Autonomous region, China
Tibet, historic region and autonomous region of China that is often called “the roof of the world.” It occupies a vast area of plateaus and mountains in Central Asia, including Mount Everest (Qomolangma [or Zhumulangma] Feng; Tibetan: Chomolungma). It is bordered by the Chinese provinces of Qinghai to the northeast, Sichuan to the east, and Yunnan to the southeast; by Myanmar (Burma), India, Bhutan, and Nepal to the south; by the disputed Kashmir region to the west; and by the Uygur Autonomous Region of Xinjiang to the northwest. Lhasa is the capital city. The name Tibet is derived from the Mongolian Thubet, the Chinese Tufan, the Tai Thibet, and the Arabic Tubbat.
Before the 1950s Tibet was largely isolated from the rest of the world. It constituted a unique cultural and religious community, marked by the Tibetan language and Tibetan Buddhism. Little effort was made to facilitate communication with outsiders, and economic development was minimal.
Tibet’s incorporation into the People’s Republic of China began in 1950 and has remained a highly charged and controversial issue, both within Tibet and worldwide. Many Tibetans (especially those outside China) consider China’s action to be an invasion of a sovereign country, and the continued Chinese presence in Tibet is deemed an occupation by a foreign power. The Chinese, on the other hand, believe that Tibet has been a rightful part of China for centuries and that they liberated Tibet from a repressive regime in which much of the population lived in serfdom. There is truth in both assertions, although public opinion outside China (especially in the West) has tended to take the side of Tibet as an independent (or at least highly autonomous) entity. There is no question, though, that the 14th Dalai Lama, Tibet’s exiled spiritual and temporal leader, has become one of the world’s most recognizable and highly regarded individuals. Area 471,700 square miles (1,221,600 square km). Pop. (2020) 3,648,100.
Tibet is on a high plateau—the Plateau of Tibet—surrounded by enormous mountain masses. The relatively level northern part of the plateau is called the Qiangtang; it extends more than 800 miles (1,300 km) from west to east at an average elevation of 16,500 feet (5,000 metres) above sea level. The Qiangtang is dotted with brackish lakes, the largest being Lakes Siling (Seling) and Nam (Namu). There are, however, no river systems there. In the east the Qiangtang begins to descend in elevation. The mountain ranges in southeastern Tibet cut across the land from north to south, creating meridional barriers to travel and communication. In central and western Tibet the ranges run from northwest to southeast, with deep or shallow valleys forming innumerable furrows.
The Qiangtang is bordered on the north by the Kunlun Mountains, with the highest peak, Mount Muztag (Muztagh; on the Tibet-Xinjiang border), reaching 25,338 feet (7,723 metres). The western and southern border of the Plateau of Tibet is formed by the great mass of the Himalayas; the highest peak is Mount Everest, which rises to 29,035 feet (8,850 metres; see Researcher’s Note: Height of Mount Everest) on the Tibet-Nepal border. North of Lake Mapam (conventional: Manasarowar) and stretching eastward is the Kailas (Gangdisi) Range, with clusters of peaks, several exceeding 20,000 feet (6,100 metres). This range is separated from the Himalayas by the upper course of the Brahmaputra River (in Tibet called the Yarlung Zangbo or the Tsangpo), which flows across southern Tibet and cuts south through the mountains to India and Bangladesh.
The Plateau of Tibet is the principal source of the rivers of East, Southeast, and South Asia. The Indus River, known in Tibet as the Sênggê Zangbo (“Lion Spring”; Chinese: Shiquan He), has its source in western Tibet near Mount Kailas, a mountain sacred to Buddhists and Hindus; it then flows westward across the Kashmir region to Pakistan. Three other rivers also begin in the west: the Xiangquan River (Tibetan: Langqên Kanbab, “Elephant Spring”) flows west to become the Sutlej River in northwestern India and eastern Pakistan; the Mabja Zangbo River flows into the Ghaghara (Nepali: Kauriala) River to eventually join the Ganges (Ganga) River; and the Maquan River (Tibetan: Damqog Kanbab, “Horse Spring”) flows east and, after joining the Lhasa River south of Lhasa, forms the Brahmaputra.
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The Salween (Nu) River has its source in east-central Tibet, from where it flows through eastern Tibet and Yunnan and then enters Myanmar. The Mekong River begins in southern Qinghai as two rivers—the Ang and Zha—which join near the Tibet border; the river then flows through eastern Tibet and western Yunnan and enters Laos and Thailand. The source of the Yangtze River (Chang Jiang) rises in
Tibet’s three largest lakes are centrally located, northwest of Lhasa: Lakes Dangre Yong (Tibetan: Tangra Yum), Nam, and Siling. South of Lhasa lie two other large lakes, Yamzho Yun (Yangzho Yong) and Puma Yung (Pumo). In western Tibet two adjoining lakes are located near the Nepal border—Lake Mapam, sacred to both Buddhists and Hindus, and Lake La’nga.
Soils are alluvial and are often composed of sand that is blown by the wind to form a layer above gravels and shingles. Colour varies from light brown to gray, according to the humus content, which is generally poor.
Climate of Tibet
Although Tibetans refer to their land as Gangs-ljongs or Kha-ba-can (“Land of Snows”), the climate is generally dry. Most of Tibet receives only 18 inches (460 mm) of precipitation (both rain and snow) annually, with much of that falling during the summer months. The Himalayas act as a barrier to the monsoon (rain-bearing) winds from the south, and precipitation decreases from south to north. The perpetual snow line lies at some 16,000 feet (4,800 metres) in the Himalayas but rises to about 20,000 feet (6,100 metres) in the northern mountains. Humidity is low, and fog is practically nonexistent.
Temperatures in the higher elevations are cold, but the lower valleys and the southeast are mild and pleasant. Seasonal variation is minimal, and the greatest temperature differences occur diurnally (i.e., during a 24-hour period). Lhasa, which lies at an elevation of 11,975 feet (3,650 metres), has a daily maximum temperature of 85 °F (30 °C) and a minimum of −2 °F (−19 °C). The bitterly cold temperatures of the early morning and night are aggravated by the gale winds that blow throughout the area most of the year. Because of the cool dry air, grain can be safely stored for 50 to 60 years, dried raw meat and butter can be preserved for more than one year, and epidemics are rare.
