Tibet Archaeology

and all things Tibetan

Flight of the Khyung

September 2007

John Vincent Bellezza

Kathmandu Valley Sojourn

Originally, I thought I would be leaving Nepal for India on August 24, but that has proven unrealistic. The production of my new book, Zhang Zhung: Foundations of Civilization in Tibet, will require me being here at least three additional weeks. I am not complaining though. I am comfortably ensconced in Kathmandu with a nice place to stay and quite a few friends in the city. The professional input of editors and designers is making a huge difference in terms of the quality of the book. As for the weather, it continues to be rainy but it is slightly cooler than a month ago.

A few days ago, I was in Bhaktapur for the Gai Yatra festival. Those Newars who lost a loved one in the last year join a procession through the narrow streets of the old city. Each extended family has youths who chant and dance around a pyramidal structure that is carried on the shoulders of older family members. This structure is said to symbolize the cow that took the deceased over to the otherworld. Newars report that this cow is a form of Vaitarani, the animal that mystically transported the dead in ancient India (in the period before the doctrine of reincarnation became dominant). I suspect the Newar cow that crosses hellish obstacles in order to reach the afterlife is also related to ancient Tibetan funerary traditions, in which horses, sheep and yaks were used for the same purposes. While Newar culture has a very strong Sanskritic overlay, earlier Tibeto-Burman traditions are still discernable in a number of areas (e.g. the ajima grandmother protectresses and the lu water spirits).

I also suspect that certain stone pillars found at holy sites throughout the Kathmandu valley are the vestiges of Iron Age funerary monuments. These highly eroded and often broken menhirs have been integrated into the Hindu and Buddhist sacred geography of various sites. Aside from their legendary associations, I have not been able to learn much about these enigmatic standing stones. To my knowledge they still have not been properly catalogued and studied. Unfortunately, in the past 20 or 30 years much of the Kathmandu valley has been developed, destroying many archaeological sites. To date, not even one of the major Kiranti (pre-100 BCE) sites has been excavated. While Kushana cultural influences are indicated for the circa 100 BCE to 200 CE period (see the work of Professor Ted Ricardi, etc.), earlier phases of civilization in the Kathmandu valley are still hardly known.

Here we are in the capital city and archaeological exploration has hardly begun. Imagine the situation in rural Himalayan areas. These constitute vast blanks in our scientific knowledge of Nepal. Work recently carried out by Chris Evans (Cambridge University) shows that the Gurungs had a highly developed ceremonial network before the coming of the Hindu plains dwellers some 400 or 500 years ago. The nature and extent of the Gurung ceremonial infrastructure, however, is still largely unknown. Reports from eastern Tibet speak of Rai and Limbu funerary sites of considerable size but their age is yet to be determined. In the Terai ancient etched carnelian and agate beads continue to be excavated illegally and sold on the antiques market. Throughout Nepal there are many such examples of lost cultures and civilizations.

No, no one should lament that there is nothing left to discover in the world. In reality, there is still so much to see and learn. For all you budding explorers there is much to be sanguine about! Whatever your field of endeavor, there is great potential to break new ground and expand the circle of human knowledge. By doing so, you can illuminate and inspire others in the quest for personal and collective fulfillment. Why not step out from self-imposed limitations and make a contribution to the greater good? Those who do so seem very much better people for it.

History in Tibet is not an Open Book

For 1000 years, until the Chinese Communist takeover, Tibet enjoyed a civilization based on Buddhist principles and thought. The Bonpo too were part of this great flowering of Tibetan religion. Together Bon and Buddhism developed a unique set of spiritual characteristics giving rise to what might be called Lamaism (sans the pejorative connotations lent the word by Victorian scholars). Drawing from both indigenous and Indic culture, Lamaism flourished under a succession of different forms of rule in Tibet until 1959. Impressive innovations in thought, art, and architecture punctuated its development for hundreds of years. However, one can argue that from around 1500 CE Tibetan civilization began to stagnate. There were few seminal cultural achievements after this period, and Tibet had largely closed itself off from the currents of human activity circulating outside the Plateau. When the challenges of the 20th century presented themselves, Tibet was hardly in a position to socially or culturally cope with them. A major challenge was to modernize and reinvigorate contacts with neighbors but Tibet proved unable to do this. She had become isolated, hidebound and vulnerable.

