Karma Tseten

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Karma Tseten (Wylie: karma tshe-brtan) (died 1599), also known as Zhingshak Tseten Dorje (Wylie: zhing-shag tshe-brtan rdo-rje) was a king of Upper Tsang in West Central Tibet. He was the founder of the Tsangpa Dynasty, that had an important role in the history of Tibet from 1565 to 1642, ruling in the period 1565-1599.

Rebelling against the Rinpungpa[edit]

Karma Tseten, in full Karma Tseten Dorje, belonged to a clan from Nyag which claimed descent from Jñanakumara, a disciple of the eighth-century tantric master Padmasambhava.[1] In fact he does not seem to have belonged to any noble house. At this time the Rinpungpa Dynasty held superior power in the Tsang region and was somehow related to Karma Tseten's lineage.[2] Coming from relatively modest circumstances, Karma Tseten was used by the Tsang ruler for various tasks, such as chief groom and tax collector. In 1548 he was entrusted with the governorship of the Samdrubtse castle in Shigatse.[3] This was a place of great strategical importance in Tsang. Some years later he began to plot against his Rinpungpa master. According to a picturesque but maybe apocryphical story he obtained a written permit to collect 300 sewing needles from the local population. As the words for needle and armour are very similar in Tibetan, Karma Tseten made a slight change in the document, and could thus collect 300 suits of armour.[4] In 1557, according to one source, he raised the standard of rebellion, helped by the discontent with the Rinpungpa among vassals such as Narthang, Norkhyung, and Gyatso.[5] According to another eyewitness account, he bided his time until 1565, when he was appointed magpon (general). Then he started an uprising that took the Rinpungpa ruler Ngawang Jigme Drakpa by complete surprise. The situation was made worse for the Rinpungpa since some nobles close to them committed treason. Karma Tseten was able to take Panam Lhundrup Kyungtse and the Pakmori Gold Castle from Ngawang Jigme Drakpa. The latter was besieged and captured; one of his sons was imprisoned while another one was killed.[6] The Drukpa lama Kunkhyen Pema Karpo was able to mediate between the warring parties. However, just after the Tibetan new year in 1566, fresh fighting broke out in lower Nyangtö. The Drukpa lama intervened again. Karma Tseten requested all the lands above Jomo Kharek (a mountain at the border between Ü and Tsang), but was finally content with the entire Panam area.[7] With these events the Rinpungpa faded into insignificance.

Political and religious program[edit]

After 1565-66 Karma Tseten, who was also known as Zhingshagpa, declared himself Tsangtö Gyalpo, King of Upper Tsang.[8] It was nevertheless clear that the new royal line did not have the prestige of families descended from the ancient Tibetan kings; in fact, their status as an upstart dynasty may have contributed to their hasty end in 1642.[9] The 16th century was marked by a relative decline of secular noble houses in comparison to the main Buddhist sects, such as the Gelugpa and Karma Kagyu, which formed comprehensive ritual alliances with political repercussions. In this volatile political-religious landscape it was important for a new ruler to find support from the sects. The 9th Karmapa hierarch, Wangchuk Dorje, met Karma Tseten in 1567, and again in 1585 and 1590. The meetings seem to have been accompanied by the transfer of tutelary deities to the king.[10] But the dynasty founded by Karma Tseten also kept good relations with representatives of the Jonang, Sakya and Nyingma sects. The overall strategical aim of his rule was to keep Tibet free from the encroaching Mongols who began to ally with the Third Dalai Lama, Sonam Gyatso, in his time. He wished to bring back the institutions of the old Tibetan Empire in order to achieve a well-governed and prosperous Tsang.[11] Karma Tseten and his offspring do not seem to have entertained any relations with the Ming Dynasty of China.[12]

King of Upper Tsang[edit]

Karma Tseten's dynastic regime became known as the Tsangpa, after the Tsang region.[13] He made friendly overtures to the Phagmodrupa dynasty, the weak line of kings in Nêdong in Ü (East Central Tibet). He also made contacts with the Mongols of the Kokonor region, and secured a promise of assistance from the Chogthu tribe.[14] He furthermore undertook expansion towards western Tibet, where the territories Latö Lho and Latö Chang were placed under his authority. This was probably just a case of loose overlordship, since these areas had to be reconquered by his grandson Karma Phuntsok Namgyal in 1612-13.[15] The Rinpungpa tried to revive their fortunes and performed an abortive raid on Kyishö in Ü in 1575. Possibly connected to this, Karma Tseten clashed with the Rinpungpa in the next year. The Karmapa and Shamarpa hierarchs stepped in to mediate in the conflict, but the next years saw fresh trouble between the two.[16] A new war flared up in 1588-89 between Rong, the heartland of the Rinpungpa, and Karma Tseten. In the following year 1590, the Rinpungpa finally had to capitulate which, according to the influential exorcist Sogdogpa, was "just as the stream of earlier and later wars had become like water reaching a boil". The event fulfilled the prophecy "the polity of Tsang will become a stable alliance" and the region henceforth enjoyed a certain inner stability.[17] However, Central Tibet was repeatedly threatened by incursions of Mongol groups. In 1587 they reached Oyug close to Rinpung, and in 1596 they roamed a wide area including Purang, Mustang, Dolpo in Nepal, Mount Kailash, Latö, and Chang. The partial failure of the Mongol raids was attributed to the powerful exorcism of Sogdogpa.[18]

