John Vincent Bellezza
Wild Yaks and Other Things on the Horizon
On the fifth of this month I returned to Lhasa, having completed 50 days in the field on the Wild Yak Lands Expedition (WYLE). As those who read the May issue of Flight of the Khyung will know, wildlife sighting was a memorable part of WYLE. Nevertheless, the search for wild yaks and antelopes was only a minor objective of the expedition. My main focus was the discovery of more pre-Buddhist sites and the revisiting of important centers already documented to make more photographs of them. I managed to discover six more ancient places over the course of the 50 days. Scattered across a huge area, their documentation was very hard won. I have now charted 675 pre-Buddhist archaeological sites in Upper Tibet over a 13 year period, covering around 60,000 miles in the process.
Gone are the days when I would document 40 to 90 pre-Buddhist archaeological sites on a single expedition. I guess you could say I am a victim of my own success. That is not to say I have documented everything for I am certain that there are great discoveries yet to be made. The prospects of such are one of the things motivating me forward. But I am also in the process of changing gears. Future expedition will probably have more narrowly focused aims. I am planning a mission to map important sites in meticulous detail. And then there is the next epic stage in exploration: the systematic excavation of select archaeological sites. Hopefully, such endeavors will keep my colleagues and I busy over the next decade or so. Chinese government sanction through the TAR organs of administration is still being formulated for a major archaeological project involving excavation.
An Amazing Headland
One of the first destinations of WYLE was Che do (lCe do), which shelters a small cave near the shores of Nam Tsho (gNam mtsho) pullulating with pictographs. Although small in size, Che do contains some of the most important rock art compositions in all of Upper Tibet. It is especially noteworthy for its chronological diversity. Pictographs first appeared in Che do deep in the prehistoric epoch (from around 1000 BCE) and continued to be produced until the early historic period (600-1000 CE). The prehistoric genre of art is especially beautiful. For one thing, the palette of colors is much richer than the later compositions. Protohistoric and historic art at Che do was made in various shades of red ochre, ranging from brownish red to crimson in color. On the other hand, prehistoric petroglyphs come in various yellow, red and purple hues, indicating that the sourcing and preparation of pigments was quite different from that of subsequent periods. The early art is also highly vibrant and dynamic in form. It is dominated by hunting depictions. Individuals on foot and horseback are shown coming in for the final kill of wild yaks (wild yaks have long disappeared from this region). My time at Che do was devoted to taking many more photographs. This was the first opportunity I had to visit the cave since 1997. I am already looking forward to my next sojourn at Che do.
As we struck out farther west I had another chance to visit Shawa Drag (Sha-ba brag), the site of a small Buddhist monastery (Karma bka’-brgyud). In the crags above the monastery are the remains of a hermitage associated with the Eighth Century CE Bon Zhang Zhung master Tong Gyung Thuchen (sTong-rgyung mthu-chen). This is still an ideal location for settlement as it is graced with caves for shelter and high volume springs. Fresh water in large quantities is a scarce resource on the Changthang. Although there are many streams and rivers (especially in the south), these are often sullied to some degree or another by wastes originating with the large pastoral flocks.
Tong Gyung Thuchen’s hermitage (unlike the modern monastery) was built in a defensible location suited to a fortress. Perhaps being poised on the main route between Nam Tsho and Nag Tshang (Nag-tshang) necessitated the construction of a stronghold? In fact, nearly all of the Zhang Zhung hermitages and temples were constructed in lofty or hidden locations. We might infer from this that the political waters of the time were very turbulent indeed. This hypothesis melds very nicely with the warlike personalities of Zhang Zhung priests depicted in old Bon literature. In an Iron Age or Iron Age-like context, this comes as no surprise, for humanity had entered the epoch of protracted warfare on a massive scale. That legacy lives on to the present day, making for a good argument that we are still essentially an Iron Age people. One of the other great hallmarks of the Iron Age is social diversity. Hierarchical class structures and occupational stratification became highly prevalent. In Upper Tibet, this is reflected in the tremendous variety in burials, ranging from rude and simply marked to extensive necropoli containing temples, tombs and other ritual monuments.
High up Heaven is Near
In another far-flung corner of the Changthang I surveyed a group of mountaintop tombs. These are situated near Aru Lake and the Aru Range, a region in the northern Changthang especially known for its wildlife. It has been visited by a number of wildlife specialists since the late 1980s, but my expeditions of the 2000s are the first time that the archaeological sites of Aru have been documented. This year an old man (who regaled us with tales of his earlier days as one of the greatest hunters of Aru) directed me to a ridge-top with the remains of ancient tombs. These are said to be the vestiges of the houses of the Mon-pa, a nebulous group that according to Tibetan folklore, first inhabited large swathes of Upper Tibet. The Mon-pa are often equated with various Himalayan tribes but when identified as the aboriginals of the region their ethnic identity is anything but clear. Some of their tombs at Aru were converted into crude shelters used by shepherds, probably giving rise to the legend that they were originally habitations. They were, in fact, above the ground stone depositories for human remains.
It would appear that human corpses were stripped of their flesh and organs, and the bones collected for ritual deposition in sealed stone receptacles at the center of each mountaintop tomb. In my various works, I theorize that the siting of tombs on the untrammeled heights acted as a launch pad for the flight of the deceased to the celestial afterlife. Moreover, the placement of human remains above the ground accents the skyward orientation of the tombs. This theory fits well with lore recorded in the archaic funerary literature of Bon. In my upcoming book, Zhang Zhung: Foundations of Civilization in Tibet, I explore the ancient funerary traditions of Tibet at length using both Bon and Dunhuang sources. This literature opens a fascinating window on Tibet’s distant past, which I think might lead to some reappraisals of Tibetan history, especially as it has been conceived in Buddhist sources.
A Nexus of Tibetan Civilization
Guge, the badlands region of far western Tibet, is an outstanding place for those interested in history and archaeology. It is well known for its fantastic Buddhist murals painted between the 11th and 16th century CE. These vivid paintings adorn the walls of temples and caves, providing the art historian with wonderful insights into the Buddhist kingdom of Guge. Much less attention has been given to the pre-Buddhist or archaic era of civilization in Guge. Since 2000, I have visited this rugged region of canyons and caves every year. Little by little, I have made inroads into many a corner of Guge, charting its early citadels, temples and troglodytic complexes. My findings strongly suggest that Guge was at its zenith (in terms of population and food production) in pre-Buddhist times, when the climate was more amenable to such expansion.
On WYLE, I managed to survey three more early citadels located in Shangtse (Shang-rtse) Township. Probably the most interesting of these is known as Rula Khar (Ru-la mkhar, Horde Hill Castle). This safehold sits amidst an area of defunct fields encompassing several square kilometers. The derelict fields of Rula extend to Gyade (brGya-sde), which also has many unused agricultural lands. Gyade derives its names from the belief that 100 households were once based here. There has been limited resettlement of Gyade in recent years but Rula is still completely abandoned, as are some other neighboring locales. Rula Khar appears to have been a high status residential center, a palace of sorts. All indications are that this monument dates from the pre-Buddhist epoch (local folklore, design characteristics, the lack of Buddhist emblems, etc.). I hope to test the age of Rula Khar once I return to America. I was able to extract a round of drama (gra-ma, a woody shrub that grows prolifically in western Tibet) from the base of a highly eroded earthen block wall, which I will subject to radiocarbon analysis. Although I have commissioned a number of assays of organic samples, I have not been able to obtain any firm dates for castles in Guge. I am hoping that the structurally intact round of drama from Rula Khar will begin to change this.