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Tibetan Army (Tibet)

Last modified: 2022-08-05 by ian macdonald
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images by Corentin Chamboredon, 04 October 2014

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Tibetan Army

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 information.
- 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 mentioned 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 information 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 peak of a white snow mountain, 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

Review of Tibetan military flags

I found two interesting articles in the last issue of the Revue d'Études Tibétaines, a scholarly publication dealing with Tibetan history and culture. These articles give us information on the circumstances under which Japanese citizens travelled to Tibet (hence their names in Japanese: nyuzosha) and helped the XIIIth Dalai Lama to modernise its army, a period which saw the creation of new military flags. So, here we are:

In Zhang Yintang’s Military Reforms in 1906–1907 and their Aftermath, The Introduction of Militarism in Tibet / Ryosuke Kobayashi (pp. 303-340) we can read:

"The extinction of Chinese-style military training in Tibet may in hindsight seem inevitable, along with the emergence in Tibet of new training systems such as the Russian, British, and Japanese models which quickly replaced it. However, how this transition took place during this short period needs further scrutiny. Aoki Bunkyō (青木文教), a Japanese monk from Nishi-Honganji Temple (西本願寺) who stayed in Lhasa for three years from 1913, described the process as follows:

After breaking away from Chinese control, the Tibetans destroyed the [Chinese] barracks and built new barracks in and around Lhasa. They are doing a comparative study of the military-drills of each country.

Three barracks including small and large, for the regular troops are in Lhasa. The barracks for guardsmen is located near to the summer palace. Each of them also have branch barracks in Gyantsé and Shigatsé.

Each garrison conducts different drills: a Russian-style drill is conducted by a Mongol officer in Mongolian, a Chinese-style drill is conducted by Chinese instructors in Chinese, and a British Indian-style drill is conducted by the Tibetan instructors in English.

Thus, the Ganden Phodrang government rapidly replaced the former Qing military barracks with new ones built by themselves, and began to try out several foreign drills simultaneously.

At the same time, as is well-known, a Japanese traveller, Yajima Yasujirō (矢島保治郎), who was a former military officer of the Japanese Army who had been resident in Lhasa since the summer of 1912, was nominated as an instructor for the Tibetan army in 1914. He was a graduate of the Toyama Military School and had fought in the Russo-Japanese War as a sergeant in the infantry. He gave a Tibetan regiment military training and later supervised training for the Dalai Lama’s personal guards, illustrating the confidence the Dalai Lama had in him. This training was conducted in Japanese language, and it included drills used for companies as well as battalion classes of the Japanese army.

In the summer of 1916, the Ganden Phodrang government held a military parade which included all styles—Russian, British, Japanese and “the system of the combined Chinese and Mongol army”—which took place over four days and was presided over by the Dalai Lama himself.

Shakabpa states that the outcome of this was that the government decided that “the Tibetan army would be modelled along British lines thereafter”. Yet, Japanese records show that Japanese-style military training in fact continued in Tibet even after this parade, although it gradually diminished since it was dependent on Yajima’s service alone. Later, Yajima had no choice but to stop his duty as well, and left Lhasa in October 1918, as directed by the Ganden Phodrang government, due to suspicion about him from British India whose presence in Tibet was increasing."

And in Japanese Visitors to Tibet in the Early 20th Century and their Impact on Tibetan Military Affairs - with a Focus on Yasujirō Yajima / Yasuko Komoto (pp. 341-364) we can read:

"A further point of discussion related to Yajima raised in recent years, is the debate about whether Japanese nyūzōsha may have been involved in the creation of the Tibetan national flag. As far as Yajima himself is concerned, his diary only touches on the subject of the “flag” in two instances: 1) during his second stay in Lhasa (1913), he relates that in order to celebrate the new year, he raised the Japanese (rising sun) flag on the roof of the house he was staying at, and that doing so attracted the attention of the people of Lhasa; and 2) at the time he was involved with the training of the Tibetan army, he mentions making a “cavalry flag” (kihei no hata 騎兵の旗). Consequently, as far as Yajima is concerned at least, it appears that he did not have any direct involvement with the creation of what is now known as the Tibetan national flag.25"

