Tibet Archaeology

and all things Tibetan

Flight of the Khyung

June 2009

John Vincent Bellezza

Greetings from Lhasa, or the ‘Divine Earth’! It is my pleasure to once again bring you Flight of the Khyung from Tibet. Travel and translation have occupied much of the last month for me. I have made the geographic transition from the steamy Himalayan foothills to the cool Tibetan Plateau. Soon I shall embark on another expedition, but I will save that tale for next month’s newsletter.

The Discovery of Ancient Tibetan Texts
Deferring my current book project, I have been working on thousand-year old manuscripts in consultation with Bonpo here in Lhasa and on the Indian Subcontinent. Steeped in Old Tibetan, an archaic language of which there are no lexicons, these texts pose formidable challenges to anyone who would carefully understand them.

One source of these ancient Bon texts was a stupa in Tshome Dzong called Gathang Bumpa (dGa’-thang ’bum-pa). In 2006, when local residents were about to rebuild this stupa, they discovered a cache of handwritten manuscripts that had been deposited in the heart of the monument. Specialists from the Tibet Academy of Social Sciences were called in to retrieve and study these precious documents. In September of 2007, they were published in Lhasa in book form (Bod-ljongs dpe-rnying dpe-skrun khang). Akin to the Bon ritual texts among the Dunhuang manuscripts collections, these recent textual discoveries furnish extremely valuable information on the cultural history of ancient Tibet. In my opinion, the Gathang Bumpa texts were written circa 850–1100 CE, somewhat later than the archaic funerary texts of the Dunhuang collections.

Essential Characteristics of an Illuminated Tibetan Funerary Scroll
Recently, I also completed a translation and analysis of an illuminated Tibetan funerary scroll in the possession of an individual from New York City. The manuscript consists of some 40 color illustrations on paper, each of which has an accompanying text in the Tibetan language. The illustrations together with their texts were stitched together to form one or more continuous rolls. These rolls were displayed and read out during funeral performances.

Apparently, this type of funerary scroll is of considerable rarity. Nevertheless, it has come to my attention that an illuminated Tibetan manuscript in a similar style was recently found in Baima by Japanese Tibetologists. It has not yet been determined if similar texts are still used in remote corners of the Tibetan Plateau, but this seems unlikely. The hand-painted polychrome illustrations of the funerary scroll were drawn in an elementary but compelling style, adding significantly to the cultural and historical value of the document. The illustrations depict a series of deities, divine animals and ritual objects such as trees and tents.

The style of the anthropomorphous figures in the illuminations recalls the art of the eastern portion of the Tibetan Plateau, particularly that of Gyalrong and Baima. These eastern Tibetan cultural regions are in the general proximity of the Naxi and Moso, ethnic groups that have their own illuminated manuscripts. An art historical comparison between these various manuscripts could shed important light on the geographic spread of Tibetan cultural traditions

The text of the funerary scroll sets out a death ritual performance of great intricacy and depth. The ritual procedures so described belong to a corpus of funerary traditions that can be traced back directly to Tibet’s imperial period. This body of codified ritual knowledge seems to have diffused across the Tibetan Plateau to merge with earlier and more localized eschatological systems. The Tibetan funerary scroll under scrutiny shares many ritual motifs with the funerary manuscripts of the Dunhuang collection written in Old Tibetan. These Dunhuang texts were the object of study in my recent book Zhang Zhung: Foundations of Civilization in Tibet.

On the basis of the paleographic characteristics of the writing and its grammatical archaisms, the funerary scroll can be provisionally dated to 1000–1300 CE. It should be noted that its grammatical structure is considerably more modern than that of the Dunhuang funerary texts (written in Old Tibetan, circa 700–900 CE) or the Bon ritual texts discovered in Tshome County (written circa 850–1100 CE). A word of caution on the dating of the funerary scroll: it is possible that in a far-flung corner of eastern Tibet, one that escaped the full brunt of Lamaist intervention, ancient funerary practices were preserved intact for a long period of time. In such a scenario, it is conceivable that old manuscripts were recopied faithfully by scribes over the generations. If that proves to be the case, then the funerary scroll may be more recent than I suppose. Only proper chronometric analysis of the fabric of this work will put such questions to rest. At my behest, scientific testing is now being carried out.

Unfortunately, the funerary scroll is incomplete. It may originally have contained two or more times as many illuminations, perhaps more. However, it is hard to judge how long it actually was, because there is no other text available that can be used as a benchmark. The contents of the manuscript are highly fragmentary, diminishing its analytical value. Some of the illuminations became separated from one another and were rejoined at a later date, often incorrectly. This has compounded the difficulties of understanding the contents of the funerary scroll in full. Fortunately, some of the illuminations are numbered and ordered in groups, allowing for a general picture of the funerary ritual in all its glory to emerge.

