Category Archives: Art

Art China Gansu Hebei

Objects Belonging to Langdon Warner in the Possession of the Fogg Art Museum

Above Top: Langdon Warner on a camel at Kara-Khoto in 1923. Image from “Langdon Warner Through His Letters”.
Above Middle: Langdon Warner ~1910, or roughly thirty years old. Image from “Langdon Warner Through His Letters”.
Above Bottom: The Tang dynasty Boddhisattva removed by Langdon Warner from Cave 328 at Mogao and carted, wrapped in his under-clothes, all the way back to Xi’an, thence by train to the coast, and from there to America and the Fogg Art Museum.


Apologies for the very long hiatus in updates. I’m back in Boston now briefly, via Berkeley, China, Amdo, Berkeley again, and soon to be Berkeley once more. In the next few posts I’m going to try to shoot up a few of the collections I’ve been able to make over the last six months or so.

Langdon Warner (1881-1955) got his start as an archaeologist and art historian in Asia in 1903, when he was participated as a volunteer at the excavations at Anau in what’s now Turkmenistan, then the Russian Empire. His career did not truly begin, however, until 1906. In this year the Boston MFA and Harvard University decided that they needed expertise in the art of Japan. For this purpose two young men were selected and sent to that country to study the language and the high arts; one of those men was Langdon Warner. From this year until 1952, Langdon Warner made eighteen trips into Asia. Japan and Japanese art was always his passion, but he travelled elsewhere as well: most famously the two Fogg Expeditions to Dunhuang in 1923-25, but also long stays in Beijing, journeys to Longmen, to Yungang, to Ankor Wat, to Korea, as well as a ride north across Mongolia and into Russia during the First World War, where he served as an American liaison with the Czech Legion during their Trans-Siberian anabasis. By the outbreak Second World War, he had retired from adventurous collecting and was teaching at Harvard. (He never became a full professor; so far as I know he never even had a doctorate.) During the war years he taught a course on Japanese language and culture in Washington DC, and for a brief period at the war’s end became one of the “Monuments Men” in Japan and Korea.

He was also my grandfather. His son, Caleb Warner, is 94 years in 2017, and still living now in an Assisted Living Facility in Bedford MA. Caleb Warner’s daughter, Langdon Warner’s grand-daughter, is my mother.

Roughly two years ago, our family was contacted by the Fogg Museum at Harvard. It turned out that when Langdon Warner died, he had left a large number of objects in the possession of the museum, originally lent to them for teaching purposes. Although they had remained in the museum for over sixty years, the ownership still technically resided with LW’s heirs. We of course immediately stated that we would gift the objects to the museum where they already were, but we did ask as our only condition that we could arrange a viewing of the objects for family interest. This happened in January 2017.

Most of the items are minor pieces – a collection of Korean kiln cast-offs, small Chinese bronze objects presumably from the Beijing antique shops, some interesting clay figurines, a Japanese dharmapāla, some rubbings possibly from Xi’an, and sundry other odds and ends. Langdon Warner’s wife, my great-grandmother née Lorraine Roosevelt, also collected and wrote about Asian art; items probably gathered by her included some Korean kiln cast-offs and scraps of fabric perhaps once intended for clothing. I’ve put all the photos given to us by the museum up here, as well as some of my own highlights.

It’s also my strong opinion that if Langdon Warner wasn’t the most illustrious or successful of the Silk Road explorers, he was far and away the best writer. I’ve never seen PDFs of LW’s two “travel books” online, so I’ve stuck up links to my PDF copies here. Click to download, “Long Old Road in China” and “Langdon Warner Through His Letters“. Always my favorite excerpt, describing his entrance into the Mogao Caves of Dunhuang:

Chapter XIV (p 138): The Caves of the Thousand Buddhas

“After all these years and all these miles, and the hours spent examining the reproductions of M. Pelliot’s photographs, there was nothing to do but gasp. Hardly in ten days, during which I never left the caves except for food, could I bring myself to the task of critical study. For the holy men of fourteen centuries ago had left their gods in splendour on those walls. Tens of thousands of them, walking in slow procession, seated calm on flowering lotus blossoms, with hands raised to bless mankind, or wrapt in meditation or deeper still sunk in thoughtless Nirvana. They were the very gods whose existence I had only guessed. Sir Aurel Stein shows one or two in his book, and Professor Pelliot has five volumes of them and another volume still to come. Learned gentlemen, in books costing seventy-three shillings and sixpence net, discuss the ancestry and progeny of the Chinese pantheon and base their findings upon their study of these reproductions.

But in the very presence, such things are not. These dim figures, half faded from the walls in an irreligious age, and lit only by a half-reflected twilight from the winter sun outside, are a company of elder gods who have not left the earth with their noble companions long since fled. They people those high halls in silence so profound and full of meaning that for the first time I understood why I had crossed an ocean and two continents, plodding beside my cart these weary months, to assure myself of their presence. It was not so much active realizing of their surpassing beauty that made me satisfied and dulled my critical sense: it was this reality of the unreal. They were there not as living beings, certainly not as dead ones. I, who had come to attribute dates and glibly to refute the professors and to discover artistic influences, stood in the centre of the chapel with my hands dug deep in my pockets and tried to think. Surely I, an American and no Buddhist, in the year of Our Lord one thousand nine hundred and twenty four, had been vouchsafed a vision… It grew dark and I strolled back to my room wondering.

It was veritably Chien Fo Tung, the Caves of the Thousand Buddhas, for big and little, half-obliterated or almost perfect, there were tens of thousands of figures on those walls. Many of the most superb were so nearly gone that one must stand at a distant and discreet angle to know that they were there at all. They seemed to be retiring gradually from the light of common day. Perhaps they were already gone to the peak of the Sumeru Mountain, whence the storks fly off with pine boughs in their long bills and where there is a gentle rain of lotus petals all the sunless, shadowless day, which stretches nightless to eternity. Often it seemed as if they were indeed gone and had left but shadows and pictures of themselves on the walls. And yet among the shadows and the pictures I came on figures which gave forth a sombre glow and looked through and past my gaze with such ineffable, dispassionate calm that I knew them to be there in the very spirit, a spirit much more themselves than the blood and flesh which made up my body and was the real I. …”

The things I liked from the Fogg collection:

Below: Bronze Belt Buckles:

Below: A TLV mirror. I’ve always been a bit fascinated by these things, but never held one in my hands before that.

Below: Fabric samples, perhaps collected for sewing projects by Lorraine:

Below: One of Lorraine’s Korean celadon pieces:

Below: The torso of the Japanese Dharmapāla:

This below here is actually my favorite set of pieces, and the catalyst of a small but very good adventure, were these wood-blocks. The label on the back reads, “Used to impress designs on clay doorways of farmhouses. West Kansu Province, China, 1925”, and the Chinese on the blocks gives apotropaic characters and recipes.

The odd thing, however, was this block, set with the others, but in a totally different style, with much finer workmanship. The figure didn’t look like any Gansu-nese village iconography I’d ever seen, and I’ve seen more than most people. The block also wasn’t labeled as being from Gansu like the other two.

I brought this to my friend at Berkeley, Ryosuke K. Ueda, who after a quick search online identified the block as representing Akiba Gongben 秋葉権現, the patron deity and fire-prevention spirit of the Akihabara District of Tokyo. Langdon Warner or someone else must have purchased the block in Tokyo and then stuck it together with the two Gansu-nese blocks, to illustrate the common technique of woodblock printing apotropaic charms. Afterwards, the exact provenance of the Japanese block was lost.

Here are the rest of the pictures, as provided by the university. You can view the file concordance they gave us here.

Amdo Art China Fortresses Qinghai Tibet

The Buddha and the Gods of War, pt. 1: The Many Foundings of gNyan Thog Fort

(Part 1 of three, click to jump to Part 2 and Part 3).

gnyan thog panorama small

Above: The south-east gate of the southern fort of gNyan Thog, and a panorama of gNyan Thog village and monastery from the temple hill north of the village.

The village of gNyan Thog (ch. Nian Du Hu 年都乎, 35.533816, 102.021554) is located just south of Rongwo town in the valley of Rebgong, northern Amdo, or Chinese Qinghai 青海. There are perhaps fifteen hundred or two thousand people living there. Originally there were two little fortresses there, both of which survive now partially, and a new town spreading outside them. There’s also a large Tibetan-Buddhist monastery, nestled at the foot of a hill with a temple on top. The houses there are made of mud with flat roofs, packed in tightly so that one can step easily from the roof of one house to the next, gazing down into pleasant little courtyards.

Like the Rebgong valley generally, the people of gNyan Thog are a strange mix of things. Officially they are Monguor/Tu Nationality 土族; the Tibetans call them Dor Do or Dor sDe, although some say this is pejorative. At home they speak a language which is Mongolic but heavily interlaced with Tibetan and Chinese. This language is shared with a few other villages scattered down the valley, “Red Gate” sGo dMar (ch. Guo Ma Ri 郭麻日), “New Channel” rKa gSar (ch. Ga Sha Ri 尕沙日), and “Tuo Family [Fort]” Tho Gya (ch. Bao An 保安/Tuo Jia Tun 脫家屯). Everyone in gNyan Thog also speaks fluent Amdo-dialect Tibetan and this is their main written language. gNyan Thog people can pass perfectly for Tibetans and intermarry with them freely. Nowadays everyone in gNyan Thog also knows Chinese, and the language was spoken by some there in the past as well.

For a village of its size, gNyan Thog has attracted a decent amount of scholarly attention. There’s at least two articles on the place in English, notably by scholars lCags Mo Tshe Ring, Gerald Roche, and Kevin Stuart. In Tibetan and Chinese there is a whole literature on gNyan Thog, including two recently-published books. This partially has to do with the fact that a large block of educated and intelligent people in northern Tibet are products of the Rebgong school system and therefore writing short articles on villages in that valley has become a cottage industry among the unemployably literate class of Amdo. It also has to do with the fact that gNyan Thog is just an interesting place. It’s a fortress-village with its own language, an unknown ethnogenesis, a unique and very lively village ritual system, a large monastery, all sorts of artistic production (many of the inhabitants work in the Thangka-painting trade), and a number of sources speaking to its history.

I got interested in gNyan Thog because it’s one of the few village fortresses in Amdo which (a) still exists or can be easily reconstructed, and (b) more importantly, has multiple, detailed written sources pertaining to its creation, and (c), also has a remarkable amount of pre-Cultural Revolution art surviving within the village. For this reason I’ve made a series of trips there. The first was alone and on a lark in the summer of 2011 while walking, when just by chance I got invited to the town kLu Rol ceremony. The more recent two trips were with a more series research motive. Incidentally they were also in extremely good intellectual company. In spring of 2016 I went to gNyan Thog and sGo dMAr with Anna Sehnalova, a Tibetologist of Charles University and Oxford and expert on Amdowa Religion, and later that summer I visited gNyan Thog and Bao’an/Tho Gya with Hannah Theaker, a Ming-Qing history of the north-west, also from Oxford.

A map of gNyan Thog village is below, compiled by myself and Anna. Presently existing houses and fences are colored BLACK. I’ve outlined the now-destroyed routes of the walls in GRAY, as well as a few rough contour lines to indicate the location of slopes and hills. dMag dPon Khang “General’s Houses” are put in RED. Buddhist institutions are set in BLUE. These include the buildings of the large gNyan Thog Monastery, a sNgags Khang “Tantric Hall” for the rNying Ma practitioners of the village, and several Ma Ṇi Khang “Mani-Wheel Houses”, little shrine rooms with prayer wheels inside. The buildings within gNyan Thog Monastery which are not actually chapels (i.e. mainly monks’ residences) are outlined in blue and colored black. Click on the image to view the full-size map.

  1. Go’u Mo Ri Lang Gyi dMag dPon Khang – “The General’s House of Go’u Mo Erlang”. This is located on a hilltop dominating the village to the north. From left to right, the shrine contains images of Bya Khyung, A Mye rMa Chen, Go’u Mo Ri Lang in the center, then gNyan Chen, and dGra ‘Dul. 
  2. rMa Chen sPom Ra’i dMag dPon Khang – “The General’s House of the Great sPom Ra of the Region rMa”. This is located on a raised platform which straddles the northern gate of the fort, which leads under and out to the west. There is a large statue of rMa Chen in the center, a smaller statue in a palanquin on the left, and a statue dGra ‘Dul dBang Phyug. 
  3. gNyan Chen Thang Lha’i dMag dPon Khang – “The General’s House of the Great gNyan, God of the Plains”. On the upper story of what appears to be a renovated village house. We were not able to get inside of this one and thus don’t know precisely which gods are worshiped therein. 
  4. A Mye Bya Khyung Gyi dMag dPon Khang – “The General’s House of Grandfather Garuda”. Also on the upper story of a house, looking down towards the south-eastern gate. In the shrine, on the left is A Mye Dar rGya, in the middle is Ge Sar, and on the right is A Mye Bya Khyung. 
  5. [gNyan Thog Monastery] Tshogs Chen – “Great Assembly Hall”
  6. [gNyan Thog Monastery] Byams Pa’i Lha Khang – “Maitreya Chapel”
  7. [gNyan Thog Monastery] sGrol Ma’i Lha Khang – “Goddess Chapel”
  8. [gNyan Thog Monastery] mGon Khang – “Protector Chapel”
  9. [gNyan Thog Monastery] Sa ‘Dzin Lha Khang – “Earth Grasping Chapel”. There are also multiple other Ma Ni Khang chapels (not numbered) along the sKor Ra route going around the monastery. There are also several other large monastery buildings including dining halls, residences, etc.
  10. sNgags Khang – “Tantric Hall”. There are two buildings here, one of which was being newly built when we visited. This is the center for the rNying Ma community in gNyan Thog. 
  11. Ma Ṇi Khang – “House of Maṇi Wheels”. A little shrine in Chinese style.
  12. Ma Ṇi Khang – “House of Maṇi Wheels”. Just within the northern gate of the fort, in a little square at the road junction. 
  13. Ma Ṇi Khang – “House of Maṇi Wheels”. This is located over the main gate leading into the southern fort from the south-east. Locals aver that the same shrine existed before the Cultural Revolution.
  14. Ma Ṇi Khang – “House of Maṇi Wheels”. Located over the main gate leading into the northern fort from the south-east.

As for when and how the forts of gNyan Thog were built and what the name of the place means, there are at least four different sets of stories. Each of these accounts can be related to a broader theme in the city legends of China and Tibet, and for this reason they’re worth laying out one by one.

