Skip to main content Skip to search

[page 39] If we are to believe later traditions, and there is in my opinion no reason not to do so, the first Tibetan historiographic writings date from Tibet's imperial period (seventh-ninth centuries), which coincided with her relations with the Nepalese, Indians, Arabs, Turks, Uighurs, 'A zha and, above all, Tang China. Only a fragment of this literary corpus, falling into two broad classes, has survived. The first of these constitutes those historical documents that were discovered as late as the beginning of this century in one of the caves of the famous cave-temple complex near the town of Dunhuang in Gansu Province in the People's Republic of China. Recent scholarship generally agrees that the cave housing these manuscripts was sealed sometime after the year 1002, the latest date found in the manuscripts, possibly around the year 1035 (Fujieda: 65), so that the terminus ad quem of these undated documents would fall in that year. Of signal importance are especially three untitled manuscripts that are known to English-language scholarship as:

  1. (1-2) Royal Annals of Tibet (Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris, Pelliot tibétain no.1288, together with India Office Library, London, Stein no.8212, 187).
  2. (3) Old Tibetan Chronicle (Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris, Pelliot tibétain no.1287)

[page 40] They have been studied in varying degrees of detail by a number of Western, Tibetan, Chinese and Japanese scholars.1 The first Tibetan to examine these was the great scholar and iconoclast dGe 'dun chos 'phel (1903-1951),2 who had gained access to these and a few other fragments while in Kalimpong sometime in 1939. As is related by H. Stoddard, his most recent biographer, the French Tibetanist Jacques Bacot visited Tharchin, a Christian missionary of Khunu descent, in Kalimpong and read with him several of these difficult manuscripts in Old Tibetan. Tharchin apparently solicited the help of dGe 'dun chos 'phel, who was able to aid him in deciphering a number of problematic readings. The results of Bacot's studies were published in 1946, but no mention is made there of either Tharchin or dGe 'dun chos 'phel, although he gratefully recorded his philological debt to another Tibetan, namely bKa' chen Don grub.3 The last tome of a recently published three-volume edition dGe 'dun chos 'phel's works contains inter alia three studies of a number of these Tibetan Dunhuang manuscripts. They include a reproduction of the Royal Annals with philological notes, an adaptation into Classical Tibetan of the Old Tibetan of the manuscripts of a large portion of a version of the celestial origin of the imperial families and other miscellaneous fragments, and a reproduction of the Old Tibetan Chronicle.4 Some of the results of these initial studies were subsequently incorporated into his incomplete work on Tibetan history, the Deb ther dkar po ("White Annals"). He was followed by such recent scholars as Khetsun Sangpo, Khang dkar sKal bzang tshul khrims, rDo rje rgyal po, and Chab spel Tshe brtan phun tshogs.

While most of Tibet's cultural institutions and literary canon derive from India or are based on one or other of her models, a notable exception is the intense preoccupation of Tibet's men of letters with history and historiography. In terms of literary genre, some of Tibet's historiographical writings bear a resemblance to, or are analogous with, the Indian vaṃśāvalī ("annals"), but her enormous historiographic literature, including that of biography and autobiography, bears testimony to an approach to history that is different from the Indian one(s) (see Warder, Subhrahmanian). As far as the secondary sources on this large corpus of literature are concerned, the premier study is still the one by A. I. Vostrikov.5 Now dated in a number of respects, it remains a classic and indispensable treatment of the various literary genres.

[page 41] Despite the fact that the dissolution of the Tibetan empire seems to have resulted in a virtual cessation of further literary developments for about a century, if we take the Tibetan Buddhist tradition at face value, there is ample evidence for affirming the existence in at least central and eastern Tibet of an unbroken transmission of historiographic texts, or quasi-historiographic documents like family chronicles, throughout this time and into the period of the so-called subsequent propagation, which the Tibetan Buddhist historians generally date to the middle of the tenth century. Indeed, we possess documents that trace the genealogies for such extended families or clans of the 'Khon and rLangs of, respectively, the Sa skya and gDan sa mthil/rTse[s/d] thang monastic principalities.6 Moreover, some sort of archives may also have been maintained, if only by the scattered descendants of the imperial family. A sample of the kinds of documents that may now lie buried somewhere in the vast collections of the Potala would be a series of "edicts" issued by Khri srong lde btsan (r. 742?-797?), which were preserved in the chronicle by the great sixteenth-century historian dPa' bo gTsug lag phreng ba (1504-1566).7 By the same token, the two recensions that are now available of the sBa bzhed, a virtual biography of the first Tibetan monk, sBa Ye shes dbang po (eighth century), suggest that the original text should by and large be considered a primary source on Khri srong lde btsan and his religious works, in spite of the fact that their transmission is beset with enormous complexity. In his chronicle of Buddhism in Tibet (and much else besides), Nyang ral Nyi ma 'od zer (1124-1192) refers to a number of very early works, in addition to numerous edicts, that have to do with the reign of the latter as well. Their descriptive titles are:8

  1. (1) bKa'i yig rtsis che
  2. (2) bKa'i yig rtsis chung
  3. (3) bKa'i thang yig che
  4. (4) bKa'i thang yig chung
  5. (5) rGyal rabs rkyang pa
  6. (6) Khug pa
  7. (7) Zings po can
  8. (8) sPun po

NYANGb wrongly collapses the titles of nos. 6 and 7, and reads Khug po zings pa [sic!] can. NYANGl has Yun po for no. 8, which is due to a misreading of the cursive ligature sp, which resembles[page 42] the graph for y. Moreover, the last four would appear to be historiographic texts per se, but none of these have been located so far if, indeed, they are still extant. One recension of the sBa bzhed, as do Nyang ral and, more elaborately, the chronicles of Buddhism by *lDe'u Jo sras and mKhas pa lDe'u,9 brings to attention the existence of five early historiographic texts from the imperial period, two of which appear to correspond to nos. 7 and 8 of the above titles. These have been briefly noted in a recent paper by S. G. Karmay.10

There are roughly three expressions which, when they occur in book titles, usually indicate that the books in question are historiographic in nature, and all of these are found in writings attested in Tibet for the period covering the eleventh to twelfth centuries, and one which in part may even go back as far as the seventh century. With their probable dates of inception, these are:

  1. (1) Lo rgyus ("Records") (eleventh century)
  2. (2) rGyal rabs ("Royal Chronology") (eleventh century)
  3. (3) Chos 'byung ("Religious Chronicle") (twelfth century)

Due to limitations of space, we shall have to restrict ourselves, with one notable and fairly lengthy exception, to a bibliographic survey of historiographical texts belonging to these two centuries. However, it must be understood at the outset that those philological procedures that are fundamental to other branches of the humanities having to do with texts and their transmission have thus far mostly bypassed inquiries into Tibetan historiography, as they have virtually every other branch of Tibetan studies. Moreover, there are also considerable gaps in the literary corpus of available texts on the present subject. For these reasons, and also in the absence of "critical" texts, some of the remarks that follow are of necessity rather tentative.

Collection THL Texts
Visibility Public - accessible to all site users (default)