China Destination Search


Facebook Image

Home Tibet Lhasa History
Lhasa History

Namri Songtsan Sent Troops into the Gyiqoi River Valley

A very primitive record of the ancient history of Tibet exists from around the 1st century. Forefathers of the Tibetan race passed down segments of history orally. During the Tubo Kingdom, historians began to write them into their works.

Legend has it that the Tibet Plateau was dotted with various tribal clans, which are known as the "12 small states'' or "40 small states'' in Tibetan history books. According to these books, where these small states were located there were small towns which, through repeated wars and ensuing peace, became formidable tribes. Of these large tribes, the most powerful ones included the Yarlung Tribe in theShannan River Valley, the Zhangzhung Regime in Ngari, and the Supi Tribe north of the Yarlung Zangbo River. At that time, the Lhasa River valley was known as the "Gyiqoiko'', with present-day Lhasa calls "Gyixoiwotang'' (meaning fertile land downstream from the Gyiqoi River).

The Gyiqoi River Valley was then ruled by two princes: Dagyiwo and Chibangsum of the Supi Tribe. In the early 7th century, Nangri Songtsan, leader of the Yarlung Tribe, sent his troops northward, crossing the Yarlung Zangbo River. With the coordination of the Nang clans under the rule of Chibangsum, they seized Chibangsum to rule the whole of the Gyiqoi (Lhasa) River Valley. Namrisum had his headquarters set up at Gyiamargang in Maizhokunggar. He had several palaces built in the narrow gully, which ran from south to north. Songtsan Gambo, his son and later king of the Tubo Kingdom, was born in the Qamba Mingcholing Palace at Gyiamargang.

King Songtsan Gambo Moved His Capital to Gyixoiwotang

Internal fighting broke out within the Yarlung Tribe when Songtsan Gambo was 13 years old. His father was poisoned to death, and the regime was about to fall. Songtsan Gambo succeeded as the king, and fought and annihilated the rebels. He also conquered the Dagbo, Gongbo, Nangbo and Supi tribes, thus unifying the Tibetan plateau and founding the Tubo Kingdom, with the capital set up in Gyiqoiwotang (present-day Lhasa). It was at that time he was donned "Songtsan Gambo,'' meaning "strongly minded king''.

Legend has it that, when Songtsan Gambo reached Gyixoiwotang during his expedition, it was summer. He took off his military uniform and took a dip in the rippling Gyiqoi River. He was delighted to see the crystal clear water and emerald mountains, including the Red and Tieshan Hills surrounding the area, and came to the conclusion that this was the best place from which to press ahead with his strategy of controlling all of Tibet. Indeed, this was a strategically advantageous area, with Qinghai in the north, Shannan in the south, Zhangzhung in the west, and Dorkang in the east. It was richly endowed with natural resources and was much, much better than Yarlung. Thus the decision of moving the capital to Gyiqoiwotang was made.

In 633, Songtsan Gambo led his men from Maizhokunggar westward to Gyiqoiwotang. Songtsan Gambo examined the desolate plain and decided to intercept the northern section of the Gyiqoi River and divert the water in the direction of Shannan. The area around the Red Hill became lush, and Songtsan Gambo built palaces, monasteries, military barracks, and civilian housing there. A spectacular stone palace stood at the top the Red Hill. This was the predecessor of the Potala Palace. Guests of the Feast of Scholars described the palace in this way: "Three walls were built around the Red Hill. Inside the walls were pillboxes, totalling 999 in number. At the summit of Red Hill was built a palace, thus bringing the total number of palaces up to 1,000. These palaces were adorned with gold, silver, pearls and tassels as majestic as the Heavenly Palace itself.''

Princess Wencheng Determined the Auspicious Location

When Songtsan Gambo moved his capital to Gyiqoiwotang (Lhasa), he followed in the footsteps of his predecessors by maintaining good relations with the Tang Dynasty in the Central Plains in terms of political, business, cultural and religious fields. Twice he sent a minister to Chang'an (present-day Xi'an) for a Tang princess to marry, and finally married Princess Wencheng.

Princess Wencheng reached Tubo in 641. She brought with her a statue of Sakyamuni equal to the size of the Buddha when he was 12 years old. The princess also brought calendars, Buddhist sutras, books on handicraft industry, and medical books.

