Songtsen Gampo : The First Emperor & Dharam Rajah of Tibet

History that our parents knew but was never taught to us and may never be taught to our descendants!

Tibetan Empire

Tibet before Emperor Songtsen Gampo’s Reign

Prior to the rule of Songtsen Gampo Tibet was ruled by the Yarlung Dynasty.

The Pre-Imperial Tibet refers to the Yarlung Dynasty Era of Tibet, before the rise of the Tibetan Empire in the 7th century.

Yarlung, located 55 miles south east of Lhasa, is a place that figures prominently in both Tibetan history and the Tibetan identity. Yarlung was home to the first king of Tibet, Nyatri Tsenpo, and remained the capital of the Tibetan empire until it was moved to Lhasa in the seventh century by Emperor Songsten Gampo.

The Yarlung Dynasty reached its peak during the military successes of the seventh and eighth centuries and abruptly came to an end in 842 due to the assassination of King Lang Darma’s. This event threw the empire into a century-long period of political fragmentation and chaos.

Despite that the Yarlung dynasty would never recover its previous glory, it was nevertheless nostalgically portrayed by Tibetan historiographers as the “Golden Age” of Tibetan history. The tombs of the great Yarlung Emperors are still located in the Yarlung region to this day, and are important destinations of pilgrimage.

According to the traditional account, the first king of the Yarlung Dynasty (Yar-klungs) in Central Tibet came there from the central North Indian kingdom of Magadha.

He was called Nyatri Tsenpo (gNya’-khri btsan-po) and it was thought that he descended from the sky. [The Tibetan calendar starts its count of “Tibetan royal years” (bod rgyal-lo) from this date, 127 BCE.] He and the next six kings were said to have returned to the sky by a “sky-rope” at their deaths, since they were not buried in tombs. From the time of the eighth Yarlung king, Drigum Tsenpo (Gri-gum btsan-po), however, there are tombs and so, in a sense, Tibetan history begins here.

Drigum Tsenpo’s successor, Chatri Tsenpo (Bya-khri btsan-po), also called Pudekungyel (Pu-de kun-rgyal or Pu-de gung-rgyal), the ninth in this line of kings, was a contemporary of the Han Emperor of China, Han Wudi (140 – 85 BCE). Pudekungyel brought much material progress to Tibet. He is famous for having commissioned the building of canals and bridges. Under him, iron and copper ore were discovered in Tibet.

Eighteen generations of kings later, the twenty-eighth Yarlung king, Lhatotori Nyentsen (Lha-tho-tho-ri gNyan-btsan) (b. 173 CE) received [a basket of] Buddhist scriptures from India, written in Sanskrit. It was known as “The Tough Mystery” (gNyan-po gsang-ba), [According to other traditional sources, a basket fell from the sky. In it, was a Sanskrit sutra, called Sutra on the Array Like a Woven Basket (Za-ma-tog bkod-pa’i mdo, Skt. Karandavyuha Sutra), concerning the altruistic deeds of the Buddha-figure of compassion, Avalokiteshvara.

The basket also contained the six-syllable mantra of Avalokiteshvara, The Sutra of the Seal for Ridding and Restoring (Spang-skong phyag-rgya-pa’i mdo) concerning methods for taming half-human half-serpent nagas, and a golden reliquary stupa. “The Tough Mystery” refers to all four objects in the basket.] This occurred in 233 CE.

To commemorate this important event, Tibetan currency notes are dated according to the number of years that have passed since then.


The Rule of Emperor Songtsen Gampo

Songtsen Gampo (reigned 617-650) was the First Emperor & Dharmaraja of Tibet.

Songtsen Gampo was born at Gyama in Meldro, (a region to the northeast of modern Lhasa), the son of  Yarlung king Namri Songtsen.

The book “The Holder of the White Lotus” says that it is believed that he was a manifestation of Avalokitesvara, of whom the Dalai Lamas are similarly believed to be manifestations.

His identification as a chakravartin and incarnation of Avalokitesvara began in earnest in the indigenous Buddhist literary histories of the 11th century. He is regarded as responsible for the creation of Tibetan alphabet and therefore the establishment of Classical Tibetan, the language spoken in his region at the time, as the literary language of Tibet.

He is also credited with the introduction of Buddhism to Tibet and laying the foundation of the Jokhang Temple.The temple’s architectural style is a mixture of Indian vihara design, Tibetan and Nepalese design.

According to tradition, the temple was built for the king’s two brides: Princess Wencheng of the Chinese Tang dynasty and Princess Bhrikuti of Nepal. Both are said to have brought important Buddhist statues and images from China and Nepal to Tibet, which were housed here, as part of their dowries. The oldest part of the temple was built-in 652.


Songtsen Gampo ascended the throne at the age of thirteen. To arrange an alliance with Nepal, he sent a minister there to arrange a marriage for him with the Princess Bhrikuti Devi (Lha-mo Khro-gnyer-can-ma). When she came to Tibet for the marriage, she brought with her a statue of the Buddha-figure Akshobhya.

