John Vincent Bellezza
More adventures unfold in Tibet as the Flight of the Khyung returns you to Asia’s holiest peak, Mount Kailas. This month’s newsletter looks at vital issues affecting the sacred mountain and their implications for a sound, sustainable future. Climb aboard and be whisked away to Mount Kailas. A few minutes to remember, a few minutes to forget, let your mind soar ever freer.
Sound the Alarm:
The Destruction of Zhang Zhung’s Capital Aided and Abetted by Swiss Nationals
Before June 2009, I had not visited Gyangdrak monastery since 2002. It is situated in the middle of the inner circuit of Mount Kailas, the most sheltered and sacred of precincts imaginable. I heard that Gyangdrak (Tibetan = rGyang-grags dgon-pa), a Drigung Kagyu (Tibetan = ’Bri-gung bka’-brgyud) subsect monastery, had been rebuilt, but did not realize at what cost. Builders destroyed one of Zhang Zhung’s premier archaeological sites, and this was carried out with the connivance of Swiss nationals!
First a little historical background: Gyangdrak monastery was founded by Ghuya Gangpa in 1215 CE, after dislodging Drukpa subsect practitioners from the inner circuit of Mount Kailas. Ghuya Gangpa was the first of four religious administrators known as dordzin (Tibetan = rdor-’dzin), who managed Mount Kailas and Lake Manasarovar until the ecclesiastical takeover of the region by the Sakyapa sect about 60 years later. In the early 15th century CE, the Gelukpa (Tibetan = dGe-lugs-pa) sect came to dominate the pilgrimage places in a religious tussle for power.
The large natural amphitheatre at Gyangdrak, however, has a much longer history than the Buddhist sectarian rivalries of the 11th to 15th century CE. According to Bon sources, this was none other than the site of the first capital of Zhang Zhung. Known as Gyangri Yulojon, a castle is said to have been founded here in which three different kings resided: Triwer Lharje, holder of the golden horn of the bird crown; Lhabchen, holder of the khyung horns of the bird crown; and Hrido Gyerpung, holder of the crystal horns of the bird crown.
As described in my book Antiquities of Upper Tibet, the all-stone corbelled edifices found in the vicinity of Gyangdrak are the vestiges of an archaic cultural presence, one that was much more extensive and vibrant than what was possible in the subsequent Buddhist era. The prominent hill hosting Gyangdrak monastery, with streams flowing around both sides, has the kind of geomantic endowment fit for the residence of Zhang Zhung kings. This site, therefore, must have been chosen by the Drigungpa for its historical and geographic preeminence.
Among other important ruins at Gyangdrak is what I designate the Main Group of Lower Gyangdrak. This cluster of ruined buildings was situated atop a rocky knob east of Gyangdrak monastery, on the opposite side of the Dar Chu watercourse. The Main Group, consisting primarily of all-stone corbelled structures in the archaic mode of construction, covered an area of 10 m x 45 m. Its location closely matches the description of a dilapidated fortress noted in the Tise Neshe of the Drigungpa. The religious supremo Ghuya Gangapa is recorded as having taken up residence in this fortress.
The Main Group of Lower Gyangdrak could be divided into east, central and west complexes. The isolated east complex contained buildings made with wooden rafters in the Buddhist style of construction, the likely residence of Ghuya Gangpa. The central and west complexes were characterized by a semi-subterranean aspect and all-stone construction. Some in situ stone roof assemblies were found in the central complex.
The size, location and fortress aspect of the Main Group made it a very important component of the ancient settlement mosaic of Gyangdrak. Given its archaeological and historical status, the Main Group is crucial to understanding the nature and scope of early habitation at Mount Kailas. Sadly, it is no more. The walls of the ruins were dismantled in order to furnish stones for the reconstruction of Gyangdrak monastery. Now, only piles of rubble and a few footings remain, the vestiges of what just seven years ago were relatively integral ruins. The wanton destruction of the Main Group archaeological site is clearly in contravention of the laws of the People’s Republic China governing the conservation of ancient relics and monuments.
The destruction of precious monuments at one of Zhang Zhung’s chief sites was caused by the ignorance and greed of the Tibetan builders and monks concerned, but the root of the problem lies much deeper. It is a reflection of a bias against ancient Tibetan culture and religion that lingers among some Buddhist practitioners to this day. These Tibetans have a fear and revulsion of their non-Buddhist past, and as the traditional literary record demonstrates, they will go to great lengths to rewrite history according to their own sensibilities and vested interests.
In the case of the Main Group, the tragedy spreads even further, catching in its web Swiss nationals, self-appointed guardians of Tibetan culture and religion. Here is the shocking fact: the reconstruction of Gyangdrak monastery was funded and supervised by Swiss citizens. The individuals who oversaw the work and disbursed the funds are a couple named Ruth and Flaviu. In process of rebuilding Gyangdrak, this couple allowed the Main Group to be savaged. Switzerland, a country that prides itself in upholding international conventions concerning cultural and humanitarian issues, has citizens operating in Tibet that trample upon its basic ideals. I presume that ignorance of the history and culture Mount Kailas is behind the destruction of the Main Group, not malignant intent, yet the result is tragically the same.
