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An Introduction to Drigung Polity

The Drigung ('bri gung) institution, formed through the efforts of the Kyura (skyu ra) family in the late twelfth century, was a major ecclesiastic, political, and military power in central Tibet during the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries. If Drigung exemplifies the integration of religious and secular power in Tibet during the renaissance of Tibetan Buddhism in the twelfth century, Drigung also exemplifies the limited state of our knowledge regarding early Tibetan polities, for while we know much about the religious affairs of Drigung Monastery, we possess few sources with which to understand the political history of the institution despite its great importance.

Drigung Monastery was established by the prominent figure in the Kyura family, Jikten Gönpo ('jig rten mgon po, 1143-1127) in 1179. Jikten Gönpo was by all accounts a gifted teacher, and by the end of his life had amassed hundreds of disciples around him. His movement eventually became known as one of the subsects of the Kagyü (bka' brgyud) tradition, named Drigung Kagyü ('bri gung bka' brgyud) after his home monastery. This monastery went on to have a vital religious life down to the present day, and its abbots, beginning with Jikten Gönpo himself, were among the most important Buddhist leaders and scholars throughout central Tibetan history. And while the Drigung sect of the Kagyü tradition was lead in religious affairs by the Drigung Abbot, the sect also had a civil leader, known as the Drigung Gompa (sgom pa). The first Drigung Gompa, Dorjé Senggé (rdo rje seng ge), was born between 1199 and 1210, and appointed sometime in the early to mid-thirteenth century, though the exact date is uncertain. It is clear that he was, like Jikten Gönpo himself, a member of the prominent family of the Drigung region, the Kyura. The office of Gompa came into prominence on the political stage during the tenure of its second holder, Shakya Rinchen (shākya rin chen). According to Drigung sources, Shakya Rinchen was captured by Mongol forces lead by Dorta (dor rta) in 1240, but was later released. This suggests that the Drigung Gompa was the military leader of Drigung during the mid-thirteenth century, and that the office was of considerable importance in the secular affairs of Drigung by that time. It also suggests that Drigung was an institution of formidable regional power. In 1331 Drigung was significant enough to receive official correspondence, along with the Pakmodru (phag mo gru) and Tsepa (tsel pa) polities, from the Yuan Department for Buddhist and Tibetan Affairs. Drigung's stature is born out further by the Mongol census of Tibetan territories undertaken in 1368, which counted the Drigung territory as one of the thirteen myriarchies or trikor (khri skor) under the control of Sakya-Yuan authority, and estimated that it contained 3630 agricultural and pastoral households.

Drigung's fortunes appear to have risen until, in 1290, they came into armed conflict with the Sakya, rulers of central Tibet under the Yuan empire. Drigung had made aggressive moves against Sakya establishments prior to this, as when in 1285 they destroyed Jayül (bya yul) Monastery, killing the abbot in the process. However, it was their monastery that was destroyed in 1290 by a combination of Mongolian and Tibetan troops led by the Sakya Pönchen (dpon chen) Aklen (a glen). It was burned to the ground, and the secular authority of the institution was severely curtailed. The "Drigung Revolt" of 1290 was devastating to the establishment, and neither the abbot or the Gompa appear to have played any major role in Tibetan politics for quite some time after this. By the mid-fourteenth century they had recovered sufficiently to take military action against the rising power of the day, the Pakmodru. This conflict between the two powers in 1350 dealt the decisive blow to Drigung as its army failed against the Pakmodru. Drigung was never again to be a major political player in central Tibet. However, this did not totally eradicate Drigung as a regional political force, for during the conflict the junior Gompa Shakya Zangpo (shākya bzang po) attempted to assert Drigung's dominance even after major military defeats, and he  was prominent enough through these attempts to be given the title of Tai Situ (ta'i sit u) by the Yuan court. This title was given to Drigung rulers even into the Ming period. Writing from a distance of several centuries, the Fifth Dalai Lama tells us in his 1642 history of central Tibetan politics that Drigung was, along with Tsé (tsel), among the most powerful of the myriarchies under Sakya-Yuan rule. Its territories were incorporated into lands controlled by the King of Tsang (gtsang) in the late sixteenth century, and thence into the Ganden Government's realm in 1642.


Tsepon Wangchuk Deden Shakabpa, One Hundred Thousand Moons: An Advanced Political History of Tibet. Translated by Derek F. Maher. Leiden: Brill, 2010. Two Volumes. See Vol. 1, pp. 232-235.

Eliot Sperling, "Some Notes on the Early The 'Bri-gung Sgom pa." in Christopher Beckwith, ed., Silver on Lapis. Bloomington, IN: Research Institute for Inner Asian Studies,  1987, pp. 33-53.

The Fifth Dalai Lama, A History of Tibet by the Fifth Dalai Lama of Tibet. Zahiruddin Ahmad, Translator. Bloomington, IN: Research Institute for Inner Asian Studies, 1995.

An Introduction to Drigung Polity

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Collection Essays on Places
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Author Kurtis Schaeffer
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