Tibet Archaeology

and all things Tibetan

Flight of the Kyung

January 2017

John Vincent Bellezza

Flight of the Khyung wishes you a Happy New Year! This month’s newsletter brings you the second part of an article about the end of the Bronze Age in uppermost Tibet. The focus of this issue is Upper Tibet’s place in the much broader community of Inner Asian cultures some 3000 years ago. There is also a second article in this month’s newsletter on a rare type of stone plaque that functions like a prayer flag. These plaques add another dimension to the popular cult of warrior spirits in Upper Tibet.

Talus-blanketed Red House Necropolis of Upper Tibet: Cross-cultural exchanges with the north at the end of the Bronze Age – Part 2: The wider Inner Asian archaeological context

The second part of this article is divided into the following sections:

  1. The cross-cultural analysis of stelar necropolises
  2. The interregional dissemination of ideas and technologies
  3. Cross-cultural comparison of funerary monuments
  4. Cross-cultural comparison of other archaeological materials
  5. Role of the domestication of the horse
  6. Theoretical concerns

The cross-cultural analysis of stelar necropolises

To understand the Talus-blanketed Red House Necropolis (TBRH) and other stelar necropolises in more depth, it is necessary to examine archaeological evidence from North Inner Asia. Comparative study establishes certain affinities at the end of the Bronze Age between the society, economy, environment and technology of the uppermost part of the Tibetan Plateau and those of the steppes, deserts and mountain ranges to the north. Cross-cultural comparisons are useful in gaining further insight into parallel processes and conditions affecting the cultures responsible for the construction of Upper Tibetan and North Inner Asian necropolises.

For archaeological data pertaining to North Inner Asia, I mostly rely on a new book by William Honeychurch, an archaeologist who has worked extensively in Mongolia. His book, Inner Asia and the Spatial Politics of Empire: Archaeology, Mobility, and Culture Contact (see bibliography in Part 1 of this article), constitutes the most extensive review yet of Late Bronze Age sites and phenomena in North Inner Asia, particularly in its core region: Mongolia and adjoining territories. Thus, Honeychurch’s work serves as a convenient compendium for the comparative exercise that follows.

Despite its thoroughness, Honeychurch’s survey of Late Bronze Age North Inner Asia is only a prelude to the focus of his work: understanding how the organization of the Xiongnu state in the late first millennium BCE was influenced by the pre-existing sociopolitical fabric of North Inner Asia. In his book, he argues persuasively that an increasingly dense network of social, political and economic interconnections across the region acted as the main stimulus for Xiongnu state formation, not other factors sometimes cited such as “climatic changes, mass migrations, charismatic leaders, or economic dependency on China”. Nevertheless, as this article is specifically concerned with the end of the Bronze Age, Honeychurch’s penetrating analysis of Xiongnu state formation is beyond its scope.

Considering archaeological data from North Inner Asia is particularly useful in understanding Upper Tibet at the end of the Bronze Age. North Inner Asia has been the object of archaeological investigation for over a century, with many hundreds of articles, reports and books written (for example, see extensive bibliographies in Honeychurch’s book). Much of what is known about North Inner Asia between the Late Bronze Age (ca. 1400–1000 BCE) and Final Bronze Age (ca. 1000–750 BCE) is derived from studies of burials, ritual monuments, artifact assemblages and rock art (ibid. p. 110).  However, relatively few settlements and seasonal campsites have been discovered in North Inner Asia, and this is especially true of Mongolia (ibid.).

Archaeological work continues uninterrupted in North Inner Asia, relying increasingly on modern technological advances and methods of analysis. By comparison, archaeological research in Upper Tibet is poorly developed, a fledging field of study that has gathered little traction in recent years. Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the case of the stelar necropolises: to date my preliminary fieldwork and studies remain the main source of information about this extremely important class of monuments.


The interregional dissemination of ideas and technologies

As Honeychuch (p. 5) observes, circa 1000 BCE, a mobile herding way of life emerged in the Inner Asian steppes of Mongolia and adjacent territories, characterized by horse riding, new belief systems and prestige goods for long distance trade. At that time, the steppe population was organized into small-scale polities ramified into an elaborate network of exchange, collaboration and conflict (ibid.). Honeychurch (pp. 3, 13) argues (as do many others) that this first steppe civilization was enabled by a herding economy and a high level of mobility, fostering extensive trade links and political relationships over a broad area.

The stelar necropolises of Upper Tibet also mark the dawn of civilization in one portion of the Tibetan Plateau, circa 1000 BCE. Upper Tibet is situated immediately south of the steppes, deserts and mountain ranges of North Inner Asia. Although the role of herding and mobility in the formation of Upper Tibetan civilization has not yet been adequately gauged, archaeological evidence thus far compiled suggests that the domestic horse, bronze metallurgy, novel religious traditions, and new polities played an important role. As I shall show, it appears that wide-ranging economic and sociopolitical networks, arising on the steppes in the beginning of the first millennium BCE, spurred on cross-cultural exchanges enjoying a much wider geographic orbit, with Upper Tibet as an apogee.

Honeychurch (p. 69) notes that long-distance contacts between North Inner Asia and East Asia intensified in the middle of the second millennium BCE through interregional transfers of bronze metallurgy, wheeled vehicles, artifact styles and belief systems. Around 800 BCE, North Inner Asia and East Asia became more consolidated politically, spawning intense interactions between these territories (ibid. p. 68). The role of horse riding (based on the invention of harness and saddle technologies) in facilitating the evolving pastoral economy, new forms of wealth and ownership, long-distance mobility, and sociopolitical integration among steppe groups was crucial (ibid. p. 69). Movements of products, technologies, materials and livestock intensified throughout North Inner Asia in that period, encouraging a more competitive type of politics articulated in ostentatious display, opulence, and ritualized and strategic alliances (ibid. pp. 69, 70). The archaeological record shows that by the middle of the first millennium BCE, some parts of the eastern steppes experienced higher levels of warfare and interpersonal conflict (ibid. p. 70). This coincided with the formation of a larger political arena through the consolidation of local polities (ibid. p. 71).