There is a very serious lesson to be learnt here: people armed with money but not knowledge wreak a lot of destruction in the sphere of development. Ruth and Flaviu, who are culpable in the razing of the Main Group, must be held accountable for their actions. Both the Swiss and PRC governments should move swiftly to address the situation either through legal or pecuniary means. The loss of the Main Group, a precious piece of Tibet’s history, must not go unpunished.
Ironically, the new Gyangdrak monastery is already falling to pieces due to an ill-conceived design. The old monastery sat upon a tall stone revetment that was tightly knit around the underlying rock formation. This ‘fortress style’ random-course revetment closely conformed to the natural furrows and protuberances of the parent formation, furnishing a very secure underpinning for the superstructure of the monastery. Like the Main Group ruins, this ancient architectural feature was undervalued by the renovators. It was largely dismantled and a rubble-filled apron-wall built in its place, in order that the floor plan of the monastery could be enlarged. This construction has proven unsound, and parts of it are collapsing, leaving the monastery vulnerable to structural failure.
Perhaps the spirit guardians of the Zhang Zhung ruins are registering their protest? That is at least as some Tibetans might view it. But what a big loss all around! A Zhang Zhung site is obliterated and the monastery replacing it is falling down. The moral of the story is resoundingly clear: if you want to conserve and develop a cultural site, know what you are doing! Engineers, architects, archaeologists and historians are required, not neophytes. Ruth and Flaviu will have to live with what they have wrought and it is not pretty.
At the time of this writing, I did not have a way to contact Ruth and Flaviu, but in early Setptember 2009 received their e-mail address and was given a response from them. I wanted to share this with you. Download their response here. In fact, for seven years I have tried to initiate an effective conservation program for Ngari, but not yet with success.
The KM-III Expedition to Mount Kailas
My month of June was occupied by an expedition to Mount Kailas (Tise), the most famous of Tibetan mountains. Known as KM-III, this was the third in a series of expeditions launched by the international Jain community to find the temple associated with their august founder. The next few paragraphs describing the mission are taken from the introduction of the report I wrote as leader of the KM-III expedition.
The objective of the KM-III Expedition was to determine the precise location of Sri Ashtapad, the most elusive of Jain temples. According to Jain scriptures, the first of the 24 tirthankara, Sri Rishabdev, the Adinath Bhagavan, went atop Mount Kailas for santhara (fasting until death). It was at Mount Kailas that Lord Adinath achieved the glorious nirvana. To honor and commemorate his father’s enlightenment, King Bharat Chakravarti, the eldest of 99 sons, is believed to have constructed Sri Ashtapad, also called the Ratnamay palace, somewhere at Mount Kailas. In Jain literature, Sri Ashtapad is recorded as being eight-stepped, four-sided and probably very extensive. This marvelous edifice is said to have housed the Sri Chouvishi (sculptures of the 24 tirthankara) in the gabhara (main place of worship).
Unfortunately, the identity and location of Sri Ashtapad have been lost to time. Jain scholars cite timescales measured in the thousands or millions of years ago to account for its passing, complicating any attempt at scientific analysis. As I understand it, there is also a school of Jain thought that holds that accounts about Sri Ashtapad are metaphorical in nature, encapsulating high spiritual truths, rather than a literal description of a temple edifice. This doctrinal perspective seems to be supported by the words of Bhagavan Mahavira (599–527 BCE), the 24th and final tirthankara, when he tells his Jain tapas (saints engaged in austerities) that the one who scales Mount Ashtapad and offers prayers there to all the tirthakara will surely attain moksha (ultimate release). In his momentous sermon, Mahavira alludes to the identification of Sri Ashtapad as a natural mountain.
The findings of the KM-III Expedition encourage the view that Sri Ashtapad is Mount Kailas itself, rather than a man-made temple of epic proportions or otherwise. The reconnaissance conducted yielded absolutely no physical evidence of a Jain monumental presence at Mount Kailas in any chronological period. This absence of discernable Jain ruins and relics occurs in a region rich in Bon and Tibetan Buddhist cultural materials, the monuments and artifacts that make up the fabric of Upper Tibetan civilization. Desultory finds of Stone Age lithic artifacts aside, the earliest archaeological horizon detectable at Mount Kailas belongs to the so-called Zhang Zhung civilization, a broadly defined cluster of cultural orders spanning the first millennium BCE and first millennium CE over a large area of Upper Tibet.
The most salient physical feature of the Zhang Zhung civilization at Mount Kailas is the remains of an extensive network of all-stone corbelled residences known in the native parlance as dokhang (Tibetan = rdo-khang). These robustly built, semi-subterranean edifices dot the slopes of Mount Kailas and its surrounding ridges to a maximum height of 5470 m elevation. These are among the highest archaeological remains found anywhere in Upper Tibet. They also constitute the loftiest permanent residences built anywhere in the world, past or present.
