Series 2: Tibet

Tibetan snow leopard
Possible Flag of the Tibetan Empire. While I can’t find any verifiable information on the flag, the symbology used here is consistent with historical Tibetan flags, including those of the Imperial era.

The Tibetan Empire rose from an obscure kingdom in the Yarlung river valley circa the early 7th century. The emperors (called Tsenpo) of this mighty state rivaled those of their neighbors, the Chinese, for nearly two centuries. The dramatic capture of the Tang capital Chang’an in 762 is just one example of the power Tibet once held in Central and East Asia.

But the Empire is known by Tibetans today far more for the spread of Buddhism throughout the country. Under the so-called “Dharma Kings”, the three holiest emperors whose devotion to spreading Buddhism has made them famous, the religion spread across the plateau and developed into a unique strain of Buddhism that survives to this day. 


What would a history podcast be without plenty of maps? All are licensed under Creative Commons from Wikipedia. Link to original file on each image.

Tibetan empire greatest extent 780s-790s CE

Maximum extent of the Tibetan Empire at its height in the late 8th century. Though it’s often reported, including in this map, in popular sources, the interactions between the Pala kingdom of Bengal and the Tibetan Empire were likely minimal, and no vassal relationship ever existed as purported here. 

Map of the Four Horns of the Tibetan Empire (7th century)-EN

The Four Horns of Tibet. The “Horns” were administrative units for military recruitment, taxation, and governance all located in the imperial heartland. 


Map of “Greater Tibet” today. These are the maximal extents of what one might call the Tibetan cultural zone, those areas inhabited by people who predominantly self identify as Tibetan, speak a Tibetan language, or practice Tibetan Buddhism.

Tibet and surrounding areas topographic map 3

Elevation map of the Tibetan Plateau and surrounding area. Note the high elevation of the northern Changtang region, as well as the many valleys in the south between the tall peaks and rugged zones.

Tibetischer Kulturraum Karte

Detailed map of the Tibetan cultural zone. Unfortunately it’s in German, but it gives a clear perspective on regions of surrounding areas that are culturally Tibetan.

Tibet in China (claimed hatched) (+all claims hatched)

The modern Tibet Autonomous Region within the People’s Republic of China. Much of cultural Tibet is now within the Chinese provinces of Qinghai and Sichuan, as well as surrounding countries like India and Nepal, plus the entirety of Bhutan. 


Images all come from Wikimedia commons and link to the respective pages for licensing details.


Statue of the first emperor, Songtsen Gampo, revered as the ruler who sponsored the spread of Buddhism in Tibet.

Miran Fort BLP466 PHOTO1187 2 60

Ruins of a fort in modern Xinjiang dating to the Tibetan occupation of the region in the 8th and 9th centuries. Wars between the Tibetans and Chinese over the Silk Road were nearly continuous for two centuries. 


The Potala Palace in Lhasa. Though constructed by the later Dalai Lamas, the palace stands on the ruins of many earlier fortresses and palaces, including those of the emperor Songtsen Gampo.

Bos grunniens at Yundrok Yumtso Lake

The domestic yak is an important animal for Tibetan nomads and farmers alike. Able to subsist on the sparse grasses of the plateau, yak meat, fur and dairy are crucial products for Tibetans. Traditional Tibetan tea is still made with melted yak butter.

Nomads near Namtso.jpg

The yurt of a Tibetan nomad family. Nomads herd sheep, yaks and horses in the arid steppe of northern Tibet. Their tents are traditionally made from black yak fur. The royal court of the Emperor was nomadic and consisted of a complex mobile city of tents such as these. 

Tang-Tibetan alliance stele

The bilingual Treaty Pillar of 822 in Lhasa. Three of these pillars were constructed following the negotiations between Tang China and Tibet that resulted in a lasting peace between the two great powers. 

Dunhuang Mogao Ku 2013.12.31 12-30-18

The exterior of the Mogao Caves in Dunhuang, Gansu. The complex series of caves contained a number of early Buddhist sites associated with the Chinese, Tibetans, Uyghurs and others in the region. 

Wang Yuanlu

The Taoist monk Wang Yuanlu who, in 1900, discovered thousands of manuscripts in the caves of Dunhuang, including many early Tibetan records, sutras and religious texts. 

Dunhuang Cave 16

The inside of the Library Cave of Dunhuang circa 1907, including manuscripts piled up for recovery.

