The Voice of the Gods in Upper Tibet. The Trance-induced Invocations and Songs of Praise of the Spirit-medium Phowo Srigyal
The Illuminating Mirror – 2015
The ancient corbelled buildings of Upper Tibet: Architectural attributes, environmental factors and religious meaning in a unique type of archaeological monument
Journal of Comparative Cultural Studies in Architecture – August 2015
Straddling the Millennial Divide — A case study of persistence and change in the Tibetan ritual tradition based on the Gnag rabs of Gathang Bumpa and Eternal Bon documents, circa 900-1100 CE
Revue d’Etudes Tibétaines, no. 29, Avril 2014, pp. 155-243.
Review of ‘Early Buddhist Transmission and Trade Networks: Mobility and Exchange within and beyond the Northwestern Borderlands of South Asia. Dynamics in the History of Religion, vol. 2.’ by Jason Neelis
Himalaya, the Journal of the Association for Nepal and Himalayan Studies – Vol.33 No.1 March 2014
Inner Asian cultural adaptation, regional differentiation and the ‘Western Tibetan Plateau’
Laurianne Bruneau & John Vincent Bellezza
Revue d’Etudes Tibétaines, no. 28, Décembre 2013, pp. 5-161.
The Liturgies and Oracular Utterances of the Spirit-mediums of Upper Tibet — An Introduction to their bSang Rituals
Revue d’Etudes Tibétaines, no. 20, Avril 2011, pp. 5-31.
gShen-rab Myi-bo, His life and times according to Tibet’s earliest literary sources
Revue d’Etudes Tibétaines, no. 19, Octobre 2010, pp. 31-118.
Bringing to Light the Forgotten
A Report on the Major Findings of a Comprehensive Inventory of Pre-Buddhist Sites in Upper Tibet Conducted Between 1992-2002
Essays on the International Conference on Tibetan Archaeology and Art – 2004
Pilgrim’s Way, Scientist’s Mind
Tibet_Geographic – 2004
Ancient Tibet: Bringing to Light the Forgotten
Athena Review – Vol.3 No.4 2003
Here Today, Gone Tomorrow
The Race to Document Upper Tibet’s Iron Age Civilization Before the Evidence is Carried Away
Lotus Leaves – 2003
Gods, Hunting and Society
Animals in the Ancient Cave Paintings of Celestial Lake in Northern Tibet
East and West – Vol.52 2002
Elders of Upper Tibet
Vital Link with a Vast Unwritten Tradition
The Mirror – No.53 May/June 2000
Bon Rock Paintings at Gnam Mtsho
Glimpses of the Ancient Religion of Northern Tibet
Rock Art Resarch – May 2000
Book Review: Schuyler Jones’ Tibetan Nomads: Environment, Pastoral Economy, and Material Culture
The Tibet Journal – Vol.XXV No.1 Spring 2000
High Country Culture
Discovering Archaeology – 05/06 1999
A Preliminary Archaeological Survey of Da Rog mTsho
The Tibet Journal – Vol.XXIV No.1 Spring 1999
Pre-history of Tibet
Himal South Asian – Vol.12 1999
Thogchags – Talismans of Tibet
Arts of Asia – Vol.28 1998
Notes on Three Series of Unusual Symbols Discovered on the Byang thang
From East and West – Vol.47 1997
A Preliminary Archaeological Survey of gNam mtsho and Dang ra g.yu mtsho
The Tibet Journal – Vol.XXI No.1 Spring 1996
Himal – Vol.8 No.3 1995
Kang Rinpoche Trashed and Commercialised
Himal – Vol.8 No.1 1995
Thick but Incomplete
Review of Victor Chan’s Tibet Handbook
Himal – Vol.7 No.6 1994
The Tibet Journal – Vol.XIX No.1 Spring 1994
Quest for the Four Fountains of Tibet
Himal – Vol.6 No.1 1993
The Liturgies and Oracular Utterances of the Lha-pa of Upper Tibet
John Vincent Bellezza
Visiting Scholar, University of Virginia, USA
In my most recent book, Spirit-Mediums, Sacred Mountains and Related Bon Textual Traditions in Upper Tibet (Tibet Studies Library, vol. 8, Brill: Leiden, 2005), I comprehensively explore the cultural history of the lha-pa (spirit-mediums) of Upper Tibet. There are however a few lacunae in my coverage, which I will begin to address in my IATS-11 paper. In it, I will present findings related to the other seven or eight senior lha-pa who reside in Upper Tibet (Byang-thang and Stod). In particular, I will focus on an analysis of the invocations, instructions and prophecies, which make up the verbal dimension of the trance ceremony (lha-bzhugs). As much as is possible in a short paper, I will examine the cultural historical orientation and literary genres that comprise the important oral texts of the spirit-mediums.
From extensive high quality digital recordings made in the field, I undertook the extremely rigorous task of transcription and translation, revealing a new genre of Tibetan ‘oral’ literature. This literature is in the dBus-gtsang, Hor and Stod dialects, as well as in an abstruse cant peculiar to the lha-pa known as lha-skad. The hallmark of this ethnographic material is its stunning diversity; it encapsulates the full spectrum of extant Tibetan religious heritage. To date, no other ethnographic or literary source has demonstrated such an unmodified and rich juxtaposition of disparate cultural components. The main bodies of tradition (qualitatively and historically) represented include:
- Indigenous folk culture related to the physical and numinous environment of Upper Tibet.
- Doctrinal material derived from Vajrayana.
- gCod cult practices.
- Gling ge-sar bardic content.
- Phya-gshen elements specifically pertaining to dpyad (diagnosis), gto (beneficial rites) and the cult of dgra-lha (sgra-bla).
I will conclude this abstract with a few brief translations sans the transcriptions for the sake of brevity:
- Indigenous (from a pre-trance bsangs): ….I fumigate the fifteen brother and sister guardians of humans. I invite you [all] here to this place of repose. I fumigate A-ma nor-’dzom phyug-mo (Mother Abiding in Wealth Riches Mother). I fumigate the master of good fortune outcome (las-’phro) treasures…..
- Vajrayana (from a pre-trance Buddhist gser-skyems): Om A Hum. Jo-bo (Thugs-rje chen-po), the excellent protector of Dharma, the holy mountain seer, you are the powerful one who protects us like a mother does her child. dPal-ldan lha-mo, the mistress of ’dod-khams (the mundane human world of desires), I give and offer to you…
- Ge-sar epic (sTag-lung bdud-btsan in the trance ceremony): Proclamation of the lineage of deities. The song is A la tha la tha la (expresses a positive or joyful sense). Tha la mo is the style of singing. A la is the lilting style of speech. The variable meaning is [in] the execution of the verses. If not viewed from the tops of the three lofty mountains you cannot distinguish [the lay of] the crops….
- Phya-gshen (Thang-sras mchor-po in the trance ceremony): ….Kha-re! You must protect them wherever they stay and reside. I invoke with bswo the three mighty tiger brothers of the dgra-lha, the dgra-lha protectors of the males themselves. bSwo! bSwo! I invoke with bswo the white thul (an old style robe) heroic dgra-lha, the lam-lha (gods of the road) who circle males…
Please Note: In conjunction with or as an alternative to the above work, I could also deliver a paper on my translation and analysis of non-Buddhist ritual materials contained in Tun-huang manuscripts. I could also make known my recent archaeological findings in Upper Tibet, especially now that I have compiled invaluable chronometric data. Thanks to these recent breakthroughs, the chronology and extent of pre-Buddhist civilization in Upper Tibet is becoming clearer.
International Association for Tibetan Studies, Oxford
2003 The Territorial Delimitation of the Pre-Buddhist Zhang Zhung Paleocultural Entity
John Vincent Bellezza
Visiting Scholar, East Asia Center, University of Virginia
Tibetanist, Istituto Shang Shung, Merigar
Member, Oxford Bon Translation Project
In this paper, I delineate the territorial extent of the pre-Buddhist paleocultural zone traditionally known as Zhang-zhung, by examining the geographic distribution of its monumental remains. Using a comprehensive inventory of pre-Buddhist archaeological sites conducted in Upper Tibet (traditionally known as Stod and Byang-thang) between 1992-2002, this paper will provisionally establish the cultural frontiers of Zhang-zhung. The assemblage of monument typologies in Upper Tibet with their highly distinctive morphologies and design traits serve as an index for gauging the areal configuration of pre-Buddhist culture. In particular, the unique pillar typologies of Upper Tibet distinguish Zhang-zhung from the archaeological heritage of adjoining regions.
