“In 1697, the Ganden Phodrang government in Tibet launched a war against Ladakh. The operation was led by Mongol Prince, Ganden Tsewang, grandson of Gushri Khan, who had conquered central and Eastern Tibetan lands decades earlier through a series of military campaigns on behalf of the 5th Dalai Lama.”
–Jigme Nawang (2015) in ‘Why Did Tibet and Ladakh Clash in the 17th Century?: Rethinking the Background to the ‘Mongol War’ in Ngari (1679-1684)’
“History repeats itself, but in such cunning disguise that we never detect the resemblance until the damage is done.”
—Sydney J. Harris
As I am currently in Ladakh and have the great fortune to see HH 14th Dalai Lama here teaching in the stunning Shewatsel teaching ground, (where the first Kalacakra initiation by the 14th Dalai Lama took place in Ladakh), as well as received the Avolokiteshvara empowerment today, following on from my short piece on the Karmapas in Ladakh, I decided to write a short article on the history of the Dalai Lamas (and Gelug) in Ladakh. This short article pulls together some of the little English-language research source material available on it.
Written and compiled by Adele Tomlin. 29th July 2022.
THE NAME LADAKH, ITS HISTORY AND PEOPLE AND TIBETAN INVASION
Before speaking about the presence of the Dalai Lamas in Ladakh, here is a brief overview of the history of Ladakh and how the Tibetans first invaded in the 10th Century. Since the independence of India, Ladakh has been considered to be part of Jammu and Kashmir, but that was not always the case.
The word ‘Ladakh’ is said to come from a local word, ‘La Dak’, meaning ‘land of the mountain passes’ — ‘La’ (mountain passes) and ‘Dak’ (country). The region was also known as ‘Maryul’ or low land in the past. Ancient Chinese travellers Fa-Hein and Hiuen Tsang referred to it as ‘Kia-Chha’ and ‘Ma-Lo-Pho’, respectively. The official Ladakh website states that the Tibetan invasion in the 10th Century helped to unify Ladakh, albeit clearly not without violence:
“The ancient inhabitants of Ladakh were Dards, an Indo- Aryan race. Immigrants of Tibet, Skardo and nearby parts like Purang, Guge settled in Ladakh, whose racial characters and cultures were in consonance with early settlers. Buddhism traveled from central India to Tibet via Ladakh leaving its imprint in Ladakh. Islamic missionaries also made a peaceful penetration of Islam in the early 16th century. German Moravian Missionaries having cognizance of East India Company also made inroads towards conversion but with little success.
In the 10th century AD, Skit Lde Nemagon, the ruler of Tibet, invaded Ladakh where there was no central authority[i]. The lands divided in small principalities were at war with each other. Nemagon defeated them one by one and established a strong kingdom at Shey, 15 Kms from Leh, as its capital. Ladakh was an independent country since the middle of the 10th century.”
For more on the indigenous people of this region, see this interesting article here, from which this graphic is taken:
GELUGPA ENTRANCE INTO LADAKH WITH JE TSONGKHAPA’S STUDENT, JANGSEM SHERAB ZANGPO
It seems that the first entrance into Ladakh by Gelug, prior to the full-on war and takeover of Ladakh in the 17th century (see below), was in the early 15th century, by Je Tsongkhapa, the founder of the Gelug School who sent six of his disciples to remote regions of Tibet to spread the teachings of the new school. Tsongkhapa gave one of his disciples, Jangsem Sherap Zangpo (shes rab bzang po), a small statue of Amitayus bone powder and a drop of Tsongkhapa’s own blood. Tsongkhapa directed him to meet the King of Ladakh with a message seeking his help in the propagation of Buddhism.
The King, who was then staying in the Nubra Valley near Shey, is said to have loved the gift of the statue. After this meeting, the King directed his minister to help Sherab Zangpo to establish a monastery of the Gelug order in Ladakh. As a result, in 1433, Zangpo founded a small village monastery called Lhakhang Serpo “Yellow Temple” in Stagmo, north of the Indus. In spite of his efforts, the lamas who embraced the Gelug order were initially few, although some of his disciples became eminent figures over the years.
In the mid 15th century, Palden Zangpo continued the monastic work started by his teacher, Sherab Zangpo. He decided to build a larger monastery here that was dictated by an unusual event that occurred while choosing a site. Legends narrate that Tsongkhapa had predicted that his doctrine would prosper on the right bank of the Indus River. This prediction came true when the Thiksey Monastery was established. This was followed by others such as Spituk Monastery and Likir Monastery, which are also situated on the right bank of the Indus. For more on current-day Thiksey Monastery, see below.
