Tibetan Empire was founded by King Songtsen Gampo in the 7th century when he united all the independent fiefdoms with no central authority in Tibetan Plateau into a centralized state. It was the first regime in the history of Tibet and lasted for more than 200 years.
King Songtsen Gampo extended Tibet’s influence beyond Tibetan Plateau, that even the mighty Tang dynasty of China was helpless to stop its aggression. Equipped with enveloped chain mail armors, efficient in using swords and lances, Tibetan army invaded Qinghai, Sichuan, and Gansu, and once even occupied Chang’an, the capital of Tang. They took control of the Tarim Basin in modern Xinjiang as far as the Wakhan Valley in what is now Afghanistan. Subjugating the Western Turks of the region by 670, Tibet was directly governing large trade centers of the Silk Road, such as Kashgar and Khotan.
Besides his military talent, King Songtsen Gampo is better credited for introducing Buddhism to Tibet. He established hundreds of Buddhist Temples in his lifetime, yet only a handful of them survived today to treasure. One of them is the Potala Palace. Regarded as a symbol of Tibet, it is the highest ancient palace in the world comprising many mansions, towers and chapels. It was originally established by King Songtsen Gampo to house him and his two Buddhist queens; Princess Bhrikuti of Nepal and Princess Wencheng of Tang Dynasty. After the fall of the empire, the Potala Palace was almost ruined by constant wars until the 17th century, when His Holiness the Fifth Dalai Lama reconstructed the palace. A major work of construction took many years. At last, the Fifth Dalai Lama moved the Tibetan government from Drepung Monastery to Potala, which made Potala as the political and the Buddhism center of Tibet. Built on the Red mountain at an altitude of 3700m, the Potala Palace is a masterpiece of human imagination and creativity, for its architecture and compatible location within an impressive landscape. Its general structure can be divided into main parts: the White Palace around and the Red Palace in the center. The White Palace was the living quarters of the Dalai Lama and the office to deal with political and Buddhist affairs. The Red Palace is the main building for 117 meters, consisting of a complicated layout of different Buddhist halls, temples and libraries.
There are two other prominent temples built by King Songtsen Gampo, Jokhang Temple in the heart of Lhasa in Tibet and Jambay Lhakhang in the Kingdom of Bhutan. Jokhang Temple is the holiest destination for all Tibetan pilgrims. In 647, the king built this temple to house a sacred image of the Buddha Shakyamuni, which was brought to Tibet as a dowry of his second wife- Princess Wencheng of the Tang Dynasty. For its magnificence, the temple attracted thousands of Buddhist pilgrims from all parts of the country. Thus, a city grew around the Jokhang Temple, which over time became known as Lhasa, a holy land. In the main hall of the temple, one can observe the original Jowo Shakyamuni Buddha statue brought by the princess. This statue is the most worshipped object in Tibetan Buddhism, as one of the only three statues of Buddha Shakyamuni designed by himself. Legend says when Shakyamuni was alive, he disagreed with ‘personal worship’ and did not allow creating likenesses of him. He granted only three statues to be sculpted during his lifetime. The first shows him at age eight; the second represents him at age twelve when he was still a prince of India, and the third is of him as an adult. The statue kept in the Jokhang Temple is the image of Shakyamuni at twelve. Jambaya Lhakhang in Bhutan is said to be one of the 108 temples the King Songtsen Gampo built in a single day to pin down a demon to earth in 659. One of the most remarkable Buddhist festivals, called The Jambay Lhakhang Drup Festival is held at this one-story temple complex. The four-day festival features various dances and holy rituals. The most divine dance is known as Mewang or Fire dance held in the evening to bless infertile women to bear a baby.
Songtsen Gampo was absolutely a great leader, but it was under the power of Emperor Ralpacan (815-836) when the Tibetan Empire reached its greatest territorial expansion, controlling all of Bhutan, most of Nepal and some parts of China, India, Pakistan and Kazakhstan. Ralpacan launched many military campaigns against the Chinese and the Uighurs. While his armies raided the Uighur territory which almost reached its capital of Ordu-Baliq in modern-day Mongolia, his various successful attacks on Chinese territory led to the first real peace treaty between Tibet and Tang dynasty. However, the taxes that Ralpacan had instituted to support the Buddhist monasteries had caused irritation among the noble clans. An increasing number of people were giving gifts and inheritances to the monasteries, slowly shifting control of agricultural land from the noble clans to the powerful Buddhist abbots. After his death in 838, his brother Lang Darma succeeded the throne. The new emperor sought to destabilize the political influence of the monasteries and their allies by destructing Buddhist temples and prosecuting its monks. This action raised a public hatred towards the new king, and as a result he was assassinated in 842 by a Buddhist monk. His death was followed by a civil war between two claimants to the throne which caused the dissolution of the Tibetan empire, leading to the Era of Fragmentation.
For a few centuries after the dissolution, Tibet has been functioning as an independent entity but was taken over by powerful Mongolian and Chinese dynasties. Today, Tibet is a vast, remote Buddhist land covering 1.2 million square kilometers and administered as an autonomous region of China. And 3 million Tibetans still living and upholding their distinct culture and traditions in mighty mountain ranges knows as “The Roof of the World”.
Across the Tibetan Plateau
A unique journey through the Tibetan Plateau- the Roof of the World as it is commonly known. Come and indulge in the intriguing world of Tibetan Buddhism and its ancient splendid monasteries, travel through towering mountain passes, along crystal blue lakes, and through rustic villages to get an up-close understanding of the reality of Tibet.