Map of the Tibetan Empire at its greatest extent between the 780s and the 790s CE
One of the most impressive achievements of this period was the invention of a whole system of writing for the Tibetan language. Songtsen had shown his regard for the technology of writing when he asked the Chinese emperor for the secrets of paper and ink. Now Gar had brought back men who could train the Tibetans in these new techniques. At the same time, Songtsen was trying get someone to invent an alphabet for the Tibetan language. The tsenpo had already sent a number of Tibetans to India to learn Indian writing systems, but all had failed, some of them dying in the extreme heat. Now he appointed a young man from the Tonmi clan to go to India and derive from the Indian scripts an alphabet in which the Tibetan language could be written. Having survived the journey, Tonmi was able to procure the services of an Indian Brahmin. He asked: ‘Will you teach me writing?’ and offered half of his gold. The Brahmin haughtily replied: ‘I know twenty different writing systems. Which one would you like to study, child of Tibet?’ Tonmi ambitiously asked to study them all, so the Brahmin instructed him using a pillar on the shore of a lake on which these twenty different scripts were carved. Tonmi was such a good student that he earned the Indian name Sambhota, meaning ‘The Good Tibetan’.
Having learned these scripts, Tonmi returned to Tibet and created a Tibetan alphabet based upon them. Once the alphabet was formulated, it was taught to Songtsen and select members of the royal household. The tsenpo shut himself away for some time in order to learn to read and write Tibetan. His absence caused unrest among the people, upon which the ministers were happy to capitalise. According to one history, a minister said to the people: ‘This tsenpo hasn’t appeared for four years! He’s a know-nothing idiot! The happiness of the Tibetan people is down to us, the ministers.’ Songtsen, overhearing, thought: ‘If the ministers call me an idiot, it won’t be possible to control the people.’ Hence, emerging from his seclusion, he proceeded to set down – in writing – ten laws for the subjects of the Tibetan empire.
So goes the story, anyway. If there really was a Tonmi, he is lost in the misty valleys of legend. Yet the Tibetan letters are based so closely on the writing of Nepal and northern India, which were coming under the sway of the Tibetan empire during Songtsen’s time, that the story of Tonmi may contain more than a grain of truth. The appearance of writing in the middle of the seventh century demonstrates like nothing else the Tibetans’ commitment to becoming a culture fit to stand beside their neighbours. It is rightly regarded by Tibetans as one of their great achievements, one of the reasons that Songtsen became known to posterity as Songtsen Gampo, meaning ‘Songtsen the Wise’.
The new Tibetan alphabet was soon put to work in the administration of this vast new empire. The latter was divided into five ru, or ‘horns’, each of which contained ten ‘thousand districts’, each of which comprised a thousand households. These were sources of revenue through taxes and soldiers through forced draft. The Huns, Turks and Mongols all organised their territories in a similar fashion, which suggests that the Tibetans inherited this system from their nomadic ancestors. If the new way of parcelling up Tibet meant that the clans were split between different administrative districts, so much the better. The power of the clans was still a threat to Songtsen’s lineage.
As for the Tibetans in charge of all this, they needed to be controlled as well. A rigid hierarchy developed in which the noblemen working for the new Tibetan imperial administration were organised with the prime minister at the top, followed by the four chief ministers, then the ministers who held royal insignia granted by the tsenpo – turquoise for the most important, followed by gold, white gold, silver, brass and copper. All of these officials were drawn from the clan aristocracy. At the bottom of the hierarchy were the vast majority of Tibetans, the peasants and nomads whose way of life would remain largely unchanged until the latter part of the twentieth century.
The peasants lived on the estates of the aristocratic landowners. They were bound to their lord from birth, and worked his land, not unlike the peasants in medieval Europe. Thus most of them lived on the same piece of land all their lives, travelling only if the opportunity for trade or pilgrimage presented itself. The nomads (known as drogpas in Tibetan), on the other hand, moved about freely, living in black tents made of yak hair and following the seasons as they moved their herds of sheep, goats and yaks to new pastures. Naturally there were differences among the peasants as well, from those who barely scratched a living from the land to those who dwelt in large houses with their own servants and domestic animals. This whole social structure was a pyramid of power with the tsenpo at its apex. Although it broke down after the fall of the empire, to be reconstituted later in different forms by different rulers, the constant factor was that Tibetan society remained deeply stratified.
For later Tibetans, who came to see Songtsen as the first of the great Buddhist kings, his lawmaking went hand in hand with Buddhist ethics. Though it seems unlikely that Songtsen really did create a new Buddhist system of law, the image of the great empire-building king who was also a compassionate Buddhist proved a powerful one, and Songtsen’s supposed reconciliation of the realms of government and religion became a model to which all subsequent Tibetan rulers aspired. Down the centuries, through to the twentieth century, the Tibetan ideal of government was a union, not a separation, of Church and State.