In other parts of Upper Tibet, the chronometric analysis of organic remains found inside standing dokhang and what appear to be the foundations of dokhang were carried out separately by Professor Mark Aldenderfer and I. These test results indicate that dokhang were already being built by the middle of the first millennium BCE. While none of the all-stone corbelled residences at Mount Kailas have undergone chronometric analysis, we can infer that this unique form of highland settlement came to the region quite early. This is supported by Bon literary accounts that describe the lap of Mount Kailas at Gyangdrak (Tib. = rGyang-grags) as the very first capital of the prehistoric Zhang Zhung kingdom.
Although the ancient ruins of the indigenous Zhang Zhung civilization dominate the flanks of Mount Kailas, this by no means denies an ancient Jain cultural presence at the holy mountain. The predominance of Zhang Zhung cultural materials merely signals that the Jains did not leave monuments behind at Mount Kailas. The scope for the Jains having reached Mount Kailas no later than the time of Mahavira remains strong, for cultural exchanges between the Indian Subcontinent and Upper Tibet are documented in both Indian and Tibetan literature. Bon ritual and meditative texts are replete with Sanskrit mantras and terms thought to have reached Zhang Zhung long before Vajrayana Buddhism washed over the Tibetan Plateau.
While Bon claims of religious intercourse with prehistoric India remain to be satisfactorily assessed, the overall geographical and archaeological picture supports them. The two sides of the Great Himalayan divide offer differing but complimentary ecological resources and cultural products, a very powerful incentive for trade and cooperation. Furthermore, the religious sentiments of Indian peoples have been tied up with the Himalaya for a great deal of time. The suite of textual, utilitarian and religious factors argue strongly that peoples such as the Jains have filtered over the Himalayan barrier for many centuries, carrying ideas, goods and spiritual inspiration along with them.
Rubbish the pilgrim: Clean up or put up
More and more Indians are visiting Mount Kailas each year. I estimate that this year around 150 pilgrims from India will arrive at the holy mountain each day from May through September. Mainland Chinese are also discovering the pilgrimage site, albeit in much smaller numbers. To date, Chinese visitors tend to belong to the young, well educated and trendy set. Foreign visitors to Mount Kailas still outnumber Chinese. They have been coming since the early 1980s, and have developed their own pilgrimage traditions and literature. This modern form of pilgrimage has lodged itself quite strongly in the psyche of Westerners, especially among those with Buddhist leanings.
In addition to the non-native tourists and supplicants to Mount Kailas, there are the indigenous pilgrims, Tibetans keen to circumambulate its beautiful form. Gone are the open pilgrim trucks of earlier years, crammed full with drokpas or Khampas making their way over rutted dirt roads to their object of devotion. The will certainly remains strong among such peoples, but the means are no longer there. Travel in open trucks to Mount Kailas, the cheapest way to get there, is no longer permitted. Special travel documents to get past check posts and transport by bus or car are now required, considerably adding to the expense of reaching the holy mountain.
Gone too are the pilgrims on foot, those who covered long distances across Tibet under their own steam. Like myself, there were many such intrepid travelers in the 1980s and 1990s. Now there are almost none. Social changes and the rules governing travel largely account for the demise of the wandering pilgrim.
I miss the Tibetan pilgrims of the past in their colorful traditional costumes, lay people and monastics alike. You could pick out what part of Kham, Amdo or the Changthang they hailed from. Talking to them, one could learn a lot about distant corners of Tibet. Yet, all were united by a single goal, the wish to walk around Mount Kailas in an effort to achieve salvation. Tibetan visitors still singularly pursue this goal of attaining enlightenment or at least a better rebirth. Make no mistake, this is as much a mental effort as it is a physical one. I salute these brave pilgrims. May their efforts bear good fruit.
Not all is well on the fringes of paradise, however. In fact, the place is getting very dirty and congested. With the increase in foreign visitors of all nationalities and the expansion of the township headquarters at the base of Mount Kailas, the environment is being rapidly degraded.
Garbage on all sides of Mount Kailas is mounting, erosion of the hillsides increasing and old religious monuments crumbling. The pass over the circumambulatory track, Drolma La, is now sullied with the castoff impedimenta of pilgrims. No one can deny that there is a very serious waste management problem around Mount Kailas. In the township headquarters of Darchen, garbage is being directly thrown into the sacred stream issuing forth from the inner circuit of the mountain. The water is choked with all manner of rubbish, including hazardous substances from alkaline batteries and the grime stuck to vehicles. The streams of Mount Kailas flow into a Bon holy lake known as Langak Tsho (Rakas Tal), a very unfortunate fate indeed for this pristine body of water.
To its credit, the local government banned the extraction of drama six years ago, the only woody shrub in the region. Drama was being used for fuel by visitors who would pull it out of the ground, roots and all. The ban, however, came too late. The denuding of the vegetation cover has led to dustier conditions around Mount Kailas.
The time has come to manage the natural environment around Mount Kailas in an effective and comprehensive fashion. The eyes of the world are very much on this site of special interest. Protection of Mount Kailas will only become more critical as increasing numbers of people come to live, work and visit there. The good news is that the PRC and TAR governments are reportedly drawing up conservation projects to address negative environmental and cultural impacts. These will take time, will and resources to implement, but the signals being sent out are positive. As of June 2009, very little had been achieved in this regard, but we have some cause to be hopeful about the future.