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An Overview of the Degé Kingdom


Bursting onto the scene in the 1630s, the Degé (sde dge) kingdom immediately became one of the major players involved in the dramatic transformation of Tibetan politics, society, and religion that occurred in the seventeenth century. Until its demise in the early twentieth century, Degé was one of the preeminent polities and cultural centers of Kham (khams).

The royal family of Degé belongs to the Gar ('gar/mgar) clan, whose most famous ancestor was the great minister Gar Tongtsen (stong btsan) from the court of Songtsen Gampo (srong btsan sgam po; 604-650).[1] In the thirteenth century the patriarch of a branch of the Gar family in Powo (spo bo), Sönam Rinchen (bsod nams rin chen), became the majordomo (gsol dpon) of the Chögyel Pakpa (chos rgyal 'phags pa, 1235-1280). Sönam Rinchen accompanied Pakpa on a mission to Mongolia, where he met emperor Kubilai Khan. The latter appointed Sönam Rinchen as the chiliarch of lower Dokham (mdo khams smad). Sönam Rinchen established his base in Samar (sa dmar, located in present-day Pelyül [dpal yul] County), where he founded a branch of his family temple in Powo. His nephew, Dawa Zangpo (zla ba bzang po), was also invested with the title of chiliarch. Their descendants remained in Kham and almost four-hundred years later founded the Degé kingdom.

In the early fifteenth century Dechen Sönam Zangpo (bde chen bsod nams bzang po) moved what was to become the Degé royal family from Samar to Chakra (lcags ra). This was a provincial seat of the Lingtsang (gling tshang) Kingdom, which began in the thirteenth century as a satellite of the Sakya (sa skya) state and later grew into a powerful kingdom in its own right.[2] The rulers ofChakra bore the title “Ling chief” (gling dpon) and Dechen Sönam Zangpo became a minister (nang blon) of the presiding Ling chief. Dechen’s son Botar (bo thar) relocated the family to the neighboring Ngül (dngul) Valley, about a half-day’s walk fromChakra. In 1446 Botar invited the foremost figure of fifteenth-century Tibetan religious life, Tangtong Gyelpo (thang stong rgyal po; d. 1485), to the family’s new abode to found a temple.[3] It was named Lhündrupteng (lhun grub steng) and still stands today, only now it is known as the Tangtong Temple (thang stong lha khang). Some sources claim that Tangtong Gyelpo named the area Degé, a contraction of the “four abundances” (phun tshogs sde bzhi) and the “ten virtues” (dge ba bcu). The founding of the temple and naming of the valley should not be taken as a declaration of independence from the Ling chief of Chakra and for the next two-hundred years the Degé family remained under their dominion.

The founding of the Degé kingdom itself took place several generations later in the late 1630s and early 40s. In the early seventeenth century there were three significant polities surrounding the Degé estate in the Ngül Valley. The first was the Lingtsang kingdom, within which the Degé estate was situated (as described above). To the southwest was the Gonjo (go 'jo) kingdom. Like Lingtsang, Gonjo was initially a satellite of the Sakya state and ruled by Sakya monks who bore the title of “great chief” (dpon chen).[4] After the fall of Sakya in the early 1350s, Gonjo too became independent and continued to thrive. Lingtsang and Gonjo stand out in the Tibetan and Chinese sources pertaining to thirteenth-, fourteenth-, and fifteenth-century Kham as being, among other things, important in Sino-Tibetan trade. The third major polity near Degé was the kingdom of Beri (be ri). Its belligerent early seventeenth-century patriarch Dönyö Dorjé (don yod rdo rje) had conflicts with Riwoché (ri bo che) in the 1620s and 30s, and was attacked and defeated by the Gushri Khan in 1639-40.[5] As will be seen below, Degé’s growth came at the expense of all three polities.

