Tibet Archaeology

and all things Tibetan

Flight of the Khyung

May 2008

John Vincent Bellezza

Springtime Recollections
I have been lucubrating yet another month, inputting data on archaeological sites surveyed in Upper Tibet in 2004 and 2005. The process of writing is going well but there is certainly plenty of it to do. When I applied for a grant to compile in a publishable form all pre-Buddhist archaeological sites surveyed since 2001, I estimated that the final document would tally around 200,000 words long. In reality, it will be around 400,000 words, and this work will only feature ceremonial and residential monuments. This is the equivalent of two weighty volumes. The compilation of the rock art discovered will have to be deferred until more funding is available and I have time for another large writing project (hopefully in 2009–2010).

It has required a refined organizational structure, a stringent regimen, and all my research materials on hand to get this much done in the year allotted to the write up of the archaeological sites. The data I am working with is the product of nine major field surveys conducted in Upper Tibet between 2001 and 2007. Fortunately, I was able to complete a basic inventory of archaic monuments and rock art in the region in a timely manner. No better than the present time was my motto and given the current circumstances in Tibet, I am glad for it.

As one shall be able see on the Tibetan & Himalayan Digital Library before the year’s end, I was able to locate a lot of really interesting sites and monuments. Among the most intriguing are one-of-a-kind necropoli such as those at Khyi-nag rong (dated through in situ wooden beams to circa fourth to sixth century CE) and Bu-mo lha-khang. In addition to elaborate temple-tombs, these sites feature rows of small masonry structures, which Lopon Tenzin Namdak, the foremost Bon scholar, and myself are persuaded to call tho. Tho are quadrate masonry structures used in a variety of ancient Bon ritual applications. As I point out in my new book, Zhang Zhung, some tho are used in funerary rites, just like the networks of small masonry structures at various early burial grounds.

The tho is but one example of how materials in ancient Bon religious and historical texts positively correlate with the empirical facts on the ground. While this traditional literature is replete with passages of a mythic and legendary character, it can preserve a prosaic record of Tibet’s ancient past as well. The greatest challenge facing Tibetologists when trying to understand Tibetan chronicles is to differentiate what is historical in a rational sense from more allegorical or visionary forms of the past. This is not to say that one type of history is necessarily more ‘real’ than the other. In the post-modern world, the question of the nature of reality can be approached from a number of angles in historiography, as it can from various scientific and philosophical perspectives. Be that as it may, my prime aim in studying Tibetan texts is to make the stones on the ground come alive so to speak. I am keen to understand the function and significance of the ruins charted, and to gain a better idea of the people who built and inhabited them. In my work, I therefore use Tibetan texts as utilitarian instruments and not as devotional or revelatory treasures. My aim is to produce a history that is verifiable and amenable to reasoned argumentation. I hasten to add that less objective approaches to history may also yield salutary results, but the outputs will be different, requiring the application of different sets of intellectual and esthetic tools if they are to be understood and appreciated.

One lesson that can be drawn here is that any valid history, whether it is a current newspaper article, a scholarly tome or a religious tract, must in no uncertain terms inform the reader about why it sets forth the particular historical ‘facts’ it does. What precisely does the author hope to achieve in presenting these facts in the way in which he or she presents them? What has compelled the writer to make a historical document; in other words, what advantages (intellectual, emotional, professional, financial, etc.) accrue to the author for having written it? In this age of instantaneous mass communications where, spin and double-speak abound, the question of exactly why an account of past ideas and events has been written assumes the greatest importance (an explication of the methodologies utilized in organizing and articulating these ideas and events is of secondary importance).

It is solely by striving for answers to this critical question of motives can we hope to guard against obfuscation, dissimulation and a host of other ills, which blight the historical narratives of individuals, institutions and nations. Only by holding authors (and their successors) to account, in order that they may bare their true intentions, can we hope to achieve an understanding of historical truth and thereby a mastery of the world around us. In our daily proceedings we should never settle for anything less. Make no mistake; in this age of universal digital communications and information there are ever more obstacles put in the way of acquiring accurate and relevant accounts of the past. Of course, the good news is that those very same technological aids can help to enhance our knowledge of truth; that is to say, those things that are useful, sound and edifying.

From my Journals
Volume 11: December 4, 1989

Dancing and the disappearing forest in Chitral, Pakistan
Last night I was treated to a pre-marriage party. About 40 mostly young Chitrali men crammed into a room to dance and sing. A couple of Chitral sitar players provided the music along with a couple guys drumming on jerry cans. Indigenous drums such as the duff are unknown or at least not used by the younger generation, according to Mr. Nawaz Lal. One man at a time would dance accompanied by music and hand clapping and finger snapping. A kind of jig called a soust is danced. It begins slowly and gradually increases in speed. After several minutes the dancer is whirling around rapidly. The party got worked up at this time, and hooted and chanted “he he he he”. The dancer would continue until the end of the song and then sometimes fall down. A final line to the song is sung after the dance. Then it was time for another dancer. Some dancers seemed eager while others had to be goaded.

A highlight of the evening was when Aurangzeb (a college student and relative of Jinnah) and I danced simultaneously. The crowd really got worked up. The men were clapping and stamping their feet. There was also plenty of hollering and shrieking. Never was their violence or its innuendo, but a daunting kind of raw energy was present. I really felt I was experiencing the primitive tribal side of the Chitralis, who are usually quiet and reserved. I suppose all cultures have their sanctioned forms of release. This is essential for defusing frustration, anger and aggression. The dancing and singing raged on for several hours. I was quite tired when it was over. There is also a gentle style of dancing called daani. Chitrali songs such as Yaman Hamin and Ashur Jaan are pleasing sounding ballads. The singing is rich and soulful and the sitar sounds very exotic. The Chirali sitar, like other aspects of the culture, is an instrument with a soft and intricate tenor. I must look more deeply into the music of Chitral. Her music deserves international recognition.

This morning I had tea and bread, packed a lunch and set off. My destination was the jungle. I climbed approximately 1 vertical mile from Ayun, onto the summit of a range that divides the Bumboret valley from the main [Chitral] valley. The panorama includes encompassing views of the range (height approximately 14,000 feet) separating the main valley from Shishi Co, and the range (height 14,000+ feet) separating the main valley from Afghanistan and Ludco. I could also look into the Bumboret valley and the Rumbor valley. My view of the main valley extended from Brosh to Drosh and towards the Lowri Top. My bird’s eye view of Ayun helped me distinguish several of its villages, the trestle bridge over the Bumboret River and Shahazada Malik’s homestead and newly developed fields.  I also had my first look at the plateau behind Ayun. It would be an ideal site for a large village if only it had water.

Above Ayun for a couple thousand feet there is a belt of sparse evergreen oak woods. Higher up is the old growth forest of khil pine and deodar. The forest on the Bumboret side of the range extends further down, apparently because this is a moister and more sheltered side. It was invigorating to be in the jungle high above the valleys. Nonetheless, the destruction I observed was saddening. This year alone many giants have been cut [down]. Most still remain on the ridge-top waiting to be dressed and pushed down the chutes to the valley floor. At the rate of this year’s logging, the old growth jungle will be annihilated in a few years. I have come to better understand why the local leaders are alarmed.

I ate lunch on top, rested and explored before coming back down. I passed two shepherds with their flocks on the way down. On the climb up I met a man camped in a stone hut below the ridgeline. He offered me a cup of tea. He claimed he was there to trap eagles. He told me that the bears have been scared away due to the logging. There was a good round of applause last night when I declared that the Chitralis were number one people.

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