To find the causes for the withering of Tibetan civilization one must look far back in history. After the collapse of the imperium in the mid-ninth century CE, Tibet would never again enjoy such a powerful polity. The Plateau politically fragmented and subsequent reconstitutions could never boast of the strength of imperial Tibet. Although Buddhism began to gain a foothold in Tibet during the imperial period, older forms of culture and religion continued to be practiced. This is typified by the burial mounds in which the so-called Dharma Kings (Chögyal) were interred. The use of these tumuli for the mortal remains of the Tibetan kings shows that they still depended on the old religious rites (let us call these bon; the systematized religion of later times not intended). This suggests that bon still played a large role in the affairs of imperial Tibet. Archaeological evidence indicates that earlier, in the prehistoric epoch, Tibetan civilization was almost entirely characterized by indigenous cultural structures (with close affinities to Inner Asian Bronze Age and Iron Age cultures).

While there is nothing radical in my characterization of ancient Tibet, hardly anywhere in traditional Tibetan literature and thinking is this openly recognized. Yes, the exploits of the early kings of Tibet including their supposed development of agriculture and metallurgy is accorded special prominence, but these have not led to a critical reassessment of Tibetan history. In general, Tibetan Buddhist versions of history downplay everything that came before the introduction of Dharma. The implication is that this earlier era was a time of ignorance and decay when little of merit was realized.

The archaeological record paints a very different picture. It indicates that before the introduction of Buddhism, Tibet already possessed a highly sophisticated civilization. Tibetan history has largely ignored this fact. The biases that have surfaced in the recording of their past have cost Tibetans dearly. Effectively, Tibetans have cut themselves off from their historical roots, replacing them with a largely fictitious Indian etiology. While India, China and Mongolia increasingly take pride in their distant past (as do most modern nations), Tibetans are still wont to do the same. One might argue that Lamaism still exerts an all powerful influence on ordinary Tibetans dissuading them from questioning the historical verities they have inherited. Moreover, the Tibetan intellectual community has hardly dared to open any such debate. In this regard, I salute the efforts of the Venerable Namkhai Norbu, who has had the courage to question stereotypical views of Tibetan history and religion. His non-sectarian and objective approach has proven highly useful and illuminating. Namkhai Norbu has inspired many and in the long run this can only have a positive effect on Tibetan society.

By not acknowledging their non-Buddhist past, Tibetans have effectively made themselves anchorless, in a merciless world of exploitation and assimilation. Unless a people hold dear to an identity that fully embodies who and what they are, they run the risk of being swept away by global tides. To Tibetans I say: you are not Indians, you do not look Indian, you do not speak an Indian language, your mindset is not Indian, nor are your social values Indian. You are Tibetans. And in order to understand your Tibetaness you must delve deeply into your history in an objective way, without sectarian considerations. Even if you are a Gelukpa, if you find something of value among the Bonpo, value it. Take pride in who and what you really are. While your glorious Buddhism originated on the Indian Subcontinent, you are much more than that religion alone.

Tibetans should attempt to disassociate their religious faith from the study of history, at least as much as is possible. History’s function is much more than merely to legitimize religious traditions, it is the tablet upon which a people’s collective experience is written. If Tibet is to have a cultural renaissance in the 21st century, the question of history will loom large. How is history to be written and interpreted? What is history’s role in current political and social debates? What lessons ultimately are to be drawn from history? These are the types of questions that Tibetans must ask themselves and without delay.

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