Dialogue  October-December, 2004, Volume 6  No. 2

Cultural Relations between India and Tibet : An overview of the light from India

Claude Arpi                           

Where to start?

When I was asked to make a short presentation on the cultural relations between India and Tibet, I immediately asked myself the question : where should I begin?

Indeed, these relations have been as old as the Himalayas.

Can we consider that this saga started fifty millions years ago when the Indian island collided with the Asian plate. Without this ‘natural’ accident, life could have continued undisturbed for eternity on the Indian island, but it was perhaps neither the destiny of Tibet to remain a sea forever, nor of India to be a perpetual island. The Indian subcontinent had to meet the Tethis Sea and create a new range of glorious mountains and the highest plateau in the world. It is probably what my Tibetan and Indian friends call ‘karma’. Who knows?

Though, it would have probably stretched history back too far, this ‘lifting’ had incalculable consequences for the history of Asia.

Historical Note

I would like to mention here something which has always amused me. In 1959, India had a secular government, however the Ministry of External Affairs sent “An Historical Note” drafted by its Historical Division to the Chinese government in Beijing. This note entitled “Historical Background of the Himalayan Frontier of India” deals with the mythological past of the Himalayan range.

*Dr. Claude Arpi is eminent Tibetologist and writer; Auroville, India

The objective of the Indian government was to define the border between India and Tibet, the note apparently did not impress Mao  Zedong who professed a more materialistic ideology. In fact, in his memoirs a former Foreign Secretary of Pakistan, Sultan M. Khan, then Pakistani Ambassador to China, recounted that he was once called by Zhou Enlai who told him that it was impossible to discuss anything seriously with the Indians, because they were constantly mixing history with mythology and religion. The Chinese Premier was probably referring to this Note.

Nonetheless, the point is that the great Himalayan range has always been a cultural continuum. It has been porous not only to trade but also for religious, political and cultural exchanges. India has always looked at these mountains as very special. To quote from the famous Note :

The Himalayas have always dominated Indian life, just as they have dominated the Indian landscape...

The earliest reference to the Himalayas is in the Rig Veda which was written about 1500 B.C. It states that the Himalayas symbolize all mountains (10th Mandala, 10th Adhyaya, Sukta 121.4.).

The Kena Upanished, written sometime about 1000 B.C., speaks of Uma the daughter of the Himalayas – Umam haimavatim. The legend is that Uma, the daughter of the Himalayas, revealed the mystic idealism of the Upanishads to the gods. This is an imaginative expression of the historical fact that the thought the Upanishads was developed by the dwellers in the forests and fastnesses of the Himalayas. For centuries thereafter, the striving of the Indian spirit was directed towards these Himalayan fastnesses. Siva was the blue-necked, snow-crowned mountain god; Parvati was the spring-maiden daughter of the Himalayas; Ganga was her elder sister; and Meru, Vishnu’s mountain, was the pivot the universe. The Himalayan shrines are still the goal of every Hindu Pilgrim.

The Note continues with the long spiritual saga of the Himalayas. For our purpose, we should only keep in mind that the Himalayan range is a geographical and cultural entity though on one side there is Bharat and on the other side, Tibet. Mount Kailash as well as the lakes of Manasarovar and Raksas, located in Western Tibet, culturally belong to both India and Tibet. They are as fervently revered by the Buddhists in the Land of Snows as by the hundreda of millions of Hindus for whom it is the abode of Lord Shiva.

In conclusion, whatever is happening on one side or the other of the Himalayas has always been and will always be interconnected. Therefore, the cultural relations between Tibet and India are something which will continue to exist forever, even if at times it has to survive at a lower ebb.

Kingdom Shangshung

The official history of Tibet usually starts with the enthronement of Nyatri Tsenpo, the first king of the Yarlung dynasty in 127 B.C. However, modern research in the pre-Buddhist civilisation of Tibet have revealed a highly developed culture linked with the indigenous Bon tradition. This culture flourished in the kingdom of Shangshung, which is said to be located in Western Tibet (around Mt Tise, another name for Mt Kailash).

Shangshung Script

Buddhist Tibetan historians have often stated that Tibet did not possess its own script until 640 A.D. when Songtsen Gompo sent his minister Thonmi Sambhota to India. Therefore it was assumed that without a writing system, Tibet did not have a cultural tradition. For these historians, the only source of the Tibetan culture was the Buddha Dharma which was introduced in a civilisational desert; the existence and flourishing of the Tibetan culture were related only with the spread of the Buddha Dharma.

