The Dalai Lama is the head of the dominant school of Tibetan Buddhism, the Gelugpa (or Yellow Hats). From 1642 to 1959, the Dalai Lama was the spiritual and temporal leader of Tibet. Until the Chinese takeover in 1959, the Dalai Lamas resided in Potala Palace in Lhasa in the winter and in the Norbulingka residence during summer.
The current Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, is the 14th in a line of succession that began with Gendün Drub (1391–1475), founder and abbot of Tashilhunpo monastery (central Tibet). He and his successors came to be regarded as reincarnations (tulkus) of the bodhisattva of compassion Avalokiteshvara.
The second head of the Gelugpa order, Gendün Gyatso (1475–1542), was the head abbot of the Drepung monastery on the outskirts of Lhasa, which became the principal seat of the Dalai Lama.
His successor, Sönam Gyatso (1543–88) received from the Mongol chief Güüshi (Altan) Khan the honorific title ta-le (Anglicized as "dalai") in 1578. Ta-le is the Mongolian equivalent of the Tibetan rgya-mtsho, meaning "ocean," and suggests breadth and depth of wisdom. The title was applied posthumously to the abbot's two predecessors. The Tibetans themselves call the Dalai Lama Gyawa Rinpoche ("Precious Conqueror"), Yeshin Norbu ("Wish-fulfilling Gem"), or simply Kundun ("The Presence").
The fourth Dalai Lama, Yönten Gyatso (1589–1617), was a great-grandson of Altan Khan and the only non-Tibetan Dalai Lama.
The next Dalai Lama, Losang Gyatso (1617–82), is commonly called the Great Fifth. He established, with the military assistance of the Khoshut Mongols, the supremacy of the Gelugpa sect over rival orders for the temporal rule of Tibet. During his reign the majestic winter palace of the Dalai Lamas, the Potala, was built in Lhasa.
The sixth Dalai Lama, Jamyang Gyatso (1683–1706), was a libertine and a writer of romantic verse, not well-suited to his position. He was deposed by the Mongols and died while being taken to China under military escort. The seventh Dalai Lama, Kelsang Gyatso (1708–57), experienced civil war and the establishment of Chinese Manchu suzerainty over Tibet. The eighth, Jampel Gyatso (1758–1804), saw his country invaded by Gurkha troops from Nepal but defeated them with the aid of Chinese forces.
The next four Dalai Lamas all died young, and the country was ruled by regents. They were Lungtog Gyatso (1806–15), Tsültrim Gyatso (1816–37), Kedrub Gyatso (1838–56), and Trinle Gyatso (1856–75).
The 13th Dalai Lama, Tubten Gyatso (1875–1933), ruled with great personal authority. The successful revolt within China against its ruling Manchu dynasty in 1912 gave the Tibetans the opportunity to dispel the disunited Chinese troops, and the Dalai Lama reigned as head of a sovereign state.
The 14th in the line of Dalai Lamas, Tenzin Gyatso, was born Lhamo Thondup in 1935 in China of Tibetan parentage. He was recognized as the incarnation of the 13th Dalai Lama in 1937, enthroned in 1940, and vested with full powers as head of state in 1950. He fled to exile in India in 1959, the year of the Tibetan people's unsuccessful revolt against communist Chinese forces that had occupied the country since 1950. The Dalai Lama set up a government-in-exile in Dharmsala, India (known as "Little Lhasa"), in the Himalayan Mountains. In 1989 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace in recognition of his nonviolent campaign to end Chinese domination of Tibet. He has written a number of books on Tibetan Buddhism and an autobiography.