KING SENGE NAMGYAL AND THE 5TH DALAI LAMA/GANDEN PHODRANG’S WAR AND INVASION OF LADAKH
The Ladakhi King Sengge Namgyal (Sen-ge-rnam-rgyal, c. 1570–1642) was a 17th-century Namgyal dynasty King of Ladakh from 1616 to his death in 1642. A devout Buddhist, he was noted for his immense work in building monasteries, palaces and shrines in Ladakh, including the spectacular Leh Palace in Leh. He and is known as the “Lion King”, as his name Sengge means Lions. Sengge was born to Jamyang Namgyal and a Balti mother, Gyal Khatun. Sengge Namgyal, who ruled Ladakh from 1616 to 1623 and 1624 to 1642, he was a follower of the Ralung lineage of the Drukpa Kagyu school. It is here that we can see how the Dalai Lama and Gelug influence entered into Ladakh.
At that time, like Bhutan, Ladakh then had differences with the new Ganden Photrang [dga’ ldan pho brang] government of Tibet established and supported by the fifth Dalai Lama, Ngawang Lobzang Gyatso (ngag dbang blo bzang rgya mtsho) [1617-1682], which attempted to invade, control and own Ladakh. According to Tibetan scholar, Jinpa Nawang (2015):
“In 1697, the Ganden Phodrang government in Tibet launched a war against Ladakh. The operation was led by Mongol Prince, Ganden Tsewang, grandson of Gushri Khan , who had conquered central and Eastern Tibetan lands decades earlier through a series of military campaigns on behalf of the 5th Dalai Lama.”
It is said that the Ladakhis succeeded in pushing back the invading forces with the help from some Mughal forces from Kashmir but they lost areas of land to Tibet that previously had been under Ladakhi control.
In his article, Nawang challenges the unquestioning repetition by Tibetan, international and Chinese historians/scholars of the ‘official’ version of events as presented by the powerful ‘players’ of that time such as the 5th Dalai Lama and so on, which present the Drugpa Kagyu and Bhutan as hostile aggressors with Islamist tendencies and friends, thus justifying their violent invasion and takeover.
In his paper, which is worth reading in full for those interested in Ladakh and Tibetan politics, he even renames the war the ‘Mongol War’ (sgo po’i dmag) which he says is more in accordance with the Ladakhi view of it, and not the more common ‘Tibet-Ladakh-Mughal’ war. Ngawang also challenges the mainstream narrative and view that Drugpa sectarianism motivated the then Kings of Ladakh, Senge Namgyal. He states that since at least the 15th Century, Ladakhi Kings followed all the Tibetan Buddhist schools and teachers.
THE LADAKHI KING’S GUIDE A WANDERING DRUGPA KAGYU YOGI – TAKTSANG REPA NGAWANG GYATSO
In particular, Ngawang brings out that even though King Senge Namgyal did support and patronise Gelug and Sakya teachers, he was in particular a follower of the Drugpa Kagyu monk and yogi Taktsang Repa Ngawang Gyatso (stag tshang ras pa ngag dbang rgya mtsho) (1574-1651). However, this did not necessarily make the King a sectarian, as he has been accused of by sources following the Gelug narrative of historical events. Regarding Taktsang Repa, he was an accomplished Tibetan yogi who later became very important in the history of Ladakh:
“Following his stay in Kongpo, Lhatsewa sent Ngawang Gyatso to Tsari (rtsa ri) to meditate in Taktsang (stag tshang) Valley, which had become dominated by the Drukpa Kagyu. There he met the Sixth Zhamar, Chokyi Wangchuk (zhwa dmar pa 06 chos kyi dbang phyug, 1584-1630). Taktsang was then a wild place, and few had managed to remain as long as Ngawang Gyatso did. The Sixth Zharmapa praised him for this, grateful to him for subduing the place for future practitioners. Thus he earned his epithet, Taktsang Repa. In his autobiography Taktsang Repa states that he experienced a vision while at Taktsang to the effect that he would be charged with the wellbeing of Ladakh by a king whose name began with Sengge. This was certainly a reference to Sengge Namgyel (seng ge rnam rgyal, c.1570-1642).”