However, for several decades, research has been undertaken in the Bon tradition. It has been shown that the original faith of Tibet not only had a large corpus of literature of its own, but also a script, known as the Shangshung script. Prof. Namkhai Norbu, who came to the West as a young man to assist Prof. Giuseppe Tucci and teaches at the University of Napoli, has been one of the pioneers who spearheaded research in this direction. In this he has been emulated by many Western and Tibetan scholars. He wrote :

According to Bon historical records, the original source of Tibetan writing system is the Maryig (Mar script) of Shangshung. There are many evidences to support this fact. In the libraries of very old monasteries in Tibet, there used to be many ancient manuscripts handwritten in a script referred to as Mar-tsungs which is just like Tibetan U-med (Headless Characters) writing in which letters are high and vowels short. When I was in my home town in Derge, I used to take lessons in the Tsugs writing of Tibetan U-chen (With Head Characters) and U-med from a reputed challigrapher who was over eighty years old. One day he taught me a Tibetan Tsugs known as Lhabab-yig (heaven descended script)... when I read the very ancient manuscripts written in Mar-Tsugs, I was able to observe and conclude that Lha-bab yig is the real Mar-Yig.

It can also be proved that the origin and source of the Mar-Tsugs and the U-med which we use today are one and the same.

Other scholars said that it derived from an old Brahmi script.


The Bon system of knowledge is often divided in twelve parts or “Twelve Lores”. Most of them deal with astrology, divination, exorcism or mastery over spirits. One of the lore is called the “Lore of Healing” which has several aspects similar to the Ayurvedic system. The ‘speciality’ of the Bons was probably the knowledge of the natural forces and the way to deal with them. Many features were later incorporated in the Tibetan Buddhist system of medicine.


After the 7th century, the Bon philosophy interacted with the Buddhist philosophy and it is not easy today to discern the indigenous components. In fact, both have influenced each other and large similarties are found. However many powerful myths widely used in Bon literature have similarities with the ones known in ancient India (the cosmic egg for example). It shows that India and Tibet certainly had strong and regular relations at the time of Buddha and even before.

All these aspects of the Indo-Tibetan relations need further research.

The Buddha

More than 2,500 years ago, an event which was to change the face of Asia and the world, occurred in India. A young Prince named Siddartha was born in a small state in the Himalayan foothills.1 He was to become the Buddha.

No other human life had ever had such a profound influence on the cultural, social and political life of India, Tibet, China and most of the other Asian nations. The Buddha and his teachings have been at the core of relations between Tibet and India for practically 1400 years.

Historical Relations between India and Tibet

Tibet indeed is proud of its Indian heritage.

Tibetan history has always emphasized the importance of Buddhism and India in the development of the culture of Tibet. As we have seen it has often been to the detriment of the local pre-Buddhist faith and culture.

From early times, India has always been considered as the ‘Land of the Gods’ in the Tibetan popular mind. The following legend demonstrates the strong association between India and Tibet many centuries before the Buddha Dharma was brought to Tibet.

In 127 B.C., the inhabitants of Yarlung Valley elevated Nyatri Tsenpo as the first king of Tibet. The legend tells us that he was a sort of god-like being who descended from the sky using a kind of ‘sky-rope.’ Nyatri, continues the legend, was originally from India; he was the son of a royal family related to the Buddha’s family. Before reaching Tibet, he had been wandering between India and Tibet and finally came down in Yarlung Valley where he met some herdsmen grazing their yaks. The Tibetans believed that he had come from Heaven. Twelve chieftains took him on their shoulders and made him the first king of Tibet. His enthronement marks the beginning of the Yarlung Dynasty of Tibet. The Tibetan royal calendar still dates from that year.

Buddhism was introduced in Tibet in the fifth century A.D. during the reign of Thori Nyatsen, the twenty-eighth King of the Yarlung Dynasty. Once again, the Dharma came from the sky in the form of a casket falling on Yubulakhang, the royal Palace; the casket contained the Mantra of Avalokiteshvara, the Patron and Protector of Tibet. The king was unable to read the scripts, but kept them as a Holy Relic for future generations.

It was during the reign of Songtsen Gonpo2, the Thirty-third King of the dynasty, that Buddhism became a state affair.

After marrying a Nepalese and a Chinese Princess, the king converted himself to Buddhism. The importance of these marriages needs to be emphasized as they played a vital role in the spread of Buddhism in Tibet. Though Songtsen Gampo had other wives (in particular the daughter of the king of Shangshung), it was Bikruti (Bhrikuti, the Nepalese) and Wengshen (the Chinese) who most influenced the politics and religion of Tibet.