Many conditions came together to allow for the founding of the kingdom. Locally, the contemporary generation of Degé scions included a few very capable and ambitious military leaders, chief among them the monk-general Jampa Püntsok (byams pa phun tshogs). It is reported that he gained many territories by both victory in battle and bloodless surrender. It appears that the Ling satellite at Chakra was weak at the time, perhaps because of internal strife.  Translocally, the Degé family was a beneficiary of concurrent shakeups in the region. Jampa Püntsok’s campaigns coincided with the Gushri Khan’s strike on neighboring Beri (be ri) in the late 1630s that were part of his campaign to install the Fifth Dalai Lama. After executing the king of Beri, Gushri Khan gave some of his lands to Degé. Thus in a very brief period of time the Degé kingdom emerged out of the obscure Ngül Valley to control a large swath of territory that included both agricultural and pastoral communities.

The Administrative Structure

After the dust had settled from this volatile period, the new kingdom of Degé was comprised of eighteen “palaces” (pho brang) or fortresses (rdzong), and ruled from the Ngül Valley. The earliest source on these eighteen administrative seats and how Jampa Püntsok acquired them is an account in the 1828 Degé Royal Genealogy. This primary source itself is a paraphrase of the text of an old mural from a Degé palace that recounted the early history of the kingdom. The complete passage reads:

The history of the palaces together with their peasant communities: Previously all of this was made clear (gsal) in the inventory of the new icons (lha sar dkar chag). Later, when the queen mother passed, the palace was repaired and as a result (zhar la) the inventory of the new icons was erased without a trace. In the histories written by some people, apart from approximations [their histories] are not detailed and clear, and even contain a few doubtful [statements]. I am unable to discourse on this in detail but if you would like a mere outline [it goes as follows]. As for Meshö (rme shod), [the ruler] was called Ling chief Dusi (gling dpon du si). During an internal dispute involving a rebellion by Dra (bra), Gé (dge), and others (bra dge sogs), Lachen’s (bla chen) army forcefully suppressed them and brought them under [his] domain. Life idemnity payments (mi stong) for the [rebel] murderers were levied. Even now the tradition of paying [the life indemnity or 'jal] is called “Ling,” in reference to the indemnity payment for killing Dusi. As for Pewar (spe war), apart from it being said that Lachen’s army brought them to heel, it is not clear who their local leader was. Furthermore there is also an oral tradition that maintains this was a community belonging to the Beri [king] Dönyö and after there was a mishap (chus nyes [=jus nyes]) [there], Tendzin Chögyel [Gushri Khan] gave it to Degé. The near side of Khardo (mkhar mdo) was a community belonging to a Ling chief. It is well known that when that chief went to another locale the villager (tsho mi) Dharmashri(d+harma shrI) sent a coded message (bya btang) to Degé. Lachen drove his army there and made them [his] subjects. The far side of Khardo was a community belonging to Beri and was given by the Mongolians. Old Kusé (ku se) together with Nyakshi (nyag gshis) were territories of the female chief of Gonjo (go 'jo) and controlled by someone called the Golden Lama (gser mdog bla ma).Lachen brought them under his dominion. Polu (spo lu) was also a territory of the female chief of Gonjo.

At Karpo Polu lama Karma (kar+ma) surrendered through the deployment of signs. New Kusé (ku se sde gsar) was also a territory of the female chief of Gonjo. The three, Sampa Püntsok (sam pa phun tshogs), Nera Ato (gnas ra a tho), and Jangzhing Püntsok (sbyang zhing phun tshogs) rebelled against Gonjo and surrendered to Lachen. Garjé (sgar rje) and Pelbar (dpal 'bar) were the territories of theTongra (stong ra) governor (stong ra sde pa). They were brought under dominion through tricks such as giving a bride (sde bza') to Garjé and repeated attacks by the army. It is evident this took place during Lachen’s time. Pelyül (dpal yul) (was acquired) in exactly the same way. Tsamdo (tsam mdo) was a community belonging to  the minor chief Gepen Ezhi (ge 'phan e gzhi). Without reservation he gave [Tsamdo] to Lachen. The near side of Wentö (dban stod tshu ri) was a community belonging to a lama. The army intimidated them and they submitted. The far side [of Wentö; pha ri] was a community belonging to Beri. The Mongolian king offered it to Lachen. As for Yena (ye na), Drung Könchok Lekpa (drung dkon mchog legs pa) surrendered to Lachen and gave [him the community]. Genyer surrendered and offered Khorlomdo, together with Rakchap (rag chab) and Dzomtok ('dzom thog bcas). Having killed the two, Ayu Domang (a yu mdo mang) and Kampa Drungpa (kam pa drung pa), [Lachen] enslaved Chakra (lcags ra) and Rapten (rab brtan). Yilhungwa (yid lhung ba) was a nomadic community belonging to Beri. Gushri Tendzin Chögyelgratefully gave it to Degé. As for the Lharu chief (lha ru dpon) [of Yilhung], he came from elsewhere to Kyami Dünpa (rkya mi bdun pha) and became attached to Yilhung. The family line was gradually assigned the leadership role. The family lines that spring from them are the two well known [families] Lha (lha) and Tak (stag). Having killed Gönpo of Chakra’s Tsetsa (tshe tsha) village (lcags ra tshe tsha tsho pa mgon po;) [Lachen] took possession [of Yilhung]. Horpo (hor po) was a community belonging to Adro Pashar (a gro spa zhar).

