Ancient Links and Political Treaties: Tibet’s History as a Sovereign Nation

Updated: Sep 26


Introduction

From the premodern period consisting of the Shangshung, Yarlung, and Chosgyal empires up until the annexation of Tibet by Communist China in 1951, Tibet carved for itself a unique history and identity by developing a rich, distinct culture and tradition. During the evolution of this unique history and identity, Tibet was influenced by and in turn influenced many other traditions of the world over the course of its long history. However, India’s influence on Tibet has been the most significant and impactful. This influence is the result of the deep-rooted bond that Tibet shared with India as the birthplace of Buddhism that Tibet was to develop for itself. Although Buddhism was the most significant aspect of Tibet’s bond with India, and the catalyst for its rapid growth and enhancement, Tibet’s relations with India predate the advent of Buddhism in Tibet. According to Tibetan legend, the first Tibetan king Nyatri Tsenpo (127 BCE), the progenitor of the Yarlung and Chosgyal empires, was an Indian prince who, upon losing a battle in the Mahabharata, strayed into Tibet where the locals mistook him to have come from ‘heaven’ and anointed him king. This king is credited with uniting several small kingdoms in the region and founding the Yarlung empire which later evolved into what is considered as contemporary Bod, the Tibetan name for Tibet derived from Bon, the animistic religion which preceded the advent of Buddhism in Tibet. Going back even further into pre-modern Tibet and its origin myths, legendary sources claim that the monkey king believed to be the progenitor of the Tibetan race was the legendary Hanuman of Hindu mythology. As the cultural bond between the two countries grew, the relationship spanned multiple avenues including trade, language, politics, and security as is evident from multiple treaties and agreements that Tibet signed with India and other neighboring countries and kingdoms. These treaties now stand testament to the fact that Tibet was an independent and sovereign nation capable of conducting its affairs on its own with its neighbors.


Tibet’s Tilt Towards India

Tibetan sources claim the first contact of Tibetans with Buddhism occurred during the reign of Lha Thothori gNyan Tsan, the 28th king of Tibet (c. 5 CE). The king is believed to have received a Buddhist missionary who offered him a few relics which included several Buddhist scriptures, a Mani stone and a Buddhist begging bowl. Although treated with great reverence, they were unable to decipher the purpose of these relics, and these were collectively considered, Nyenpo Sangwa (The Beautiful Secret). However, it was only during the reign of the 33rd King Songtsen Gampo that Buddhism made its official foray into Tibet through the King’s two queens: Bhrikuti Devi (Bal Sa Khri Tsun) from Nepal and Wencheng (Gya Sa Kongjo) from China. Through the patronage of the king, Buddhism started to flourish in Tibet. According to Tibetan sources, there were a number of Buddhist figures competing for influence in Tibet at the time, and these included Chinese teachers. The most famous of these was Hwashang Mahayana (Ch. Heshang Moheyan 和尚摩訶衍), a Chan teacher who travelled to Tibet and apparently attracted a fairly substantial following. Traditional histories report that matters came to a head in the 9th century between followers of Hwashang Mahayana and the disciples of the Indian master Kamalashila. King Tri Songdetsen (r. 754–c. 799) then sponsored a debate between the two factions at Samye Monastery known as the Council of Lhasa. The conclusion of the debate was that the Chinese side was declared heretical and the Indian side, orthodox based on the pure teachings of the Buddha. The Indian side championed traditional Indian Mahāyāna Buddhism, a gradualist path to Buddhahood focusing on the six perfections, training toward Buddhahood as a bodhisattva over the course of many lifetimes. Since the conclusion of this debate, Tibet has historically looked towards India in its south as the source of high culture. Tibetan culture also underwent broad changes, and a particular brand of Mahayana Buddhism based on the Nālandā Tradition began to infuse every aspect of Tibetan culture and identity.


However, it wasn't just the monasteries that were the sources of Buddhism for Tibet. Another important source of what Tibetan Buddhism became were the siddha lineages of northern India that were mostly centred in Bihar and Bengal. These were largely tantric-oriented coteries of students and charismatic teachers. Their teachings were transmitted orally from master to student. These were transmitted to Tibet by individuals rather than institutions, unlike when people would travel to Nālandā University, and Nālandā teachers would travel to Tibet. Both these sources are collectively instrumental in shaping what Tibetan Buddhism became.


Between the two lineages: the scholastic and tantric, the more scholastic orders, particularly the Gelukpa school of Tibetan Buddhism, have a strong connection to scholastic traditions of the northern Indian monasteries like Nālandā. The Kagyu schools trace their histories more closely to the siddha lineages. The Sakya order is more a mixture of both. Some of the siddhas like Virūpa (fl. 9th century), for instance, are important in the Sakya order, as are some of the scholastic teachers associated with the Nālandā and Vikramaśīla traditions. The Nyingma order traces its origins back to the period before Nālandā became the main source of importation of Buddhism in Tibet, and is thus considered the oldest ‘school’ in Tibetan Buddhism.