Plant and animal life
Domesticated yak (Bos grunniens) in Tibet Autonomous Region, China.
The windswept Qiangtang is devoid of trees and larger forms of vegetation. Its arid climate supports little except grasses, and grasslands cover some two-thirds of Tibet’s total area. The varied plant life of Tibet—in excess of 6,400 species, of which more than 1,000 are of economic value—is found mainly in the river valleys and in the lower, wetter regions of the south and southeast. Common plants include willows, poplars, several types of conifers, teak, rhododendrons, oaks, birches, elms, bamboo, sugarcane, babul trees, thorn trees, tea bushes, gro-ba (small white trees that grow mainly in hilly regions), ’om-bu (bushlike trees with red flowers that grow near water), khres-pa (strong durable forest trees used to make food containers), glang-ma (a willow tree used for basketry), and rtsi-shings (the seeds of which are used for making varnish). Fruit-bearing trees and certain roots are used for food, as are the leaves of the lca-wa, khumag, and sre-ral, all of which grow in the low, wet regions. Both wild and domestic flowers flourish in Tibet. Among the wildflowers are blue poppies, lotuses, wild pansies, oleanders, orchids, tsi-tog (light pink flowers that grow at high elevations), shang-drils (bell-shaped flowers, either white, yellow, or maroon, that also grow at high elevations), and ogchu (red flowers that grow in sandy regions).
Tibet has more than 100 species of mammals, 40 species of reptiles, and 50 species of amphibians. Mammal life in the forest regions includes tigers, leopards, bears, wild boars, wild goats, stone martens (a kind of cat), langurs (long-tailed monkeys), lynx, jackals, wild buffaloes, pha-ra (small members of the jackal family), and gsa’s (spotted cats that are smaller than leopards). In the high grasslands and dry bush areas there are brown bears, wild and bighorn sheep, mountain antelope, musk deer, wild asses, wild yaks, snakes, scorpions, lizards, and dre-tse (members of the wolf family). Aquatic life includes various types of fishes, frogs, crabs, otters, and turtles.
Undisturbed by aircraft or hunters, Tibet’s some 400 species of birds reign supreme in the sky. Among the many kinds to be seen are black-necked cranes (Grus nigricollus), Himalayan monal (or Impeyan) pheasants (Lophophorus impejanus), jungle fowl, ptarmigans, spotted tinamous, mynahs, hawks, and hoopoes. Others include gulls, sheldrakes, cinnamon teals, sing-bya (tiny owl-like birds), khra (crow-sized, hawklike birds), bya-long (birds about the size of a duck), and skya-ka (black-and-white crow-sized birds). The calls of the rmos-’debs—a small gray bird that inhabits agricultural regions—signal the opening of the planting season.
People of Tibet
The population of the region is almost entirely Tibetan, with Han (Chinese), Hui (Chinese Muslims), Monba, Lhoba, and other minority nationalities. Thus, the majority of the people of Tibet have the same ethnic origin, have traditionally practiced the same religion, and speak the same language.
The Tibetan and Burmese languages are related, although they are mutually unintelligible in their modern forms. Spoken Tibetan has developed a pattern of regional dialects and subdialects, which can be mutually understood. The dialect of Lhasa is used as a lingua franca. There are two social levels of speech—zhe-sa (honorific) and phal-skad (ordinary); their use depends upon the relative social status of the speaker and the listener. The use of Chinese has become more common in the region since the 1960s.
Tibetan is written in a script derived from that of Indian Gupta about 600 CE. It has a syllabary of 30 consonants and five vowels; six additional symbols are used in writing Sanskrit words. The script itself has four variations—dbu-can (primarily for Buddhist textbooks), dbu-med and ’Khyug-yig (for general use), and ’bru-tsha (for decorative writing).
Bon is considered to be the first known religion in Tibet, although there is some argument as to the time of its establishment. It is a form of shamanism, encompassing a belief in gods, demons, and ancestral spirits who are responsive to priests, or shamans. With the rise of Buddhism, Bon adopted certain Buddhist rituals and concepts, and the Buddhists also adopted certain features of Bon, so that the two religions came to have many points of resemblance.
Although Chinese Buddhism was introduced in ancient times, the mainstream of Buddhist teachings came to Tibet from India. The first Buddhist scripture may have arrived in the 3rd century CE, but active promulgation did not begin until the 8th century. In later centuries numerous Buddhist sects were formed, including the Dge-lugs-pa, which emphasizes monastic discipline; also known as the Yellow Hat sect, in the 17th century it gained political supremacy that lasted until 1959.
The overwhelming majority of Tibetans traditionally have been Buddhists. Before the 1950s, prayer flags flew from every home and adorned the mountain slopes. Monasteries were established throughout the country, and the Dalai Lama, the spiritual head of Tibetan Buddhism, was the supreme political head of the nation. A minority, however, were adherents of Islam, Hinduism, Bon, or Christianity. The Dalai Lama went into exile in 1959 after the outbreak in Tibet of an armed rebellion against Chinese authorities that was suppressed by the Chinese army. Since then the Chinese at times have attempted to eliminate the influence of religion in Tibetan life.
Tibet was traditionally divided into three regions, called the Chol-kha-gsum (chol-kha, “region,” and gsum, “three”). The Dbus-Gtsang region stretches from Mnga’-ris skor-gsum at the border of the Kashmir region to Sog-la skya-bo near the town of Sog. The Khams, or Mdo-stod, region consists of the territory between Sog-la skya-bo and the upper bend of the Huang He (Yellow River), now located in Qinghai province. The A-mdo, or Mdo-smad, region reaches from the Huang He to Mchod-rten dkar-po in Gansu province, comprising most of present-day Qinghai. Traditionally, Tibetans have said that the best religion comes from Dbus-Gtsang, the best men from Khams, and the best horses from A-mdo. Within the Chol-kha-gsum approximately one-third of the area is uninhabitable, about one-fifth is roamed by nomads, and the rest is occupied by seminomads and agriculturalists, with a small percentage claimed by trappers in the forest belt.
