Kham Place Essay

Tibetan Renaissance Seminar > Week 7 > Kham

Kham Place Essay from the Tibetan Renaissance Seminar

Contributor(s): Alison Melnick, Chelsea Hall.


This essay is an attempt to bring together resources and references on the study of Kham, past, present and future. It is intended to be a constantly expanding and fluctuating document that interested collaborators are encouraged to augment.


Kham (khams), the easternmost region of Tibet, has long been considered a cultural border area between Central Tibet (Ü and Tsang) and western China. The borders of what is considered to be Kham run north and south along a paralell with the eastern edge of Nagchu (in the Jangtang region), and span the area to Dartsedo in the east. Dartsedo is considered the easternmost border between China and cultural Tibet. Shakabpa places the exact location of this division between Kham and China at an iron bridge in the town, but the different cultural groups come together throughout the whole region, making it immpossible to indicate an exact point of division between cultural Tibet and China (Shakabpa, pg. 2). The other major towns in Kham include Derge, Ganze, Chamdo, Litang, Batang (in central Kham), Gyegundo in the north, and Gyaltang in the south. The region has been divided into four different provinces of the People's Republic of China (PRC), these are the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) in the west, Qinghai in the north, Sichuan in the east, and Yunnan in the south. There are currently 50 PRC counties that fall within the current borders of Kham. 16 counties fall within Sichuan province, 25 are in the TAR, 6 are in Qinghai, and 3 are in Yunnan province. While there have been borders drawn around what is today considered Kham, these borders have historically been far more malleable and the current lines to not necessarily reflect this historical fluidity. As Gardner says in his 2003 article, "Not until the Community takeover were khams pa territories subject o defined geographical boundaries." (Gardner, pg. 66) Today Kham includes some of the most populated areas of cultural Tibet.

The history of the region has been poorly considered by non-Tibetan scholars thus far (as evidenced in Alexander Gardner's 2003 survey article "Khams pa Histories: Visions of People, Place and Authority"). In his article, Gardner points out that, while the region has been included in multiple general histories of Tibet, Kham has never been the central focus of a scholarly book; he concludes that such a study is long-overdue. A significant aspect of Khampa history is the development of institutional religious practices in the area. Gardner emphasizes that institutional religion is of central importance to understanding the cultural, political, and economic aspects of a region's history (Gardner, pg. 65). In the case of Kham, religion is also extremely important to our understanding of group identities in the region. As Gardner explains, religious history constitutes "the major part of the available written historical record" of Kham (Gardner, pg. 61). It is therefore an extremely useful area of information from which to glean understanding about the region, especially when we consider the continual centrality of religion in Kham's social milieu. An understanding of Kham's history will also be instructional if we hope to fully comprehend both internal pan-regional Tibetan history and the history of Tibetan relations with her neighbors. It is true that while the organizers of many Khampa institutions have looked west to Central Tibet for identification and inspiration, Kham has also had its own central religious and political administrative centers. Gardner cites pre-Renaissance evidence of ties with the Tibetan imperial institution, and the important interactions between the two regions have continued to the present day.

During the Renaissance, the different schools of Tibetan Buddhism were in competition for influence in Kham. It was during this time that many monasteries were founded, and many Khampas traveled back and forth to Central Tibet, where they became leading monks and lay scholars (two examples of this phenomenon are found in the persons of Bari Lotsawa and Jangchub Sempa Aseng, see Davidson, pg. 277). Indeed, the Blue Annals is filled with accounts of scholars going to Kham to receive teachings and initiations. It is mentioned more than 80 times as a place to go for teachings, to found monasteries, and to "propagate the doctrine" (Blue Annals pg. 155). Kham was also a place of origination of teaching lineages, including "the lineage of Vairocana" as mentioned in the Blue Annals (pg. 158). It was during the Renaissance period that the first Karmapa, Dusum Khyenpa (dus gsum mkhyen pa) founded the Karma Kagyu monastery Karma dgon (in 1147). Likewise, this period saw the foundation of the Nyingma monastery of Kathog in Derge (the first Buddhist monastery in Kham), and the Bonpo monastery of sTeng chen (founded 1110).

Blue Annals References to Kham

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

shes rab 'bar of 'bre, the best of the lo tsa ba's disciples, visited the monastery of skyegs gnas rnying and others. He preached extensively both the Sūtra of the Prajn͂͂āpāramitā and the śāstras (i.e. commentaries). It is said, that during his teaching, the gods used to come down to hear his exposition. In his teaching he followed the tradition of the Prajn͂͂āpāramitā as taught during the period of the early spread of the Doctrine and which had been preserved in khams. While he had numerous disciples, the Lineage of Teaching was mainly held by byang chub ye shes of ar. He taught till a very old age at gnam rtse ldan (near rwa sgreng) and other monasteries. During this period, he also acted as abbot of rgyal lha khang, and also composed many expositions on the Prajn͂͂āpāramitā and its commentaries (śāstras). The Tibetan traditional interpretation of the basic text of the Prajn͂͂āpāramitā is mainly based on the expositions by 'bre and ar. khu ser brtson, though he had met 'bre, followed mainly the tradition of ar in his numerous detailed, medium and abridged commentaries on the Abhisamayālaṃkāra and its commentary.

