Christianity in early Tibet


Perhaps it was a forgone conclusion that Tibet would become a Buddhist country, surrounded as it was by the Buddhist kingdoms of India, China and Central Asia. Nevertheless, Tibet was subject to other the influences of other religions during its formative period, and among those influences we may perhaps include Christianity.

The best evidence of the involvement of Christian missionaries in early Tibet comes in the letters of Timothy I, who was Patriarch of the Nestorian Church between 780 and 823, overlapping with the reigns of three of Tibet’s great Buddhist emperors, Trisong Detsen, Senaleg and Ralpachen. Timothy I’s letters contain a couple of references to Tibet. In one letter, he lists the lands in which the Trisagion, one of the oldest Christian prayers, is recited. This list includes Tibet. In another letter, Timothy relates that he has recently appointed a metropolitan bishop for the Turks, and is about to do the same for the Tibetans. These references both date to the early 790s, during Trisong Detsen’s reign.

Another kind of evidence is the many examples of crosses carved onto rocks in Western Tibet and its neighbouring regions. Some examples were recorded by A.H. Francke in the early 20th century. The first of these crosses has a Tibetan inscription, “…in the year of the pig.”

Francke 1925 plate

As far as I know this is the only record of cross with a Tibetan inscription from Western Tibet. In addition, Giuseppe Tucci found small metal crosses, apparently worn as ornaments, in the same regions.

Dunhuang saintNow let’s turn to Central Asia, where we have another interesting assortment of crosses, and a Tibetan reference to Jesus the Messiah. First of all, there is a rather beautiful painting from Dunhuang, which at first glance looks like a bodhisattva. On closer inspection, we can see that his crown and necklace are adorned with crosses. What we have here seems to be a picture of a Christian (probably Nestorian) saint, by an artist trained in the Chinese style. Roderick Whitfield dates the painting to the late 9th century, shortly after the Tibetan rule of Dunhuang.

We have more evidence of Christian influence among the Tibetan manuscripts. There is a divination (mo) text, Pelliot tibétain 351, which is mainly Buddhist in character, but includes the following surprising passage:

Man, your ally is the god called “Jesus Messiah”. He acts as Vajrapāṇi and Śrī Śākyamuni. When the gates of the seven levels of heaven have opened, you will accomplish the yoga that you will receive from the judge at the right hand of God. Because of this, do whatever you wish without shame, fear or apprehension. You will become a conqueror, and there will be no demons or obstructing spirits. Whoever casts this lot (mo), it will be very good.

Géza Uray argued that the Christian elements here must have come from a Nestorian source, especially the idea of Jesus as the judge at the right hand of god, which is found in the Nicene Creed of the Nestorians, a copy of which is found in a Sogdian 9th-10th century manuscript in Turfan, not so far from Dunhuang. Rolf Stein, on the other hand, argued for a Manichaean source. Perhaps the source is not terribly important here anyway, since Jesus seems simply to have joined the array of local and Buddhist deities.

Uray also located drawings of crosses on two Dunhuang manuscripts from the French collection, Pelliot tibétain 1182 and 1676. There is nothing Christian in the writings on these manuscripts; the first contains a scribe’s doodles and writing exercises, while the second is a copy of the Prajñāpāramitā in 100,000 verses

To these I’d like to add another cross, one that nobody has ever mentioned it before, partly no doubt because the manuscript was passed over in de la Vallée Poussin’s catalogue and didn’t even have a number until recently. IOL Tib J 766 contains the sketch of a cross that is shown at the top of this post (just click on that image to view the whole manuscript). The manuscript is just a strip of paper, probably an offcut from a manuscript, which has been used as a doodle pad by a scribe. The writing is Tibetan and a Sogdian or Uighur script, perhaps both written by the same scribe, who may have been a Uighur Turk who also wrote in Tibetan. As we know that Nestorianism was quite popular among the Uighurs, this would make sense.

This particular cross has three beads at the end of each arm. It’s quite similar to the one in Pelliot tibétain 1182, which has three lines at the end of each arm, and to the cross in the crown of the saint pictured above, which has two beads at the end of each arm.

Having reviewed the evidence, it seems after that Buddhism was never in much danger of being supplanted by Christianity in Tibet. Even so, when we think about Timothy I’s appointment of a bishop for Tibet during the reign of Trisong Detsen, and see sketches of crosses surrounded by Tibetan writing in the Dunhuang manuscripts it becomes possible to imagine an alternative history. And having this so clearly, and visually, impressed upon us might encourage us to think again about the reasons for the ultimate success of Buddhism in Tibet.

