Daily Archives: 12 November 2021

Tibetan Origins

From Eat the Buddha: Life and Death in a Tibetan Town, by Barbara Demick (Random House, 2020), Kindle pp. 14-15:

Tibetans themselves have a fanciful origin myth with nods to both Darwinism and Buddhism. Although there are various permutations to the story, the gist is that the Tibetan people are the descendants of an ape and an ogress who mated on a cliff above a vast inland sea that once covered the Tibetan plateau. (The part about the sea is supported by geological evidence.) The ape was said to be a manifestation of Avalokitesvara, the bodhisattva of compassion, gentle in nature, and the ogress a pitiless warrior.

These qualities would be inherited by their descendants, the Tibetan people, whose destiny would be shaped by competing strains of compassion and cruelty.

Even after the introduction of Buddhism, imported from India in the seventh century, the Tibetans were hardly pacifists. Nor were they particularly insular, contrary to the latter-day reputation of Tibet as a hermit kingdom. In an era when horsemanship was the most essential skill of war, Tibetans ranged across central Asia, sacking cities and subduing other peoples who were incorporated into the Tibetan nation. Under the great emperor Songtsen Gampo, the Tibetans built an empire that rivaled those of the Mongols, Turks, and Arabs. For a brief moment in history, fleeting but hardly forgotten, the Tibetans were even more powerful than the Chinese. In 763 the Tibetans sacked Chang’an, the Tang dynasty capital city now known as Xi’an, home of the terracotta warriors. Their occupation of the city lasted only fifteen days, but it would be long remembered by Tibetans with pride.

The Tibetan empire collapsed in the mid-ninth century and fragmented into minor principalities. It was not until 1642 that a strong, centralized Tibet was reestablished under the leadership of a succession of Dalai Lamas installed and supported by the powerful Mongols. The fifth Dalai Lama had the Potala Palace built on the ruins of the fortress of Songtsen Gampo, giving the impression of an unbroken line of succession with the past. But his Tibet was less than half the size of the former empire, with most of the formerly Tibetan lands to the east split up among various smaller kingdoms and fiefdoms, of which the Mei kingdom of Princess Gonpo’s ancestors was one of many.

Gonpo’s ancestors came originally from the western reach of the plateau, near Mount Kailash—a region called Ngari, which might account for the name Ngaba. Perhaps to enhance their legitimacy, they claimed to have migrated during the ninth century, the golden age of Tibet, as warriors under the command of the great emperors. When the Tibetan empire collapsed and receded, an official history suggests, they remained behind in the east, establishing their own fiefdom.

Ngaba was the perfect place to go rogue. It was the very embodiment of the old Chinese chestnut “Heaven is high and the emperor is far away.” It was more than one thousand miles from Beijing—at least a month’s journey by horseback—and nearly as far from Lhasa. By the time the Mei kingdom was firmly established in the eighteenth century, the eastern reaches of the Tibetan plateau had been annexed by the Manchus, who had conquered China and established the Qing dynasty. But the Qing emperors were stretched too thin to bother with the tiresome task of governance. They would send in the cavalry only if fighting between fractious chieftains threatened the empire. The attitude seemed to be “Let the barbarians rule themselves.” They even gave imperial seals to many of the local rulers, Gonpo’s ancestors included, confirming their authority to rule.

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