It’s easy for modern people to think of the Tibetan people as the underdogs of history, peaceful and nonviolent victims of communist China’s aggression. But in the Middle Ages, Tibet was an expansive, violent empire that roared down from the top of the world to conquer and pillage.
Foundation Of Imperial Power
In the seventh century, much of Tibet was divided into squabbling, petty fiefdoms with no central authority. Each fiefdom was ruled by a leader called a gyelpo. During this period, Buddhism began to replace Hinduism, with Chinese science, knowledge, and technologies filtering in for the first time.
One by one, the independent fiefdoms were snuffed out by the rising power of the Yarlung Kingdom in Central Tibet, which formed the foundation of what we know as the Tibetan Empire. This process was started by an energetic warlord named Namri Songtsen. From a base near Mount Yarlha Shampo on the border of Bhutan, he fought to bring the wild tribes around his chiefdom under his yoke, forming the basis for a centralized kingdom.
Namri Songtsen was assassinated around 620, although the recorded dates of this event vary from 618 to 627. His death caused a general insurrection in the court, which was quelled by a loyal adviser called Myang. However, a traitorous upstart named Zutse implicated Myang in a plot, and the latter was killed when his castle was stormed by aggressors.
Zutse sought to assassinate the prince and heir to the throne, Songtsen Gampo, but failed and committed suicide. Zutse’s son brought the severed head of his father to Songtsen Gampo to prove his loyalty and was allowed to retain his family’s fiefdom. Later, Songtsen Gampo’s younger brother became a pretender to the throne, only to die in his bed in a fire believed to have been set by a servant.