The discovery in Upper Tibet of bronze artifacts, depictions of chariots and the recurve bow, new styles of zoomorphic art, and novel belief systems as seen through the prism of the stelar necropolises, strongly suggests that contacts between North Inner Asia and this upland region were taking place around 1000 BCE. A powerful agent of these cultural and technological innovations in Upper Tibet appears to have been the riding horse, as depicted in rock art and reflected in bronze metallurgy. These exchanges clearly have parallels in the cross-cultural relationship between North Inner Asia and East Asia. However, it is not yet known if amalgamative forces brought Upper Tibet closer politically to its northern neighbors. While the frontier between North Inner Asia and East Inner Asia is relatively porous, the Tibetan Plateau poses a formidable physical barrier, especially for peoples from low elevation regions. This may help account for the more attenuated cross-cultural processes that appear to characterize communications between North Inner Asia and Upper Tibet in the Final Bronze Age.


Cross-cultural comparison of funerary monuments

In Mongolia and some adjoining regions, major changes in art, belief systems and monument construction beginning around 1400 BCE coincided with the advent of nomadic pastoralism and animal transport and traction (Honeychurch, pp. 138, 139). Between circa 1400 and 700 BCE, the peoples of the steppes built khirigsuurs on broad slopes, passes, valley floors and in steppelands, consisting of stone mounds often concealing burial cists raised inside rectangular or circular enclosures, as well as pathways and various satellite features (ibid. pp. 112, 115). Satellite features sometimes contain horse heads and other faunal remains (ibid. p. 114, after Erdenebataar 2002; Torbat et al. 2003), which appear to be the vestiges of sacrifice and feasting (ibid., after Allard et al. 2007; Houle 2010). In many cases, multiple khirigsuurs occur at a single site (ibid. pp. 116, 117). There are clear spatial associations between khrigsuurs and the stelae known as deer stones, which are now believed to comprise a single ritual ensemble (ibid., after Jacobson 1993; Volkov 2002). Both types of monuments are found together or alone in western, central, east-central Mongolia, the Altai, Tuva, Transbaikalia and northern Xinjiang (ibid.). Many deer stones exhibit early animal style art consisting of engraved deer, recurve bows and other subjects, and some have horse skulls interred at the base (ibid., after Fitzhugh 2009; Jacobson 1993; Novgorodova 1989).

The advent of khirigsuurs and deer stones seems to mark a rise in social inequality on the steppes, as they appear to honor deceased individuals of very high status and required much labor and other resources to build (Honeychurch, pp. 120, 121). The erection of deer stones and khirigsuurs may also have been a means of building networks and alliances between distant pastoralist communities (ibid., after Honeychurch et al. 2009; Wright 2014). Horse burials first occur with deer stones and khirigsuurs, tantalizing evidence for the rise of new ritual and belief systems in North Inner Asia (ibid. pp. 121, 122).

The stelar necropolises of Upper Tibet, while possessing very different morphological qualities than deer stones and khrigsuurs, are also composed of three main elements, a central burial structure, standing stones and ancillary funerary structures. These diverse funerary monuments of Upper Tibet and North Inner Asia overlap chronologically and represent sizable inputs of resources and labor. The deer carvings on deer stones in the early animal style of North Inner Asia have parallels in the rock art of Upper Tibet (see the October and November 2014 Flight of the Khyung).* The recurve bow is also well represented in the rock art of Upper Tibet (see the March 2013 Flight of the Khyung). It is reported by Upper Tibetan herders that horse bones are sometimes uncovered from burials, and horses figure prominently as sacrificial offerings and psychopomps in Tibetan archaic funerary rituals. However, it is not yet known if ritual performances conducted at the stelar necropolises included horse sacrifices. It is interesting to note that the stelae of Upper Tibet are generally smaller and less massive than those of North Inner Asia. The use of smaller standing stones seems to be an adaptation to the very harsh high elevation conditions prevailing in Upper Tibet, with its poorly developed soils and incessant high winds.

According to Fitzhugh (2015, pp. 188, 194; see bibliography), deer engraved on deer stones may represent spirits that aided the souls of deceased warriors in their journey to heaven. The deer psychopomp is a seminal figure in the archaic funerary literature of Tibet, functioning to liberate the dead from the clutches of infernal demons and guiding them to the celestial afterlife (Bellezza 2013). Although direct cultural links between deer stone symbolism and Tibetan funerary texts cannot be postulated with any assurance, potential longstanding historical continuities in the funerary functions of deer across Inner Asia demand more scrutiny.

Around 1000 BCE, funerary monuments and traditions on the eastern steppes underwent change, becoming more diverse and regionally differentiated (Honeychurch, pp. 138, 139). In eastern and southern Mongolia, the Late Bronze Age is characterized by a culture called Ulaanzuukh-Tevsh, which is distinguished by different kinds of mortuary monuments known as ‘shaped burials’ (ibid. pp. 122, 123). The shaped burials have an east-west or northeast-southwest orientation and are constructed of upright stone slabs and fitted courses of masonry (ibid.). Shaped burials have ample evidence of human remains, as well as containing the bones of sheep/goats, cattle and horses, microliths, ceramics, semiprecious stones, bronze and gold articles and other objects (ibid.).

