (guru- parampara in Sanskrit), although not unknown in other cultures, is given extraordinary significance in Tibet. In no other Buddhist artistic tradition is the presence of the monk so ubiquitous as it is in the Tibetan. Nowhere else is the lama so central to both the temporal and spiritual life of a nation as in Tibet. In no other society did every family so willingly and proudly send a son or a daughter to take the monastic vow. Indeed, just as the landscape of Tibet is dominated by monastic rather than monarchical or militaristic architecture, so also is Tibetan society distinguished not by its kings and generals but by its great monk-teachers.

Tibetan Buddhist Art

A 14th century Tibetan sword guard

Tibetan Buddhist art is considered sacred and religious in nature, or was always thought of as religious in Asiatic cultures throughout the continent and in ancient Himalayan kingdoms such as Ladakh, Bhutan, and Nepal.

Early Tibetan Buddhist art was used to depict the life of Gautama Buddha in the Indian subcontinent in the sixth and fifth centuries BCE. Throughout Asia, Buddhism spread widely and with it its influence over Tibetan art and culture in Asia. The first traditions of Tibetan Buddhist art followed the practices of aniconic artwork, meaning that the use of Buddhist symbols and emblems to represent the Buddha and his travels and teachings without actually using a human form to represent the Buddha himself. This was the typical way that Tibetan Buddhist art was made until the first century CE, when the Buddha was finally represented in human appearance, which is still followed to this day. In every new country or region in Asia, where Buddhism went, Buddhist art followed its worshipers and artists as the faith developed in many different ways.

Among the many traditions of Buddhist art the three areas where the Tibetans have made the most significant contributions are mandalas, images of angry deities, and portraiture. Much has been written about mandalas and about the forms of terrifying deities, both of which figure prominently in Tibetan religion. The Tibetans also appear to have developed a special skill in transforming these extremely complex images into art with extraordinary finesse and expressiveness.

A Tibetan Thangka painting for the 16th century

A Thangka is a painted or embroidered banner which was hung in a monastery or a family altar and carried by lamas in ceremonial processions. In Tibetan the word 'than' means flat and the suffix 'ka' stands for painting. The Thangka is thus a kind of painting done on flat surface but which can be rolled up when not required for display. The most common shape of a Thangka is the upright rectangular form. One does also find horizontal oblong banners influenced probably by the format of Chinese horizontal hand scrolls.

On the basis of techniques involved and materials used thangkas can be grouped into several categories. Generally they are divided into two broad categories: those which are painted (called bris-than in Tibetan) and those which are made of silk either by weaving or with embroidery called (gos-than).

An Introduction to the Mandala

Monks, listen to the parable of the raft. A man going on a journey sees ahead of him a vast stretch of water. There is no boat within the sight, and no bridge. To escape from the dangers of this side of the bank, he builds a raft for himself out of grass, sticks and branches. When he crosses over, he realizes how useful the raft has been to him and wonders if he should not lift it on his shoulders and take it away with him. If he did this, would he be doing what he should do? No.

Or, when he has crossed over to safety, should he keep it back for someone else to use, and leave it, therefore, on dry and high ground? This is the way I have taught Dhamma (the dharma), for crossing, not for keeping. Cast aside even right states of mind, monks, let alone wrong ones, and remember to leave the raft behind.

A gold Buddha from Lhasa, circa 18th century

Since the Buddha offered this advice nearly three millenia ago, there have been many crossings, and many rafts left behind. In viewing these rafts today, one has a range of possible interpretive approaches. One could illuminate the raft's form and structure, or the origins of the materials with which it was built. One might trace its history as it was, inevitably, brought to the city from its resting place by the shore. One could discuss its transformation as the constituent parts of grass and branches were dismantled and later refashioned into other material forms. One could describe its disintegration through disuse.

Or, one could consider the raft in light of its purpose as conceived by its builders; as a vehicle for crossing. Works of art, like literary expressions of the Buddhist teachings, were intended to guide practitioners from the suffering of mundane existence (samsara) to the sublime shores of spiritual liberation (nirvana). The artists' resources--form and color--were shaped and brushed into images of enlightenment, inspired by the experiences of mystics.

Among the most compelling legacies of Buddhist art, mandala may be translated as "sacred assembly." Although artists have frequently interpreted the mandala as a circle (for a circle inherently conveys the principles of wholeness, completion, and unity which a mandala has come to signify), mandalas have traditionally been rendered in the form of semi-circle, a corner, a triangle, a temple, and even as the human body.2 As Mallman has observed, in its broadest definition mandala simply refers to any "sacrificial area," its form reflecting the particular sacrificial rite undertaken.

