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Songtsen Gampo

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Author: Samye Institute
Last Updated: August 11, 2022

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Songtsen Gampo (569?–649? 650) was the thirty-second ruler of Yarlung, a small kingdom in the Yarlung Tsangpo River Valley of central Tibet. He expanded territory to form a vast empire stretching from the borders of Bactria to Han China and from Nepal to the borders of East Turkistan, including the Zhang-zhung kingdom. Traditional accounts credit him with being the first to bring Buddhism to the Tibetan people. He is referred to in traditional sources as the first of the three great Dharma Kings.

In order to stabilize political alliances and his own position of power, Songtsen Gampo married a number of princesses, first from Zhang-zhung and then, late in his reign, Princess Wengcheng from Tang China and his Nepali consort Bhrikuti, a princess of Nepal’s Licchavi dynasty. These two wives are regarded as incarnations of Arya Tāra (Tib. Dölma). The Chinese princess is known as Döl-kar, or ‘the white  Dölma,’ and the Nepalese princess Döl-jang, or ‘the green Dölma.’ 

Songtsen Gampo sent seventeen Tibetan students to Kashmir in India to master its languages, necessary to study Buddhist scriptures. Thonmi Sambhota, the most famous of these students, is credited with the introduction of a written Tibetan alphabet and grammar, based upon the Khotanese adaptation of the Indian Upright Gupta script. Thus, under the emperor’s patronage, the classical and literary Tibetan language was created.

Songtsen Gampo moved the seat of his newly unified kingdom to the Kyichu valley site of the future city of Lhasa. Originally a herding ground called Rasa (“the place of goats”), the name was changed to Lhasa (“the place of gods”) after the emperor founded the Jokhang Temple. His heir, the third Dharma King Ralpacan, (r. c. 800-815)erected the Skar cung pillar and had it inscribed that during Songtsen Gampo’s reign, “shrines of the Three Jewels were established by building the temple of Ra-sa [Lhasa] and so on.”

The Emperor made an overt declaration of the primacy of the Buddhist faith by ordering the erection of a set of 13 Buddhist temples on specially chosen geomantic sites around his realm. The landmass of the extensive Tibetan plateau was viewed as a demoness lying on her back. Locations for the temples were carefully selected corresponding to key points of Chinese acupuncture applied to the body of the demoness. In this way, the emperor put in place a force to neutralize any opposition to his rule from local malevolent spirits.

The Old Tibetan Annals records his death in 649, and according to Chinese sources, the Chinese emperor sent a letter of condolences. Songtsen Gampo was buried, according to the chronicles, in the “Valley of the Kings” in Yarlung.