The corresponding footnote says:
"25 However, other Japanese travellers did have an influence at least on one early version of a flag used by the Tibetan military. Aoki Bunkyō relates that on his way to Lhasa (from October 1912 to the mid-January 1913) he stayed at Chökor Yangtsé, an occasional palace of the Thirteenth Dalai Lama. While there he observed a Tibetan army rifle practice using real bullets. According to Aoki’s travel account, on this occasion these soldiers used a new “military flag” whose design was created by Aoki himself together with the “military commander” (i.e. Tsarong Dasang Dadul). The lower half of the design included a lion on a snow mountain, and the upper half showed a rising sun and the moon on a yellow background. He notes that there were discussions about making further modifications, because in this form it looked too similar to the Japanese military flag. Aoki also noted that a previous design of “military flag” used by the Tibetan army had a bigger lion and snow mountain, as well as a very small sun and moon on a triangular red-coloured cloth background (Aoki 1920: 135). A part of Aoki’s possessions are currently housed at the National Museum of Ethnology in Osaka, and these include a handmade drawing entitled “Military flag of Tibet” (Tibetto no gunki 西藏の軍旗). However, this is again slightly different from the above-described design of the “military flag” which Aoki says he created together with Tsarong."

This raises some questions and comments. First, this red flag might be the same as described in the report of a 1913 flag. But, as mentioned at the end of the Tibet 1920 page, the red flag in use seen by British agents was rectangular. Also, the yellow flag was also still in use, albeit apparently only by the commander-in-chief. I have made a crude and very speculative gif of this triangular flag:

[Tibetan flags] image by Corentin Chamboredon, 1 April 2020 

Let's sum it up. So as I understand it, there were, chronologically with indication of the sources in each case:
- before 1912, a triangular red flag with lion and mountain plus small sun and moon symbols (text).
- after 1913, a yellow flag with lion and mountain plus sun and moon, probably the same as shown at xt-1920.html (text).
- in 1914 a crimson flag with a lion is seen by an European explorer (text).
- in 1916 Tibetan regiments were identified by letters of the Tibetan alphabet (text).
- in 1918 the model for the regimental flag was apparently a square version of the "national" flag (twelve blue and red rays around a white mountain). The commander-in-chief used the yellow flag (text).
- in 1920 the yellow rectangular flag was seen and given to a French consul in China (photo).
- in 1931 and 1932 the army as a whole and the bodyguard regiment each got a flag (text).
- in 1938 the regimental model hasn't changed but there can be small variations on the borders, the emblems or the place of script (B&W photos and films).
- in 1943 the regimental model hasn't changed. Some sunrays can be yellow (colour film).
- in 1944 there is a particular regimental flag without snow lions and a sun without rays. Let's call it "blank flag". (B&W photos).f
- in 1945 there were a red rectangular flag with a snow lion and an orange one with a double vajra (colour film).
- in 1949 the "blank flag" is still in use and there is a different, likely military but not certainly, model: a square red flag with a double vajra in the middle and a Tibetan letter underneath (colour film).
- in 1950 or 1951 the regimental model is still in use (colour photo). A very elaborate flag, described as being the Dalai Lama's own flag (but maybe not) appears on this occasion.
- in 1959 the regimental model is still in use (B&W photos).
- at some point in time, there might also have been:
* between 1913 and 1918 : a rectangular red flag with brownish border and two snow lions holding a double vajra for the military flags or the flaming jewels for the national flag (text and drawings)
* a rectangular blue one with one snow lion (only found as a drawing, uncertain)

[Tibetan flags] prepared by Corentin Chamboredon, 1 April 2020

I have made a visual timeline of these flags in order to make sense of all the seemingly contradictory and confusing reports I have gathered for years.

- Kobayashi's article:
- Komoto's article:
- All issues of Revue d'Études Tibétaines:

Corentin Chamboredon, 1 April 2020

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

Book report on Tibetan military flags

I came across an extremely interesting book about the Tibetan army. Marching into view: the Tibetan army in historic photographes (1895-1959) by Alice Travers has just been issued by a small German publisher, Edition Tethys (ISBN 9783942527149). It doesn't seem easy to find, so you can order it there

This book is an exhibition catalogue. It is only the most recently published work among many born from a scholar project studying the military history of Tibet. It contains 168 photographs (some in colours) of the period. And, obviously, it deals with the emblems and flags used by the Tibetan army, the flags being treated in their own chapter. To sum it up, the book is a visual and critical history of the Tibetan army, the four first chapters dealing with : the army before 1912, from 1913 to 1938 (a period of military expand and reorganization), from 1939 to 1950 and after 1950. Then we have a chapter on the flags and a final one on the military bands.

So, as the author admits, not all questions can be answered definitely, and some other questions arose from her study. But I nevertheless got several very interesting information that will follow. I will also admit being extremely surprised to find (and somehow proud, let's be honest) mentions of FOTW's pages on the matter, along my own name, something I absolutely didn't expect. As Alice Travers says : "we have included (as up to January 2022) and acknowledged their findings where related to the present research and when the available data was previously unknown to us", describing our pages as "A large amount of detailed and very well researched work on the history of the Tibetan flag". And that's it for the momentary hubris.

