His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama once proclaimed, “In the practice of tolerance, one’s enemy is the best teacher.” Such sentiment earned a Nobel Peace Prize for Tibet’s spiritual leader and sustained hope for his homeland’s future.
The Tibetan Plateau’s mystical past has certainly been marred by struggle. Bounded by the Himalaya mountain range, the “Roof of the World” was first unified around 600 CE under the rule of Namri Songtsan, king of the Yarlung Dynasty; some 40 years later, his son, Songtsan Gampo, introduced Buddhism to Tibet.
Shortly thereafter, war broke out between Tibet and China, igniting a territorial conflict that continues to the present day. A peace treaty in 821 officially established Tibet as an independent kingdom. It would prove a short reprieve when, in 842, Emperor Langdarma was assassinated by a monk for trying to suppress Buddhist teachings. Left without a successor, the kingdom soon dissolved and Tibet would experience a political upheaval that lasted hundreds of years.
During that time, Tibetan merchants fared much better than their ruling counterparts, gaining stature along the Tea and Horse Caravan Road. Nearly as long as—and much more formidable than—the storied Silk Road, this ancient route connected tribes in the Tibetan Plateau with those in Yunnan and Sichuan.
Mongol troops invaded Tibet in both 1240 and 1244; by 1247, lama Sakya Pandita had officially relinquished the spiritual kingdom to Godan Khan. Khan, in turn, converted to Buddhism and granted Tibet with substantial autonomy. Yet factions would continue to clash over control of the Tibetan Plateau and its peoples.
While the First Dalai Lama, Gedun Drupa, was born in 1391, the holy position wasn’t recognized until 1578 when Altan Khan officially bestowed the third title upon Sonam Gyatso—who then turned around and declared the Mongol ruler to be Kublai Khan incarnate, thus legitimizing his reign. In the early 17th century, the esteemed Fifth Dalai Lama, Ngawang Lozang Gyatsho, would establish diplomatic relations with China, thus reunifying Tibet; in 1642, he was installed as its official ruler.
Tibet’s instability continued, however, as control seesawed back and forth. In 1720 Qing troops invaded, declaring it a tributary state of China; three years later, they withdrew. A Chinese commissioner was appointed to run Tibet; rebellion ensued, sending him back home.
By the 1850s, the Tibetan government banned all foreigners and shut its borders—although Britain began secretly mapping it with the help of Pundits, local hillsmen living along the Indian border. In 1904 the Brits invaded, sending the 13th Dalai Lama into exile; an accord between Britain and China saw the spiritual leader’s return in 1912 and Tibetan independence reestablished.
In 1935, a peasant child was born in northeastern Tibet; two years later, he would be declared the 14th Dalai Lama. When Chairman Mao established the People’s Republic, he reclaimed Tibet for China; by March 1959, an uprising led to thousands of deaths and the Dalai Lama fleeing to northern India—along with his ministers and nearly 80,000 other Tibetans. (The Chinese Cultural Revolution destroyed countless monasteries and cultural artifacts.)
While China has introduced some “open door” policies, the country has shown little sign of giving Tibet greater autonomy; pro-Tibetan activists continue to protest around the world. His Holiness has yet to return to his native land, although his ongoing effort to establish dialogue is a clear indication that he heeded his teacher’s lesson well.