Tibetan Empire Dissolves

A series of regicides plunged the Tibetan Empire into a period of disunity and fragmentation.

Summary of Event

Although the line of Tibetan kings, or tsenpos, begins with the legendary Nyatri in 127 b.c.e., a reliable historical record of the dynasty begins in the seventh century c.e. with the reign of Songtsen Gampo Songtsen Gampo (r. 627-650), who consolidated the petty states of the Tibetan plateau under a single monarchy based in Lhasa. The first of the nation’s three Dharma kings (Buddhist warrior-rulers who for three hundred years led Tibet to a material and spiritual golden age), Songtsen extended Tibet’s influence across Central Asian and China through military conquest and strategic marriage alliances. He also shifted the focus away from the native shamanistic Bon religion to the Indian-based Buddhism. Religion;Tibet For the new religion, he built the Jokhang and Ramoche Temples (in honor of his Nepalese and Chinese queens, respectively), as well as the Potala Palace. He also authorized the creation of a Tibetan alphabet based on Sanskrit in order to translate key Buddhist texts. [kw]Tibetan Empire Dissolves (838-842)
Tibet;838-842: Tibetan Empire Dissolves[0900]
Government and politics;838-842: Tibetan Empire Dissolves[0900]
Religion;838-842: Tibetan Empire Dissolves[0900]
Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;838-842: Tibetan Empire Dissolves[0900]
Songtsen Gampo
Trisong Detsen
Lang Darma

Trisong Detsen Trisong Detsen (r. 755-797), the second Dharma king, expanded on his predecessor’s military and religious accomplishments. He triumphed over Tibet’s traditional enemy China, managing to capture the capital Chang’an Chang’an, Tibetan capture of (modern Xi’an) and briefly installing a puppet emperor in 763. He also institutionalized Buddhism as the state religion and established the Samye Samye , the nation’s first monastery. The influx of foreign Buddhist Buddhism;Tibet missionaries such as the Indian pandit Padmasambhava Padmasambhava proved a mixed blessing for the kingdom. Although they provided practical skills such as the administration and record keeping necessary for an expanding empire, they also incited a backlash among Tibetans devoted to the traditional Bon religion, which Buddhism was rapidly replacing. In particular, aristocratic elements of the traditional Tibetan society saw themselves being displaced in the social organization by a rising Buddhist bureaucracy.

This political-religious conflict came to a head during the reign of the third Dharma king Ralpachen Ralpachen (r. 815-838). His very elevation to kingship, over the claims of his elder brother Lang Darma Lang Darma , is evidence of the power of the ascendant Buddhist priesthood. In their role as government ministers, Buddhist priests were in a position to promote the selection of the pro-Buddhist Ralpachen over that of Lang Darma, a follower of the Bon religion. As his first name suggests, Lang (Tibetan for “bull”) was noted for his aggressiveness and, from the Buddhist perspective, irreligiousness.

Once in power, his younger brother Ralpachen was a strong proponent of Buddhism, commissioning the translation Translations;Sanskrit to Tibetan of sacred texts from Sanskrit into Tibetan and the codification of these works into a form that remains in use in modern times. His commitment to the faith and his personal subordination to its priesthood is commemorated in his custom of allowing monks to meditate on prayer rugs attached to the long braided locks of his hair.

More controversially, Ralpachen introduced a system of domestic taxation Taxation;Tibet to provide revenues for the expanding priesthood—an action that only spurred the growth of an anti-Buddhist faction centered around Lang Darma. In foreign affairs, however, he maintained the strength of Tibet’s military and political influence. In 821, he concluded a peace treaty with China that confirmed the nation’s borders much in accordance with Tibetan claims. A stone pillar in the Jokhang, still standing, commemorates this achievement.

Court intrigue, spearheaded by Lang Darma, proved to be Ralpachen’s undoing. Lang Darma first created a rumor that the king’s minister Bande Dangka, a Buddhist monk, was having an affair with the queen. After the suspicious Ralpachen dismissed the minister, Lang Darma had the monk murdered. Meanwhile, the innocent queen was so upset by the accusations that she committed suicide by leaping from the palace walls. In the climate of such instability, Ralpachen himself became the next victim. He was assassinated in 836 by a pair of secretly pro-Bon ministers, working in league with Lang Darma; they strangled him as he drank beer.

