An Overview of Göngyo

The Kham polity of Gonjo (go ’jo or gon ’gyo) was a polity in eastern Tibet that held trans-regional significance in the eyes of its central Tibetan and Chinese neighbors, but was largely absorbed by Degé (sde dge) in the seventeenth century. Gonjo was centered in present-day Gonjo County, Chamdo (chab mdo) Prefecture, TAR.

As with the founding of Lingtsang (ling tshang), the polity of Gonjo began when Chögyel Pakpa (chos rgyal ’phags pa) appointed the head lama of the region to be the leader of one of the three newly created districts (chol kha, xuanwei si) 宣慰司 that comprised the territory ruled by the Sakya (sa skya) hegemon. The Gonjo lama’s name was Töntsül (ston tshul) – a student of Sakya Pandita – and Qubilai Khan accepted his appointment in 1274, making him the “governor general” (spyi’i bdag po) of the Kham District (mdo khams chol kha). Töntsül and his successors also bore the title of “great chief” (dpon chen; 宣慰使都元帅 xuanwei shi duyuanshuai), a monastic title of the Sakya state, and are referred to as such in Tibetan sources.

The biographies of the fourth and fifth Karmapas make several mentions of dealings with the chief of Gonjo. This Karmapa later met the Yongle emperor in 1407 and told him that the current monk-chief of Gonjo could be relied upon to help keep open the trade routes between China and central Tibet. The Yongle emperor thereby appointed the Gonjo chief Özer Namkha (’od zer nam mkha’) one of eight “religious kings” (法王 fawang or 教王 jiaowang) and gave him the personal title Prince Who Protects the Doctrine (护教教王 hujiao wang). Özer Namkha died in 1414 and his nephew inherited the title.

After the latter’s death, the Ming lost interest in Gonjo and discontinued the title. Two-hundred years later the polity lost some of its land to a new regional kingdom. An early historical document about the founding of the Degé kingdom in the late 1630s states that the new polity conquered four communities belonging to Gonjo, which at that time was ruled by a woman (dpon mo). Eventually all of Gonjo was integrated into Degé. Today the site of the old Gonjo polity is more or less contained within Gonjo County, Chamdo Prefecture, TAR.