Tibet Archaeology

and all things Tibetan

Flight of the Khyung

October 2008

John Vincent Bellezza

After a sojourn of two months in Mongolia, the Flight of the Khyung returns home to the uppermost reaches of Tibet. I am back at my desk writing on a sunny morning with the Himalaya as the backdrop. It is reassuring to know that Tibet is not too far away. This is the time when the monsoon gives way to the cool and sunny weather of autumn. After an unprecedented four months of rain the change of seasons is most welcome, buoying the spirits and clearing away the cobwebs of introspection.

Feline Fancy
A couple days ago, while walking in a local jungle tract, I spied a leopard in broad daylight. This was the first time I came upon one of these great cats without being detected in advance. The leopard was ambling across a terrace, tail held high in the air. I was about four meters away on a higher parallel terrace, the perfect vantage point. This was either a juvenile or a small female weighing about 40 or 50 kilograms. I was struck by the rich orange color of its fur glistening in the bright sunshine. For a few seconds, I was transfixed as the leopard slowing but purposefully went on its way. I soon became a little uncomfortable with my voyeurism and softly called out, “hello brother”. The leopard instantly turned its head in my direction before darting off into the thick underbrush. That was the last I saw of this magnificent animal.

A New Book Project
I am now working on a new book with the working title of Canopy Over Tibet: The Tale of Zhang Zhung, the World’s Highest Ancient Civilization. Over the years, friends and family, many of which will never read my scholarly works, have repeatedly asked me to do a popular account of my research and exploration. I am ready to oblige them with a coffee table book, complete with lavish colorful photos and an incisive, jargon-free text. The theme of the book is something to the effect of: new archaeological discoveries rewrite the history of Tibet, furnishing fresh insights into the ecology of the human mind through time and space. It will describe how the ancient Upper Tibetans were able to thrive in the fiercest of natural environments, and it will touch upon the vital environmental lessons their demise holds for us today. This book is written as a tribute to the endurance and ingenuity of the Tibetan people, and as a source of inspiration for all those who cherish our ancient cultural legacies.

The final form of Canopy Over Tibet: The Tale of Zhang Zhung, the World’s Highest Ancient Civilization will only become apparent after a few months of reflection and writing. For those expecting a tell-all personal yarn about my adventures they will be disappointing. While I realize a work of literary non-fiction is the only way to possibly make money in this game, I am not prepared to put myself squarely in the story. I am still in the midst of my work and value some semblance of privacy. Perhaps someday I will indeed write up my memoirs. The current book will be more or less structured as follows:

Chapter 1
What civilization? Terra incognita and scholarly skepticism
Until the author’s intensive exploration of Upper Tibet in the 1990s and 2000s, very little was known about Zhang Zhung. The Tibetans themselves had forgotten what they had once achieved and the Chinese Communists were unaware of what lay on the extremes of the Plateau. International scholars could only speculate about the extent of Zhang Zhung, as there had been no access to the region since the 1930s.

Chapter 2
The great sky realm: The land and people of Upper Tibet
The vast Upper Tibetan territory of Zhang Zhung stretches more than 1000 miles north and west of Tibet’s capital city, Lhasa. This very sparsely populated high elevation land of scintillating lakes is overarched by a sky so clear the stars cast shadows on moonless nights. Endless plains and long mountain ranges reach out to the horizon in all directions. Upper Tibet is home to the drokpa, semi-nomadic shepherds who dwell in black tents made of yak hair. The taciturn but affable drokpa, the descendents of Zhang Zhung, tend yaks, sheep and goats in age-old ways. A proud people with a long history of being warriors, they are among the best horsemen in the world. The drokpa women enjoy a higher status than do most women in Asia and it is not unusual for them to pick their own husbands.

Chapter 3
Castles in the sky and tombs underground: The ancient monuments of Zhang Zhung
An astounding ensemble of monuments heralds the existence of Zhang Zhung from circa 1000 BCE. Castles occupied the high ground around agricultural settlements, temples were founded in hidden nooks and tombs dotted uninhabited tracts. Many of the fortresses and temples were entirely built of stone using heavy rock members to support the roofs. These edifices contained a warren of small windowless rooms, a form of architecture that dramatically contrasts with the types adopted by later Buddhist settlers. Most places with the monumental vestiges of Zhang Zhung have been utterly abandoned. Visiting these sites is like entering a time warp, where the trappings of the remote past remain untouched to the present day. The sheer archaeological wealth of the region suggests that the population of Upper Tibet was much larger and better organized in prehistoric times. The strong martial bearing and religious fervor of the Zhang Zhung people are reflected in their patterns of settlement.