Family and demise[edit]

Karma Tseten had nine sons, of which the most prominent were Karma Thutob Namgyal, Khunpang Lhawang Dorje and Karma Tensung.[19] Of these, Khunpang Lhawang Dorje intervened in a local feud where two brothers of the Changdakpa line quarreled, and favoured the elder brother. Karma Tseten forced the younger brother Tashi Tobgyal (1550?-1603) in exile to Ü. The vengeful Tashi Tobgyal performed tantric rites, with the supposed result that Karma Tseten died from "the sharp pain from Vishnu's sword".[20] The year of his demise is given differently in the literature, but according to the near-contemporary text Sogdog gyi tsulgyi logyu he died in 1599.[21] The details of his succession are likewise unclear; his sons Khunpang Lhawang Dorje and Karma Thutob Namgyal are mentioned as rulers in 1582 and 1586, respectively. The next important Tsangpa king was, however, Karma Tensung who seems to have taken over the throne in 1599.


  1. ^ Giuseppe Tucci, Tibetan Painted Scrolls, Rome 1949, Vol. II, p. 697.
  2. ^ According to the biography of the Drukpa hierarch Pagsam Wangpo, Karma Tseten's grandson Karma Phuntsok Namgyal was a "nephew" of the penultimate Rinpungpa ruler Dondup Tseten Dorje; see Olaf Czaja, Medieval rule in Tibet. Wien 2013, Vol. I, p. 493.
  3. ^ Tsepon W.D. Shakabpa, One Hundred Thousand Moons, Leiden 2010, p. 280.
  4. ^ Tsepon W.D. Shakabpa, Tibet. A Political History, New Haven & London 1967, p. 89.
  5. ^ Tsepon W.D. Shakabpa, 2010, p. 280-1; Fifth Dalai Lama, The history of Tibet. Bloomington 1995, p. 192.
  6. ^ Olaf Czaja, 2013, p. 279.
  7. ^ Tsepon W.D. Shakabpa, 2010, p. 281.
  8. ^ Sarat Chandra Das, 'Tibet under her Last Kings (1434-1642 A.D.)', Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal 1:6 1905 p. 166.
  9. ^ Benjamin Bogin, 'The Red and Yellow war: Dispatches from the field', in Benjamin Bogin & Andrew Quintman (eds), Himalayan passages: Tibetan and Newar studies in honor of Hubert Decleer. Boston 2014, p. 330.
  10. ^ David Templeman, 'The 17th cent. gTsang rulers and their strategies of legitimation', 2013, p. 73 [1]
  11. ^ David Templeman, 2013, pp. 67-9.
  12. ^ Hugh Richardson, Tibet & its history, Boston & London 1984, p. 38.
  13. ^ The Tsangpa rulers are variously known as desi (regents), depa (regional lords), gyalpo (kings), or maharajas. Later sources by Gelugpa historians, hostile to the Tsangpa, avoided giving them royal titles in their works; see Navina Lamminger, Der Sechste Zhva dmar pa Chos kyi dbang phyug (1584–1630) und sein Reisebericht aus den Jahren 1629/1630: Studie, Edition und Übersetzung. PhD Thesis, Ludwig-Maximilian-Universität, 2013, p. 12. [2]
  14. ^ Tsepon W.D. Shakabpa, 1967, p. 89.
  15. ^ Karl-Heinz Everding & Dawa Dargyay Dzongphugpa, Das tibetische Fürstentum La stod lHo (um 1265-1642), Wiesbaden 2006, p. 112.
  16. ^ Olaf Czaja, 2013, p. 291.
  17. ^ James Gentry, Substance and sense: Objects of power in the life, writings, and legacy of the Tibetan ritual master Sog bzlog pa Blo gros rgyal mtshan, PhD Thesis, Harvard University 2013, p. 181. [3]
  18. ^ James Gentry, 'Representations of efficacy: The ritual expulsion of Mongol armies in the consolidation and expansion of the Tsang (Gtsang) Dynasty', in José Ignacio Cabezón (ed.), Tibetan ritual. Oxford 2010, pp. 141-2.
  19. ^ Giuseppe Tucci, 1949, Vol. II, p. 697.
  20. ^ Tsepon W.D. Shakabpa, 2010, pp. 281-82.
  21. ^ James Gentry, 2013, p. 138. Benjamin Bogin, 2014, p. 325, also mentions 1599 as the date of his death. His regnal dates are given as 1565-1588 by a Chinese site, http://www.huisongshu.com/ming.htm . The same site says that he was succeeeded by his sons Khunpang Lhawang Dorje 1588-1608, and Karma Tensung 1588-1611.
Preceded by
Ngawang Jigme Drakpa
Ruler of Tsang
Succeeded by
Karma Thutob Namgyal, Khunpang Lhawang Dorje and Karma Tensung