Songtsan Gambo built a palace at the Red Hill for her, and a grand wedding ceremony was held. The Tang princess assisted Songtsan Gambo in administering Tubo, and the WotangCity was built for this purpose. At that time, Songtsan Gambo was planning the construction of a monastery for Nepalese Princess Khridzun, one of his concubines. Princess Wencheng calculated that the sky over Gyiqoiwotang resembled the eight wheels of Dharma, and the land took the shape of eight lotus petals adorned with eight auspicious treasures. Based on this understanding, she named the eight mountains around the city "Bright Lotus," "Treasure Umbrella," "Conch," "Buddha Wheel," "Victorious Umbrella," "Holy Bottle," "Golden Fish," and "Auspicious Knot." According to the Records of Tibetan Kings, the Tang princess knew well that "snowland is where a female demon reclines, with the Wotang Lake water being her blood (or heart), and the three mountains being her arteries. Since the place sits at the heart of the female demon, the lake should be filled up for the construction of a monastery.'' At the suggestion of Princess Wencheng, the lake was filled for construction of the Jokhang Monastery. In the meantime, the Ramoche Monastery was built at the former shore.

Initial Formation of Lhasa

During the period of King Songtsan Gambo, the Potala Palace, the Jokhang Monastery, and the Ramoche Monastery were built. In addition, many small monasteries and palaces were constructed inLhasa and its surrounding area. They included: the nine-story Pobengang Palace in the northern suburbs, where Tubo Minister Tome Sambozha created the Tibetan script and Songtsan Gambo studied Tibetan; three monasteries built for Sangtsan Gambo's three Tibetan concubines, with one of them built in the Zhayaba Valley in the eastern suburb for Mamsa Trizun; the monastery built for Songtsan Gambo's concubine from Zhangzhung by the Tibogor Fountain north of the Jokhang Monastery; and the monastery built for Songtsan Gambo's concubine from Moya on the eastern slope of the Tieshan (Yaowangshan) Mountain, where the Pharla Lhufo Cave Temple still exists today. Around the Jokhang and Ramoche Monasteries were built with the Prince of Dharma Palace, Monastery for the Master, military barracks, official residences, civilian housing, and stores. Dams were erected along the GyiqoiLhasa River to prevent flooding. In between the Jokhang and Ramoche Monasteries were built the silk and fur markets. At that time, people took ritual walks around the Jokhang Monastery.

According to the law enacted by Songtsan Gambo, Tubo was divided into several administrative divisions ruled by various princes. The Tubo King presided over exchanges with the outside world. Under the tsampo (king) were installed five business offices in charge of trade in tea, jade, knives, silks, and salt, and six crafts offices in charge of making iron objects, saddles, bows, swords, helmets, and Buddha statues. These offices played an important role in stimulating the rise of the city of Lhasa. Unfortunately, Lhasa did not continue its fast expansion after the deaths of Songtsan Gambo, two of his concubines, Tang Princess Wencheng, and Nepalese Princess Khridzun.

As the Tibetans love tea, the 4th Tubo King Dorsum Mombogyai (676-740) introduced tea and ceramics from China's hinterland. As a result, tea trade held an important position in the Lhasa market. Upon death of the Tubo King, his son Tride Zhotsan (704-754) became the Tubo King and married Tang Dynasty Princess Jincheng, another grand event in the history of friendship between the Tang and Tubo. Princess Jincheng greeted the statue of Sakyamuni, which Princess Wencheng had brought to Tubo, to the Jokhang Monastery, where it was enshrined in the Main Hall. A whole set of rituals were formulated for people to worship the statue. At this point of time, three white dagobas were built under the name of Bagagarling in between the Red Hill and the Yaowangshan Mountain, forming the major entrance to Lhasa.

The Naming of Lhasa City

Lhasa was first called Gyaixoi Wotang. When the Jokhang Monastery was built, the monastery was named Rosa meaning the Goats Templein memory of goats who carried clay to fill up the lake for construction of the monastery.

When Princess Jincheng brought the statue of Sakyamuni (which Princess Wencheng brought to Tubo) from the Romache Monastery to the Jokhang Monastery, the Jokhang Monastery became the worshipping center. Because of this development, Rosa was renamedLhasa, meaning "Holy Land of Buddha''.

The name "Lhasa'' didn't make its debut in Tibetan classics until 806, when Tubo King Tride Songtsan erected the "Tablet to the Geqoin Monastery'', its inscriptions reading "During the life of His Holy Tsampo Songtsan, Buddhist doctrines were spread and the Jokhang Monastery was built in Lhasa.'' This inscription is evidence that the name "Lhasa" has been in use for almost 1,200 years.