The main agricultural region is the great valley of southern Tibet, stretching some 1,000 miles (1,600 km) from the upper Indus River valley in the west to the valley of the upper Brahmaputra. Most of the agriculture, animal husbandry, and industry of Tibet is concentrated in this valley, which includes the main cities of Lhasa, Xigazê (Shigatse, or Rikaze), and Gyangzê (Jiangzi).
Although Tibet is rich in mineral resources, its economy has remained underdeveloped. Surveys of the Kailas and Mapam districts in western Tibet conducted in the 1930s and ’40s discovered extensive goldfields and large deposits of borax, as well as reserves of radium, iron, titanium, lead, and arsenic. Subsequent investigative teams dispatched from the 1950s onward reported the existence of a huge variety of minerals and ores. The most significant of these include large copper deposits around Qulong, east of Lhasa, and Yulong, some 85 miles (140 km) east of Changdu, near the border with Sichuan province; graphite obtained from Ningjin and coal reported to be plentiful around Changdu; deposits of iron ore in concentrated seams of high quality and extractable depth found in the Tanggula Mountains on the Tibet-Qinghai border; and oil-bearing formations, a reserve of oil shales, and chromite (chromium ore), lithium, lead, zinc, and manganese deposits.
Considerable effort has been directed toward improving Tibet’s power-generating capacity, which was virtually nonexistent before 1950. Several thermal generating plants have been built, including those at Lhasa and Xigazê. Tibet’s swift-flowing rivers and mountain streams have enormous hydroelectric power potential, constituting a significant proportion of China’s overall estimated hydroelectric resources. Much effort has been focused on developing promising sites, especially on the Brahmaputra, Mekong, Lhasa, and Nyang Qu rivers. The first such project—actually the repair of an earlier small hydroelectric power station at Lhasa—was undertaken in the 1950s. Since then a number of small and medium-size hydropower plants have been developed, including the Jinhe station near Changdu, on the upper course of the Mekong, and the Zhikong station on the Lhasa River, about 60 miles (100 km) northeast of Lhasa.
In addition to thermal and hydroelectric power, there are vast opportunities for geothermal, solar, and wind power production. A major geothermal power plant, one of the largest in China, has been constructed at Yangbajing, some 55 miles (90 km) northwest of Lhasa. and small stations utilizing both wind and solar energy also have been developed for local towns and villages.
The staple crops are barley (notably a variety developed for high-elevation cultivation), wheat, corn (maize), and pulses (legumes); other important crops include millet, buckwheat, rgya-bra (a grain similar to buckwheat), beans, hemp, and mustard. Butter from the yak (a large long-haired ox) or the mdzo-mo (a crossbreed of the yak and the cow) is the main dairy product. The diet is supplemented by a variety of garden vegetables. Some rice is raised in the southeast, but most must be imported, along with tea and sugar. The cultivation of fruits, vegetables, and flowers in greenhouse facilities has become important. Most farmers keep domestic animals such as yaks, horses, mules, donkeys, and goats, and meat is obtained from cows, sheep, pigs, and chickens.
The mountain areas along the middle and lower reaches of the upper Brahmaputra River are the main forest areas in southwestern China. However, because of the inaccessibility of those areas, forestry has developed slowly. The forest dwellers derive their main income from the production of such wood products as planks, beams, printing blocks, and kitchen utensils.
Before the 1950s Tibet had no modern industries. There were small handicraft centres that were owned either individually or collectively and that produced scroll paintings, metal images, wooden block prints, and religious images. For these crafts the lag-shes-pa, or craftsmen, had to be well versed in literature and mathematics. There were also carpet weavers, tanners, potters, gold- and silversmiths, carpenters, tailors, and incense-stick makers—all of whom learned their trade through apprenticeship. Because the government rewarded outstanding artists and craftsmen with official titles, estates, and money, the arts and crafts of Tibet were well preserved.
The initial steps toward industrial development came in 1952, when an iron- and woodwork factory was opened in Lhasa. This was followed by an automobile repair shop in 1957 and a tannery in 1958. Modern industries began emerging in the early 1980s. At first, emphasis was placed on agricultural processing enterprises. This was followed by such sectors as metallurgy, machinery, textiles, chemicals, building materials, forest products, and light industries. Pharmaceutical production based on Tibetan medicinal plants also became important, and production of traditional handicrafts (notably of woolen fabrics, boots, blankets, and wooden bowls—all well-known products in China) was expanded.
Finance and other services
There were no banks before 1951. Small loans to be paid with interest could be obtained from local merchants, and the Tibetan government loaned public funds at interest as a means of collecting revenue. Since then—and especially since the 1980s—banks have established branches in the region and have also extended agricultural and commercial credit and introduced Chinese and foreign currency-exchange services.
Tibet is one of the world’s best-known tourist destinations, renowned as a mecca for mountaineering and adventurism, cultural and scientific exploration, and religious pilgrimage. Considerable effort has been made to expand tourist services in Lhasa and other localities, and tourism has become a pillar of the Tibetan economy. Most notable is the historic Potala Palace complex in Lhasa, designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1994. Also popular with tourists are the Tsuglagkhang, or Gtsug-lag-khang (Jokhang), Temple and the Norbuglingka (Nor-bu-gling-ka; Jewel Palace), both at Lhasa; the Tashihlungbo Monastery in Xigazê; and the Palcho (Baiju) Monastery in Gyangzê. Tibet is the staging area for mountaineering in the northern Himalayas, particularly for expeditions to the North Face of Mount Everest. Another popular scenic area is the “Grand Canyon” of the Yarlung Zangbo (Brahmaputra) River in southeastern Tibet, a gorge nearly 300 miles (500 km) long; in its deepest stretch, south of Namjagbarwa (Namcha Barwa) Peak, the gorge has an average depth of some 16,500 feet (5,000 metres).