Bowing to tradition, Songtsen stepped down from the throne when his son reached the age of thirteen. As the old rituals demanded, the glamour of the tsenpo passed from him into the body of his son. But the prince died shortly afterwards, and Songtsen assumed the mantle of the tsenpo again. There was much to occupy his mind. Events during the last years of Songtsen’s life brought Tibet into direct military conflict with India. China had developed a good diplomatic relationship with King Harsha, another great empire-builder who now ruled much of northern India. Envoys had been travelling back and forth between the Chinese and Indian emperors throughout the 640s.
Then, in 648, an embassy of high-level Chinese envoys arrived in India to find that Harsha had died. A new Indian warlord attacked the envoys, killing all except for two who escaped to Tibet. One of these was Wang Xuance, a seasoned envoy who was on good terms with the Tibetans. Songtsen granted him an army composed of Tibetan soldiers and Nepali cavalry to accompany him back into India. After three days of fighting the Indian troops were routed and the warlord was sent to China as a prisoner of war. India, or at least a part of it, thus succumbed to the Tibetans. Having shown how far his reach could extend, Songtsen spent the last year of his reign consolidating the empire. He died in 649, the same year that his old enemy and sometime ally Taizong passed away in China. Songtsen had achieved everything the founder of a new empire could wish for – everything, that is, except leaving a viable heir. After the death of his son, the new crown prince was Songtsen’s tiny grandson. Into this power vacuum now stepped Prime Minister Gar. His moment had come.
But first it was necessary for Gar and all of the other high officials to attend Songtsen’s funeral. The burial of a tsenpo was a solemn affair, involving a range of ritual specialists and lasting months or even years. In these elaborate royal funerals – which echo those of the Scythians, Huns, Turks and Mongols – the Tibetans preserved the customs of their nomadic forebears. Soon after the tsenpo died, his body was taken to a temple to be prepared for burial. During this period, mourners could pay their respects to the corpse; the nobles showed their grief by ancient symbolic actions such as painting their faces red, plaiting and cutting off their hair, and lacerating their bodies. Many centuries earlier the Greek historian Herodotus had heard about the custom of self-laceration among Scythians mourning their king. The Romans also observed this practice among the Huns, and braids of plaited hair have been found in their excavated graves.
When the time for Songtsen’s burial arrived, the corpse was carried in a magnificent procession to the tomb, a vast earthen structure rising out of the ground. Only a few scattered descriptions of these great funerals remain, but they are sufficient to allow us to picture Songtsen’s procession winding its way through the Yarlung valley under the shadow of the mountain where his ancestors first came down to earth. The tsenpo’s jewelled funeral carriage is accompanied by priests wearing turbans and feathered headdresses, who move to the eerie sound of horns, crashing cymbals and thudding drums. When the procession arrives at the towering earthen tomb, the priests make the final sacrifices of horses and other animals, and intone the sacred words:
The spear is plunged into the body of the bird,
The blade is thrust into the body of the hare,
The power of life is broken,
The carcass is thrown away.
And with that the tsenpo, seated in a copper coffin, is sealed into the tomb. This tomb is no halfway house to heaven. A great trapezoid mound, shaped like the royal tents, it towers over the plain. Even today, Songtsen’s tomb – now surrounded by those of later tsenpos – is still an impressive sight, 13 metres high and 130 metres long. Since their sky cord had been severed, the tsenpos had no way back to heaven. It seems the Tibetans, like the Turks, may have believed that the spirit of their kings lived on inside the tomb, for the latter was made as comfortable as possible, with treasure and everyday necessities all provided. Servants were included too.
In earlier times the custom was that the tsenpo’s closest allies, those ministers who had sworn an oath of fealty to him, would be sacrificed and follow their leader into the tomb. Though this kind of human sacrifice was carried out in the royal funerals of many Central Asian peoples, by the time of Songtsen’s death the practice seems to have been replaced by something a little less cruel, if no less eerie. Instead of being killed, the tsenpo’s retainers became the living dead, spending the rest of their lives within the confines of the tomb grounds, taking care of them and accepting offerings to the deceased tsenpo. The living dead subsisted on what they could grow near the tomb, on the offerings to the tsenpo, and on whatever cattle wandered into the tomb grounds. That which they touched was considered to have become part of the realm of the dead and no living person would try to reclaim it.
Once the interment of the tsenpo was complete, the tomb was sealed with a stone pillar. These standing stones were not just for marking the tombs of the tsenpos. Those clan leaders who had rallied round the tsenpo had their allegiance marked with a standing stone, and the oath was renewed every year under the stone. An animal was sacrificed and those present would vow that the same bloody fate would befall anyone who broke their oath. In Tibet today one still finds heaps of stones piled up at mountain peaks and passes, representing the gods of the sky. Whenever a vehicle passes, the passengers will scatter little pieces of paper called ‘wind horses’ printed with Buddhist prayers and shout an ancient battle cry: ki ki so so lha gyalo! – ‘May the gods be victorious!’