Songtsän Gampo is said to have sent his minister Thonmi Sambhota to India to devise a script for Classical Tibetan, which led to the creation of the first Tibetan literary works and translations, court records and a constitution. It is unclear when Songtsen Gampo sent his minister Tonmi Sambhota (Thon-mi Sambhota) to learn Sanskrit.

He studied it, however, in Kashmir, from the tutors Lipikara (Li-byin) and Devavidyasimha (Lha rig-pa’i seng-ge). When Tonmi Sambhota returned to Tibet, he developed a script for writing the Tibetan language, based on the Indian Brahmi and Gupta scripts. Consequently, he translated The Tough Mystery texts into Tibetan.

After Thonmi Sambhota returned from India,Songtsen Gampo stayed in a cave for three years with Thonmi Sambhota to learn whatever he had learned in India.

After securing the alliance with Nepal, Songtsen Gampo now sought a similar alliance with China through a marriage with Princess Wencheng (Tib.: Win-chang Kong-jo, Wun-shing Kong-jo), the daughter of the Tang Emperor Taizong (r. 627 – 650).

This arrangement was delayed, however, because Thokiki (Tho-ki-ki), the ruler of the Tuyuhun (Thu-lu-hun,‘A-zha) Kingdom in the Kokonor region [of northern Amdo, present-day Qinghai Province of China], was also seeking a marriage with the princess. The Tuyuhun had ruled this region from the beginning of the fourth century.

These two wives are credited in Tibetan tradition in playing crucial roles in the adoption of Buddhism in Tibet and held to explain the two great influences on Tibetan Buddhism, Indo-Nepali and Chinese.

Songsten Gampo

Songtsen Gampo was intent on building an extensive empire beyond Central Tibet, first to the north and the east. A long period of wars ensued, during which he conquered the Qiang (Cang), Bailan (sBa’i-lang), and Dangxian (Thang-shang) tribes.

Now the ruler of a much greater realm, the Tibetan Emperor Songtsen-gampo asked the Chinese Emperor Taizong once more for his princess in marriage. When he was refused, Songtsen-gampo attacked the Chinese frontier province of Songzhou in present-day Sizhuan Province. Finally, he received the Chinese princess as his bride in 641. She brought with her to Tibet another Buddha image.

The Tibetan Emperor built two temples in the city of Rasa (Ra-sa), later known as Lhasa (Lha-sa), to house the two Buddha images brought by his Nepali and Chinese wives. Ramoche Tsuglagkang (Ra-mo-che tsug-lag-khang) was constructed for the Nepali statue and Rasa Trulnang Tsuglagkang (Ra-sa ‘phrul-snang tsug-lag-khang), later called the Jokang (Jo-khang), for the Chinese one. For security reasons, the location of the two statues was interchanged during the next generation.

During this period, Songtsen Gampo further extended the Tibetan Empire to parts of Northern Burma and, in 640, to Nepal as well.

This was the origin of the Tibetan family clans in Nepal of Tsang (gTsang), Lama (Bla-ma), Sherpa (Shar-pa), and Tamang (rTa-mang).

Songtsen Gampo’s two queens can be credited for a great part of his cultural awareness. Bhirkuti, from Kathmandu, brought the traditions of Himalayan Buddhism. Princess Wengchin, daughter of the Tang emperor, brought a treasure trove of ancient Chinese wisdom. She travelled across the steppes to her husband with a collection of Chinese classic literature and texts on sacred astrology, geomancy, and medicine.

Paro Tshechu

In 643, the Tibetan Empire further expanded as Legmi (Legs-mi) [more commonly known in Tibetan as Li Migkya (Li Mig-rkya, Zhang-zhung: Lig-myi-rhya)], the last ruler of Zhang-zhung, submitted and Zhang-zhung became a vassal state.

Taking advantage of the good relations between Tibet and China, Songtsen Gampo, in 645, sent a request to the Tang Emperor and subsequently built a temple on Wutaishan (Ri-bo rtse-lnga), the five-peaked sacred mountain of the Buddha-figure Manjushri [in present-day Shanxi Province].

In 648, the Chinese Emperor Taizong sent a good-will mission to the Indian Emperor Harsha (r. 606 – 647). When the mission arrived, Harsha had already passed away and had been succeeded by Arjuna, his minister. Arjuna was intolerant of Buddhism, and accordingly, had most of the Chinese mission killed.

The survivors fled to Nepal and sought Tibetan help there. Subsequently, the Tibetan armies invaded and defeated Arjuna in Bihar.

This defeat was not recorded, however, in Indian histories. Songtsen Gampo died shortly thereafter in 649.


Additional Information:

The Tibetan Script

According to A. F. Rudolf Hoernle (Manuscript Remains of Buddhist Literature Found in Eastern Turkistan), the Tibetan script was developed primarily from the Khotanese adaptation of the Indian Upright Gupta script.

This is inferred from the Tibetan and Khotanese scripts employing similar manners for indicating initial and long vowels and for placing vowels in the order of their alphabets. These manners differ significantly from those used in most other Indian-derived scripts.

