Tibet Archaeology

and all things Tibetan

Flight of the Khyung

May 2009

John Vincent Bellezza

New Photo Gallery Featured
In this month’s Flight of the Khyung I would like to call your attention to the new photo gallery here on my website. The new gallery has a much larger array of photos and is laid out in a more refined manner. I think you will agree that it is a big improvement to tibetarchaeology.com. If you like what you see or have any comments about the photos, I would be pleased to hear from you.

The Magnificent Jain Temple at Mount Kailas
At the end of April, I attended a seminar in Mumbai about Shri Ashtapad, the greatest and most elusive of Jain temples. I think just about everyone who reads this newsletter will know who the Jains are, nevertheless, let me first provide a little background information on them.

Jainism is one of the pillars of Indic religion. The doctrine of ahimsa or non-violence is the centerpiece of its creed; its practitioners go to great lengths to safeguard all forms of life. With only around five million adherents, Jainism is one of India’s smallest religions. Like Buddhism, it belongs to the Shramana stream of ancient spirituality. The Shramana tradition stresses individual efforts to purify mental afflictions that obscure the soul (Jain) or stream of clear light (Buddhism). This emphasis on the mental state of the individual was truly a revolutionary approach to spirituality and a tremendous advance in the intellectual history of humanity. The radical difference from alternative Indian religions and most other faiths in the world is that Jainism and Buddhism do not rely on sacrifices and the propitiation of deities for well being and salvation. Moreover, they have no need of a creator god, the universe being seen as having no beginning.

The Jains hold that salvation is open to all human beings. It is a matter of personal and ethical responsibility exercised over lifetimes, not the whim of a god or destiny. Through virtuous conduct and the cultivation of wisdom, the soul gradually is rid of the particles of karma that attach themselves to it. It is believed that when all karmic imprints have been dispelled, the Jain muni or saint achieves keval gian or omniscience. Then, as a perfected being, the muni will pass to Nirvana at the time of death.

Those familiar Buddhism will know how its doctrines contrast with the eternalism of the Jains and their belief in a permanent soul. Nevertheless, Lord Buddha is recorded as having much respect for his elder contemporary Vardhaman Mahavira (599–527 BCE), the last of the 24 Jain Tirthankaras, the ‘Conquerors’ who crossed over from Samsara to Nirvana. Both religious founders espoused a doctrine of personal salvation based on meditation and the ethic of doing no harm to any living creature.

The first Jain Tirthankara, Bhagavan Adinath or Rishabdev, is said to have attained Nirvana at Mount Kailas, the Mount Tise of the Tibetans. This is supposed to have occurred many thousands if not millions of years ago. The enlightenment of Rishabdev at Mount Tise has made it the most sought after pilgrimage place of the Jains.

In commemoration of Lord Rishabdev’s enlightenment, his most powerful son Bharat Chakravarti, the universal king of India, commissioned the architect Varddhaki Ratna to build a fabulous temple at Mount Tise. Known as Shri Ashtapad, the ‘Jeweled Temple’ or ‘Crystal Temple’, it is thought to have been appointed with statues of the 24 Tirthankaras. Lord Rishabadev is believed to have prophesized the identity of the next 23 Tirthankaras to his son King Bharat long before they actually appeared on earth.

Eons later, circa 500 BCE, the chief disciple of Mahavira, Gautam Swami, is also reported to have spent time at Shri Ashtapad as the head of the Jain monks. This temple, with four sides and eight large steps, is reputed to have existed on the largest and most opulent of scales. Unlike other important places of Jain pilgrimage, its precise whereabouts are still unknown. There are some Jains who believe that only enlightened masters can perceive it, others say that it is Mount Tise itself. There are also Jains who attribute outliers near Mount Tise to be their sacred Ashtapad. The two formations most commonly identified with the mystic site are Mount Nandi and Dharma King Norsang.

On the other hand, there are a growing number of Jains who believe that Shri Ashtapad is an actual archaeological site in the vicinity of Mount Tise. According to their line of reasoning, it should be detectable in the ruins of the region. While I have been able to document 12 ancient archaeological sites at Mount Tise (and many others in the general region) these are all part of the distinctive pre-Buddhist civilization of Zhang Zhung. The Zhang Zhung assemblage of monuments is best distinguished by its all-stone corbelled edifices and arrays of funerary pillars.