The Tibetan Buddhist schools, especially the Gelukpa school (of which the Dalai Lama is a leading figure) largely derive their philosophical traditions from the 17 pundits of Nālandā which include the likes of Nāgārjuna, Dignaga, Dharamakirti, Chandrakīrti, Śāntideva, Asaṅga, Vasubandhu, Shantarakshita, and so forth. All these scholars are associated with the Nālandā University. In that sense, there is a very strong connection between the traditions that became orthodox and played leading roles in Tibetan Buddhism and the type of Buddhism that Tibet developed.


Tibetans also had a deep rooted tradition of going to India, particularly Nālandā University to study and translate Indian texts into Tibetan. Thonmi Sambhota, who invented the Tibetan script, is said to have visited Nālandā to study Buddhism and language. From Thonmi Sambhota's first visit to Nālandā in the 7th century till the 13th Century, sixteen Tibetan scholars and translators such as Ba Salnang, Baro-tsana, Namkha Nyingpo, Kawa Peltzik, Chokro Luyi Gyaltsen, etc, are recorded in Tibetan history to have travelled to Nālandā to study. In reality, it is more than plausible that there were perhaps even more visiting Tibetan scholars than what the historical record tells us.


Political treaties with Indian Kingdoms


While Buddhism remained the crux of the relationship between India and Tibet. As neighbours with a long common border, Tibet and India also share a rich history of trade and peace treaties.


Tibet -Bushahr Treaty (1679 – 1684)


In its history of relationships with neighbouring countries and kingdoms, the erstwhile kingdom of Bushahr was perhaps one with which Tibet shared cultural and friendly ties. The princely state of Bushahr in present day Himachal Pradesh in northern India was a small kingdom contiguous with the Ngari region of western Tibet. In the 17th century, Raja Kehri Singh of Bushahr signed a treaty of friendship with the Gaden Phodrang government of Tibet. The treaty was a result of a military cooperation between Raja Kehri Singh of Bushahr and Tibeto-Mongol military commander Gaden Tsewang (dGa’ ldan tshedbang) during the Tibet-Ladakh-Mughal war of 1679 -1684. This military co-operation resulted in a sworn treaty of friendship between the two states which stipulated that no taxes would be levied on the merchants of Tibetan and Bushahri origin whilst trading in each other’s territories in perpetuity. It was also agreed that a trade delegation from Bushahr should be sent tri-annually to the Tibetan towns of Purang, Ruthog, Dawa, Tsaparang and Gartok. This treaty brought tremendous economic benefits to the merchants of the small Bushahr kingdom (Halkias, 2009). Although official documents relevant to the treaty are not in existence today, the treaty was said to have been preserved in a set of murals adorning the walls of Shish Mahal palace in Rampur, Bushahr. Unfortunately, the murals are also lost to the tide of time. The only vestiges of the treaty are now preserved in the local lore of the Kinnauri people, who say: The treaty of friendship will remain until


“Sutlej goes dry, crows become white, horses get horns, and stones stated to be at the borders of both the states and on which the treaty was written produce hair or wool.”


The annual Lavi mela held in Bushahr’s Rampur is yet another surviving vestige of the treaty. The Lavi mela was historically an important commercial fair that lies on the trade routes of Ladakh, Kinnaur, Tibet, and Afghanistan. The origins of the annual Lavi mela are also attributed to the treaty between Tibet and Bushahr in the 1961 report of the Census of India. It says the following:


“About three hundred years ago during the regime of Raja Kehri Singh of Bushahr, a trade treaty was signed between the Bushahr state and Tibet. Horses from Tibet and swords from Bushahr were exchanged as a token of this friendship. It was written in the treaty that their friendly relations would continue till this time… Since then it is presumed that trade relations increased and eventually the Lavi fair was held.”


- Census of India, 1961


Treaty of Tingmosgang between Ladakh and Tibet – 1684


Another notable consequence of the Tibet-Ladakh-Mughal war of 1679-1684 was the treaty of Tingmosgang signed between the kingdom of Ladakh and the Tibetan government under the regency of Desi Sangye Gyatso. The Tibetan government with the assistance of the Mongol Khanates fought the kingdom of Ladakh, which was supported by the Mughal empire.