Road along the Himalayas in southern Tibet Autonomous Region, China.
Before 1951, traveling in Tibet was done either on foot or on the backs of animals. Coracles (small boats made of wicker and hides) were used to cross the larger rivers. The Tibetan government obstructed the development of modern transportation to make access to the country difficult for outsiders. For trading, the Tibetans relied on the centuries-old caravan routes leading to Lhasa, of which the most important were from Qinghai (via Nagqu, or Naqu) and Sichuan (via Changdu), India (via Kalimpong, West Bengal state, and Yadong in Tibet), Nepal (via Skyid-grong and Nyalam), and the Kashmir region (via Leh and Gar).
Since the early 1950s a network of roads has been constructed, notably highways to Qinghai and Sichuan. Additional trunk roads that connect Tibet to Xinjiang, Yunnan, and Nepal have been built. A main railway line from Xining (capital of Qinghai) to Lhasa opened in 2006.
The first air link between Tibet and Beijing was inaugurated in 1956. Airports in Lhasa, Changdu, and Linzi now provide commercial air service to travelers. The first telegraph line was strung between Kalimpong (India) and Gyangzê by the British in 1904, and the line was extended to Lhasa in the 1920s; this was the only telegraph system in use in Tibet until the Chinese took over in 1951. Postal and telecommunication stations, including mobile units, serve remote border areas and geological, hydrological, and construction teams. Radio and television stations have also been constructed.
Prior to 1951, Tibet had a theocratic government of which the Dalai Lama was the supreme religious and temporal head. After that the newly installed Chinese administrators relied on military control and a gradual establishment of civilian regional autonomy. Tibet was formally designated a zizhiqu (autonomous region) in 1965, as part of the separation of religion and civil administration. It is now divided into the dijishi (prefecture-level municipality) of Lhasa, directly under the jurisdiction of the regional government, and six diqu (prefectures), which are subdivided into shixiaqu (districts), xian (counties), and xianjishi (county-level municipalities).
The army consists of regular Chinese troops under a Chinese military commander, who is stationed at Lhasa. There are military cantonments in major towns along the borders with India, Nepal, and Bhutan. Local people have also been recruited into some militia regiments.
Health and welfare
The former Tibetan government is said to have had programs for providing medical assistance to expectant mothers and for care of the kinless aged and handicapped persons—in addition to projects for constructing and maintaining proper drainage systems, wells, and canals to improve sanitation. The Chinese refute these assertions and point to their own efforts to improve the health and welfare of the populace. It is true that since the 1950s modern hospitals have been built, drainage systems have been improved, and mobile health units have been placed at key locations. In addition, the average life expectancy in Tibet has improved dramatically since 1950.
There were a few secular schools in Tibet before the Chinese established control. The monasteries were the main seats of learning, and some of the larger ones were similar in operation to theological universities. Secular facilities, including government-run primary schools, community primary schools, and secondary technical and tertiary schools, were established in the 1950s. Institutions of higher learning include Tibet University (1951) and Tibetan Traditional Medical College (1989).
A Tibetan thang-ka depicting a mahasiddha; in the Tibet House, New Delhi, India.
Tibet is most renowned for its religious scroll paintings (thang-ka), metal images, and wooden block prints. There are three categories of images, representing the peaceful, moderate, and angry deities, and three schools of painting, the Sman-thang, Gong-dkar Mkhan-bris, and Kar-ma sgar-bris, which are differentiated by colour tones and depicted facial expressions.
The rich and ancient culture is largely based on religion. The gar and the ’cham (Chinese qamo) are stylistic dances performed by monks; they reenact the behaviour, attitudes, and gestures of the deities. Ancient legendary tales, historical events, classical solo songs, and musical debates are elaborately staged in the open air in the form of operas, operettas, and dramas. The folk songs and dances of local regions abound with colour, joy, and simplicity: the bro of the Khams region, the sgor-gzhas of the dbus-gtsang peasants, and the kadra of the A-mdo area are spectacles that are performed in groups; on festive occasions they continue for several days. These cheerful performances tell of the people’s loves and celebrate their faith in their religion, the beauty of their land, and the brave deeds of their ancestors.
Traditional marriage ceremonies involved consultations with both a lama and an astrologer in order to predict the compatibility of a couple. The signing of a marriage contract was followed by an official ceremony at the home of the bridegroom. Appearance in a temple or before a civil authority was not required.
It is now more common for couples to meet at public gatherings and to then seek permission from their respective families to marry. After a couple is officially wedded (typically at the bridegroom’s house), prayer flags are hoisted from the bride’s side of the family upon the rooftop of the house, and all participate in the wedding feast. Although polygamy was once practiced on a limited scale, monogamy is now predominant.
When a death occurs, the family members make charitable contributions in the hope of ensuring a better reincarnation for the deceased. In the case of the death of an important religious figure, his corpse is preserved in a tomb or stupa (Buddhist commemorative monument). Otherwise, tradition calls for the corpse to be fed to the vultures, a practice named sky burial or celestial burial. Water burial (i.e., sending the body downstream in a river) is also practiced in some areas. The customs of interment and cremation exist but are seldom practiced. Traditional Tibetan funerary practices are described in the Bardo Thödol (Tibetan “Book of the Dead”).
A white scarf (kha-btags, or hada) is offered during greetings, visits to shrines, marriage and death ceremonies, and other occasions. The tradition was derived from the ancient custom of offering clothes to adorn the statues of deities. Gradually, it evolved into a form of greeting, and the white scarf offering, symbolizing purity, became customary. Another tradition is the hoisting of prayer flags on rooftops, tents, hilltops, and almost anywhere a Tibetan can be found. These flags signify fortune and good luck. The use of prayer wheels (Tibetan mani chos ’khor), which are spun during prayers in lieu of orally reciting mantras, is also common among the Tibetans. The wheels are of different sizes and types, though small handheld ones are the most common.
