Tibetan Poetry Down the Ages

As the foremost of human literary arts is said to be lyrics, the Tibetan people also have had various lyrics of different rhymes — extempore songs of kings (sgur), oral folksongs, etc. — from the earliest of times.

Mythical tales (lha-sdrung), stories (sdrung) and allegorical writings (gap-tsig) also abound from times as far back as of King Nyatri Tsenpo (127 B.C.).

During the reign of King Songtsen Gampo (617 A.D.), Minister Thumi Sambhota wrote a eulogy for the King after inventing, or reinventing, the Tibetan script. The poetry at the preface of that eulogy is deemed historically by many as the first Tibetan poetical composition.

In the 13th century, Sakya Pandita Kunga Gyaltsen translated into Tibetan, poems and verses of early Indian poets along with some of the structural and rhythmic rules of writing poetry, and compiled them in Gateway to Scholarship (Khaipa-la-jugpai-sgo). Sakya Pandita however left the translation incomplete as the contemporary intellectuals turned hostile to his translations because it was of “Indic origin, alien and non-Buddhist”.

The unfinished task of translation initiated by Sakya Pandita was later taken up by Tibetan scholar Shongten Dorjee Gyaltsen, who translated the whole poetic works of Acharya Dandi, foremost among the Indian poets of the 7th century, into Tibetan, Mirror of Poetry (Nyen-ngag Melong-ma).

Pang Lotsawa Lodoe Tenpa, a contemporary of Shongten, edited and added his own commentaries to the works of Shongten, and began formally tutoring them. Thenceforth, the Mirror of Poetry, which was purely of Indic origin, gradually became not only the tradition of Tibetan poetry, but also the root text for the future poets.

Following the rules of Indic traditions, poetry flourished in Tibet like the proverbial swell of summer’s ocean, producing a colossus mass of poetic works down the ages.

However, the tragedy of 1959 proved catastrophic to Tibetan literature. To put in the words of a Tibetan poet: “It literally took the breath out of Tibetan literature.” All publishing in Tibetan language ceased, and literary activities were reduced to mere translation of Chinese propaganda.

The relatively relaxed environment of the early eighties afforded some space for the Tibetan literati to flex their intellectual muscles while remaining within the limited confines of Party policy. This ushered in an era of “modern Tibetan literature”, the period which saw a renaissance in Tibetan publications when Tibetan journals and magazines “blossomed like spring flowers”.

Tibetan literature was further enriched and elevated by pioneering works of modern Tibetan writers like Dhondup Gyal, Jangbu, and Tsering Dhondup, who introduced new usages and genres of Tibetan literature that diverged from past traditions.

However, the increasingly stringent control imposed since 1994 on the works of Tibetan writers has effectively muzzled the creative energy that has been oozing from the early eighties.

(Originally published in Tibetan Bulletin – http://www.tibet.net/tibbul/2005/0506/ – but no longer available there.)

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