While Taktsang Repa was in Zanskar the king of Ladakh, Jamyang Namgyel (‘jam dbyangs rnam rgyal) invited him to Ladakh, pointing out that he was a patron of Drukpa establishments – he was a sponsor of Ralung, as well as monasteries in his own kingdom – and that Taktsang Repa’s presence there would benefit the tradition. Taktsang Repa declined, and upon being rejected, the king bemoaned the fact that charismatic lamas spent so much of their time on pilgrimage to remote places where few could hear their teachings. (Taktsang Repa would eventually land in Ladakh and serve Jamyang Namgyel’s successor.) Taktsang Repa did, however, spend time in upper Ladakh, in the region of Gya (rgya), at the bequest of Gya Drungpa Sherab Zangpo (rgya’i drung pa shes rab bzang po), a disciple of Lhatsewa[ii].
“He remained in Ladakh for much of the remainder of his life, serving King Sengge Namgyel, during whose reign Ladakh grew to its largest size. It was Sengge Namgyel, the son of Jamyang Namgyel, whose invitation Taktsang Repa had declined, who invaded and conquered Guge in 1630. Under Sengge Namgyel’s patronage Taktsang Repa established or restored a number of prominent monasteries, including Hanle (waM le), Hemis (he mi dgon), and Chemrey, built as a memorial following Sengge Namgyel’s death.”
ZHABDRUNG NGAWANG NAMGYAL’S RESISTANCE TO GELUGPA IN LADAKH AND BHUTAN
At the time of the reign of King Senge Namgyal, the Drugpa Kagyu head and resident of Ralang Monastery in Tibet at that time was Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal (1594–1651). An invitation was sent to Bhutan from the Ladakhi King requesting that Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal become the state priest; as the Zhabdrung was occupied confronting an invasion from Tibet and consolidating the new Bhutanese state, he sent Choje Mukzinpa as his representative to the court of Ladakh. Several religious estates were offered to the Bhutanese in present-day Ladakh, Zangskar, and western Tibet (Ngari Korsum [mga’ ris bskor gsum]), which was then part of Ladakh. One of them, Stakna Monastery or “Tiger’s Nose,” established by Choje Mukzinpa, became the main seat of the Southern Drukpa Kagyu tradition in Ladakh; this monastery still preserves artifacts and documents related to Bhutan, some of them said to have been gifted by Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal.”
Over his 35 years as the temporal and spiritual ruler of Bhutan, Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal also repelled a series of Tibetan invasions and overcame internal opposition to unify the country for the first time in its history. On seven occasions between 1616 and 1679, it is said that Tibet launched war against Bhutan, first under the Tsangpa king and, after 1642, under the central Gaden Photang government newly established by 5th Dalai Lama. As a result, Zhabdrung banned the Gelugpa sect and lineage from ever having monastic establishments in Bhutan. This explains why even today in Bhutan, the Gelugpa and Dalai Lamas have had little spiritual or political influence.
Thus, it seems the first time the Dalai Lamas entered into Ladakh then was via the Mongolian invasion and war with the aid of the 5th Dalai Lama/Ganden Phodrang government. Much has already been written about this time and how the new Ganden Phodrang government established absolute rule over Tibet and destroyed and/or confiscated texts, monasteries and property of the other main Tibetan Buddhist lineages, such as Kagyu, Nyingma, Sakya and Jonang but not so much is known about how they then established power and influence in Ladakh. For more on the Zhabdrung in Bhutan see Ardussi (2004). The most recent 9th Zhabdrung Rinpoche died in suspicious circumstances and was suspected of being murdered.
THIKSEY MONASTERY AND NUNNERY
Thiksey Monastery is affiliated with the Gelug sect of Tibetan Buddhism. It is located on top of a hill in Thiksey approximately 19 kilometres east of Leh in Ladakh, India. On approaching the monastery by road, one cannot help but see its resemblance to Potala Palace in Lhasa, Tibet. It is said to be the largest monastery in central Ladakh, notably containing a separate set of buildings for nuns that has been the source of significant recent building and reorganisation.
As Jan Willis states in her 2004 article, “The Cho-mos of Ladakh: From Servants to Practitioners”, in Ladakh, nunneries were held in a grossly inferior status and Buddhist nuns in particular lived in appalling conditions. In the 1990s, awareness was raised about the status of the nuns in Ladakh, and Thiksey received a degree of international attention and support.
In 1995, the Sakyadhita Conference of Buddhist Women was held in Leh, leading to the establishment of the Ladakh Nuns Association in 1996. This was important in raising the status of the nuns in Ladakh, to ensure a shift in their functional role of “servitude and to one of true spiritual practice”. It is reported that the Chief Lama, Thiksey Rinpoche of Thiksey Monastery was also important in these positive developments in the betterment of nuns. The monastery donated the land for a new nunnery at Nyerma, near Thiksey, at the same place where the very first monastic seat was established by Rinchen Zangpo, the Tibetan translator, in the tenth century. The nunnery is now under the patronage of Thiksey Monastery[iii].