About the time the Ulaanzuukh-Tevsh culture declined a different set of burials known as slab graves, characterized by rectangular enclosures composed of large upright slabs, began to appear in the same region (Honeychurch, p. 126). Slab graves of the so-called Slab Grave culture (ca. 1100–300 BCE) were laid out along an east-west or northeastern-southwestern axis (ibid. pp. 127, 128). Slab graves contain ample evidence of human burials and livestock remains (particularly horses) and a wide spectrum of bronze, stone, bone and ceramic artifacts (ibid. p. 128). Much evidence for indigenous bronze production has been discovered in slab graves, including stone molds, mining and metalworking tools and slag (ibid., after Park et al. 2010; Tsybiktarov 1998: 149; Erdenebaatar 2004). Horseback riding regalia and harnesses are also common finds in slab graves and other kinds of burials of the eastern steppes, confirming that by the beginning of the first millennium BCE, horse riding had spread to many regions in North Inner Asia (ibid., after Kiriushin and Tishkin 1997; Bokovenko 2000; Chlenova 1992; Sanjmyatav 1993; Erdenechuluun and Erdenebaatar 2011; Navaan 1975:). This is also the period in which horse riders appear in North Inner Asian rock art (ibid. p. 129, after Drews 2004; Francfort; Jacobson-Tepfer 2012). Slab grave burials furnish evidence for an intensification of long-distance exchange, including carnelian beads of south or southwest Asian origins (ibid. p. 130, after Erdenebaatar and Khudiakov 2000; Grishin 1975).

Certain morphological and locational traits of burials belonging to the Ulaanzuukh–Tevsh culture and subsequent Slab Grave culture are comparable with structural elements of the stelar necropolises and are partially synchronous. The use of upright slabs planted in the ground alone or in conjunction with vertical courses of masonry is also a hallmark of Upper Tibetan funerary structures at the stelar necropolises and other mortuary sites. The orientation of funerary structures in the cardinal directions is also a conventional feature of the stelar necropolises. These common traits at the end of the Bronze Age constitute an interregional architectural idiom that is likely to have had ideological and ritual correlates. Taken along with other affinities in the archaeological record of both regions, similarities in the funerary architecture of the steppes and Upper Tibet allude to pan-cultural links interconnecting Inner Asia in the Final Bronze Age.

Moreover, as seen in funerary monument construction, this widespread web of interactions in Inner Asia endured for another millennium. The ethnically diverse Tashtyk culture (100 BCE to 600 CE) of southern Siberia and the early Turks (350–600 CE) both erected arrays of stelae exhibiting certain morphological and locational traits recalling stelar necropolises (Bellezza 2008, pp. 104–108). The nature of cross-cultural communications that may be responsible for these affinities is still to be determined.


Cross-cultural comparison of other archaeological materials

Carnelian beads of southwestern origins or inspiration have been found in burials from Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia and Shaanxi, dating from the middle second millennium BCE to the late first millennium BCE (Honeychurch, pp. 201, 2002, after Rawson 2010). Beads of this type have also been discovered in burials of northern Kazakhstan, west-central Mongolia, eastern Transbaikalia and the Minusinsk Basin (ibid., after Kuz’mina 2007; Kovaley and Erdenebaatar 2009; Novogorodova 1989; Grishin 1975). Carnelian beads of the comparable form are also known in Tibet (unfortunately archaeological documentation is scant), suggesting that the same network of exchange may have played a role in their dissemination to the Plateau. Other articles of exhange that occur in both South and North Inner Asian funerary contexts of the first millennium BCE are turquoise beads and cowries.

Unfortunately, virtually nothing is known about the artefactual assemblages and inhumations of the stelar necropolises. Until this is rectified a finer grained analysis of parallel features in funerary structures of Inner Asia at the end of the Bronze Age will be elusive. A better understanding is crucial if we are to determine what might simply have been universal responses to burial and death rituals that transcended individual cultures and regions and what were particularized responses transmitted through a web of communications and activities interlacing Inner Asia. Nonetheless, unprovenanced finds in Upper Tibetan burials of bronze objects that appear to be of Late Bronze Age and Iron Age antiquity including horse gear and semiprecious stone beads, indicate that more than blind imitation is responsible for interregional funerary site affinities.* Long-distance trade, technological transfers and other kinds of exchanges seem to be incumbent in the common selection of grave goods. Moreover, as much as tracing technological and trade ties, parallels in artefactual assemblages allude to shared symbolic, ideological and sartorial elements bridging various cultures and locales in Inner Asia.

For a study of the origins of Bronze metallurgy in Upper Tibet, see the February and March 2016 Flight of the Khyung.

The worship of sky gods among steppe dwellers appears to be a very ancient tradition and one that might have had a significant bearing on the notion of a heavenly mandate adopted by Zhou rulers (Honeychurch, p. 212, after Di Cosmo 2002; Shaughnessy 1989). The vast open skies and extremely high altitude of Upper Tibet also encouraged the worship of sky deities in the pre-Buddhist era. There are points of comparison between Upper Tibetan and North Inner Asian sky deities (Bellezza 2008, pp. 307, 308), but how this pantheon might have informed the formation of funerary rituals and constructions in both regions is unknown.

Although stable isotope analyses of human bones in Mongolia suggest much chronological and geographic variability in the diets of Inner Asia 3000 years ago, the fare of Mongolia appears to have been devoid of domesticated grain (Honeychurch, p. 138, after Machicek 2010; 2011; forthcoming). It is not until after 750 BCE that domesticated grains (probably millet and wheat) entered the diet (ibid., after Machicek 2011; Machicek and Zubova 2012). On the other hand, in the surrounding territories of Xinjiang, southeastern Kazakhstan and the Minusinsk Basin, millet and/or wheat were being traded or cultivated by the Middle to Late Bronze Age, before becoming staples in the Iron Age (ibid. pp. 139, 160, after Wagner et al. 2011; Jia et al. 2011; Ryabogina and Ivanov 2011; Li et al. 2011; Svyatko et al. 2013; Chang 2012, etc.).

