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Karma Exhausted: The Role of Tibetans and Mongols In High Asia’s Most Traumatic Event of the 13th Century

On March 19th, 2013, as part of the Tibetan Studies Student Association Lecture Series sponsored by the Department of Central Eurasian Studies, the Inner Asian and Uralic National Resource Center, and the IU Student Association, Dr. Roberto Vitali shared some of his preliminary findings that critically reexamined one of the defining moments in Tibetan-Mongol relations—the Drikung Rebellion of 1290. This rebellion resulted in the devastating massacre at Drikung Monastery by the Mongol armies of Qubilai Qan. Importantly, it also marked a turning point in the Mongol administration of Tibet, resulting in a centralization of control that would last into much of the 14th century.

A striking feature of this pivotal moment in Tibetan history is its diminishment and even absence in the historical literature. The sources that do describe it do so very succinctly, often in no more than a couple of lines. Surprisingly, the histories of the Sakya, who emerged the victors in this conflict, are silent on this topic. As Dr. Vitali observed:

“For once, history is told by the losers, rather than by the winners.”

The rebellion was the culmination of controversies and infighting between two rival religious-political schools in Tibet, the Sakya and the Drikung Kagyu. The strife reached such proportions that it drew in the involvement of two Mongol factions, each siding with one school: Qubilai with Sakya and Hulegu with Drikung.

The roots of the conflict were planted a decade earlier, in 1280, when infighting over the successor to the throne of Pagmodruk, closely related to Drikung, was exploited by Sakya. This eventually resulted in the assassination of a Sakya candidate to the Pagmodruk throne. The Sakya would seek revenge for this nearly a decade later, but not before the Mongol troops of Hulegu’s Il-Khanid became involved in support of Drikung. Dr. Vitali posed the question:

“Why were different Mongol authorities involved?”

After Qubilai, known as Sechen in Tibetan, was enthroned in 1260, he had abolished the control of other princes in Tibet except for Hulegu. Hulegu continued to retain his appanages in Tibet, which included the Pagmodruk. Perhaps this was a reward for his successful military campaigns in Baghdad. Perhaps, also, Qubilai assumed he was simply too far away to exercise any real control in Tibet.

However, at the same time that Qubilai allowed Hulegu to maintain his estates in Central Tibet, he eroded them, reassigning various territories that were formerly under the Pagmodruk. This was likely one of the factors leading Hulegu to join forces with Drikung in their 1285 military campaign against Sakya.

Realizing that the controversy of the Pagmodruk throne had escalated to an open threat to Yuan authority in Tibet, Qubilai dispatched Mongol forces from China together with Tibetan forces from Kham in eastern Tibet to annihilate Drikung. Drikung Monastery was burned to the ground and 10,000 monks and laymen were killed in the massacre of 1290.

This dramatic event marked a turning point in Qubilai’s policy in Tibet. He shut down support for different aristocratic families and instead centralized control over Tibet by supporting a single family, that of the Sakya. In such a way, Sakya was elevated in power, but it was a power that bound them to implement the Mongol rule in Tibet.

Dr. Vitali concluded that such strife between Tibetan factions had never reached such proportions with such devastating outcomes. It resulted in a traumatic episode that was unprecedented in Tibetan history. As a result, perhaps the silence in the history of the victors reflects a reality in which the taste of the Sakya victory was not so sweet.