Tibet had now grown to encompass huge swathes of Asia. With Songtsen gone and the new tsenpo a mere toddler, Gar Tongtsen had the freedom to mould the new empire as he saw fit. He turned out to be as impressive a leader as he had been a prime minister. The Chinese historians of the Tang dynasty, famously contemptuous of most foreigners, wrote: ‘Although he was illiterate, he was naturally wise, resolute, strict and honourable, a brave warrior and a skilful general, making a most successful regent.’
But Gar was no Chinese stooge. In fact, he quickly showed that his ambition matched that of his old master. In 663, he crushed the Azha, the semi-nomadic people from the Mongolian steppe who had harried the Chinese and the Tibetans over the past fifty years. After this final defeat they gradually became Tibetanised as they absorbed the language and culture of their conquerors. Gar used the newly invented Tibetan alphabet to conduct a census of the empire’s territories, the better to raise taxes and recruit armies from these newly conquered lands. In a few decades the Tibetans had gone from being a simple alliance of southern clans to being masters of a pan-Asian empire. The only way they could sustain this progress was to raise armies from the lands they conquered. Fortunately, Tibet’s neighbours were also semi-nomadic warriors and made formidable soldiers.
The Tibetans celebrated the fact that their soldiers were superior fighters, capable of winning despite being outnumbered by their enemies. In a bardic version of an encounter between one of Gar’s sons and a Chinese general, the two exchange taunts about the quality of their respective armies. After the Chinese general has flaunted the superior size of his army, Gar’s son replies:
There is no disputing the matter of numbers. But many small birds are the food of a single hawk, and many small fish are the food of a single otter. A pine tree has been growing for a hundred years, but a single axe is its enemy. Although a river runs ceaselessly, it can be crossed in a moment by a boat six feet long. Although barley and rice grow over a whole plain, it is all the grist of a single mill. Although the sky is filled with stars, in the light of a single sun they are nothing.
The Tibetan soldiers wore leather scale armour. Some of these scales have been dug out of an ancient Tibetan fort in the Central Asian desert. They are tough overlapping rectangles covered with bright red or black lacquer and decorated with painted circles. According to some accounts, the Tibetan soldiers wore feathered plumes atop their helmets and carried battle flags on long straight poles, ancestors of the peaceful prayer flags that adorn Buddhist sites in Tibet today. The prowess of this Tibetan army was soon to be tested in one of the most forbidding landscapes on earth: the Taklamakan desert.
At the beginning of the 660s, the Chinese empire still controlled the lucrative Silk Route. But its grasp on the distant colonial territories that were part of this network was starting to weaken. The western Turks were in fighting mood again. This time Gar saw an opportunity to extend his empire further. He had already pushed across the mountains into Kashmir, giving the Tibetans a strategic advantage that the Chinese failed to appreciate until it was too late. Now allied with the Turks, the Tibetans conquered Kashgar, cutting off China’s Silk Route connection.
Poised on the edge of the Taklamakan, the Tibetans were ready to attack the little city-states of the Silk Route. One of the most vulnerable, and one of its greatest prizes, was the ancient city of Khotan. A Chinese pilgrim who stayed there shortly before the Tibetan invasion spoke in glowing terms of the people’s politeness, their easy-going nature and their love of the arts, particularly literature, music and dance. Other Chinese sources tell us that Khotanese women moved freely in society, wore trousers and rode on horseback like the men, and were allowed a certain degree of sexual freedom – at least more than was customary in China. Khotan remained fervently Buddhist until the forced conversion of its people to Islam at the hands of the Karkhanid Turks at the beginning of the eleventh century; the enthusiasm with which the Khotanese practised Buddhism prior to that was regularly remarked upon by visitors.
One popular activity among the Khotanese was the composition of Buddhist scriptures – some of which contained detailed prophecies about Khotan and its dealings with Tibet. The Enquiry of Vimalaprabha is a Buddhist scripture that does nothing to hide its interest in contemporary concerns of the Khotanese in the 670s: the plight of the Khotanese Buddhists at the hands of invaders. The text has a heroine, the Khotanese princess, a kind of Buddhist Joan of Arc, determined to save Buddhism in Khotan from the depredations of fierce warriors whom she calls ‘the red-faced ones’. They are, of course, the Tibetans, who must have been a terrifying sight as they rode into cultured Khotan, clad in leather scale armour, their cheeks smeared with red.