Tibetan Literature

The Tibetan script on an ancient stone carving

The religious literature, which is very considerable, is referred to under Lamaism. The non-religious literature of Tibet is not extensive, probably owing to the printing being in the hands of the priests. One of the most popular and widely circulated books is called The Hundred Thousand Songs of the Venerable Milaraspa. Their author Milaraspa (unless the work should be attributed to his disciples), often called Mila, was a Buddhist ascetic of the I ith century, who, during the intervals of meditation travelled through the southern part of middle Tibet as a mendicant friar, instructing the people by his improvisations in poetry and song, proselytizing, refuting and converting heretics, and working manifold miracles. His legends are not without wit and poetical merit. An equally popular book is the Love Songs of Ts'angs-dbyangs rgyamts'o, attributed to the dissipated young Dalai lama who was deposed in 1701 (see Lhasa). There are a number of poems written in an elevated style, also dramatic works chiefly of the character of mystery plays, and collections of fairy tales and fables. The Kesar Epic, which has been translated by A. H. Francke under the title of the Kesar Saga, is a widely known tale of a heroic warrior king of northern Asia named Kesar (believed by some to be a transcription of " Czar "), but it is not found as a printed book. Several collections of folk songs have also been published by A. Francke from Ladak. A long story book, called the Djiung yi (Sgrungs gyi gsungs ?), and regarded as the national epic in Kham, has been partly seen by Desgodins and Baber. It is in prose; but the dialogue, interspersed with songs, is metrical, and is much more extensive than the prose framework. Religious discussions and philosophical dissertations alternate with comic episodes. It includes three divisions - the Djiung ling, which describes the invasion of part of Tibet by the Djiung or Moso; the Hor ling, which recounts the conquest of the Hor (Turk tribes) by the Tibetans, and conveys much historical information in a tale of magic and marvel; and the Djia ling (Chinese division), which narrates a contest of unknown date between the Tibetans and the Chinese. This work has apparently never been published, and even the manuscripts of the three divisions cannot, says Baber, be obtained in a complete form. But. every Tibetan, or at least every native of Kham, who possesses any education, is able to recite or to chant passages of great length. Another Tibetan epic in Khaur, the Gyaldrung, praises Dagyolong, a famous warrior who subdued the savage men of Kham. Dramatic works exist, as also a version of the Ramayana in the first volume of the Bstodts'ogs of the Bstan-hgyur.

Writing. - Writing was not introduced until the 7th century. Notched sticks (shing-chram) and knotted cords were in current use, but the latter contrivance is only faintly alluded to in the Tibetan records, while of the other there are numerous examples. No mention is anywhere made of a hieroglyphical writing, but on the eastern frontier the medicine-men or tomba of the Moso have a peculiar pictorial writing, which is known in Europe from two published MSS. (in Journ. Roy. Asiatic Soc., 1885, vol. xvii.); though apparently now confined solely to purposes of witchcraft, it perhaps contains survivals of a former extensive system superseded by the alphabetic writing introduced from India. According to tradition - a tradition of which the ,details are still open to criticism - the alphabet was introduced from India by Tonmi, a lay Tibetan minister who was sent to India in 632 by King Srong-btsan to study the Sanskrit language and Buddhist literature. Tonmi introduced the modified Sanskritic " writing in thirty characters " (already detailed under Language and six of which do not exist in Sanskrit) in two styles - the " thick letters " or " letters with heads " (u-ch'en), now commonly used in printed books, and the half-cursive " cornered letters," so called from their less regular heads. The former are traditionally said to have been derived from the Landza character. The Landza of Nepal, however, is certainly not the origin of the Tibetan letter, but rather an ornamental development of the parent letter. The close resemblance of the Tibetan characters " with heads " to the Gupta inscriptions of Allahabad shows them to have been derived from the monumental writing of the period; and various arguments appear to show that the other Tibetan letters came from the same Indian character in the style in which it was used in common life. The Tibetan half-cursive was further developed into the more current " headless " (u-med) characters, of which there are several styles.