The monastery is located at an altitude of 3,600 metres in the Indus Valley. It is a twelve-storey complex and houses many items of Buddhist art such as stupas, statues, thangkas, wall paintings and swords. One of the main points of interest is the Maitreya Temple installed to commemorate the visit of the 14th Dalai Lama to this monastery in 1970; it contains a 15 metres (49 ft) high statue of Maitreya, the largest such statue in Ladakh, covering two stories of the building. See photo I took below:
THE 14TH DALAI LAMA in LADAKH
Moving centuries forward to the current 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, his popularity and influence in Ladakh is undeniable. He is one of the few Tibetan Buddhist lamas and lineage heads to regularly teach there and has a residence just outside Leh, in Choglamsar, for video of him at his residence , see here. I am not sure when this residence was constructed, if anyone has any information do let me know.
The 14th Dalai Lama has also given the Kalacakra initiation in Ladakh several times. The first Kalacakra empowerment he gave was in Leh in 1976. Then in 1988 in Zanskar, and in 2014 in Leh again. The 14th Dalai Lama is currently in Ladakh now, and giving a three day teaching and Avalokiteshvara empowerment in Leh.
Interestingly, the 14th Dalai Lama gave a teaching in Leh in 2012 where he spoke extensively about how himself and other Gelug lamas had propagated a worldly deity, despite the 13th Dalai Lama and 10th Panchen Lama discouraging them from doing so, and that this malevolent spirit had even been recognised as such by the 5th Dalai Lama who had written that the worldly deity:
“had arisen as a result of distorted prayers and that his nature was malevolent, harming the Dharma and sentient beings.
The 14th Dalai Lama explained that:
“Apparently the 10th Panchen Lama, Lobsang Trinley Lhündrub, had propitiated this spirit, but shortly before he passed away in 1989, he found a charter written by the 8th Panchen, Tenpai Wangchuk, forbidding the monks of Tashi Lhunpo from doing this practice. He then published a similar notice from Beijing prohibiting its practice. The 13th Dalai Lama also discouraged the practice. I took up the practice, but once I discovered the faults of doing so I stopped.”
Now that the 14th Dalai Lama has given up his political leadership of Tibet in favour of a democratically elected leader, the Gelug/Ganden domination of Tibetan exile politics and monastic life is (and should be) slowly on the wane. Yet, the spiritual influence of the 14th Dalai Lama remains alive and kicking even at the grand, old age of 87 years! Reminding us all that the entourage/people surrounding or advising great Buddhist masters are not always acting with the same high and spiritual motives as those masters.
For more on the current activities of the 14th Dalai Lama in Ladkah, see here.
Generally, Gelug power and domination in Ladakh is still a political and social reality despite the fact that most of the monasteries there are Kagyu historically. It is also a reality in exile, particularly in Dharamsala, as HH 17th Karmapa spoke about directly to the 14th Dalai Lama a few years ago (see here). In addition, one can only wonder at what has happened to the Drugpa Kagyu influence in Ladakh and the head of the Drugpa Kagyu lineage. The 14th Dalai Lama spoke about the Kagyu and Drugpa Kagyu a few years ago during this teaching see here, and even though he is opposing rigid sectarianism (which has to be a good thing) it also seems to be indirectly perpetuating it in some ways too.
History has a habit of repeating itself if the lessons are not ignored or learned from. One cannot help but wonder at the karma of Ladakh having been invaded and taken over by Tibetans, in particular the 5th Dalai Lama, and yet being one of the first and main safe havens of exile in India for Tibetans escaping the Chinese government takeover and invasion In the 20th century. By offering that safe haven and passage, Ladakhis do not appear to be repeating and avenging past mistakes. However, the karmic reality of Chinese occupation and colonisation of Tibet and Tibetan culture is something which has its basis in the past karma/actions of Tibetans as a group and only a Buddha would know what that is. For us ordinary humans, one can only guess, but the violent takeover of Tibet, Ladakh and other areas by the Mongolians, aided by the Ganden Phodrang/5th Dalai Lama seems to be an all too obvious candidate. As does the propitiation of a worldly deity turned malevolent by distorted prayers and intentions, now publicly condemned by the 14th Dalai Lama.
Whatever the case may be, one can only hope for the sake of all Tibetans in exile and in Tibet, that harmony, peace, love and compassion are restored quickly in Tibet and with the Chinese.