As exemplified by these [communities], the sublime Lachen made subjects of all embodied beings of the Domé (mdo smad) region by the might of the golden wheel of sublimely virtuous karma-power. As mentioned before, I do not know in detailed elaboration the explanations (rgyu mtshan) [of the acquisitions of each palace]. If honest explanations worthy of confidence are found I will gradually elaborate [on them] in a supplementary fashion (spel bar spro).

This account seems to suggest that all of these “palaces” were acquired once and for all during the time of Lachen Jampa Püntsok (bla chen byams pa phun tshogs). He may have presided over all these battles and negotiations but even the Royal Genealogy of Degé, of which the preceding excerpt is a part, shows that some of these territories were only integrated after years of alternating rebellion and crackdown. Nevertheless this list more or less represents all “eighteen” population and administrative centers for the first three-quarters of a century of Degé’s existence.

Lachen Jampa Püntsok

In the teens of the seventeenth century Lachen Jampa Püntsok and his older brother, who was also a monk, built a new temple that eclipsed the original family temple of Lhündrupteng. It was consecrated in 1616 and called the Samdrup Tongdröl Chenmo (bsam 'grub mthong grol chen mo). At the inception of the kingdom just over two decades later the kingship and abbacy of the Samdrup Tongdröl Chenmo temple became ideologically intertwined. The historical works about Degé, therefore, track the chronology of the kingdom in terms of the “succession of abbots” (gdan rabs) or “succession of throne [holders]” (khri rabs). One finds this language used consistently from the 1718 Index to the Aṣṭa ('bum dkar chag; commissioned by king Tenpa Tsering, bstan pa tshe ring) to the 1828 Royal Genealogy and beyond, and this tradition doubtlessly reflects the founding principles of the kingdom. This arrangement did not, however, preclude capable laypersons in the family from taking active roles in governance and defense.

Jampa Püntsok had five brothers and most of them worked as ministers and generals in the court. His nephews were also capable rulers. The head of the next generation was the monk Künga Püntsok (kun dga' phun tshogs). Künga Püntsok’s half brother lama Chemchok (che mchog) succeeded him on the abbot’s throne.

The Reign of Sanggyé Tenpa and Lama Sönam Püntsok

Chemchok’s cousin lama Sanggyé Tenpa (sangs rgyas bstan pa) was the third abbot of Samdrup Tongdröl Chenmo. Sanggyé Tenpa had a larger impact on the kingdom than any figure since Jampa Püntsok. During his time the southern regions of Degérebelled and he dealt with the issue in an effective way that both increased the power of the state and helped the flourishing of religion in Degé. Sanggyé Tenpa put down rebellions in the south and in 1665 helped found Pelyül monastery to help bring order to the region. Economic concerns – especially the resistance of large land owning institutions – to Degé’s hegemony seem to have been a major factor in the problems in the south. One such hotspot was Katok monastery. Sanggyé Tenpa confiscated the land of the hereditary lamas who ran the monastery and split it with the lama he handpicked to replace the hereditary lamas, named Longsel Nyingpo (klong gsal snying po). In 1685 Sanggyé Tenpa increased the state’s presence in the nomadic regions in northern Degé by founding Dzokchen monastery close to the Yilhung palace.