Food and drink
The staple Tibetan food is flour dough (rtsam-pa, or zanba) made of roasted barley, which is consumed daily. Other major dishes include baked goods made from wheat flour, yak meat, mutton, and pork. Dairy products such as butter, milk, and cheese are also popular. The people at higher elevations generally consume more meat than those of the lower regions, where a variety of vegetables are available. Rice is generally restricted in consumption to the well-to-do families, southern border farmers, and monks.
Two beverages—tea and barley beer (chang, or chhaang)—are particularly noteworthy. Brick tea from elsewhere in China and local Tibetan tea leaves are boiled in soda water. The tea is then strained and poured into a churn, and salt and butter are added before the mixture is churned. The resulting tea is light reddish white and has a thick buttery surface. Chang, which is mildly intoxicating, is thick and white and has a sweet and pungent taste.
Festivals are both national and local in character. The many local celebrations are varied; national festivals, though fewer, are marked with a spirit of unity and lavishness.
The first day of the first month of the Tibetan calendar (February or March of the Gregorian calendar) is marked by New Year (Losar) celebrations throughout Tibet. Monasteries, temples, stupas (outdoor shrines), and home chapels are visited at dawn, and offerings are made before statues and relics of deities and saints. A special fried cookie known as kha-zas is prepared in every home. Either a real or an artificial head of a horned sheep adorns the offerings. A colourful container filled with barley flour and wheat grain and another container of chang are presented to all visitors, who take a pinch of the contents and make an offering to the deities by throwing it in the air.
The New Year celebrations are almost immediately followed by the Smom-lam (“Prayer”) festival, which begins three days after the New Year and generally is celebrated for 15 days, though the length of the festival varies from place to place. The festival marks the victory of the Buddha over his six religious opponents through debates and the performance of miracles. During this festival, special prayers are offered daily. Prayers, fasting, and charitable donations mark Sa-ga zla-ba (or Saga dawa), the celebration of the anniversary of Buddha’s birth, enlightenment, and death—three events that all occurred on the 15th day of the fourth month of the Tibetan calendar.
The anniversary of the death of Tsong-kha-pa, founder of the Dge-lugs-pa sect, is observed on the 25th day of the 10th month by the burning of butter lamps on the roofs and windowsills of every house. This festival is known as Lnga-mchod. The Dgu-gtor festival, or festival of the banishment of evil spirits, takes place on the 29th day of the last month of the Tibetan year. At night a bowl of flour soup and a bunch of burning straws are taken into every room of every house, and the evil spirits are called out. Outside, on a distant path, the soup and straws are thrown and left to burn.
Superstition is prominent in Tibet. A traveler who encounters either a funeral procession, the source of running water, or a passerby carrying a pitcher of water is considered to have good fortune awaiting. If a vulture or an owl perches on a rooftop, it is believed that death or misfortune will soon befall the household. If snow falls during a marriage procession, it is believed that the newlyweds will face many misfortunes or difficulties. A snowfall during a funeral, however, symbolizes an impediment to death in the family for a long period of time.
History of Tibet
Ruins in eastern Tibet near Qamdo indicate that humans inhabited the region some 4,000 to 5,000 years ago. According to Tibetan legend, the Tibetan people originated from the union of a monkey and a female demon. The Chinese Tang dynasty annals (10th century CE) place the Tibetans’ origin among the nomadic pastoral Qiang tribes recorded about 200 BCE as inhabiting the great steppe northwest of China. That region, where diverse ethnic elements met and mingled for centuries, may be accepted as the original homeland of the present-day Tibetans, but until at least the 7th century CE they continued to mix, by conquest or alliance, with other peoples. From that heritage two groups in particular stand out: those who predominate in the cultivated valleys and may have derived from the Huang He (Yellow River) basin and be akin to the early Chinese and Burmese; and those, found mainly among the nomads of the north and in the noble families of Lhasa, who seem to have affinities with the Turkic peoples and whose early wandering grounds were farther to the north. In addition, there are Dardic and Indian influences in the west, and along the eastern Himalayan border there are connections with a complex of tribal peoples known to the Tibetans as Mon.
From the 7th to the 9th century the Tibetan kingdom was a significant power in Central Asia. When that kingdom disintegrated, Tibetans figured there from the 10th to the 13th century only casually as traders and raiders. The patronage of Tibetan Buddhism by the Yuan (Mongol) dynasty of China made it a potential spiritual focus for the disunited tribes of Mongolia. This religious significance became of practical importance only in the 18th century when the Oirat, who professed Tibetan Buddhism, threatened the authority of the Qing dynasty throughout Mongolia. In the 19th century Tibet was a buffer between Russian imperial expansion and India’s frontier defense policy.
Early history to the 9th century
Credible history begins late in the 6th century, when three discontented vassals of one of the princes among whom Tibet was then divided conspired to support the neighbouring lord of Yarlung, whose title was Spu-rgyal btsan-po. Btsan-po (“mighty”) became the designation of all kings of Tibet (rgyal means “king”; and spu, the meaning of which is uncertain, may refer to a sacral quality of the princes of Yar-lung as divine manifestations). Their new master, Gnam-ri srong-brtsan (c. 570–c. 619 CE), was transformed from a princeling in a small valley into the ruler of a vigorously expanding military empire.
Gnam-ri srong-brtsan imposed his authority over several Qiang tribes on the Chinese border and became known to the Sui dynasty (581–618) as the commander of 100,000 warriors. But it was his son, Srong-brtsan-sgam-po (c. 617–650), who brought Tibet forcibly to the notice of the Taizong emperor (reigned 626–649), of the Tang dynasty. To pacify him, Taizong granted him a princess as his bride. Srong-brtsan-sgam-po is famed as the first chos-rgyal (“religious king”) and for his all-important influence on Tibetan culture, the introduction of writing for which he borrowed a script from India, enabling the texts of the new religion to be translated. He extended his empire over Nepal, western Tibet, the Tuyuhun, and other tribes on China’s border; and he invaded north India.
In 670, 20 years after Srong-brtsan-sgam-po’s death, peace with China was broken and for two centuries Tibetan armies in Qinghai and Xinjiang kept the frontier in a state of war. In alliance with the western Turks, the Tibetans challenged Chinese control of the trade routes through Central Asia.