There are indeed stepped structures known as lhaten among Zhang Zhung’s archaeological monuments, but these are much more humble than the descriptions of Shri Ashtapad that have come down to us in Jain literature. Most of this literature postdates the 11th century CE, so there was ample scope for the tale of Shri Ashtapad to assume a legendary aura. Perhaps therefore it was much smaller than it is made out to be. If that is the case, possibly one of the Zhang Zhung sites of Mount Tise can be identified with it. This however does not seem very likely because Shri Ashtapad is conceived of as the prototypic temple of the Jains, complete with nagara spires, gokhala porticos and a gabhara main hall. These design features are certainly not part of the Zhang Zhung architectural canon.

The location of Shri Ashtapad remains an enigma, so the mystery lives on. This is but one of the many great puzzles in Himalayan and Transhimalyan archaeology, a field of exploration still very much in its infancy. As German and Nepalese archaeologists working in Mustang in the 1990s showed, a surprising degree of cultural sophistication had been reached by local communities even 2800 years ago. This is 1500 years before the introduction of Vajrayana Buddhism into the region. Whatever the archaeological merits of the Shri Ashtapad legend, it is clear that ancient civilization at Mount Tise was not solely dependent on Buddhism for its grandeur. There were other cultural and religious forces acting upon this glorious mountain that were just as momentous.

From My Journals
Darchen at the foot of Mount Tise, April 27, 1992:
Choying Dorje (Chos dbyings rdo rje)* is the well known caretaker of Mount Kailas, who is fluent in English, Nepali, Hindi, and Tibetan. His family has lived in the region for generations. He was in exile on the Subcontinent but has since returned to his motherland to assume his current duties. Choying Dorje is a treasury of information on the mythology and culture of Mount Kailas. Currently, he is expanding various articles into a guidebook on the region.

* Died in a tragic automobile accident in the mid 1990s.

While helping Choying work on a list of countries, continents and oceans of the world, I met Jimmy Tapa, a pilgrim from Nepal. Fluent in English, Jimmy is a designer, poet and painter. He walked nearly one month to reach the sacred mountain. While fasting in the inner circuit, he had a vision of Shiva leaping towards the summit. Visions like his are coveted by pilgrims coming from the Subcontinent, but few are lucky enough or meritorious enough to receive them.

Jimmy, who is ten years older than me, has brought along a hand-bound book of rice paper in which he has sketched and painted scenes and experiences from his pilgrimage. His work is very fine. Jimmy is also a musician and astrologer, a true artist at heart. This morning we talked about the morchunga, a musical instrument found in Nepal and Uttaranchal. In ancient times it was also found in Tibet, where it was called kuksee, according to Choying. A morchunga is similar to a Jew’s harp, but smaller. It consists of an iron reed mounted between an iron frame in the shape of a teardrop. When placed between the teeth, it vibrates in a pleasant way. Jimmy explained that wind and caves can amplify and add to its sound. A man in a small village in the foothills of Nepal uses the morchunga in a ritual to bring the cool breezes of Annapurna down from the high country.

Choying helped me correct the spellings of names of sacramental substances. As a writer, he knows the correct spellings, more than can be said for most Tibetans? The complicated orthography of Tibetan is more than most native speakers can cope with. For this reason and others, spellings must be checked and rechecked. Jimmy gave me a bag of excellent quality muesli he made in Kathmandu. I am very thankful.

In the late afternoon a truck with pilgrims from the Changthang pulled up near my camp and three tents were erected. Gone is my privacy but on the bright side there will always be someone in attendance in the proximity of my tent. This should preclude another incident like two days ago when the dogs got under the fly of my tent and took off with my ghee soaked wooden spoon. They also chewed through several guy lines, which I thought was very clever. A Tibetan tent is not self-standing and depends completely on guy lines for its rigidity. If you cut the guy lines on one it will collapse, bearing in the outside world. The dogs seem to know this. In this regard, the scoundrels must be given credit.

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