I have a few sources on this. The first is a Chinese-language book called “Vicissitudes of the Commanders of the Thousand Households” 把總千戶滄桑, which is a sort of memoir and family history by the former thousand-household commander of gNyan Thog village, Sha Bo Tshe Ring (given in Chinese in his book as Xia Wu Cai Lang 夏吾才郎). The second is a Tibetan-language book called “The History of the gNyan Thog Maitreya Monastery” gNyan Thog Byams Pa gLing Gi Lo rGyus, by one bLo bZang sNyan Grags. This contains a long section detailing the original Mongol progenitors of the inhabitants of gNyan Thog and their various deeds and wives. This account is reduplicated in Chinese in Sha Bo Tshe Ring’s “Vicissitudes” and has also been translated into English by lCags Mo Tshe Ring and published as “The Origin of gNyan Thog Village and the History of Its Chieftains”.

I had hoped to gather some of the primary sources for these accounts but so far have not been entirely successful. Sha Bo Tshe Ring has recently passed away and apparently due to funerary restrictions his son was unwilling to talk to me. According to people in gNyan Thog monastery, bLo bZang sNyan Grags has fled into exile in India. From one of his friends (a scholar named bLo bZang Don Grub) I was able to retrieve one short source text, titled “A Brief Clan Genealogy of gNyan Thog” gNyan Thog Gi Rus mDzod Rags Tsam. This gives an interesting account which informs that of bLo bZang Snyan Grags and Sha Bo Tshe Ring, but is not identical to their rendition – obviously it was one of several sources which they combined and rationalized to form composite accounts. The text doesn’t date itself and bLo bZang Don Grub wasn’t sure of its provenance, but I suspect it was probably composed recently. The text is attached below if the reader is interested.

gnyan thog gi rus mdzod rags tsam page 001

As for the other sources of these accounts, we may compile a short list. bLo bZang sNyan Grags’ book has a short bibliography (!), which lists mostly rnam thar biographies of spiritual leaders but gives two sources related apparently to the history of gNyan Thog fort (as opposed to just the monastery; sNyan Grags 397-8). The first is “A Limitless and Impartial Look at the Lineages of Rebgong” (Reb Gong Rus mDzod lTa Ba mKha’ Khyab Phyogs Bral), by rGya Za’i dGe bShes (rGya Za is a place-name, but it’s hard not to translate this as “The Chinese-Eating Geshe”). The second is “The Documents of the gNyan Thog Chieftains” (gNyan Thog dPon Po’i Yig Tshang), attributed to someone with the impressive name of “A-Krong, the Tantrin and Magician” (A Krong sNgags Pa mThu Ba). Who this is I do not know.

Sha Bo Tshe Ring mentions a series of sources in the context of his account, including two Tibetan language documents which “appeared one after another in the society of the 1990s” 九十年代社會上陸續出現, titled “The Origins of the Family of the Local Commanders of gNyan Thog” 年都乎土把總族源 and “The Generations of the Local Commanders” 土把總世家傳承. I don’t know the Tibetan names of these sources; they could overlap with the ones listed by bLo bZang sNyan Grags above. Sha Bo Tshe Ring also lists secondary sources which were compiled from documents held at gNyan Thog monastery and various oral reports, including “A Historical Inquiry into the History of the Tu People of the Four Forts (Five Tun) of Reb Gong” 同仁四寨子(五屯) 土族歷史考察, “A Summary of the Generations of the Local Commanders of gNyan Thog Village in Reb Gong” 同仁年都乎土把總世家要略, “The Gaze of General and Impartial (?) Emptiness” 普空不遍(偏?)之見, which is according to him a history of the Nang So chieftains of Rong Bo Monastery, “A Introductory Gazetteer of gNyan Thog” 年都乎簡志 , and “The Monguor of the Yellow and Huangshui Rivers Region” 河湟蒙古爾 (Tshe Ring, p.40-41). These sources apparently form the bases of both his and bLo bZang sNyan Grags’ accounts. I don’t have any of these texts, although I’d rather like to get my hands on them if I could.

At some point I would like to return to collect some of these primary texts and similar accounts about other fortresses in Rebgong. For now though we can use the secondary sources to relate in a general way the stories about the creation of gNyan Thog fort. At least three of them are already available in English and they’ve all been extensively picked over in Chinese and Tibetan so this is on the whole not actually anything new, but it’s interesting to me to try to get at them in the original languages, and I don’t think anyone’s tried to compare them against the larger body of Chinese and Tibetan fortress founding legends.

1) Founding a City on the Body of a God

The first story is basically etymological. The name “gNyan Thog” can be read literally as “atop (thog) the fierce one (gnyan)”. gNyan can be an adjective meaning “fierce” and is also the name of a class of wrathful demons. The below explanation recalls the ancient Sino-Tibetan mythos of cities founded atop the bodies of deities in order to suppress aquatic spirits. The most famous examples of this are the tales of the separate foundings of Beijing and Lhasa, of which the latter instance would certainly be familiar to the inhabitants of gNyan Thog fort. Many other instances of this trope can be pointed to, mainly from China, dating back at least to the Song Dynasty.

mkhas pa kha cig gis gnyan thog ni gser chen gzhung mdo’i phyogs thams cad nas ‘bab pa’i chu mig klu gnyan gnas pa’i steng du chags pas na de ltar grags zer la / yul dbus kyi gnyan thog gi sde nas mched par ‘dod ces yul dbus nas byung bar bshed ba’ang yod / a rol rin po che’i gsung las / che btsan gnyan gsum ‘dzoms pa’i thog ma’i sde zhes gsungs /

“Some scholars say that all of the fountains which flow down from the confluence at Middle Great-Gold are the domain of a fierce Naga (gnyan klu). gNyan Thog village was built on top of this, and hence it got the name. There is also the saying that they came from a village called gNyan Thog in Central Tibet. A Rol Rinpoche’s works have a section, “The Village Founded Upon the Great, the Powerful, and the Fierce”.

gNyan Thog Byams Pa gLing Gi Lo rGyus, p. 16

A Rol Rinpoche is a reincarnated lama (sprul sku) line from the White-Cliff Monkey-Fort monastery (Brag dKar sPrel rDzong) in rTsi Gor Thang county. I’ve not been able to track down this reference, although I hope find out in the future. One villager that I talked to opined that this passage refers to a small spring which is located in the gullies beneath the fort, now nestled in between new apartment blocks. This is the spring in which the men of the village and the images of the gods are washed during the kLu Rol and Wutu ceremonies.

2) Black-Clad Warriors, Daoist Thunder Magic, and Chinese Geomancy

The second account is elaborated at length in multiple sources. Although the chief protagonists of the foundation myth are all Mongol (hor), it is my view that this story can be read as being strongly Chinese in its themes. For one thing, the tale repeatedly credits its miracles to “Chinese Daoist knowledge” (rgya nag ta’o ca’o rig pa). The Mongols learn their war magic from Daoist adepts. Daoist geomancers divine the best spots for constructing forts, and only a Celestial Master of the Zhang lineage in Central China is able to understand the “heavenly letters” (eight Chinese characters) that portend the flourishing of the gNyan Thog chieftains. Further, the whole tale recalls the 16th century religious systems of the Xuan-Da north of Beijing, in which a black-robed Daoist martial thunder deity (The Perfected Warrior, Zhen Wu 真武) is the tutelary god of the fortress, invariably situated on an artificial mound built on the northern side of the fort. In gNyan Thog’s case, the main ancestors of the village are Mongol warlords who have mastered Daoist thunder magic and are associated with the color black. The foundation of gNyan Thog village in all accounts is symbolized by the creation of an offering pit and a temple to the gods of place (gzhi bdag lha khang) on the “rear mountain” (gyab ri) to the north of the village, the site of the present Erlang Temple.

The most detailed version of the story is given in “The History of gNyan Thog Manjushri Monastery”. Although it is reproduced in several other accounts. According to these stories, the original progenitor of the people of gNyan Thog was a Mongol chieftain named Black-Horse Hor Dor (rTa Nag Hor Dor), who was enfeoffed in the 1260s with a chunk of land somewhere on the Yellow River banks in Amdo. According to bLo bZang sNyan Grags, Black-Horse Hor Dor and especially his son Hor Tho Lung were powerful Daoist adepts.

hor se chen rgyal po la med du mi rung ba’i dmag dpon chen mo hor tho lung zer ba de nyid ni rgya nag da’o ca’o chos lugs pa’i slob brgyud nas gnam lcags thog ‘bebs kyi gdam ngag thob ste rlung ‘gugs byes nas gnam sa kha rdeb pa lta bu dang / ral gri’i kha nas me sbar ba / chu bo gyen du ‘dren pa / sku stod phyu chen nag po dgra ‘joms ber nag ring mo gyon pa / sku smad du me rlung ‘khrul ‘khor bcu gsum gyi brgyan pa’i smad gos dmar po rlung gi phur ma gyon pa ‘di la /

“At the time of the death of Khubilai Khan (AD 1294), an evil general named Hor Tho Lung studied the arts of China’s Daoist religion. He attained the oral instructions for the spell called “Iron-Sky Thunder (thog)”. By controlling the winds he could beat the sky against the earth. He could shoot fire from his sword and instruct water to run uphill. On his upper body he wore a great black chuba which was a long enemy subduing robe. On his lower body he wore a red lower robe which was the vessel of the winds, adorned with thirteen magic circles of fire and wind.”

gNyan Thog Byams Pa gLing Gi Lo rGyud, p.16-17

By force of his magic powers, this Mongol general formed an encampment at a ford called the Good Place of Using Boats (sa bzang gru spyod) on the Yellow River in the Amdo highlands. This became known as the Encampment (sgar) or Fortress (mkhar) of the Thunder Fierce One (gnyan thog) and was the first incarnation of gNyan Thog village. After Black-Horse Hor Dor’s death, the tribes under his command split up. A portion moved to the grasslands of present-day rGan Gya north of La Brang Monastery.

As to the historicity of any of this, there’s some circumstantial correspondences. A character named Black-Horse Hor Dor appears elsewhere in Tibetan histories – he is the leader of the first Mongol expedition to Tibet, which famously sacked Rwa sGreng Monastery in 1240. The name is usually give in Mongol as Doorda Darkhan, although I’m not sure in what other sources he appears (Gardner). We might point to this as one possible origin for the Tibetan name for the people of gNyan Thog, “Dor Do”. This in any case is the standard Tibetan reference for this name; I need to look deeper into it.

Just because nobody seems to have said this, it should be noted that there was a second and actually better-attested general who fought under the early Mongol Khans, also called Black Horse (ch. Hei Ma 黑馬). He was so named after a black foal born to the family’s white mare at the time of his birth. His father Liu Bolin 劉柏林 was a Chinese subject of the Jin who defected to the Genghis, and his son Black Horse was raised as a soldier in the Mongol armies. Black Horse fought in all parts of China under four Mongol emperors, and serving notably towards the end of his life (d. 1262) in the conquest of Sichuan and the governance of the city of Chengdu. He had twelve sons, of whom the Yuan Histories give biographies of two. Presumably as a mark of their Mongol loyalties and identities, Black Horses’ sons chose not to adopt their father’s surname Liu 劉 but instead to take on as a new surname the name of the Mongol dynasty, Yuan 元, eg. Tibetan Hor. The Yuan History notes that one of Black Horse’s grandsons, Yuan Wei 元緯, fought in the famous sieges of the Fishers’ Fort and, after his father’s death in 1281, became a military governor 宣慰司 of the Western Circuit of Sichuan 四川西道, eg., Kham and south-eastern Amdo. (Yuan Histories, Exemplary Accounts, 36 11-17 元史列傳三十六11-17, see Sturgeon, Donald.) We can also point that Du Shi’s AD 1280 account of the upper route of the Yellow River records that soldiers and officials, presumably Mongols, were stationed near the Yellow River bank somewhere in the riverine plains around modern mDzod dGe rDzong. Du Shi refers to this place with a Mongol name, Ha La Bie Li Chi Er 哈剌別里赤兒. (Ha La in Du Shi’s transliteration is usually Mongol Shar “yellow”, probably referring to the Yellow River.) Could this have been the Good Place of Using Boats?

de yang sras tha chung ‘di rab byung lnga ba’i bgrang bya nyer gcig pa me phag lor ‘khrungs shing / dgung lo nyer gsum pa rab byung lnga ba’i bgrang bya zhe gsum pa sa bya lor / sa bzang gru spyod sgang nas gnas gzhir spor te mdo smad bsang chu dang dgu chu zhes pa’i bar na / gser chen gzhung shes grags pa’i nye ‘gram na / sa ming la la ri dang dge ri zhes pa’i sa de gnyis kyi ‘dris mdo nas gnas gzhi bzung ste mkhar bskor ba la sngon ltar mkhar ming la gnyan po’i skar thog ces ‘bod cing kho tsho’i sde ming la yang gnyan thog gi sde dang gnyan thog gi mkhar zhes zer / sa bzang gru spyod rab ka la sngon ltar gnyan thog skar dang gnyan thog mkhar shul zhes grags so //

“The youngest son [of Hor Tho Lung, named O Chi Go Bu Me Thu Me Lun] was born in the twenty first year of the fifth sixty year cycle, or the fire pig year. In the earth bird year, or the forty third year of the fifth yearly cycle, he was twenty three years old. In this year, they moved from the place called the Good Land of Using Boats to near the place known as Middle Great-Gold, which is in mDo sMad between the gSang River and the dGu River. At the confluence of the rivers of the places which were named La Mountain and dGe Mountain, they began a new settlement and built [lit. encircled] a fortress. Originally this fortress was called the Thunder [thog] Fortress of the Fierce [gnyan] Ones. Their village was also called the Village of the Thunder Fierce Ones [gnyan thog] or the Fortress of the Thunder Fierce Ones. The original Good Land of Using Boats was then known as the Encampment of the Thunder Fierce Ones or the Ruins of the Fortress of the Thunder Fierce Ones.”