An important tool of verification for this archaeological methodological approach is literary in nature. In general or schematic terms, the extent of the Zhang-zhung kingdom as recorded in religious histories (chos ’byung) corresponds to the archaeological record. For example, the 12th century mKhas pa’i lde’u states,” At the juncture of Tibet and Gru-gu (Uighur territorial entity) there were the five stong-sde (communities/divisions of one thousand) of Upper Zhang-zhung….At the juncture of Tibet and Sum-pa (regions in eastern Nag-chu prefecture) there were the five stong-sde of Lower Zhang-zhung…”. The same type of overall geographic arrangement is also maintained by the various Bon btsan ’byung, but with the stong-sde administrative unit often being replaced by the khri-sde.
The ethnohistorical frontiers of Zhang-zhung as established by the comprehensive archaeological inventory are given below. However, borderland regions that fall under the jurisdiction of adjacent countries are not included. The limited archaeological evidence available indicates that the Byang-pa region of La-dwags, sPi-ti in Himachal Pradesh, as well as sLe-mi, Mu-gu, Dol-po and ’Om-lo, in Nepal, shared very close cultural affinities with Zhang-zhung.
- Western delimitation:
- Ru-thog to the border with La-dwags.
- Gu-ge to the border with Himalayan India. Zhang-zhung may have existed in association with other cultural influences in this region because of the widespread incidence of mud brick and rammed earth monument types rarely found in other areas of Upper Tibet.
- Pu-rang. However, the archaeological evidence for Pu-rang smad is inconclusive at this time. It would appear that many of the pre-Buddhist sites were effaced in this agricultural enclave by historical Buddhist resettlement.
- Southern delimitation:
- Himalayan watershed as far east as Dar-rgyas-gling township, Sa-dga’ county. It remains to be determined if sections of sKyid-grong county, to the southeast, were also an integral part of the Zhang-zhung ethnohistorical entity. According to Bon tradition (sLop-dpon bsTan ’dzin rnam-dag’s bstan ’byung, etc.), sTag-mo rdzong of Mang-yul was one of the six main fortresses of Zhang-zhung.
- Eastern delimitation:
- gZhung-smad and Ma-g.yo townships, Shan-rtsa county. Areas to the east formed a distinctive but related cultural zone as evidenced by the archaeological record, which is mostly funerary in nature. The eastern Byang-thang region, which extends as far east as Bar-tha township, gNam-mtsho and A-mdo county, corresponds to areas in the Sum-pa paleocultural domain. Interestingly, the Zhang-zhung and Sum-pa ethnohistorical frontier is also a contemporary linguistic watershed between the Hor and sTod skad dialects. Far eastern regions of Byang-thang (eastern Nag-chu county, Sog and gNyan-rong) have very scant monumental remains, indicative of far less developed sedentary cultures in the pre-Buddhist period.
- Northern delimitation:
- Across the breadth of the Byang-thang west of dPal-mgon county. Except for certain tomb typologies, the Zhang-zhung monumental record does not extend north of 34º north latitude.
On a morphological, locational and functional basis, pre-Buddhist archaeological sites in Upper Tibet can be classed as follows:
- Habitational structures occupying summits (fortresses, palaces and related structural remains)
- All-stone corbelled buildings
- Structures built with wooden rafters
- Residential structures in other locations (religious and lay residences)
- All-stone corbelled buildings
- Other freestanding building types
- Buildings integrating caves and escarpments in their construction
- Ceremonial stelae and accompanying structures (funerary and non-funerary sites)
- Isolated pillars (rdo-ring)
- Pillars erected within a quadrangular stone enclosure
- Quadrangular arrays of pillars with appended edifices
- Superficial ceremonial structures (primarily funerary sites)
- Single-course quadrangular, ovoid and irregularly shaped structures (slab-wall and flush-block constructions)
- Double-course quadrangular, ovoid and irregularly shaped structures (slab-wall and flush-block constructions)
- Heaped-wall enclosures
- Rectangular mounds (bang-so)
- Terraced structures
- Cubic-shaped mountaintop tombs
- Minor stone constructions
- Lha-gtsug, gsas-mkhar and rten-mkhar
- Habitational structures occupying summits (fortresses, palaces and related structural remains)
- Rock Art
DISCOVERY OF SHANG SHUNG
THE ANCIENT CIVILIZATION OF TIBET
For over a decade, I have been documenting the existence of Shang Shung, an ancient civilization based in northern and western Tibet. In this stunningly beautiful part of the Tibetan plateau known as the Changthang, the dwellers of Shang Shung built a large network of temples, forts, villages and tombs. This great construction occurred in what is now mostly wilderness. The descendents of Shang Shung are the drokpa, yak and sheep herders, who wander the great empty ranges of the Changthang.
Shang Shung flourished until circa 1300 years ago, when the deteriorating climate and cultural and religious changes in Tibet conspired in its demise. At 15,000 to 17,000 feet above sea level, Shang Shung represents the highest elevation civilization ever to have existed. Why did people chose to live at such a high elevation and how did they manage to cope are questions just now being asked by specialists in ancient Tibetan culture.
According to legend, Shang Shung flourished in Tibet before the introduction of Buddhism in the Seventh to Ninth centuries. Scriptures belonging to Bon, the indigenous religion of Tibet, provide elaborate accounts of the pre-Buddhist Iron Age civilization of Shang Shung. These ancient texts speak of a powerful kingdom with its own language and system of writing that held sway in Tibet for centuries. Until recently, little scientific evidence of Shang Shung’s purported greatness had emerged and thus, the academic community remained justifiably skeptical. Now, with my series of archaeological discoveries, the identity of Shang Shung is much clearer.
As an independent scholar specializing in the religious and cultural history of northern and western Tibet, I have made the documentation of Shang Shung a top priority. I first undertook to learn as much as I could about Shang Shung, studying Tibetan texts and interviewing senior members of the Tibetan community. I was to realize, just as the chief professor of the Bon religion Lopon Tenzin Namdak indicated, that if I carefully searched the wild mountains and plains of Tibet I would find Shang Shung. Working closely with Tibetan scholars such as Lopon Tenzin Namdak and the head of the Bon religion, Menri Trisen, I first located on the map where prime Shang Shung sites are probably situated. Then came the greatest challenge: getting into Tibet and mustering the resources necessary to actually find Shang Shung.
In the early years, in my quest to discover Shang Shung, I could not rely on the Chinese government for assistance for even ordinary tourists were discouraged from visiting all but a small handful of cities. I had to go at it alone relying on my years of trekking and mountaineering experience in the Himalaya. I however, was highly motivated and more than a decade and 11 major expeditions later, I have run the gauntlet and weathered every storm.
The Process of Discovery
The home of Shang Shung is the Changthang, the remote north and west of the country, and the highest, coldest and driest part of the Tibetan plateau. This is a vast land of expansive plains, long snowy mountain ranges and interminable vistas, covering an area the size of Arizona and California combined. My only chance of success was to pinpoint certain regions for exploration but still I ended up driving approximately 16,000 miles and covering another 4000 miles on foot. My exertions proved fruitful and I was able to chart some of the ancient monuments and settlements of Shang Shung, significantly adding to discoveries made by other Western scholars in the first half of the Twentieth century and those of contemporary Chinese and Tibetan researchers. To set the stage for what I have found let us look at the achievements of others who strove to understand ancient Tibet.
Among the last blank spaces on the world map, Tibet is a land that has captured popular imagination for over a century. Ringed by the highest mountain ranges in the world, Tibet did not yield its geographic secrets until the early Twentieth century when explorers such as Sven Hedin of Sweden began compiling detailed maps of the hinterlands. After the 1905 Younghusband invasion, Britain played a major part in making Tibet known to the world. Tibetology, the study of Tibetan history and culture, developed rapidly under the British. The focus of much of this scholarship was the study of Buddhism but there were also those scholars who took and interest in Tibet’s pre-Buddhist past.
The opportunity to roam the Tibetan countryside combined with deep knowledge of her people and culture placed men such as Professor Guiseppe Tucci, Hugh Richardson, the British Resident in Tibet; and the Russian scholar George Roerich, in a unique position to explore Tibet’s ancient past. They uncovered a variety of pre-Buddhist archaeological sites including the remains of forts, megalithic sites and graves. Despite their pioneering efforts no systematic excavations were ever undertaken and in 1951, with the Chinese Communist invasion of Tibet, all research in Tibet came to an abrupt end.