Lama Sönam Püntsok, the fourth throne holder, was also a momentous ruler. On the cultural front he renovated the Samdrup Tongdröl Chenmo temple, expanded its liturgical program to include more elaborate rituals, and invited eminent Sakya lamas from Ngor (ngor) monastery in Tsang (gtsang). The most notable event from his reign was the dramatic rescue of the young seventh Dalai Lama from adversaries in Litang (li thang) by a troop of soldiers from Degé. Sönam Püntsok’s one lay brother, Wangchen Gönpo, had a prominent role in the government and must have played a large part in this operation. In 1714, when the Dalai Lama was only six years old, the king of Tibet had a plan to kidnap or kill the young lama and promote his son as the real seventh Dalai Lama. Degé was very confident in its power at this time and sent 500 soldiers to Litang to get the Dalai Lama and safely convey him to Degé, where he was given sanctuary for over a year. Tibetan historians write that this service to the seventh Dalai Lama marks the beginning of relations between Degé and the Lhasa (lha sa) government. Beginning in 1677 Degé was under the tax-collecting authority of the Ganden Palace. In this year the fifth Dalai Lama and the Qing determined that the Ganden Palace’s domain extended all the way to Kangding, thereby including all of Degé.

The Reign of the Dharma King Tenpa Tsering (1678-1738)

If only iconically, the high point in Degé political and social history was the reign of the “dharma king” Tenpa Tsering (1678-1738). During his time the political and economic fortunes of Degé rose to new heights. For instance in 1723 Tenpa Tsering petitioned the Qing Empire for tusi – local chieftain – status, as a reward for Degé’s assistance to the Qing troops who traveled to Lhasa to vanquish the Dzungar invaders and strengthen Qing influence in Tibet. In 1728 Tenpa Tsering was made a tusi and given the title Pacification Commissioner of Degé. In 1733 his title was upgraded to Tranquilization Commissioner of Degé. Related to this change of political relations with the Qing was the 1726 redrawing of the boundaries between Tibet and China. The 1726 map greatly expanded the western reaches of the Qing by pushing its boundaries all the way to the Drichu ('bri chu) River. It will be remembered that the Degé capital is located on a tributary on the east side of the Drichu, thereby placing the administrative center of the kingdom, but not all of its territories, within Qing territory. Furthermore, Tenpa Tsering began to expand the kingdom’s territory into the nomadic areas to the north and west of the original eighteen counties of Degé. It is easy to argue that during Tenpa Tsering’s reign Degé was the most powerful kingdom in Kham.

In addition to the tremendous political changes that Tenpa Tsering so skillfully navigated, he also helped make Degé one of the most culturally productive places in all of Tibet. Not only did he commission the universally renowned Degé edition of the Kangyur (bka' 'gyur) but he also financed a revival of classical learning and major developments in Tibetan painting. The most significant new monastery he founded was Pelpung (dpal spungs), the seat of theSitu lamas of the Karma Kagyü (kar+ma bka' brgyud) sect. Tenpa Tsering died in 1738 at the age of sixty, after more than twenty years as king.

Tenpa Tsering was succeeded on the throne by his two younger sons and daughter, all of who were monastics. The first of these was monk Püntsok Tenpa (r. 1738-1751, d. 1751). This able king continued to pursue two of his father’s main efforts, publication of Buddhist scriptures and territorial expansion into the nomadic areas to the north and west of the original eighteen counties of Degé. Under Püntsok Tenpa’s command the publication of the sister collection to the Kangyur – the Tengyur (bstan 'gyur) – was completed in 1742. Furthermore, during Püntsok Tenpa’s reign the number of counties that made up Degé territory increased from the original eighteen to twenty-five. Püntsok Tenpa died after less than fifteen years on the throne and was succeeded by his younger brother, Lodrö Gyatso (blo gros rgya mtsho, 1723-1774). The latter was also a monk but when it became clear that there were no male descendants to follow the sitting king the head lamas of Degé urged Lodrö Gyatso to give back his monk’s vows and marry. He married a niece of the seventh Dalai Lama and they had one son.

