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 Yar-lung, 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, was transformed from a princeling in a small valley into the ruler of a
vigorously expanding military empire.
Gnam-ri srong-brtsan (c. AD 570-c. 619) imposed his authority over several Ch'iang 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. 608-650), who brought Tibet
forcibly to the notice of T'ai-tsung (reigned 626-649), of the T'ang dynasty. To pacify
him, T'ang T'ai-tsung 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 T'u-yü-hun, and other tribes on China's border; and he invaded
In 670, 20 years after Srong-brtsan-sgam-po's death, peace with China was broken and for
two centuries Tibetan armies in Tsinghai and Sinkiang 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 capture of its capital, Ch'ang-an, in
763. But it was as the second religious king and champion of Buddhism that
Khri-srong-lde-brtsan was immortalized by posterity. In 763, when he was 21, he invited
Buddhist teachers from India and China to Tibet, and c. 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.
Although it has been widely stated that the Tibetans submitted c. 1207 to 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. Kublai Khan appointed the lama
'Phags-pa as his "Imperial preceptor" (ti-shih), and the politicoreligious
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 Yüan dynasty in 1368 also brought down Sa-skya after 80 years of
power. Consequently, when the native Chinese Ming dynasty evicted the Mongols, Tibet
regained its independence; for more than 100 years the Phag-mo-gru-pa line governed in its
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; woodcarvers produced
beautiful shrines and book covers, and from India came palm-leaf books, ancient images,
and bell-metal stupas of all sizes.