Jokhang Temple in Tibet

The front of the Jokhang, Tibet’s oldest temple built by the Nepalese consort of Songtsen Gampo, Tibet’s first Emperor. 

A grand view of Samye.jpg

Tibet’s first monastery, Samye, constructed by the second Dharma King of Tibet, Trisong Detsen, who ruled from 755 to about 798. 

Trisong Detsen

Statue of the Emperor Trisong Detsen, famous as the builder of Samye, Tibet’s first monastery, the conquest of Chang’an the Tang capital, and the spread of Tantric Buddhism. 


Lake in western Tibet, overlooked by Mount Kailash, a sacred mountain in the Himalayas revered by Indians and Tibetans alike. 


The sacred Mount Kailash of Tibet, the holiest mountain in the Himalayas. 

Brahmaputra River, Shigatse

The Yarlung Tsangpo River. The river valley carved by the Yarlung was the origin of the kingdom which would unify Tibet and begin the process of creating an Empire. 

Yarlung Zangpo Grand Canyon, Tibet

Overhead view of the Yarlung Tsangpo Grand Canyon, the world’s deepest gorge carved into the Himalayas by the Yarlung River. 


Songtsen Gampo surrounded by his two most famous wives. On the left is the Nepalese princess Bhrikuti Devi, the right Princess Wencheng, adopted daughter of the Tang Emperor Taizong. Both were instrumental in the early spread of Buddhism in Tibet. 

Stone lion on burial mound of King Ralpachan in Chyongye valley

Burial mound of the Tibetan Emperor Ralpachen in the Tibetan “Valley of the Kings”. Ralachen was the last of the so-called Dharma kings, though he was ultimately brought down by an anti-Buddhist coup led by his brother. 


The Yumbulagang, the purported first building ever constructed in Tibet. The building’s architect was the legendary Nyatri Tsenpo, the founder of the Yarlung Dynasty. 

Changpa Nomad of Ladakh

Nomads of the Changtang plain, the arid steppe of Tibet where most plant growth is impossible.

Paro Padmasambhava

Painting of the famous spiritual leader Padmasambhava, who was invited to Tibet at the request of Trisong Detsen. Legends about Padmasambhava, also known as Guru Rinpoche (Beloved teacher) abound in Tibet and Bhutan. Villages and towns pride themselves on stories of visits by the mystic during his lifetime. 