The Chinese in Tibet were slow to begin archaeological exploration in Tibet. In fact, during the Cultural Revolution some 30 years ago, many archaeological monuments along with ancient monasteries and other cultural sites were ruthlessly destroyed. The situation began to slowly improve when in 1976, the Beijing Academy of Sciences mounted an expedition to Tibet to collect Stone Age tools lieing on the surface. In the 1980’s, among the most notable work done by Chinese archaeologists was the excavation of the Neolithic villages of Karou in the Chamdo prefecture of eastern Tibet, and Chukhong located in the Lhasa valley. The 1980’s also saw the discovery and preliminary excavation of New Stone Age (1500 – 3000 B.C.), Metal Age (1500 B.C. – Seventh Century A.D.) and Imperial Era (618 A.D. – 850 A.D.) tombs in several parts of the country.
In the early 1990’s, Chinese and Tibetan archaeologists studied more than 50 rock art sites in the Changthang. In the last several years, they have turned their attention towards extreme western Tibet where a number of Buddhist and pre-Buddhist finds have been made. Taken as a whole, archaeological work in Tibet has been slow to gain ground; it has been poorly funded and lacking trained personnel. Fortunately, there are now signs that the situation is changing as researchers petition the government for permission and the funds needed to explore Tibet’s rich ancient legacy. Work on Shang Shung is still in its infancy but an encouraging development was an expedition launched by the Tibet Academy of Social Sciences in 1998, to study the cultural history of Shang Shung.
The Character of Shang Shung
Not intent to sit on the sidelines and wait for local scholars to make headway, I realized that if I wanted to learn about Shang Shung I would have to do the leg work myself. I have published my findings in a number of scholarly monographs and in a book detailing the cultural history of sacred mountains and lakes in northern Tibet.
My work is one of a series of stepping stones that is significantly augmenting our knowledge of pre-Buddhist Tibet. A quantum leap forward will occur when excavation begins at some of the sites I have documented. Until that time, the chronology of Shang Shung sites will remain in question. At this juncture, it is not often possible to delineate Stone Age and Metal Age sites from those subsequently associated with the Imperial Era or with primitive cults that existed in northern Tibet as late as the Thirteenth century. Evidence indicates that certain places were inhabited for long periods of time and do not belong to one period alone. In the annals of world archaeology, the rebuilding of ancient monuments and the resettlement of ancient sites is common.
The antiquity of the Shang Shung sites is uncontested: they are clearly labeled pre-Buddhist in the oral and textual histories. Among the earliest written sources extolling Shang Shung is the Ninth century Old Tibet Chronicle written within 200 years of its downfall. Bon scriptures, in particular, are an excellent source of information on Shang Shung. Compiled primarily between the Eleventh and Fifteenth centuries, these texts record with great pride the accomplishments of Shang Shung era saints who practiced an early form of the Bon religion.
Data on ancient climate (paleoclimatology) and spores and pollens (palynology) buttresses historical information. A significant number of the Shang Shung villages, forts, temples, megaliths and cave art sites are now uninhabited but were once favorable for settlement. Another indication of age is the physical evidence: great monuments have been reduced to rubble or even leveled not due to invasion but through the agency of time. On some stones orange climax lichens are found in abundance, a clear indication in the high elevation environment that these building materials have not been disturbed for centuries.
Like ancient builders the world over, the dwellers of Shang Shung looked for special types of environmental conditions in which to live. Among the most important settings was the great lake belt that stretches 600 miles across the breadth of the Changthang between 30 degrees, 30 minutes and 32 degrees north latitude. Numbering in the thousands, these bodies of water boast the most radiant colors imaginable. Left by the retreating glaciers of the Pleistocene, the lakes have no outlet so minerals concentrate in the water and over millennia, this has led to salifaction. In the time of Shang Shung a more congenial climate meant that many of these lakes contained fresh water, a vital constituent of any civilization. But there are also other factors at play.
The lake belt occupies the most hospitable part of the Changthang: to the south, on the high flanks of the Trans-Himalaya ranges, the climate is extremely severe with blizzard conditions prevailing year round while to the north, there are frigid alpine deserts. The islands, cliffs and headlands where many of the Shang Shung sites are found also have defensive value, an important attribute in a land long known for its bellicose tribesmen. These factors alone, however, are not sufficient to explain the attraction the great lakes had for Shang Shung. There are many other permanent sources of fresh water near the lakes such as rivers and springs. Moreover, the rocky lake shores are often poor grazing for livestock and removed from choice hunting grounds. Therefore, there was not an economic imperative for settling directly on the lakes. It would seem purely on functional grounds for buildings to have been constructed away from the immediate lake shore, precisely the pattern of settlement we see in modern times.
To fully explain the location of Shang Shung sites on the lakes one must examine primitive beliefs still associated with the Bon religion. It is well established that before the advent of Buddhism, more than 1200 years ago, the indigenous Bon deities were primarily associated with topographical features and celestial phenomena. Residing in sacred lakes and mountains these ambivalent supernatural forces had both a protective and ancestral function. One type of ancient god, the yulha presided over different locales and guarded the inhabitants. The yulha also figured in the myths of creation and as an ancestor figure of the community. My research has shown that the inhabitants of Shang Shung frequently chose to build their communities near the dwelling places of the yulha, particularly at the great lakes.
These lakes were envisioned as powerful goddesses and mistresses of the community who ruled a bevy of lesser yulha. From what can be gleaned from Bon texts it appears that these goddesses even took precedence over the male mountain gods. The lakes were the hubs of a spiritual and ecological network that extended across the Changthang. The soul force, heart and other important anatomical features of the goddesses were envisioned as the islands and headlands in the lakes, the very places that many important Shang Shung sites are located. The selection of the most inaccessible and sacred sites for settlement seems to indicate that they were occupied by a religious and cultural elite.
The Shang Shung Archaeological Sites
1) Nam Tsho
Approximately 100 miles northwest of Lhasa is the largest lake in the Changthang, Nam Tsho (‘Celestial Lake’). This nearly 50 mile long body of brackish water is said to be the soul lake of the Tibetan nation and the home of Yum (‘Mother’), a form of the most powerful Bon goddess. With its towering limestone and granite cliffs and precipitous headlands, the north shore of Nam Tsho is very rugged and convoluted. It was here that a series of Shang Shung monuments were built, all within sight of the lake. This part of the lake was visited in the 1870’s by two of the Pundits, Indian spies who worked for the British Imperial government. They returned to India with fantastic stories of pyramids and other ancient wonders. Subsequently, there is no record of archaeological exploration at the north shore of the lake until my six expeditions to the area in the 1980’s and 1990’s.
The forgotten north shore of Nam Tsho proved fertile ground for exploration. Carrying a heavy pack and traveling alone, I walked the whole way. My efforts were rewarded by the discovery of a number of ancient monuments. Along the eastern half of the north shore is a six mile long peninsula called Do Ring (‘Long Headland’), the longest at Nam Tsho. The setting is most spectacular, with the cobalt blue waters of Nam Tsho surrounding Do Ring on three sides. According to Bon histories, the Shang Shung saint Tong Gyung Thuchen meditated here with his consort, an emanation of the lake. A small group of ruins at the tip of the headland appears to be his ancient hermitage. At the center of the ruins a yungdrung (Bon counterclockwise swastika) and a Bon mantra were inscribed on a boulder proving its association with the ancient religion of Tibet. A couple miles west of Doring is Sha Do (Deer Headland), the site of another group of ancient ruins which were constructed with granite blocks. According to local oral histories deer were found in the region but they are now extinct. West of Sha Do along the boulder strewn lake shore is Nying Do (‘Heart Headland’), the site of a pre-Buddhist village consisting of about one dozen houses. There is little left here save for crumbling walls which have almost been flattened to the ground.
An imposing structure is the citadel of Tragu Dara located about 2 miles west of Nying Do in the Razhung valley. In the middle of the valley is a rocky mount surmounted by the seven foot perimeter walls of the old stronghold. Within the walls, an area of approximately 15,000 square feet, are various foundations but none of the structures that rose from them are intact. Tragu Dara is associated with Tragu Ngongan, an ancestral hero of the local shepherds. Tragu, or one of his descendants, is mentioned in a religious history of the Taglung, a Buddhist sect. Set in the Thirteenth century, the account tells how the hero was converted to Buddhism before dying, spelling the end of the last pre-Buddhist power in the eastern Changthang.
