On the Birth of Tibetan Literature

Seventy-six years ago on this day, a future global leader was born in a small hamlet in Takster in northeastern Tibet. As I join my friends in launching this new blog, this new version of Tibetan literature, I can’t help but think not only about the birth of our spiritual leader but also of the birth of literature itself in Tibet.

It wasn’t long ago that I thought Tibetan writing consisted largely of Buddhist scriptures, and some very recent poems and stories from Tibet and exile. But in the spring of this year, I took a course on this subject taught by Lauran Hartley (one of the pioneers in Tibetan literature studies) at Columbia and learned quickly of the immense scope and diversity of our nation’s canon.

Over the coming weeks, I will explore and learn more about everything from the history of Tibetan novels to the influence of Indian literature to autobiographies to corpse tales to avant garde poetry in the 1980s and more. I’ll share what I learn here not as an expert but as student of literature and an aspiring writer.

So let’s get started…what did the beginning of Tibetan literature look like? The answer was unearthed (literally) in 1908 when the Dunhuang caves were discovered in a region between Tibet and Mongolia, on the ancient Silk Road.

Inside the 492 sandstone caves were some 45,000 sq. meters of paintings and 2,400 sculptures – a treasure trove of the history of peoples across Central Asia locked away for almost 1,000 years.

In cave 17, excavators found the earliest Tibetan texts ever known, manuscripts covering a great range of Buddhist literature from the 8th-9th centuries. Non-religious texts were also included in the cave (including short love poems, p. 137!). The texts were written during the Tibetan Imperial Period from the 7-9th centuries – 200 years of overwhelming Tibetan influence over Central Asia which began when Songsten Gampo started invading the western end of the Silk Road and launched a two-century war against China on the eastern end. This eventually led to Tibet capturing the Chinese capital in 763. Dunhuang was seized by Tibet in 781 and held for 67 years.

For a great post on what Tibetan rule over Dunhuang was like, visit Sam van Schaik’s amazing blog: Early Tibet.

During this time of growing Tibetan influence, Buddhism was spreading from the Silk Road to Tibet itself thanks to King Trison Detsen. Buddhist texts from India, China and elsewhere that had influenced and tied people along the Silk Road were now translated into Tibetan (a written language which was relatively new at this time).

And although no one knows why the manuscripts were stashed away and walled up, one scholar has theorized that they may have been hidden in the 11th century to protect the precious Buddhist texts and images from Islamic armies invading the western cities along the Silk Road. It’s a mystery for now.

What’s not a mystery is that Tibetan literature has an ancient and powerful beginning tied to the height of our political, military and religious power. And what’s more, thanks to the efforts of collectors around the world, one can even read those very early texts online.

Well, I hope that wasn’t too dry! I’ll try to go relatively chronologically and explore something from the next phase of Tibetan literature for my next post. Please feel free to comment, correct, or make any suggestions.

Until next time, this is NYCYak, signing off. Ghale Peh!