- Before 1912 (pp. 21 to 24 and 155)
Not much can be said, except that Tibetan soldiers and militia (usually hard to distinguish on the photos, if not impossible) usually displayed flags, often plain white, red or yellow. One photograph taken in 1907 shows a quartered flag (pl. 129, p.154) which I would describe as having a dark field, a checkered border with what seem a cross separating the quarters. Its horizontal arm also seems checkered but not the vertical one. There seems to be an overall emblem, but it not shown entirely, the lower part looks like a reversed pall.

- Single lion flag (pp. 159-161)
The birth of the first national flag, shown at xt-1920.html, is discussed. Not much more details about it, but I learned its ratio : "0.55 cm by 0.60 cm". Alice Travers think it "was not just a personal creation or a local and unique version of a particular Tibetan regiment posted in Chamdo under his [commander-in-chief kalön-lama Jampa Tendar] orders". Its striking similarities with the "single lion" flags shown at xt^army.html and xt-imp.html indicates that this first attempt at a national flag left influences on the Tibetan army. Although a new flag (the one we know) would appear not long after, it would seem that the single lion flag survived as a military one displayed by two different regiment. "Whether this flag was considered as a "national flag" when carried by the Shigatse regiment (as will be the final version of the national flag) or whether it was a specific emblem of the Shigatse regiment is impossible to say."

In note 54 (p. 180), the author mentions the drawing of a two lions red flags (shown at the top of this page) by former soldier Gyeltse Namgyel Wangdü, stating that "in all army photographs where it is visible, the two lions hold a Flaming Jewel (or a Kalachakra symbol in one instance [...]), and the crossed vajra is always represented alone, without the lions. It is of course possible that the army flag described by the author existed but maybe was not pervasive."

- Crossed-vajra flag (p. 173)
This flag, also shown above, isn't discussed much, but Alice Travers considers it was red on the base of a remaining copy in a private collection. Its similarity with the one shown at xt_var.html makes her think "it was "adapted" for the Chadang regiment, in the same way as the national flag could be."

- National flag, aka two lions and mountain (pp. 165-169)
The birth date of this flag leads to much speculation but it would seem it "appeared at some point between 1922 at the earliest and 1927 (if the one witnessed by Riabinin [a Russian explorer] featured two lions) or 1930 (if not) at the latest." The author acknowledges the existence of the "blank mountain" flag (shown at xt_var.html) in a note (note 46, p. 180) but speculates it "could also be the verso side of the national flag" and that "it seems likely that there were several versions and variants of the flag in this time, since an expert has observed that there existed at least fifteen different versions of the current national flag nowadays".

It is confirmed, as already noticed, that regiment had one flag bearing the Tibetan letter thave gave them their name but Alice Travers disagrees with Gyeltse Namgyel Wangdü's statement that these letters appeared in the top corner in the flag, "the only available "numbered" flags displaying the number in the lower central part".

- Regimental banners of protective deities (pp. 175-177)
The one section I was particularly eager to read. This one deals with the flag that I had found described as the Dalai Lama's personal flag (at xt-dalai.html). To my great surprise and interest, the author states that "according to oral information, several regiments had their own protective deities, sometimes represented on flags, the Trapchi regiment's one being Trapchi Lhamo (Grwa bzhi lha mo). Thus, although the image is not sufficiently clear to confirm with certainty, it is possible that this flag represents Trapchi Lhamo. If correct, this is an additional testimony of the significance of visual sources, this information being entirely absent from secondary and primary literature."

This interesting interpretation can be linked to a unique photograph (pl. 23, p. 39) showing a tree used as a shrine by soldiers's wives, "the only existing trace of such a practice, it being documented in no written sources whatsoever." A hint that many details might already been lost and forgotten forever, as often in history.

Alice Travers mentions that such flags probably date back to the XVIIth century and that one might have been described by British diplomat Hugh Richardson during New year celebrations in Lhasa, where two re-enactors "were seen holding "a tall lance wrapped in a painted banner crowned by a trident called the Tensung Marnag, the "red and black protector of the faith", perhaps representing the retinue of Pehar of Palden lhamo. They are said to resemble the standard of Gushri khan's force." Gushri Khan was the Oirat prince that helped the Vth Dalai Lama to access power.

For more information on Drabzhi Lhamo (another possible spelling), see this article :

Corentin Chamboredon, 18 July 2022