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Tibetan Army (Tibet)

Last modified: 2019-05-28 by zoltán horváth
Keywords: tibet | army |
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images by Corentin Chamboredon, 04 October 2014

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I found an image of a flag which was supposedly used by the Tibetan army between 1930 and 1949. It has a red field and show two snow lions holding a yellow double vajra above them. A vajra (tib: dorje, eng: thunderbolt / diamond) is a ritual symbol used by buddhists, hindus and jains, which represents the strength of the mind and the spiritual power. There is a yellow strip on the hoist (maybe the heading):
It is very similar to the one you can see on this 1945 amateur film made by Major (later Lieutenant-Colonel) James Guthrie. He held the post of Medical Officer in Gyantse from 1934 to 1936 and Civil Surgeon of Bhutan and Tibet from 1945 to 1948. At the very end of this color video, we can see Tibetan soldiers parading in a park with two flags (it begins at 09:24).
The soldiers are holding two flags, but their details were too blurry for me without further informations.
- the first flag is orange, and we can distinguish the double vajra (from 09:40 to 09:46), but it lacks the snow lions.
- the other flag has indeed a red field and at least one snow lion. There is a blue strip on the hoist, with white dots (maybe stars ?) which is probably the heading. There are two round symbols above the lion(s), which make this it very similar to the one shown at xt-1920.html. I have read at least two reports (one including a color photograph) about this flag and both of them clearly described a red flag. Therefore I think that Roberto Breschi used the wrong field color. Should it be mentionned on the page ?
Several sources I checked mentionned that each regiment of the Tibetan army had its own flag. I wonder if the Tibetan army as a whole had its flag (I have never found any mention of such a flag until now, by the way). So, the flags on the video may be the flag of the army and a regimental flag. Or two regiments were simply marching together with their respective flags.
Corentin Chamboredon, 09 August 2011

Wolfgang Bertsch, author of the page, gave me more informations about this flag
(note: the described flag has disappeared from the page and has been replaced with two photographs):
The flag which is illustrated in the article "Moderne Tibetische Armee" (Tibet Encyclopaedia) is taken from the following work (as is indicated at the bottom of the article under "Abbildungsnachweis"): Dwang slob mda'zur und Spyi 'thus rgyal tshe rnam rgyal dbang 'dus (rtsom sgrig pa - Herausgeber - editor): bod rgyal khab kyi chab srid dang 'brel ba'i dmag don lo rgyus
(Political & Military History of Tibet. -  Politische und militärische Geschichte der tibetischen Nation). 2 Bände, Dharamsala, 2003.

He also kindly sent me an an old photograph showing the flag of the Khadang regiment. This flag is square and is basically the Tibetan flag. There are few differences, though: first, there are two characters above the snow lions and on each side of the flaming jewels. The one on the left is the kha letter (ཁ), and stands for Khadang. The other on the left is the Tibetan digit for 1 (༡). I don't know what are their colours as the photograph was in  black and white. The flag is shown displayed with the hoist on the right, but the characters are still legible, so this flag was perhaps double-sided (or the Tibetan misconceived it). The wishing gem the lions are holding is also different in that three wavy rays radiate from it.
I don't know if that was a regular pattern for Tibetan military flags, neither did Mr Bertsch.
As Mr Bertsch explains it on the aforementioned page, as of 1949, the Tibetan army had 15 regiments (in name only, as their strength made them only equivalent to modern bataillons): Kadang (bodyguards of the Dalai lama) ; Khadang ; Gadang ; Ngadang ; Chadang ; Chadang (spelt differently) ; Jadang ; Nyadang ; Tadang ; Thadang ; Dadang ; Padang ; Phadang ; Badang ; Madang.
You can see the flag on this page:
Corentin Chamboredon, 17 August 2011