1. Francke, A.H. 1925. ‘Felseninschriften in Ladakh’. In Sitzungsberichte der Preussischen Akademie der Wissenschaften. Philosophisch-Historische Klasse. Jahrgang 1925: 366-371.
2. Klimkeit, H.J. 1979. ‘Das Kreuzessymbol in der zentralasiatischen Religionsbegegnung’. In Zeitschrift für Religions-und Geistesgeschichte 31.1: 99-116.
3. Stein, R.A. ‘Une mention du manichéisme dans le choix du bouddhisme comme religion d’état par le roi tibétain Khri-sroṅ lde-bcan. In Indianisme et bouddhisme: Mélanges offerts á Mgr Étienne Lamotte. Louvain-la-Neuve. 329–337.
4. Tucci, Guiseppe. 1973. Transhimalaya. London: Barrie & Jenkins. [Translated from the French by James Hogarth.]
5. Uray Géza. ‘Tibet’s Connections with Nestorianism and Manicheism in the 8th–10th Centuries’. In Steinkellner and Tauscher (eds), Contributions on Tibetan Language, History and Culture. Vienna: Arbeitskries für Tibetische und Buddhistische studien Universität Wien.

Do also visit the Tibeto-Logic blog for a fascinating dissection of the popular story of Jesus’s visit to Tibet.

18 thoughts on “Christianity in early Tibet

  1. Dear Early,

    Looking at the original Dunhuang doc, it sure does look like the cross (at the heading of the blog) belongs to the Uighur/Sogdian-letter doodlings (can we find someone to read what these doodlings say? Perhaps there is something Christian about them?) rather than to the Tibetan-letter doodlings. (The Tibetan-letter doodlings look 100 percent unequivocally Buddhist in content) But I’m also thinking that if I were doodling mindlessly, crosses (similarly circles and squares) would be one of the basic forms that might come up (from the collective unconscious or wherever), as for instance when listening to a very boring lecture and pretending to take notes. If you were to see a circle, you wouldn’t immediately recognize it as a wedding band unless you had a context that would justify that interpretation. It could just as well be a blueprint for a round swimming pool.

    If there is anything remotely Christian about the things written next to it, then I’d say OK, it’s a Christian cross. Otherwise, I’d just say it’s a cross with a small ‘c’. Ditto Francke’s stupa that perhaps only apparently contains 2(!) Christian crosses. Granted, Francke was a peculiar sort of Christian, but still I see it as the same or similar kind of wishful thinking that had one evangelical (Maberley was his name?), on a recent trip to Tibet, see a cross on the top of Chakpori, the hill where the old medical school used to be before it was destroyed and replaced by, you guessed it, a television broadcasting tower. In this case, too, he interpreted his ‘vision’ as hopeful for the future of his lovingly aggressive faith in the land of the Lamas. Reading it, I’m sorry, but I failed to feel the inspiration, although I appreciated the effort.

    And I guess the message we may hear from the letter of the Nestorian Mar Timothy to Sergius that says that there was an intention of appointing a Bishop for the Tibetans in the 8th century, is just that there is no evidence that the appointment was made, let alone that that person ever went to Tibet. I guess that it says, “In these days the Holy Spirit has anointed a metropolitan for the Turks, and we are preparing to consecrate another one for the Tibetans.” The evidence both visual (ignoring the Ladakhi crosses for the moment) and textual may speak loudly for Christian presence in some significant degree at Dunhuang, but what about Central Tibet? I’m troubled by what seems to be a missing link in your train of thinking, since I for one don’t see the Dunhuang documents as very strongly or necessarily indicative of what was going on at the center of the Tibetan Empire. Do you?

    Do you think I am wrong to be skeptical of and question the wider implications that might be drawn by some people from the evidence you have presented?

    If you look at what happened with Nestorian ‘discoveries’ in China, the missionaries found great encouragement in these fragments of a “Christian” [conveniently forgetting about the heretical Nestorian Christology momentarily] past, thinking they augur well for a totally Christianized future!

