List of sovereign states in 1938. Photo: File

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TIBET, renowned as the "Roof of the World," encompasses a vast expanse, exceeding two-thirds the area of India or more than two and a half times the combined size of Austria, Denmark, France, and Germany.

Abundant in minerals and characterized by diverse flora and fauna, Tibet defies common misconceptions of being entirely arid and desolate, boasting extensive forests, expansive pastures conducive to animal husbandry, and fertile valleys amidst its rugged terrain  (Goldstein, 1997). Enveloped by towering, snow-capped mountain ranges and adorned with numerous lakes, Tibet serves as the wellspring of several significant rivers, including the Yarlung Tsangpo (Brahmaputra), Senge Khabab (Indus), Dri-chu (Yangtze), Za chu (Mekong), Ma chu (Yellow), and Gyalmo Ngulchu (Salween) (Shakya, 1999).

Encompassing an area exceeding 2.5 million square kilometers, Tibet shares borders with India, Nepal, Bhutan, and Burma to the south, Eastern Turkistan to the north, and China to the east. Positioned not only at high altitudes but also strategically in Central Asia, Tibet commands exceptional geographical significance. The Tibetan populace constitutes a distinct ethnic group, distinguished by its unique language, culture, traditions, cuisine, and attire. As of 1959, the estimated Tibetan population stood at six million, with approximately 1.2 million Tibetans having succumbed to dire consequences stemming from Chinese occupation  (Shakya, 1999).

A concise narrative tracing the origins of Tibet, its ascension to military prominence, subsequent embrace of Buddhist principles renouncing warfare, and the contemporary repercussions of Chinese communist aggression follows herein.

Five centuries preceding the advent of Buddha Shakyamuni, circa 1063 BCE, a semi-legendary figure named Lord Shenrab Miwo initiated the refinement of primitive animistic practices prevalent among the Shen race, establishing the Tibetan Bon religion. According to Bonpo accounts, Tibet saw the reign of eighteen Shangshung Kings preceding King Nyatri Tsenpo, with Tiwor Sergyi Jhagruchen reigning as the foremost Shangshung monarch  (Kapstein, 2006).

Shangshung, before its decline, stood as an empire spanning the entirety of Tibet, comprising regions such as Kham, Amdo, U, Tsang, Guge, and Tod-Nyari Korsum. Witnessing the decline of the Shangshung empire, the emergence of the Bod Kingdom ensued, centered around the Yarlung and Chongyas valleys during King Nyatri Tsenpo's reign, heralding the era of Chogyals (Religious Kings). The Bod Kingdom expanded until its reunification under King Songtsen Gampo, culminating in the demise of the last Shangshung ruler, Ligmigya.

The official Tibetan Royal Year, rooted in the enthronement of King Nyatri Tsenpo in 127 BCE, sustained the lineage of Tibetan monarchy for well over a millennium, until the assassination of King Tri Wudum Tsen, alias Lang Dharma, in 842 CE. Among the distinguished monarchs of Tibetan history, Songtsen Gampo, Trisong Deutsen, and Ngadhak Tri Ralpachen, hailed as the Three Great Kings, left indelible imprints. During King Songtsen Gampo's reign, Tibet burgeoned into a formidable military power, extending its dominion across Central Asia (Goldstein, 1997). A patron of Buddhism, he facilitated its propagation within Tibet, cementing diplomatic ties through matrimonial alliances with princesses from Shangshung, Nepal, and China.

The epoch of King Trisong Deutsen, spanning from 755 to 797 CE, marked the zenith of Tibetan imperialism, with Tibetan forces penetrating China and neighboring Central Asian realms. Notably, in 763 CE, Tibet seized the Chinese capital, Ch’ang-an, installing a new Emperor and securing a landmark victory, commemorated in the Zhol Doring (stone pillar) inscription in Lhasa.

King Trisong Deutsen's reign witnessed the founding of Samye, Tibet's inaugural monastery, by Guru Padmasambhava, who upheld Buddhism's ascendancy. Fostering Buddhism's primacy, he banished the Chinese Chan School, embraced the Indian Buddhist paradigm, and declared Buddhism as Tibet's state religion.