About 15 miles west of Tragu Dara, in the middle of the north shore of Nam Tsho, is the headland of Tamchog Ngangpa Do (‘Excellent Goose Horse Headland’). At the base of the headland are two pyramidal formations of red limestone called ‘Horse’s Ears’. In one of the formations, a natural passageway with stairs leads to the summit. On the summit is a small group of walls, the remains of a Shang Shung temple, according to the elders of the region. Although small in size, the magnificent setting certainly lends an air of sanctity to the site. Pummeled by the extreme cold it was probably the ‘Horse’s Ears’ that the Pundit Krishan Singh mistook for manmade pyramids during his brief visit in January, 1872. He noted in his report that there was a passageway in one of the pyramids in which an ancient lama meditated.
Crossing even more desolate country, there is an escarpment called Lug Do (‘Sheep Headland’) ten miles west of Tamchog Ngangpa Do. Several mounds and crude stone rings up 50 feet in diameter are found here which resemble Metal Age graves found in other parts of Tibet and Central Asia. However, they cannot be positively identified until excavation of the site is carried out. Also at Lug Do, is an extensive network of partially buried foundation walls.
Traversing an eight mile stretch of cliffs rising more than 1000 feet above Nam Tsho from Lug Do, the ancient Bon site of Tong Shong Phuk is reached. According to Bon invocatory scriptures, the goddess of the lake Yum had her Shang Shung era fort here. There are only the faintest traces of structures visible to the naked eye but in a large adjoining cave is a collection of Bon rock paintings. Painted in red ocher, the chaotic mix of paintings and presence of expletives graphically depicts the historical conflict between the Bon religion and Buddhism. Buddhism emerged victorious at the end of the Tenth century and Bon accepted many of its tenets, however, the conflict between the religions moldered on for another 250 years.
On the southeast corner of the Nam Tsho is a large peninsula called Tashi Do. In 1993, researchers from the Tibet Commission of Archaeology and Museums under the scholarly guidance of Sonam Wangdu, charted some of the extraordinary cave paintings found here. I have continued this work and have been able to document many other paintings located in hard to get to caves at several locations around the lake. Research indicates that painting began at the end of the Tibetan Stone Age or beginning of the Metal Age, some 3000 years ago. On the basis of style and content, I have been able place the paintings in a rough chronology, yet we must await advances in the technology of direct dating of cave paintings. In the 1990’s, such dating techniques have been pioneered in the ‘Pecos River style’ paintings of Texas and in Australian Aboriginal pictographs. The content of the Tashi Do paintings varies greatly and includes early hunting scenes, Imperial era Bon stupas (a kind of religious monument) and supernatural beings.
2) Dang ra Yumtsho
Situated 225 miles west of Nam Tsho is Dangra Yumtsho (‘Ocean Turquoise Lake’), another lake that reaches nearly 50 miles in length. In Bon mythology, this lake is inhabited by the benefactress Dangra Gyalmo, a manifestation of the mother of the universe. Dangra Yumtsho is also considered the soul lake of Shang Shung meaning that it was inextricably tied to the life of the kingdom. In 1994 and 1995, I circumambulated the lake, becoming the first Westerner on record to visit its entire shoreline. There is a great wealth of archaeological sites at Dangra Yumtsho befitting its status as one of the capitols of the ancient kingdom. In my survey, I found a chain of ancient structures and defunct agricultural lands concentrated on the east shore confirming local beliefs that Dangra Yumtsho was at its zenith in the time of Shung Shung.
Near the south shore of the lake are the remains of a walled agricultural settlement called Gangs Lung Lhatse. Traces of the irrigation system that watered the settlement are still detectable. The heart of Gangs Lung Lhatse is its citadel with foundation walls up to six feet thick. In the vicinity of the citadel are extensive ruins within the shadow of the sacred warrior mountain Gangs Lung Lhatse. About 20 miles south of Dangra Yumtsho, at the confluence of the Targo and Nangma rivers, is a megalithic site called Sumbug Doring. Overlooking the sacred mountain Targo Gegen (‘Ancient Venerable Snow Mountain), Sumbug Doring consists of around 1000 standing stones ranging in height from one to five feet. The standing stones or stelae are arrayed in two quadrangles, one of which hosts about 800 well preserved specimens. On the basis of appearance, the Tibetologists Guiseppe Tucci and George Roerich believed that such menhirs did indeed belong to the Megalithic, a period that spanned the very end of the Stone Age and the beginning of the Bronze Age. Their assessment is supported by the absence of references to megalithic sites in Bon literature, an indication that they were constructed prior to the Iron Age.
On the southeast side of Dangra Yumtsho near the mouth of a stream emptying into the lake are the ruins of Chugtsho Trogpo, a fort reputed to have been founded in the time of Shang Shung. This was a large hill top complex of at least 30 buildings rivaling in size the big forts of central Tibet. On a nearby slope are the tenuous remains of a Shang Shung temple complex. Often misrepresented as monasteries by the herders, these temples were known as Se Khar (‘Divine Fortress’) in the language of Shang Shung.
Along the northern half of the east shore are the ruins of other forts said to have been founded in the time of Shang Shung. These include the three forts of Kyidsum, Gyampai Dzong, Khyung Dzong, and Ombu Dzong. Khyung Dzong (‘Eagle Fort’) is of special interest because it belonged to the last king of Shang Shung, Ligmigya. Ligmigya was betrayed by his rival the King of Tibet and killed while riding with a small contingent of men near his fort. Rebuilt several times, most recently in the 1980’s, the nearby Bon monastery of Yubun (‘Turquoise Mist’) is believed to enshrine the soul cave of the goddess of the lake, Dangra Gyalmo. As such, it is among the oldest archaeological sites on the lake.
3) Teri Nam Tsho
Forty miles west of Dangra Yumtsho is another giant salt lake called Teri Nam Tsho (Sky Lake of Variegated Mountains. In 1998, during my survey, I became the first westerner to make a circuit of the lake. Teri Nam Tsho is so named because of four different colored sacred mountains flanking it. In Buddhist mythology, these four mountains called the Gyalchen Ri Zhi, were used by the famous Eighth century tantric master Guru Rinpoche to pin down the demoness of the lake. However, in the older Bon mythology, the Gyalchen Ri Zhi are the servants of the goddess of the lake, Prati Ralcigma. Three of the Gyalchen Ri Zhi are home to pre-Buddhist settlements founded no later than the close of the Shang Shung period and probably much earlier. This is clearly established by the lack of water on the island settlements – they could only have been viable when Teri Nam Tsho was potable. The lake according to Chinese studies was fresh 7000 years ago but since then it has become progressively saltier. Although detailed studies of the salifaction process are demanded it doesn’t seem possible that people could have tolerated drinking the water in the last 1500 years.
Associated with the northern white mountain of crystal, Muro Ri, are the remains of four pre-Buddhist villages; two of these, Thongdrol Drag and Podo Gongma, are located on the mainland while the other two are on ancient islands. Now attached to the mainland by an area of akaline flats and quicksand these isolated islands known as Podo Sharma (‘Fragrant Eastern Headland’) support several dilapidated all-stone houses.
On the east side of Teri Nam Tsho opposite the black mountain of iron, Do Nag, is Do Drilbu (‘Bell Headland’), an ancient island now connected to the mainland by a narrow gravel isthmus. This natural three mile long bridge gives access to a long abandoned village consisting of the remains of at least one dozen homes, a 150 feet long structure of many rooms, various shrines and several small pillars rooted in the ground. The structures, like those of Muro Ri, are oriented facing east. The ruins at Do Drilbu are among the best preserved I have discovered. The largest residence which I coined Founder’s House, has most of its stone roof intact. Stones up to five foot in length were cut into rafters on which the stone slabs of the roof rest. Founder’s House was partitioned into six or seven rooms, most of which are interconnected. Inside the rear of the house, a two foot tall pillar of unknown function was erected.
On the south side of Teri Nam Tsho, at the red mountain of copper, Do Mar, is the largest of the ancient villages found at the lake, Khangro (‘Ruined Houses’). Built in a similar style to the island settlements, at least 23 houses existed here. These house feature an anterior courtyard and a series of small, irregularly shaped rooms in the rear. Arranged around a flaming red limestone escarpment, the structures are built in tiers, the largest of which appears to have been a communal building and not the residence of a single family.