During his reign Tibet became the strongest military power in Central Asia. Though the Chinese Emperor and the Nepalese king were none too keen to ‘present’ their daughters to the Tibetan king who was considered uneducated and a barbarian, they had no choice but to accept the ‘friendly’ offer of their powerful neighbour.

Historically, Songtsen Gampo was the king who built the Tibetan Empire which extended to the Chinese capital Chang’an (modern Xian) in the East, to the Pamirs and Samarkhand in the West and the Himalayas in the South. It was the greatest empire in Asia. It was the time during which the capital was moved from Yarlung to Lhasa and a fort was built where the Potala Palace stands today. The adoption of Buddhism as the religion of the court is an important watershed in the cultural relations between the two nations.

Tibetan Script

Perhaps one of the greatest merits of the king was to have sent his Minister Thomi Sambhota to India with sixteen students to study Buddhism and Sanskrit. On their return, they developed a new script which is still in use today. Accurate translations of Buddhist scriptures from Sanskrit into Tibetan began soon after.

Usually, it is believed that the Tibetan script has been copied from the script used in Kashmir in the 7th century. The Dalai Lama when he visited India in 1956, told an audience : “Thonmi Sambhota invented the Tibetan script based on the Nagari and Sharda scripts of northern and central India respectively.

Other theories exist. Even today, Tibetans use two scripts U-Chen (with headline) and U-Mey (without headline).

Another theory is that the Lantsa script, a decorative script used by the Buddhists in Nepal is the origin of the U-Chen and the Vartu script has become the U-Mey.

A more acceptable theory is that the U-Chen script derives from a late Gupta script in use when Thomi Sambhota visited India. The U-Mey would only be an adaptation of the U-Chen, like the lower case is derived from the upper case in the Roman script. The great scholar Gedun Choeppel has demonstrated the evolution from U-Chen to U-Mey with a chart.

Whatever the theory, we believe it is obvious that the present Tibetan script has its origin in India. It is certainly the greatest contribution that Bharat could offer to the Tibetan culture.

Apart from the script, the Tibetan grammar imported by Thomi Sambhota is based on a Sanskrit grammar in use in the great Indian Viharas during the 7th century. One can understand that if Sambhota had received royal instructions to translate as many Buddhist scriptures as possible, the easiest and the most accurate way was to adapt the Sanskrit grammar and syntax to the Tibetan language. It facilitated the rendering of the exact meaning of the sacred sutras. The Kanjur (108 volumes), which is the collection of the Buddha’s sayings, could thus be accurately translated into Tibetan.

An interesting fact is that today it is relatively easy to retranslate texts from Tibetan into Sanskrit and to rediscover the correct meaning of original texts which have disappeared more than ten centuries ago.

Numerous texts were translated during the reign of Songtsen Gampo; the king himself took a great interest in the translation work and became a scholar. For the first time, some of the Buddhist precepts were incorporated into the laws of the land.

The Tibetan minister’s visit to India was followed by hundreds of Tibetan scholars descending the Himalayan slopes in search of the teaching of the Buddha in its purity and integrity. Their only objective was to carry back the Buddha Dharma to the Land of Snows.

During the following centuries, a large number of Indian pandits, tantrics and siddhas would be attracted by the nascent spirituality on the Roof of the World.

Pandits and Tantriks from India

The thirty-seventh king, Trisong Detsen (741-798) sent emissaries to India and invited the great Indian abbot Shantarakshita to come to Tibet to teach the Dharma and ordain the first monks.

Richardson in his history of Tibet makes an interesting remark : “The religious foundations of Songtsen Gampo and his immediate successors were quite modest chapels and Buddhist influence probably reached only a small number of the people.”3

But the fact that the king himself adopted the new faith had incalculable effects on the religious, cultural and political future of Tibet.

Soon after his arrival in Tibet, Shantarakshita faced a lot of difficulties due to the strong antagonism with the indigenous Bonpo faith. He convinced the king that the only solution was to call the great Tantric Master from India, Guru Padmasambhava. Only he could subdue the forces adverse to the Buddhist faith and overcome the resistance of the Bon practitioners.

There are many accounts of the magical powers of Padmasambhava, but in a very Indian (and Tantric) way, he always tried to convert and use the forces opposing his work instead of destroying them. These forces were later to become the protectors of the new religion.

