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Tibetan flags of the imperial era (Tibet)

Bod, Bö, བོད་

Last modified: 2021-01-09 by ian macdonald
Keywords: tibet | sun | moon | stars | snow lion | ying-yang | orb: burning | mountains |
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[Tibetan imperial era flag] image by Zoltan Horvath, 21 February 2014

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A former Tibetan official, Wangchuk Deden Shakabpa, wrote a two volumes book entitled One hundred thousand moons, published in 2010 by Brill. This book depicts the Tibetan's point of view of the Chinese-Tibetan relations and history. In the first volume, there is a section dedicated to the Tibetan flags. Shakabpa gives here some information about the flags in use during the imperial era.
Tibet appeared in history in 641, when the tsenpo (the "mighty one") Songtsen Gampo sent a minister in China to find a princess he could marry. Such demands were common and were part of the usual diplomatic relations between the empire of China and some of its neighbours. The tsenpo was then just a petty local king who was gradually subduing his neighborhood. But he and his heirs succeeded in establishing a powerful dynasty ruling a powerful empire stretching from central Asia to western China, and from the present Xinjiang to northern India. At some time, Tibet was strong enough to force China to treat it as its equal and to rule other peoples such as Turks, Uighurs and others. The empire ended in 841, when the emperor Langdarma was killed by a Buddhist monk. The dynasty did survive for some time, but was divided between different pretenders, and the local nobles used it to build up their own little kingdoms. Not surprisingly, China and other neighbours also took advantage of the situation to take back the territories they had lost to Tibet during the previous centuries.

Shakabpa wrote about these imperial (and later) flags (pp. 94-95) :
"during the reign of the sovereign Songtsen Gampo, the banner of the military leader of Upper and Lower ü had a red striped flap and a red hero's banner, the Upper and Lower Right Hand Regiment had a red lion banner and a white hero's banner with a black heart, the banner of the Upper and Lower Regiment of Rulak had a lion jumping into the sky and a black hero's banner, the Upper and Lower Left Hand Regiment had a black banner with a garuda and a hero's banner dyed yellow, and so forth.

During the time of the sovereign Trisong Detsen, when he led his army into China, the banner of the Tsang regiment had a white lion jumping into the sky, the banner of the Upper and Lower Rulak Regiment had a white field, the banner of the Right Hand Upper Regiment was like a black lake, the banner of the Right Hand Lower Regiment had a lion on a multi-colored background, and the banner of the Upper ü Regiment was red with a white flap. The banner of the Lower ü Regiment had a lion on a black background, the banner of the Left Hand Upper Regiment had two lions facing each other, and the banner of the Left Hand Upper Regiment was ornamented with five colors."

"The regimental banner during the time of the divine son, Muru Tsenpo, was called Jangyülma and Jangdrama."
"Subsequently, some histories record that when the armies of the glorious Sakyapa, Pakdru, Rinpung, and Tsang traveled, they had regimental banners, stupas and so forth. However, details like the actual colors do not seem to have been recorded with certainty."
I believe the hero's banner (weldar, dbal-dar in Wylie transliteration) is a triangular flag.
Corentin Chamboredon, 21 August 2011

While surfing on Wikipedia, I went to the Tibetan flag page, hoping to see new informations. To my surprise, there is now an allegedly "7th century snow lion standard of the Tibetan Emperor, Songtsen Gampo" which is based on a uncredited photograph. A few seconds later, I found the origin of this photograph. It comes from Phayul, a pro-Tibetan independence website. The original article, Independent Tibet - The facts, was written by Jamyang Norbu.
Sources: and
The caption of the photograph reads "Ancient lion standard - courtesy of Tenzin.G.Tethong and AMI". I don't know if this is really an old imperial flag. But it is very similar to the flag above, since it shows the moon and the sun, except this one lacks the mountains, has a red field and the snow lion is holding a purple thing in its right forepaw (which is probably the burning ball). This flag is closer to what the explorer Alexandra David-Néel mentioned as "crimson with an embroidered lion" in 1914.
Corentin Chamboredon, 05 February 2014

I found another photograph of this flag, but what the previous links didn't show was an horizontal yellow border on the right, with two green squares on each end of the border, and a green lozenge in the middle. Such border appear on other Tibetan flags but near the hoist. See Dalai Lama Personal flag, Tibet flag in 1938, Tibet Riot flag, etc. So I wonder if the flag is either displayed with the reverse side on the front, or maybe the photograph is itself mirrored. If it is the case, then the snow lion was shown contourné, that is to say looking at the right.
The flag was displayed last year at a photo exhibition in remembrance of a Tibetan scholar. The exhibition was set up by the Library of Tibetan Works and Archive (LTWA) and Amnye Machen Institute.
Corentin Chamboredon, 17 February 2014

Could it be that pink and gray are actually meant to be white and green, respectively, which are somehow mixed with some red, probably by an error? That would give the usual colors of a snow lion, and the disc would then be the representation of the moon (the other, golden disc would clearly be the sun).
Tomislav Todorović, 17 February 2014

I think so. Maybe the lights of the room give us a false impression about the true colours (or the photograph itself was modified). Snow lions are traditionally drawn and described as white with green manes. As for the discs, the sun and the moon already appear on the similar flag shown at Tibet 1920-c. 1925 page, so it seems very likely they also represent these celestial bodies.
Corentin Chamboredon, 18 February 2014

Well, the green parts would seem to be in likely location for re-enforcing the hoist. The yellow as a whole might be where a torn edge was replaced. If this is seen more often, I don't know whether it's functional or customary, though. But I agree that it looks like a sinister hoist, with the animal directed towards the fly.
Then again, it looks to me like there's also writing in the yellow. But is the writing there for the yellow stripe, or is the stripe there for the writing?
Peter Hans van den Muijzenberg, 23 February 2014

I'm not sure about it. It could be a false impression due to the fabric reflecting light or maybe some repetitive pattern? Those could also be prayers, as on the prayer flags found everywhere in Tibet.
Corentin Chamboredon, 23 February 2014

I don't think the colours are wrong image-wide; the rest of the hall looks too normal for that.
Lighting on the stage does seem to be different, at least the tops of the stage walls show more purplish where the light from the hall can not reach them. Likewise, the green curtains show blue at the top. But that's the important bit: The effect is only visible where the hall light doesn't go. And the hall light itself does leave several things white, so I don't think that is colouring the flag either.
One might think of an old flag where so much of the paint has worn away that the red shines through. But though that would work well on the white, I wonder how it would work on the green. I'd say it would probably get uneven green and red bits there, depending on wear, and we don't see that here.
I do wonder what would happen is you were to wash a red flag, in particular when the red paint would not be water-proof. White would become pink, bluish green would probably become greyish, blue would become purplish. Only yellow might survive, going from a bright hue to a more orangey one. ...
Peter Hans van den Muijzenberg, 23 February 2014