Gyalwang Mipham Wangpo, the head of the Drukchen lineage of Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism, who was historically the patron spiritual teacher of the successive Ladakhi kings was deputed by the Regent Desi Sangye Gaytso of the Gaden Phodrang government of Tibet to sign the treaty of Tingmosgang which ended the Tibet-Ladakh-Mughal war. The treaty of Tingmosgang is also called the Treaty of Temisgam, which demarcated the boundaries between Tibet and Ladakh. The treaty also outlined Ladakh’s exclusive right to trade Pashmina wool in exchange for brick-tea. Ladakh was also required to send a Lo-chak (tribute) every three years with presents of gold dust, saffron, and Yarkhand cotton cloth for the Dalai Lama and other lamas of Tibet (The Sino-Indian Boundary, 1962).


Despite far reaching political changes on both sides, the Lo-chak (“Lopchak” in Ladakhi) tribute survived nearly uninterrupted from 1684 to 1946. Ladakh went from being an independent kingdom in 1684, to being integrated into the Princely State of Jammu & Kashmir within the orbit of the British empire, before acceding to the Indian Union in 1947 (Bray, 1990).What was once a key stipulation in a peace treaty, became an Indo-Tibetan tradition considered highly unique for its longevity.


Treaty of Chushul (Agreement with Ladakh in 1842)


Another treaty that Tibet forged with Ladakh was the treaty of Chushul following the Dogra-Tibetan war of 1841 - 42. Raja Gulab Singh of the Sikh Empire sent his general Zorawar Singh to conquer Ladakh. After capturing Ladakh, he tried to capture Tibet’s western Ngari region to control the trade routes into Ladakh (Fisher et al., 1963). Zorawar Singh was killed by the Tibetans in Minsar, and the Tibetan troops advanced into Ladakh where they were defeated by the troops of Jawahar Singh, cousin of Raja Gulab Singh.


Unwilling to prolong hostilities, both the Tibetans and the troops of Raja Gulab Singh agreed to sign a treaty of friendship. The Tibetans have already suffered defeat at the hands of the Sikh empire and the Sikh empire was embroiled in hostilities with the British in India. So, this treaty was signed to foster friendship between the two sides and to maintain the status quo. The status quo here was the aforementioned agreement (Tingmosgang) between Tibet and Ladakh signed in 1684.


The Chushul treaty was signed by Kalon Surkhang and Dapon Peshi of the Gaden Phodrang government of Tibet with the Dewan Hari Chand, Wazir Ratun Sahib, representing Raja Shri Gulab Singh. The treaty agreed to recognise the ancient boundaries of Tibet and Ladakh without resorting to warfare. The treaty also agreed that the annual Lo-Chak (Tribute) system that Ladakh presents to the Gaden Phodrang Government will not be stopped by Maharaja Gulab Singh (Shakabpa, 1973).


Agreement of 1852 between Ladakh and Tibet


The agreement of 1852 between Ladakh and Tibet was signed by the Garpons (provisional governors) of the Gaden Phodrang Government of Tibet with Thanadar Sahib Bastiram representing the Maharaja of Kashmir and Kalon Rinzin of Ladakh. The agreement was signed to settle a dispute over Ladakhis refusing to supply the Tibetan traders with transport animals citing a decrease in the sale of Ladakhi brick tea in Tibet.


This agreement stated that Ladakh will continue to supply the Tibetan traders with transport animals and other assistance according to the custom established in the Treaty of Tingmosgang. The agreement also stipulated grazing rights for animals of Tibetan government traders and restricted animals of others from grazing on the reserved pastures. The agreement maintained the status quo with regard to borders established since ancient times (The Sino-Indian Boundary, 1962).


Treaties with British India


In the two hundred years that the British controlled India, the Tibetan Government also signed several agreements with the British Raj on trade and border disputes. The first agreement was signed in 1904 following Lt. Col. Francis Younghusband’s military invasion of Tibet. Known as the Anglo-Tibetan Convention of Lhasa, this agreement compelled Tibet to cede the Chumbi valley to the British, and allowed the British to trade in Yatung, Gyantse and Gartok. Tibet was also made to pay an indemnity of 7,500,000 rupees (later reduced by two-thirds of the amount) to the British (Powers, 2004). This treaty was signed between the sovereign nations of Tibet and British India without the involvement of China (Fleming, 1986).


Another important, and perhaps the most significant agreement with regard to the current Sino-Indian border dispute was the Anglo-Tibetan declaration of 1914, also known as the Simla Convention between Tibet and China. This agreement was supposed to be a tripartite convention between the plenipotentiaries of Tibet, British India, and China. Following the Chinese representative’s refusal to sign the agreement, the British plenipotentiary Sir Henry McMahon signed the declaration with the Tibetan plenipotentiary Lonchen Shatra representing the Gaden Phodrang government of Tibet. This declaration outlined Tibet into inner and outer Tibet. China was denied interference in Inner Tibet (Meaning central Tibet, consisting of the provinces of U-tsang and western Kham), including its administration and the selection of the Dalai Lamas. This agreement also designated the McMahon line as the demarcated border between India and Tibet (Atlas of Northern Frontier of India, 1960).