Agriculture was once very well developed in Upper Tibet, especially in far western Tibet, but it declined precipitously in historical times. As per the oral tradition, this was largely caused by the diminution of water sources. Little is known about the origins of agriculture in far western Tibet; the earliest archaeobotanical evidence collected so far extends to the Protohistoric period (see February 2015 Flight of the Khyung). However, millet agriculture in Central and Eastern Tibet has been shown to be of late Neolithic antiquity. The mascoids, chariots, horse riders, animal style zoomorphs, and recurve bows, etc. depicted in rock art, as well as bronze metallurgy, complex funerary sites dominated by pillars and slab structures, among other forms of archaeological evidence, situates the cultural and technological development of Upper Tibet in a much wider geographic context. As it did in certain regions of North Inner Asia, this package of ideological, artistic and technological elements may have extended to agriculture in Upper Tibet, possibly suggesting a Final Bronze Age antiquity for this aspect of its economy. If this is proven to be the case, the agricultural economy probably contributed significantly to the establishment of stelar necropolises and other Upper Tibetan monuments in that period.


Role of the domestication of the horse

In part, due to female-mediated introgression, the maternal lineages of both modern and ancient horses are extremely diverse and geographically interlinked, obscuring the central Eurasian geographic origins of horse domestication (Honeychurch, pp. 206, 207, after Jansen et al; Levine 2006; Cieslak et al. 2010; Warmuth et al. 2012). Horses appear suddenly in the highest status burials of the Central Plains of China and Northern Zone, circa 1250 BCE. Yet, horse populations and expertise were present in Mongolia and eastern North Inner Asia prior to that time. Similarly, the presence of chariot rock art in Upper Tibet and this region’s geographical position farther west may suggest that the domestic horse reached there somewhat earlier than it did China.

Most researchers agree on a Late Bronze Age attribution for the many chariot carvings documented in the eastern part of North Inner Asia (ibid., after Jacobson 2012; Novgorodova 1989; Francfort 2011; Volkov 2002). Rock art chariots have been documented in eastern Kazakhstan, the Minusinsk Basin, the Altai, Tuva, northern Xinjiang and western and central Inner Mongolia, creating a trajectory with a northwest-southeast orientation (ibid. 194, after Hanks 2012; Littauer and Crouwel 2002). In the southeast, chariot carvings extend as far as the Yinshan and Helanshan mountains (Di Cosmo 1999; Dematté 2004). I might add that cognate chariot carvings have also been discovered in Qinghai, Ladakh and northern Pakistan, extending their distribution to the western fringe of the Tibetan Plateau and beyond to the southeast extremity of the Hindu Kush. Honeychurch (p. 191) endorses the increasingly accepted view that conflict between the Shang state and the Northern Zone (Inner Mongolia, Shaanxi, greater Ordos, etc.) led to the adoption of the chariot in China, circa the 13th century BCE. Chariots found in burials at the Shang capital of Yinxu also contained ritualized horse sacrifices and Karasuk-style weapons and tools (ibid., after Linduff 1996). In addition to chariots and horses, bronze objects were transferred from North Inner Asia via the Ordos to Shang China (ibid. 192, after Wu 2013). The earliest pictographs for ‘chariot’ in the Shang writing system are derived from Inner Asian petroglyphs (ibid., after Barbieri-Low 2000; Dematté 2004; Littauer and Crouwel 2002).

Insomuch as the dating of chariot carvings in North Inner Asia is accurate, the cognate chariots of Upper Tibet can also be assigned to a period between the middle of the second millennium BCE and the late first millennium BCE. As I shall detail in a forthcoming newsletter, there are also chariot carvings with multi-spoked wheels in far western Tibet that appear to be of a later date (late first millennium BCE). The recent discoveries (mostly by myself) of two dozen chariot petroglyphs at five different sites in Upper Tibet demonstrates that, in addition to a geographic conduit linking such carvings to the threshold of Shang China, there was a conduit connecting Upper Tibet to the arc of steppes in the north.* The presence of khirigsuurs, deer stones, similar bronze artifact assemblages as well as chariot petroglyphs in the Mongolian Altai and northern Xinjiang (Honeychurch, p. 194, after Debaine-Francfort 2001; Jia et al. 2009), may possibly favor a north-south conduit to Upper Tibet. However, other elements of this material package (steppe bronzes, deer stones, khirigsuurs) are absent in Upper Tibet. For this reason, a conduit for chariots originating in the northwest and running across eastern Kazakistan and the Pamirs must also be considered. As I have commented elsewhere, the existence of chariot carvings in Upper Tibet advances the hypothesis that wheeled vehicles were introduced to China from the west and not from the far east.

On the chariot carvings of Upper Tibet, see Bellezza 2008, pp. 195–199; 2014c, pp. 195, 196; Bruneau and Bellezza 2013, pp. 32–40; August 2010 and November 2011 Flight of the Khyung, etc.