Ancient Descriptions of Tibet's Geography

The Yak, the wild cattle of the Himalayan plateau

The ancient manuscripts discovered by Dr M. Aurel Stein in Khotan seem to include very early, if not the earliest known, Tibetan documents. According to these ancient texts, the Tibetans divided their country into five provinces: (i) Amdo, which comprises that part of the Chinese province of Kansuh which is inhabited by Tibetans, and Koko Nor region, extending southwards to the Yellow river and westwards as far as the Tsaidam. Amdo is inhabited in its eastern part by Tibetans, called Rongwa or " ravine-folk," who are agriculturists, and in the western by pastoral tribes, collectively called Panaka or the Three Panakas. (2) Khams or Khamdo, which includes all eastern Tibet between the Chinese, provinces of Szechuen and Yunnan, and the district of Lhorong jong, which forms the eastern border of the Lhasa-governed territory. This province is divided into the five Horba tribes, the eighteen Nyarong states in the valley of the upper Yalung, and the districts of Litang, Batang, Derge, Gartok Chiamdo and Draya. In Khamdo, but subject to the direct rule of Lhasa, are several small districts, the principal are Nyarong, Tsarong, and Mar Khams or " Lower Khamdo." Most of these districts are governed by deba or chiefs, while a few have kings or gyalpo, the most powerful of the latter being the king of Derge, famous for its inlaid metal and leather work, and of Chagla, or, as it is better known, Tachienlu, as it is called by the Chinese or the Dartsemdo of the Tibetans, the headquarters of the tea trade with China. Khamdo is under the direct rule of the Chinese provincial authorities of Szechuen.

Chuku Gompa Temple near Kailash mountain

Some of its rulers send also tribute missions to Peking. For convenience of classification we may include in Khamdo a long strip of country extending along the northern border of the Lhasa territory of Lhorong jong and Larego as far as Tengri Nor, and bounded to the north by the Dang-la mountains, which is designated by Tibetans as Gyade or " the Chinese province." This strip of country has its: own native chiefs, but is' under the control of a high Manchu officer stationed at Lhasa, known colloquially as the " superintendent of savage tribes." (3) The third political division of Tibet is ZI (written Dbus), meaning " Central." It includes Lhasa and a large number of outlying districts in south-eastern Tibet, such as Po, Pemakoichen, Zayul. The pastoral or Dokpa tribes, north and north-east of Tengri Nor, are also under its rule. (4) The fourth division of Tibet, called Tsang, includes all south-west Tibet from the Lhasa or Central province to the Indian frontier as far as Lake Manasarowar. (5) The fifth division, called Ndri (Mngah-ris) by the Tibetans or Hundesh by the Indians, who call the inhabitants Huniyas, comprises the whole country around the sources and along the upper course of the Indus and the Sutlej, and also all north-western Tibet generally, as far as Ladak and the border of Kashmir. Tsang and Nari are under the rule of Lhasa, all the high civil and military authorities in these provinces holding their offices from it. These five provinces, however, do not include the elevated steppes of Tsaidam (extending between the Kuen-lun and the Altyn Tagh or Nan Shan ranges), inhabited by a mixed race of marauding people, Tunguts and Mongols. Yet Tsaidam is geographically but a northern extension of the great Tibetan plateau, and in most of its essential physical features it is more closely allied to the Chang-t'ang of the south than to the great sandy depressions of Chinese Turkestan or Mongolia on the north.

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Tupacalypto's avatar
by Tupacalypto on 2011 06 25

Nice background on Tibet, not many websites deal with this culture or topic..

Eat your heart out…

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Under founding of denmark the picture of a statue is not gorm the old, but holger danske/ ogier the dane.
Holger Danske is normally regarded as a Danish national symbol. He is first mentioned in literature as one of the French king Charlemagne’s warriors in La Chanson de Roland from around 1060. In this Chanson he is called Oger le Danois, his name being the only link to Denmark. In the later epos La Chevalerie d’Ogier de Danemarche (1200-1215) he is portrayed as the main character and is described as a son of the Danish king Gudfred (d. 810), an enemy of Charlemagne.

His first appearance in Nordic literature is in the saga Karlemagnússaga from the latter part of the 1200s, which in the main consists of passages translated from French texts. His name here is given as Oddgeir danski. This saga was translated into Danish during the 1400s and thereafter Holger Danske became part of Danish folklore with several accounts in the Danish Chronicle first published around 1509.

The Danish national writer Hans Christian Andersen in 1845 wrote the fairytale Holger Danske, where he is described as sitting fast asleep in the casemates of the Castle of Kronborg, with his beard having grown into the table in front of him and his sword in his lap, prepared to wake up to action in case of Denmark being threatened from outside forces. Today his statue can be seen in the casemates of Kronborg as described by Hans Christian Andersen.

During the German occupation of Denmark in 1940-45 one of the principal partisan organizations was named after Holger Danske.

in Ancient Denmark

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