Reign of Songtsen Gampo Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Known as the first Buddhist king of Tibet, Songtsen Gampo took the throne of what was to become the central Tibetan Empire in 627 and led its expansion across Central Asia.

Summary of Event

Reliable information about the history and activities of the early Tibetan kings and rulers is scarce, but those sources of information that do exist suggest that the political landscape of central and western Tibet in the early seventh century appears to have been dominated by small states. These were probably kin-based, either by clans or lineages, and they controlled relatively limited areas around the major river drainages and their tributaries. In some cases, these polities owed allegiance to larger states. One such state was the Zhang-zhung confederacy Zhang-zhung confederacy[Zhang zhung confederacy] , which was said to control much of Tibet from its capital, Kyunglung, located near Mount Kailash in western Tibet. [kw]Reign of Songtsen Gampo (627-650) [kw]Songtsen Gampo, Reign of (627-650) [kw]Gampo, Reign of Songtsen (627-650) Songtsen Gampo Tibet China;627-650: Reign of Songtsen Gampo[0310] Tibet;627-650: Reign of Songtsen Gampo[0310] Government and politics;627-650: Reign of Songtsen Gampo[0310] Religion;627-650: Reign of Songtsen Gampo[0310] Songtsen Gampo Namri Songtsen Taizong (599-649)

Around 600, Namri Songtsen Namri Songtsen , a ruler of a small polity in the Yarlung Valley of the portion of Tibet known as Ü (now central Tibet in the vicinity of Lhasa), forged a secret alliance with petty rulers to the north and west of Yarlung and nominally sworn to fealty with the local overlord of the Zhang-zhung confederacy. This alliance succeeded in defeating this Zhang-zhung ruler, and buoyed by this outcome, Namri and his followers pushed even further to the west, conquering another confederacy dependent. This series of conquests led to the establishment of the Spurgyal Spurgyal , which is best seen as the nascent Tibetan empire, and which now controlled most of the Tibetan plateau with the exception of the northeast (Amdo Amdo , now known as Qinghai) and extreme eastern Tibet. Namri sent an embassy to the Sui Dynasty (581-618) emperor in China in an apparent attempt to ally his growing state with them against the Aza of Amdo, but it met with little success and instead aroused Chinese suspicions about his territorial ambitions.

Potala Palace, above Lhasa Valley in Tibet. Songtsen Gampo is reputed to have build the original palace, which in the seventeenth century was expanded into the large compound that still stands today.

(PhotoDisc)

On the death of his father in 618, Songtsen Gampo quickly suppressed all opposition to his rule on the Tibetan plateau. He first put down a rebellion and then moved forcefully against his remaining enemies, especially the remnants of the Zhang-zhung. His first strategy was to marry his sister to the Zhang-zhung king. He and his sister then plotted an ambush of the unsuspecting king and killed him. This established Songtsen Gampo as the undisputed ruler of the plateau, and through this, he gained the grudging respect of the Chinese. He further consolidated his rule through a series of political arrangements, including a marriage of his son to a Nepali princess. Marriage as a political tool;Tibet By 635, he had proposed to the Tang emperor, Taizong Taizong (Tang emperor) , that he be permitted to wed a Chinese princess, but this request was refused. Songtsen Gampo had watched with growing concern the expansion of the Tang into the Amdo regions and decided to act, most likely using the refusal of his request for a princess as a convenient pretext.

From 637 to 638, he conquered the Chinese Amdo vassal states, and in the fall of 638, his forces raided Chinese colony towns on the extreme eastern margin of the Tibetan plateau in what is now Sichuan Province. After a series of minor military engagements on this frontier, the Tibetans and Chinese declared a peace, which was cemented by the marriage of Songtsen Gampo to the Chinese princess Wenzheng Wenzheng (Wen-cheng), who left for the Tibetan capital of Lhasa in 641. This peace lasted well after the deaths of both Songtsen Gampo and Taizong in 649. As an indication of the respect in which the Chinese held Songtsen Gampo, Gaozong Gaozong (Tang emperor) (Kao-tsung; r. 650-683), the third Tang emperor, bestowed on him just before his death the title Precious King.

