Was Gar Tong Tsan the First Tibetan Hunger Striker Hero? — a personal view point

October 4, 2017 By Tsepak Rigzin*

Introduction and Background:

 It is commonly known that in the 7th and 8th century History of Tibet the Gar lineage earned much pride and honor for Tibet. Famous for his exceptional wit and wisdom Lonpo Gar Tong Tsan (590-667)[i] is especially remembered and has become an immortal symbol of Tibet. His victory in the long grueling competition against suitors from four other nations for the hand of the princess Wen Chen Kong Jo (641-667) at the court of the Tang Chinese Emperor, Tai Zhong, is legendary. The princess was destined to marry King Song Tsen Gampo (618-650), and his mission was to invite her to Tibet.   Traditional accounts speak of another notable event that occurs while Gar is at the Chinese court, which I believe and will argue that this popular hero is also the first Tibetan hunger protestor.

Everyone who has read the entire story of Gar Tong Tsan’s detention at the Tang Chinese Emperor’s court, of course, will be familiar with the facts surrounding his protest. For those who are not familiar with the traditional accounts of his five-month detention, the events leading up to Gar’s hunger protest developed shortly before he and his Tibetan envoy started their long journey back to Tibet with Princess Kong Jo.  Although Gar was a highly respected minister and victorious in every challenge posed by the Chinese court for the hand of Princess Kong Jo, the Tang Emperor suddenly demanded that Gar remain at his court in her stead.  The reasons behind the demand are not totally clear. Traditional accounts suggest that it stemmed from bad advice given to him by Tibetan minister, Dri Seru, who was known to be jealous of Gar Tong Tsan.

According to these accounts, Dri Seru had suggested to the Emperor that such an exchange would not only build trust and improve the relationship between Tang China and Tibet, but it would help to ensure the safe arrival of princess Kong Jo into Tibet.   Some unconfirmed sources have also proposed that the Tang Emperor had been greatly impressed by Gar Tong Tsan’s savant capabilities and held a long-term vision of utilizing the Gar lineage in building upon Tang China’s military strength in the future.   The beautiful woman assigned to share Gar’s residence at the court is cited to bolster this opinion.

Faced with Emperor Tai Zhong’s sudden request, it is clear from reading the historical accounts that Gar Tong Tsan felt obligated to comply with the request that he remain at the court, which is understandable considering the circumstances.  Gar was a wise leader who had an allegiance toward Tibet and King Song Tang.  As such, it also seems highly probable that he would have felt it was his duty to uphold these loyalties and avoid any kind of overt action that could potentially jeopardize the mission and lead to a war between Tibet and China.

After the envoy accompanying Princess Kong Jo was safely on route to Tibet, Gar set out to take action in what I will argue is a protest of his detention. He had already stopped eating, but as the days passed he began to put a strategy of freeing himself in place. He starts by pretending to be ill and demanding that the lovely Chinese woman who had been sharing his residence to leave. He then creates a disgusting smell throughout the residence and on his body.  Everyone became convinced that Gar was seriously ill and reported the situation to the Emperor.  Upon hearing the reports, the Emperor also became concerned and arranged for a physician to examine Gar. Indeed, it would be a great dishonor if a Tibetan minister had died while being detained at the Tang Chinese Emperor’s court.

Gar agreed to have the medical examination arranged by the emperor, but let it known that he would only allow the pulse readings to be taken in absentia, which would avoid actual physical contact with the physician.  This kind of pulse reading was an ancient practice unique to Chinese and Tibetan medical science and is known as the miraculous/mysterious method of pulse diagnosis” (Ngo mTshar Can Gyis rTza brTag Thabs), wherein an expert Tibetan physician would read their patients’ pulse in absentia through feeling the pulse of their spouses.

It is clear that Gar was well aware of this ancient pulse reading technique and it quickly becomes another useful tool to further his protest strategy. During the first visitation, Gar allowed the reading only through a string, which he had tied to his genital; during the second, it was through a string, which he had secretly tied to a cat’s paw; and on the third visit it was through a string tied to the feet of a rooster. Needless to say, the pulse reading results reflected oddities.  The physician reported the patient to be healthy and prescribed no medication, but also declared that the pulse readings he had obtained were not of a human but that of some sort of animals.

Upon hearing the physician’s diagnosis, the Emperor became even more worried about his guest’s condition and asked Gar, “What might help you?”  Once again Gar seized the opportunity to further his protest strategy.  He suggested that his illness was caused by local spirits who were upset by his detainment at the court and if he could go to a mountain with a view of Tibet that these spirits might be appeased through an ancient Tibetan smoke offering ritual. In order to perform the ritual, however, specific items would need to be collected such as a leather bag full of ashes from burned brocade-silk; the blood from spleen of slaughtered sheep; a fissure-free lance made of charcoal; and finally, a yellow-brown red-headed horse.