gNyan Thog Byams Pa gLing Gi Lo rGyus, p.20-21

There are in fact the remains of at least two fortresses on the plains of rGan Gya. One is a ruin in square Chinese style which Bian Qiang in “A History of Fortifications in Gansu” calls in Chinese “The One Lord Fort” 一公城. He also provides a transliteration for the Tibetan name, the Si Mao Fort 斯矛古城, but I’m not sure what the Tibetan meaning is. Bian Qiang claims that this fort was a Song Dynasty trading post built during the reign of Gusiluo 唃厮啰 (11th century AD). The second fort is the better known “Swastika Fort” g.Yung Drung mKhar / ch. “Eight-Corner Fort” 八角城, an unusual fortification in the shape of a cross surrounded by a circular ring of moats and moat walls. Whether either of these is the fort supposedly built by O Chi Go Bu Me Thu Me Lun and his tribe I don’t know. In any case, the Mongols remained at this location for about forty years and then moved once again:

dus der sa dpyad rig pa la mkhas pa’i ta’o ca’o chos lugs pa zhig gnyan thog to’u pa tsi’i mdon du phebs nas sa ‘di khod tsho’i mi rgyud mang po ‘phel ba’i gnas ma yin par reb gong gser mo ljongs su gnas bsang po mi phyugs longs spyod ‘phel ba’i sa zhig yod pas / khyod tshos sa der gnas gzhi spor na mi nor longs spyod ‘phel bar nges zhes lung bstan pa ltar sde ‘di’i khyim nyung shos shig da lta’i rgan gya […] nas bsdad pa la gnyan thog ‘brog zer zhing / sde ‘di’i mang shos ni hor o chi go bu me thu me lun dgung lo re drug pa rab byung drug pa’i bgrang bya nyer drug pa chu ‘brug (spyi lo 1352) lor reb gong gser ljongs yul gyi dgu chu sngon mo’i byang phyogs bse chu’i mdor gzhi bsung bas […] reb gong gser mo ljongs su hor rgyal khab chen mo’i dmag dpon chen po dor rta nag po’i rgyud dang rgya bod kyi btsun mo gnyan du bsdebs pa’i mi rgyud las reb gong gnyan thog zhes su grags pa’i sde ‘di chags so //

“At this time, a geomancer (sa dpyad rig pa) who was wise in the Daoist religion came before the head of gNyan Thog and said, ‘This place is not one in which your descendants will propagate greatly. In the Golden Land of Rebgong there is a good place, at which your men, herds, and wealth will increase. If you establish a settlement at this place, it is certain that your riches and people will grow.’ For this reason a minority of families who remained at rGan Gya now are called the Nomadic gNyan Thog. […] In the year that Hor O Chi Go Bu Me Thu Me Lun was sixty six, which was the twenty sixth year of the sixth sixty year cycle, or the water dragon year (AD 1352), the majority of the tribe moved to the Golden Land of Rebgong. They established their base in front of the dGu River on the north side and on the lower side of the bSe River. […] Thus in the Golden Land of Rebgong the descendants of the general of the great kingly house of the Mongols Black-Horse [Hor] Dor, mixed with Tibetan and Chinese wives. Their line became known as Rebgong gNyan Thog, and in this way the village was established.

de nas tho’i pa tsi o chi go bu me thu me lun dgung lo brgyad ju bzhes dus rmi lam du rgya mi’i cha byad mthong ba tsam gyis dngangs skrag skyes ba’i mi gsum yong nas nged gsum las gcig gis khed kyi mi rgyud la zhabs zhu yag po byed rgyu yin zer nas ko’i phyag gi ral gri ‘od ‘phro ba zhig to’i pa tsi’i snying khar shugs kyis btsugs pas / khong shin tu skrag nas gnyid las bslangs skabs kho’i dbu sngas su rdo leb gru bzhi ba zhig gi steng du gnam yig yig ‘bru brgyad gsal bor babs ‘dug pa la sus kyang klog mi shes pa de la mi yig gsal bor byas nas bris te rgya nag tu ‘kher te / ta’o ca’o pa’i slob dbon chen mo krang co hrin la gzigs rtog zhus skabs / yi ge ‘di lung bstan gyi yi ge yin pas gter du sbas shig dang de’i don phal cher ‘di ltar yin te /

gnas mchog ‘di ru sdod nus na /  / bskal ba mtha’ la ma stongs bar / /
skes bu grangs med dpon du ‘gyur / / shes rig bod kyi rgyan du ‘gyur / /
longs spyod ‘dzad med lhun gyis ‘grub / / mi la lha yi rgyab rten yod / /
dpon la rgyal bo’i cho lo ‘byung / / kun la bde skyid phun sum tshogs / /

zhes gsal bor bris te gnang zhing /

“After this, when the chieftain O Chi Go Bu Me Thu Me Lun was eighty years old, in a dream he saw three men dressed as Chinese. As soon as he saw them he was greatly afraid. The three men approached him and said, ‘we three have one task – we will do your descendants great service.’ Then one of them stabbed the chieftain through the heart with a beam of light from a sword in his hand, and with great fright O Chi Go Bu Me Thu Me Lun awoke. Upon his pillow he found a square stone upon which clearly appeared eight syllables in heavenly letters. However, nobody could read them, so in order to find someone who could understand these letters O Chi Go Bu Me Thu Me Lun brought this stone to China. There he asked the great Daoist master Krang Co Hrin [Perhaps Zhang Zhaocheng 张昭成?] to look at the stone. The master said, ‘These letters are a prophecy, which are a hidden treasure. The meaning is no doubt this:

If you dwell in the power of this holy place / The limits of your kalpas will not be exhausted /
Your numberless sons will become chiefs / And their wisdom will be the ornament of Tibet /
You will accumulate inexhaustible wealth / And your people will have the support of the gods /
The chieftains will achieve rank from kings / And everyone will achieve happiness and abundance /

In this way the Daoist master gave a clear explanation.

lung bstan gyi yi ge de hor rgyal drug pa chen po ye sun the mur la phul skabs / rgyal pos gnam yig rdo babs ma la gzigs pas / rdo yig de skyon gyis ma gos pa byas nas sa der gter du sbas nas gzhi brtan por gnas na / bdag gong ma’i bka’ yig las lhag pa yin zhes gsung nas / bka’ yig gser bris phyag bstar ma’i cho lo gnang bas / gnyan thog dpon tho’u pa tsi o chi go bu me thu me lun gyis gnam yig rdo babs ma de gong ma’i bka’ ltar gnyan thog sde ba’i rgyab ri’i steng gzhi bdag lha khang bzhengs te / de’i mdun ngos su ri zur gsum hom khung ‘dra ba’i steng du gter du sbas / de nas hor gnyan thog tho’u pa tsi o chi go bu me thu me lun dgong lo gya brgyad pa (spyi lo 1408) la ‘das so /

“These prophetic characters were shown to the sixth Mongol emperor, Yesün Temür (r.1323-1328, sic). When the king saw these heavenly letters which had fallen on a stone, he said “These stone letters are not tainted by any flaw. Hidden there as a treasure, it is a place which can form a firm foundation. This is greater than any decree of myself, the emperor.” Thereupon he gave the chieftain a decree written in his own hand in golden ink granting him a title. Then the chieftain of gNyan Thog O Chi Go Bu Me Thu Me Lun according to the order of the emperor and with the heavenly letters fallen on a stone erected a temple to the gods of the place on the hill behind gNyan Thog village. Then he placed the stone as a treasure in something which looked like a triangular offering pit in front of the temple. Then the chieftain of gNyan Thog village O Chi Go Bu Me Thu Me Lun, at the age of one hundred and eight, passed away.”

gNyan Thog Byams Pa gLing Gi Lo rGyus, p.21-23

The “Brief Clan Genealogy of gNyan Thog” gives a slightly different version of this story, which we can summarize briefly. Chenggis Khan has four generals, each of which is skilled in a different art. Black-Horse Hor Dor is one of these who has the ability of Daoist thunder magic (mthu). His descendants use this magic to unite the Mongols, Tibetans, and Chinese who live between the Yellow and the Yangzi rivers in Amdo. After some time they move to Rebgong. There they construct a settlement, and for divine assistance they erect palace of the gods and a triangular offering pit on the peak of the rear hill behind the town (gzhi bzung ste khong gi bsten pa’i grogs byed kyi lha’i pho brang gi zur gsum hom khung lha bu’i rgyab ri’i sna kha nas bzhengs pas /). This dual creation of the town and the temple of the gods of the place on the northern hill signifies the establishment of the village.

This account may or may not represent an accurate genealogy of the gNyan Thog chieftains. However, returning to the interpretation given at the start, we may postulate that the mythic interpretation in these accounts (Daoism, black-clad thunder mages, Chinese geomancy and divine intervention in village foundation) draws strongly on the themes of mid-Ming Chinese fortress legends. This makes some sense: in the next section we will see that the mid to late Ming was historically a time of fortress building and Han immigration in Rebgong.

There are also some nice if recent drawings of the twelve Mongol-Manchu warriors of Erlang / Ri Lang drawn on either side of the gate of his temple on the hill above gNyan Thog. This is the spot where the original offering pit and the temple to the god of the place were set at the mythical foundation of the village. With the central god Erlang in the temple itself, the figures make thirteen soldiers.

ri lang lha khang








Finally, the whole story seems to be reflected in village ritual. Below are scenes from the 2011 kLu Rol festival in gNyan Thog, in which the God-Descender (lha babs) shaman Rin Chen dByams is possessed by the god Er Lang on the “rear peak” (rgyab ri) and leads a procession carrying the god’s image down to the spring beneath the village. The image and the devotees are washed in the spring, and then the palanquin is processed through the streets of the village to the households of three hereditary leaders, ultimately arriving at the household of the Tu Ba Zong chieftains who are the descendants of Black Horse Hor Dor. Here it rests for three days before being returned to its temple. The chieftain at the time the below photo was taken was Sha Bo Tshe Ring, the author of one of the book which forms one main source on gNyan Thog history. He has since passed away and his son has assumed the position of symbolic village head.

Above: The Shaman Rin Chen dByams on the street in gNyan Thog fort.

Above: Er Lang’s palanquin entering Sha Bo Tshe Ring’s house.

Above: A narrow street within gNyan Thog fort.

So here we have a very nice set of correspondences. The story connects the Monghuor inhabitants of the village to the ancient Mongol empire, and, written in Tibetan, it also points to the larger body of Daoist and folk religion legends about fortress building current in late imperial China. It accounts for the creation of the village space in a way that has cosmological echoes – the recognition of an “axis mundi” at the “rear mountain” symbolically allows the village to take root. The story is represented in village art in a manner that points to a particular ethnic value system – the fierce depictions of Manchu-Mongol war chiefs on the walls of the Er Lang/Ri Lang temple recall the martial ideals of the inhabitants’ Mongol ancestors. Finally, the story and the spatial/social structures created by it are reproduced annually in village ritual – the god descends to a particular villager, who processes the deity’s image down from the “Rear Hill”, through the space of the fort, and into the home of the village chieftains who are this tale’s inheritors.

3) Ming Military Farms, Han Colonists, and the Imperial City Temples

The next account is not technically a story of the building of gNyan Thog fort, but nevertheless it is an account of fortress building which is located within gNyan Thog fort and involves its inhabitants. The story comes from an stele located outside the Earth-Subduing Chapel (sa ‘dzin lha khang, more about this later) of the gNyan Thog monastery, and relates the efforts of the chieftain of the fort, Wang Tingyi 王廷儀, to fortify the valley and specifically to reconstruct the fortress of Protecting-Peace 保安堡 / Tuo Family Military Farm (ch. Tuo [Jia] Tun 脫[家]屯, tb. Tho Gya). The stele bears the title “Stele of the Great Ming Dynasty” 大明碑, but the date is illegible, except for the last two characters …八年 “eighth year”. (This is according to the transcriptions, of which see below; no date is visible to me.) Sha Bo Tshe Ring notes that the events recorded in the stele took place in the second year of the Wanli Reign or 1574 – this is attested both by the “Gazetteer of Xunhua” 循化志 and by a stone tablet bearing this date which was found when the walls of that fort were demolished in the 1950s. He also points out that the wording of the stele seems to imply that its hero, Wang Tingyi, was dead at the time of writing. So we can put the date of the erection of the commemorative stele sometime between 1580 (eg., the eighth year of the Wanli Reign 萬里八年) and the end of the dynasty in 1636, with the added caveat that it be a year with a regnal period ending in eight.

The text of the stele itself presents a problem. The face of the stone is severely worn, with the bottom half of each line now essentially illegible. I have the text of two transcriptions, one of which was posted on a placard next to the stele itself and another of which appears in Sha Bo Tshe Ring’s book (52). Both of these transcriptions seem to have been made at a time when considerably more of the stele was legible, and one or the other of them seems to have relied upon the other, but they differ from each other in a number of places, and they also differ from the legible sections of the original stele. Most of these differences are minor, with the exception of one line which seems to have been skipped over entirely by the original copier. I have tried to reconstruct a composite version here, relying on the original stele when possible, adding in information from the transcriptions as necessary, and correcting mistakes in the transcriptions as I could (eg. 寧河武順王 for 寧何武順王, etc.). The language is sometimes difficult and the frequent breaks make the meaning in some sections difficult to interpret. In any case the general story and tone is clear enough.

In the previous narrative, while the Mongols were treated somewhat fearfully, they were nevertheless recognized as the ancestors of the village and therefore the protagonists of the founding narrative. This is not the case in the Great Ming Dynasty stele, in which they represent the un-named antagonists. In 1559 Altan Khan (1507–1582), chieftain of the Tümed and for the better part of the sixteenth century the great northern nemesis of the Ming Dynasty, raided into Qinghai. Altan Khan’s son Bingtu 丙兔 seized the region around Qinghai Lake, while his grand-nephew Bintu 賓兔 occupied the smaller but extremely strategic grasslands of Pine Mountain 松山. In 1570 Altan Khan raided into Qinghai a second time (Qing Hai Tong Shi, 287). Later on in 1598 the Ming were able to dislodge the Mongols from the pastureland around Pine Mountain and erected a fort and long walls there, thus cutting off the route between Qinghai and Mongolia, but Bingtu’s branch of the Tümed remained on the shores of Kokonor until the 19th century. Later in the seventeenth century other Mongol groups would follow. We can infer that the arrival of several tens of thousands of heavily armed warriors with their flocks and families on the pasture-lands of northern Tibet had an effect – beyond the Mongols themselves, the sudden conquest must have caused ripples of population displacement across Amdo. This is clearly felt in the gNyan Thog stele. Although the exact enemies remain unclear, it is clear from the text that there is unrest among the highland peoples, and the villages of Rebgong no longer feel safe. While the text never mentions the Mongols by name, it does once use the word lu 虜 “captives”, “wretches”, which in Ming dynasty sources frequently refers to the Mongols; I’ve translated it “barbarians” below. I’ve also conventionally translated the word fan 番 as “Tibetan” throughout the text, but in truth the word can refer to any of the plateau peoples of western China, including probably the gNyan Thog Monguor themselves. The text is as follows:

“In the region of Protecting-Peace which is located beyond the borders of River Prefecture of West-of-the-Long-River Commandery, forts were built, officials were installed, and military rations were increased. The man who achieved this, Wang Tingyi, gave succor to the Tibetans, achieved great deeds, and assisted the officials. For this reason we have truthfully recorded this with a worshiping stele:”

蓋聞西域之土羌之地乃唐世以來開創故得恢復中夏而逐遐慶矣 / 自我太祖高皇帝龍飛遺衛國公諡寧河武順王鄭公征崑崙從達河 / 海撫夷以邊馬忠靡[ ]不貢[ ][ ][ ]
“It is said that the lands of the local barbarians in the Western Regions were opened up from the period of the Tang Dynasty. Therefore the distant lands rejoice that they have now been restored to China. After our Great-Ancestor Emperor took his Dragon Flight (i.e., since Zhu Yuanzhang declared the Ming Dynasty in AD 1368), he sent out the Nation-Protecting Lord, also called the Pacifies-the-Yellow-River Makes-Obedient-by-Arms King, Lord Zheng (Zheng Yu 鄭愈, 1337-1377). Lord Zheng conquered the Kunlun and reached the [source of the] Yellow River and Qinghai Lake. He gave succor to the barbarians, and with horses on the border he scattered the [ ] who did not give tribute [ ][ ][ ].”