    And I think the myth of Tsongkhapa’s meeting with the guy with the big nose (repeated ever since Abbé Huc at least), who had to have therefore been a Nestorian, who taught Tsongkhapa his “reforms” (hence explaining supposedly striking similarities between the two parties that were once called “Lamaism” and “Romanism”) is due for utter deconstruction if it hasn’t been already. (Tsongkhapa himself was the one who had the epithet ‘Big Nose’).

    (The scholarly ‘suspicion’ of Manichaean influence on “Lamaism” is, after all, based on the profound observation of one missionary, one ignorant of Sanskrit, that the name of its founder occurs in the most popular mantra in use in Tibet… Of course now Stein & Uray have written about better evidence for a knowledge of [not presence of] Manichaeism in late 8th century Tibet…)

    Relax, even St. Paul had a thorn in his flesh. Happy Holy Days.

    Yours as ever,

  2. Not sure about the St Paul comparison, but I am grateful for your thorny questions!

    Anyway, the short answer is that I certainly hope people will not draw conclusions from this evidence about Christianity having had a substantial influence on Tibet or Tibetan Buddhism, or auguries for its future. Perhaps naively, I hadn’t thought that the evidence, which is ‘marginal’ in every sense, would be taken that way by some readers. My aim was to present the idea of alternative history resulting in a Christian Tibet as a kind of thought experiment, not really an even remote historical possibility.

    So I will spell out the skeptical reading of the evidence…shortly when I have a little more time!

  3. Well, my eyes have been opened. I had no idea there were so many people trying to forge spurious connections between Buddhism, Tibet and Christianity. Surely their attempts say more about the emotional needs of Western Buddhists and Tibetophiles than anything else (like history, for instance).

    So here is my critical reading of the evidence, as promised. First, I do think that the cross drawn on the Dunhuang manuscript shown in this post is a Christian cross. Why? Because of the length of the downward spur, and the decorations at the ends of the four spurs. These are very similar to the cross seen in Pelliot tibétain 1182. Furthermore, both of these are similar to certain Nestorian crosses found in China; see for example the famous 8th century Nestorian monument from Xian here (from this article).

    Xian is not so far from Dunhuang (well, it’s an hour’s flight). It seems that what we have here is traces of Nestorian Christianity among some residents of Dunhuang. Interestingly, recent finds in Dunhuang’s northern caves have included Syriac Christian manuscripts.

    However, just because these crosses appear on Tibetan manuscripts, we should not jump to the conclusion that they were written by Tibetans. There were communities of Sogdians and Uighur Turks in Dunhuang, as well as other nearby cities, and by the 10th century neighbouring Ganzhou had become a centre of Uighur power. We know that the Sogdians and the Uighurs were the most successful conversions of the Nestorian church. (By the way, I recommend Richard Foltz’s excellent popular account of the spread of Buddhism, Christianity and other religions in this region, ‘Religions of the Silk Road’.)

    It is quite true that in my ‘new’ manuscript, IOL Tib J 766, the cross is surrounded mainly by Sogdo-Uighur writing. Peter Zieme has kindly transcribed these scribbles, but so far they have no yielded any meaning. The Tibetan writing, on the other hand, is a series of stock Buddhist phrases that are clearly practice handwriting exercises. Perhaps the scribe of this manuscript was a Uighur practising his Tibetan handwriting?

    In fact, a significant portion of the Tibetan manuscripts from Dunhuang were almost certainly written by non-Tibetans: by Chinese, Khotanese, Uighurs and so on. The Tibetan language served as a ‘lingua franca’ after the end of the Tibetan Empire, and it also served as the language of tantric Buddhism, for Tibetans and non-Tibetans alike.

    I suspect the same is true for those crosses found by Francke and others in the western regions. Apart from a single Tibetan inscription (under a ‘cross’ that could just as well be a stupa), there is no evidence that these were inscribed by Tibetans. Considering the early and significant Nestorian influence on the Sogdians and Iranians, they are far more likely to have inscribed these crosses. We should especially remember that the Sogdian merchant class travelled widely throughout Central Asia. Tucci in his Transhimalaya emphasised the fact that the small objects he found (which included crosses) were from nomads and therefore the actual find sites were of limited significance.

    In contemplating the plausibility of an alternate history in which Tibet became a Buddhist country (a kind of thought experiment, as I mentioned earlier), I was not arguing for any actual impact of Christianity on Central Tibet. Whether Timothy I got around to appointing a metropolitan bishop for Tibet is really a moot point. Even if he did, that bishop left not a trace in history. Equally, the divination manuscript is indicative only of a local practice in which Jesus has been incorporated as one of a myriad of deities. The passage is unique to this manuscript, and no further influence can be inferred from it.

