Tibet Archaeology

and all things Tibetan

Flight of the Khyung

November 2007

John Vincent Bellezza

My Fellow Explorers
The adventure continues! And it always will. The very act of living is the true adventure – if one takes the time to explore the deepest recesses of consciousness, let alone the backyard! What really is the nature of our hopes, understandings and carvings? Even for the most sedentary, housebound individuals, dreams can carry them many light years to the far side of the universe. More disciplined mental operations may even bring them further. Exploration, then, is largely a state of mind. And while only a small handful of men have ever made it to the lunar surface that does not preclude the rest of us from reaching the highest of heights. Our religious traditions over the millennia have always stressed a quality in humanity that links us to something well beyond our ordinary bounds. Call it God or the gods, the unconscious, ultimate nature, call it what you will; it has always been seen as an object fit for inquiry. Indeed, to grapple with questions concerning the basic identity and purpose of humanity appear to be a part of our very being. The process of finding answers varies in each individual and culture, but the quest remains a perennial drive in all human societies (some better adjusting to the answers than others). Yes, that makes us all explorers, if only we are willing to look in and around ourselves with a fresh perspective everyday and in everyway.

My Take on Culture Shock
By now I am pretty conversant with the Eastern and Western worlds and can move between them quite comfortably. That took some long years to attain. On my second big trip to the Himalaya (45 months) I had pretty much disappeared off the map, dispensing with much of my acculturation. I went months at a time without even uttering a word of English. I lived in new worlds and among new people, as ancient as they may be. I landed back in America penniless in December of 1987, not feeling especially good about general conditions around me. I was suffering from cultural shock as I was later to understand. I had come from a rather carefree and idyllic existence wandering far and wide in High Asia with only a rucksack back to all the issues I faced before leaving America. The thing was that I had changed. I had experienced alternative ways of living and, more fundamentally, alternative ways of thinking and being. I was a changed person, but my native society pretty much looked the same. In such a state, I questioned everything: Why do Americans live as they do? Why do they believe as they do? What about the historical, economic and political tensions simmering under the surface? I was eager for answers then and there. Fortunately, I had a supportive network of friends and family that helped me cope with everyday challenges. But I continued to question in an environment that wanted easy answers, received wisdom and the status quo. Inevitably, my sights were set on earning some money and heading back to the Himalaya for another long stint of exploration, and that is exactly what I ended up doing.

Is it any better here? Fundamentally, no. That is the conclusion I have reached. The crux of the matter, of staying alive yet another day and learning to be sanguine about it does not go away wherever we are. Perhaps the most we can aspire to is to be somewhere we feel at ease among people we feel affection towards. That could be the Himalaya, that could be the USA, that could be anywhere as per an individual’s calling.

A Brief Time in the USA
Thanks to a few of my supporters, in early October I was plucked from the Subcontinent and flown to the USA for 12 days. One day I was going about my business in Delhi in a kurta pajama and the next day I was in a sports jacket in Manhattan. I had a very fine time in New York with my friends. I was able to attend the opening of the Bon show at the Rubin Museum of Art (October 4) and attend a couple of glitzy parties (quite a far cry from hauling my food provisions up the hill to my hermitage). The Bon show proved to be a great hit with the public and was strongly attended. The media gave it excellent reviews too. His Holiness Menri Khenpo, the head of the Bon religion, was there for the opening. He warmly greeted anyone who had the courage to approach him, but some seemed unnerved by his serene presence and kept their distance. I am heartened by the new found support that Bon is garnering throughout the world. Bon is the most cosmopolitan of Tibetan religions. Piety and belief aside, it is a superb cultural treasury reaching far back in the history of Eurasia. For this reason alone Bon deserves a much higher profile.

An Update on the Inventory of Pre-Buddhist Archaeological Sites
While visiting America, I collected images from my photo archives. I chose 1920 images that I have now scanned in New Delhi. These will accompany the inventory of pre-Buddhist archaeological sites I am now working on (with a fellowship from the Henry Luce Foundation and American Council of Learned Societies). In this inventory, I am compiling all the data I have collected on the 400 archaic monument sites surveyed since 2001. This will be another monumental work (pardon the pun) and best of all, it will be available to any interested party online (THDL.org). I plan to finish writing up the residential division of sites, as well as many of the photo captions, before the end of the year. Fortunately, I am on track to meet my goals. Early next year I plan to begin compiling the ceremonial sites. I am working from my journals (volumes 38–47), so everything I need is at my fingertips. This is mentally an easier proposition that authoring Zhang Zhung: Foundations of Civilization in Tibet, in which every line required critical thinking. At around 250, 000 words in total, nevertheless, the inventory project is still a major undertaking. I have one year budgeted for the work.

A Narrative from the 2001 Season of Exploration
The inventory of pre-Buddhist sites is focused on the scientific elucidation of my discoveries. Fortunately, my journals also contain some descriptions of my explorations and what I was thinking and feeling along the way. Here I furnish an excerpt from my exploration of Manam Khar in far western Tibet.

Journal 38, May 7, 2001:
After a false start up a very steep mountain located on the opposite side of the valley from the village [of Ma-nam], we hired a local guide to take me to what was described as a khar (castle). On the summit of an earthen hill rising 250 meters above the valley floor, this is certainly what I expected. However, the remains are that of a monastery built of adobe blocks, and include three lha-khang-s (chapels), according to my guide: Lha-khang Karpo (inaccessible to us, located on a summit), Lha-khang Marpo and Gyalwa Chamba Lha-khang (with its more than 2-m-tall statue of Chamba, the Buddha to come, disintegrating in the elements). The lha-khang-s are typical of what I have seen in the [Guge] region: tall adobe brick walls, often with mud plaster clinging to the interior. Often red ochre tinting remains visible on the inner walls.

Recently a small group driving a vehicle arrived at this monastery to dig around for treasures. Their excavations are plain to see. Like scavengers coming in for the final kill, whatever is left to carry away will be. The hilltop monastery was destroyed in the pre-Communist period, but when? According to local lore, this monastery is older than the one founded by Atisha in the valley bottom. Small traces of frescoes remain on the wall but these are heavily faded. These are certainly no older than the tenpa chidar (second diffusion of Buddhism, circa 1000-1200 CE). It is said that there was also a fort located on this hilltop, and that the local yul-lha (territorial deity), Ipi Sergyu, defeated either a Singpa (Indian) or Horpa (Central Asian) army by washing her hair and casting the wash water downward, creating a torrent that destroyed the enemy.

There are over 30 shallow caves in the vicinity of the monastery, but many of these are inaccessible. Ones I peered into have hewn niches and rear chambers, and fire-blackened ceilings. These must have been used by anchorites and perhaps earlier on as well, which could explain why Manam Khar is believed to be older than the valley monastery (founded around 1000 CE)… Below the three ruined lha-khang-s are other wall traces; are these of the same period? They were built of stone, however. If there was an early fortress here, these walls, as insubstantial as they seem, may have been part of it. Today, after 30 uninterrupted days of travel and exploration, I took the decision to remain in Manam. People are friendly and we have water in our camp for washing, besides, I need a rest from climbing cliffs and steep slopes.

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