John Vincent Bellezza
May’s Flight of the Khyung takes you to another forgotten bastion of civilization in uppermost Tibet. This gigantic citadel was documented for the first time in 2011, one of several dozen archaic strongholds found in western Tibet. It goes to show you how much there still is to discover on the Roof of the World. And it is only in this newsletter that can be a party to it!
The exploration of the great Sutlej River Valley Citadel
On the Upper Tibet Rock Art Expedition II, I finally reached a destination in my sights for over a decade. I first heard of Sutlej River Valley Citadel (a sobriquet) in 2000, but was repeatedly prevented from reaching it due to high water. This impressive archaeological site, located in the Guge district of western Tibet (Ngari), consists of a large stronghold sitting atop a rocky eminence. There is also a village of smaller residences, a line of recently looted chortens, and a lower complex of buildings. Where many hundreds of people once lived there is now not a single soul. The site was completely vacated before living memory. According to the oral tradition of the region, the castle here was ruled over by a figure called Darkam Pawo (Dpa’-bo = Hero).
A large shelf rises above the north bank of the Sutlej River upon which stands a craggy mount. On top and on the upper flanks of this naturally protected hill are the circumvallating ramparts and well-constructed buildings belonging to the fortress. The imposing Sutlej River Valley Citadel is located not so far downstream from Khyunglung (Horned-eagle Valley) village. In ancient times, this stretch of the valley may possibly have been known as Khyunglung as well. At present, there is no way to ascertain if Sutlej River Valley citadel corresponds to one of the three Zhang Zhung castles that existed in Khyunglung, according to Bon literary sources. There are other ruined strongholds in the vicinity. It appears that Sutlej River Valley Citadel stood guard over a key river crossing connecting the two territorial halves of Guge. The sheer size and geographic placement of the facility points to it as having been of considerable regional importance.
On the precipitous slopes below the citadel extending as far down as the foot of the hill are the remains of 14 domiciles. Most of these residences as well as the buildings of the citadel itself are of an all-stone corbelled composition. This archaic style of construction may have arisen in Upper Tibet as early as the first half of the first millennium BCE. The corbelled architecture of the region appears to have a long history, with buildings possibly being made in this fashion as late as the 10th century CE (for more information on the chronology of all-stone corbelled architecture in Upper Tibet, see the books Antiquities of Upper Tibet and Zhang Zhung, and the website thlib.org/bellezza).
The founding date of Sutlej River Valley Citadel remains to be determined. Nevertheless, an early historic period (650–1000 CE) establishment may be indicated for at least some of the ruins, given their mix of architectonic specifications. In addition to all-stone corbelled structures, there are high, straight stone walls in the facility; these could only have supported roofs built with wooden timbers. The existence of stone and wooden roofs in integrally created buildings may signal a historic era chronology.
Sutlej River Valley Citadel appears to have enjoyed various phases of construction and habitation. Except for a line of ruined chortens at the base of the citadel mount, there are no recognizable Buddhist monuments at the site. These chortens were built of adobe blocks. Their method of construction and style suggest that they were added to the site circa 1000–1200 CE. The chortens were planted well away from the residential structures, hinting that they belonged to disparate religious orientations. With the rise of the Guge-Purang kingdom at the end of the 10th century CE, numerous residential sites were redeveloped in Guge as Buddhist monasteries, temples and retreats. Nonetheless, many other ancient sites were never intensively reoccupied and made do with arrays of Buddhist ceremonial monuments. Typically, only chortens and mani walls came up at locations generally overlooked for permanent residency. The erection of ceremonial monuments functioned to bring older places of habitation ritually and symbolically into the Buddhist ambit. That no Buddhist temples appeared at Sutlej River Valley Citadel strongly suggests that it was already in decline by the dawn of the second millennium CE. Had it been otherwise, such a large and strategically important center would surely have supported a more elaborate Buddhist infrastructure (as was the case at many dozens of other Guge sites). This is not to say, however, that Sutlej River Valley Citadel was totally abandoned in the Buddhist era. Travelers and shepherds at minimum would have passed through it, as they still do from time to time.
That Sutlej River Valley Citadel underwent different phases of construction is also indicated in the reconstruction of two stone lintels using tamarisk (?) timbers. Small rounds of wood from both of these lintels were extracted for radiocarbon analysis. This work was undertaken by the well-known Beta Analytic lab (Miami) and was generously funded by the Tibetan Medical Foundation (Weslaco). The assayed timbers date to circa 1450 to 1600 CE; their chronometric parameters very closely aligned with one another. One of the composite lintels is found in the largest structure of Sector IV of the citadel, the other in the highest of individual residences situated just below the ramparts. The wooden additions are rudimentary in nature and out of character with the high quality masonry fabric of the site. We might infer from the acquired chronometric data that buildings of Sutlej River Valley Citadel were being used as late as 1600 CE, but only marginally so. This may have been an occupation comprising a relatively small group of farmers rather than a sociopolitical elite (analogous to the one that constructed the stronghold). In any event, the shelf below the citadel was once intensively cultivated. Depopulation and desiccation in the region, probably in tandem with one another, spelt the end to agriculture at Sutlej River Valley Citadel. When farming at the site was halted (or for that matter when it began) is not yet known.
Another possible sign of different phases of construction at Sutlej River Valley Citadel is the village of small houses. These are built outside the protective embrace of the fortress, leaving them vulnerable to any hostile incursion. I suspect that they appeared in a strategic environment different from the one in which the hilltop installation was first established. This altered strategic world may have occurred with the unification of the Tibetan Plateau under King Songtsen Gampo, in the 7th century CE. During the imperial period, regional rivalries were dampened by a conquest-driven military machine controlled by the emperors (btsan-po). In contrast, in the protohistoric period (100 BCE–650 CE), localized defense was a huge preoccupation, with virtually every agricultural enclave in western Tibet having been reinforced with a hilltop safehold. Perhaps therefore the first phase of construction at Sutlej River Valley Citadel dates to this more remote epoch.
Sutlej River Valley Citadel in figures and photos
The summit of Sutlej River Valley Citadel is situated at 4175 m elevation. Along its east-west axis, the installation is 202 m in length, and contains a dense collection of buildings. These structures were primarily built of blue and tan sandstone slabs and blocks. Sutlej River Valley Citadel walls are generally 30 cm to 60 cm thick, some of which were built of thin slabs of stone 10 cm to 30 cm in length. I have divided this once mighty stronghold into five sectors :
Sector I (11.3 m x 11.5 m): The lowest and narrowest portion of the citadel, which overlooks the eastern gorge. Contained around 12 buildings and rooms of various sizes.
Sector II (14.5 m x 27 m): Contained around 23 buildings and rooms.
Sector III (44 m x 40.5 m): Contained around 30 buildings and rooms.
Sector IV (46 m x 25 m): The highest portion of the summit. Walls in this sector reach a maximum of 5.7 m in height, the tallest at the site. Contained at least 42 buildings and rooms.
Sector V (48 m x 16 m). Situated on the west end of the summit. Contained approximately 39 buildings and rooms.
Thirteen or 14 individual residences occupy the central part of the site. These domiciles contained from one or two rooms up to six rooms. Most were raised using the Upper Tibetan all-stone corbelling technique of construction. DK 11 is the most westerly of these residences and is located 40 m east of the chorten complex. In addition to the houses there are other structural remains in the vicinity, which may possibly have comprised two larger open-plan buildings. On the southeast corner of the shelf directly overlooking the Sutlej River are the remains of four heavily built residential structures. The function of this poorly preserved residential complex is unknown.
Next month: More ancient art and monuments from the UTRAE II!