    That, then, is my sceptical reading of the evidence, which I believe to be the most accurate way to read it. I also believe that we should not–negatively influenced by the wishful (and unsystematic) thinking of some–reject the idea of religions co-existing in the margins of Tibetan culture. This is certainly the picture provided by the Dunhuang manuscripts, and one of the reasons that studying them can be so interesting and surprising.

  4. Dear Early,

    I have to admit after putting [1] your newly discovered Dunhuang cross (from the head of the blog) next to [2] the 8th century Nestorian monument cross next to [3] the Dunhuang Pelliot tibétain no. 1182 cross (illustrated in the very back of the book “Contributions on Tibetan Language, History & Culture, ed by Ernest Steinkellner & Helmut Tauscher). 1 is similar to 3 in having all four arms of the cross ending in smaller crosses of their own (but 3 doesn’t have the balls at the end of each arm of the arm-ending crosses, and in 3 the arms all seem to be of equal length). 1 is similar to 2 in having three balls at the end of each arm (but 2 doesn’t have the arm-ending crosses, and the lower arm seems only slightly longer, among still other differences). But beyond seeing those similarities and differences I’m still quite confused. Let me try to cast light on the confusions that go together to create my confusion. Vajrayana Buddhist mandalas all have an underlying “cross” structure (the rgya-gram), which evidently has Abhidharma cosmogonic ideas to support it, although that all leads into even greater areas of perplexity not necessary to go into right now. Would you want to argue that the crossed vajra (rdo-rje rgya-gram) is a Christian cross when everything else around it is just so Buddhist. Actually, I understand that Christians did use the term rgya-khram in earlier Bible translation work until Jaeschke (author of the dictionary) decided to translate it with brkyang-shing instead. It would seem that Jaeschke preferred his less appropriate translation precisely because he wanted to avoid the *Buddhist* cosmogonical associations of rgya-gram (also spelled rgya-khram, rgya-kram). See Jaeschke’s dictionary, p. 18, for at least part of the argument.

    Some of the embroidered Asian “Syriac” crosses in that very article you cited, the ones with the huge squared central section, look very much like mandalas to me. Perhaps I’ll just go on and claim that they *are* mandalas. Like you, for the moment at least, I’ll just let the overwhelming evidence of the form override context.

    Examples of all these kinds of crosses may be found at this webpage:

    Here you have your “cross crosslet” that most closely resembles Pt 1182.

    The one with the large square at the center is supposed to be called the “quadrate cross.” Try schmoogling that and “St. Chad’s cross.” This last one is most clearly a mandala, you will have to agree.

    I hope you’re enjoying this art/symbolism history game, which seems to resemble “Go” in the sense that I’m not sure about all the rules of the game. Your move.


  5. I wouldn’t want to fall into the trap of practising the kind of art history that works on the assumption that if x looks similar to y, there must be a historical connection. That might be a fine rule for an art-historical game, but falls short of our complex reality.That’s why I tried to give (in the previous comment) a relatively clear cultural context for the appearance of crosses in Tibetan manuscripts.

    So it’s at all true to say that I “let the overwhelming evidence of the form override context.” Since two of our crosses (Pelliot tibétain 1182 and IOL Tib J 766) have nearly exact parallels in Christian iconography, and appear in a cultural context in which we can expect Nestorian Christianity to have been present, through the Uighur population primarily, there seems little point in disputing their Christian identity.

    The presence of crosses in mandalas seems to be a red herring here, unless of course you can show us a mandala diagram with a cross as similar to Pelliot tibétain 1182 or IOL Tib J 766 as the Nestorian cross at Xian (and indeed the ‘cross crosslet’ and ‘croix treflee’ as illustrated in the Heraldry section of the cross glossary link in your last comment). We do have diagrams of mandalas in the Dunhuang manuscripts, and they don’t look like this.

    Though as I said before there are no conclusions to be drawn from these crosses regarding the presence of Christianity in Central Tibet!