After performing many rites, ‘local deities’ in Samye in Central Tibet were subdued4 and finally the first Buddhist monastery in Tibet was completed in 766 A.D. The local deities became the Protectors of the temple and Shantarakshita could finally ordain the first Tibetan monks.

Under Trisong Detsen, Buddhism was established as a state religion and the principle of compassion and Ahimsa was inculcated into the rather violent and shamanistic population. The zeal shown by his people in the pursuit of war was thereafter used for inner researches. As Buddhism penetrated all aspects of life, the once barbarian tribes learned to respect all life forms down to the least insect. Fishing and hunting were banned and recognized as sins.

Samye Debate

Before dying, Shantarakshita, the Indian Pandit (known as ‘Boddhisattva’ to the Tibetans) predicted that a dispute would arise between the two schools of Buddhism that were at that time spreading in Tibet.

The first one – the Chinese school, probably influenced by Taoism – was of the opinion that enlightenment was an instantaneous revelation or realization. It could be obtained only through complete mental and physical inactivity and renunciation. This system of thought had spread throughout China.

The second school – taught by the Indian Pandits and known as the ‘gradual school’—asserted that enlightenment was a gradual process, not an ‘instant’ one, requiring long study, practice and analysis and the accumulation of virtues and good deeds. Shantarakshita had brought these teachings with him when he came to Tibet and, having prophesized the dispute, he indicated that one of his Indian disciples would come from India to defend the theory of the Indian school. Over a period of two years (792-794), the famous debate, known in history as the ‘Samye Debate’ took place in Samye.

Hoshang, a Chinese monk, represented the Chinese stand known as the ‘instant school’ and Kamalashila who had come from India as prophesied by his guru, defended the Indian view.

At the end of the debate, Kamalashila was declared the winner and the king5 issued a proclamation naming the Indian Path the orthodox faith for Tibet. The document was written on blue paper with golden letters and distributed throughout the Kingdom.

From that time on, India became the only source of religious knowledge for Tibet.

This example is one of the many, which illustrates the important role played by India in the cultural, spiritual and political life of Tibet in the early period of its history.

The Return of Buddhism to Tibet : the Second Propagation

An empire is truly great when the spirit which built it can survive that empire’s destruction and reappear under a new and more refined form.

This is what would eventually happen to the Buddhist civilization in Tibet after the systematic eradication of Buddhism by King Lang Darma who usurped the throne from his brother King Ralpachen at the beginning of the 9th century.

When King Lang Darma was killed by a Tibetan monk in 842, he had managed to destroy most of the Buddhist institutions in Tibet. An even worse consequence of the persecution initiated by the king was that for the next seventy years, no monk could be ordained.

Lang Darma’s assassination marked the end of the Yarlung Dynasty. The Tibetan state lost its political homogeneity and became fragmented into several principalities (such as Yarlung, Purang or Sakya).

However local princes or chieftains continued to focus their attention on their southern neighbours, India and Nepal. Due to the efforts of some of the rulers of the provinces of the erstwhile Tibetan kingdom, a revival of Buddhism became possible on the Roof of the World.

Perhaps because they were the closest to North India and at the same time had been spared by the Muslim invaders, the spiritual and cultural renaissance originated from the Himalayan regions of Spiti and Ladakh in India and Ngari, Tholing and Purang in Tibet.

Buddhism in India

Before looking at this renaissance movement, known as the Second Propagation, we must have a quick glance at the evolution of Buddhism in India during the closing years of the first millennium.

Though perhaps the Buddha never wanted to create a new religion, Buddhism as a structured new faith had slowly emerged in India, especially during and after the reign of Asoka. Many great monastic universities such Nalanda, Vikramasila or Otantapuri flourished in North India. They were patronized by kings and very rich lay patrons. They were the main centres of learning and the repositories of the knowledge of that time.

Nalanda was the most famous of these great monastic universities and the curriculum covered not only Buddhist scriptures but also linguistics, medicine, astrology, debate and other sciences.

Tantrayana had been incorporated into the teachings of these monastic universities, especially in Vikramashila, the monastery of Atisha who would soon play an important role in Tibetan history. Not only had the Pandits, the scholars and the abbots studied the Tantras, but many of them had intensely practiced these teachings and written extensive commentaries.

The Revival in Tibet

A few individuals personify this renaissance. One should cite: the Indian monk, Atisha Dipamkara; the Tibetan monk Rinchen Zongpo; the King of Guge Yeshe Od and also a Tibetan layman called Marpa. All of them symbolize the continuous movement of men and ideas across the Himalayas and the manner in which the Buddha Dharma was preserved in its integrity.