  • Avalokiteshvara: The Bodhisattva held most dearly by Tibetans due to the legendary role he played in the country’s history. He is said to have incarnated himself multiple times in the form of the three Dharma Kings of the Tibetan Empire, as well as the later Dalai Lamas
  • Azha: A Turkic steppe people of modern Xinjiang/Qinghai who played an important early role in Tibetan history. The defeat of the Azha (known to the Chinese as the Tuyuhun) was the catalyst for the Tang to send Princess Wencheng to Songtsen Gampo’s court.
  • Böd: The Tibetan term for their country. Whatever meaning it originally held is lost, and folk etymologies are common. Some include a verb “to flee”, others relate it to the Bön religion. But just as likely we will never actually know
  • Bodhisattva: A figure in Buddhism who is said to have renounced the quest for enlightenment in order to help others achieve it for themselves. A Bodhisattva can be seen as something between a God and a Saint, in that people will pray to them and ask for their help in life and for Merit.
  • Bön: The purported indigenous religion of Tibet. Though there may be a connection to pre-Buddhist Tibetan religion, modern Bön only emerged in the 11th century following Buddhism’s revival, and practices are very similar to those of Buddhists. Pre-Buddhist Tibetan religion was dominated by Shamans, rituals and animal sacrifice. 
  • Changtang: The arid steppe of northern Tibet whose elevation lies above 7000 feet. Very little vegetation grows here, so most of the inhabitants of the Changtang have historically been pastoral nomads. 
  • Dalai Lama: The leader of the Gelugpa school of Tibetan Buddhism. The title was first granted to a Tibetan monk in the 16th century by a Mongol Khan, and from there was generally held up as the spiritual leader of all Tibetan Buddhists, including those following a different school. From 1642 to the Qing ‘annexation’, then again from 1900 to 1950, the Dalai Lama was the effective head of state of Tibet. 
  • Dharma: Dharma is a tricky word because it means different things to different religions. In Buddhism, it generally refers to the cosmic law governing the world, and more specifically to the teachings of the Buddha himself.
  • Dharma King/Dharmaraja: The Dharma Kings of Tibetan history are the three Emperors who are said to have lived in perfect harmony with the Dharma. These are the monarchs most associated with Buddhism’s spread in Tibet. Dharmaraja is a term used by later Buddhist historians and related to a spiritual ideal king.
  • Enlightenment/Nirvana: The central premise of Buddhism is that life is suffering, and the endless cycle of reincarnation is something one should aim to escape. The state of having escaped the cycle is known as Enlightenment or Nirvana, at which point one is considered to have become a Buddha. 
  • Greater Tibet: The area of cultural Tibet that includes regions outside the modern Tibet Autonomous Region of China. Parts of this zone are in Nepal, Bhutan, India and the provinces of Qinghai, Xinjiang and Sichuan in China. 
  • Horn/Four Horns: A “Horn” in Tibetan history refers to the administrative units of the central Empire, developed in the mid 7th century in order to recruit soldiers and levy taxes on the imperial heartland. Though there were only four Horns, other governing units were used outside this zone for the same purposes. 
  • Lön: The term used for a minister of the imperial Tibetan government
  • Lönchen: Literally “Great Minister”, the best term to translate would either be Chief Minister, or perhaps, Prime Minister. The Lönchen was the most important official in Tibet outside of the Emperor himself
  • Sangha: The term used in Buddhism for the monastic community who have forsaken worldly affairs in order to achieve Enlightenment.
  • Samsara: The state of rebirth/death that afflicts all beings with a soul. The goal of Buddhism is to escape worldly attachment and thus end the cycle.
  • Tantra: Secret rituals held by their practitioners to help aid one along their quest to achieve Enlightenment. Often tantric rituals are transgressive and involve ritualized violations of Buddhist ethics. They are held in secret because of the fear that laypeople will misunderstand their purpose or actually perform the actions. Tantric Buddhism became dominant in Tibet after the 792 Great Debate at Samye monastery. 
  • Terma: The hidden “treasure texts” of late-medieval Tibet that were often sources of valuable information on the imperial period. These could be buried underground, hidden within old temples, or even revealed to its author by the souls of previous teachers.
  • Tibet Autonomous Region: The modern administrative zone in the People’s Republic of China centered on Lhasa and containing most of the Tibetan Plateau.
  • Tibetan Plateau: A geographic region marked by its steep elevation, surrounded on three sides by mountain ranges and located at the crossroads between India, China and Central Asia. 
  • Thousand District: A governing unit of one thousand households used for military recruitment, administering law and taxation within the Tibetan Empire. Other variants existed, including five hundred districts, all used for the same purposes.
  • Tsenpo: The Tibetan term for their emperors, possibly the original title of the Yarlung Dynasty kings. Tibetans considered this term to be equal to the Chinese “Son of Heaven” and thus must be understood as equating “Emperor” not just “King” which is Gyal. 
  • Yarlung: The major river of southern Tibet, known as the Brahmaputra once it enters India. The founders of the Tibetan Empire were known as the Yarlung Dynasty because their house originated along the banks of the great river. 
  • Zhangzhung: A mysterious confederation/empire/kingdom which existed in western Tibet from ancient times to the 7th century. They had their own script and architecture and were likely major influences on the burgeoning Tibetan people. They were conquered by the emperor Songtsen Gampo in a diplomatic ploy involving his sister Sadmarkar’s marriage to their ruler. 


While not every book or article below played an equal part in the creation of this season, they all helped to guide my research and/or understanding of the period in a way that makes them worthy of inclusion in the sources. From the below, the easiest reads are perhaps Sam van Schaik’s Tibet: A History, or Laird’s famous The Story of Tibet. 