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

After that (R:652) he proceeded to khams in the year Fire Female Mouse (me pho byi ba, 1276 A.D.). At the age of 26, he founded ri bo che. Until the present day it is the greatest monastery in khams. In my opinion, sangs rgyas yar byon had probably seen the beginning and the end of these events, and had instructed the two nephews to act as abbots. He passed away at the age of 46 in the year Fire Male Ape (me pho spre'u, 1296 A.D.).

  • 663ix. Relationship with the Mudra from zangs ri

On another occasion he again took as his mudrā a woman from zangs ri. "That was improper", thought he, and then told the woman : "Don't follow me!" but she followed him, and so he fled to khams. Travelling via sgam po, he met the ācārya sgom pa. From myang po he proceeded to nags shod. He was presented with many offerings, but did not accept them, saying: "I am not a seller of the thigh- bone of a bka' 663 brgyud pa" . Later, the mudrā from zangs ri came to khams in search of the Venerable One, but died on the way. In the vicinity of zla dgon there was a forest which (when seen from afar) had the form of a woman, and she became the fairy of this forest. * 712 ii. Youth: At the age of eighteen, he had to practise meditation and magic for three years in order to counteract enmity shown by his father's relatives, and succeeded in finally crushing it. After this he proceeded towards Khams, and at the age of twenty-three he took up the vow of observing the five precepts of moral conduct (śiīas) in front of the ācārya blo ston. There he practised for one year the mngon spyod (abhicāra; exorcisms). At the age of twenty-four, the blessing due to his meritorious deeds was brought forth, and he saw in a dream that an oblong shaped animal resembling a snake came out of his nose after a severe bleeding, and disappeared in the direction of the Western quarter. A thought occured to him in his dream: "I have associated with you for a long time, but now we shall not meet again."




Monasteries and Nunneries


  • Founded in 1147 by the first Karmapa, Düsum Khyenpa (see below).


  • ka thog rdo rje ldan
  • Located in Derge, Kahthog is one of the first Buddhist monasteries in Kham. The monastery was extremely important for the propagation of institutional Buddhism in Kham.
  • Kapstein on the teachings being given at Kathok: "Kathok had its own distinctive tradition of doctrinal learning, reaching back to the Nyingmapa lineages that had been active during the period between the fall of the old dynasty and the eleventh-century revival. The hallmarks of the system were the analysis of the entire range of Buddhist teaching in terms of nine progressive approaches to the highest enlightenment called vehicles (theg-pa, yana), and a special emphasis on the three highest vehicles, those of esoteric tantras, particularly as these were embodied in the teachings of the Guhyagarbhatantra (The Tantra of the Secret Nucleus), the Mdo dgongs-pa 'dus-pa (The Sutra Gathering All Intentions), and the highest contemplative teachings of the Nyingmapa, those of the Great Perfection (Rdzogs-pa chen-po)."

sTeng chen

Lontang Drolma

Pilgrimage Sites



Ethnic Groups

Please see Clans and Tribes Organization Essay for a general overview.

While it is considered to be a border region between Central Tibet and cultural China, Kham's history reflects its self-identified centrality and the complex conceptualized identity of the people in the area. One of the most interesting cultural aspects of Kham is that it has always been a region where multiple ethnic communities interact and influence each other. There are many ways that the region's culture is markedly different from that of Central Tibet. The history of Kham reflects a strong regional identity that was frequently combined with a westward focused interest on taking part in Central Tibetan cultural, social, and political institutions. Thus, while the region has its own strong identity separate from that of other areas, many of its religious practitioners and scholars have at times looked to Central Tibet for identity and inclusion in these institutions. Likewise, their central Tibetan counterparts looked to Kham for teachings and as a ground for spreading Buddhist doctrine.

Jowo Setsun (jo wo se btsun, 1004-1064)

Khampa Sengé

Karma Chakmé

Nyangrel Nyima Özer

Phagmodrupa Dorje Gyelpo

(phag mo dru pa rdo rje rgyal po)

The Karmapas

Please see Karmapa for more information

Literary Works and Oral Traditions

History of the Dharma in Eastern Tibet (mDo Khams smad kyi chos 'byung)

Zhe-chen chos-’byung


The Epic of Gesar

The Limitless Ocean Cycle (rgya mtsho mtha' yas kyi skor)

dus gsum mkhyen pa'i zhus lan

Treasure Texts (gter ma)


external link: THDL Timeline Database


The annual horse exhibition festival has been held in Litang for over 1000 years.

coming soon…more content!!


Davidson, Ronald M. Tibetan Renaissance: Tantric Buddhism in the Rebirth of Tibetan Culture. Columbia University Press, 2005.

Gardner, Alexander "Khams pa histories: Visions of People, Place and Authority" in Tibet Journal, Vol. XXVIII, No. 3 Autumn 2003. (Review of Proceedings of IATS 9, edited by Lawrence Epstein, and a state of the field survey regarding western scholarship on Kham.)

Kapstein, Matthew T. The Tibetan Assimilation of Buddhism: Conversion, Contestation and Memory. Oxford University Press, 2000.

Roerich, George N. The Blue Annals Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi 1996 (Reprint)

Shakabpa, Tsepon W.D Tibet: A Political History New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1967.