The Holy City Fell With the Fall of Tubo Kingdom

After 200 years, the Tubo Kingdom experienced increasing internal conflict. Various royal families, monks, lay officials, Buddhist forces, and anti-Buddhist forces were locked in a life-and-death fight. When the anti-Buddhist forces managed to kill Chanbo Zhangya, who had been in charge of monks, and later Tubo King Chiribajun, Darma Wodongtsan, brother of Chiribajun, came to the throne. Darma Wodongtsan began his term by banning Buddhism in Tubo. Even before this, Darma Wodongtsan banned Buddhism in Lhasa. The Jokhang Monastery was closed, statues of Sakyamuni were buried underground, and lamas with the monastery were forced to resume their secular lives and were ordered to either slaughter cows and sheep, or go hunting in the mountains. This Tubo King, historically known as Lang Darma, was in power for five years, until he was killed by Lama Lhalung Begyi Dorje.

Upon Lang Darma's death, his two sons Wesum and Yundain were locked in a fight for power. Wesum was the son of his father's second wife, and Yundain the son of his father's first wife. Yundain controlled Lhasa and Wesum Shannan. They fought for a score of years, touching off a mass revolt and leading to the fall of the Tubo Kingdom. Lhasa, as the capital of the Tubo Kingdom, declined along with Tubo Kingdom. The Potala Palace, which had been damaged by a thunderbolt during the period of Trisong Detsan, was razed to the ground during war.

Lhasa Experiencing Changes from Separation to the Sagya Period

Tibet groaned under the separation that began in the mid-9th century. This situation continued for 400 years and ended in the mid-13th century, when the religious circle headed by the Sagya Sect of Tibetan Buddhism pledged allegiance to the Yuan Dynasty. From then on, Tibet became a part of Chinese territory. The Sagya regime was headquartered in Sagya, the Pagmo Zhuba regime in Nedong of Shannan, and the Tsangpa Desi regime in Xigaze. Lhasa was not again the center of power in Tibet for 800 years, but remains to be the oldest holy city of the region.

After some 100 years, Tibetan Buddhism revived in the late 9th century and the early 10th century. Monastic rules spread from theGuge Kingdom in Ngari and Dandi in Qinghai to U-Tsang. As a result,Lhasa and its surrounding area again saw the flourishing of Buddhism. In Tibetan history, this is known as the "Revival of Tibetan Buddhism." For a prolonged period of time thereafter, Lhasa was under the rule by Tsapa wan hu (10,000-household) office. Office heads won the official title of situ from the Yuan court and were put in charge ofLhasa and the Lhasa River Valley. They exercised effective management over Lhasa and organized efforts to reinforce river dams, dredge water ways, build civilian housing, renovate the Barkor Street, repair the Jokhang and Ramoche Monasteries, protect buildings on the Potala Palace Ruins, manage various monasteries and Buddhist activities, organize lectures on Buddhist doctrines, build the Tantric School, compile history books, and publish books on Buddhism. People of later generations erected the statue of Lhagyi Gowaboin, one of the wan hu (10,000-household) office heads, in the Jokhang Monastery to honor what he had done for the city.

Buddhism boomed in Lhasa during that period. Monasteries built included the Sangpo, Jormolung, Gedong, Curpu, Chigung, Daglung, and Zho Monasteries. Although these monasteries were all built in areas around Lhasa, Lhasaremained the mecca for Buddhists.

Various Religious Sects Fought for Control of Lhasa

The decline of the Pagmo Zhuba regime, which had previously ruledTibet, around the 16th century made way for the rise of the Runbungba and Desi Tsangba regimes in the Xigaze area. When the Nyuwozong clan that supported the Gelug Sect was wiped out by Desi Tsangba, the Gyixoi Diba regime, a powerful supporter for the Gelug Sect, rose in the lower reaches of the Lhasa River. The regime exercised jurisdiction over the Lhasa River Valley extending from Quxui to Maizhokunggar. Diba rulers of various generations built roads and bridges, reinforced river dams, and built houses and palaces. Earlier, Tangdong Gyibo had already erected an iron cable bridge over theLhasa River, making it possible for Lhasa to expand in its contacts with the outside world. However, the Desi Tsangba (King Tsangba), who was based in Xigaze, did his best to suppress the Gelug Sect, then on the rise. Beginning with the 17th century, the Lhasa area and the Xigaze area were locked in a fight for control of Lhasa. The Lhasans, used to peace, suffered.

