ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

A+| A| A-

Exhaustive Study of Tibet

Tibet: A History by Sam Van Schaik (New Delhi: Amaryllis), Yale University Press, 2012; pp xxvi + 411, Rs 695.


Exhaustive Study of Tibet

Abanti Bhattacharya

am Van Schaik’s book stands out from the rest of the genre on Tibet’s history not simply because it makes an attempt to look at the status of Tibet as many other studies do, but because it essentially narrates the story of Tibet as it is. In doing so, he systematically unravels many of the misconceptions that shape and inform the status of Tibet through history. The book stands out also because it makes a detailed authoritative study of premodern Tibetan history, a rather first of its kind, as it is the premodern era that defines the present contours of the Tibetan problem. The book also brings freshness to the otherwise known history due to the adoption of a narrative style and compelling storytelling method. Finally, the book is just not an addition to the repository of knowledge on Tibet, but in many ways it revolutionises our approach to the study of the region by combining historical narrative with incisive research based on Tibetan language sources, thus, offering a whole new perspective on the story.

The first three chapters weave the story of the founding and fl ourishing of

Tibet: A History by Sam Van Schaik (New Delhi: Amaryllis), Yale University Press, 2012; pp xxvi + 411, Rs 695.

the Tibetan empire till the ninth century AD. Schaik narrates the story of the fi rst centralised Tibetan empire under Songtsen Gampo and throws light on the not much known fact of Nepal becoming a tributary of the Tibetan empire and part of northern India coming under the Tibetan influence. He also focuses on how Songtsen consolidated his sway by defeating the Chinese and reaching a matrimonial alliance with the Chinese princess. Songtsen’s successors even brought the fabled Silk Route under their control. He also brings to light the three main treaties signed between Tibet and China that were commemorated through three pillars, the first at Chang’an, the second at Qingshui and the third at Lhasa, which basically indicated Tibet and China as independent powers. Alongside political consolidation, Schaik shows how the Songtsen empire fl owered culturally by borrowing a writing system for the Tibetans from India. He narrates in detail the growth of Buddhism in Tibet under the Tibetan monarch Tisong Detsen. He showed how, in the process, Indian Buddhist infl uence took root in Tibet ousting the Chinese version of Buddhism. Propagation of the Indian form of Buddhism led to massive translations of Buddha’s work into Tibetan resulting in the world’s largest Buddhist canons in this language. In fact, as Schaik points out, the Tibetan empire came to be determined by not only expansionism but by the spread of Buddhism which in the later centuries facilitated “Tibet to enter into relationships with the Mongols based on their shared religious heritage” (p 49).

The next three chapters trace Tibetan history after the fall of the great Tibetan empire around the 10th century AD. Schaik traces the story of how Buddhism survived in the period of imperial decline. As power-hungry old clans were drawn towards Buddhism, the Buddhist monks too were drawn into politics. Soon the Buddhist monks entered into a relationship with the powerful neighbour, Song China, and got the support of the reigning dynasties in the name of a religious relationship. Schaik thus traces the early beginnings of the custom of the priestpatron relationship that had far-reaching consequences for Tibetan history. The period of imperial decline, in fact, saw

Economic & Political Weekly

may 19, 2012 vol xlviI no 20


the monastic monopoly of power in Tibet and proliferation of several religious orders – the most important being the Kadampa, Sakya and Kagyupa, apart from the old Nyingmapa. Schaik makes a detailed study of these religious orders, their constant feuds, and how they came to play a decisive role in shaping Tibetan culture. In fact, Schaik holds that under the influence of the Tibetan Buddhist order, power shifted from the clans to the Buddhist schools that brought a semblance of stability in Tibet. Central to this power shift was the idea of recognition of reborn lamas, thus placing the succession question in the hands of the Buddhist elite.

Politically, after the collapse of the Tibetan empire, Schaik brings to light the role of the Tanguts, who were of same ethnic stock as the Tibetans, in laying claim to the old Tibetan dominions in Amdo to the east. Though the Tangut civilisation lasted a little more than two centuries, its legacy in terms of patronage of Tibetan lamas stayed on to be incorporated by the Mongols. By employing the same Tangut system of patronage of Buddhism, the Mongols under Genghis Khan’s grandson, Goden, brought Tibet under his infl uence. The Mongol army marched into Tibet in 1240 and the Tibetans accepted Mongol rule unconditionally, and in the process Sakya Pandita emerged as the representative of the Tibetans in the Mongol court. After Sakya Pandita, his successor Pagpa became the highest religious authority in the whole of Kublai’s empire that included China.