  6. Dear Early,

    I guess my point was mainly that the “cross” has a history in Buddhism that very probably goes back before any real Tibetan contact with Nestorian or any other kind of Christianity. That cross, the rgya-gram, was not a Christian symbol, and should not be seen as one. Ditto the Asian/Syriac crosses that closely resemble the form of the mandala. You’re right. They’re not mandalas. But if I can admit that they aren’t mandalas, why do you have so much trouble admitting that your crosses are not Christian crosses? It really is the same logic, as far as I can see (admitting at the same time that logic isn’t always the best of tools for understanding history). Next move.

    PS: for those who aren’t familiar with the crossed vajras, there are many examples here:
    The Tibetan words “rdo rje rgya gram” appear at least once in a Dunhuang text (IDP database).
    The Sanskrit term, as used in Indian Buddhist Vajrayāna scriptures, is catuṣpatha (‘four-path, crossroad’).

  7. I really have no axe to grind here (though I’m beginning to feel this new discovery is a cross to bear). Indeed drawings of crossed vajras do appear in the Dunhuang manuscripts. Have a look at IOL Tib J 420 on the IDP database. This is a crossed vajra. Equally, the design on IOL Tib J 766 is a Nestorian cross. Both assertions are reasonable, indeed logical. The crossed vajras on J 420 are concordant in form, as well as context (it’s a tantric text) with other crossed vajras. Likewise the cross in J 766 is concordant in form and context, the context being the Uighur writing. There were Nestorian Uighurs. The context is established. As we say in London, “end of.”

  8. Dear Early,

    It’s been fun crossing swords. But one final thrust and parry if you will permit. Underlying the presence of the crossed Vajra as the basis for the mandala is the (simple, totally non-Christian) cross, composed of the first two lines that are drawn as part of the construction of the mandala. That’s the four-path of the Indian texts.

    I didn’t intend to make a crossed-vajra vs. Nestorian cross comparison. That’s your contribution. I just wanted to call attention to the fact that there were crosses in Indian & Tibetan culture that did and do have nothing to do with Christianity. Therefore, a wider social context in which Christianity was a (mere?) possibility is not enough to tell me that a cross is a Christian cross, regardless of the number of balls on the ends of the arms, not in the absence of a more specific context. In the case of a manuscript “cross,” it ought to have confirmation in the writing on that manuscript (and in the same ink and penmanship). That people brought up in Christian countries have minds that refuse to acknowledge the non-cross-ness of crosses is just a result of their imprinting. It’s an instant reflex. (The same principle is at work in the ‘recognition’ of other symbols…) Likewise, seeing some of those embroidered Asian/Nestorian crosses, as a Tibetan Buddhist I would be able to see nothing but mandalas, and nobody could tell me otherwise. Go ahead, tell me I’m silly, and that they are really crosses. I’d answer you that if that’s the case they must have copied them from our mandalas after all.

    Cultural conditioning is powerful stuff, even when taken in moderation. Don’t you agree just a little bit?


  9. I guess that unless the Uighur scribbles on J 766 turn out to be saying “here is a Christian cross,” you are within your rights to maintain your sceptical stance. And it’s true that cultural conditioning is a factor in our immediate reaction to these percepts (though I’m not sure that you or I haven’t seen and received the imprints of as many a crossed vajra as a crucifix). Still, we have the rational capacity to think around our conditioning, I hope. So I do agree–just a little bit.

  10. Dear Early,

    OK, now that you’ve given in an inch, I can just say that you’re probably perfectly correct that it’s a Christian cross. Well, at the very least just a little bit. Ha ha :->])

    Merry Christmas!
    – † Dab

  11. Or should that be Ho Ho? At least nobody has yet accused St Nick of travelling to Tibet.

    Merry Christmas to you too!

  12. Fascinating stuff; this is like discovering the Christian mission to Kerala in India for me, just never knew about anything this far east. Could you provide a reference for the finds of Syriac MSS in Tibetan cave explorations? It would be a wonderful thing to be able to cite. Thanks for your efforts so far.

  13. Look up for the following on
    1911-1912 encyclopedia.

    Includes information on geography, history, and missions.
    The Archdiocese of Agra is an outcome of the Tibet Mission, which was the first regularly established in this part of India. Pellegrino da Forli in his …
    • CATHOLIC ENCYCLOPEDIA: Evariste Regis Huc
    Since the travels of the Englishman, Thomas Manning, in Tibet (1811-1812), no foreigner had visited Lhasa. The authenticity of Huc’s journey was disputed …

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