The role of the horse in the material and abstract cultures of North Inner Asia greatly expanded in the 9th and 8th centuries BCE (Honeychurch, p. 163). Over a relatively short time, horse riding ushered in greater mobility, alternative types of pastoralism, facilitating the rise of a new sociopolitical elite and social order and encouraging the development of novel artistic forms across North Inner Asia (ibid. p. 164). The mastery of horse riding is likely to be a motive force behind the expansion of Inner Asian cross-cultural relations to Upper Tibet. In the early first millennium BCE, Scythian culture, typified most notably by the Arzhan phases, had a huge impact on North Inner Asia, introducing improved horse riding and armaments technology, classic animal style art, intensification of horse ritualism, amplified social inequality, and the rise of an aristocracy (ibid. pp. 173–177). The expanded cultural and sociopolitical reach of North Inner Asia in the Scythian period (900–300 BCE), if not of direct relevance to the stelar necropolises, appears to have influenced subsequent developments in the funerary world of Tibet. The use of horned horse masks, ritualized treatment of the manes and tails of horses, horse sacrifices, and substitution of wild ungulates and birds by the horse in the rites of the Scythians are represented in Tibetan archaic funerary literature, furnishing another point of comparison for what appear to be allied funerary customs and traditions spanning much of Inner Asia.

In the early to middle first millennium BCE, horse riding had overtaken North Inner Asia (including Inner Mongolia) and China. Horse-related technologies acted as an engine for the sociopolitical entanglement of Inner Asia and China in the Late and Final Bronze Age (Honeychurch, pp. 211–213). Snaffle bits and saddles appear in southern Xinjiang, circa 900–800 BCE (ibid., after Wagner et al. 2011; Guo 2009). Collateral evidence from Upper Tibet, including stelar necropolises, horse riding rock art, steppe-related bronze objects and carnelian beads, etc. suggests that this region of the Plateau absorbed horse riding technology around the same time as southern Xinjiang, a region situated immediately to the north.

Throughout the course of the first millennium BCE in North Inner Asia, in addition to the obvious advantages of horse riding in warfare and in facilitating long distance movement and greater communications, it encouraged collaboration and alliances between various political communities. Horse riding in Upper Tibet must have led to the unfolding of a comparable set of dynamics, the details of which remain to be untangled.


Theoretical concerns

Epochal developments in art, architecture, agriculture and other aspects of the material and abstract universe of Upper Tibet at the end of the Bronze Age were shaped by cultural, sociopolitical, economic and technological developments roiling in the north. The Late Bronze Age in North Inner Asia was characterized by wider fields of interaction and the dissemination of monuments, art and technologies (Honeychurch, p. 148). The increasing entanglement of cultures and polities in North Inner Asia from the Late Bronze Age is marked by ideas, products and activities of multiple and often far-flung origins (ibid. pp. 149, 157). Cultural and sociopolitical transfers appear to have been gradual, incremental and grounded in community-to community outreach (ibid. pp. 148, 149). More episodic and dramatic events such as invasions, natural disasters or the rise of great leaders may also have played a crucial role in this entanglement. Greater entanglement must have acted as an impetus to cultural and technological engagement with Upper Tibet. While the sphere of interactions was centered in North Inner Asia, an extension to Upper Tibet is reflected in its share of cognate material elements.

Honeychurch (pp. 18, 21, 22) discusses cross-cultural processes in terms of the impact of novel ideas and objects on places and cultures in North Inner Asia. Using the Jew’s harp as an example, he observes how this instrument was adopted by many different people, each of which invested it with new meanings and purposes (ibid.). In new social and cultural contexts, the Jew’s harp assumed disparate ritualistic, utilitarian and musical functions, essentially becoming a novel invention (ibid.). Hence, as Honeychurch notes, cross-cultural transmissions are not simply borrowings, transmissions or translations; as with the Jew’s Harp, entirely new entities are potentially created (ibid.).

Cross-cultural processes emanating from North Inner Asia and influencing Upper Tibet at the end of the Bronze Age constitute multiple pathways of beliefs, ideas, behaviors, practices and objects sufficiently potent to breach the Kunlun divide. If cross-cultural forces played a role in the development of the stelar necropolises (as the evidence strongly suggests), they acted upon the religious imagination and belief systems of the Upper Tibetans, resulting in changes to their social organization, technological capacity and political status. Cultural transmissions originating in North Inner Asia were transformed in Upper Tibet to create a new kind of funerary monument and cult pattern.

In my view, utility is the major motivating factor behind the adoption and transformation of ideologies and technologies informing the development of the stelar necropolises (and other contemporaneous monuments). The perceived usefulness of novel ideas, objects and industries served as the paramount motivator in bringing about cultural conditions conducive to necropolis building in Upper Tibet.

As Honeychurch (pp. 27, 28) comments, ancient peoples moved for a variety of reasons including relocation, displacement, invasion, exchange, itineracy, slavery, etc., giving rise to both direct and indirect contacts. It is generally accepted that indirect and subtle forms of contact are more difficult to discern in the archaeological record but were just as important as more direct cultural transfers. In any case, the movement of people and attendant cultural transfers in antiquity was engendered by a wide range of impulses. As pertains to itineracy in cross-cultural exchanges, priestly ministrations, bardic transmissions, technological expertise, emmissarial initiatives, artistic sharing, etc. may have played a part in the conception and construction of stelar necropolises in Upper Tibet. The main currency of any such human contacts appears to have been highly permeable eschatological themes, as articulated in overarching religious practices, beliefs, customs and myths at the end of the Bronze Age.

Cultural changes in Upper Tibet related to death and its accommodation in practical and religious terms were underpinned by cognitive processes with psycho-social ramifications, which by their very nature are difficult to discern in the archaeological record. Yet, these must not be overlooked, for it is in the minds of individuals that the means to modify the physical and cultural underpinnings of the world are devised.

The transformation of the social organization, technological capacity and political status of Upper Tibet at the end of the Bronze Age is reflected in stelar necropolis construction and other aspects of her archaeological record. Entanglement, to use a term favored by Honeychurch, enmeshed Upper Tibet in the wider Inner Asian web of cultural affairs, as evidenced in its castles, temples, necropolises, rock art and artifacts. These interlinked cultural and technological developments chart the advent of civilization in both parts of Inner Asia.