The emperor ordered his workers to locate the items needed for the smoke offering ritual, but found that the request was almost impossible to fulfill.  His workers burned tons of brocade silks, but were unable to fill the bag with ashes; they slaughtered thousands of sheep, but were unable to procure the required amount of blood; they burned a range of forests, but were unable to locate a fissure-free charcoal lance.  The only item the Emperor’s workers were able to supply from the list that Gar had given them was the brown redheaded horse.

After gathering a few food supplies for the journey, Gar and four of the Emperor’s guards set out toward the mountains, which were near the Eastern border of Tibet.  When they were only a few miles from the border, Gar offered hang along with highly salted dry yak meat to the guards to show his gratitude for their services. After drinking and eating the meal that Gar had provided, the guards became very drowsy and fell into a deep sleep.  As they slept, Gar tied their horses to the trees in the forest and galloped away toward Tibet on the horse that the Emperor had given him.  Upon his arrival in Den Ma, everyone was happy to see him, but shocked to find him looking so weak and frail almost beyond recognition. Some even called out to him, “you look like a shabby beggar.”  With his freedom finally secured, Gar and his party set off to Lhasa.


Some Concluding Analyses & Remarks:

 Of course, there are some who doubt the accuracy or truthfulness of the traditional accounts of stories like this one, which is understandable. In “The Highway of Hero,” Thawa Tashi Dhondup suggests that the whole story of Gar’s detention was merely a folk tale that contained no elements of truth. Instead, he suggests it was an utter mockery of Tang Chinese Emperor, Tai Zhong. According to Thawa, if the stories were to be accepted as real, it would only make the world famous wise Tang Emperor, Tai Zhong, appear like a three-year old little boy.  As evidence, he cites from the text Nyang Chos ‘Byung:

When Gar feigned being sick in order to ruin China, the emperor enquired, “What might help you?” To this, Gar replied, “Find one yellow-brown horse with red head; A leather-bag full of burnt brocade dust; A pouch filled with milt-blood of (slaughtered) sheep; A charcoal log without any crack that is three full arms, three bows and three hand span length long.”[ii]

I agree that some events in the story might be exaggerated, but it seems unlikely the story is a prank created solely to mock Emperor Tai Zhong since the marriage between Princess Kong Jo and King Song Tsen ushered in two decades of peace and a healthy cultural exchange between China and Tibet.  Rather, it attests to a high level of Tsampo period diplomacy on the part of Gar who had a strong nationalist character. He essentially had three goals in mind:  a) to uphold his loyalty to King Song Tsan Gampo; b) to show his solidarity and allegiance for Tibet, and, c) to free himself from the Tang Emperor’s detention. In order to achieve the mission, Gar applies multiple ruses creatively pulled from ancient Tibetan traditions into a unique hunger fast strategy that eventually leads to his freedom.

Hunger fasts have been used to protest injustices dating back to antiquity. The strategy reflects the special emphasis that cultures place on hospitality. To knowingly allow someone to die at one’s doorstep so to speak is seen as a great dishonor. Clearly, the “hospitality” factor existed at the Tang court, and a skilled diplomat would have been aware of the concept, along with the pros and cons of utilizing a hunger fast as a means to freedom. Indeed, it would be a great dishonor if Gar had died while being detained at the Tang Chinese Emperor’s court.

Traditionally, of course, a hunger protestor would announce their intention, but as a skilled diplomat who wanted to avoid any kind of overt action that might jeopardize his mission and possibly lead to a war such an announcement would not have been wise. The fact that he refused food and drink for so long and turned himself into almost a skeletal figure, however, are proof that he utilized the pressure techniques of fasting as a means to protest his detention at the Emperor’s court.


Lesson We Can Learn From Gar’s Hunger Strike:


To sum up my recognition of Gar Tong Tsan as the first Tibetan hunger strike hero of Tibet, I believe that it can be easily said that he achieved the following: gained freedom from his detainment at the Tang Chinese Emperor’s court; served and maintained both his integrity and allegiance to Tibet and King Song Tsan Gampo; walked the Gandhian path of non-violence, ahimsa (Tsad-med Zhi-ba’i lam) and truth insistence Satyagrah (bden-pa’i au tshugs); and proved that non-violence is the strongest means to achieve freedom in both the spiritual and mundane world.

I would also say that the greatest lesson we Tibetans could learn from Lonpo Gar Tong Tsan’s detention story would be: To not borrow everything from the outside even in strategizing a means for political goals, but know how we can creatively use the wisdom that exists within our own ancient culture and tradition. The outsiders are seeking this wisdom more and more while we tend to seek wisdom elsewhere and dilute or forget our own. Have we still not learned enough lessons from our past history?

