John Vincent Bellezza
Greetings to the fliers of the horned eagle, Tibet’s greatest conveyance! I hope you like the new look of the website, redesigned to entice readers to these very pages. In the field of Upper Tibetan archaeology, there always seems to be something new under the sun. This month’s newsletter is devoted to a preliminary study of the Tibetan recurve bow and its connections to the Eurasian cultural world of yore.
Curves of history: the composite bow in Upper Tibet
The bow and arrow have been around for at least 10,000 years but it was only in the Bronze Age that the new and more effective variant known as the composite bow was invented. Composite bows are made of horn strips laminated on a wooden or cane core to which layers of sinew are also glued. The compression of the horn on the belly of the bow and the expansion of the ligaments on its outer side when drawn invest it with more power than similarly sized ones made from a single piece of wood. An arrow shot from a composite bow can travel many hundreds of meters. As most composite bows curve away from the archer they are also known as recurve bows.
According to the online article “La Arqueria Tradicional en la Historia”, Tibetan composite bows were only manufactured from wood, bamboo and horn, not sinew.* This article cites religious reasons for the absence of sinew in the Tibetan bow but provides no details.** In any case, a disinclination to use sinew in more recent times would have had no bearing on the manufacture of bows in ancient Tibet. Archaic ritual texts document a wide array of animal parts used for the production of implements, religious articles and costumes.
* See “La Arqueria Tradicional en la Historia/Traditional Archery in History” (this online article has illustrations of many types of bows with short descriptions of each):
** A commercial site called “Ashoka Arts” has an image of an antique compound bow attributed to Amdo Tibetans or the Han. This bow is reinforced with horn and sinew and is wrapped in bark painted with flowers. See http://www.ashokaarts.com/shop/chinese-or-tibetan-amdo-war-bow
A lively write-up entitled “Tibetan Archery in Qinghai”, with pictures of bowyers and archery contests in Amdo using horn bows, is posted on the website “Asian Traditional Archery Research Network” (this is a good resource for the ethnographic and technical study of Asian archery and includes a series of newsletters): http://www.atarn.org/letters/letter_summaries.htm#qinghai
Many of the bows I have seen in Tibet were made out of a single piece of cane (sba). This is in line with observations made by Tshering Choephel, a Tibetan cultural expert now in his late 70s. Nevertheless, Tshering Choephel confirms that there was a tradition of composite bows made of horn (antelope?) and wood in Upper Tibet. In the mid-1980s, many cane bows, bamboo arrows and round shields could be found scattered in the caves of the famous citadel and temples of Tsaparang in western Tibet. According to the local oral tradition, these armaments date to the 17th century and the defeat of Guge by the Ladakhi army.
History of the composite bow
The composite bow appears to have been first developed in the second millennium BCE by pastoralists of the Asian steppe. However, its precise origins are still unclear, as the archaeological record is limited in scope and bows seldom have survived buried for millennia. Composite bows were widely adopted by various Asian peoples for hunting and war. In the first millennium BCE, the mounted warrior and his composite bow became synonymous with the Eurasian steppe. The composite bow’s shorter length and power made it the ideal weapon for use on horseback. The Assyrians and Chinese acquired it early on and eventually so did a host of other peoples such as the Koreans, Japanese, Indo-Persians, and Turks. Thus it came to be called the ‘Asiatic bow’, a weapon whose design and materials were modified by each culture according to its own needs and resources.*
* For a review on technical differences between the Scythian, Turkic, Hun and Hungarian bows and other closely related types, see the article “Asiatic archery: a rapid history!”, on the website called “Traditional Archery”: http://www.traditional-archery.co.uk/asiatic-archery-bow-mechanics/
Scythian bows of the first millennium BCE were short and made with horns tips in order to stiffen them. This construction allowed the Scythian bow to have its characteristic double-curved shape. The Asiatic Huns added bone laths to the handle of the bow, thus reinforcing it and increasing the potential velocity of the arrow at final draw-weight. As is well known, this general type of composite bow spread widely throughout Asia and further afield to the Greeks and Romans of Europe. Likewise, the recurve bow found its way into Tibet early on, as documented in the rock art record.