Khotan (Li-yul) was a Buddhist kingdom on the Silk Route along the southwestern rim of the Tarim Basin, just north of western Tibet. Its people were of Iranian origin and its form of Buddhism derived from India.

A trade route ran from Khotan to Tibet via Kashmir and therefore, as A. H. Francke asserts (“The Tibetan Alphabet,” Epigraphia India, vol. 11), it is not unreasonable that Tonmi Sambhota met and studied with a Khotanese tutor in Kashmir.

“Li-byin,” the Tibetan name for the tutor Lipikara, translates as “Script-maker” or “Script-Giver.” He is traditionally said to have been a South Indian Brahmin. The first syllable in his Tibetan name, however, could indicate this Khotanese origin, since “Li” is the Tibetan name for “Khotan.” Thus, “Li-byin” could mean “The (Script)-giver from Khotan.” But “Li” could also be the transliteration of the first syllable of “Lipikara,” since the Tibetan language would not have had an indigenous word for “script” at that time.

In Necklace of Gzi, Namkhai Norbu asserts that the form of the letters in the Tibetan script was derived from an older Zhang-zhung alphabet, called “Maryig” (smar-yig), which ultimately would have also derived from an Indian script. Zhang-zhung (Zhang-zhung) was a kingdom in Ngari (mNga-‘ris), Western Tibet, that predated Songtsen Gampo and was the homeland of the native Tibetan Bon religion.

It had eighteen kings before the first Yarlung ruler, Nyatri Tsenpo. Tonmi Sambhota would have needed to pass through Zhang-zhung in order to reach Kashmir. “Li” is also the name of a district in Zhang-zhung and was part of the name of the Zhang-zhung royal family. Thus, “Li-byin” could alternatively mean “The (Script)-giver from the Zhang-zhung Royal Family.” More likely, then, the Tibetan script was influenced by all three sources: Indian, Khotanese, and Zhang-zhung.

Bhod Gyalo!

Tibetan Script

Further Reading :

Songtsen Gampo : First Emperor of a Unified Tibet

Dharma Kings: Recalling the Tibetan Empire Era

Tibetan Invasion of North India

Authenticating Tibet: Answers to China’s 100 Questions

Extracts of the book – Authenticating Tibet

Tibet Dance


6 thoughts on “Songtsen Gampo : The First Emperor & Dharam Rajah of Tibet

  1. Thanks for enlightened my first query…again my query after end of emperor reign, when and how Buddhist monk came over the power of Tibet


    1. Hi Sam,

      After the collapse of the Tibetan Empire in AD 842 and following the civil war, Tibet was then briefly under the rule of the Mongol Empire in 13th Century AD.

      As Genghis Khan’s Mongol Empire expanded towards Europe in the West and China in the East in the 13th Century, Tibetan leaders of powerful Sakya school of Tibetan Buddhism concluded an agreement with the Mongol rulers in order to avoid the conquest of Tibet.

      The Tibetan Lama promised political loyalty and religious blessings and teachings in exchange for patronage and protection. The religious relationship became so important that when, decades later, Kublai Khan conquered China and established the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368), he invited the Sakya Lama to become the Imperial Preceptor and supreme pontiff of his empire. This was the beginning of the “Priest-Patron” relationship between Mongol Empire and Tibet.

      The Dalai Lama leads the Dge-lugs-pa or Yellow Hat Sect of Tibetan Buddhists. The Yellow Hats, who were founded in the late 14th century, restored discipline to monastic life and promoted academic rigor.

      The first Dalai Lama, Gedun Drupa, was born in 1391. He founded the Tashi Lhunpo monastery and wrote books on philosophy. Gedun Drupa and his successor Gedun Gyatso were officially abbots during their lifetimes — the title of Dalai Lama was not adopted until the 1570s.

      The Mongolian king Altan Khan ( AD 1507- AD 1882 ) conferred the title, “Dalai” meaning “Ocean” on the third successor, Sonam Gyatso. As a result, Sonam Gyatso became known as the Dalai Lama which, since then, has been used as a title – frequently translated into English as “Ocean of Wisdom”. Tibetans also use the name Rgyal-ba Rin-po-che or “Precious Conqueror” to refer to the Dalai Lama.

      Hence the tradition of Dalai Lamas who became the head of the Government in Tibet was established by the Mongols and not the Chinese ( as claimed by Communist China, as China too was that time under Mongol Rule ).

      Additional Information –

      The Dalai Lamas of Tibet

      His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama on Reincarnation




  2. Hi Sam,

    Thank you so much for taking the time out and reading the article.

    After the death of His Majesty Songtsen Gampo his descendants continued to rule the Tibetan Empire as Emperor’s till the Era of Fragmentation and Civil War in 9th Century AD when the Tibetan Empire collapsed and disintegrated.

    In all 9 Emperor’s ascended the throne of Tibet after Songtsen Gampo, the last Emperor was Langdarma ( reign 838 AD – 841 AD ). Emperor Langdarma was assassinated. Since he had no children, his concubine made her nephew the next ruler, who was killed by a cabinet minister.

    That was the end of the Tibetan Empire established by Emperor Songtsen Gampo.

    Many thanks once again.




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