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The Khams Region in the Context of Tibet’s Post-Imperial Period (9th-Early 11th Centuries)

On February 20th, 2013, Dr. Robert Vitali presented to the Central Eurasian Studies Colloquium a little known version of the least known historical period of Tibet—the “period of fragmentation” following the collapse of the Tibetan Empire in the 10th century. This period, spanning from about the 10th to the early 13th centuries, has been characterized by many scholars as a “dark age” for Tibet, as very little information exists about it in the historical record. Dr. Vitali shed some light on this little understood period, in particular, challenging the dominant historical narrative that claims that Buddhism was extinguished during this time in Tibet.

Described by Professor Elliot Sperling as a “scholar’s scholar”, Dr. Vitali has published important works such as Early Temples of Central Tibet andThe Kingdoms of Gu-ge Pu-hrang based on his extensive knowledge of texts as well as onsite visits to sites within Tibet.

The Tibetan Empire, which emerged as a major Central Eurasian power in the early 7th century, fell into disarray in the 10th century. The last Tibetan emperor, Langdarma, is portrayed in later Tibetan histories as persecuting Buddhism. His assassination precipitated the fall of the empire, as his sons lost legitimacy and the empire became fragmented into regional kingdoms.

In his lecture, Dr. Vitali pieced together historical evidence from Tibetan texts ranging from the 8th to the 17th centuries. Taken together, this evidence not only re-centered the Khams region as an important area where the religious traditions from Central Tibet found their continuity, but demonstrated the persistence of religious activities in Tibet, even in the “dark ages” of its post-imperial period.

Dr. Vitali followed the lineage of the last Tibetan emperor to trace the movements of the descendents of the royal house out of their traditional base in Central Tibet. He focused in particular on the establishment of new royal lines in the eastern region of Khams.

In a parallel vein, he followed the lineages of important Buddhist teachers as well as the transmission of particular teachings to locate Khams as an important area where lineage holders and their disciples migrated in the wake of the political turmoil in Central Tibet:

“This makes of Khams the region to which the revival of the teachings in the view of the literature should be transferred from Amdo.”

In conclusion, Dr. Vitali critiqued the persistent narrative in Tibetan histories that portray an extinguishment of Buddhist activities in the wake of the collapse of the Tibetan Empire:

“The concept of absence of teachings during the post-imperial period put up invariably by the sources is a stereotype that cannot be entirely accepted, at least for Khams and Amdo.... At least minimal religious practice continued to be pursued in northeastern Tibet, and perhaps also in some places in Central Tibet.”

Importantly, Dr. Vitali reminded his audience, although this period in Tibetan history may remain in historical darkness, it does not indicate an absence of consequential events:

“It is hardly believable that little human activity was happening in Tibet during this extraordinary formative period, the lamp for the birth of the peculiar Tibetan way of life.”