服以是[ ][ ]豢養之恩而番族從兹孚信者何可勝計也夫保安 / 者為三秦之咽喉挾九邊之鼎峙[ ] / 地東[ ]邊多[ ][ ]西接討來歸德南鄰捏工莽剌北抵果木黃河然而番部[ ][ ][ ][ ][ ][ ][ ][ ][ ][ ]
“In service of this [ ][ ] nurturing benevolence and because of this from the tribes of the Tibetans those who served and had faith in him were beyond count. Therefore the region of Protecting-Peace is the throat of the Three Lands of Qin, and it holds up one leg of the tripod of the Nine Borders of the Empire. In the east of this land [ ] on the border there are many [ ][ ]. To the west it reaches to the Tao Lai River and Gui De, while to the south it borders on Nie Gong (Reb Gong?) and Mang La (Mang Ra?). To the north it reaches Guo Mu and the Yellow River. Therefore the regions of the barbarians [ ][ ][ ][ ][ ][ ][ ][ ][ ][ ]”

桀番無時(??)[ ][ ]已故是地無官守防無軍所恃如彼中廷儀向為屯首即心懷赤忠漢番皆並推益以 / 是倡義率眾並咨 / 各部院道築堡曰保安設官曰防禦並于計吳脫李四寨選士五百名均之以月餉河營協防兵一 / 百名加之以口糧在斯地比昔稱雖更□往時有加焉繼而招愆期荷 / 參台李公以廷儀撫番[ ][ ]創始[ ][ ]總理通?[ ]又蒙
“The fierce Tibetans at no time (??) [ ][ ] to the end. Therefore this place had no officials appointed and no military stationed here to rely on. In the midst of this, Wang Tingyi became head of the military farm (tun 屯). His heart held bravery and loyalty, and he wished that the Han and the Tibetans should unite together to work for benefit. For this reason he made a proposal for a righteous work and led the masses. He proposed to various bureaus, departments, and routes that fortresses should be built. He asked that Protecting-Peace have an official appointed and be defended. He also told the four forts of Ji (gNyan Thog) Wu (Seng Ge gZhong), Tuo (Tho Gya), and Li (rKa gSar and sGo dMar) that they should choose five hundred soldiers and give them a monthly ration. One hundred soldiers from the River Prefecture (Hezhou) Cooperative-Defense Army should be given additional grain. In this place this was more than the original amount, although it was increased [ ] in the past, it was also added to (?). As the plans continued they became delayed. He Cantai, and Lord Li, with Wang Tingyi gave succor to the Tibetans [ ][ ] and created [ ][ ][ ] the president, which reached to (?) [ ] and could also be inherited (?).”

協守河州付總兵周公以[ ][ ][ ][ ][ ][ ][ ]委之以該堡中軍則鈴制漢番而地方頗為得人至如[ ][ ] / 逼臨虜穴無資戰守逐捐集[ ][ ][ ]民[ ]不頌戴如此在廷儀恩信馭之于番撫摩[ ][ ][ ]功 / 之不可盡述勞之不可盡[ ][ ][ ][ ][ ][ ][ ][ ][ ]廷儀高士[ ]求隱逸不復出漢番(?)思[ ][ ][ ] / 俱接踵而至再三懇求欲為廷儀[ ][ ][ ][ ][ ][ ][ ]其他向時廷儀勤于王事[ ][ ][ ][ ][ ][ ][ ] / 來求雖不能文傳以述其往跡以示[ ][ ][ ][ ]其功耶故立石篆記云
“The vice head of the military at the cooperative garrison of River Prefecture, Lord Zhou, used [ ][ ][ ][ ][ ][ ][ ] delegated it, in order that the military within this fort could govern both the Han and the Tibetans. Therefore many people arrived at this place, as [ ][ ]. As the place pressed closely to the lairs of the barbarians (lu) and there was not the resources to hold it in battle, therefore they gathered together money [ ][ ][ ][ ] the people [ ] did not praise it. In this situation, Wang Tingyi benevolently urged them to offer succor to the Tibetans [ ][ ][ ]. His achievements cannot be fully described, nor can his labors be fully [ ][ ][ ][ ][ ][ ][ ][ ][ ] the great gentleman Wang Tingyi [ ] they all fled and hid, and did not emerge again. The Chinese and the Tibetans both thought [ ][ ][ ]. They all put their feet to the road and arrived in that place in redoubled numbers. They honestly wished for Wang Tingyi to [ ] [ ][ ][ ][ ] other than these. In previous times Wang Tingyi had labored at the affairs of lords [ ][ ][ ][ ][ ][ ][ ] …arrived begging that although it could not be recorded by writing, in order to describe the traces of his works, in order to display [ ][ ][ ][ ] his deeds, therefore this stele text was erected as a record.”

欽差總督陝三邊軍務兵部左侍郎叶 / 欽差巡撫陝西都察兼院兼左付都禦史賈 / 欽差巡撫陝西川湖等處理檢查巡史李 / 欽差整臨鞏兵備道兼陝西按察史劉 / 欽差協守陝西臨河等處地方付總兵周

[The below titles are extremely approximate and elide details in many cases.]

“Appointed-By-The-Emperor Left Assistant to the Superintendent of the Soldiers’ Bureau Responsible for the Military Affairs of the Three Borders of Shaanxi, Surnamed Ye

Appointed-By-The-Emperor Mobile Capital Censor of Shaanxi Province, Surnamed Jia

Appointed-By-The-Emperor Mobile Inspector of Shanxi, Sichuan, and Huguang etc., surnamed Li

Appointed-By-The-Emperor Inspector of Shaanxi in Charge Of Strengthening the Military and Provisioning the Roads, surnamed Liu

Appointed-By-The-Emperor Cooperative Vice Comptroller of Soldiers for Places in Shaanxi Along the River, surnamed Zhou”

欽依保安堡築堡防禦蘭州衛指揮事張繼武 / 欽依保安堡防禦守備蘭州衛指揮事夏光裕 / 欽差保安堡防禦守備河州衛指揮事脫九勒镌 / 河州付將營把總河州實授百戶晚生何尚德頓首拜撰 / 本堡臨造刊篆糧房薛英邵希[ ]王天裕 / 督工防軍宋祥 / 總小旗劉[ ][ ]馬[ ][ ]馬[ ][ ][ ][ ][ ] / [ ][ ][ ]郭關[ ][ ][ ][ ][ ] / 劉[ ][ ]何七巴張大牙俞棠劉[ ][ ] / 馬[ ][ ]馬[ ][ ][ ][ ][ ][ ][ ][ ] / [ ][ ][ ][ ][ ][ ]張且把 / 上李寨總旗馬束李章他李棠李[ ][ ] / 南土木匠巴不如牙石匠馬巴落馬六禾 / 鐵匠吳屯王加保李屯[ ][ ][ ] / [ ][ ][ ][ ]八年八月朔日立石畫匠梁大智

“Depending-On-The-Emperor Protecting-Peace Fort Fortress Construction Defending Lan Prefecture Commandery Controlling Officer Zhang Jiwu

Depending-On-The-Emperor Protecting-Peace Fort Defense Preparation Lan Prefecture Commandery Controlling Officer Xia Guangyu

Depending-On-The-Emperor Protecting-Peace-Fort Defense Preparation River Prefecture Commandery Controlling Officer Tuojiu Lejuan

Written with head bowed respectfully to the floor by River Prefecture Vice-General and Commander of the Garrisons Hezhou Leader of a Hundred Households, the Late-Born Monk surnamed De

Fortress Engraver (?) Ciying Zhaoxi (tb. Tshe Ring bKra Shis?) of the granary [ ] …Wang Tianyu

Work Overseer of the Defensive Force Song Xiang

Small-Banner Leader Liu [ ][ ] Ma [ ][ ][ ][ ][ ]

[ ][ ][ ] Guo Guan [ ][ ][ ][ ][ ]

Liu [ ][ ], He Seven and Eight, Big-Tooth Zhang, Yu Tang, Liu [ ][ ]

Ma [ ][ ] Ma [ ][ ][ ][ ][ ][ ][ ][ ]

[ ][ ][ ][ ][ ][ ] Zhang Qieba

Upper Li Fort Banner Commanders Ma Shu, Li Zhangta, Li Tang, Li [ ][ ]

Southern Earth-and-Wood Craftsman Babu Ruya, the Right Craftsmen Ma Baluo and Ma Liuhe

Metalworker Wang Jiabao of Wutun Village and Li Fort [ ][ ][ ]

[ ][ ][ ][ ] eighth year, the first day of the eighth month we erected this stele, by the stone mason and painter Liang Dazhi.”

The basic narrative here is clear. Rebgong has been a strategic part of China since the Tang dynasty. Chinese armies entered the valley again at the start of the Ming (the late 14th century). Nevertheless at the present time (1574) the valley has found itself “beyond the passes” and without government troops protecting it. The highlands are in chaos and the military farm villages are exposed to raids. Wang Tingyi, the presumably Monguor head of the Ji Military Farm (eg., gNyan Thog), cherishes both the Chinese and the various non-Tibetan peoples. For this reason he decides to raise up a garrison and petition the authorities for more defensive troops. To do this he enlists a multi-ethnic cast which is given mostly Chinese names, but which also seems to include Muslims, Tibetans, and other groups. Wang Tingyi is so effective in this program of fortress building and military strengthening that the “fierce Tibetans” do not dare attack and many immigrants arrive to live in his new fortresses. The long-standing result is the creation of a Chinese-style walled administrative center in Rebgong – Protecting Peace / Tuo Military Farm 保安堡/脫家屯/Tho Gya. This settlement was and remains the main Han Chinese settlement in the Rebgong valley; until the 1950s it contained the entire adminstrative and symbolic apparatus of high-Ming Chinese governance.

I’ve appended a tentative map of the walled area of Protecting-Peace here. Myself and Hannah Theaker spent a good part of a day questioning villagers about the locations and identities of various structures here, but we were not always able to get clear answers. Particularly the associations of the two opera stages seem unclear to me, as well as the existence or non-existence of an articulated temple tower such as that found in nearby Gui De 貴德. The largest temple complex in the village, the Temple of the God of Walls and Moats 城隍廟, was razed entirely in the fifties or sixties and locals seemed to have only vague memories of what it contained, although villagers did note that the main god inside it sat on a high platform. There was also a Tower of the God of Literature 文昌閣 over the inner northern gate, and a small shrine to the God of the Earth 土地神 at the far eastern corner of the walls. Any, all, or none of these things may have constituted the fortress’ temple tower. The areas of both barbicans have been heavily altered and for the northern one I’ve more or less just filled in some houses in gray to give an idea of how it probably looked.

  1. 戲台 Opera Stage: Not sure of direction or related temple; it’s possible that it originally faced down the length of the fort to the Temple to Lord Guan at the other end, but this is speculative.
  2. 文昌閣 Tower to the God of Literature: This stood on a high pavilion over the gatehouse.
  3. 燕王廟 King Yama Temple: This is the original attribution of this structure. At present the plaque “Temple of the God of Walls and Moats” 城隍廟 has been placed on the outside. Inside there is an image of 地藏 Kṣitigarbha and some other small Buddhist images.
  4. 城隍廟 Temple of the God of Walls and Moats: This was the largest temple complex in the village; it is now completely gone and the space is occupied by the town middle school. We questioned various locals about this structure but got vague reports. The main god was named Imperial Grandfather 皇爺 (隍爺?) and sat on a high platform. There was also a shrine to the Empresses 娘娘 and an opera stage 戲台. 
  5. 衙門 Yamen: The old Ming- and Qing-dynasty center of government was converted into a school at the Communist takeover but has since been pleasantly restored as a museum and community gathering place.
  6. 廟宇 Shrine Room: There was a gatehouse 門樓 over the southern gate which contained idols 菩薩, but of which gods nobody remembered.
  7. 關公廟 Temple to Lord Guan: This was located within the southern barbican space. The keepers of the temple seemed adamant that it was built there in the forty sixth year of the Qianlong reign or 1781. Although they declined to present evidence, there doesn’t seem to be any particular reason to disbelieve them. The shrine contains images of God of Fire 火神, Lord Guan 關公, and the Horse King 馬王.
  8. 土地廟 Temple to the God of Earth: This stood on top of the fortress wall, at the far eastern corner of the fort.

Above: The modern town of Protecting Peace / Tuo Family Military Farm (保安/Tho Gya). The photo is taken from the walls of the Iron Mountain Fort (鐵山城/lCag Ri mKhar), looking north. The old walled area is at center, while the lower Tibetan/Monguor town at the Bod sKor Monastery is at the left.

Above: The Lord Guan Temple 關公廟 in what was once the south-eastern barbican of the Protecting-Peace Fort. The remains of the inner wall are visible at top.

Above: The early Communist-era facade of the Protecting-Peace Yamen. After the prefectural seat was moved up the valley to Rongwo, the old Ming-Qing Yamen was converted into a school.

Above: The refurbished interior of the Yamen, now a small museum and community center.

None of these temples in Protecting-Peace have dates on them anymore, but as a set they’re fully consistent with the general mid-Ming accessories of a mid-sized fortress such as this. If all of these were indeed erected with the re-creation of the fort in 1574, then Wang Tingyi’s efforts represent not just a political step closer to the Chinese authorities and Chinese military protection but the introduction of an entirely new religio-spatial system into the Rebgong valley. In light of what comes next, it’s notable also that Wang Tingyi is praised for erecting a fortress to house Chinese soldiers, and for attracting presumably Chinese immigrants into the valley. We shall see below that this narrative had its discontents.