One hundred thousand moons (Vol 1) by W. D. Shakabpa (a former Tibetan official) and Derek F. Maher, contains a lot of information about Tibetan flags, including description of flags from the imperial era (which ended in 842). Here are the passages related to the flags of the Tibetan army, one of them may confirm Roberto Breschi's rendition.
"I have heard about Cabinet Minister Lama Jampa Tendar's banner from officials who were there at the time that the officers and troops of the Chinese Manchu Emperor were gradually driven from Tibet in 1913. According to Eric Teichman [Corentin's note: a British diplomat]: [Over the Kalön Lama's residence, a small Tibetan house, floats the banner of Tibet,] a yellow flag bearing a device like a lion in green, with a snow mountain and a sun and moon in the corner." (p. 95)
In 1916 "The old and new units were assigned letters of the Tibetan alphabet, and each was given our national flag." (p. 777)
"In 1918, the Tibetan army was trained in the English style. At the same time, the design of all the banners of the Tibetan military camps was determined. Twelve blue and red sun rays sat upon the peeak of a white snow nountain, while a three eyed jewel was held in the paws of a pair of white lions. It has a gold border." (p. 95)
"In 1931 and 1932, the Dalai Lama's bodyguard and the Tibetan army respectively were given banners; each of the banners had a lotus and vajras crossed on a sharp sword, with five colored victory banners hanging." (p. 96)
"The sword, lotus, and the crossed vajras symbolized the three ancestral religious kings, who came from the uninterrupted lineage of the protector's incarnation." (p. 97)
If correct, that would mean that there were two similar flags with red and yellow fields. They were maybe the same flag which, due to the lack of formal instructions, may have had different field color. But perhaps this yellow flag belonged to Jempa Tendar, who was the then monk-minister (kalön lama) acting as commander-in-chief of the Tibetan army in the Tibetan-Chinese borderlands.
As for the army flags, I understand that the military flags all shared the same design: they were a square Tibetan flag, with their corresponding letters and numbers written on them (as show here
Corentin Chamboredon, 21 August 2011

An interesting footnote on p. 97 :
"The Tibetan flag was codified under the thirteenth Dalai Lama as part of his efforts to demonstrate Tibetan independence. The symbolic elements were drawn from the ancient past of Tibet, using imagery from regimental insignia, banners, and the like. It seems that there have been some changes in the flag since that time, however, since the five colored victory banner, the sword, lotus, and the crossed vajras no longer appear on the flag."

Later, in the chapter's notes, p. 107 :
"179. The likeness of the original pattern of the banner of the General of the Tibetan army that I have received is included in the Compilation of Records."
Corentin Chamboredon, 9 May 2017

Manoeuver Flags

[Tibetan flag] image by Corentin Chamboredon, 1 February 2018
based on this image and this image

Here is a flag I had seen before but I had forgotten to report it. I had found it on Wikipedia, on a photograph from the federal archives of Germany. It was taken by Ernst Schäfer during his expedition to Tibet in 1938. According to the description, the scene took place in Shigatse, central Tibet. Shigatse is the city where the Panchen lamas live and have their monastery of Tashilhumpo.
The photograph shows Tibetan soldiers or militia presenting arms. Four soldiers are holding flags. These flags seems identical to one  another. They are square, have a clear field, with an horizontal dark strip in the middle. I'm not sure at all, but I think there is something in the upper part of the closest flag. It looks like some circular device, maybe two concentric circles and perhaps swirls of joy in the center. The strip covers the lower part of the circles.
Ernst Schäfer had a camera and shot several films during his expedition. You can see the scene with these flags here, from 01:04:00 to 01:06:10. From this video and for this occasion, it seems the flags were used as signal flags for  manoeuvres:
There was a Tibetan regiment in Shigatse since the flight of the Panchen  lama, both in order to keep an eye on the southern border and on the Tashilhumpo monastery, which was at odds with the government even before the flight of its master.
Corentin Chamboredon, 07 March 2014

I have regiffed the two flags shown above, and made a third one from the amateur film made by Major James Guthrie, which I had already described in 2011.
I have also found a color image of a fourth flag in a photomontage combining three photographs, here. On the upper left, we can see two big red flags. The one on the right allows us to see a rectangular white cartouche, with a dark fimbriation. There is something in the middle but I can't see it clearly, even if I strongly suspect this something to be two snow lions holding some jewels. The upper right photograph shows us the same column as in James Gulthrie's film, and the lower black and white photograph shows what is maybe a regimental flag and manoeuvres flags.
Sadly enough, I couldn't find those photographs in a higher quality.
Corentin Chamboredon, 04 October 2014

 I was very lucky enough to discover a color video of these square flags. You can see them from 00:20. They have a white field and the horizontal strip is blue (maybe a lighter blue than the one on the regimental flag). There is apparently nothing else. These flag are borne by boys, maybe teenagers. I'm not sure if the Tibetan army specifically cadets, but I will search some clue.

From 1:03, we can see the whole troop marching, with two regimental flags and other smaller flags of plain color, also borne by boys. They have white, yellow, blue and red field. I don't know what they are, but plain color flags usually have a religious and auspicious meaning in Tibetan Buddhism.

As for the context, it was likely shot in 1949 by Lowell Thomas, and you can find the same people on photographs on "Tibetanflags"'s flickr account.

Sources :
Corentin Chamboredon, 31 January 2018