Construction of the White and Red Palaces of the Potala Palace

Upon request by the monastic bloc of the Yellow Sect, Gushri Khan, head of the Hoshod Mongols in Xinjiang and Qinghai, invaded Tibetand toppled the Tsangpa Desi regime in Xigaze. With support from Gushri Khan, the 5th Dalai Lama established the Gandain Phodrang regime in Lhasa, thus turning Lhasa once again into the political, cultural and religious center in Tibet. in 1652, when the 5th Dalai Lama went to pay homage to Qing Emperor Shunzhi in Beijing, he was given a red-carpet welcome and the Qing emperor granted him the honorific title of "the Dalai Lama", as well as a golden seal of authority and a golden sheet of confirmation. From then on, the title of the Dalai Lama, as well as the Dalai Lama's temporal and religious position in Tibet were established, contributing to the closer ties between the Central Government and the local government of Tibet.

The 5th Dalai Lama pressed ahead with urban construction in Lhasa. A major project was the renovation of the PotalaPalace. Exposed to thunderbolts, fire, wars, wind, and rain, the Potala Palace was a tattered sweep of ruins. The only remaining buildings were the Hall of the Goddess of Mercy and the Cave for the Prince of Dharma. In 1645, the 5th Dalai Lama ordered the rebuilding of the Potala Palace for the Gandain Phodrang regime. Desi Soinam Raodain was put in charge of the project, and thousands of builders and artisans were recruited from all over Tibet. The main part of the Palace was renovated in 1647, and efforts began to fix the interior, re-paint the frescos, and re-make statues of Buddha. In 1653, when the 5th Dalai Lama returned from Beijing, a grand ceremony was held for the consecration of the Palace. The 5th Dalai Lama moved from the Zhaibung Monastery to the White Palace in the Potala Palace.

The 5th Dalai Lama passed away in 1682. Desi Sangyi Gyamco hid the news from the Central Government. In 1690, he began building a holy stupa and memorial hall for the 5th Dalai Lama, the famous Red Palace. The Red Palace is larger than the White Palace in size. For the construction of the Red Palace, about 7,700 artisans and builders were employed every day. Qing Emperor Kangxi sent artisans of the Chinese and Mongolian ethnic groups to Lhasa to help with construction. There were also many artisans from Nepal who came to help with construction work. Huge pieces of wood came from the Gongbo area hundreds of km away, and large slabs of rock were transported from mountains in the surrounding area. Cow hide rafts were used by thousands of people to cross the rapids and carry items up to the Red Palace. When the Red Palace was completed four years later, a ceremony was held on the 20th day of the fourth Tibetan month in 1693. Sangyi Gyamco had a stone tablet (without inscriptions) erected in front of the Red Palace.

Prime Time of the Gandain Phodrang Regime

The 17th and 18th centuries saw the rise and fall of the 5th through 8th Dalai Lamas. During this period, Lhasa enjoyed a relatively stable political situation, social stability, and rapid urban development. Also during this period, however, Lhasa reeled under the invasion of the Jungars, based in China's Xinjiang in 1717, and the war between theLhasa and Xigaze areas in 1727. Both wars were suppressed by troops sent by the Central Government.

From 1727 to 1788, with the exception of short-period riots in 1750 when Prince Zholmut Namozhaleg was killed, the Lhasans lived in peace and stability. Large numbers of chic residences for nobility, residence monasteries for the Living Buddhas, government offices, stores, workshops, tea houses, restaurants, and civilian homes were built. Downtown Lhasa spread in four directions with the Jokhang Monastery at the center, reaching the Mosque in the east, the Three-Master Monastery in the south, the Glazed Bridge in the west, and the Ramoche Monastery in the north. This pattern is roughly the same as that of today. During the reign of Qing Emperor Jiaqing (1796-1821), Lhasa had a population of 30,000, and some 5,000 households.