Given the general historical picture, we might expect that a Bronze Age steppe people were responsible directly or through geographic intermediaries for the diffusion of the composite bow into Tibet. If so, the complex of interrelated cultures known as Andronovo may have formed the root of that transmission, which branched out over time and space through various cultural permutations to affect both the Scythians and Tibetans. Given the geographic situation, technological and cultural innovations originating in the steppes are likely to have reached Tibet via Mongolia and Xinjiang (Eastern Turkestan). Indeed, the archaeological record places the Scythian-style bow in Xinjiang.
During the excavation of dozens of graves in the Subeshi cemetery in Xinjiang, bows and arrows were discovered accompanying male corpses of Europoid stock.* The whole bows and bow fragments recovered were composite types made of horn, wood and sinew. These bows are of Scythian inspiration, as was the design of the arrowheads, arrow shafts and leather bow cases (gorytoi). The materials used were possibly tamarisk and ibex horn.
* This paragraph is derived from the paper entitled “Scythian Bow from Xinjang”, by Adam Karpowicz and Stephen Selby, Journal of the Society of Archer-Antiquaries, vol. 53, 2010, reproduced online at: http://www.atarn.org/chinese/Yanghai/Scythian_bow_ATARN.pdf . This informative article contains technical descriptions and photographs of bows discovered in the Subeshi cemetery, photographs of Scythian bows depicted on ancient artwork, and an interesting account of the making of a replica bow. The authors maintain that the bows of the Subeshi cemetery can be attributed to the diverse group of people known as Scythians, which straddled both the western and eastern steppe. I am more inclined, however, to view the bows of the Subeshi cemetery as indicative of a localized adoption of widely disseminated technologies by groups with distinctive linguistic and cultural identities. The varying material assemblages recovered from tombs in Xinjiang, Mongolia and the Altai support this notion of marked cultural and linguistic differentiation.
For another discussion about technical details of the Subeshi bows and others of the Scythian type, see “Scythian-style Bows Discovered In Xinjiang. From the photographs and drawings of Stephen Selby” by Bede Dwyer, on the website called “The Circle of Ancient Iranian Studies (CAIS)”:
This same article is also available on the “Asian Traditional Archery Research Network” website: http://www.atarn.org/chinese/scythian_bows.htm .
According to Dwyer, the Subeshi bows were made circa 600–500 BCE.
For an archaeological overview of the Subeshi cemetery, see “The Mummies of East Central Asia”, by Victor H. Mair: http://penn.museum/documents/publications/expedition/PDFs/52-3/mair.pdf
I have not yet been able to consult Chinese archaeological reports about the earliest bows discovered in Xinjiang, highlighting the preliminary nature of this newsletter. Although further study of the subject is demanded, the comparative exercise intended here is well served by the text and images that follow.
A brief review of the bow and arrow in Tibetan oral and written traditions
The arrow and bow (dashu, mda’-gzhu) are so deeply embedded in Tibetan culture that a comprehensive survey of their functions in hunting, sporting contests, religious rituals, and iconography would entail a book-length project. This section is designed to merely give readers a taste of the traditional roles of the bow and arrow in Tibet. For more information on the ritual functions of the bow, please consult my books and the bibliographies contained therein for copious references to the works of other scholars.
The bow is wielded by a large host of protective deities of both Buddhist and Bon persuasion. The oldest cultural associations pertain to use of the bow by elemental spirits such as those that guard over or own territory (yul-lha, btsan, gnyan, etc.), warrior gods (dgra-bla, wer-ma, etc.), and personal deities (pho-lha, phugs-lha, etc.). The bow and arrow are also brandished by deities of the archaic funerary rituals of Tibet. The oldest literary references to this weapon as the prime emblem of the warrior is found in Dunhuang manuscripts containing ritual origins myths, hunting statutes and historical accounts. A territorial deity that carries the epithet ‘bow’ in his name belongs to the Targo (Rta-rgo) range in the central Changthang: ‘Mountain Country Lha-btsan Lord of the Bow’ (Gangs-lung lha-btsan mchog-dkar rje). The word chokar (Classical Tibetan = mchog-dkar, Old Tibetan = mchog-gar) is an old-fashioned synonym for the bow in ritual texts.