I, therefore, salute Lonpo Gar Tong Tsaniii for being the first hunger strike hero of Tibet. He may also be rightly called the first Tibetan Satyagrahist as well.


 End Notes;

[i] For most extensive reading on Gar Tsong Tsan, his lineage, their contributions can be found in

Tibetan text: ༄༅། །དཔའ་བོས་བཞུད་ལམ། བློན་པོ་ཆེན་པོ་མགར་སྟོང་བཙན་ཡུལ་བཟུང་དང་ཁོང་གི་གདུང་རྒྱུད་ལ་དཔྱད་པ། མཐའ་བ་བཀྲིས་དོན་འགྲུབ་ཀྱིས་བརྩམས། ཀྲུང་གོའི་བོད་རིག་པ་དཔེ་སྐྲུན་ཁང་། ༡༠།༢༠༠༩ (The Highway of Hero: An Analytical Study of the Great Minister Gar Tong Tsan and His Lineage). ISBN 978-7-80057-194-9/K.22o.

[ii] ༄༅། །དཔའ་བོས་བཞུད་ལམ། བློན་པོ་ཆེན་པོ་མགར་སྟོང་བཙན་ཡུལ་བཟུང་དང་ཁོང་གི་གདུང་རྒྱུད་ལ་དཔྱད་པ། མཐའ་བ་བཀྲིས་དོན་འགྲུབ་

ཀྱིས་བརྩམས། ཀྲུང་གོའི་བོད་རིག་པ་དཔེ་སྐྲུན་ཁང་། ༡༠།༢༠༠༩ (The Highway of Hero: An Analytical Study of the Great Minister Gar Tong Tsan and His Lineage). ISBN 978-7-80057-194-9/K.22o.

ཉང་ཆོས་འབྱུང་དུ་མགར་གྱིས་རྒྱ་འཕུང་ཆེད་ན་བར་བརྫིས་(བརྫུས་)ནས། གོང་མས་ཅིས་ཕན་ཞེས་པར། “རྟ་མོག་རོ་མགོ་དམར་གཅིག་དང་། ཟ་འོག་གི་ཐལ་བ་སྒྲོ་བ་གང་། ལུག་གི་མཚེར་ཕྲག་གྲོད་པ་གང་། སོལ་བའི་མདུང་ཤིང་གས་ཆག་མེད་པ་འདོམ་གསུམ། མདའ་གསུམ། ཁྲུ་གསུམ་བྱས་པ་ཞིག” དགོས་ཞེས་པར་གོང་མས་དེ་བཞིན་གནང་བར་རྒྱའི་ནགས་དང་ལུག ཟ་འོག་བཅས་སོགས་ཟད་པར་གྱུར་པ་དག་ལ་ཁས་ལེན་དགོས་པའི་ཕྱིར་དང་། དེ་ལྟར་ན་འཇ༹མ་བུ་གླིང་ན་སྙན་གྲགས་ཆེ་བའི་ཐང་གི་གོང་མ་ཐེ་ཙུང་ནི་ལོ་གསུམ་བྱིས་པ་དང་འདྲ་བར་ཟད་དོ།། (།དཔའ་བོས་བཞུད་ལམ། བློན་པོ་ཆེན་པོ་མགར་སྟོང་བཙན་ཡུལ་བཟུང་དང་ཁོང་གི་གདུང་རྒྱུད་ལ་དཔྱད་པ། མཐའ་བ་བཀྲིས་དོན་འགྲུབ་ཀྱིས་བརྩམས། ཀྲུང་གོའི་བོད་རིག་པ་དཔེ་སྐྲུན་ཁང་། ༡༠།༢༠༠༩ ཤོག་གྲངས། ༡༤༨-༤༩ ) Cited in: (The Highway of Hero: An Analytical Study of the Great Minister Gar Tong Tsan and His Lineage).

iii. Among others, a full story of Gar’s detention can be read in The Mirror Illuminating the Royal Geneologies, An Annotated Translation of the XIth Century Tibetan Chronicle: rGyal-rabs gsal-ba’i me-long, Per K. Sorensen. Chapter XIII p. 234-242. Harrassowitz Verlag, Wiesbaden, Germany, 1994. ISBN 3-447-03510-2  རྒྱལ་རབས་གསལ་བའི་མེ་ལོང་། ས་སྐྱ་པ་བསོད་ནམས་རྒྱལ་མཚན་གྱིས་བརྩམས། མི་རིགས་དཔེ་སྐྲུན་ཁང་། ༡༩༨༡  ངོ་ཤོག ༡༡༦ ནས་ ༡༣༡ བར་གཟིགས་འཚལ།.



*Tsepak Rigzin is currently a Lecturer and Language Coordinator in Tibetan at Emory University. Thanks to Sandra J. Baker for her editorial assistance and Latse Library www.latse.org NY for resource.




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