Uncovering the precise nature and culture of the Tibetan army

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Despite always maintaining its own army, Tibet’s centuries-long government led by the Dalai Lamas sometimes relied on foreign troops for defence. Researchers have been asking what the possible impacts were of this apparent ambivalence to militarism.

The Ganden Phodrang, the Lhasa-based Buddhist government of Tibet established by the 5th Dalai Lama in 1642, came from a long history of military culture in defence of its territory and Buddhist tradition dating back to the 7th century. The Ganden Phodrang created and maintained the first Tibetan standing army in history, backed by regional militias at times of war. During the first part of its reign, the Ganden Phodrang also relied on foreign armies for protection, either Mongol troops or the Qing Empire.

Seeking out historical sources

The TibArmy team turned to sources in Tibetan, Chinese, English, Japanese, Mongol and Manchu. These included: written sources, such as Tibetan, Chinese and British archives; autobiographies of Tibetan soldiers and officers from the end of the 18th to the mid 20th century; biographies and autobiographies of Dalai Lama, Panchen Lama and other Buddhist masters; and ritual texts. The researchers also listened to oral interviews with former Tibetan soldiers, and used visual sources, such as paintings and murals, 19th-century maps and archival photographs. The TibArmy team discovered several new aspects about this period in history.

Buddhism and war

One was that the religious and military projects were mutually supportive of each other throughout the Ganden Phodrang period. “Buddhism provided the Tibetan army not only with an end – its aim and justification – but also with means, such as the involvement of religious personnel in battle and within the military administration,” explains Alice Travers, historian and Tibetologist at the CNRS and TibArmy principal investigator. Other means, labelled ‘war magic’, were ritual though, such as the summoning of protective or wrathful deities to destroy enemies, protect soldiers and improve the efficiency of weapons.

Overcoming past bias

Another key finding was that rather than an actual ambivalence towards military matters in general, there was in fact a long-term goal to modernise and professionalise the army and ensure Tibet’s military autonomy. However, the achievement of this goal fluctuated along with internal and external political factors, including the support of allies. “The military development of the Ganden Phodrang period can be understood in a new light,” says Travers, “and thus overcome a ‘backwardness bias’ that is very common in works on the history of Tibet, partly produced by British colonial sources.”

A photographic tour of historical Tibet

The TibArmy project embarked on a touring exhibition with 166 photographs taken between 1890 and 1956, which revealed forgotten or ignored aspects of military history, such as the Tibetan military material culture (uniforms, badges and flags). “I am particularly proud of the photo exhibition, as it proved to be a very good way to share the findings of the research not only with wider audiences in Prague and Paris, but also with the Tibetans themselves in the exile community in India,” adds Travers.

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