About 20 miles from the lake on the biggest river feeding it, the Tshochen Tsangpo, are three megalithic sites which probably mark the location of tombs. The mounds found in the vicinity are an excellent candidate for excavation.
4) Darok Tsho
Seventy miles west of Teri Nam Tsho is another large sacred lake called Darok Tsho home to the Bon goddess Drog Tsho Menma. I had the good fortune to trek around this lake in the winter of 1997 and complete a preliminary archaeological survey, which has been published in the spring, 1999 edition of The Tibet Journal. Darok Tsho has the special distinction of still containing fresh water. At the time of Shang Shung, 13 centuries ago, the north shore of the lake supported a dense pattern of settlement. This same area today lies in desolation. Some of the ruins at Darok Tsho are mentioned in Bon histories detailing mystic practices thought to have been prevalent in Shang Shung. Like the other lakes I explored, the Shang Shung sites of Darok Tsho are found on islands, rocky headlands and cliffs.
In the center of the north shore, on a large peninsula that juts into the lake, are numerous ruins which spill over to the largest of the three islands of the lake, Tsho Do. According to Bon history, Tsho Do (located about one mile offshore) is where the Eighth century Shang Shung saint Nangzher Lodpo meditated. Oral histories designate these ruins as being from pre-Buddhist times and thus corroborate the Bon texts. Indications point to the settlements at Tsho Do and the big peninsula as belonging to the Iron Age. The largest structure found here measures 60 feet in length and like the others, was constructed wholly from stones. Other Shang Shung ruins are found on the ancient island of Do Kyipu which is now connected to the mainland by a narrow land bridge. Among the many Shang Shung cave hermitages at Darok Tsho is one called Shawadong Lhakhang (‘Temple of the Deer Face’). Suspended in the cliff face, Shawadong consists of several rooms built into a large cave. Not all the ruins on the north side of Darok Tsho are Shang Shung, for a historical Bon hermitage called Lhakhang Marchag is also found in the crags. On the walls of the hermitage Bon prayers, symbols and a likeness of the semi-mythical Bon master Taparisa were painted. These paintings afford historians and archaeologists important evidence of Bon practices of 1000 years ago. The Bon religion of this time had already been profoundly influenced by Buddhism and was soon to disappear altogether from Darok Tsho.
There are other Shang Shung sites in northern and western Tibet, like the ruins at Chima Yungdrung at the headwaters of the Brahmaputra, or Khyung Lung Ngul Khar near the Indian border, but there must be many others still awaiting discovery. In the next few years, I hope to continue my work and engender more interest and support leading to the excavation of some of the sites. Given the expense of working in such a remote and harsh land, the unearthing of Shang Shung may still be some years off. Yet, it is only when experts from many disciplines take up the search will the real extent and character of Shang Shung be revealed. There are many questions which must be answered: How large and sophisticated really was Shang Shung? What kinds of technology did it possess? What trade links did it have with contemporaneous civilizations and how was it influenced by them? There is so much to learn before Tibet yields her ancient mysteries.
Suggested Reading List:
Bellezza, J.V. 1997. Divine Dyads: Ancient Civilization in Tibet. Dharamsala, India: Library of Tibetan Works and Archives. A comprehensive but highly technical account of the archaeology and cultural history of Nam Tsho and Dangra Yumtsho.
Chayet A. 1994. Archéologie et Arte du Tibet. Paris: Picard. A scholarly overview of Western and Chinese archaeological discoveries in Tibet. Few Shang Shung sites are mentioned but an excellent background work for those who read French.
Roerich, G,N. 1931. Trails to Inmost Tibet. New Haven: Yale University Press. A captivating account of the adventures and discoveries of George Roerich, a pioneer in Tibetan archaeology.
Tucci, G. 1973, TransHimalaya. Geneva: Nagel Publishers. A excellent volume detailing the archaeological discoveries of Professor Tucci, one of the Twentieth century’s greatest Tibetologists.
Tulku, Tarthang. 1986. Ancient Tibet: Research Materials from the Yeshe De Project. Berkeley: Dharma Publishing. This is the most readable work dealing with Tibetan archaeology.
Wangdu, Sonam. 1994. Art of Tibetan Rock Paintings. Chengdu: Sichuan Publishing House. A fine coffee table book with many superb pictures of Tibetan rock art. The text written in Tibetan, Chinese and English, is one of the most accessible to the non-specialist.
Text: Copyright 1999 John Vincent Bellezza
High Tibet Circle Expedition (HTCE)
Tibet Academy of Social Science Expeditions
Dates: September 13 to November 3.
Participants: John Vincent Bellezza and Dondup Lhagyal
Description: The HTCE was jointly sponsored by the Tibetan Academy of Social Sciences (TASS) and the Ngari Xiangxiong Cultural Exchange Association. This expedition yielded more than 40 archaic archaeological sites most of which had never been documented before. On the HTCE, we covered 7,200 kms by motor vehicle, and I trekked considerable distances on foot and on horseback as well. I took around 2000 photographs and compiled voluminous notes. The main thrust of exploration included Bar-yangs, La-snga mtsho, Gangs rin-po-che, Za-rang, Ru-thog,, Dang-ra g.yu-mtsho, the rTa-rgo range, and Bar-tha. On the second phase of the HTCE, I had the good fortune of being accompanied by Dondup Lhagyal of TASS, a highly able and energetic scholar. Thanks to his expertise and commitment to excellence, this part of the expedition was especially productive and smooth running. I was able to document many sites I had heard about on earlier trips or that we discovered together while in the field.
High Tibet Antiquities Expedition (HTAE)
Dates: September 22 to November 8, 2003
Particpants: John Vincent Bellezza and Konchok Giatso
Description: The HTAE was jointly sponsored by the Tibetan Academy of Social Sciences and the Ngari Xiangxiong Cultural Exchange Association. On the HTCE, I documented around 40 archaic archaeological sites, took 1600 photos and traveled more than 8000 kms by motor vehicle. The geographic focus of exploration was border areas situated in Ru-thog, rTsa-mda’ and Pu-rang. Having been accorded the unprecedented privilege of visiting these areas by the civil and military authorities, I was able to document important citadels and burial grounds that up to that point were undetected. Another geographic target area on the HTCE was parts of Nag-chu, dPal-mgon and mTsho-gnyis counties. On this expedition, I had the pleasure of being accompanied by Konchok Giatso, a senior research fellow of TASS. This diffident and generous individual met with great approval wherever he went. Konchok Giatso’s careful attention to administrative details insured the success and felicity of the HTAE.
High Tibet Welfare Expedition (HTWE)
Dates: May 3 to August 2, 2004
Particpants: John Vincent Bellezza, Ashley McAllen and Tenzin
Description: The HTWE was launched with the purpose of reconnoitering areas of Upper Tibet I had not previously visited or where more exploration was required. Again, this expedition had the benefit of being sponsored by the Tibetan Academy of Social Sciences and the Ngari Xiangxiong Cultural Exchange Association. On the HTWE, I covered 9500 kms by vehicle, shot 4000 photographs, compiled hundreds of pages of compact notes, and made various high quality digital recordings. It was on the HTWE that I completed my survey of border areas in the far west of the Tibet Autonomous Region. The main areas for research and exploration included ’Dam-gzhung, g.Yag-pa, southern mTsho-gnyis, Dang-ra g.yu-mtsho, mTsho-chen, Seng-’khor, gZhung-pa, Ru-thog, sGar and rTsa-mda’. In addition to archaeological exploration, I devoted considerable energy on this expedition to making audio recordings of spirit-mediums (lha-pa) and singers of the ancient shun ballads. The first half of the HTWE greatly profited from the participation of C. Ashley McAllen MD, who operated a mobile clinic for the indigent. He unfortunately had to cut his trip to Tibet short on account of urgent business back home. Tenzin, a young research assistant from TASS, unfailingly helped to insure the successful running and completion of the expedition.
Products: These three expeditions have produced archaeological, ethnographic and textual data, which will be used in the authorship of numerous articles and books. Already Dondup Lhagyal has authored an article on the HTCE project for the TASS Tibet Studies journal and Bellezza has compiled an extensive report presenting his findings for all three TASS sponsored expeditions. Bellezza is now working on a two volume work entitled Antiquities of High Tibet detailing all archaeological findings made on the expeditions. Other publications are certain to follow. Additionally, all images taken while on these expeditions will be posted on the HTDL website for use by TASS. Audio files made in 2004 will also be available on the THDL website for access by TASS.