The reign of Khri-srong-lde-brtsan (755–797) marked the peak of Tibetan military success, including the exaction of tribute from China and the brief capture of its capital, Chang’an, in 763. But it was as the second religious king and champion of Buddhism that Khri-srong-lde-brtsan was immortalized by posterity. He initially had prohibited Buddhism, but that restriction was lifted in 761. In 763, when he was 21, he invited Buddhist teachers from India and China to Tibet, and about 779 he established the great temple of Bsam-yas, where Tibetans were trained as monks.
Buddhism foreshadowed the end of “Spu-rgyal’s Tibet.” The kings did not fully appreciate that its spiritual authority endangered their own supernatural prestige or that its philosophy was irreconcilable with belief in personal survival. They patronized Buddhist foundations but retained their claims as divine manifestations.
Disunity, 9th to 14th century
In the 9th century, Buddhist tradition records a contested succession, but there are many inconsistencies; contemporary Chinese histories indicate that Tibetan unity and strength were destroyed by rivalry between generals commanding the frontier armies. Early in the 9th century a scion of the old royal family migrated to western Tibet and founded successor kingdoms there, and by 889 Tibet was a mere congeries of separate lordships. In 843, during that period, Glandar-ma (reigned 841–846) ordered the suppression of Buddhism, and Tibet’s Buddhist traditions were disrupted for more than a century.
Tibetan generals and chieftains on the eastern border established themselves in separate territories. The acknowledged successors of the religious kings prospered in their migration to the west and maintained contact with Indian Buddhist universities through Tibetan scholars, notably the famous translator Rin-chen bzang-po (died 1055). In central Tibet, Buddhism suffered an eclipse. A missionary journey by the renowned Indian pandit Atisha in 1042 rekindled the faith through central Tibet, and from then onward Buddhism increasingly spread its influence over every aspect of Tibetan life.
Inspired by Atisha and by other pandits whom they visited in India, Tibetan religious men formed small communities and expounded different aspects of doctrine. Atisha’s own teaching became the basis of the austere Bka’-gdams-pa sect. The Tibetan scholar Dkon-mchog rgyal-po established the monastery of Sa-skya (1073), and a series of lamas (Tibetan priests) founded several monasteries of what is generally called the Bka’-brgyud-pa sect.
Hermits such as Mi-la ras-pa (1040–1123) shunned material things; but the systematized sects became prosperous through the support of local lords, often kinsmen of the founding lama, and, except for the Bka’-gdams-pa, each developed its own system of keeping the hierarchical succession within a noble family. In some sects the principle of succession through reincarnation was evolved. Although lamas of different schools studied amicably together, their supporters inevitably indulged in worldly competition. This tendency was intensified by the intervention of a new Asian power, the Mongols.
Although it has been widely stated that the Tibetans submitted about 1207 to Chinggis (Genghis) Khan to avert an invasion, evidence indicates that the first military contact with the Mongols came in 1240, when they marched on central Tibet and attacked the monastery of Ra-sgreng and others. In 1247, Köden, younger brother of the khan Güyük, symbolically invested the Sa-skya lama with temporal authority over Tibet. Later Kublai Khan appointed the lama ’Phags-pa as his “imperial preceptor” (dishi), and the politico-religious relationship between Tibet and the Mongol empire is stated as a personal bond between the emperor as patron and the lama as priest (yon-mchod).
A series of Sa-skya lamas, living at the Mongol court, thus became viceroys of Tibet on behalf of the Mongol emperors. The Mongols prescribed a reorganization of the many small estates into 13 myriarchies (administrative districts each comprising, theoretically, 10,000 families). The ideal was a single authority, but other monasteries, especially ’Bri-gung and Phag-mo-gru of the Bka’-brgyud-pa sect, whose supporters controlled several myriarchies, actively contested Sa-skya’s supremacy.
The collapse of the Yuan dynasty in 1368 also brought down Sa-skya after 80 years of power. Consequently, when the native Chinese Ming dynasty (1368–1644) evicted the Mongols, Tibet regained its independence; for more than 100 years the Phag-mo-gru-pa line governed in its own right.
A proliferation of scholars, preachers, mystics, hermits, and eccentrics, as well as monastic administrators and warriors, accompanied the subsequent revival of Buddhism. Literary activity was intense. Sanskrit works were translated with the help of visiting Indian pandits; the earliest codifiers, classifiers, biographers, and historians appeared. In an outburst of monastic building, the characteristic Tibetan style acquired greater extent, mass, and dignity. Chinese workmen were imported for decorative work. Temple walls were covered with fine frescoes; huge carved and painted wooden pillars were hung with silk and with painted banners (tankas). Chapels abounded in images of gold, gilded copper, or painted and gilded clay; some were decorated with stucco scenes in high relief; in others the remains of deceased lamas were enshrined in silver or gilded stupas. Under Nepalese influence, images were cast and ritual vessels and musical instruments made in a style blending exuberant power and sophisticated craftsmanship; wood-carvers produced beautiful shrines and book covers, and from India came palm-leaf books, ancient images, and bell-metal stupas of all sizes.
For 70 peaceful years Byang-chub rgyal-mtshan (died 1364) and his two successors ruled a domain wider than that of the Sa-skya-pa. Thereafter, although the Phag-mo-gru Gong-ma (as the ruler was called) remained nominally supreme, violent dissension erupted again. In 1435 the lay princes of Rin-spungs, ministers of Gong-ma and patrons of the increasingly influential Karma-pa sect, rebelled and by 1481 had seized control of the Phag-mo-gru court.