The middle two quarters of the eighteenth century were quite bloody for Degé. Not only did it wage offensive battles into areas it intended to conquer, it also experienced many attacks from neighbors and was forced to assist the Qing in its regional military adventures. The contemporaneous documents from this period frequently mention military skirmishes with neighboring polities and peoples such as Nyarong (nyag rong), Mazur (ma zur), Golok (mgo log), and Serta. As examples of instances when the Degé military fought alongside the Qing on battles that do not appear to have been directly relevant to Degé’s own security one can cite the two Jinchuan “expeditions” of 1747-49 and 1771-74.

The Queen Tsewang Lhamo

The next highlight from the history of Degé came at the turn of the nineteenth century. During this time the leader of Degé was the queen dowager Tsewang Lhamo, who married into the royal family and hailed from the Degé county of Garjé. She was a generous supporter of the Nyingma (rnying ma) school and commissioned the production of woodblock prints of over thirty-five volumes of Nyingma works at the royal printing house. Most notable among the Nyingma scriptures she published is the Collected Tantras of the Nyingma in twenty-five volumes. Her support of the Nyingma resulted in much resistance from the members and supporters of the previously dominant Sakya sect, though she seems to have retained a high degree of power at least until her son attained his majority. Tsewang Lhamo passed away in 1712 and the royal family was marked by political infighting for the next several decades. Furthermore this period did not see any remarkable growth in local monasteries or printing projects, which were acts for which the Degé government had previously been able to devote considerable resources.

The middle of the nineteenth century brought a near fatal blow to theDegé state, namely, the conquest of the kingdom by forces from Nyarong. Beginning in the late 1850s the leader of Middle Nyarong, Gönpo Namgyel (mgon po rnam rgyal), began to attack and even conquer some of his neighbors, including the five Hor States. In 1862 Gönpo Namgyel began to move on Degé and he sacked the capital in 1863. The royal family and many Degé lamas were captured and imprisoned in Nyarong, monasteries were destroyed, and the governance of the kingdom fell under the control of Gönpo Namgyel. The Degé aristocrats that were able to escape fled to central Tibet and begged the Lhasa army to rush to their defense and vanquish the Nyarong invaders. For their own self-serving reasons the Lhasa army assented to the request and defeated Gönpo Namgyel and his army in 1865. That same year the Ganden Palace established the Office of the Tibetan High Commissioner in Nyarong, to which all local leaders were forced to pledge to “repay the kindness” of the Lhasa government. The following year the same office imposed the “Regulations Promulgated by the Tibetan Commissioner in Nyarong to the Derge King.” 

The post-war period was actually tremendously culturally productive for Degé, both at the capital and the local monasteries. In the last several decades of the nineteenth century and the first decades of the twentieth, numerous local lamas collaborated on unprecedented activities such as the compilation and publication of massive corpora of Buddhist works, the vigorous development of monastic academies where previously there had been none, and the authorship of volumes of new scholastic and liturgical texts. In the aggregate this surge of activity is often referred to as the Non-sectarian, or Rimé, movement. “Movement” may be an overstatement but nevertheless it was a time of tremendous cultural development along a clearly discernable front spearheaded by the Degé lamas.


[1] The earliest historians of Degé do not trace their lineage as far back as the seventh century. The Royal Genealogy appears to be the first to explicitly state that minister Gar Songtsen was an ancestor of the Degé family. This development in the historiography of was first noticed by van der “Two Early Sources for the History of the House of Sde-dge.”

[2] For the key personages and events in the history of this polity see Petech (1991 and 1992), Sperling (1989), and Tsering (1992).

[3] Stearns, “Introduction,” 2007.

[4] Petech 1991 and 1992, and Sperling 1989.

[5] Schweiger 1999. A recent Tibetan source on the Beri conflict is Chamdö Yiktsang Rinchen Pungpa (chab mdo'i yig tshang rin chen spungs pa) by Chamdo Lopzang Sherap (chab mdo blo bzang shes rab); see

An Overview of the Degé Kingdom

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Author Jann Ronis
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