Ardussi, John (2004). “Formation of the State of Bhutan (‘Brug gzhung) in the 17th Century and its Tibetan Antecedents”. Journal of Bhutan Studies. Thimphu: Centre for Bhutan Studies. 11.
Marks, Thomas A (1977). “History and Religion in the Ladakhi Kingdom.” The Tibet Journal, vol. 2, no. 2, 1977, pp. 38–56. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/43299855.
Namgyal, Tsetan (2018). “Lineage and Linkages between Stag Na Lho ’brug Monastery of Ladakh and ’Brug Pa Tradition of Tibetan Buddhism of Bhutan.” The Tibet Journal, vol. 43, no. 2, 2018, pp. 73–87. JSTOR, https://www.jstor.org/stable/26634919.
Jinpa, Nawang (2015). “Why Did Tibet and Ladakh Clash in the 17th Century?: Rethinking the Background to the ‘Mongol War’ in Ngari (1679-1684).” The Tibet Journal, vol. 40, no. 2, 2015, pp. 113–50. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/tibetjournal.40.2.113.
Ladakh’s Nuns by Deepthis Ashtana
Yoshiro Imaeda (2013). The Successors of Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel: Hereditary Heirs and Reincarnations. Thimphu: Riyang Books. p. 112.
[i] Although another online source states that: “The earliest known reference to political rule in Ladakh was found in an ancient Indo-Aryan language of the Kharosthi script. This inscription refers to the rule of Kushan Emperor Kaniska from 78 to 144 CE.” Tracing history of Ladakh’s dynamic borders — from Tibetan empire to Sikh rule to J&K state (theprint.in)
[ii] “After passing a year in Lahul, in August of 1615 Taktsang Repa pushed on to Swat. Over difficult terrain and with poor directions, and abandoned by several of his companions, Taktsang Repa had the additional bad fortune to run into a group of brigands who knocked him out and sold him into slavery. Bought by another band, he was again attacked in a house after reciting prayers, and escaped, only to be pursued and recaptured in a place called Sithar. Fortunately there he encountered a Brahmin who paid for his freedom, and Taktsang Repa was able to continue on to Bhayasahura where he joined a group of Buddhists. (One might note that here Tucci is in error in his summary of the text: he has it that Taktsang Repa told the Brahmin that he was not from Kashmir but from “Mahacina,” which one would presume to be China. However, Taktsang Repa clearly stated that he was from U-Tsang.)
Taktsang Repa passed some time with the group of Buddhist yogins, who called themselves Munda and who were led by a man called Buddhanata (bud+da nA tha). They received him warmly, giving him the name Shamonata (sha mo nA tha). He joined them in their periodic wresting matches, some of which were apparently fought to the death, and their night-time rituals carried out in a nearby cemetery. While with this group Taktsang Repa encountered a yogin from Oḍḍiyāna named Pelanata (pA la nA tha) who promised to bring him to Swat. Together they joined a party of traders and, finally, Taktsang Repa arrived in Swat. There he found only the remains of Buddhist activity, the region having long been converted to Islam. He returned to Tibet via Kashmir, Zanskar and Ladakh, leaving Ladakh in 1620.
Following his return, as he stopped at monasteries and palaces, Taktsang Repa became known for his voyage to Oḍḍiyāna, and he eventually acquired the epithet Orgyenpa (o rgyan pa), the one from Oḍḍiyāna. Among those to whom he reported his travels were the Tsang King Karma Puntsok Namgyel (gtsang sde srid kar+ma phun tshogs rnam rgyal, 1597-1632) and the Fifth Drukchen, who requested he compose an account of the voyage. Lhatsewa had passed away (in 1615) and Taktsang Repa spent some time at Gangkar Namgyel Lhunpo, his teacher’s residence.” From Treasury of Lives biography.
[iii] It is reported that today the nunnery houses 26 nuns, ranging from the ages of 43 to 87. The nuns themselves had taken steps to assert their position in the society by changing their traditional name of ‘ani’ (literal meaning “aunt” – a derogatory connotation of a servant) to “cho-mos”, the “female religious practitioners”. They even adopted the testament of Mahaprajapati on this issue, expressed by Buddha’s aunt and nun as their anthem. Under the influence of the 14th Dalai Lama’s words, Thiksey Rinpoche Nawang Jamyang Chamba Stanzin and Tsultrim Tharchin, a geshe became nuns’ activists at Thiksey. The Dutch Foundation for Ladakhi Nuns (DFLN), a charitable organisation also operates in Nyerma, providing monetary and individual services to support the Buddhist nuns of Ladakh.