  • Beckwith, Christopher. The Tibetan Empire in Central Asia. Princeton: Princeton University Press. 1987. 
  • Choephel, Gedun. trans. Norboo, Samten. The White Annals. Dharamsala: Library of Tibetan Works & Archives. 1978.
  • Diemberger, H. Wangdu, Pasang. DBA’Bzehd. the Royal Narrative Concerning the Bringing of Buddha’s Doctrine to Tibet. Vienna: Austrian Academy of Sciences Press. 2000.
  • Dotson, Brandon. The Old Tibetan Annals. Vienna: Austrian Academy of Sciences Press. 2009.
  • Gyatso, Ngawang Losang. trans. Ahmad, Zahiruddin. A History of Tibet. Bloomington: Purdue University Press. 1995.  
  • Haarh, Erik. The Yar-luṅ Dynasty: A study with particular regard to the contribution by myths and legends to the history of ancient Tibet and the origin and nature of its kings. PhD Dissertation. Copenhagen: 1969.
  • Ed. Kapstein, Matthew T. Schaeffer, Kurtis R. Tuttle, Gray. Sources of Tibetan Tradition. New York: Columbia University Press. 2013.
  • van Schaik, Sam. Tibet: A History. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011.
  • Larid, Thomas. The Story of Tibet: Conversations with the Dalai Lama. New York: Grove/Atlantic. 2006.
  • Shakabpa, Tsephon W.D.  Tibet: A Political History. New York: Potala Publications. 1984. 
  • Shakya, Min Bahadur. Princess Bhrikuti Devi. Delhi: Book Faith India. 1997.


  • Aguilar, Mario I. “Ngawang Lopsang Gyatso, Chösi Nyitrel, and the Unification of Tibet in 1642.” The Tibet Journal 41, no. 2 (2016)
  • Beckwith, Christopher I. “The Introduction of Greek Medicine into Tibet in the Seventh and Eighth Centuries.” Journal of the American Oriental Society 99, no. 2 (1979): 297-313. 
  • BECKWITH, CHRISTOPHER I. “THE LOCATION AND POPULATION OF TIBET ACCORDING TO EARLY ISLAMIC SOURCES.” Acta Orientalia Academiae Scientiarum Hungaricae 43, no. 2/3 (1989): 163-70. 
  • CUTLER, NATHAN S. “The Early Rulers of Tibet: Their Lineage & Burial Rites.” The Tibet Journal 16, no. 3 (1991): 28-51. 
  • Dhondup, K. “Tibet’s Influence in Ladakh and Bhutan.” The Tibet Journal 2, no. 2 (1977): 69-73. 
  • Ecsedy, Ildikó (Hilda). “Contacts and Conflicts of the Peoples of Early Tibet and Imperial China.” The Tibet Journal 29, no. 3 (2004): 93-100. 
  • Hummel, Siegbert, and G. Vogliotti. “On the Origin of the Irrigation Technique in Tibet.” The Tibet Journal 25, no. 3 (2000): 8-13. 
  • Kolmas, Josef. “Four Letters of Po Chu-i to the Tibetan Authorities (808-810 A.D.).” The Tibet Journal 10, no. 4 (1985): 57-94. 
  • Kuznetsov, B. I., and Stanley Frye. “The Highest Deities of the Tibetan Bon Religion.” The Tibet Journal 6, no. 2 (1981): 47-52. 
  • Orofino, Giacomella. “A Note on Some Tibetan Petroglyphs of the Ladakh Area.” East and West 40, no. 1/4 (1990): 173-200. 
  • Richardson, H.E. “Early Tibetan Inscriptions: Some Recent Discoveries.” The Tibet Journal 12, no. 2 (1987): 3-15.
  • Richardson, H.E. “Ministers of the Tibetan Kingdom.” The Tibet Journal 2, no. 1 (1977): 10-27. 
  • Sam Van Schaik. “The Tibetan Dunhuang Manuscripts in China.” Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London 65, no. 1 (2002): 129-39. 
  • Sperling, Elliot. “A Captivity in Ninth Century Tibet.” The Tibet Journal 4, no. 4 (1979): 17-67. 
  • Tashi Tsering. “A Brief Survey of Fourteen Centuries of Sino-Tibetan Relations.” The Tibet Journal 36, no. 3 (2011): 15-33. 
  • Tatz, Mark. “T’ang Dynasty Influences on the Early Spread of Buddhism in Tibet.” The Tibet Journal 3, no. 2 (1978): 3-32. 
  • Tenzin, Acharya Kirti Tulku Lobsang, and K. Dhondup. “Early Relations between Tibbet and Nepal (7th to 8th Centuries).” The Tibet Journal 7, no. 1/2 (1982): 83-86. 
  • TOKIO, TAKATA. “A Note on the Lijiang Tibetan Inscription.” Asia Major, THIRD SERIES, 19, no. 1/2 (2006): 161-70. 
  • WARNER, CAMERON DAVID. “A Miscarriage of History: Wencheng Gongzhu and Sino-Tibetan Historiography.” Inner Asia 13, no. 2 (2011): 239-64.