Though different in character, upbringing and education, they have all in their own way contributed much to the revival of Buddhism in Tibet. They were responsible for countless translations of the original teachings of the Buddha which were thus saved for posterity. Less than two centuries later, under the Muslim onslaught and the revivalism of Hinduism, these scriptures disappeared from their land of origin.

In the first years of the second millennium, the monastic discipline declined quickly in Tibet and many original teachings were lost.

The Role of Yeshe Od, king of Guge

Guge was one of the principalities in Western Tibet; one of its kings, Yeshe Od was to become the main instrument in the renaissance of the Buddha Dharma on the Roof of the World. He ordered many young Tibetans to go to India to meet saints, yogis, siddhas and scholars in the great Indian Viharas and bring back to Tibet Buddhist manuscripts and translate them into Tibetan. The most famous amongst these Tibetan masters who travelled to the hot plains of India, was Rinchen Zangpo.

In those days, the frontier between Tibet and the Himalayan region was not a fixed border as it has become in the second part of the twentieth century. It was rather an ‘undefined’ borderline, at least culturally. For example, the influence of Rinchen Zangpo spread as much in the Tibetan provinces of Ngari or Purang as in Spiti, Lahaul, Kinnaur and Zanskar districts of North India.

Although he managed to get many monks ordained, Lhalama Yeshe Od realised that the doctrine of the Tantras was no longer understood and properly practiced by most of the members of the Sangha. Many pretended to be tantric practitioners, they often refused to follow any of the Vinaya’s precepts opening the door to many perversions.

The king, very disturbed by this critical situation, decided to send Gya Tsondru Senge as an emissary to India. His task was to find a way to translate as many original Sanskrit texts as he could. He was also asked to try and locate a Pandit who would be able to subdue the negative forces and bring back the purity of the Dharma to Tibet. He eventually discovered Atisha Dipankara, a Bengali Master who had all the requisite qualities to re-establish the monastic rule in Tibet.

The king of Guge collected gold and sent it to Atisha to try to convince him to come and teach in Tibet. In order to find more gold, the king thought to visit Turkestan. Unfortunately, he was captured on the way by the powerful king of Garlok. Yeshe Od’s nephew Jangchub Od, hearing of the king’s fate, decided to pay a ransom to the Garlok king. He first offered one hundred gold coins, but the Garlok king told him that it was not enough. He went back and forth several times, but the king of Garlok repeatedly refused to release Lhalama Yeshe. Finally, one day Jangchub Od managed to have a private conversation with his uncle who told him that whatever gold he could collect should be used to go to India and to bring back Atisha to Tibet. He told him that his life was not so important and he was happy to give it as an offering to the renaissance of the Doctrine in Tibet.

Back in Tibet, Jangchub Od obeyed the last wishes of his uncle and sent a delegation to Vikramasila to meet Atisha who was informed of the sacrifice of the old king. It was difficult for Atisha to refuse the invitation. The party proceeded to Tholing where the King Jangchub Od received Atisha.

From that day on, Pandit Atisha was invited to many places in Tibet where he taught the precepts of the Buddha, he consecrated temples and ordained new monks.

When he had left his monastery in India, Atisha had promised the Abbot of Vikramashila that he would return to India within three years. After three years in Tibet, Atisha decided to go to Purang near the Indian border to fulfil his promise.

Atisha remained for a year at Purang and gave many teachings but never went back to India. The darshan of his country from the border town was enough to fulfil his vow.

We have gone into some details in this episode because it demonstrates the fervour and aspiration of the people of Tibet to bring back the Buddha Dharma to the Land of Snows in its integrity.

Tibetan Medicine

The Tibetan system of Medicine, known as Swa Rigpa (the Art of Healing) is an interesting example showing India’s influence on the culture of Tibet and the constant interactions between the two nations. As for all Tibetan traditional sciences, the medical system is said to originate from the Buddha Sakyamuni himself. However, the Tibetan historical texts, particularly The Survey of Tibetan Medical History written by the Regent Desi Sangye Gyatso during the 18th century differs very little from the Vedic texts expounding the history of the Ayurveda. The only difference is that Buddha takes the place of Vedic rishis as the originator of the medical system.

The history of the Tibetan system of medicine is usually classified into three categories.

