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The Mongol Empire and Tibet in the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries

The Beginnings of Mongol Rule

Tibet began to be incorporated in the Mongol Empire in 1240, and was an integral territory in the Mongol Yuan Dynasty from its formation in 1271 to its demise in 1368. Yuan rule was largely administered by the Sakya (sa skya) polity, and thus this period in Tibetan history is often referred to as the Yuan-Sakya period.

The Mongol leader Genghis Khan (ruled 1206-1227) first met with Tibetan Buddhist figures as early as 1215, most likely in the Tangut kingdom. This meeting led to no lasting interaction, and it was not until 1240 that Goden, son of Ogedai Khan (ruled 1229-1241), sent troops into Tibetan territories as far as Penyül ('phan yul), to the northeast of Lhasa (lha sa). For reasons not fully understood, Sakya Pandita (sa skya paN+Di ta), abbot of Sakya Monastery to the far southwest, acted as a representative for Tibetan territories in negotiations with Goden's military commander, Dorta. Dorta was apparently impressed with the Sakya hierarch, so much so that, when word got back to the Khan of the meeting, Goden ordered Sakya Pandita to meet in Liangjou. Goden did not meet with Sakya Pandita until 1247, the year in which the century-long relationship between the Mongol empire and the Sakya polity began.

The first direct control by Mongol imperial families came in 1251 (the year, by the way, of Sakya Pandita's death),when Mongke Khan (ruled 1251-1259) distributed appanages consisting of Tibetan territories to major Mongol leaders. Mongke himself took Drikung ('bri gung), Goden Khan took Sakya, Qubilai Khan received Tsé (tsel), Taklung (stag lung) was under Arig Boge, and Phakmodru (phag mo gru)  fell under Hulegu's jurisdiction. Ruling from sometimes great distances, the Mongols could exert direct administrative and military control over their regions, though we possess insufficient evidence to describe the details of their rule during this period with any degree of specificity. It is apparent that the military incursions into Tibetan territory during this period were enough to strike lasting fear of the Mongols into the Tibetan leadership for generations to come.

It was Mongke's successor, Qubilai Khan (ruled 1260-1294) that cemented the relationship between the Sakya polity and the Mongol empire. Qubilai formed a relationship with Sakya Pandita's nephew, Pakpa Lodrö Gyeltsen ('phags pa blo gros rgyal mtshan, 1235-1280) in 1254, giving him an edict granting Sakya Monastery tax-exempt status under Mongol rule, but not, at has sometimes been suggested, granting the Sakya polity control over Tibet. This was to come some years later, when in 1261 Qubilai granted Pakpa the title of National Preceptor (guoshi), and in 1264 issued another edict of tax-exemption while at the same time stationing adminstrators from Sakya at the head of each of the three regions or chölkha süm (chol kha gsum) of Tibet under Mongol control. With his new title Pakpa returned to Sakya in 1263 to take up the post of abbot of Sakya Monastery (he had served as abbot in absentia since the death of his uncle in 1251, and held the position until his death in 1280), and to begin to refashion the regional administration into a national administrative control center. The day-to-day administration was left to the newly founded office of pönchen (dpon chen), which Pakpa created in 1265. Beginning with Shakya Zangpo (shākya bzang po), the pönchen were to play a critical role in the politics of Tibet for the next century.

The Yuan-Sakya Regime

The various Tibetan leaders in central Tibet did not all willingly accept the increasing control over their territories by the Yuan-Sakya regime, and through the 1280s minor revolts were not uncommon. In 1281 Qubilai Khan was forced to send 7000 Mongol troops under the control of the Tibetanized Uighur Sanko to quell dissent after Pakpa's death in 1280, an action that resulted in the establishment of the first permanent Mongol military garrison in Tibet.

In the late thirteenth century several changes in Yuan administrative structures altered the relationship between the imperial court and Tibet. First, due to his success in the 1280 military campaigns in central Tibet, Sanko rose in the Yuan hierarchy to become head of a new entity, the Department of Buddhist and Tibetan Affairs. The Department was the principal unit of the imperial administration, and was in charge of all imperial military ventures in Tibet. It determined Tibetan affairs through the early fourteenth century, even though Sanko fell into disgrace after a decade of service, and was finally executed in 1291. Secondly, on the religious side, Pakpa was granted a new imperial title in 1270 when he became the first Imperial Preceptor (dishi), meaning that until his death in 1280 he was both abbot of Sakya Monastery and a major figure at the Yuan court, even if the Imperial Preceptor did not directly manage Tibetan affairs.