Chapter 4
The blood of the people in stone: The artistic treasures of Zhang Zhung
Upper Tibet is home to lavish artistic tableaux, illustrating the everyday realities of life in Zhang Zhung. Throughout this sprawling land rock carvings and rock paintings adorn the walls of cliffs and caves. This art chronicles battles, sporting contests, hunting, herding, and religious pursuits in graphic detail. No other discovery portrays Zhang Zhung in such a vivid and intimate way. The significance of this rock art can be gleaned by perusing old Tibetan scriptures which feature vibrant accounts about the ancient inhabitants. This was a race that prized physical prowess, but it was also deeply devoted to the forces of fertility bound up in the maternal aspect of creation.

Chapter 5
Horned heroes and turquoise maidens: The cultural life of Zhang Zhung
Unlike many ancient civilizations lost in time, the memory of Zhang Zhung has been well preserved in the myths, legends and histories of Tibetan literature. These writings supply an unparalleled glimpse into the workings of its culture and society. They document the construction of castles, temples, tombs, irrigation systems and workshops. Some annals even name the kings of Zhang Zhung and speak of their exploits in subduing invaders and evil spirits. The priestly nobility, both men and women, must have cut imposing figures in their sumptuous white lynx and tiger skin robes and wearing jewel-studded headdresses and rainbow boots. While the elite resided in substantial strongholds dispersed all around Zhang Zhung, the herders and farmers occupied much more humble dwellings. Nevertheless, clan and ritual ties joined the various levels of society together into a potent confederation which prevailed for centuries.

Chapter 6
Father sky eagle and mother earth serpent: The religion of Zhang Zhung
Tibetan texts describe in great detail how warrior priests insured the well-being of the chieftains and their cohorts using magical means. The object of the sundry ritual systems was to win the favor of the spirits who dwelt in the land, water and heavens and in the people and animals. Once the deities were befriended, they were dispatched to eliminate the demons held responsible for disease, strife and natural disasters. Creation myths speak of a primordial state in which the first glimmerings of the cosmic mind and matter appeared. The universe was divided into two or three vertical tiers, which were interconnected through the world mountain and the stature of celebrated personages. The people of Zhang Zhung believed that they were the descendents of long lines of deities that eventually landed on earth. Among the most important clans were those manifested from the horned eagle or khyung, the emblem par excellence of Zhang Zhung.

Chapter 7
A cold wind is blowing: The demise of Zhang Zhung civilization
The bygone era of Zhang Zhung has much to tell us about the way human societies rise and fall in accordance with vagaries of the environment. This highland civilization managed to survive until the 7th century CE in the face of a two thousand-year long climatic juggernaut. But ultimately the struggle against diminishing irrigation water and freak weather events proved too much and Zhang Zhung collapsed. Its final breakup was caused by the political intrigues and military adventures of Purgyal, the ascendant superpower in Central Tibet.

Chapter 8
My ancestors, my gods: Zhang Zhung reigns in the minds of Tibetans
With the defeat of Zhang Zhung, Upper Tibet sunk into a backwater region of the Tibetan Plateau. The declining population converted to Buddhism and what was left of the Bon religion took on a Buddhist mantle. Despite the loss of Zhang Zhung’s political prestige and cultural independence, the old ways did not completely die out. Those customs and traditions viewed as crucial to health and happiness endured. The divine protectors of the mountains and lakes continued to exert much influence on the clans and camps of Upper Tibet. Remarkably, in vital economic and social spheres, the ancient rites of Bon are still observed today. Although it carries a Buddhist gloss, the nomadic mind is imbued with the essential worldview of Zhang Zhung: an existence in which gods, humans and animals negotiate with one another for supremacy.

Chapter 9
Old bones but new lives: A 21st century retrospective on Zhang Zhung
Times change and with it civilizations come and pass. Zhang Zhung ultimately succumbed to climate change and environmental degradation, an object lesson for our times. While the Zhang Zhung civilization has long since vanished, some of its fundamental premises still hold sway in the hearts of Tibetans. The implication here is resoundingly clear: the human spirit and what it holds dear never die.

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