          1.   The spread of Medicine in the God Realm

          2.   The spread of Medicine in the Human Realm (in India)

          3.   The spread of Medicine in Tibet

In the spread of medicine in the God realm, the customary in-fighting between gods, the churning of the ocean in which is hidden the ambrosia of immortality, the using of Mt Meru as stirring rod, the encounter between the Buddha and Brahma and the final recovery of the ambrosia are recounted. In the Tibetan tradition, it is Brahma who receives the teachings from Buddha : the medical science is thus transmitted through a text known as The 100,000 Verses of Healing.

In the second part, eight ancient Rishis teach Sage Atreya. His knowledge is compiled in the Charaka Samhita which is said to be the commentary of the knowledge taught by Rishi Bharadvaja. Atreya’s disciples in turn wrote commentaries which became the basic root-texts of the ayurvedic system. Later the sage Susruta composed the Susruta Samhita which was later revised by Nagarjuna, the founder of the Middle Path (Madhyamika) school of Buddhism.

According to Tantric scriptures, the Buddha Sakyamuni taught the Four Tantras to four different types of disciples. He took the form of the Medicine Buddha, Bhaishaguru, and taught at the celestial palace of medicine in Tanadug, a place said to be located in the province of Uddiyana (modern Swat in Pakistan).

The different disciples of the Buddha heard the teachings according to their aptitude and needs. The gods heard the teachings as the 100, 000 Verses of Healing, while the Rishis were taught the Charaka Samhita. The non-Buddhists received the Krishna Isvara Tantra and the Buddhist disciples heard them as the Teachings of the Three Protectors.

The history of the origin of Tibetan medicine is closely mixed with events of the Buddha’s life such as the sermon on the Four Noble Truths or some other teachings at the Venture Peak near Rajagriha.

The Tibetan texts also record the life and teachings of Jivaka, a famous doctor who lived at the same time as Buddha and became one of his disciples. Nagarjuna is said to be the author of several treatises on medicine. His knowledge was transmitted to Asvaghosa who himself wrote several books, the best known being the Astanga-hrdaya-samhita (The Eight Branches) which is still today a reference for the medical students.

During the reign of King Songtsen-Gompo, physicians and medical experts from India, China, Central Asia and Persia were requested to bring their own system of medicine (it is said that some even came from Greece6).

A century later, the famous physician Yuthok Yonten Gompo the Elder thrice visited India and later compiled the Gyud Shi (or Four Tantras) which is still today the base of the Tibetan medical knowledge. Using Indian medical scriptures, it incorporated some features of the other systems, particularly the indigenous system of Tibet. A very original and well adapted Art of Healing was born.

After 6 visits, Yuthok Yonten Gompo the Younger, who lived in the 12th century completed in India, the work of Yuthok the Elder (he is said to be his reincarnation). The 156 Chapters of the Gyud Shi are still considered as the assence of Tibetan medical knowledge and are studied as such not only in Tibet, but also by the Tibetans in exile in India and the local Amchis (medical practitioners) in the Himalayan region.

It is worth noting that Astanga-hrdaya-samhita still exists not only in its Tibetan translation (dating from Rinchen Zangpo’s time), but also in its original Sanskirt version. It is a unique occasion to study both versions and marvel at the quality of the translation. It also helps to establish terminological parallels between both languages and shows the proximity of both literatures.

Buddhism disappears from India

However, in the country of the Enlightened One, the Dharma soon disappeared under the onslaught of Muslim hordes from Central Asia. A new culture based on power and brutality replaced the old compassionate wisdom.

To be fair, it should be mentioned that, in the history, whenever strict adherence to the monastic rules stopped, degeneration overtook the Sangha. When monks began to aspire to political power and wealth, instead of consecrating their lives to the Dharma, India’s strength vanished and the doors were wide open to invaders. This is probably one of several reasons for which Buddhism disappeared from India.7

The sacrifice of the old king of Ngari had not been in vain, India through one of her great sons had restored the Buddhist precepts to the Land of Snows.

Tantric practitioners could again understand the deep meaning of the tantric scriptures and above all, the teachings of love and compassion of the gurus of Atisha could be transmitted to all – lay people, kings or lamas.

India showed her kindness to Tibet when the abbots and monks of the great viharas in India allowed the most knowledgeable among them to leave for the Himalayas to propagate the Buddha faith. Perhaps, the wisest amongst them knew that Atisha would not return to the hot plains of India and that their own Dharma would soon be replaced by a blinder and less compassionate one.