TASS benefits: The sponsorship of Bellezza’s three expeditions has resulted in the completion of the first comprehensive regional survey of pre-Buddhist archaeological monuments and rock art ever conducted in the Tibet Autonomous Region. The vast amount of data generated on the locations and nature of these sites will prove invaluable in the future study of Tibetan cultural history and archaeology. The findings of this survey will be of immense benefit to TASS historians, anthropologists and textual experts as they attempt to piece together the early heritage of the Plateau. TASS will also benefit as the host institution that pioneered a research effort that will surely be of use to PRC scholars working in sister organizations of the TAR and mainland China. TASS’s foresight in sponsoring the Bellezza expeditions, which are likely to prove of lasting interdisciplinary value, can only enhance the stature of this esteemed institution
Tibetan Medical Foundation
Providing Vital Services to Tibet’s Shepherds
Tibetan Medical Foundation (established 1999) is a non-profit organization founded to bring primary medical care to the people of Upper Tibet, and to foster an understanding of their traditional ways of well-being.
Purpose of the Tibetan Medical Foundation
Highly remote Upper Tibet, has traditionally been the most medically undeserved and least studied portion of the Plateau. Beginning in 1999, the TMF launched a series of annual mobile medical clinics and interdisciplinary studies in the northern and western reaches of the Tibet Plateau. Traditionally known as Upper Tibet, this vast region is home to the drokpa, the ancient shepherds of the highest inhabited region in the world. Politically marginalized in old Tibet and largely forgotten in modern Tibet, the hardy residents of this region have virtually no access to effective medical care. The health problems of the drokpa are exacerbated by the rapid loss of their tradition systems of healing. With these basic realities in mind the TMF was founded to provide modern healthcare in harmony with traditional cultural values.
The TMF team consists of both medical and anthropological units comprised of highly experienced experts in their respective fields working throughout Upper Tibet. The aims of the TMF are carried out in conjunction with Tibetan staff, insuring local acceptance. The medical unit under the leadership of C. Ashley McAllen MD, MPH freely treats a wide range of illnesses in the general population of the region. The medical staff that furnishes this care is able to respond to the majority of cases that would appear in a General Practitioner’s office. In many instances, the care rendered by the TMF represents the drokpa’s first exposure to western medicine. The medical team provides diagnostic facilities, cures acute diseases and manages chronic ailments. The teams also carries out minor surgical procedures and institutes public health measures. The local response to the TMF’s medical program has been overwhelmingly favorable.
The anthropological unit under the direction of John Vincent Bellezza of the University of Virginia has conducted a variety of groundbreaking ethnographic and historical studies in Upper Tibet. In addition to documenting the traditional healthcare culture of the region, the study team has completed an inventory of ancient cultural sites. The anthropological team is now publishing a book on the spirit-healers of Upper Tibet. These types of studies provide a deeper cultural context for the medical work of the TMF. The government and public avidly supports this aspect of the TMF’s work as it records the vanishing heritage of the drokpas.
Operating in Upper Tibet poses daunting logistical and technical challenges. To meet these challenges and to secure the TMF’s objectives regular funding is required. A unique aspect of the TMF is that it has virtually no administrative overhead. This is accomplished by the founders’ deep personal commitment and involvement to the project. Therefore, all funds are directly applied to vital mission costs. In order to continue this crucial work in Upper Tibet the TMF asks for your support. Please consider a making a contribution to the TMF today. The drokpa urgently need your help.
Tibetan Ice Lakes Expedition Trip Report
National Geographic Society (Grant ECO237-05)
(February 9 to March 8, 2006)
John Vincent Bellezza
In any true exploration one never really knows what will be discovered. For years, I had heard that the islands located in the great lakes of Upper Tibet harbored valuable archaeological sites. In February 2006, I finally had an opportunity to see for myself what these islands had hidden from view for many centuries. On this journey of discovery, aptly named the Tibetan Ice Lakes Expedition (TILE), my Tibetan crew and I were able to traverse the frozen surfaces of four lakes in a successful bid to reach six islands. Thanks to a team of top notch people, smooth logistical operations, and brilliant weather, TILE was an unqualified success with all objectives of the expedition being realized. Perhaps it was that other unquantifiable ingredient that really made TILE a success? The Tibetans call it lungta, the power of good luck by which auspicious conditions are created.
A short history
The goal of TILE was to document the existence of pre-Buddhist archaeological sites in the northwestern highlands of the Tibetan plateau. Archaeological evidence derived from the scientific testing of organic samples, the study of ancient Tibetan texts, and cross-cultural analysis indicates that by the early first millennium BC, the Tibetans began to create a civilization on the highest reaches of the Plateau in which mountaintop strongholds, lakeside settlements, and ritual centers associated with the dead predominated. This pre-Buddhist civilization took root in an extremely isolated geographic province which was largely insulated from the many epochal cultural changes occurring in surrounding regions. This isolation is typified by the absence of rock inscriptions written in the cosmopolitan languages of the Silk Road. Contrast this with the adjoining regions of Ladakh and Northern Pakistan, where many such written remains are found. As a result, pre-Buddhist civilization and its archaic cultural traditions managed to persist for a great length of time. It was not until the early 7th century AD and the conquest of Upper Tibet by the Central Tibetan Pugyal kings that the region was subjected to revolutionary change. Along with the unification of the Tibetan plateau under King Srong Tsan Gampo, came the first major infusion of Buddhism from India and China. The gradual but inexorable adoption of Buddhism would prove to have a profound effect on this high elevation civilization, changing the very way in which Tibetans viewed themselves and the world around them.
During Tibet’s imperium (early 7th century to mid 9th century), the Vajrayana (Adamantine Vehicle) Buddhism of India and the old religious and cultural complex coexisted side by side in a relationship fraught with contradiction and tension. The Pugyal Kings of Central Tibet continued to be interred in large burial mounds as per the old tradition but at the same time, the philosophical juggernaut unleashed by Buddhism was capturing the sentiments and loyalty of the population at large. Literary records from this period are quite rare but we do know that the old religious and cultural complex (which came to be called Bon) fought back by tailoring the sophisticated philosophy of Buddhism to the indigenous religious legacy. The ideological and political struggle was much intensified after King Tri Srong Detsan outlawed Bon in 783. In 846, the last Tibetan King Lang Darma, who looked favorably upon the Bonpo (as the adherents of the old cultural traditions are known), was assassinated by Buddhist monks plunging the country into a long period of chaos and strife. The religious and cultural rivalries and exchanges continued unabated until circa 1000 when Tibet reemerges in the historical documents as a thoroughly Buddhist nation. It appears that in Upper Tibet, the Bonpo practicing the old ways were able to survive in remote areas for some generations longer, but there was no turning back the Buddhist cultural tide. By 1250, these anachronistic holdouts seem to have disappeared leaving only a few scattered Bon enclaves in Upper Tibet; ones recast in a Buddhist mold revealing only traces of the old cultural and religious complex to distinguish them from the majority religious community.
Pre-Buddhist archaeological sites surveyed on the great lakes of Upper Tibet
Lake Nam Tsho, Pelgön County:
1) Semo Do South (general coordinates 30° 49.9΄ / 90° 23.5΄ / average el. 4730m). An extensive residential center founded around a series of caves.
2) Semo Do West (30° 49.8΄ / 90° 22.8΄ / 4730m). An extensive residential site founded along an escarpment.
3) Semo Do Funerary (30° 49.9΄ / 90° 23.5΄ / 4730m). Several funerary superstructures located on the open benches of the north side of the island.
Lake Darok Tsho, Drongpa County:
1) Do Targa East (31° 10.3΄ / 84° 05.3΄ / 4600m). A residential site consisting of six all-stone corbelled edifices and a major shrine complex set on a wide bench.
2) Do Targa South (30° 10.1΄ / 84° 05.3΄ / 4610m). A residential site of seven all-stone corbelled edifices poised in caves and a stronghold of the same construction type.
3) Do Drilbu (31° 11.0΄ / 84° 03.1΄ / 4590m). A residential site consisting of seven all-stone corbelled edifices built into the side of the fairly steep backbone of the island.
Lake Ngangla Ring Tsho, Drongpa County:
1) Tsho Do funerary (31° 29.8΄ / 83° 14.0΄ / 4840m). Several funerary superstructures located on a high, narrow shelf.