Under King Ngadhak Tri Ralpachen's rule, from 815 to 836 CE, Tibetan forces notched numerous triumphs, culminating in a Peace Treaty with China in 821-822 CE. Noteworthy achievements included the compilation of the first Sanskrit-Tibetan lexicon, the Mahavyapatti, by eminent Tibetan and Indian scholars.

However, the ascendancy of King Ralpachen's brother, Wudum Tsen, in 838 CE precipitated a regression, as he sought to revive the Bon religion, triggering persecution of Buddhists. His assassination by a Buddhist monk engendered familial discord, fracturing the once-mighty Tibetan Empire into fractious principalities from 842 to 1247 CE.

In 1073 CE, Konchong Gyalpo established the Sakya Monastery, laying the foundation for the Sakya sect under his son, Sakya Kunga Nyingpo. Amidst Mongol incursions, Prince Godan's conversion to Buddhism by Sakya Pandita proved pivotal, forestalling further invasion and conferring territorial sovereignty over Tibet to Kublai Khan.

The ascendancy of Tsongkhapa Lobsang Dragpa in the 14th century heralded the genesis of the Gelug lineage, with the establishment of Ganden Monastery in 1409. Concurrently, political upheavals saw Tsetan Dorje's ascendancy in Tsang province from the early 16th century until 1642, propelling the Gelug sect's ascent.

Sonam Gyatso, a luminary born in 1543, emerged as a spiritual and temporal authority, earning the title Dalai Lama from Altan Khan in 1578. His diplomatic acumen bolstered ties with Mongolia, augmenting Gelugpa influence while eclipsing the waning Sakya authority.

In 1642, the Fifth Dalai Lama, Ngawang Lobsang Gyatso, assumed dual spiritual and temporal dominion, consolidating Tibet's governance under the "Tibetan Government Gaden Phodrang, Victorious Everywhere." Acknowledged by the Manchu Emperor as an equal, the Fifth Dalai Lama's ascendancy underscored Tibet's geopolitical significance, fostering a symbiotic priest-patron relationship with China and Mongolia.

Subsequent to the Fifth Dalai Lama's illustrious reign, intrigues and instabilities abounded, culminating in Chinese incursions and the Thirteenth Dalai Lama's flight to India in 1910 amidst escalating tensions. Despite Chinese overtures and subsequent invasions, Tibet vehemently upheld its sovereignty, exemplified by the 1913 bilateral Treaty with Mongolia and the Dalai Lama's proclamation of complete independence from China.

The Thirteenth Dalai Lama's efforts to modernize Tibet and foster international relations paved the way for his successors, despite relentless Chinese encroachments. The Chinese invasion of eastern Tibet in 1949 and the coerced signing of the "17 point Agreement" in 1951 precipitated Tibet's forcible occupation, sparking nationwide resistance culminating in the Tibetan National Uprising of 1959 (Powers, 2004).

The Dalai Lama's subsequent exile and the diaspora of over 80,000 Tibetans underscored China's hegemonic designs, marked by a systematic campaign to suppress Tibetan cultural and religious heritage. China's policies of Han migration, demographic engineering, environmental degradation, and infrastructural expansion epitomize colonialism's ruthless pursuit, imperiling Tibet's unique identity and ecological equilibrium.

Tibet's inexorable quest for freedom persists amidst international calls for Tibetan autonomy and human rights, galvanized by the Dalai Lama's global advocacy and steadfast commitment to nonviolence. The resilience of Tibetan culture, epitomized by the indomitable spirit of its people and the enduring legacy of its spiritual leaders, imbues hope amidst adversity, underscoring the imperative of global solidarity in safeguarding Tibet's cultural heritage and ensuring its rightful place among the community of nations.


  • Goldstein (1997) provides detailed insights into the historical relationship between Tibet and China, shedding light on the Tibetan resistance against Chinese rule.
  • Shakya (1999) offers a comprehensive examination of modern Tibetan history, including the events surrounding the Chinese invasion and the subsequent exile of the Dalai Lama.
  • Powers (2004) explores the contrasting narratives presented by Tibetan exiles and the Chinese government regarding Tibet's history and political status.
  • Early Tibetan inscriptions analyzed by Richardson (1984) provide valuable insights into the early history and cultural development of Tibet.
  • Kapstein (2006) offers a comprehensive overview of Tibetan culture, history, and religion, providing essential context for understanding Tibet's significance in the broader Asian context.

Articles about the Topic What makes Tibet a sovereign state?