4) Sacrificing the Self to Serve the Dharma

In the final account of the building of gNyan Thog fort, we have moved from the sixteenth century to the beginning of the eighteenth. The story centers a historical chieftain of gNyan Thog fort named Wang Rab brTan 王喇夫旦, who was arrested in 1728 for usurping power in the Rebgong valley and ultimately executed. The events came immediately on the heals of the 1723 rebellion of the Mongol chieftain Lobsang Danjin (tb. bLo bZang bsTan ‘Dzin, ch. 罗卜藏丹津), whose revolt was crushed by the Qing armies with great destruction and loss of life. The war resulted in the decisive pacification of the independent Mongol Khanates of the region, the physical destruction of many of the Tibetan monasteries which had lent their support to the rebels, and the extension of direct Qing control over the previously independent or semi-independent highlands. This forms the background for the terse account below, in which the Chinese garrison in Rebgong, cut off from supplies and reinforcements by the war, turns to the chieftain of gNyan Thog fort for support. The account comes from the 1820 gazetteer of Xunhua: 


“In the seventh year [of the Yongzheng Reign, 1729], Shaanxi commander Yue Zhongqi 岳鐘琪 memorialized: I have exhaustively inspected the Protecting-Peace Fort (Bao An Bu) which belongs to River-District (He Zhou) of Western-Peace Commandery (Xi Ning Zhen). The region is isolated and located outside of the border passes. On all four sides it is surrounded by the Tibetans. In the past there was one official in charge of provisioning and one hundred and twenty soldiers, who garrisoned the place and keep the peace. The establishment of an official and soldiers was originally to quell the Tibetans. However, in accordance with the notices of requisition, the garrison conscripted soldiers on its own, and the number of local people in the garrison increased. Thus the original purpose was not completed. They raised soldiers from the Tibetan tribes in order to make up gaps in the units. This got to the point that the native commander-of-a-thousand Wang Rab brTan was able to coerce control over the garrison’s necessities. For all of the rations and all of the military appointments they relied only on themselves, and did not follow the garrison provisioning superintendent. The local Tibetan soldiers were all reinstated. Their tails were held high and would not drop (i.e., they were arrogant). Every day Wang Rab brTan indulged more of his greed and pride. Gradually he became wild and unrestrained. After this, the officials memorialized that soldiers needed to be sent to enter into his lair. Although Wang Rab brTan had his Tibetan tribesmen, they were awed and afraid of our soldiers, and Wang Rab brTan was captured. The Tibetan soldiers he had coerced into following him were not able to expand their previous crime, nor was it expedient to command as before that they draw rations from the Protecting-Peace fort. Therefore the original Tibetan soldiers were commanded to return to their [homes].”

Jiajing-Era Gazetteer of Xunhua, 27
嘉慶循化志, 27

In response to these events, Yue Zhongqi recommended that the garrison at Protecting-Peace should be increased from a hundred and twenty soldiers to two hundred, all presumably drawn from the interior. According to Sha Bo Tshe Ring, Wang Rab brTan was brought to Xining and executed (Tshe Ring, 57-58).

Even the rather hostile account here doesn’t actually accuse Wang Rab brTan of colluding with the rebels, and in fact his response to the whole thing was to provide his local garrison with food and locally levied troops in its time of need. One rather suspects that his real crime was just being a powerful local leader in the wake of a violent rebellion of minority peoples who was not ethnically Chinese. In any case the legend of the righteous chieftain unfairly executed by the Chinese spread – Sha Bo Tshe Ring notes the existence of a whole cycle of folk songs found as far north as Hualong 化隆, centering on an innocent chieftain named Ka Ji Jie Luo 卡吉傑落 who, when he is finally beheaded in Xining, bleeds pure white milk in the place of blood. And of course the legend lived on at gNyan Thog fort.

For the final account I will quote from “A Brief Clan Genealogy of gNyan Thog”, which gives an impassioned rendition of this story and its significance. Here the Gazetteer of Xunhua’s “Wang Rab brTan” has become dPal Chen sTobs rGyas “The Great Hero of Expanding Power”. In the story the chieftain’s unjust execution is tied in with the creation of gNyan Thog fort, the founding of the monastery next to it, and the general history of the Rebgong valley:

khong dgung lo nyer gcig thog rab byung bcu gnyis pa’i me byi lor rgya nang du gong ma ta’ chen rgyal rab gsum pa dang mjal te rgyal bos gnyan thog tho’u pa tsong la dmag dpon chen po pa gi tsi < yi ge brgyad > zhes cho lo gnang ste dmag mkhar bzo skrun gyi gron dngul srang stong lnga drug tsam gnang ba ‘id khyer la reb gong gser mo ljongs su dmag mi lnga brgya shong ba’i dmag mkhar gcig bskor gron dngul gyi mi ‘dang tse rgyal bos mdzod nas blangs na chog zhes zhal gsungs gang mang gnang / de nas gnyan thog dpon po tho’u pa tsong la dmag dpon gyi go gnas thob ste phyir rang yul du ‘byor nas / rab byung bcu gnyis pa’i sa glang lor gnyan thog mkhar zhes brtsigs te mkhar de’i ming la gnyan thog to’u pa tsong dmag mkhar zer bas gling gsum la gyang dang gling gcig [ ] mtha’ byas te dmag mkhar gyi ming btags te gling gcig la gron dngul gyi mi ‘dang zer bas /

“In the fire mouse year of the twelfth sixty-year cycle, [the chieftain dPal Chen sTobs rGyas] was twenty one years old. He went into inner China to meet the third emperor of the Great Qing Dynasty. The emperor granted him the rank of Great General of Eight Characters [ch. Ba Ge Zi 八個字]. He also gave him five or six thousand catties of silver for expenditure in constructing a garrison fort. The emperor said, ‘if this money is not enough to build a garrison fort in the Golden Land of Rebgong which can hold five hundred soldiers, then you may take more from the royal treasury.’ Therefore the emperor gave him as much money as possible. Thereupon the chieftain of gNyan Thog, having attained the rank of general, returned to his own land. In the earth elephant year of the twelfth sixty year cycle, he erected the gNyan Thog fort. The name of this fort was the Garrison Fort of the gNyan Thog Chieftains. On three sides there were walls and on one side there was [a cliff]. Because of this, it was also called ‘There Wasn’t Enough Money for One Side’.”

rgyal bo chen po la yar zhu phul te gong ma ta’ chin rgyal bos slar yang gnyan thog dpon po la dmag mkhar bzo skrun gyi dngul srang sum stong gnang nas dmag mkhar bzang bo zhig bskor dgos zhes gsungs te gnang / gnyan thog dpon po tho’u pa tsong ni chos la blo sems dkar ba dang / sangs rgyas kyi bstan pa’i sbyin bdag byed rgyu shin tu dad pa’i dmag mkhar bzo skrun gyi dngul lhag ma rnams gnyan thog dgon pa’i nang rten dang / phyi yi mkhar bskor te dgon pa de’i nang gi rten dang mchod rdzas rnams ‘dzoms po byung ba / phyi yis dgon pas lcags ri bzang bo bskor ba’i dgon pa de’i phyi nang kun mdzes par rgyan pa’i dgon pa zhig tu gyur ba de ni bla na ma mchis pa’i dpon po tho’u pa tsong dpal chen stobs rgyas khong gyis lus srog phangs med du gtong bar ma ‘dzems par dmag mkhar de’i gron dngul mang che ba rnams dgon pas phyogs su phul ba de gong ma ta’ chin rgyal bos gsal bor thos nas /

“After this a report was made to the emperor of the Great Qing Dynasty. The emperor said, ‘Give the chieftain of gNyan Thog another three thousand catties of silver, with which to build this garrison fort well.’ But the chieftain of gNyan Thog fort had a white heart turned to religion, and greatly wished to be a patron of the Buddhist teachings. Therefore he took this extra money for the building of a military garrison and used it on religious items for the interior of gNyan Thog monastery and a fortress wall for the exterior. Thus the sacred objects and offerings inside of the temple became abundant and the wall outside of it was erected as the Iron Mountain which encircles the earth – all within and without was adorned beautifully. After this the emperor of the Great Qing Dynasty heard clearly that the incomparable chieftain of gNyan Thog dPal Chen sTobs rGyas without regret to his life or body and without a care had given the majority of the expenditure money for the garrison fort to the monastery.”

reb gong gser mo ljongs kyi nang so la gong mas bka’ yig ‘byor te gnyan thog hor khri tsi’i dpon po tho’u pa tsong gi go gnas bzung yod pa’i skyes mchog chen po chos srid gnyis kyi bdag po dpal chen stobs rgyas ni yon tan nor bu phreng ba mgrin pa’i do shal du sprad cing dpal ‘dzangs rtul phod kyis zhwa ser bstan pa’i don la byas rjes bla na ma mtshis pa bzhag pa’i rgya nang du gong ma chen po ta’ chen rgyal bo’i sku mdun du dgung lo nga drug ste rab byung bcu gnyis pa’i lcags phag lor phebs dgos byung ste rgya nang nas gong ma’i khrims ltar rang srog shor /

“The Nang So government of the Golden Land of Rebgong received an order from the emperor. The chieftain of the Mongol fortress of gNyan Thog, who held the rank of Tu Ba Zong, that great and excellent being who was lord of both governance and religion, dPal Chen sTobs rGyas, the rosary of jewels of wisdom, his throat garlanded with necklaces, whose achievements for the teachings of the Yellow Hats are incomparable, was sent to the interior of China to the presence of the emperor of the Great Qing Dynasty. At the age of fifty six, in the iron pig year of the twelfth sixty year cycle, according to the laws of the emperor in the interior of China the chieftain lost his life.”

khong la sras gnyis yod pa’i che ba rdo rje bkra shis / chung ba ‘jam dbyangs rgya mtsho yin / rdo rje bkra shis kyis rang gi yab gi sku gdungs la bdag po rgyag par rgya nang du song ste sku gdung gdan drang nas ta ho rgya’i rdo ris khus khe rgyal mkhar nas sku gdung sa la sbas / dbu gdan drangs te gnyan thog tu yong nas rang gi pha mes dpon po rnams kyi gnas sa ru sbas / dus de nas bzung gnyan thog tho’u pa tsong dpon rab gang yin rung / gnyan thog dgon pas drin bzos ched gnyan thog tho’u pa tsong gi rgya lwa dang rgya zhwa rma bya de pho’i sgro dang / byi ru dmar po’i tog bcas mnabs (?) te dgon pa’i ser phreng gi mgor phebs srol yod /

“dPal Chen sTobs rGyas had two sons. The elder was named rDo rJe bKra Shis, while the younger was named ‘Jam dByangs rGya mTsho. rDo rJe bKra Shis went to inner China take possession of the body of his father. Having laid out a receptacle, the son buried his father’s body at the rDo Ris Khus Khe Royal Fortress of Da Ho rGya. (Perhaps ch. Da He Jia 大河家, a fortified town on the Yellow River bank. rDo Ris Khus Khe is obscure to me; conceivably rDo Ris = rDo sBis and Khus Ke = ch. Qi Tai 奇台?) The son took his father’s [severed] head to gNyan Thog, and buried it in the place of the ancestral chieftains. From this time onward, whoever held the position of the Tu Ba Zong chieftaincy, the custom existed for him to walk at the head of the line of monks at gNyan Thog monastery, wearing a Chinese robe and a Chinese hat with the feathers of a male peacock and red coral on top, all for the sake of the kindness which had been done to the monastery.”

dpon po ‘di’i sku drin la reb gong ni dmag sa chen po shig tu ma gyur ba yin / dpon po dpal chen stobs rgyas kyis rang srog phangs med tu bzhag nas / reb gong gi bde skyid la dmig nas rgya dmag reb gong phyogs su ma drangs pa dang / zhwa ser gyi bstan pa rgyas pas don la ta chin rgyal bo’i dbu bskor nas dmag mkhar ma bskor bar dgon pa’i phyogs su gong mas gnang ba’i dngul mang che ba sangs rgyas kyi bstan pa’i phyogs su btang ba’i mthar rang srog phangs med du gong ma ta chin rgyal bo’i mdun du phul te /

“By the benevolent sacrifice of this chieftain, Rebgong did not become a place with many soldiers. Because the chieftain dPal Chen sTobs rGyas laid down his own life without selfishness, for the happiness of Rebgong the Chinese soldiers were not induced to come there. For the benefit of the teaching of the Yellow Hat Sect, the Emperor did not from his inner regions create a military fortress, but instead the majority of the money given by the Emperor was sent to support the Buddha’s teachings. All this was the result of dPal Chen sTob rGyas without selfishness offering his own life before the emperor.”

dpal chen stobs rgyas kyis ta chin rgyal bo la zhu phul nang tu zhu rgyu / nga yi srog la babs pa ni rgyal bo’i khrims srol dang dmangs kyi lugs srol dang mthun no // on kyang rgyal bo chen po’i gser snyan du phul rgyu ni spyir rma chu sngon mo’i nang lung dang / sgos reb gong phyogs la dmag khral mi dgos zhes gong ma chen po sa skyong mi yis dbang bo’i sngon zhal bzhes gnang yod pa ni rgyal bo’i gsungs la ‘khrul ba med do / / dus ‘dir nges srog la babs dgos pa ni rgyal bos bka’ ni ri gzar gyi rbab rdo dang (?) mtsungs pa’i gzha’ thub med pa yin mod / on kyang sangs rgyas kyi bstan ba dang / sems can gyis bde skyid ni mi nyams gong nas gong du ‘phel bar smon lam ‘debs / nga ni skye ba nas kye ba’i bar du reb gong gser mo ljongs su sangs rgyes kyi zhal mthong ba dang / chos kyis gsung skad rna ba’i thos sar yang yang skyes par shog zhes gsungs nas rang srog blos btang /

“dPal Chen sTobs rGyas offered this request to the Emperor of the Great Qing Dynasty: “That my life should be forfeit is in accordance with Your Majesty’s laws and with the customs of the common people. The speech I melodiously offer to your golden ear is as follows: Your Majesty, the protector of the earth, previously gave a promise: ‘generally in the valleys which lay before the Yellow River or specifically in the region of Rebgong, we will not need to pay the military requisition.’ Your Majesty’s orders have no flaw. Now my life is forfeit – Your Majesty’s command is as a boulder plunging from a steep mountain, and no man can avoid it. But I pray that the Buddha’s teachings and the happiness of all sentient beings will imperishably achieve greater and greater propagation. From each birth until the next, may I be born again and again into that place of gazing upon the countenance of the Buddha and hearing in one’s ears the words of the Dharma, the Golden Realm of Rebgong!” Having said these words, he gave up his life.”