2) Tsho Do (31° 30.8΄ / 83° 13.7΄ / 4780m). A residential site consisting of six all-stone corbelled edifices.
Lake La Ngak Tsho, Purang County:
1) Do Muk (30° 38.1΄ / 81° 10.5΄ / 4620m). A residential center with five all-stone corbelled edifices sandwiched between sacred mountains of the Himalaya and Transhimalaya.
2) Do Ser (30° 39.5΄ / 81° 11.1΄ / 4620m). A residential site consisting of two all-stone corbelled edifices.
Other pre-Buddhist archeological sites surveyed on TILE
1) Lha Dre Phuk, Shantsa County (31° 36.57΄ / 88° 49.59΄ / 4610m). Red ochre pictographs belonging to the prehistoric and early historic periods.
2) Do Lang Nyidrik, Nyima County (31° 05.38΄ / 86° 31.53΄ / 4950m). Two menhirs erected within a rectangular stone enclosure.
3) Lug Do Mon Dur Khung, Nyima County (31° 00.4΄ / 85° 53.5΄ / 4720m). Multiple menhirs at two different locations and a number of highly degraded funerary superstructures.
4) Khadok, Drongpa County (31° 11.6΄ / 84° 23.3΄ / 4600m). Several funerary superstructures.
5) Trang Lam, Drongpa County (31° 12.38΄ / 84° 02.40΄ / 4610m). Red ochre pictographs featuring a pair of anthropomorphs.
6) Jori Doring, Drongpa County (30° 49.9΄ / 90° 23.5΄ / 4610m). Menhirs erected within a rectangular stone enclosure.
7) Zang Dong Mondo, Drongpa County (30° 04.31΄ / 83° 06.78΄ / 4600m). Stela at three different locations and various funerary superstructures.
Nam Tsho (CelestialLake)
With two Landcruisers and a crew of five (two drivers, cook, and two assistants) we took off from Lhasa on February 9th. We headed straight to Lake Nam Tsho, the largest lake (aprox. 2000 km²) in the so-called Tibetan Autonomous Region. The road to Nam Tsho veers off from the main north-south trunk route at the town of Damshung, which is being transformed into a major hub with the coming of the railway. The road from Damshung has been surfaced in order to up the numbers of tourists visiting Nam Tsho, an increasingly popular destination. The paved road surmounts the Nyenchen Tanglha Range and abruptly ends at Tashi Do, the congregation point for visitors many of which now just come out on day trips. The environmental and cultural impacts are mounting as a consequence of this onslaught, and priceless pictographs are being irrevocably damaged in the process. Tashi Do with its tens of sacred caves is also an important Bon and Buddhist pilgrimage center. It was here that I met my old friend Atop; Tashi do’s most respected ngagpa (lay religious practitioner). He had in advance kindly agreed to accompany me to Semo Do, the largest of Nam Tsho’s three islands. It was Atop alone who received the textual and oral transmissions from the elders concerning the history and sacred geography of Semo Do.
The next day with a big send off, our group of seven embarked for Semo Do, a full day’s drive away. We had to cross several passes in order to reach the lakeshore nearest Semo Do, which is tucked away near the northwest corner of Nam Tsho. This location is called Rig Nga Do, and according to the biography of the 11th century Buddhist ascetic Gyalwa Lorepa, it once hosted a thriving fishing community. Although the Tibetan fishermen have long since disappeared, traces of the enclosures they used to dry fish and store their boats have survived. On the third morning of the expedition, my guide Atop and the entire crew carrying supplies for a bivouac on the island (acting above and beyond the call of duty) set out across the ice. There were many spills. It was still relatively early in the season and it had not been a particularly cold winter. The ice therefore was relatively thin (around 8 inches) and was constantly making unnerving whistling and howling sounds. I was to later learn that this raucous kept the crew up overnight rather dreading the imminent traverse. I too, was concerned, particularly when the ice would make cracking sounds under my weight, the heaviest of any of the members. In any event, with the good graces of all concerned, we made the 4km crossing from Rig Nga Do to Semo Do without incident. As I was to learn on all the ice traverses, the trickiest bit is getting to and from the shoreline. Near the margins of the ice sheet large rifts tend to form and one must find away over them avoiding open water and thin ice.
Semo Do was all I hoped for. This 3 km-long limestone eminence popping out of as much as 1000 feet of water, is the jewel at the breast of Nam Tsho. Semo Do’s flaming red and yellow escarpments vividly stand out against the sparkling cerulean blue of the lake. To the south is the namesake of the Nyen Chen Thanglha Range, the mountain god consort of Nam Tsho, a white deity in the guise of a warrior. Even with the advent of Buddhism, the ancestral memory of the divine mountains and lakes could not be erased, and the Tibetan population continues to venerate these clan progenitors and protectors. Albeit the ritualism and the philosophy behind them was Buddhacized, these worldly protectors, as Nam Tsho and Thanglha came to be known, remain to fulfill their roles as the archetypal mother and father of the Tibetan herders.
Semo Do, a pristine island, sees very few visitors save for an occasional nomad checking up on tshe thar, livestock freed from slaughter in an act of compassion that are then allowed to live out their days on the island. Ever since an ugly incident a few years back when two nuns meditating on the island had a falling out, leading to the murder of one and the suicide of the other, not even Buddhist clerics have visited Semo Do. Athop, armed with the esoteric ritual implements of Vajrayana, sought to set this straight and exorcise whatever ghosts might still be lurking about. The crew gave him a wide berth as he went about his secret religious work. In the sacred geography of Nam Tsho, Semo Do has been transformed into a thoroughly Buddhist site. While it is certainly true that great Buddhist lamas of the 11th to 13th century resided on the island for years at a time, Semo Do has a much longer history than that. This is hinted at in another name of the island: Srin-mo Do. Srin-mo was a class of pre-Buddhist flesh-eating divinities that came to be identified with an Indian group of demons once Buddhism took hold. Over my three day tenure on the island, the archaeological record in no uncertain terms also proclaimed the antiquity and importance of Semo Do.
At one time Semo Do hosted no less than twenty rock shelters, many of which boasted extensive anterooms and courtyards that projected out from the caves and escarpments. Some of these fore-structures covered areas of 200m² to 300m². The walls of these pre-Buddhist edifices were heavily built of limestone blocks – as much as 1 m thick – as befits residences intended for many years and perhaps centuries of habitation. Grave sites were established on the north side of the island, the direction of the boreal afterlife that figures prominently in archaic Tibetan funerary traditions. On the other hand, the Buddhists of the 11th to 13th century could only muster the economic and human resources to enclose the mouths of the caves and this only in lightly built masonry façades. The Buddhist occupants did not try redevelop the freestanding structures of the early period and contented themselves with the dismantling of the walls and the restacking of stones to create walkways and windbreaks. From a settlement of perhaps several hundred people at its zenith, by the 11th century Semo Do had been reduced to the dwelling place of a few recluses. The destruction and abandonment of the pre-Buddhist infrastructure of Semo Do appears to have transpired by the late imperial period. Bon texts have numerous references to Tong Gyung Thuchen, an adept of the 8th century, who at the time of his death is said to have disappeared into the sky above Semo Do. According to popular Bon conceptions, Tong Gyung lived the life of a solitary yogi on Semo Do, and no mention of important Bon settlements is found in the historical literature.
There are two likely historical scenarios accounting for the demise of Semo Do as Nam Tsho’s premier pre-Buddhist residential center: 1) This cultural and political nexus by virtue of its sheltered location, resisted the attempts of Central Tibet’s King Srong Tsan to bring it into his empire until his armies reduced it to ruins. 2) Semo Do fell into decline with the abolition of Bon by King Tri Srong. Perhaps the historical truth contains a bit of both scenarios? In any case, the Semo Do of the old religious and cultural complex vanished to be replaced by small Buddhist hermitages established on the ruins, as well as the history of the victors. The Buddhists in their literature do not even deign to make passing reference to the island’s glorious past.
