Songtsen Gampo: First Emperor of a Unified Tibet

By Jigme Duntak

In 618 CE Songtsen Gampo ascended the throne as Tsenpo of the Pugyel dynasty after the assassination of his father Namri Löntsen. During this era the ‘formal designation’ for rulers was ‘Tsenpo’,

“…a term that served as the exclusive title of the Tibetan monarch, and early on they appear to have also adopted the dynastic label ‘Pugyel’, “king of Pu,” perhaps reflecting the dynasty’s distant origins in Powo in south-eastern Tibet.”

Tibetan records from the twelfth century generally write that Songtsen Gampo therefore ascended the throne at the age of thirteen and then ruled until his death 650 CE. However, the Danguang manuscripts and the annals of China’s Tang dynasty record that Songtsen Gampo ruled a much shorter reign since they suggest that he was born in 617 CE and that his father’s assassination was in 629 CE. Thus, in the Tibetan histories Songtsen Gampo is attributed to have ruled a much longer reign and life, some Tibetan histories have even suggested that Songtsen Gampo ruled for over eighty years.

During Songsten’s father’s (Namri Löntsen) reign, he brought “new cultural ties to the east, whereby Chinese traditions of medicine and divination were first introduced to Tibet.” The government of Namri Löntsen sent two embassies to China in 608 and 609, marking the appearance of Tibet on the international scene. Löntsen also expanded the Pugyel Dynasty’s territory during his reign but it was not until Songtsen Gampo’s reign that the imperial conquest began to advance considerably. Following his fathers assassination, the young Songtsen Gampo and his ministers quickly began to makes plans to retake control of the “parts of the country that had been lost during Namri Löntsen’s last years and also to gain new adherents.” The young Songtsen Gampo also had the support and protection of the powerful minister Myang Mangpoje until he himself was able to take over the work of imperial expansion. However in 632-3 CE Myang Mangpoje was accused of treason and executed, he was then succeeded by minister Gar Songtsän.

The Old Tibetan Chronicle records that Songtsen Gampo’s government did not want to engage in warfare in order to subjugate the rebelling territories and new territories due to the costs of war. Thus they instead used diplomacy whenever possible to obtain territorial gains.

“[Advisor Myang] Mangpoje advised against bringing an army to attack the Sumpa, a nomadic or semi nomadic people living to the northeast of Tibet, who had been among Namri’s feudatories. Instead he offered protection for their flocks, wherefore, in the words of the Chronicle, ‘all their households were naturally captured as subjects.’”

It was in this manner that Songtsen Gampo was able to expand his Tibetan Empire and use his new subjects as allies. At its height, the Tibetan empire ranged from the plains of India and the mountains of Nepal to the frontiers of China. However, peaceful diplomacy and incentives were not the only way Songtsen Gampo expanded the Tibetan Empire, warfare was also used.

“…the conquest of the kingdom of Zhangzhung, in the western part of the Tibetan plateau, was achieved through a combination of deviousness and military force. Songsten’s sister was given to the ruler of Zhangzhung, Limigya, thereby forming an alliance between the two realms. The Tibetan queen Semakar however seems to have been marginalized by the Zhangzhung ruler and this set her scheming…in the event, the impasse in her marriage corresponded to deteriorating relations between the two kingdoms…As hostilities became imminent, it was the intelligence provided by queen Semakar that signalled the moment for attack, whereupon Songsten’s armies slaughtered the Zhangzhung king and annihilated his strongholds.”

The defeat of Limigya marked the end of the Bön center of religion in Zhangzhung and also marked the first time the Tibetan plateau was subject to a unified rule. With this unity came a large pool of resources and manpower which thereby became available for Songtsen Gampo to set in motion the growth of the Tibetan Empire in the following decades.

Sources:

Choephel, Gendun. The White Annals. Dharamsala: Library of Tibetan Works & Archives, 1978.

Kapstein, Matthew T. The Tibetans, Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 2006.

Snellgrove, David and Hugh Richardson, A Cultural History of Tibet (Boulder: PrajanaPress, 1980

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2 thoughts on “Songtsen Gampo: First Emperor of a Unified Tibet”

  1. Let me say first off how much I appreciate your blog . . . extremely helpful, and I think bringing to the forefront all the kinds of things that we all need to engange if we’re interested in the plight of the Tibetan people. One question: I couldn’t find your email address . . . I’d like to correspond as well on potential guest authorships, etc.

  2. Thanks. My email is on the main page on the right under contributors you just have to click my name and you’ll see in my profile. Or just click my name here on my post and you’ll see it as well. Jigme_D@hotmail.com

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