One rather suspects that the author of this had read the “Great Ming Stele” about Wang Tingyi and wrote the above story as a riposte. Wang Tingyi and dPal Chen sTob rGyas/Wang Rab brTan are mirror images of each other. Both are gNyan Thog chieftains in a time of war with the Mongols. Wang Tingyi builds a fortress for Chinese soldiers; dPal Chen sTob rGyas prevents such a fortress from being built. Wang Tingyi brings official, soldiers, and immigrants into the Rebgong valley; dPal Chen sTob rGyas sacrifices his life to keep them out. Wang Tingyi serves the emperor; dPal Chen sTob rGyas deceives the emperor and serves the Dharma instead. Wang Tingyi is associated with the Chinese religio-administrative edifice of the Protecting-Peace Fort; dPal Chen sTob rGyas built the gNyan Thog monastery. Both are lionized for their respective actions, Wang Tingyi in Chinese and dPal Chen sTob rGyas in Tibetan. It is almost as if one story was intentionally invented to negate the other. 

Even more strangely, both of their stories are found within a single small structure in gNyan Thog Monastery. The “Earth Subduing Temple” sa ‘dzin lha khang is the present location of the Great Ming Stele 大明碑. It is also the first building in gNyan Thog Monastery and it contains dPal Chen sTob rGyas/Wang Rab brTan’s image – I don’t have a photograph of this, but a small drawing of him can be found on the side-boards of the octagonal roof caisson 藻井. The walls of the Earth Subduing Temple contain images, painted at the time of the monastery’s founding, of the jātaka stories – stories which extoll the virtues of sacrificing oneself to serve the cause of righteousness. So they’re both found literally in the same small building in the monastery.

I’m going to turn to this fascinating structure in part 2, but for the moment, one last thing about the chieftains of gNyan Thog. Dotted around gNyan Thog village are four “Generals’ Houses” dmag dpon khang. One of these is the shrine to Er Lang/Ri Lang discussed above. Another is to A Mye rMa Chen, the Great Ancestor God of the rMa Region. These are the gZhi bDag “Base Lords”, “Gods of Place” of the village. Since the shrine to A Mye rMa Chen has lovely old paintings on the walls I’ve stuck them in here. They represent one more theory of space, religion, and authority, and one that is quite indigenously Tibetan – mounted warrior gods with their retinues, each located on a particular peak, each guarding the village from a different shrine.

The first set comes from the outer corridor of the rMa Chen dMag dPon Khang. The set here goes left to right. According to the elderly man who keeps the shrine and identified the deities to myself and Anna Sehnalova, these were painted in the 1940s or ’50s, but in some cases have been re-touched recently.

001 and 002 dgra lha and ge sar

Above Left: dGra Lha rTa Thug dKar Po – “The Enemy-God of the White Stallion”
Above Right: Ge Sar gLing Gyi rGyal Po – “Gesar, King of gLing”. The hero of Tibet’s famous oral epic.

003 bya khyung

Above: A Mye Bya Khyung – “Grandfather of Garuda [Mountain]”. Garuda Mountain is a prominent peak that flanks the Rebgong valley on the west.

004 rma chen 'gri gzhugs

Above: rMa Chen Khri gZhugs – “The Great Grandfather of the Yellow River, Seated on a Throne”

005 go'u mo'u ri lang

Above: Go’u Mo’u Ri Lang – “Go’u Mo’u Erlang”. Go’u Mo’u is apparently a transliteration of something in Chinese, but nobody seemed to know of what.

006 dgra dgul

Above: dGra ‘Dul – “The Suppressor of Enemies”

007 rma chen

Above: rMa Chen Khri bZhugs – “The Great Grandfather of the Yellow River, Seated on a Throne” (again)

008 gnyan chen

Above: gNyan Chen Thang Lha – The Great gNyan Demon, the God of the Plains. According to the locals, this refers not to the famous gNyan Chen Thang Lha in Central Tibet but to another mountain between gTsos and Linxia 臨夏, called in Chinese the Mountain of the Prince 太子山.

009 and 010 brag dkar and ra rdzong

Above Left: Brag dKar sPun gSum – “The Three Brothers of the White Cliffs”. The White Cliffs in question are presumably those north of Labrang.
Above Right: A Mye Ra rDzong – “Grandfather of the Goat Fort”

The below are from the interior of the shrine room. They represent the inner retinue (nang ‘khor) of A Mye rMa Chen. It was not possible to photograph all of these due to hangings covering parts of the walls, therefore I think in total two panels of the set are missing. Also the shiny finish of the wood and the bright electric light in the room made it difficult to take pictures without a glare. The figures include: four deities in each of the four directions; several un-named daughters, each mounted on birds, and one daughter who is a queen among the nāga; sons numbered one through four and six through nine, and another character named Nab sTeng gSer gZhi who may or may not be the missing fifth son. Sets of paintings displaying these deities are rare and this specific assemblage is probably unique.

small cardinal gods combined east and west

Above Left: Shar Du ‘Dzum Chen lDong Khrom – “In the East, [mounted on a] Great Dzum, the Thousand-Garrison [Leader]”

Above Right: Nub Du ‘Bri lDong dNgul Gar gShog [sic] “In the West, [mounted on a] Female-Yak, the Thousand-Gold Military Wing”

small cardinal gods combined south and north

Above Left: Byang Du gNyan Chen Thang lHA – “In the North, the Great Fierce One, the God of the Plain”

Above Right: lHor dByi Chen Rab sDe – “In the South, [mounted on a] Great Lynx, of the Best Tribe”

small sras mo 009 dbyangs can sgrol ma

small sras mo 008 illegible

small sras mo 007

small sras mo 004

Above: Sras Mo – “Daughters”

small sras mo 002 - klu rgyal ma

Above: Sras Mo / kLu rGyal Ma – “A Daughter, Queen of the Nāga”

small unclear - nab steng gser gzhi

Above: Nab sTeng gSer gZhi – “Golden Base [Lord] Upon a Nab [perhaps his mount?]”

small sras combined 001 and 002

Above Left: Sras Dang Po / bKra Shis Don Grub – “The First Son: bKra Shis Don Grub [a common Tibetan name]”

Above Right: Sras gNyis Pa [illegible] – “The Second Son: [name illegible]”

small sras combined 003 and 004

Above Left: Sras gSum Pa [illegible] – “The Third Son [name illegible]”

Above Right: Sras gZhi Ba – “The Fourth Son”

small sras combined 006 and 007

Above Left: Sras Drug Pa [illegible] – “The Sixth Son [name illegible]”

Above Right: Sras bDun Pa – “The Seventh Son”

small sras combined 008 and 009

Above Left: sras brgyad pa [illegible] – “The Eighth Son [name illegible]”

Above Right: sras dgu ba [illegible] – “The Ninth Son [name illegible]”

(Continued in Part 2)

Amdo Art Tibet

The Buddha and the Gods of War pt. 2: The Earth-Subduing Chapel

(Continued from part 1)

The Earth Subduing Chapel (sa ‘dzin lha khang) is one of the foundational buildings of gNyan Thog monastery. It is also an important structure with respect to the foundation stories detailed in part one above: it is the structure which houses the Great Ming Stele 大明碑 is housed, it contains an image of dPal Chen sTob rGyas, and the frescoes there deal in large part with the moral idea of sacrificing the self for the Dharma. For these reason alone it’s worth going through these in full. It helps also that the Earth Subduing Chapel happens to be one of the most artistically stupendous little rooms I’ve ever stood in. I’ll go through it bit-by-bit below.

I should note at the start that this section rests almost entirely on the work of a Tibetan scholar who publishes under the Chinese name Bo Guo 伯果, and specifically very useful paper of his titled 青海年都乎寺毛兰吉哇拉康殿壁畫內容辨識 “Analysis of the Contents of the Frescoes of the sMon Lam sPyi Ba’i Lha Khang Chapel of gNyan Thog Monastery”. I have relied almost entirely on his identifications and account here, with notes for the exceptions.

Bo Guo quotes “A Short Gazetteer of gNyan Thog” 年都戶簡志 to give the following account of the creation of the chapel and the monastery. The gNyan Thog Monastery was founded in 1665 a “Siddhi House” (sgrub khang) at the foot of the rear hill. Later on in 1695 according to this account, dPal Chen sTobs rGyas, whose story we have read earlier, constructed a wall around it and a prayer hall (see also sNyan Grags, 54). In 1732 a reincarnated lama named Great Scholar dGe Dun rGya mTsho was invited to perform a prayer festival there, and in honor of this a “General Prayer Chapel” (smon lam spyi ba’i pha khang) was constructed. This structure is also called the “Great Scholar’s Chapel” (mkhan chen lha khang) or the “Earth Subduing Chapel” (sa ‘dzin lha khang). Bo Guo points out that an “Earth Subduing Chapel” should by rights have been the first chapel in the monastery, since the spirits of the earth must be pacified before construction can begin. Therefore he speculates that the original “Siddhi House” (sgrub khang) may in fact be the same as the “Earth Subduing Chapel”, or latter might have been built on the former’s foundations.

The chapel is a small one-room building in Chinese style. The central shrine is to Maitreya, On the two sides of this statue, on the flanking walls, and on the rear walls to either side of the door, there are panels covered in frescoes. Each of these has a large central image – on the front and side walls these are all of Śakyamuni, while on the two rear walls they are wrathful tantric deities. In the space surrounding the main figure there are smaller scenes, painted on a green or blue background, showing jātaka birth-stories, scenes from the life of Śakyamuni, paradises of various Buddhas, and the life of the Gelug founder Tsong Kha Ba. Originally the outside of the chapel was painted as well. This meant that there were a further eight or nine panels on the outer walls, but these are now faded almost illegibly. From the look of them they had a similar layout to the ones inside, and the complete set of the jātakas and other stories was probably completed there.

The set of jātakas given in the frescoes comes from an edition of thirty four such stories called the “Garland of Birth-Stories” (skt. Jātakamālā, tb. sKyes Rabs So bZhi). These have existed in English translation from the Sanskrit since J.S. Speyer’s translation in the late 19th century. There’s a version of that translation located here, and the creator of the Ancient Buddhist Texts websiteBhante Ānandajoti, very kindly gave permission to reproduce parts of it here.

For fun then and to show how this type of storytelling works, I’ve illustrated one of the jātaka stories in full here. This the 24th life in the collection, titled “The Story of the Great Ape”, and titled on the wall at gNyan Thog as sPre’u Chen Por sKyes Pa’i Rabs De Nyi Shu bZhi Pa’o.


24. The Story of the Great Ape (Anukampā)

The virtuous grieve not so much for their own pain as for the loss of happiness incurred by their injurers. This will be taught now.

There is a blessed region on one side of the Himavat. Its soil, pervaded with different, metallic ores, might be called its body perfumed with lovely and various ointments; and its magnificent woods and forests constituted its upper garment, as it were, con-sisting in a mantle of dark silk. The slopes and declivities of that landscape were adorned by their picturesque scenery, which harmonized the inequality of colours and shapes and combinations, so that they seemed to have been arranged purposely and with care.

In this recreation-ground of the Vidyādharas, moistened by the waters of many mountain-streams passing through it, abounding in deep holes, chasms, and precipices, resounding with the dull and shrill noise of humming bees and caressed by lovely winds fanning its various trees with their beautiful flowers, fruits, and stems, the Bodhisattva was once, it is said, an ape of great size who lived alone. But even in that state he had not lost his consciousness of the Dharma, he was grateful, noble-natured, and endowed with great patience; and Compassion, as if retained by attachment, would never leave him.

1. The earth with its forests, its great mountains and its oceans perished many hundred times at the end of the yuga, either by water or fire or wind, but the great compassion of the Bodhisattva never perishes.

Subsisting, then, like an ascetic, exclusively on the simple fare of leaves and fruits of the forest-trees, and showing pity in various circumstances and ways to such creatures as he met within the sphere of his power, the High-minded One lived in the said forest-region.

Now, one time a certain man wandering about in all directions in search of a stray cow, lost his way, and being utterly unable to find out the regions of the sky, roamed at random, and reached that place. There, being exhausted by hunger, thirst, heat, and toil, and suffering from the fire of sorrow which blazed within his heart, he sat down at the foot of a tree, as if pressed down by the exceeding weight of his sadness. Looking around, he saw a number of very tawny tinduka-fruits, which being ripe had fallen off.

After enjoying them, as the hunger which tortured him much made them seem very sweet to him, he felt a very strong desire to find out their origin; and looking sharply around on all sides, he discovered the tree from whence they came. This tree had its roots on the border of the sloping bank of a waterfall, and hung down its branches, loaded with very ripe fruits which gave them a tawny hue at their ends. Craving for those fruits, the man mounted to that slope, and climbing up the tinduka-tree, reached a branch with fruit overhanging the precipice. And his eagerness to get the fruit induced him to go along it to its very end.

great ape picking the fruits

2. Then on a sudden, that branch, hanging down, unable to bear its too heavy burden, broke off with a noise and fell down, as if hewn with a hatchet.

great ape falling branch

great ape falling

And with that branch he fell headlong in a large precipice surrounded on all sides by steep rock-walls, like a pit; but as he was protected by the leaves and plunged into deep water, he came off without breaking any of his bones. After getting out of the water, he went about on all sides, looking out for some way by which he might escape, but saw none. As he found no outlet and realised that he must starve there very soon, he despaired of his life, and tortured by the heart-piercing dart of heavy sorrow burst into tears that moistened his sad face. Overwhelmed by discouragement and painful thoughts, he lamented somewhat in this manner.

3. “Down I fell into this precipice in the midst of this forest remote from human approach. Who, how-ever carefully seeking, may discover me, except Death?

4. Who will rescue me out of this place, into which I was precipitated, like a wild beast caught in a pit-fall? No relations, no friends have I near, only swarms of mosquitoes drinking my blood.

5. Alas, the night within this pit conceals from me the aspect of the universe. I shall no more see the manifold loveliness of gardens, groves, arbours, and streams. No more the sky resplendent with its jewel ornament of wide-scattered stars. Thick darkness, like a night in the dark half of the month, surrounds me.”

Thus lamenting, that man passed there some days, feeding on the water and the tinduka-fruits which had come down together with himself.