History however, is hard to erase if one really goes and looks for it. At Semo Do, this heritage is visible not only so in the two different sets of ruins but in the rock art record as well. Only with intensive Buddhist missionary activity were the protagonists able to convert the inhabitants of Nam Tsho to the Indian religion (interestingly, there is still a small assimilated Bon enclave just northwest of Nam Tsho). The local Bon-po were able to remain active on Semo Do possibly as late as the mid-13th century and the definitive carryover of their religion into the fold of the Taklung sect of Buddhism. That there was a period of jostling for space on the island is graphically depicted in the juxtaposition of Bon and Buddhist religious inscriptions in the caves. Each religion scrawled mantras and various figures on the cave walls in red ochre in attempt to purge the site of the influence of the other. The Bon occupation of Semo Do is also dimly recognized in a local tradition that ascribes a ruin on the west end of the island to Drabui Ngo Ngan (probably the last in a long line of Nam Tsho ancestral heroes), a Bonpo who finally submitted to the religious authority of the Taklung hierarchs, circa 1250.
Going west young and old
From Nam Tsho and Semo Do we struck out west towards our next major destination, Tsho Ngönmo (Blue Lake). Along the way I snapped a few photos at Shaba Drak (Stag Rock), a ruined hilltop hermitage associated with Nang Zher Lödpo, a Bon adept of the 8th century. A Buddhist monastery has been established at the base of the formation, obscuring the vestiges of an older settlement. The Bon ruins above the monastery are considered haunted and are shunned by the monks. As in most places in Tibet, deep prejudices against Bon have festered for centuries. These false and irrational views linger to the present day despite the Tibetan ecumenical movement which began 150 years ago. The pre-Buddhist period is seen as better forgotten, even to some degree among the contemporary Bonpo themselves, the self-professed successors of the old religious and cultural complex. As in other traditional civilizations, the ‘pagan’ past is perceived as dark, potentially dangerous, and better left alone. Fortunately, there are some signs that the situation is changing as a new generation with recourse to modern educational opportunities come of age.
Once on the shores of Tsho Ngönmo, I reestablished my relations with the local nomads (now being settled in government housing, all the same, in long rows) and soon had a competent guide. No matter where I went around the lake, it became clear that we could not reach the island in its northern sector. Known as Ser Do Khang Chen (Yellow Island Big House), it is reported to have ancient residential ruins. Vicious winds had broken up much of the ice and it was not expected to freeze back over this winter. I was to learn that each of Upper Tibet’s great lakes has different freezing and thawing characteristics. The quality of the ice sheets vary greatly too: Nam Tsho is transparent, fractured and glass-like; Tsho Ngönmo is jumbled and obscured by snow; Darok Tsho has the texture of fine porcelain; Ngangla Ring Tsho has an opaque rock-like surface; and La Ngak Tsho is dabbled as if gentle waves instantaneously froze into place.
At Tsho Ngönmo, I had to be content with the documentation of Lha Dre Phuk, a cave with an interesting tableau of pictographs. Fortuitously, Ser Do Khang Chen is the only island in Upper Tibet that has been visited by another research team (colleagues from the Tibet University). Farther west, I was able to survey megalithic and grave sites that had yet to be brought into my comprehensive pre-Buddhist archaeological inventory of sites in Upper Tibet. This work has occupied me for 12 years now, taking me to virtually every corner of the vast Upper Tibet region. Each new site furnishes precious data that helps to answer the big questions: who were the pre-Buddhists, how advanced was their civilization, what was its precise chronology, how much historical continuity does it share with the modern Bon tradition, what ethnohistorical connections did it have with adjoining civilizations, etc., etc.?
The archaeological resources of Do Targa (Horse Saddle Island) and Do Drilbu (Bell Island), islands in the midst of Darok Tsho, met our highest expectations. We made our camp near Lemarchang, a large, blazing red peninsula that juts out into the lake, dividing its north shore into east and west halves. Do Targa and Do Drilbu are true to their names and resemble these popular Tibetan objects laid out on a giant white altar. Feeling more confident on the ice, we surveyed Do Targa on two day trips. In 1997, I espied the ancient settlement on the east side of the island from the lakeshore. It was only on TILE however, that I realized there is another settlement nestled in the cliffs on the south side of Do Targa.
The residential ruins of Darok Tsho are known as dokhang-s (literally: stone houses), all-stone structures of varying sizes, whose roofs are made from a series of corbels resting on the top of the walls. These corbels support bridging stones that span the small rooms of the dokhang-s. Finally, stone sheathing was laid on top of the roof substructure and sealed with gravel and clay. So well built were these structures that some examples have remained standing for more than two millennia. They are particularly well preserved on the islands and erstwhile islands of the great lakes (there are around 15 islands and former islands with pre-Buddhist archaeological sites in Upper Tibet, all of which I have now explored, save for Ser Do Khang Chen). The dokhang-s contain warrens of tiny windowless rooms with low-slung entranceways. Commonly, the robustly constructed dokhang-s have a semi-subterranean aspect. While they are dark inside, such dwellings would have been highly weather-proof and easy to heat. Usually the dokhang-s have rows of rooms, each with its own entrance. Ever larger structures were created by interconnecting structurally independent modules of rooms into asymmetrical clusters. Rarely are the dokhang-s more than one story and never do they contain large rooms and halls. Despite their great functionality, the Buddhists did not take well to the dokhang-s and tended to avoid them, particularly after the collapse of the imperium. The Buddhists preferred living well above the ground (the chthonic deities played a much smaller role in their religion) and favored large, open plan rooms and buildings, something that could not be achieved with dokhang building technology. The mud brick and rammed earth buildings of the Buddhists, with their wooden rafters, are inherently less stable than the dokhang-s and frequently withstand the test of time in a less advantageous state.
On Do Targa, I surveyed two settlements comprised of dokhang-s of both the freestanding variety and ones integrated into escarpments. In the rear of DK2 are three large subterranean recesses that formed some type of shrine. Also, at the East Settlement there is a complex of freestanding ceremonial structures probably related to the worship of the Darok Tsho goddess. Here we found valuable epigraphic evidence of Bon probably dating to imperial times. At the South Settlement there are various caves and a small stronghold with rampart walls blocking access to the high ground (DK14). Perhaps in times of attack, the island residents repaired to this fasthold for safety? Do Targa, known as Tsho Ling Gi Do in Bon texts, was the dwelling place of the 8th century Nang Zher Lödpo. It appears that by the time he got to the island, its settlements had already been abandoned. The other island of Darok Tsho, Do drilbu, also hosted a village of large, well built dokhang-s. In the pre-Buddhist times of Zhang Zhung, the two islands must have served as the political headquarters of the Darok Tsho basin, for no other residential ruins of this extent are found in the region. While the Buddhists valued celibacy as a religious ideal, the ancient Bonpo seemed to have had a more prosaic view of reality, and many of the masters had wives and were actively involved in statecraft and military pursuits.
Ngangla Ring Tsho (Hills of the GooseLongLake)
The third lake whose icy mantle we tread across was Ngangla Ring Tsho. This lake is somewhat higher than the others we visited and its frozen surface seemed rock-like and imperturbable. Of the four lakes with islands I explored on TILE, Ngangla Ring Tsho is the only one whose waters are too salty to still be potable. Although there is an 11km-long island on the east end of the lake, the ancient settlement it supported was relatively small. This probably had something to do with the scarcity of drinking water. Perhaps in ancient times there were springs on the island but there are not now. The settlement of dokhang-s on this island (known as Tsho Do) have a southeastern aspect (a direction commonly selected for settlement at the great lakes). So rocky is the slope they sit upon, it is hard to detect the ruins from any appreciable distance.
Like Semo Do, Do Targa and Do Drilbu, Tsho Do must have been the preserve of the elite of Zhang Zhung society. While herds of goats, sheep and yaks could be supported on Tsho Do, providing for the needs of the insular community, grain and most everything else would have had to be brought in from across the lake. Semo Do and the two islands of Darok Tsho do not even have much pastoral capability therefore their prime economic needs could only come from onshore. This makes it clear that the residents of the islands had the social status and political clout to draw their sustenance from society at large. Moreover, the common herders lived in portable shelters, namely the black yak hair tent (banak), while the islanders had substantial fixed dwellings set in the most exclusive and protected of locations.
La Ngak Tsho
Two of the three islands of this lake yielded pre-Buddhist archaeological finds set in one of the most spectacular natural settings. The dokhang-s of Do Ser (Yellow Island) and Do Muk (Purplish Island) enjoy being sited between two of Upper Tibet’s greatest mountains: Mount Tise (a very important Bon and Buddhist pilgrimage place) and Mount Takri Trawo. Textual sources state that these islands were the cult center of Drablai Gyalmo, Zhang Zhung’s most powerful female deity. She was the queen of all the warrior spirits and the dichotomous spirits of the earth and sky. To visit her geomantic hub was a great boon