Dismissal of Chinese Claim

Schaik evidently shows that under the Mongols, Tibet was not incorporated directly; rather it was controlled through appointing local rulers who professed loyalty to the Mongol court, thus dismissing the Chinese claim of Tibet being historically part of China from the Mongol dynasty. He argues that China was, in fact, one of the territories of the Mongols and to legitimise their control of China, the Mongols adopted the Chinese name, “Yuan” and thus styled themselves as the legitimate successors of the Song dynasty. Schaik also mentions that despite adopting the Chinese imperial title, the Mongols maintained their distinct ethnic identity. He also dispels the idea that the popularity of Buddhism at the Mongol court created cultural unity between Tibet and China. Instead, he contends that the infl uences on Tibet were Mongolian, not Chinese, and most administrators in Tibet were Tibetans – some were Mongols but none were Chinese.

He further clarifies the notion of the priest-patron relationship by pointing out that the Tibetan characterisation of Tibetan-Mongol relationship as purely religious is also “oversimplifi cation” as the Mongol court took direct interest in the affairs of Tibet. He corroborates this with the presence of a Department of Buddhist and Tibetan Affairs at the Mongol court and the imperial preceptor (Pagpa) as a resident at the court. He also dispels another simplifi cation made by both the Chinese and the Tibetans that a century of unchallenged rule over Tibet prevailed under the Sakya-Mongol alliance. In fact, Tibet was divided among several Mongol royal family houses and each royal house supported a different Tibetan order. Indeed, after the Sakya power crumbled under the impact of the Karma Kagyu School, the Karmapas began to receive imperial support of the Mongols.

Schaik also clarifies some of the other significant misconceptions of Tibetan history like the term “reincarnation” which is misleadingly understood as “an unchanging soul incarnated in one body after another”. Rather, he says that according to Buddhist philosophy “what is reborn is not a permanent entity (a soul) but an ever-changing stream of consciousness”.

Schaik goes on to show that with the collapse of the Mongols in the 14th century, Tibet became independent. The Ming rulers in China did not have any interest in controlling Tibet except that they were interested in Tibetan horse and tea trade and shared a reverence for the Tibetan lamas. Thus, in political terms, the Tibetans did not consider themselves as subjects of the Ming. In cultural terms with the decline of Buddhism from the land of origin (India), Tibet became the centre of the Tibetan form of Buddhism. Schaik calls this period a golden age of Tibetan culture.

Rise of the Dalai Lamas

During the Ming period, a new leader, Tsongkhapa, founded a sect called Gelugpa and constructed the fi rst monastery at Ganden. In the subsequent period the Gelugpa, under the leadership of the Dalai Lama, grew to emerge as the most powerful school of Tibetan Buddhism. Schaik lays out the details of the rise of the Dalai Lamas under the patronage of the Mongol Tumed tribe of Altan Khan who were growing in power in Mongolia while the Mings were in China. Altan Khan resurrected the priest-patron relationship and gave the Mongolian title of Dalai to the then Gelugpa leader, Sonam Gyatso. With the death of the fourth Dalai Lama, the ruler of Tsang defeated the ruler of the small Kingdom U and this meant the patrons of the Gelug sect were out of action and the Karmapas were promoted instead. Even fi nding the next Dalai Lama was banned by the Tsang rulers. It was at this point that the

may 19, 2012 vol xlviI no 20

Economic & Political Weekly


importance of the Panchen Lama rose to prominence when he mediated to end the ban and look for a new Dalai Lama. But it was primarily the military intervention of the Mongols that prevented the Gelug sect from receding to obscurity. The Mongolian tribe under Gushi Khan reinstated the Gelug sect in Tibet. Schaik thus says, “Were it not for the Mongols, the history of Tibet might have turned out quite differently” (p 142).

After the Manchus, another non-Han group that came to power in China entered into a priest-patron relationship with the fifth Dalai Lama. Schaik shows that the Manchus saw the Dalai Lama as a powerful ally who wielded a strong infl u ence over the Mongols, while the Dalai Lama saw this alliance as an expression of his status as “the sole king of Tibet”. But it was the Junghars’ threat to Tibet that caused the Manchus to end the Mongol threat once for all. The Manchus brought eastern Tibet (Amdo) under direct control of China. In 1793, the Manchus further tightened their grip on Tibet when a combined Tibetan-Chinese army marched into Nepal to punish the king for invading Tibet. This gave the Manchu ruler, Qianlong, a chance to extend influence on the selection of reincarnated Lamas by introducing the Golden Urn system that replaced the Tulku system of the Tibetans. However, Schaik notes that Tibet was never a province under the Qing, and the Ambans in Tibetan court functioned as mere observers.