In 1727, during the reign of Qing Emperor Yongzhen, the Central Government stationed High Commissioners in Tibet. The first High Commissioner's Office was located at Congsaikang in Lhasa. In the late 18th century, a new High Commissioner's Office was built to the west of Norbu Leuling. Lhasa residents called it "Dorsengge" (stone lion). The Qing court also stationed troops in Lhasa, with the barracks located in Zhaxi, the northern suburbs of Lhasa. When the 7th Dalai Lama died in 1757, Qing Emperor Qianlong introduced the system of prince regents in Tibet. This means that a Grand Living Buddha was appointed the Prince Regent to act as the Dalai Lama between the time when the Dalai Lama passes away and when a new Dalai Lama comes to power. The Living Buddha Demo, the Living Buddha Cemoiling, the Living Buddha Razheng, and the Living Buddha Gongdeling all acted as Prince Regents. They all built majestic ancestral temples in Lhasa. The same period of time also saw the construction of residences for the Dalai Lamas, Grand Living Buddhas, and aristocrats. Business people from other parts of Tibet, China's hinterland, Bhutan,Nepal, and India gathered in Lhasa for business purposes. Congsaikang, Tibenkang, Gyibokang, Wangdui Xingar andBarkor Street became the five major markets in Lhasa. While the Muslims gathered in Hebailing in eastern Lhasa, working as butchers and flour grinders, people of the Han ethnic group lived in southern Lhasa, growing vegetables and making wine. These 200 years saw the fourth construction boom in Lhasa. It was also the prime time of the Gandain Phodrang regime.

Lhasa Fallen Prey to Invasion by Western Powers

In the mid-19th century, Western powers began to infiltrate into Tibetunder the guise of doing missionary work, exploring, and conducting business. While occupying the area, they left no stone unturned in seizing areas surrounding Tibet.

After the Opium War of 1840, the British imperialists launched a war of aggression against Tibet. Lhasa, as the capital of the region, bore the brunt. From that period on, the city lost the peace and stability it had enjoyed since the Middle Ages.

Britain invaded Tibet in 1888 and 1904. The Tibetan army and civilians resisted in Gampa, Gulho and Gyangze. Using rifles and guns, the British invaders seized Lhasa. When the local government of Tibet was being forced to sign the Treaty of Lhasa, the Qing court ordered High Commissioner Youtai not to sign it. During that same period, Tsarist Russia repeatedly sent special agents into Tibet. Russia also sent Buddhists to the three monasteries in Lhasa and the Tashilhungpo Monastery in Xigaze for "the study of Buddhist scriptures." Russian business people were sent to "conduct business'' in Lhasa and "Buddhist followers" were sent to worship holy sites in the city. All of these actions constituted major efforts of Russia to turn Tibet into a colony of the Russian Empire.

In 1906, Zhang Yingtang, an experienced diplomat and a reformist, was sent by the Qing court to Lhasa. He worked out 19 measure, s for the reform of politics and economics in Tibet, which were all adopted by the Qing emperor as new State policies for the governing of Tibet.

In the early 20th century, the 13th Dalai Lama, a few of his monks, and some l, ay officials visited China's hinterland and India. Enlightened by what he saw, the Dalai Lama developed ideas about improving management and introducing modern science and technology to Tibet. During this period, the local government of Tibet sent the children of noble families to study abroad. They returned to establish a power station, a bank, a post office, and a telegraph office in Lhasa. In the meantime, they worked hard to export sheep wool and cow tails. All of these developments helped boost urban construction in Lhasa and improve the lives of the Lhasans.

The feudal serf system, which had held sway in Tibet for hundreds of years, declined during that period, and Lhasaceased to expand. Merciless political oppression, economic exploitation of serfs and slaves by serf-owners, usury, and natural disasters deprived the Tibetans of the basic means of subsistence. Many serfs and slaves fled into Lhasa and lived on begging. As a result, there was a huge begging population in the city. Urban construction in Lhasa centered on monasteries and official residences, to the extent that there was no modern architecture or facilities for public service. The city did not have highways, rickshaws, or horse-drawn carts. All materials were transported to the city on the backs of men or animals. In the city, narrow streets were flanked by bare land and dilapidated housing. Without a water supply or sewage facilities, Lhasa was very muddy. Beggars were seen roaming around streets that were dotted with rogues and dogs. Lhasa residents lived in an environment filled with poverty and backwardness, a situation which had to be ameliorated immediately.

On May 23, 1951, Tibet won peaceful liberation. Five-star red flags fluttered over Lhasa against the backdrop of blue sky. The ancient city finally entered a brand new era.

Last Updated on Friday, 28 June 2013 11:15