John Vincent Bellezza
This issue of Flight of the Khyung comes to you from Kathmandu, the Nepal Mandal. Recently, I was in Tibet for 29 days, explaining why the khyung bird has landed late this month. The month of Mangsir brings cold nights in the Kathmandu Valley. The mists will soon descend too, enveloping Nepal’s hub in a milky shroud.
A recent official visit to Tibet took me to Lhokha, Tsang, Ü, and the Changthang for a quite encompassing view of the Plateau. I heartily thank the relevant TAR authorities for this special opportunity. I was able to talk to a wide range of people, meet with colleagues, and continue my research and exploration in Upper Tibet. The high point of the journey was reaching the ruins of an ancient temple at Tamchok Ngangpa Do, on the north shore of Nam Tsho.
The Current State of Affairs in Tibet
A few words on general conditions in Tibet are in order. I think my readers would expect this much out of me. I am not one to sidestep thorny questions out of fear or expediency. In a word: there are acute political, economic and social problems in Tibet that are a matter of grave concern. Civic life in this minority nation of the PRC has deteriorated significantly over the last year. Disappointment, fear, indignation, and bewilderment are the prevailing emotions on the street at this time. In my nearly 25 years in Tibet, I have never seen the Tibetan and Chinese peoples as socially balkanized as they are today. This is most unfortunate indeed. Moreover, I am afraid that certain policies of the TAR government are only exacerbating the situation. In the wake of the political gloom are the beginnings of a pronounced economic slowdown, compounding the difficulties besetting Tibet.
In my opinion, a much more thoughtful and nuanced grand strategy desperately needs to be instituted by the TAR government, if further misfortune is to be avoided. In any case, no one should discount the gravity of the situation in Tibet and its long-term ramifications for the health and welfare of the PRC. Unless the Tibetan people are made to feel more at home in their own homeland, more troubles are sure to brew. Most powerful and effective would be for the PRC to open up at the highest levels direct negotiations with the Dalai Lama. This is the only way that the current impasse in Sino-Tibetan relations can be overcome. Unquestionably, the Dalai Lama enjoys tremendous moral authority and respect among the majority of Tibetans. He is the one and only individual who can calm the passions of the population and insure the Chinese a greater sense of legitimacy. The Dalai Lama is the silver bullet required by the PRC if it is to lay to rest vexing questions regarding its mandate in Tibet. As virtually every country on the globe accepts the sovereignty of the PRC over Tibet, the path is clear for it to pursue a bolder and more creative approach to political problem solving in that nation. The ball is in the court of the PRC. Hopefully its political players are up to the challenge.
Pyramids and the Latest Archaeological Discovery in Upper Tibet
In March 1987, a letter reached a small group of us living in Lhasa. It was written by H. E. Richardson, the eminent Tibetologist and former British Resident in Tibet. The letter revealed an extraordinary report made more than 100 years earlier by Kishen Singh, one of the so-called pundits or Indian spies in the employ of the British Raj. Supposedly, while walking around the north shore of Nam Tsho, Kishen Singh came upon a huge pyramid with a passageway in the middle of it. According to a local oral tradition collected by the pundit, in ancient times, a lama who had passed away used this passageway to ascend to heaven. I was fascinated by this amazing historical account and resolved to see if I could find the pyramid described by Kishen Singh. I set off solo in May of 1987, when a trekking partner backed out at the last moment. It was just as well because there would be a lot of tough exploring to do. I combed the headlands of the rocky north shore of Nam Tsho spending days looking for the elusive pyramid, but to no avail. Though I could not locate it in 1987, I resolved to return and look again. After all, if I could find the pyramid, I fancied, this might be one of the great archaeological discoveries of the late 20th century.
I did not get the chance to look for Kishen Singh’s pyramid again until 1993. This time I was more systematic in my approach, interviewing many local drokpas along the way. Still no luck. I returned in 1994 and again in 1995, expending much effort in the search for a Victorian white elephant of sorts. I made it a point to speak to all the cultural luminaries of the region, a painstaking process but one that furnished me with authoritative information. Finally in 1995, after grappling with the mystery for eight years, I unraveled it. There is indeed a pyramid, but unlike the pyramids of Egypt or Mexico, it is not a manmade structure. Kishen Singh’s pyramid is actually naturally occurring. There are, in fact, two conical rock formations at a location called Tamchok Ngangpa Do (rTa mchog ngang pa do = Excellent Horse Goose Headland). These prominent orange limestone landmarks are situated at the base of a long and rocky headland. They are said to represent the ears of a fleet-footed mythic horse. In the northwest ear there is a fissure in which old stone steps are embedded. These steps lead up to a narrow passageway in the center of the pyramid, just as Kishen Singh described in his secret report to Her Majesty’s government.