Already a new political factor had appeared in the Dge-lugs-pa sect. Its founder was a saintly scholar, Blo-bzang grags-pa (died 1419), known as Tsong-kha-pa for his supposed birthplace of Tsong-kha in eastern A-mdo. After studying with leading teachers of the day, he formulated his own doctrine, emphasizing the moral and philosophical ideas of Atisha rather than the magic and mysticism of Sa-skya—though he did not discard the latter entirely. In 1409 he founded his own monastery at Dga’-ldan, devoted to the restoration of strict monastic discipline. Tsong-kha-pa’s disciplinary reform appealed to people weary of rivalry and strife between wealthy monasteries. Tsong-kha-pa probably did not imagine that his disciples would form a new sect and join in that rivalry, but, after his death, devoted and ambitious followers built around his teaching and prestige what became the Dge-lugs-pa, or Yellow Hat sect, which was gradually drawn into the political arena.
In 1578 the Dge-lugs-pa took a step destined to bring foreign interference once more into Tibetan affairs. The third Dge-lugs-pa hierarch, Bsod-nams-rgya-mtsho, was invited to visit the powerful Tümed Mongol leader Altan Khan, with whom he revived the patron-priest relationship that had existed between Kublai Khan and ’Phags-pa. From this time dates the title of Dalai (“Oceanwide”) Lama, conferred by Altan and applied retrospectively to the two previous hierarchs. The holder is regarded as the embodiment of a spiritual emanation of the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara (Tibetan: Spyan-ras-gzigs; Chinese: Guanyin)—and hence of the mythic monkey demon and progenitor of the Tibetans. The succession is maintained by the discovery of a child, born soon after the death of a Dalai Lama, into whom the spirit of the deceased is believed to have entered. Until 1642 the Dalai Lamas were principal abbots of the Dge-lugs-pa, and in that year they acquired temporal and spiritual rule of Tibet. With Altan’s help virtually all the Mongols became Dge-lugs-pa adherents, and on Bsod-nams-rgya-mtsho’s death they acquired a proprietary interest in the order and some claims on Tibet itself when the fourth Dalai Lama was conveniently discovered in the Tümed royal family.
To support their protégé, the Mongols sent armed bands into Tibet. Their opponents were the Red Hat Lama, head of a Karma-pa subsect, and his patron the Gtsang king. That phase of rivalry ended inconclusively with the early death of the fourth Dalai Lama and the decline of Tümed Mongol authority in Mongolia. The next came when Güüshi Khan, leader of the Khoshut tribe, which had displaced the Tümed, appeared as champion of the Dge-lugs-pa. In 1640 he invaded Tibet, defeating the Gtsang king and his Karma-pa supporters.
The unification of Tibet
In 1642 with exemplary devotion, Güüshi enthroned the Dalai Lama as ruler of Tibet, appointing Bsod-nams chos-’phel as minister for administrative affairs and himself taking the title of king and the role of military protector. These three forceful personalities methodically and efficiently consolidated the religious and temporal authority of the Dge-lugs-pa, establishing a unique joint control over the region by both Mongols and Tibetans. Lhasa, long the spiritual heart of Tibet, now became the political capital as well. Dge-lugs-pa supremacy was imposed on all other orders, with special severity toward the Karma-pa. A reorganized district administration reduced the power of the lay nobility.
The grandeur and prestige of the regime were enhanced by reviving ceremonies attributed to the religious kings, by enlarging the nearby monasteries of ’Bras-spungs, Sera, and Dga’-Idan, and by building the superb Potala Palace, completed by another great figure, Sangs-rgyas-rgya-mtsho, who in 1679 succeeded as minister regent just before the death of his patron the fifth Dalai Lama. By then a soundly based and unified government had been established over a wider extent than any for eight centuries.
The installations of the fifth Dalai Lama (the “Great Fifth”) at Lhasa (1642) and the Qing, or Manchu, dynasty in China (1644) were almost synchronous. In 1652 the fifth Dalai Lama went to Beijing to meet with the Qing emperor Shunzhi. Prior to the Dalai Lama’s return to Tibet the following year, the Shunzhi emperor conferred upon him a golden album and a golden seal and formally proclaimed him the Dalai Lama (which, to the Qing, was an honorific title). In addition, a Qing envoy accompanied the Dalai Lama back to Tibet and conferred Qing legitimacy to the Güüshi Khan on behalf of the emperor. Good relations with Tibet were important to the Manchu because of the Dalai Lama’s prestige among the Mongols, from whom a new threat was taking shape in the ambitions of the powerful Oirat of western Mongolia. The Dalai Lama also expected more support from the Qing government to confirm his political power over Tibet, as Mongolian control there gradually weakened.
Elsewhere, Lhasa’s expanding authority with both Mongolian and Tibetan martial forces brought disagreements with Bhutan, which held its own against Tibetan incursions in 1646 and 1657, and with Ladakh, where a campaign ended in 1684 in Tibetan withdrawal to an accepted frontier when the Ladakhĭ king appealed for help to the Muslim governor of Kashmir.
Tibet under Manchu overlordship
The Dalai Lama’s death in 1682 and the discovery of his five-year-old reincarnation in 1688 were concealed by Sangs-rgyas-rgya-mtsho, who was intent on continuing the administration without disturbance. He informed the Manchu only in 1694 or 1696 (sources disagree). The Kangxi emperor (reigned 1661–1722) was incensed at the deception. In 1703 he discovered an ally in Tibet and an antagonist to Sangs-rgyas-rgya-mtsho when Lha-bzang Khan, fourth successor of Güüshi, sought to assert rights as king that had atrophied under his immediate predecessors. The behaviour of the sixth Dalai Lama, Tshangs-dbyangs-rgya-mtsho, who preferred poetry and libertine amusements to religion, gave Lha-bzang his opportunity. In 1705, with the emperor’s approval, he attacked and killed Sangs-rgyas-rgya-mtsho and deposed Tshangs-dbyangs-rgya-mtsho as a spurious reincarnation. The Tibetans angrily rejected him and soon recognized in eastern Tibet the infant reincarnation of the dead Tshangs-dbyangs-rgya-mtsho.