In the next three chapters Schaik covers the history of Tibet from its fi rst contact with the East India Company in 1774 to its occupation by communist China in 1951. Schaik narrates that it was the Tibetan skirmish with the British over Sikkim that led the British to understand the nature of Chinese authority in Tibet and decide to directly contact the Dalai Lama. But a new chapter in Tibetan history began under the 13th Dalai Lama whose bid for Tibetan independence embroiled Tibet in the Great Game. This concerned the Manchus and what followed then was the subjugation and Sinicisation of Kham. Schaik mentions that the 13th Dalai Lama regarded this Qing colonisation of eastern Tibet as forfeiture of the age-old priest-patron relationship. In 1911, the Manchu power collapsed and the 13th Dalai Lama declared Tibet’s independence.

While Tibetan nationalism marched ahead to consolidate the newly-gained independence, a republican government rose from the ashes of the Manchus and laid claim to all Qing imperial territories based on the union of five races. This concerned the British and the Simla Agreement was signed that basically accorded China suzerainty over Tibet. As opposed to most analyses of suzerainty as a British-devised strategy, Schaik analysed this as a continuation of the Manchu practice of not interfering in the internal affairs of Tibet while retaining the responsibility for Tibet’s international affairs. He also injects a fresh perspective when he says that the 1951 Seventeen Point Agreement imposed by the communists were supported by many Tibetans because they saw the agreement as a continuation of the arrangement the Tibetans had with the Mongols and the Manchus. As such, Schaik says “Mao was not any different”.

From 1959 to 2008

In his last chapter which he has titled “Two Tibets”, he finally compresses the history from 1959 to the post 2008 riots touching upon the various events: the 1962 India-China war, the formation of the Tibetan Autonomous Region in 1965, the Cultural Revolution and its consequences, the failure of Deng’s China to reach out to the Dalai Lama and the latter’s turn towards the west, impact of the Western Development Project and the 2008 Tibetan uprising. He ends with a signifi cant reflection on “what is Tibet” and contends that under communist repression and influence of the internet, Tibetans both in exile and in Tibet are “perhaps more conscious of their cultural identities than ever” (p 325).

To compress the history of Tibet from the seventh to the 21st century into 411 pages is a Herculean task which the book has achieved remarkably and in the process removed many of the misconceptions of Tibet which have long plagued academic understanding. Through rigorous research based on Tibetan sources, it puts in the pale many of the earlier works on Tibet. This is by far the most unbiased, authoritative oeuvre on Tibet.

Abanti Bhattacharya (awanti_b_711@hotmail. com) teaches at the department of East Asian Studies, University of Delhi, Delhi.


Vacancy for various academic positions

A N Sinha Institute of Social Studies, Patna, an interdisciplinary Research Institute enacted and financed by the Govt. of Bihar and recognized and supported by the Indian Council of Social Science Research, has been doing pioneering research with a focus on development and change. Institute invites application for the following posts:

Professor of Economics-2, Professor of Sociology-1, Professor of Social Psychology-1, Associate Professor in Economics-1, Associate Professor in Sociology-1, Associate Professor in Social Psychology-1, Assistant Professor in Social Psychology-1, Assistant Professor in Economics-1.

Roster Rules of the Institute are applicable: Professor-4(General-2, EBC-1, SC-1), Associate Professor-3(General-2, EBC-1), Assistant Professor-2(SC-1, General-1). UGC norms would be applicable as minimum qualifications. Details of essential and desirable qualifications and Application Form can be browsed and downloaded from the website or obtained from the Institute during offi ce hour. Age of Retirement for faculty positions is 65 years. Application should reach latest by the 31st May 2012 to the Director. The Institute reserves the rights to fill up or not to fill up any of the posts. Any canvassing or influence in this regard will be liable to disqualification.


Economic & Political Weekly

may 19, 2012 vol xlviI no 20

Dear Reader,

To continue reading, become a subscriber.

Explore our attractive subscription offers.

Click here


To gain instant access to this article (download).

Pay INR 50.00

(Readers in India)

Pay $ 6.00

(Readers outside India)

Back to Top