The challenge now before us is to advance the archaeological exploration of Upper Tibet. By doing so, we will gain a better understanding of the Tibetan Plateau’s place in the human mosaic of ancient Inner Asia.



See the December 2016 issue of Flight of the Khyung


The Warrior God Cult in Upper Tibet: Considering new evidence of its importance

Introduction to the warrior spirits

Much has been written about the warrior spirits of Tibetan religious tradition. I will revisit little of that treatment here. Rather, I urge readers to seek out the literature for themselves (see selected reading list below). Warrior spirits are often styled ‘enemy god’, a direct but stilted translation from the Classical Tibetan rendering dralha (dgra-lha). The word, however, in many peripheral dialects of the Tibetan Plateau is pronounced drabla, reflecting an older phonology, as recorded in an Old Tibetan spelling of the term (dgra-bla).

The oldest references to warrior spirits are found in divination texts of the Dunhaung manuscript collections (circa 750–950 CE). In these texts, warrior spirts are associated with positive prognoses. The Old Tibetan Chronicle discovered in Dunhuang mentions a self-cutting sword, a self-deflecting shield and self-dressing armor, magical armaments associated with warrior spirits, prototypic gifts conferred upon human allies doing battle.

The positive connotations of warrior spirits have persisted until the present day in virtually all regions of the Tibetan Plateau. So popular are they, these spirits appear in the form of territorial gods (yul-lha) and male archetypal gods (pho-lha), which are among the most common classes of protective and personal spirits in Tibet. Warrior spirits figure in liturgical performances, secular festivals, trance ceremonies, divination rituals and oath-giving observances. In olden times, they were invoked at court functions as well. First and foremost, warrior spirits are guardians of practical concerns: preserving health and well-being, dispelling disease and misfortune, increasing wealth and prosperity, augmenting social status, and of course defending litigants and combatants.

The widespread popularity and diverse functions of warrior spirits are reflected in the great proliferation of iconographic forms. Generic types appear in the guise of traditional Tibetan warriors, mounted on horses, clad in armor and helmets and brandishing bows and arrows, spears, lassos and other weapons. These gods are usually white in color and of a fairly wrathful demeanor. There are also numerous individual kinds of gods that belong to the dralha class of deities, each with his own name and specific attributes, such as various animal mounts, implements, costumes, and work functions. In formal Bon and Buddhism traditions, some warrior spirits have been elevated to the rank of tantric protectors of the doctrines and practitioners.

There are also warrior spirits that take on the form of carnivorous animals and birds, including tigers, lions, bears, wolves, hawks, eagles and vultures, etc. These zoomorphic emanations appear to be among the oldest configurations of warrior spirits, as they are the protectors and totems of ancient clans in Tibet. Moreover, warrior spirits are closely identified with the horned eagle (khyung), a mythical animal represented in Old Tibetan literature as well as the prehistoric rock art of Upper Tibet. Four zoomorphic warrior spirits (tiger, lion, horned eagle and dragon) are associated with an essential positive energy known as lungta (rlung-rta/klung-rta).* These animal spirits appear in the corners of the so-called prayer flag, a lungta-attracting square of printed cloth popular throughout Tibet.

The lungta energy is conceived of as being borne on the back of a horse of the wind or ether. This celestial horse is often depicted in the center of a prayer flag.


Warrior spirits carved in stone

The four animals of the lungta also feature on carved stone plaques in the western Changthang, the high tablelands of western Tibet. In many ways, these plaques function much like prayer flags. However, by virtue of being made of stone, they are permanent ritual instruments. I have documented these plaques in Tshochen (Mtsho-chen) and adjacent areas of Gertse (Sger-rtse). They are simply found on the ground at shrines and prayer flag masts for the community worship of the indigenous pantheon,* most notably the territorial deities. They are not installed on the ubiquitous mani walls, masonry platforms upon which rest stone plaques inscribed with prayers. I have not studied these carved plaques systematically, but from what I have seen, they are uncommon. Plaques inscribed with the names of the four warrior spirits belong to the pre-modern period, but how old they might be is questionable.

Note: The term indigenous here refers to cultural phenomena native to Tibet or to non-Buddhist cultural phenomena of foreign origins that have been thoroughly adapted to the Tibetan milieu.

The four warrior spirits of the lungta are seldom worshipped in their own right, but more often as tantamount to local territorial spirits such as sacred mountains and to personal protectors like the archetypal male god, maternal uncle god (zhang-lha) and warrior god.

The names of the four animals of the lungta are inscribed on the four sides of the stone plaques and flank a mass of carved letters all reading kha (second letter of the Tibetan alphabet). This quadpartite arrangement mimics the erection of prayer flags in the four cardinal directions, a popular custom on the Changthang. It is called “expansion in the four directions” (phyogs-bzhi dar-rgyas), a practice intended to increase the protection and augment the good fortune of individuals, families and pastoral communities (’brog-sde). The stone plaques are found at centralized places of worship for the territorial gods, and appear to be part of the collective worship of local communities at festivals such as New Year (Lo-gsar) and Universal Purification (‘Dzam-gling spyi-bsangs). Other collective rituals conducted at central sites include the erection of new prayers flag masts and the burning of incense. In the western Changthang, white prayer flags are commonly offered to lha (lha), red to tsen (btsan) and blue to lu (klu), the spirits of the three vertical layers of the cosmos (srid-pa gsum): sky, earth and underworld.