During this period, the political life of Tibet was deeply intermingled with its religious life. The modern concept of ‘secularism’ did not exist in India and Tibet. Any strong religious or spiritual personality was bound to have an influence on the politics of his times. This is what would happen during the predominance of the Sakya Lamas (13th-15th century) and later with the Dalai Lamas.

An interesting aspect of the decline of Buddhism in India is the migration of not only Indian monks and saints to Tibet, but also artists. As an author pointed out in his study of Tucci’s discoveries in Western Tibet : “It is not only the inspiration of Indian art that was responsible for the beautiful frescoes adorning the walls though now in ruin, of Western Tibetan monasteries, but Indian artists themselves migrated into that country and settled there.”8

Tucci himself said that “The sources of information speak not only of pundits and doctors invited to the court of the kings of Guge or having taken refuge there, in a period which marks the decline of fortune for Buddhism in India, but also of artists, specially from Kashmir who introduced there the Indian traditions.9

In another study of Tucci’s work in Tibet, Moulik had written :

The Mussalman torment which was in its full swing at this time, the hostility of the new sects, the rebirth of the orthodox schools, already gave signs of the decline of Buddhism on the plain of Hindusthan. The monks and saints, the painters and sculptors, from the convents and universities, sacked and menaced by the mussalmans, were gradually drawn into the Himalayan valleys, and were rescued by the magnificent piety of the Kings of Guge. Here on the immense desolation (speaking of today) reigned an unusual fervour of life, cities and temples, monasteries and markets. The artistic genius of India left there its admirable traces which the course of time and carelessness of man are going to obliterate.10

At the beginning of the twelfth century, Tibet could no longer draw support from its southern neighbour. It had to find a new solution to survive and prosper.

Tibet turns North and East

The history of Tibet took another turn with the rise of the Mongol Empire at the end of the 12th century. After the Mongol hordes of Genghis Khan overran half of Europe and most of Asia, including China, the Empire of Genghis Khan became one of the vastest the world has ever known of. The Tibetans had no choice, but to ally with their powerful neighbours.

An arrangement was found. The Lamas (first the Lamas of the Sakya school of Tibetan Buddhism) became the teachers of the Mongol Khans who in turn gave military protection to the Land of Snows. India was nowhere in the scheme which continued for a few centuries under the Ming and Qing (Manchu) dynasties.

However, for a Tibet more and more close in on itself, India continued to remain the ‘sacred land’. In the words of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama : “For us, it has always been the Holy Land. It was the birthplace of the founder of the Buddhist culture and the source of wisdom brought to our mountains hundreds of years ago by Indian saints and seers. The religions and societies of Tibet and India have developed in different lines, but Tibet was still a child of Indian civilization.”

In 1950, India was still the main place of pilgrimage for all Tibetan Buddhists.

Modern Times

In August 1947, India became independent. The Indo-Tibetan relations were not a priority for Nehru’s government which soon got embroiled in the Kashmir tangle. However, in July 1947, Delhi informed the Lhasa government that India was keen to continue to relate as before.

Eventually when the new Indian Republic took shape, the Dharma Chakra was included in the Indian national flag and the Asoka Pillar became the national emblem. It reminded the people of Tibet of the times when North India and Tibet were a cultural unit.

With the signing of the Panchsheel Agreement in April 1954, India accepted the Chinese contention that Tibet was a “Region of China”. However most of the clauses of the Agreement were related to cultural exchanges (such as right of the pilgrims) between India and Tibet.

Two years later, in 1956, the 2500th anniversary of the Buddha Mahaparinirvana was celebrated on a grand scale by the Government of India. The young Dalai Lama and Panchen Lamas were invited to participate. In a speech in Delhi the Dalai Lama declared:

This year, with a view to commemorating the kindness shown by the Compassionate One, India is celebrating the 2500th Anniversary of His on a scale worthy of her great tradition. India has invited many distinguished guests from Buddhist and non-Buddhist countries to these celebrations, and I consider myself extremely fortunate in being able to attend them. We are convinced that such great deeds of India will not only strengthen our faith in the Dharma in the East, but will also go a long way in the propagation of the eternal truths in the West.

If the Dharma spreads all over the world, it will undoubtedly yield good fruits for our future life; but even in our present existence, hatred, exploitation of one by another, and the ways and deeds of violence will disappear, and the time will come when all will live in friendship and love in a prosperous and happy world. I am glad to have an opportunity of expressing my humble appreciation of the efforts which many peace-loving great Countries are making day and night towards the freedom of small countries and the elimination of aggression and war. I feel that our lives would be entirely aimless if the Dharma which was brought to our land by great scholars at such immense cost were allowed to decay.