In 1717 the Oirat, nominally Dge-lugs-pa supporters, took advantage of Tibetan discontent to intervene in a sudden raid, defeating and killing Lha-bzang. Fear of hostile Mongol domination of Tibet compelled the emperor to send troops against the Oirat. After an initial reverse, his armies drove them out in 1720 and were welcomed at Lhasa as deliverers, all the more because they brought with them the new Dalai Lama, Bskal-bzang-rgya-mtsho. For the next 200 years there was no fighting between Tibetans and Chinese. However, after evicting the Oirat, the emperor decided to safeguard Manchu interests by appointing representatives—generally known as ambans—at Lhasa, with a small garrison in support. The Tibetans, interpreting this as another patron-priest relationship, accepted the situation, which generally left them to manage their own affairs. It was only in recurring crises that Manchu participation became, briefly, energetic. Imperial troops quelled a civil war in Tibet in 1728, restored order after the political leader was assassinated in 1750, and drove out the Gurkhas, who had invaded from Nepal in 1792. As Manchu energy declined, the Tibetans became increasingly independent, though still recognizing the formal suzerainty of the emperor, behind which it sometimes suited them to shelter. At no time did the ambans have administrative power, and after 1792, when Tibet was involved in wars with Ladakh (1842) and Nepal (1858), the Manchu were unable to help or protect them.
Administration and culture under the Manchu
No Dalai Lama until the 13th approached the personal authority of the Great Fifth. The seventh incarnation was overshadowed by Pho-lha, a lay nobleman appointed ruler by the Manchu. The eighth was diffident and retiring. But after the Pho-lha family’s regime, Dge-lugs-pa clerics resumed power and held onto it through a series of monk regents for about 145 years.
Chinese contacts affected Tibetan culture less than might be expected. They helped shape the administrative machinery, army, and mail service, which were based on existing institutions and run by Tibetans. Chinese customs influenced dress, food, and manners; china and chopsticks were widely used by the upper classes. The arts of painting, wood carving, and casting figures continued on traditional lines, with much technical skill but few signs of innovation. An important effect of Manchu supremacy was the exclusion of foreigners after 1792. That ended the hopes of Christian missionaries and the diplomatic visits from British India, which had been started in 1774. Tibet was now closed, and mutual ignorance enshrouded future exchanges with its British neighbours in India.
Tibet since 1900
In the mid-19th century the Tibetans repeatedly rebuffed overtures from the British, who saw Tibet at first as a trade route to China and later as countenancing Russian advances that might endanger India. Eventually, in 1903, after failure to get China to control its unruly vassal, a political mission was dispatched from India to secure understandings on frontier and trade relations. Tibetan resistance was overcome by force, the Dalai Lama fled to China, and the rough wooing ended in a treaty at Lhasa in 1904 between Britain and Tibet without Chinese adherence. In 1906, however, the Chinese achieved a treaty with Britain, without Tibetan participation, that recognized their suzerainty over Tibet. That success emboldened the Chinese to seek direct control of Tibet by using force against the Tibetans for the first time in 10 centuries. In 1910 the Dalai Lama again was forced to flee, this time to India.
That dying burst by the Qing dynasty converted Tibetan indifference into enmity, and, after the start of the Chinese Revolution of 1911–12, the Tibetans rose up against and expelled the Chinese; the Dalai Lama returned to Tibet in mid-1912. Tibet subsequently functioned as a de facto independent government until 1951 and defended its frontier against China in occasional fighting as late as 1931. Of note was the Shimla Conference (1913–14), in which Tibet and Great Britain, with Chinese participation, negotiated the status of Tibet and of the Tibet-India frontier (the McMahon Line). However, China refused to ratify the conference’s agreement (including the demarcated border), nor would it recognize Tibet as an independent entity.
In 1949, after the communist takeover in China, the Chinese heralded the “liberation” of Tibet, and in October 1950 Chinese troops entered and took control of eastern Tibet, overwhelming the poorly equipped Tibetan troops. An appeal by the 14th Dalai Lama to the United Nations was denied, and support from India and Britain was not forthcoming. A Tibetan delegation summoned to Beijing in 1951 had to sign a treaty dictated by Chinese authorities. It professed to guarantee Tibetan autonomy and religion but also allowed the establishment at Lhasa of Chinese civil and military headquarters.
Smoldering resentment at the strain on the country’s resources from the influx of Chinese soldiery and civilians was inflamed in 1956 by reports of fighting and oppression in districts east of the upper Yangtze River, outside the administration of Lhasa but bound to it by ethnicity, language, and religion. Refugees from the fighting in the east carried guerrilla warfare against the Chinese into central Tibet, creating tensions that exploded in a popular rising at Lhasa in March 1959. The Dalai Lama, most of his ministers, and many followers escaped across the Himalayas, and the rising was suppressed.
The events of 1959 intensified China’s disagreements with India, which had given asylum to the Dalai Lama. In 1962 Chinese forces proved the efficiency of the new communications they had established in Tibet by invading northeastern Assam, although they soon withdrew.
In 1966 and 1967 the Chinese position in Tibet was shaken by the excesses of the early Cultural Revolution (1966–76), as the upheavals it unleashed reached Lhasa. Military control was restored by 1969, and in 1971 a new local government committee was announced. Between 1963 and 1971 no foreign visitor was allowed to enter Tibet. Repression in Tibet generally abated in the late 1970s with the end of the Cultural Revolution. However, repressive measures resumed periodically during times of civil disturbance, as when riots broke out in Tibet in the late 1980s or after protests erupted in 2008 before the Beijing Summer Olympic Games.
Meanwhile, China invested heavily in the economic development of Tibet, notably in its mineral and power-generating resources. Considerable effort also was directed at improving Tibet’s transportation infrastructure—for example, through highway and railroad construction. Tourism generally has been encouraged. In addition, both China and the Dalai Lama have made diplomatic overtures toward the other side, though the two camps remained far apart. For his part, the Dalai Lama since the 1980s has stated his desire for what he described as “autonomy” for Tibet and regions adjacent to Tibet. Chinese authorities have viewed such calls for autonomy as a continuation of the exiled Tibetan community’s desire for Tibet’s independence from China. During that time the Dalai Lama—winner of the 1989 Nobel Prize for Peace—became a renowned figure throughout the world.
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