In the story, the Tibetans conquer Khotan and desecrate its monasteries and the sacred Buddhist reliquaries called stupas. The Khotanese princess flees into exile and formulates a plan involving paying off the Tibetans, who are perceived as being motivated more by greed than anything else. Her aspiration is summarised in a prayer: ‘When the red-faced ones and the Chinese battle each other, may Khotan not be destroyed. When monks come from other countries to Khotan, may they not be treated dishonourably. May those who flee here from other countries find a place to stay here, and help to rebuild the great stupas and monastic gardens that have been burned by the red-faced ones.’ It is apparent that the Tibetans made life very hard indeed for the Buddhists of Khotan. Indeed, the Enquiry of Vimalaprabha even has the Buddha pronouncing that the Tibetans have formed a perverse ambition to destroy his religion. The picture of a Tibetan army lacking any respect for Khotan’s Buddhist institutions is surprising, but quite credible at a time when Tibetan interest in Buddhism was still restricted to the court. The advocates of Buddhism did not have the power – yet – to temper the violence of the red-faced warriors.
And so, having gained the respect of the Chinese, Gar had now become their greatest scourge, cutting off the Tang empire from its western conquests and from the trade routes that connected China with India and Persia. He returned from his campaigns an old man. Arriving back in Central Tibet in the year 666, he had an audience with the young tsenpo, who lacked both the power and the will to oppose the de facto leader of Tibet. When Gar died the following year, the Tibetan empire was divided up between his sons. They ruled competently, but conflict was inevitable. At some point a tsenpo would begin to chafe against his role as a figurehead. In the end it was Songtsen’s great-grandson Dusong who took it upon himself to destroy the Gar clan. Dusong had one advantage over the sons of Gar: he was at court while they were constantly away campaigning or ruling over distant territories. In addition, the luck of the sons of Gar was beginning to turn.
In the 690s, as the curtain fell on Tibet’s first century on the world stage, the scions of Gar began to lose their grip on the empire. First, Gar Tsenyen, the governor of Khotan, was defeated by the Chinese. Dusong had him court-martialled and executed. Next, Gar Tagu was captured by Sogdians. Time was also running out for the only remaining son of Gar with real power, the general Gar Tridring. After years of campaigning, his soldiers were restless, and some had begun to defect to the Chinese side. There was an inherent weakness in the Tibetan army, in that it had had to grow rapidly to keep pace with the startling expansion of the Tibetan empire, drafting able men from its conquered territories. But the further these new soldiers came from the centre of Tibetan culture, the more their loyalty was a matter of concern. Now the formidable Empress Wu was on the throne in China. Seeing the weakness of the general’s position, she hatched a plan to defeat him without engaging him in battle.
While Gar Tridring was still loyally campaigning on China’s borders, the empress cleverly offered a peace deal – not to the general himself, but directly to the tsenpo. The Tibetan court, like the army, was tired of battle. A peace deal would leave the last significant member of the Gar clan stranded, and the tsenpo knew it. He therefore accepted. Then he brought all of the members of the Gar clan – apart from Tridring, who was still in the field – together in a hunting party. This proved a deadly trap, and all members of the clan present were slaughtered. Before word could filter to Gar Tridring, the tsenpo led an army of his own towards China. When the army reached Tridring, he knew the game was up. Neither his father nor his brothers had ever openly opposed the tsenpo, let alone led an army against him. To do so would undermine the sacred rationale for the whole Tibetan empire. In acting as it had, the Gar clan had only after all been ensuring that the tsenpo ruled over a kingdom befitting his majesty. Anyway, Tridring’s army was exhausted and close to mutiny. Thus, as the tsenpo approached, the last of the Gars committed suicide and his army fled across the Chinese border.
Dusong had done it: the tsenpo was the true ruler of Tibet again. But Tibet was overstretched and Empress Wu’s army was now pushing its soldiers back from the borders of China, out of Central Asia. The year was 692, just half a century after the Tibetans had started to create their own empire. In that time Tibet had become a participant in the currents of world culture, with its capital, Lhasa, developing into an unlikely cosmopolitan centre, home of Nepalese and Chinese nobility and a destination for foreign missionaries and merchants keen to have a stake in the new expanding empire.
Pushing into the deserts of Central Asia, the Tibetans had crossed and recrossed the ancient Silk Route arteries of world trade that carried silk, jade, spices and slaves between East and West. Of course, these trade routes were conduits for culture and ideas too. Ideas from Rome, Byzantium, Persia, India and China were passed along these ancient arteries throughout the first millennium, making the world a much more interconnected place than is often thought. Tibetan aristocrats wore Chinese silks and sipped Chinese tea; a Persian lion still stands over one of the tsenpo’s tombs. As the seventh century drew to a close, Tibet was poised to take its place among the world’s great cultures. But its own culture was still inchoate, a melting pot swirling with different ideas, rituals and technologies. And the Tibetans were about to encounter another young and vibrant culture: the Arabs. Yet, in the following century, the scales would start to tip towards the Buddhist religion, and the Buddhist holy land of India, as the defining influences on Tibetan culture.