Songtsen Gampo is known as the first Buddhist king of Tibet because under his rule, Buddhism Buddhism;Tibet was formally introduced to the plateau. The indigenous, pre-Buddhist religion of Tibet is poorly known, but it appears to have been based on the shamanic propitiation of local spirits, deities, demons, ghosts, and other entities. Many of these lived in specific landscape features, such as rivers or bodies of water, mountains, especially peaks and passes, and other locations. Folk religion, practiced by the common people, involved rituals designed to ward off evil or to ask for special benefits. Ritual specialists performed many of these rites. Later Buddhist texts describe how important figures in the diffusion of Buddhism “tamed” or “subjugated” these demons and spirits and bound them to the service of the Buddha. In practice, this meant that these local spirits were incorporated into the Buddhist belief system as subordinate or protector deities. Religion;Tibet

A number of authors describe what they call court religion, which would have been practiced by the ruling elites and nobles of the small-scale polities before the formation of the Tibetan empire. Kings (local rulers) were considered divine and returned to heaven each night by means of a special connecting cord. According to myth, the cord of one of these kings was severed in combat, thus making him mortal. Elaborate funerary traditions, including animal sacrifice and mound construction, became part of court religious activity. Kings were further identified with mountains and the deities on them, who were thought to be their ancestors. Ritual specialists, usually diviners (or often described as the “chief shaman”), attended the court and directed its rituals. Ancient texts refer to this class of priestly figures as bön or shen, and many authors use the term Bonpo Bonpo (or Bon) to describe Tibetan religion at this time. However, it is clear that Bon was much more complex than this simple attempt at equivalence. The priestly class shared power with two other factions: the king and his followers and the leaders of the noble families.

Tibetan Buddhist scholars of later periods have ascribed to Songtsen Gampo a major role in promoting Buddhism in his nascent empire. He is said to have constructed twelve temples, with at least one in Nepal, and also to have promulgated a Buddhist ethical code. During his reign, the Tibetan script was developed. Writing;Tibet Some authors have even written that he was converted to Buddhism through the efforts of his wife, Wenzheng. However, his actual accomplishments are in some dispute. There is no question that Buddhism established a foothold on the plateau during his reign and that he did in fact create a context of tolerance for its diffusion, at least at the level of the royal court. The Jokhang Jokhang , perhaps Tibet’s holiest place, was built to house the statute of Śākyamuni (the historical Buddha, also known as the Jo bo), that was brought by Wenzheng to Lhasa. Other small temples were constructed at this time. The influence of Buddhism at this time was not widespread, and it is best to see it as one of a number of cults or religions that operated on a small scale, primarily at the level of the nobles and elites, but had little political importance or power. Nor is there a sense that as yet, Buddhism had made inroads into folk religious practice, as it was to do over the next 250 years.

Significance

Songtsen Gampo consolidated the process of political centralization on the Tibetan plateau begun by his father, Namri Songtsen. From his relatively small polity in the Yarlung Valley, he was able through alliance building, threat, marriage, and outright conquest to lay the foundations of what became the Tibetan Empire, which controlled much of Central Asia in the 250 years following the end of his reign. His efforts made Tibet, along with the Arabs, Chinese, and Turks, one of the most powerful states in all Central Asia. The extent of his influence on the introduction of Buddhism to the plateau is open to question, but it is clear that he created a context into which Buddhism was accepted by the royal court and that he assisted in its early growth through temple construction, patronage, and tolerance. Buddhism soon grew in both secular and religious power such that it overshadowed traditional religious practice in the hands of the bön and shen priests, which in time laid the basis for reaction and ultimately, the collapse of Buddhist fortunes, which paralleled the eventual collapse of the empire itself.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Beckwith, Christopher S. The Tibetan Empire in Central Asia. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1987. The definitive treatment of the expansion of the Tibetan empire into Central Asia.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Haarh, Erik. The Yarlung Dynasty. Copenhagen: Gad, 1969. A highly detailed discussion of the myth and history of the royal Tibetan lineage.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Richardson, Hugh. “How Old Was Srong-brtsan Sgam-po?” Bulletin of Tibetology 2, no. 1 (1965): 5-8. A well-reasoned analysis of records documenting Songtsen Gampo’s life.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Samuel, Geoffrey. Civilized Shamans: Buddhism in Tibetan Societies. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1993. A comprehensive examination of the development of Buddhist thought on the Tibetan plateau.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Stein, R. A. Tibetan Civilization. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1972. An excellent and accessible overview of Tibetan history, culture, and civilization.

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