In my first book, “Divine Dyads: Ancient Civilization in Tibet”, I speculated that, pummeled by the extreme cold and suffering from other privations, the pundit mistook the rock formation for a grand manmade edifice. It is also possible that the British agents that filed Kishen Singh’s report misunderstood him, creating a monument where none really existed. The world was obsessed with pyramids in Victorian times, so why not extend the mystique to the most mysterious of realms, Tibet? As I have noted in earlier publications, the story does not end there. The northwest horse’s ear of Tamchok Ngangpa Do harbors an archaeological site of great historical importance.
The passageway in the horse’s ear is now a dead end. At one time a flight of steps must have continued upwards accessing the summit of the pyramid. Ruins are found on top; those associated with the ancient Bonpo of Nam Tsho. Despite there being a Guru Rinpoche myth attached to Tamchok Ngangpa Do, the Bon aura surrounding these ruins was never erased. The ascent to heaven recorded by Kishen Singh is liable to refer to this distant period and to the celestial preoccupations of the ancient inhabitants of Upper Tibet.
In the 1990s, I spied disintegrated residential structures from the base of the horse’s ear, but I could only guess at their precise architectural composition. I tried to climb up the sheer limestone walls but did not succeed in reaching the summit. This month, however, was different. I was determined to get to the top and that is exactly what I did. Using the most tenuous of footholds I scaled the vertical face of the passageway, emerging on top of the pyramid behind the vestiges of a ruined parapet wall. Success! There before me lay the ruins of the ancient temple-hermitage.
I went about my business measuring the remains of the temple-hermitage and writing up my assessment. There are the traces of two well-built buildings on the tip of the horse’s ear, probably once the residential and ritual center of an elite group of priests. With its heavy limestone block walls, this complex must have afforded the residents adequate protection from a fierce climate made that much more severe by the extremely exposed location. Measuring 4.6 m x 5.5 m and 9.3 m x 4.7 m, the two buildings are situated approximately 50 m above the transparent blue waters of Nam Tsho. It is not clear what type of roof capped such structures. The wall design is of a type most often connected to the use of wooden rafters (rather than stone corbelling). Perhaps the dwarf junipers trees (bama) that grow locally were once of sufficient length to span the walls?
Nam Tsho surrounds the ancient religious complex of Tamchok Ngangpa Do on three sides. Its powerful geomantic position and wide open aspect suggest that the buildings may have been used as a celestial observatory. The geographic location also appears to have been chosen for its inherent defensive qualities. Incursion from below would be difficult and costly. On the very crest of the horse’s ear are the remains of a masonry platform resting upon prominent revetments, undoubtedly a venue for ritual exercises. These are likely to have included the burning of incense for the purification of the environment and the propitiation of the deities.
The Tamchok Ngangpa Do structures most closely resemble those found at Shawa Drak, situated 120 kilometers to the west. In Bon literature, Shawa Drak is associated with Nangzher Lödpo, a famous saint of the Eighth century CE. Both sites contain smaller but well crafted residential structures set boldly on top of limestone formations in the most stunning backdrop imaginable. These were clearly the haunts of the political and/or religious leadership of the region. While Shawa Drak was active in the Eight century, like Tamchok Ngangpa Do, its historical origins can probably be traced to an earlier phase in the civilization of Upper Tibet. Culturally speaking, these sites formed part of the Sumpa proto-tribal entity with its own language and polity. In the time of King Srongtsan Gampo, Shawa Drak and Tamchok Ngangpa Do, like other regions of Upper Tibet, were annexed by his Central Tibetan state known as Purgyal Bod.
In December’s newsletter I will share another discovery made at Tamchok Ngangpa Do, the final chapter in rediscovering the chambered pyramid of Upper Tibet.