Upon Ralpachen’s death, Lang Darma ascended the throne. He initiated a campaign to reinstate Bon Bon as the state religion with himself as a kind of god-king. He also ruthlessly persecuted Buddhism, passing laws that forbid the teaching of the religion, and requiring priests to marry. He closed up the temples and, in an early form of negative advertising, even ordered crude drawings of drunken priests painted on the exteriors.

Buddhism Buddhism;persecution of in Tibet was effectively forced underground for the next few years. Monks retreated to mountain caves in the hinterlands. The situation became so dire that a monk named Lhalung Palgye Dorje Lhalung Palgye Dorje decided to take action in 842. He blackened a white horse with charcoal and dressed himself in a long flowing black robe with a white interior. He rode to Lhasa and met Lang Darma in front of the Jokhang with a party of ministers. Using a bow and arrow he had concealed up his sleeve, he shot Lang Darma, killing him. In the tumult following, he escaped on his horse, inverting his robe to show white and riding his horse through a river to wash off the charcoal. While the king’s ministers sought a man wearing a black robe on a black horse, the white-robed monk on a white horse fled to safety.

Lang Darma left behind two queens. As the younger was already pregnant with an heir, the older suddenly claimed to be pregnant as well. According to tradition, the older queen presented an orphaned infant as her own child. The court ministers were dubious about the child and dubbed him Yumtan Yumtan (Depending on Mother). The younger queen gave birth to a son, O-sung O-sung (Guarded by Light), who was recognized as the legitimate heir. Yumtan, however, failed to accede to the authority of his half-brother and set up a rival monarchy based in the Yarlung Valley. Further fragmentation occurred when O-sung’s heirs established rival lineages in the provinces of Tsang and Purang. Without the centralized authority in Lhasa, Tibet’s military and political power waned, and its borders fell prey to its powerful neighbors. Without the intellectual and social sophistication provided by Buddhist priesthood, the nation receded culturally into a dark age.


The most immediate result of the assassinations of Ralpachen and Lang Darma was the end of a single dynastic line and the fragmentation of a unified Tibet into petty states. These petty states soon fell prey to the depredations of their powerful neighbors, culminating in their conquest by the Chinese Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368) in the thirteenth century. Yuan emperor Kublai Khan Kublai Khan reunited the country as a client-state in 1248 and installed the first high lama as priest-king. This historical subordination serves as the primary justification for China’ China;Tibet and current claim to Tibet, following its invasion and occupation of the country in 1959.

Although official suppression of Buddhism in Tibet continued for almost two hundred years after the assassination of Lang Darma, the faith took on a distinctly Tibetan cast during its years “underground”: It synthesized elements of traditional Bon magic with esoteric Indian Tantrism when it reemerged as a public faith in the middle of the eleventh century. Indeed, the political and religious organization of the nation under a high lama in the thirteenth century owed as much to the Bon tradition of the god-king as to Buddhist faith.

Further Reading

  • Baumer, Christopher. Tibet’s Ancient Religion: Bon. Tokyo: John Weatherhill, 2002. A good introductory examination of Tibet’s traditional religion and its syncretic relationship with Tibetan Buddhism.
  • Beckwith, Christopher. The Tibetan Empire in Central Asia. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1993. Focuses on the golden age of the Tibetan Empire and its conflicts with the Arabs, Turks, and Chinese for control of the Silk Road.
  • Bsod-Nams-Rgyal-Mtshan, ed. The Clear Mirror: A Traditional Account of Tibet’s Golden Age. Ithaca, N.Y.: Snow Lion, 1996. An anthology of traditional documents in English translation from the Tibetan golden age, including a royal history and genealogy.
  • Feigon, Lee. Demystifying Tibet: Unlocking the Secrets in the Land of Snows. Blue Ridge Summit, Pa.: Ivan R. Dees, 1995. This broad cultural history of Tibet explores the nation’s cultural roots in its golden age and examines its complex historical relationship with China.
  • Hambly, Gavin, ed. Central Asia. New York: Delacorte Press, 1966. Offers an excellent overview on the foundations of Tibetan society in the context of other Central Asian states.
  • Ray, Reginald, and Tulku Thondup. The Secret of the Vajra World: The Tantric Buddhism of Tibet. New York: Shambhala, 2001. Includes a lengthy history of the evolution of Tibetan Buddhism through periods of suppression.
  • Shakabpa, Tsepon. Tibet: A Political History. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1967. Though unaffectedly pro-Buddhist, this work provides a readable and at times novelistic account of the tsenpo line.