The funerary scroll furnishes a fabulous view of the ancient death rituals of Tibet. This particular funerary rite appears to be dedicated to women and children only. Men must have used a complimentary text. The scroll is primarily concerned with protecting the deceased and his or her surviving kith and kin from the harm thought to emanate from the condition of death. This was accomplished through the propitiation of a series of deities and divine animals. These figures can be divided into five main groups:

  1. Little birds
  2. Jeweled deer protectors
  3. Ste’u deities with analogous ritual structures
  4. Lhe’u deities emanating from jeweled hail
  5. Origin myth (smrang) deities

A Bon Monastery in the Lhasa Environs

Drilung Gonpa Photo: Sally Walkerman

It is hardly known, but a Bon monastery existed in the Lhasa environs until the time of the Fifth Dalai Lama. Its ruins are situated in the Drilung Valley of Toelung (Stod-lung ’Bri-lung), about 25 kms northwest of Lhasa. Although it thrived until the late 17th century CE, very little is known about Drilung. Not even the proper name of the monastery has survived. Drilung was destroyed by Mongol troops at the behest of the Fifth Dalai Lama during his campaign against rival ecclesiastical powers. The Great Fifth, as he is called, was particularly keen on reducing Bonpo and Kagyupa religious influence in Central Tibet.

Drilung formed a large contiguous complex that must have housed hundreds of monks. Its ceremonial buildings were set amid the agricultural fields of the upper Drilung valley, while the monastic residences were built on a steep hillside near the ceremonial center. The very well built stone edifices of Drilung reflect a religious center of significant importance and prestige. It may have been founded as early as the 12th century CE, but this is still not clear. One famous Bon lama said to be associated with Drilung was Shang Dampa Tshulshe (Zhang dam-pa tshul-shes).

Interestingly, the inhabitants of Drilung have retained the Bon goddess Sridpai Gyalmo as their territorial deity (yul-lha) to this day. Military conquest and political intrigue could not erase the presence of Bon’s chief protectoress. Circa 2000, the villagers rebuilt a small chapel for Sridpai Gyalmo on the ruins of the old monastery. This humble shrine has become an assembly point for Lhasa’s growing Bonpo community.

Pilgrimage and Recreation: The Recreation of a Lhasa Holy Site
Recently, I had the opportunity to revisit Drak Yerpa (Brag g.yer-pa), a holy site located approximately 30 kms east of Lhasa. Tucked away in a side valley of the Kyi Chu, Drak Yerpa consists of a series of cave temples and cave hermitages suspended on the rocky face of a mountain. This religious site has been in the hands of the Nyingmapa sect since the eighth century CE. Before that time, it was one of the 37 assembly centers of the Bonpo. Accessible as it is from Lhasa, the many caves of Drak Yerpa acted as a magnet for meditators and hermits seeking refuge. With its long and august history, Drak Yerpa remained a very important place of practice and pilgrimage until 1959.

In the 1980s, Drak Yerpa, like many other religious centers, was rebuilt with Tibetan hands. Until the mid-1990s, it grew in size and stature as more and more anchorites settled there to pursue their spiritual development. In the late 1990s, under new policy directives, most of the monks and nuns living at Drak Yerpa were made to leave. In the last several years the place has had a kind of revival, but in a manner very different from traditional conceptions.

Drak Yerpa has remerged as a destination for day trippers coming from Lhasa. With the coming of a good road right to the base of the caves, just about anyone who can walk can visit. The various hermitages are under the custodial care of a skeleton crew of monks and nuns. These caretakers collect the alms that visitors leave and provide some guidance as to then nature of what is being seen. After a little religion, visitors often have a picnic and visit the little bazaar selling refreshments and religious memorabilia. This bazaar has come up to cater to the growing numbers of visitors.

A good portion of the visitors to Drak Yerpa are Tibetan youth from Lhasa city out for the day. Some of them move along the steep trails and steps with shaky legs, urban dwellers unaccustomed to the rigors of negotiating mountain paths. They are enthusiastic if not a little unsure of themselves. Many members of the young generation have had little or no training in their traditional religion of Buddhism. They are in the process of rediscovering their holy places of pilgrimage, but in their own way, a way that tends to be less informed than their forebears. Now that one can drive right to Drak Yerpa, rather than having to hike up, curiosity will suffice where a strong resolve was once necessary.

Previous Post

Next Post