A remote territory The advantages and disadvantages of the high plateau known as Tibet are identical. The place is extremely hard to reach, hemmed in on the south by the Himalayas and on the north by the almost equally high Kunlun mountains. The terrain is inhospitable, the plateau itself being about 15,000 feet above sea level. The climate is harsh, with violent swings of temperature between night and day at all times of the year. The disadvantage is that few people can live here. The advantage is that few others want to. Until modern times it has been impossible for outsiders to arrive in sufficient force to subdue the inhabitants for long. Buddhist Tibet: 7th – 8th century AD The story of Tibet moves in the 7th century AD from colourful legend into the realm of history. The change is the result of two new arrivals – writing and Buddhism. As with the earlier example of Ulfilas and Gothic, the writing down of the Tibetan language appears to have been the work of one man. In about AD 640 the king of Tibet sends a minister, Thon-mi Sambhota, to study Sanskrit in Kashmir. On his return he devises a new syllabary of 30 consonants and 4 vowels to suit his own entirely different Tibetan language (part of the Sino-Tibetan languages rather than the Indo-European family). Thon-mi Sambhota even finds time to write eight treatises on Tibetan grammar, two of which survive. The same king of Tibet (Srong-btsan sgam-po by name) has two wives from alliances with neighbouring powers. One comes from Nepal, the other from China; both are Buddhist and both bring with them precious Buddhist images. The king builds temples in his capital, Lhasa, to house his wives’ sacred treasures. This is the first visible foothold of Buddhism in Tibet. Early in the next century the Indian religion receives a further boost when Buddhists from central Asia flee to this remote region to escape the advance of the Muslims. But it is not until the second half of the 8th century that Tibetan kings actively promote Buddhism as their state cult. Tibet and China: 7th – 13th century AD In the 7th and 8th centuries, under Srong-btsan sgam-po and his successors, Tibet is a unified kingdom exercising power over an area well beyond the Tibetan plateau, including important regions on the Silk Road such as Kashgar and Khotan. In 763 a Tibetan army even invades T’ang China and briefly captures the capital at Xi’an. In subsequent centuries Tibet is more often a collection of small independent kingdoms, restricted to their own high plateau. They regard their large neighbour to the east with wary suspicion. A brief exception occurs in the 13th century, when a Tibetan link with the Mongol emperors of China brings Tibet formally within the Chinese empire. In the early 13th century, when it is evident Continue reading