The bow and arrow are also wielded by a number of Bon and Buddhist deities of a very high ranking.* In Buddhism, the bow is flaunted by the multi-armed versions of the bodhisattvas of wisdom and compassion and by great tantric gods like Demchok (Bde-mchog) and Sangye Dukhor (Sangs-rgyas dus- ’khor). Three Bon tutelary gods with bows are Gekoe (Ge-khod), Atimuwer (A-ti mu-wer) and Phuwer (Phu-wer), all of whom are thought to be of ancient western Tibetan origins. They appear to have been powerful territorial guardians of the Zhang Zhung kingdom recreated in later times as tantric gods. A broken bow in archaic funerary ritual literature is employed as a metaphor for death, harking back to the importance of the warrior and martial traditions in ancient Tibet. The bow and arrow are also used by Tibetan spirit-mediums and tantric practitioners as an exorcistic implement. For instance, ransom offerings in the form of human effigies known as linka (ling-ga) are ritually executed with the bow and arrow.
* A survey of Tibetan murals and scroll paintings (thang-ka) over the last millennium reveals many depictions of the recurve bow. A particularly early example is that grasped by a Buddha figure dated to the 12th century CE. See “Vairochana Buddha – Vajradhatu (Tattvasamgraha Tantra)”, on the “Himalayan Art Resources” website:
Tibetan warriors and their protective spirits are often portrayed in the literary and oral traditions with the khorsum (’khor-gsum): bow, arrow and sword. Although the spear and shield were also important armaments, it is the khorsum that most closely defined the Tibetan fighter of olden times. In traditional iconographic descriptions of the gods as well as in early ritual origins myths, human and divine warriors carry a tiger-skin quiver (stag-dong) on the right side and a leopard-skin bow case (gzig-shubs) on the left side. In one archaic funerary ritual text discovered in Dunhuang, these articles are called stag-ral and gzig-ral (see Zhang Zhung, pp. 532, 536).
The recurve bow in the rock art of Upper Tibet
Far older than the most ancient Tibetan literary references to the bow are likenesses of this weapon in the rock art record. Some of this art carved and painted on stone is at least 2500 years old. Interestingly, where the design of the bow can be discerned, it is the recurve type that is most commonly depicted. This is of course the great Asiatic bow that spread far and wide in the ancient world. The simple or self bow (arc-shaped) is also portrayed in rock art. Nevertheless, most carvings and paintings are too crude or rudimentary in nature or too heavily stylized in form to determine the bow type. Still, the frequency of the recurve bow in Upper Tibetan rock art indicates that it was the weapon of choice for hunting wild yaks, deer and other wild ungulates. Moreover, as this art dates from the Metal Age to historic times, the recurve bow belongs to succeeding phases of Tibetan civilization. Most crucially, its presence in rock art sets highland Tibet inside the broader Eurasian cultural and technological world of prehistory.
Regular readers of this newsletter and of my print publications will know that there are a number of rock art subjects (mascoids, chariots, etc.) and stylistic motifs (animal style ornamentation, ball tails and circle horns, etc.) in Upper Tibet comparable to those found in the art of the deserts and steppes of north Inner Asia. In a major paper coauthored with Dr. Laurianne Bruneau due to be published at the end of 2013, we examine more closely how various customary and technical currents intermingled throughout Inner Asia to produce pan-cultural artistic traditions from the the late Bronze Age down to the Common Era. As the study of composite bows (and other material objects) depicted in rock art is beyond the purview of our work, this newsletter is an ideal venue to introduce the subject.
* The dates supplied in this newsletter are derived from a relative chronology of rock art devised using diverse evidence of a physical, esthetic, cultural, historical, and comparative nature. These chronological values are provisional and subject to further analysis and independent verification. Therefore, as with all dates attributed to rock art arrived at using inferential means, these should be taken as suggestive and not prescriptive. For more information on dating methodology, consult my book Zhang Zhung and the forthcoming paper coauthored with Bruneau.