Finally, a new administrative office was created within Tibet in the late 1260s, known as the Pacification Office. Its purpose was to execute the orders of the Department of Buddhist and Tibetan Affairs and oversee the activities of the Pönchen and his local Tibetan administration at Sakya. The jurisdiction of the Pacification Office was limited to the western Tibetan region of Ngari (mnga' ris) as well as Ü (dbus) and Tsang (gtsang)  until 1290, with the pönchen Aglen made a successful military venture in the southern Tibetan regions of Kongpo (kong po) and Dakpo (dwags po) and brought them under Yuan-Sakya control. The pönchen remained perhaps the most powerful single individual in Tibet from this period until the mid-fourteenth century, for he was simultaneously the leader of the now thriving Sakya polity and, under the authority vested in him by the Pacification Office and the Department of Buddhist and Tibetan Affairs, the leader of the central Tibetan government, including all territory from far western Tibet to the southeastern region of Kongpo.

Tibetan Territorial Divisions under Mongol Rule

Under Mongol rule Tibetan territory was, at least on paper if not always on the ground, divided into administrative units known as myriarchies  or trikor (khri skor). The traditional number of myriarchies in central Tibet is thirteen, though individual lists of the territories vary somewhat throughout the period. The date of the Mongol implementation of the myriarchy system in Tibet is not known, though it was likely in force by 1268, the year of the Imperial census of central Tibet. The origins of the Tibetan myriarchies are unclear, though it appears that most were formed out of existing territories and regional polities. Leaders of these new territories, the myriarchs or tripön (khri dpon) were appointed by the Imperial Preceptor, as was Jangchup Gyeltsen (byang chub rgyal mtshan) appointed leader of the Pakmodru (phag mo gru) myriarchy in 1322. A standard list of thirteen myriarchies includes the three regions of Ngari (mnga' ris skor gsum): 1) Gugé (gu ge); 2) Pureng (pu rang); 3) Mangyül (mang yul); 4) Latö Jang (la stod byang); 5) Chumik (chu mig); 6) Zhalu (zha lu); six in central Tibet: 7) Drikung ('bri gung); 8) Tsél (tshal); 9) Pakmodru (phag mo gru); 10) Yapzang (g.ya' bzang); 11) Gyama (rgya ma); 12) Taklung (stag lung); and one on the border of Ü and Tsang: 13) Yamdrok (ya 'brog).

Save for Pakmodru, which is dealt with in another essay, little is known of the administrative features of the myriarchies. It is known that the census of Tibetan territories was organized according to the myriarchies. The Mongol leaders routinely conducted a census in newly aquired territories, and Tibet was no exception. In 1268 Tibetan officials carried out a census in three groups, one for Ngari and Tsang and one for Ü. The basic unit of measurement was the agricultural household family, with nomadic pastoralists largely ignored. The total figures for such households was: 15,690 for Ngari and Tsang and 30,737 for Ü. The census was implemented for one overwhelming purpose: taxation. Beginning with the year of the census and lasting until the fall of the Yuan, Tibetans paid ten percent of annual agricultural produce to the Yuan-Sakya government.

The Yuan-Sakya regime controlled Tibet for almost a century from the 1260s to the 1360s. Serious and persistent threat to Sakya rule, and thus to Yuan rule on a local scale if not on a trans-regional scale, began to be felt from one of the myriarchies as early as the 1320s. This was the Pakmodru myriarchy, whose leader Jangchup Gyeltsen worked for four decades to lessen the grip of the Sakya government on central Tibet. His story is told in a separate essay.


Luciano Petech, Central Tibet and the Mongols: The Yüan-Sakya Period of Tibetan History. Rome: Istituto Italiano per il Medio ed Estremo Oriente.  1990.

Luciano Petech, "Sang-ko, a Tibetan statesman in Yüan China" in Selected Papers on Asian History.  Roma:  Istituto Italiano per il Medio ed Estremo Oriente, 1988. pp. 395-412

Eliot Sperling, “Hülegü and Tibet,” Acta Orientalia Hungaricae, vol. 44, 1990, pp. 145-157.

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.

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.

Sakya-Yuan Polity
The Mongol Empire and Tibet in the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries

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