Now, that great ape wandering through that part of the forest with the purpose of taking his food, came to that place, beckoned as it were by the wind-agitated branches of that tinduka-tree. Climbing on it and looking over the waterfall, he perceived that man lying there and in want of relief, and saw also his eyes and cheeks sunken, and his limbs emaciated, pale, and suffering from hunger. The wretched situation of the man roused the compassion of the great monkey, who setting aside the care for his meal, fixed his eyes intently on the man and in a human voice uttered this:

6. “Thou art in this precipice inaccessible to men. Well, tell me then, please, who thou art and by what cause thou hast come there.”

Then the man, casting up his eyes to the great ape, bowing his head and folding his hands as a supplicant, spoke:

7, 8. “I am a man, illustrious being. Having lost my way and roaming in the forest, I came into this distress, while seeking to get fruits from this tree.

Befallen by this heavy calamity, while away from my friends and kindred, I beseech thee, protector of troops of mon-keys, be also my protector.”

These words succeeded in stirring the boundless pity of the Great Being.

9. A person in distress, without friends or family to help him, imploring help with anxious looks and folded hands, would rouse compassion in the heart even of his enemies; to the compassionate he is a great attraction.

Then the Bodhisattva, pitying him, comforted him with kind words, such as he could hardly expect in that time.

10. “Be not afflicted, thinking thou hast lost thy strength by the fall into this precipice or that thou hast no relations to help thee. What those would do for thee, I will do it all. Do not fear.” 

And after these comforting words the Great Being provided the man with tindukas and other fruits. Then with the object of rescuing him, he went away to some other place, and exercised himself in climbing having on his back a stone of a man’s weight. Having learnt the measure of his strength and convinced himself that he was able to bring up the man out of the waterfall, he descended to the bottom of it, and moved by compassion, said these words to the man:

11. “Come, climb upon my back and cling fast to me, while I shall bring out both thee and the usefulness of my body.

12. For the pious pronounce this to be the use-fulness of the body, otherwise a worthless thing, that it may be employed by the wise as an instrument for benefiting our neighbour.”

great ape meeting in the pit 02

The other agreed, and after reverentially bowing to the ape, mounted on his back.

13. So with that man on his back, stooping under the pain of the exceeding heaviness of his burden, yet, owing to the intensity of his goodness, with unshaken firmness of mind, he succeeded in rescuing him, though with great difficulty.

great ape climbing the cliff

14. And having delivered him, he enjoyed the highest gladness, but was so exhausted, that he walked with an unstable and tottering step, and chose some cloud-black slab of stone to lie upon, that he might take his rest.

Pure-hearted as he was and being his benefactor, the Bodhisattva did not suspect danger from the part of that man, and trustingly said to him:

15, 16. “This part of the forest being easily accessible, is exposed to the free course of ferocious animals. Therefore, that nobody may kill me and his own future happiness by a sudden attack while I am taking my rest from fatigue, thou must carefully look out in all directions and keep guard over me and thyself. My body is utterly tired, and I want to sleep a little while.”

The man promised to do so. Assuming the frank language of honesty, he said: “Sleep, sir, as long as you like, and may your awaking be glad! I stay here, keeping guard over you.” But when the Great Being, in consequence of his fatigue, had fallen asleep, he conceived wicked thoughts within his mind.

17. “Roots to be obtained with hard effort or forest-fruits offered by chance are my livelihood here. How can my emaciated body sustain life by them? how much less, recover its strength?

18. And how shall I succeed in traversing this wilderness hard to pass, if I am infirm? Yet, in the body of this ape I should have food amply sufficient to get out of this troublesome wilderness.

19. Although he has done good to me, I may feed on him, I may, for he has been created such a being. I may, for here the rules given for times of distress 02 are applicable to be sure. For this reason I have to get my provisions from his body.

20. But l am only able to kill him while he is sleeping the profound and quiet sleep of trustfulness. For if he were to be attacked in open fight, even a lion would not be assured of victory.

Therefore, there is no time to lose now.”

Having thus made up his mind, that scoundrel, troubled in his thoughts by sinful lust which had destroyed within him his gratitude, his consciousness of the moral precepts, and even his tender innate feeling of com-passion, not minding his great weakness of body, and listening only to his extreme desire to perform that vile action, took a stone, and made it fall straight down on the head of the great ape.


21, 22. But, being sent by a hand trembling with weakness and hastily, because of his great cupidity, that stone, flung with the desire of sending the monkey to the complete sleep (of death), destroyed his sleep.

It did not strike him with its whole weight, so that it did not dash his head to pieces; it only bruised it with one of its edges, and fell down on the earth with a thundering noise.

23, 24. The Bodhisattva, whose head had been injured by the stone, jumped up hastily; and looking around him that he might discover his injurer, saw nobody else but that very man who stood before him in the attitude of shame, confounded, timid, perplexed, and dejected, betraying his confusion by the ashy-pale colour of his face, which had lost its brightness; sudden fright had dried up his throat, drops of sweat covered his body, and he did not venture to lift up his eyes.

As soon as the great ape realised that the man himself was the evildoer, without minding the pain of his wound any longer, he felt himself utterly moved. He did not become angry, nor was he subdued by the sinful feeling of wrath. He was rather affected with compassion for him who, disregarding his own happiness, had committed that exceedingly vile deed. Looking at him with eyes wet with tears, he lamented over the man, saying:

25, 26. “Friend, how hast thou, a man, been capable of doing an action like this? How couldst thou con-ceive it? how undertake it?

Thou, who wast bound to oppose with heroic valour any foe whosoever eager to hurt me would have assailed me!

27. If I felt something like pride, thinking I per-formed a deed hard to be done, thou hast cast away from me that idea of haughtiness, having done some-thing still more difficult to do.

28. After being brought back from the other world, from the mouth of Death, as it were, thou, scarcely saved from one precipice, hast fallen into another, in truth!

29. Fie upon ignorance, that vile and most cruel thing! for it is ignorance that throws the miserable creatures into distress, (deceiving them) with (false) hope of prosperity.

30, 31. Thou hast ruined thyself, kindled the fire of sorrow in me, obscured the splendour of thy repu-tation, obstructed thy former love of virtues, and destroyed thy trustworthiness, having become a mark for (the arrows of) reproach. What great profit, then, didst thou expect by acting in that manner?

32. The pain of this wound does not grieve me so much as this thought which makes my mind suffer, that it is on account of me that thou hast plunged into evil, but that I have not the power of wiping off that sin.

33, 34. Well then, go with me, keeping by my side, but mind to be always in my sight, for thou art much to be distrusted. I will conduct thee out of this forest, the abode of manifold dangers, again into the path which leads to the dwellings of men, lest roaming alone in this forest, emaciated and ignorant of the way, thou shouldst be assailed by somebody who, hurting thee, would make fruitless my labour spent in thy behalf.”

great ape leading out of the forest and remorse 02

So commiserating that man, the High-minded One conducted him to the border of the inhabited region, and having put him on his way, said again:

35. “Thou hast reached the habitations of men, friend; now thou mayst leave this forest-region with its fearful thickets and wildernesses. I bid thee a happy journey and wish that thou mayst endeavour to avoid evil actions. For the harvest of their evil results is an extremely painful time.”

So the great ape pitying the man, instructed him as if he were his disciple; after which he went back to his abode in the forest. But the man who had attempted that exceedingly vile and sinful deed, tor-tured by the blazing fire of remorse, was on a sudden struck with a dreadful attack of leprosy. His figure became changed, his skin was spotted with vesicles which, becoming ulcers and bursting, wetted his body with their matter, and made it putrid in a high degree.

great ape leper

To whatever country he came, he was an object of horror to men; so hideous was his distorted form; neither by his appearance did he resemble a human being nor by his changed voice, indicative of his pain. And people, thinking him to be the embodied Devil, drove him away, threatening him with uplifted clods and clubs and harsh words of menace.


One time, roaming about in some forest, he was seen by a certain king who was hunting there. On perceiving his most horrible appearance – for he looked like a Preta, the dirty remains of his garments having at last dropped off, so that he had hardly enough to cover his shame – that king, affected with curiosity mingled with fear, asked him thus:

36, 37. “Thy body is disfigured by leprosy, thy skin spotted with ulcers; thou art pale, emaciated, miser-able; thy hair is dirty with dust.

Who art thou? Art thou a Preta, or a goblin, or the embodied Devil, or a Pūtana? Or if one out of the number of sick-nesses, which art thou who displayest the assemblage of many diseases?”

Upon which the other, bowing to the prince, answered in a faltering tone: “I am a man, great king, not a spirit.” And being asked again by the king, how he had come into that state, he confessed to him his wicked deed, and added these words:

38. “This suffering here is only the blossom of the tree sown by that treacherous deed against my friend. O, surely, its fruit will be still more miserable than this.

39. Therefore, you ought to consider a treacherous deed against a friend as your foe. With kindhearted-ness you must look upon friends who are kindhearted towards you.

40. Those who adopt a hostile behaviour against their friends, come into such a wretched state already in this world. From hence you may infer what will be in the other world the fate of those who, sullied in their mind by covetousness and other vices, attempted the life of their friends.

41. He, on the other hand, whose mind is pervaded with kindness and affection for his friends, obtains a good reputation, is trusted by his friends and enjoys their benefits. He will possess gladness of mind and the virtue of humility, his enemies will consider him a man hard to offend, and finally he will gain residence in Heaven.

42. Thus knowing the power and the consequences of good and evil behaviour with respect to friends, O king, hold fast to the road followed by the virtuous. He who goes along on this will attain happiness.”

In this manner, then, the virtuous grieve not so much for their own pain as for the loss of happiness incurred by their injurers.

[So is to be said, when discoursing on the great-mindedness of the Tathāgata, and when treating of listening with attention to the preaching of the Law; likewise when dealing with the subjects of forbearance and faithfulness towards friends; also when demonstrating the sinfulness of evil deeds.]

Anna and I went around the interior of the room in the Earth-Subduing Chapel and photographed everything we could. The lights were broken and many of the images were located high up or behind statues, so a full record was impossible. Nevertheless, here are some of the best bits, going around the hall in a clockwise skor ra starting at the central statue of Maitreya:

sman ri lha khang center statue reduced


The Right Wall:

sman ri lha khang right side full reduced


Right Wall, Front Panel:

sman ri lha khang right side 001 zheng mian reduced

The front panel on the right wall holds a large image of the dGe Lugs founder Tsong Kha Ba. The Bo Guo identifies the topic of the frescoes surrounding it as being scenes from that saint’s life (rJe ‘Khrungs Rabs). The lower part of the frescoes are not visible due to the statuary in front, I’m not sure of the exact sequence of the narrative within them. Nevertheless they contain lovely scenes of everyday Amdo life both sedentary and nomadic.

Below: A black yak-hair nomads’ tent (sbra nag), along with the livestock including yaks, sheep, and a mastiff.

right side 01 IMGP4667

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Below: Two scenes of white tents, in which lamas sit in state and are brought gifts by monks and lay people.

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Below: An exorcistic ‘cham ceremony, in which monks wielding various dharma instruments channel the evil forces into a gling kha effigy, which is then destroyed by the masked dancers. Either that or it’s one of the face-huggers from Alien that crash-landed in Rebgong in the early 1700s and had to be exorcised by the Rong Bo monks, unclear.

right side 01 IMGP4670


Right Side Wall, Left Panel:

sman ri lha khang right side 002 ce mian zuo shou reduced

As with the other side walls, this one has an image of Sakyamuni at its center. Below Sakyamuni is a smaller image of the Yellow Dzambhala (Dzambhala Ser Po). Two arhats flank the Dzambhala on either side. Around them are scenes from the Rosary of Lives.

Bo Guo lists the seven scenes visible in this panel as follows. I’ve given Speyer’s chapter titles, not direct translations from the Tibetan: 2. The Story of the King of the Śibis (Yul Shi Bi Ba’i rGyal Bor sKyes Pa’i Rabs), 3. The Story of the Small Portion of Gruel (Zan Dron Changs Pa Phul Bar Skyes Pa’i Rabs), 4. The Story of the Head of A Guild (Tshong dPon Du sKyes Pa’i Rabs), 5. The Story of Aviṣahya, the Head of a Guild (Tshong dPon Zil Gyis Mi gNon Pa’i Skyes Pa’i Rabs), 6. The Story of the Hare (Ri Bong Du Skyes Pa’i Rabs),  7. The Story of Agastya (Agastya’i Skyes Pa’i Rabs), 8. The Story of Maitrībala (Byang Chub Sems dPa’ Byams Pa’i Stobs Su sKyes Pa’i Rabs)

Below: Sakyamuni, the Yellow Dzambhala, and the two arhats.





Below: Zan Dron Changs gCig Byin Pa’i sKyes Pa’i Rabs Te gSum Pa’o, “Life Three, The Story of the Small Portion of Gruel”. In this story, a king and a queen recount to each other how alms giving of small bowls of gruel in their previous lives gained them merit to attain their present stations. Images of these offerings can be seen below.




I’m not sure if the below pictures represent part of the same story or not.




Right Side Wall, Right Panel:

sman ri lha khang right side 003 ce mian you shou reduced

The central image is of Sakyamuni, with the Black Dzambhala (Dzambhala Nag Po) below. Bo Guo lists the identifiable Garland of Lives stories as follows: 9. The Story of Viśvantara (Thams Cad sGrol Du sKyes Pa’i Rabs), 10. The Story of the Sacrifice (mChod sByin Gyi sKyes Pa’i Rabs), 11. The Story of Śakra (brGya Byin Gyi sKyes Pa’i Rabs), 12. The Story of the Brāhman (Bram Zer sKyes Pa’i Rabs). We may also point out additionally that 13 The Story of Unmādayantī (Myos Byed Ma’i sKyes Pa’i Rabs) is also visible.

Below: The Story of Viśvantara (Thams Cad sGrol Gyi sKyes Pa’i Rabs Te dGu Pa’o, literally, “The Tenth Excellent Birth, That of the All-Giver”). In this story, the Buddha is born as a prince of the Śibis. Due to his addiction to charity, he is deceived into giving away his prize elephant to agents of a foreign land, and therefore the people of Śibi demand that he be exiled. He travels to a forest, where he progressively gives away his chariot to people along the road, his children to an avaricious Brahmin, and finally his wife to the god Śakra, who is testing him. Finally Śakra commands that all be returned to him and he be restored to his royal seat.

The Buddha-prince Viśvantara gives away his elephant to the foreign agents.

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Viśvantara in his forest cave with his children.

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The children are given away to the Brahmin.

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Finally the Buddha’s wife, children, and station are all returned to him.

