Tibetan culture

Mani stone

The British Museum collection includes objects from the area known today as the Tibet Autonomous Region, People’s Republic of China. The vast majority of these objects date from before the mid-twentieth century. Many are ritual objects related to the teachings of Buddhist schools and their complex pantheons. There are also everyday artefacts that illustrate popular beliefs and practices.  

To see over 6,000 photographs of Tibet from 1920 to 1950 from the collections of the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford, and the British Museum visit the Tibet Album.

Historical note  

With the consolidation of the Tibetan empire in the seventh century AD under the Yarlung kings there was increasing contact between Tibet, India and China, establishing a lasting pattern of cultural contact and exchange. Under Srong brTsan sGam Po (around 618-41) scholars were sent to India to develop a system of writing for the Tibetan language and, as part of treaty negotiations with the Chinese, the emperor married a Tang dynasty (618-907) princess.

A century later Khri Srong lDe brTsan (around 756-97 and 798-800) briefly occupied Dunhuang, the famous oasis and Buddhist site on the Silk Road in China (Gansu Province).  Under his patronage, a system for the ordination of monks was established, guaranteeing the long-term presence of Buddhism in Tibet.

The Yarlung empire disintegrated in the mid-ninth century. Buddhism, dependant on royal support, suffered set-backs, but from the late-tenth century efforts were made to re-establish links with Indian centres of knowledge. The arrival of the Indian-born master Atisha in 1042 is generally regarded as the culmination of the ‘second propagation’ of Buddhism in Tibet.

Later Tibet is dominated by the history of different Buddhist schools. This was a natural outcome of the existence of independent ordination lineages which had their own texts, rituals and spiritual successions.

The Sakya Pa school of Buddhism enjoyed supremacy in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries and Tibetans introduced Buddhism into Mongolia in the thirteenth century. In 1578, Altan Khan invited the head of the dGe Lugs Pa school to Mongolia to preach Buddhism and conferred the title ‘Dalai Lama’ on him. Subsequent Dalai Lamas were spiritual teachers of the Manchu rulers in China, and the Kangxi Emperor (reigned 1662-1722) invited the Fifth Dalai Lama to China. With Qing Dynasty support he consolidated control over Tibet creating a theocratic society that lasted until changes in the mid-twentieth century.

Image caption: Mani stone
From Ladakh (now part of India and Pakistan). 19th-20th century AD

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