The title of "Dalai Lama" was first bestowed on Sonam Gyatso by the Mongolian King Altan Khan sometime in the 1570s. This title translates to The Ocean of Wisdom.
The Dalai Lamas have traditionally been the spiritual and political supremos of Tibetan Buddhists since the rein of the Third Dalai Lama in the 16th century. Being the Patron Saints of Tibet, they are believed to be manifestations of Avalokiteshvara or Chenrezig, the Bodhisattva of Compassion.
They are considered to be highly enlightened beings who choose to be reborn with the sole purpose of serving humanity.
Fourteen Recognized Reincarnations of the Dalai Lama
The Second Dalai Lama Gedun Gyatso ( 1475-1542 )
The Second Dalai Lama was born to a family of farmers, a year after the death of Gedun Drupa. At a tender age, he supposedly told his parents that his name was Pema Dorjee, and that he was the reincarnation of the First Dalai Lama.
Additionally, his father was said to have a premonition that this child would have the ability to recollect his past lives, and that he should be named Gedun Drupa, after the First Dalai Lama. Gedun Gyatso is credited with reviving the Monlam Chenmo, the Great Prayer Festival. He passed away in 1542.
The Third Dalai Lama Sonam Gyatso (1543-1588 )
Ranu Sicho Pelzang was born in an affluent family, in the year following the death of the Second Dalai Lama. He survived through infancy, unlike all of his siblings, and was recognized as the reincarnation of Gedun Gyatso at the age of three.
He was later named Sonam Gyatso. The then King of Mongolia, Altan Khan conferred the title of Dalai Lama (Ocean of Wisdom) on Sonam Gyatso, making him the first leader to be addressed so.
The Fourth Dalai Lama Yonten Gyatso ( 1589 - 1617 )
The Fourth Dalai Lama, Yonten Gyatso was the grandson of the Mongolian king, Altan Khan. Oracles had prophesied about his reincarnation as the Fourth Dalai Lama. He was fully ordained at the age of 26, and died a year later at the Drepung monastery.
The Fifth Dalai Lama Lobsang Gyatso ( 1617 - 1682 )
The Fifth Dalai Lama was recognized when Tibet was going through political upheaval. However, in 1642, Lobsang Gyatso was named as the spiritual and political leader of Tibet. The Fifth Dalai Lama was a Sanskrit scholar, and an avid poet. His dying wish was that his death be kept a secret from public until construction of the Potala Palace was complete.
The Sixth Dalai Lama Tsangyang Gyatso ( 1682 - 1706 )
As per the wishes of the Fifth Dalai Lama, the news of his death was kept under wraps for 15 years. The announcement of his death coincided with the discovery of the Sixth Dalai Lama, bringing great joy to the Tibetan people. This young monk, however, chose to live the life of a layman, and renounced his vows of a novice monk.
He spent his time roaming around Lhasa's lanes and taverns, and was given to writing and composing poems. He is said to have prophesied his reincarnation in a poem before his mysterious disappearance/death.
The Seventh Dalai Lama Kelsang Gyatso ( 1708 - 1757 )
Following the prophesy of the Sixth Dalai Lama, the child who would go on to become the Seventh Dalai Lama was born in Lithang. Kelsang Gyaso was a renowned scholar who led a simple life, and enriched the life of others with his teachings. Like his predecessor, he also had a penchant for poetry, albeit with spiritual themes.
The Eighth Dalai Lama Jamphel Gyatso ( 1758 - 1804 )
The birth of the Eighth Dalai Lama was accompanied by various auspicious events, which convinced the people of Tibet that they had found their true leader. He was fully ordained in 1777, and was credited with the creation of the Norbulingka Park and Summer Palace on the outskirts of Lhasa. He died at the age of 47 in the year 1804.
The Ninth Dalai Lama Lungtok Gyatso ( 1805 - 1815 )
The Ninth Dalai Lama was born in 1805, and was recognized as the reincarnation of the Eighth Dalai Lama in 1807 in a grand ceremony at Lhasa. However, he faced an untimely death at the tender age of nine in the year 1815.
The Tenth Dalai Lama Tsultrim Gyatso ( 1816 - 1837 )
The Tenth Dalai Lama was born in 1816, following the death of his predecessor the previous year. He was recognized and enthroned in 1822. He enrolled at the Drepung monastery at the age of 10, studied Buddhist philosophy, learned to master the art of sutra, tantra. Fully ordained at the age of 19, his failing health led to his death in 1837 at a young age.
The Eleventh Dalai Lama Khedrup Gyatso ( 1838 - 1856 )
The Eleventh Dalai Lama was born in 1838, and was recognized as the new Dalai Lama in 1841. He undertook the responsibilities of being Tibet's spiritual and political leader at a very young age at the behest of his people. His death came as a complete shock in the year 1856.
The Twelfth Dalai Lama Trinley Gyatso ( 1856 - 1875 )
The Twelfth Dalai Lama was born in 1856, and took the novice vows of monkhood at the age of five. He took on full responsibilities in 1873, but his life came to an end two years later in 1875.
The Thirteenth Dalai Lama Thupten Gyatso ( 1876 - 1933 )
The Thirteenth Dalai Lama was born in 1876, and was recognized as the reincarnation of the Twelfth Dalai Lama in the following year. He led the Tibetan kingdom through the political turmoil in the neighboring countries of British-occupied India and Czarist Russia.
Chinese invasion of 1910 forced him to flee to India, but he returned successfully as the political head of Tibet in 1911. He was credited with modernizing Tibet, introducing currency system, postal services, sending young Tibetans to England for higher studies, creating a military force. His death in 1933 came as Tibet was on the threshold of modernization.
His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama was born in 1935 to farmer parents and was recognized as the reincarnation of the Thirteenth Dalai Lama at the age of two. His Holiness assumed complete duties in 1950, following the Chinese invasion of Tibet.
Despite the peace talks held in 1954, the Chinese atrocities in Tibet continued, and His Holiness was forced into exile. His persistent and non-violent struggle to bring democracy to Tibet earned him the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989, along with numerous other awards, honorary doctorates, and prizes commemorating his contribution to peace efforts.
On 29 May 2011, His Holiness formalized the transfer of his temporal power to the democratically elected leader, thus ending the age-old tradition of the Dalai Lamas being both, the spiritual and political leaders of Tibet.
His Holiness has now left the continuation of the reincarnation ritual at the discretion of his followers, with a view to protect the reincarnation concept from being misused in the name of politics. He also established guidelines to assist in correctly identifying the next possible leader, so as to bring transparency into the process.