Due to the inherent process of syllabification in Tibetan, the letter kha is pronounced with the vowel A included. There are 108 kha syllables in total on each stone plaque, a well-known sacred number in Indic religious traditions, including Buddhism. The inscribed kha are set in rows of two to 14 letters each. These rows are often arrayed around a central spell of 14 syllables, the seed mantra of the lion-faced dakini (mkha’-’gro) Seng gdong-ma (Sanskrit: Simhamukha), a fierce female protective deity. I believe this mantra is used in all Tibetan Buddhist traditions.

According to Tibetan tradition, the mantra of 14 syllables was given to Guru Rinpoche, the great 8th century CE proponent of Vajrayana Buddhism in Tibet, when he confronted heretics and demons set on destroying his mission. With the power of this mantra, he destroyed all inimical forces. Thus, the mantra of 14 syllables is commonly employed by monks and laypeople alike to repel obstacles, whether of a physical, psychological or demonic nature. The mantra was revealed as part of the treasure tradition (gter-ma) of the Nyingma (Rnying-ma) sect. It reads as follows: A ka sa ma ra tsa sha da ra sa ma ra ya phaṭ.*

The mantra of fourteen syllables is closely linked with the Adamantine Seven Lines (Rdo-rje tshig-bdun), one of Tibetan Buddhism’s most important prayers. For a study of the history and usage of this prayer, see History of the Vajra Seven-Line Prayer: http://www.warnemyr.com/tibetan/dorjetsigdun/history.html

Fig. 1. An adeptly carved in relief stone plaque with the mantra of 14 syllables occupying the center, surrounded by rows of the Tibetan letter kha, adding up to 108 in total. The names of the four warrior spirits of the lungta are arrayed around all but the right side of the plaque. The vowel sign (’greng-bu) over the word “lion” has broken off. Tshochen/Gertse.

Fig. 1. An adeptly carved in relief stone plaque with the mantra of fourteen syllables occupying the center, surrounded by rows of the Tibetan letter kha, adding up to 108 in total. The names of the four warrior spirits of the lungta are arrayed around all but the right side of the plaque. The vowel sign (’greng-bu) over the word “lion” has broken off. Tshochen/Gertse.

Fig. 2. Stone plaque with the letter kha neatly organized into four sections, each of which has 27 letters. Flanking each quarter is the name of a zoomorphic warrior spirit. The mantra of 14 syllables occupies three lines in the middle of the plaque. Tshochen/Gertse.

Fig. 2. Stone plaque with the letter kha neatly organized into four sections, each of which has 27 letters. Flanking each quarter is the name of a zoomorphic warrior spirit. The mantra of 14 syllables occupies three lines in the middle of the plaque. Tshochen/Gertse.

Fig. 3. The stone plaque is organized similarly to fig. 2, however, surrounding each of the four quarters of kha syllables is a line of mountains (three rows contain eight peaks and the other row six peaks for a total of 30 mountains). Two of the names of the four warrior spirits (lion and horned eagle) are still intact. The other two are now missing. These four deities are closely aligned to mountains, probably helping to explain the inclusion of peaks in the carvings. At the top of the image is the conjoined sun and moon (nyi-zla), a cardinal symbol of Tibetan Buddhism (signifying the union of wisdom and compassion, the means to enlightenment). Tshochen/Gertse.

Fig. 3. The stone plaque is organized similarly to fig. 2, however, surrounding each of the four quarters of kha syllables is a line of mountains (three rows contain eight peaks and the other row six peaks for a total of thirty mountains). Two of the names of the four warrior spirits (lion and horned eagle) are still intact. The other two are now missing. These four deities are closely aligned to mountains, probably helping to explain the inclusion of peaks in the carvings. At the top of the image is the conjoined sun and moon (nyi-zla), a cardinal symbol of Tibetan Buddhism (signifying the union of wisdom and compassion, the means to enlightenment). Tshochen/Gertse.

Fig. 4. This stone plaque is engraved in a style closely matching fig. 2, however, the names of the four warrior spirits of the lungta were not included. Tshochen/Gertse.

Fig. 4. This stone plaque is engraved in a style closely matching fig. 2, however, the names of the four warrior spirits of the lungta were not included. Tshochen/Gertse.

On this stone plaque (fig. 4) the four warrior spirits are not represented by name. Evidently, the fourteen-syllable mantra and the subsidiary constituents of the tradition of propitiation (kha) were seen as self-sufficient, not requiring the intercession of indigenous Tibetan deities.


The significance of the inscriptions

Elders from Upper Tibet I have spoken to suggest that the 108 kha on the stone plaques symbolize the full complement of mantras, rituals and other practices comprising the Tibetan tradition of propitiating protective deities. In this context, kha is a word meaning “unit” or “part”, as in kha-gang (one part/unit). The number 108 is a symbol of sacred doctrines or practices in their most complete form. As the mantra of 14 syllables was first used by the archetypal tantric Buddhist master, Guru Rinpoche for his main line of defense against hindrances to the spread of dharma in Tibet, it serves as a prototype for the invocation and worship of the protective deities. The is why the kha syllables, subsidiary elements of the tradition, are arrayed around the mantra of 14 syllables.

Upper Tibetans believe that the quadpartite arrangement of the rows of kha syllables on the stone plaques represents the four quarters, which extend to the local community and more generally the wider world of Tibet and the entire cosmos, all seen as operating under the auspices of the Buddhist dharma. During the propitiation of the territorial and other protective deities, these kha syllables are envisioned as radiating from the central ritual venue, bringing security and prosperity to the countryside. The mass of kha on most plaques are framed by the names of the four zoomorphic warrior spirits (dgra-lha) of the lungta tradition (tiger, lion, horned eagle and dragon; stag seng khyung ’brug), protectors of the four cardinal directions. The position of the warrior spirit inscriptions on the plaques signifies that the community is contained within their defensive embrace. It is also thought that the four warrior spirits act as vehicles for conveying prayers to the higher deities of Buddhism situated in more rarefied spiritual realms.