British, Tibetan and Chinese officials at the Shimla Convention of 1913-14


Treaties with Nepal, Mongolia and China


Other than India, Tibet also shared a rich history with her other neighbours such as Nepal, Mongolia and China. The treaty of Thapathali (also known as the treaty of Chaitra Sudi) was signed in 1856 as a security pact between the sovereign nations of Nepal and Tibet following the third Tibet-Nepal war. The treaty was signed between the Bhardars of Nepal and the government of Tibet which agreed that Tibet would pay an annual tribute of 10,000 rupees to Nepal for which Nepal would assist Tibet in case of an attack by a foreign power (Uprety, 1998).


With Mongolia, Tibet has a deep historical relationship from the time of the Khanates. Just as India was the land of the Aryas for Tibet, Tibetan lamas served an analogous role for the Mongols. The priest-patron relationship which was the cornerstone of Tibet’s relations with the Yuan and the Qing dynasties (Mongol and Manchu respectively), began with the Mongols. Following the Xinhai revolution (1911) which saw the fall of the Qing dynasty (1644 – 1911) in China, the 13th Dalai Lama signed a treaty of friendship between Tibet and Mongolia in 1912. The treaty declared that Tibet and Mongolia have freed themselves from the shackles of the Manchus, and have formed their own independent states recognising each other’s independence. It affirmed a commitment to strengthen the historic relations between the two nations, and assist each other against external threats (DIIR, 1990).


Following the treaty with Mongolia in 1912, the 13th Dalai Lama issued a declaration of Independence in 1913 from Lhasa. In the declaration, the 13th Dalai Lama stated that the successive Dalai Lamas are the true leaders of Tibet and that Tibet shared only a Priest-Patron relationship with China from the times of the Yuan and the Qings. An arrangement which was arguably pre-Westphalian in nature, and is nevertheless cited by modern day Communist China in an attempt to gain historical legitimacy for its projected sovereignty over Tibet. The 13th Dalai Lama also rejected China’s attempts to colonise Tibet, and stated that Tibetan troops under the command of the Gaden Phodrang government will be solely responsible for securing Tibet’s frontiers (Shakabpa, 1973).


With China, Tibet shares a long and tumultuous history. However, two treaties signed between the two countries stand out for their significance. The first was signed in 821-22 CE between Tibetan emperor Ralpachan and the Tang emperor Muzong (Heller, 1999). This treaty demarcated the borders between the two countries and demonstrated Tibet’s military strength and independence. The other was signed by Tibetan delegates under duress with Chinese Communist representatives on 23 May 1951 (DIIR, 2018). This treaty signified Tibet’s loss of independence, and for the first time in its history, Tibet was forced to accept China’s sovereignty over it. These two treaties illustrate two distinctly different eras and outcomes for Tibet: one of independence and the other of invasion. China now claims that Tibet has been a part of China since antiquity and that the seventeen point agreement signified Tibet’s return to the motherland. However, the fact remains that Tibet had effectively been an independent state for the entirety of its long and glorious history. Tibet has a millennia-old culture and language, with a historical legacy of administering far-flung territories. It also had a functioning administrative system that meets the needs of the state such as an army, a national flag, a national anthem, passports, and a national currency. These are all the conventional criteria for assessing a state’s claim to an independent statehood which Tibet possessed up until the 1951 annexation of Tibet.


Conclusion


It has now been 70 years since Tibet’s annexation by Communist China in 1951. Despite seven decades of Chinese rule, Tibet still remains a hotbed of active resistance against Chinese rule. China’s repeated proclamation that ‘Tibet has been a part of China since antiquity’ is challenged by the historic and cultural links that Tibet shares with India, and the political treaties that it signed with its neighbours as an independent and sovereign nation. These treaties document Tibet’s historical independence and the fact that Tibet was never a part of China in its history, despite the brief periods of occupation by its neighbours. The only treaty that signified Tibet’s loss of independence was the Seventeen Point Agreement of 1951. However, the circumstances under which the agreement was signed revealed more about Tibet’s historic independence than China’s proclamation of Tibet being a part of China historically. Not only did China allow Tibet to maintain its pre-existing political and social system in the agreement (de jure), but China also didn’t see the need to sign any such agreement with the other ethnic regions that it claimed as integral parts of China.


{Jamphel Shonu is a recipient of the Tibetan Scholarship Program, with a Masters in International Relations from New York University (NYU). He is currently the editor of tibet.net, the official website of the Central Tibetan Administration, and theTibetan Bulletin, a bi-monthly English magazine published by the Central Tibetan Administration}


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