Tibet Archaeology

and all things Tibetan

Flight of the Khyung

August 2007

John Vincent Bellezza

Flight of the Khyung

It has been one year since inaugurating Flight of the Khyung. With information about my work and travel in the Himalaya and Tibet, and essays focusing on issues of special interest to me, I hope that you will continue to join me. As always your comments are welcome. The best way to reach me is via my personal email: jbellezza@hotmail.com.  My website also has an email account but I hardly ever use it, because it fills with large amounts of spam. As anyone who has published on the worldwide web knows, we are especially susceptible to junk mail.

Zhang Zhung nearly ready for publication

My four month sojourn in Tibet came to an end recently. It was a very fruitful time. I am now back in Nepal’s capital, Kathmandu. I am working on the final formatting of my book, Zhang Zhung: Foundations of Civilization in Tibet. It is to be published by the Austrian Academy of Sciences. I have been left to do everything: editing, proofreading and producing a print ready copy of the work, functions that traditionally fell on the shoulders of publishers. With the economics the way they are these days academic publishers who still publish traditional monographs have farmed out most functions to the authors. This puts a huge strain on writers who must then depend on friends for help, or if they are rich enough, to hire editors, proofreaders and formatters. I am certainly not in this latter category. Thankfully, I found competent editors among my friends, and special credit must be given to Meryl Dowman (Kathmandu), Mariette Wiebenga (Overveen), Dawn Collins (Lhasa) and Mimi Church (Santa Fe) for reading through my manuscript to pick up glitches and offer helpful suggestions. I am also fortunate in that my friend Jim Roberts (Toronto), a professional editor and designer, has come to Kathmandu to oversee the formatting of Zhang Zhung: Foundations of Civilization in Tibet. Jim’s input is a great boon and will certainly make the finished product that much better.

American university presses usually provide editing and formatting services but they don’t seem interested in my type of work. Rather, they are looking for 250 page works on sexy and stylish subjects for the most part, having lost sight of the value of monumental works in moving any field of enquiry forward. If I was to write up my observations in colorful and chatty language in a couple hundred pages that would be a different matter, and I could easily find a publisher. However, my 800 page tome that took 12 years of fieldwork and three years to write is a little like an 800 pound guerilla in the world of publishing. It seems rather ironic to me, but then the marketplace seems to drive everything these days, with so much of human culture and language falling by the wayside in the process. I don’t expect we will remain on the current trajectory of economic affairs for a very long time.

Three millennia of Tibetan cultural history in a nutshell

Last month a friend of mine in Tibet, named Amdo Tsegyel, suggested I write up a one or two page mini cultural history of Tibet. Spurred on by his idea that is precisely what I will do from the top of my head in the balance of this newsletter.

Tibet was one of the great Eurasian civilizations of antiquity. The human presence in Tibet can be traced to the Paleolithic and Neolithic and has continued to the present day in an unbroken stream of cultural endeavor and technological development. The Tibetan Plateau, the largest and highest tableland in the world (approximately 2,000,000 km²), is still host to around two dozen Tibetic languages, as well as older languages of the Bodish group and Bodic family. There are also non-Bodic languages on the Plateau (like in rGyal-rong, in far eastern Tibet). My friend Nicolas Tournadre (Paris), a brilliant linguist, is in the process of classifying this rich linguistic mosaic.

During Tibet’s imperial period (early 7th century to the mid 9th century CE), the period of its greatest political expansion, the sPu-rgyal dynasty controlled (either directly or through a system of vassalage) a huge swathe of Inner Asia from Afghanistan in the west to China in the east. The imperial period coincides with the introduction of Vajrayana Buddhism, which ushered in a new era in the development of Tibetan civilization. A highly refined system of art, architecture, literature and spirituality flourished under the influence of Buddhism. This is the Tibet that most of us know. Civilization in Tibet however extends far beyond the Buddhist era.

In the middle of the second millennium BCE, a new order of cultural life sprung up throughout Inner Asia. The peoples of the region became highly mobile by developing the technology needed for horse riding and the pastoral way of life. These so-called steppe bronze cultures were the successors to the Central Asian developed Bronze Age civilizations, which mysteriously disappeared by the beginning of the second millennium BCE. It is thought that epochal environmental changes are likely to have played a major role in this morphing of Central Asian civilizations into more modest and portable forms. A great mass of peoples and cultures continued to vie with one another for territory and dominance throughout most of the first millennium BCE. This whirlwind of human activity in Inner Asia was to intensify with the dawn of the Iron Age. The development of iron smelting technology in the middle of the first millennium BCE spurred on military and equestrian innovations, increasing the scope for warfare for one thing.