The stone plaques, while directly benefiting those who made and commissioned them, are a communal gesture, part of the collective enterprise of localities possessing common religious and practical objectives. They articulate the aims and aspirations of herding communities and reaffirm the participation of members in their religious life.

The engraved plaques we have seen highlight the syncretistic nature character of religion in Tibet, which is characterized by the entwining of indigenous and archaic elements with the doctrines and practices of Buddhism. The stone plaques illustrated above feature the key mantra of the Buddhist goddess Seng gdong-ma as their centerpiece. This mirrors the place of Buddhism in the lives of most Tibetans, the focal point of their aspirations and worldview. On the other hand, the four warrior spirits belong to an indigenous tradition, elements of which predate the introduction of Buddhism in Tibet. These two broad religious traditions, as depicted on the engraved plaques, are the two poles of the system of propitiating protective deities symbolized by the mass of kha syllables. The spatial organization of the various inscriptions on the stones neatly portrays the syncretistic constitution of religion in Upper Tibet.


Another stone plaque

Fig. 5. A stone plaque featuring the 108 kha syllables and the names of the four warrior spirits, complete with spelling mistakes. The mantra of 14 syllables is not included on this plaque. Tshochen/Gertse.

Fig. 5. A stone plaque featuring the 108 kha syllables and the names of the four warrior spirits, complete with spelling mistakes. The mantra of fourteen syllables is not included on this plaque. Tshochen/Gertse.

The engraved stone plaque in fig. 5 lacks the Buddhist mantra located in the middle of other specimens we have examined. It is the product of a less skilled carver and someone possessing little literacy. This unschooled individual, however, may have been tapping into older or less formal religious traditions. Be that as it may, the inscriptions on this plaque do not patently recognize tantric forms of Buddhism, relying instead on indigenous pillars of religious understanding and practice. Of course, the four warrior spirits of the lungta, like other helpful spirits of Tibetans, have been fully integrated into the Buddhist (and Bon) pantheon. Nevertheless, the carvings on this plaque seem to elevate the warrior spirits to a position of prime significance in the conduct of collective rites of protection and good fortune enhancement. This parallels the tradition of spirit-mediumship in Upper Tibet, where the cult of warrior spirits plays a prominent role in apotropaic and curative rites of shamans (lha-pa).

Further research would almost certainly shed more light on the circumstances under which the specially carved plaques of the warrior spirits were made. It could potentially turn up interesting bits of history and lore about these intriguing ritual and devotional objects. This research should be carried out as soon as possible though, because those possessing such knowledge are quickly dying out. The younger generations in Tibet are increasingly being secularized, as modernization and Sinicization erode the old cultural bedrock.


Selected Reading List

Here is a list of works readers will find helpful in learning more about the warrior spirits. I shamelessly include reference to some of my own publications:

Bellezza, John V. 2015. “The Voice of the Gods in Upper Tibet: The trance-induced invocations and songs of praise of the spirit-medium Phowo Sridgyal” in The Illuminating Mirror (eds. O. Czaja and G. Hazod), pp. 15–40. Contributions to Tibetan Studies, vol. 12. Wiesbaden: Dr. Ludwig Reichert Verlag.

_____2014. “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”, in Revue d’etudes tibétaines, vol. 29, pp. 155–243. Paris: CNRS.

_____2013. Death and Beyond in Ancient Tibet: Archaic Concepts and Practices in a Thousand-Year-Old Illuminated Funerary Manuscript and Old Tibetan Funerary Documents of Gathang Bumpa and Dunhuang. Philosophisch-Historische Klasse Denkschriften, vol. 454. Wien: Verlag der Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften.

_____2008. Zhang Zhung: Foundations of Civilization in Tibet. A Historical and Ethnoarchaeological Study of the Monuments, Rock Art, Texts and Oral Tradition of the Ancient Tibetan Upland. Philosophisch-Historische Klasse Denkschriften, vol. 368. Wien: Verlag der Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften.

_____2005. Calling Down the Gods: Spirit-Mediums, Sacred Mountains and Related Bon Textual Traditions in Upper Tibet. Brill’s Tibetan Studies Library, vol. 8. Leiden: Brill.

Clemente, Adriano. 1994. “The Sgra Bla, gods of the ancestors of Gshen-Rab Mi-Bo according to the Sgra Bla Go Bsang from the Gzi Brjid”, in Tibetan Studies Proceedings of the 6th Seminar of the International Association of Tibetan Studies. Fagernes (ed. P. Kvaerne), vol. 1, pp. 127–136. Oslo: The Institute for Comparative Research in Human Culture.

Gibson, Todd. 1985. “Dgra-lha: a Re-examination”, in The Journal of the Tibet Society, vol. 5, pp. 67–72. Bloomington: The Tibet Society.

Karmay, Samten G. 1998. The Arrow and the Spindle: Studies in History, Myths, Rituals and Beliefs in Tibet. Kathmandu: Mandala Book Point.

Nebesky-Wojkowitz, Rene. D. 1956. Oracles and Demons of Tibet. The Cult and Iconography of the Tibetan Protective Deities. Reprint, Kathmandu: Tiwari’s Pilgrims Book House, 1993.

Norbu, Namkhai C. 2009. The Light of Kailash: A History of Zhang Zhung and Tibet, vol. 1. Merigar: Shang Shung Publications.

_____1995. Drung, Deu and Bön. Narrations, Symbolic languages and the Bön tradition in Ancient Tibet (trans. A. Clemente and A. Lukianowicz). Dharamsala: Library of Tibetan Works and Archives.


Next Month: Exploration of an ancient retreat center overlooking Ocean Lake!

Previous Post

Next Post