Unfortunately for the Dalai Lama, less than three years after his first visit to India, he had to flee his country and take refuge there.

Himalayan Buddhist Culture

It is hardly necessary to mention that large parts of Northern India have shared a religion and cultural tradition with Tibet since the time of the First Propagation. The culture of Ladakh, Lahoul, Spiti, Kinnaur, Arunachal Pradesh or Sikkim is closely blended with the Tibetan civilization. It is worth pointing out that a Dalai Lama, Tsangyang Gyaltso (the 6th Dalai Lama) was born in the Tawang district of Arunachal Pradesh; very late in his life he was recognized as the reincarnation of the 5th Dalai Lama and taken away to Lhasa. Still many traces of his youth can be seen in villages around Tawang.

The exchanges between Indian Tibet (so called by many scholars) and the Land of Snows continued to flourish till the end of the fifties. I personally remember having seen in many monasteries of Hmachal Pradesh and Ladakh the photo of a Lama, Norbu Rinpoche. As a yogi he was highly revered by the local population. When I asked more details, I was told that he had received his training in yogic sciences (particularly the Six Yogas of Naropa) near Derge, in Eastern Tibet, today located in Sichuan Province of China. It tends to prove that till the middle of the 20th century, cultural exchanges between the Indian Himalayas and all the regions of Tibet were still very much alive.

Cultural Relations Today

The Dalai Lama crossed to India on March 31, 1959. During the next years, he was followed by more than one lakh of his countrymen. After being given asylum by the Government of India, he first lived in Mussorie for a couple of years and later established his headquarters in Dharamsala (Himachal Pradesh). From here he strove to preserve the culture of Tibet which in Tibet was endangered.

Amongst others, he re-established several institutions:

         ˛   The School of Medicine in Dharamsala (Men-Tsee-Khang)

         ˛   The Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts in Dharamsala

         ˛   The library of Tibetan Works and Archives in Dharamsala which preserves old manuscripts and publishes books.

         ˛   The three great gelukpa (yellow sect) monasteries (Ganden, Sera and Drepung) in Karnataka.

         ˛   The Tibet House in Delhi, a cultural centre for the preservation of the Tibetan culture in the Indian capital.

With the help of the Indian Government, a Tibetan University was opened in Sarnath (Uttar Pradesh). Not only it is now famous Central Institute of Higher Tibetan Studies providing facilities to students up to the PhD level, but it has also started a very bold program of re-translation of lost manuscript from Tibetan into Sanskrit. Luminaries like Prof. G.C. Pande have headed this Institution.

Most of the monastic universities which existed in Tibet before 1959, have today been re-established in India. One could mention:

         ˛   The Sakya Center in Rajpur (Uttarachal)

         ˛   The Mindroling monastery in Clement Town (Uttarachal)

         ˛   The Karmapa headquarters in Rumtek (Sikkim)

         ˛   Several other important monasteries in Karnataka and West Bengal

The Bon tradition is also represented in Dolanji (Himachal Pradesh).

It seems that the Buddhist Pandits have returned to India after a long period of seclusion on the Roof of the World.

Though the cultural relations between India and Tibet have gone through difficult times, they have survived many onslaughts over the centuries. The presence of the Dalai Lama in India and the interest of the Government of India are the best guarantee to their survival.


     1.   Lumbini, the birthplace of Sakyamuni, is located today in Nepal, few kilometres away from the Indian border.

     2.   605-649 AD.

     3.   Richardson, op. cit. p. 30.

     4.   At night, for a long time, these occult powers destroyed the construction work achieved during the day on the first Tibetan temple.

     5.   Trisong Detsen.

     6.   Galenos.

     7.   Apart from the Muslim onslaught, other causes can be listed: the shifting of royal patrongage to a revived Hindu Dharma, the merging of many aspects of Buddhism and Hinduism which made the Buddha Dharma not very different to the Hinduism propounded by Adi Shankara and finally the concentration of spirituality and knowledge only around the viharas.

     8.   Monindramohan Moulik, Indian Art in Tibet - Tucci as Explorer and Mystic (New Delhi: The Modern Review, 1938), p. 491.

     9.   Tucci and Ghersi, Secrets of Tibet (London, 1935) p. ix.

   10.   M. Moulik, New Light on Indian Civilisation in the Researches of Tucci (Calcutta: Amrita Bazar Patrika, April 19, 1936


Dialogue (A quarterly journal of Astha Bharati)

Astha Bharati