Humanity was afoot and Tibet, just to the south of the steppes, was very much a part of the changes occurring on all sides. As demonstrated in my forthcoming book, Zhang Zhung, the ancient Upper Tibetans and the Scytho-Siberians and other Inner Asian groups (Turks, Tashtyks, etc.) shared many cultural parallels. The archaeometric evidence I have assembled suggests that the highly intricate necropoli that characterize the architectural landscape of Upper Tibet were already in place by the early first millennium BCE. At Khang-dmar rdza-shag, in sGer-rtse, AMS analysis indicates that the burials associated with the megalithic networks were taking place by circa 750 BCE. These necropoli with their arrays of standing stones and temple-tombs reflect the existence of a highly developed cultural life. Residential architecture is also likely to have been developed by the middle of the first millennium BCE, at the latest. Huo Wei and Mark Aldenderfer have obtained dates for residential remains in Gu-ge going back to circa 500 BCE. I, in turn, have obtained chronometric evidence suggesting that the great citadel of Ge-khod mkhar-lung was established no later than circa 50 CE. This is very noteworthy because Ge-khod mkhar-lung is built in the characteristic archaic style found throughout Upper Tibet. It consists of all-stone corbelled buildings. In addition to the all-stone fabric, such structures (known as rdo-khang in Tibetan); feature sinuous ground plans, semi-subterranean aspects, low elevations, windowless chambers and tiny entranceways. In Central Tibet, the heartland of the Tibetan Plateau, the construction of great centers for the living and the dead also appears to have been highly evolved in the first millennium BCE. However, more archaeological work is desperately needed in Central Tibet. The systematic survey of archaeological assets in this region has barely begun.

The artifact assemblages of ceramic and metallic objects also indicate that Tibet was in possession of highly advanced cultural and technological traditions during the pre-Buddhist era. More research is desperately needed here as well, but our findings are clear, in that they indicate that Tibet was not a closed and benighted land before the introduction of Buddhism, but one that fully partook in the cultural florescence blooming around them in China, Central Asia and the Subcontinent. This very important fact has been overlooked by most native and foreign Tibetanists. In fact, a bias against recognizing Tibet’s place in world civilization is widespread. This denigration of the old Tibetan cultural legacy began with the first major introduction of Buddhism in the 7th to 9th centuries CE. In order to gain ground religiously, politically and economically, Vajrayana Buddhists took it upon themselves to recreate history; a view that downplayed native cultural achievements in order to exalt those introduced from the Subcontinent. Gradually, this led to the development of a historical tradition in which older elements of Tibetan civilization were marginalized or forgotten. This state of affairs has prevailed to the present day.

It is only through archaeological research and the critical analysis of Tibetan literary sources that this shallow view of the Tibetan legacy can be remedied. I hasten to add that this is not really a sectarian issue, because the Lamaist Bonpos have also been willing partners in the reformulation of ancient history. Both Buddhists and Bonpos have come to see their history through the lens of Indic thought and sensibilities. One of the most unfortunate outcomes of this historiographic approach is the mutual deceit that it festers. The Buddhists and Bonpo have been borrowing from one another to create themselves in each other’s image, but rarely do they acknowledge this cross-fertilization. Syncretism is a common outcome wherever and whenever different cultural systems encounter one another. Such interplay of ideas and expressions is often a welcome development, leading to the rise of richer and more dynamic patterns of human activity. This certainly has been true in Tibet. But there are serious sociopolitical problems associated with the systematic recreation and forgetting of the past as well. [I may look at some of these in my next newsletter. Stay tuned!]

For the most part, Tibetans do not take pride in their non-Buddhist past, and tend to systematically relate it to Vajrayana mythology and beliefs. Ancient Tibet, however, did not rely on the Lamaist religions for its origins or legitimization; these faiths simply did not exist before 700 to 1000 CE. One of the hallmarks of a people who have reached modernity (for good or ill) is a critical reassessment of their historical materials. This entails study in which the search for objective/mundane truth takes precedence over religious and mythic compulsions.

Tibet is just reaching that point now. If external interference is not too overbearing and destructive, an intellectual renaissance in the coming decades is liable to lead to new perspectives on who the Tibetan people are and where they came from. No one will seriously deny the tremendous role Buddhism has played in the last millennium, but Tibetan civilization will be defined in much broader terms, taking into account its amazing archaeological, cultural and linguistic depth and diversity.

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