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Below: The Story of the Sacrifice (mChod sByin Byed Kyi sKyes Pa’i Rabs Te bCu Pa’o). In this story, the Buddha is born as a king whose realm is afflicted by a great drought. His ministers council him to perform a human sacrifice to appease the gods. The Buddha is horrified by this but makes the appearance of assenting. He proclaims that all evil-doers in his realm will be sacrificed. Because of this the people of his realm entirely abjure from evil ways. The Buddha instead makes an offering of alms to the poor. The gods are greatly pleased by this and the drought abates.

Here the Buddha is seen consulting with his ministers.

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Below: The Story of Śakra (brGya Byin Gyi sKyes Pa’i Rabs Te bCu gCig Pa’o). In this story, the Buddha is born as Śakra, the King of the Gods. He engages in a great battle against a horde of demons. The demons have turned the battle against the gods and are driving them back towards Sumeru when Śakra sees in the path of his retreating chariot an eagles nest. Although certain that this delay will result in his capture, rather than kill the baby eagles Śakra orders his charioteer to veer to avoid the nest. The demon army is so impressed by this selfless act that they cease their pursuit.

The battle rages.

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The king and his charioteers stop for the eagles nest in the tree. The Tibetan illustrators seem confused as to how a chariot is supposed to work.

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The eagle’s nest.

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Below: The Story of the Brahmin (Bram Zer sKyes Pa’i Rab Te bCu gNyis Pa’o). In this story, the Buddha is a disciple of a particular Brahmin. Wishing to test his students, the Brahmin exhorts them to obtain wealth by stealing. The other students assent but the Buddha refuses, greatly pleasing his teacher.

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Below: The Story of Unmādayantī (Myos Byed Ma’i sKyes Pa’i Rabs Te bCu gSum Pa’o, literally, “The Thirteenth Excellent Birth, That of Her Who Makes [Men] Mad”). In this story, the Buddha is again a king. In his realm is born a girl of extraordinary beauty, who is named Unmādayantī “She Who Makes [Men] Mad”. The king’s ministers worry that should he wed this girl he would neglect his state duties due to lust, and so they lie to him and tell him that she possesses inauspicious marks. She is married to an officer named Abhipāraga. Later on, while processing through the streets of his capital, the king catches sight of Unmādayantī standing on a rooftop to watch. He is stricken by love. His loyal officer Abhipāraga offers her to him, but after a long dispute the king sees only dishonor for all involved, and refuses.

Unmādayantī looks down from the balcony with her radiant face, as the king gazes up from his chariot.

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Abhipāraga visits the Buddha-king to offer him his wife, but the king refuses.

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Right Side Wall, Rear Panel:

sman ri lha khang right side 004 hou mian reduced

Bo Guo identifies the central figure on this wall as a Goat-Riding Vow-Holder (Dam Can Ra bZhon). The scenes in the background of the upper part of the image tell the life story of the Buddha, while the lower part seems to be recounting some kind of complex scene of ritual dismemberment (perhaps gcod?) which I don’t understand. I wish I had taken more systematic photos of this than I did.

Below: The central figure of the Vow-Holder and the ritual figures which seem to be associated with it.





Below: Scenes from the Buddha’s life. Bo Guo enumerates these episodes according to their Chinese names: 兜率宮降生 “Descending to Birth from the Tuṣita Heaven”, 白象入胎  “A White Elephant Enters the Womb”, 樹下誕生 “Giving Birth Beneath a Tree” 七步生蓮 “Seven Steps Each Give Rise to a Lotus”, 迎接入宮 “Welcomed Into the Palace”, 龍王沐浴 “Nāga Kings Wash Him”, 婚配賽藝 “Marriage Matches Compete in Arts”, 出遊四門 “Exiting the Four Gates of the Palace”, 削髮出家 “Cutting His Hair and Leaving the Palace”. I’m not sure if these are the correct designations for all of these scenes or not.








Left Side Wall:


Left Side Wall, Rear Panel:

This wall contains images of the wrathful guardians of the Gelug pantheon, and in the upper parts there are a few more images from the life of the Buddha. According to Bo Guo, the central figure here Bhairava (‘jigs byed) with nine heads, thirty four arms, and sixteen feet.

Below: A Nāgarakṣa.

Below: The wrathful protector goddess of the Gelug church, dPal lDan lHa Mo.

Below: the Dharma King (chos rgyal), embracing his consort.

Below: a six-armed Mahākāla (mgon po phyag drug).

Above are located more scenes from the life of the Buddha. Bo Guo enumerates these as 順服大象 “Taming the Elephant”, 三十三天給母說法 “Thirty Three Devas Teach the Dharma to His Mother”, and 靈鷲山說法 “Teaching the Dharma on Vulture Peak”. I’m not sure if these are the correct designations for all of these scenes or not.


Right Side Wall, Left Panel:

The central image here is of Śakyamuni, with a smaller image of the Goddess of Increasing Wealth (Lha Mo Nor rGyun Ma). The Jātaka stories found here include: 24. The Story of the Great Ape (sPre’u Chen Por sKyes Pa’i Rabs), 25. The Story of the Śarabha (Ri Dwags Sha Ra Bhar sKyes Pa’i Rabs), 27. The Story of the Great Monkey (sPre’u’i rGyal Bor sKyes Pa’i Rabs), 28. The Story of Kṣāntivādin (bZod Pa sMra Bar Skyes Pa’i Rabs), 31. The Story of Sutasoma (Su Tā Sa’i Bu’i Skyes Pa’i Rabs), 32. The Story of Ayogṛha (lCags Kyi Khyim Na sKyes Pa’i Rabs), 33. The Story of the Buffalo (Ma Her sKyes Pa’i Rabs), and 34. The Story of the Woodpecker (Bya Shing rTa Mor sKyes Pa’i Rabs). We have already read the first story, that of the Great Ape, at the start of this post, so I won’t repeat it here. Some highlights from the other tales:

Below: 31. The Story of Sutasoma (Su Tā Sa’i Bu’i Skyes Pa’i Rabs). In this story, the Buddha is a prince named Sutasoma. One day he is sitting in his palace, preparing to receive teachings from a traveling Brahman, when his quarters are invaded by a man-eating monster named Kalmāṣapāda. Kalmāṣapāda is the son of a king named Sudāsa, who cohabited with a lioness. Afterwards the boy was raised as a prince but conceived a desire for human flesh. He was driven out by the townspeople but, to protect himself, earned the allegiance of a host of goblins by sacrificing the to them one hundred princes. To this end he has arrived to kidnap the Buddha. The Buddha allows himself to be taken by Kalmāṣapāda but, arriving at the monster’s lair, begins to grieve that he did not have time to receive teachings from the Brahman or reward him. He asks that Kalmāṣapāda release him, promising to return after he has received the teachings. Kalmāṣapāda does so spitefully, assuming that the Buddha will never return and by this demonstrate his hypocrisy. The Buddha returns to his palace, hears the teachings of the Brahman, rewards him with gold, and then against the urging of his friends and family returns to Kalmāṣapāda’s lair. Kalmāṣapāda is startled to see him return – they dispute there and finally the Buddha convinces Kalmāṣapāda to see the error in his ways, to give up marauding and eating human flesh, and to release the captured princes. Below, the Buddha receives the Brahman in his palace.

Below: Kalmāṣapāda carries the Buddha away to his lair.

Below: The Buddha and Kalmāṣapāda dispute in his lair of bones.

Below: The Buddha returns to reward the Brahman for his fine teachings.

Below: The Buddha rescues the other captive princes.

Below: I’m not certain if these images are part of the same story or not.

Below: 27. The Story of the Great Monkey (sPre’u’i rGyal Bor sKyes Pa’i Rabs). In this story the Buddha is the leader of a band of monkeys. They all consume the delicious fruit of a single tree which hangs over the water, but the Buddha instructs them never to allow a single fruit to fall in, or all will be lost to them. One day a small fruit is overlooked, and it drops into the water and is carried downriver to the land of a certain king. The king wishes to find the tree upon which grows such a delicious fruit, and he leads his army into the forest. When he discovers the tree he sees that it is filled with the band of monkeys. He orders his soldiers to nock their bows. The Buddha, thinking quickly, seizes a long branch of cane and places it between that tree and another, allowing his troop of monkeys to escape over it. In the process though the Buddha is trampled. Impressed by this feat of self-sacrifice, the King orders his men to lay out a cloth for the Buddha to land on when he falls. The Buddha dies there, but not before discoursing with the king on the self-sacrifice of kingship. Here we see the the scene of the monkey falling from the tree and being caught on a cloth.

33. The Story of the Buffalo (Ma Her sKyes Pa’i Rabs). In this story, the Buddha is born as a water buffalo. Though patient and kind by nature, he is continually persecuted by a malignant monkey. Finally in the forest one day the buffalo meets a yakśa, who inquires why he does not simply throw the monkey off his back and trample him. The Buddha replies that by forbearance he might teach and pity this evil monkey. The yakśa, impressed by the buffalo’s righteousness, throw the monkey off himself.

Below: the monkey is seen persecuting the buffalo:

Below: The yakśa and the buffalo converse and the yakśa throws the monkey down.


Right Side Wall, Right Panel:

The central image here is of Śakyamuni, with a smaller image of the White Shambhala (Shambhala dKar Po). According to Bo Guo, the visible Jātaka stories are: 4. The Story of the Head of A Guild (Tsong dPon Du Skyes Pa’i Rabs), 14. The Story of Supāraga (Legs Par Pha Rol Tu Phyin Par sKyes Pa’i Rabs), 15. The Story of the Fish (Nya Ru Skyes Pa’i Rabs), 16. The Story of the Quail’s Young (Bya Sreg Pa’i Phru Gur Skyes Pa’i Rabs), 17. The Story of the Jar (Bum Pa’i Skyes Pa’i Rabs), 20. The Story of the Treasurer (rGyal Rigs Phyug Por sKyes Pa’i Rabs), 19. The Story of the Lotus-Stalks (Padma’i rTsa Ba’i sKyes Pa’i Rabs), 22. The Story of the Holy Swans (Ngang Bar Skyes Pa’i Rabs), 29. The Story of the Inhabitant of the Brahmaloka (Tshangs Par Skyes Pa’i Rabs). Besides this, 21. The Story of Cuḍḍabodhi (gTsug Phud Byang Chub Kyi Skes Pa’i Rabs) is also visible.

Below: 4. The Story of the Head of A Guild (Tsong dPon Du Skyes Pa’i Rabs). In this story, the Buddha is a wealthy but righteous merchant. A mendicant monk arrives at his door. He wishes to feed the mendicant but Māra opens a hell between the Buddha and the doorway. The Buddha and Māra dispute and then the Buddha walks into the hell to reach the mendicant. Lotus flowers miraculously spring up and carry him over safely.

Below: These very attractive figures seem spatially to be part of this tale although I’m not sure how they fit in with the storyline.


Below: 4. The Story of Supāraga (Legs Par Pha Rol Tu Phyin Par sKyes Pa’i Rabs). The Buddha is a righteous steersman. A group of merchants engages him on their journey, but they are swept off course by a powerful wind. They sail over many strange seas, each of which the Buddha identifies, until finally they reach the Mare’s Mouth where the ocean pours over the edge of the world. Because he has never harmed a living being, the Buddha’s prayers are efficacious and the merchants are able to escape plunging off the world. On the return voyage they dredge a net over the bottom of each sea as they pass it and when they have returned they have a ship-load of jewels.

Below: 15. The Story of the Fish (Nya Ru Skyes Pa’i Rabs). The Buddha is born as a righteous fish. A drought causes the lake where he lives to dry up, causing suffering for all the water creatures. By the truth of his righteousness, the Buddha prays that rain will fall. It does. The painters have drawn a Chinese-style dragon to symbolize the granting of rain.

Below: 21. The Story of Cuḍḍabodhi (gTsug Phud Byang Chub Kyi Skes Pa’i Rabs). In this story, the Buddha shaves his head and leaves for a penance-forest, followed by his beautiful wife. There they live as ascetics until one day a king arrives hunting in the forest. Seeing the Buddha’s wife, he conceives a lust for her. He threatens to abduct her into his harem and challenges the Buddha to display his powers to prevent him. The Buddha calmly tells him that he is able to defeat even the greatest enemy. Disbelieving him, the king orders his soldiers to carry away the Buddha’s wife. He sees the Buddha still sitting calmly and scorns him as an imposture. The Buddha replies that the greatest enemies are obscuring emotions like anger, and he has defeated these totally. Impressed by this wisdom, the king releases the Buddha’s wife and receives teachings.

Below: 22. The Story of the Holy Swans (Ngang Bar Skyes Pa’i Rabs). In this story, the Buddha is the king of the swans, named Dhṛtarāṣṭra. His chief commander is named Sumukha. One day the king of Benares, Brahmadatta, hears of the righteous king of the birds and wishes to see him. To this end he constructs a beautiful lake near his palace and decrees that all birds will be made safe there. Although apprehensive, the Buddha and Sumukha decide to lead their flock for a short visit. Hearing that the flock of swans has arrived in his lake, the king sends a fowler to snare their king. The Buddha is caught in the snare and all the other swans fly away in fright, but his loyal commander, Sumukha, stays by his side in his moment of need. The fowler finds them there and wonders why the un-snared bird has not flown away. Sumukha addresses him in human language and explains to him that he does so out of loyalty, and asks if he may exchange his life for his king’s. The amazed fowler frees the Buddha and carries both swans on his shoulder-pole to see King Brahmadatta. The Buddha and Brahmadatta discourse on the Dharma and then the Buddha and Sumukha fly away back to their flock.

Below: Sumukha speaks with the fowler.


Left Wall, Front Panel:

The central image here in Śakyamuni. According to Bo Guo’s identification, to the left is the paradise of Amitabha and to the right is the paradise of Bhaiṣajyaguru. There is a calm mastery to this panel that makes it perhaps the most beautiful of all of them.

Below: On Amitabha’s side there are these very pretty images of what I think are the arhats.

Below: On the right side, the paradise of Bhaiṣyaguru.


The Roof Panels and Caisson:

Bo Guo provides a detailed analysis of these images, which I won’t bother with here because I don’t have an even marginally complete set of them. The side panels of the caisson directly below are the location of the painting of dPal Chen sTobs rGyas/Wang Rab brTAn mentioned above in Part 1.


(Continued in Part 3)

Amdo Art China Gansu Tibet

Tibetan Briefcase Art



The below is a collection of Tibetan book-holders. I took the photos where they were hung and stacked in the entry-way of the main prayer hall of rGan Gya dGon Pa, on the plateau north of Labrang, while bumping around on a fortressologizing trip with my dad this summer. Afterwards I spent a long time looking to buy one in various places. They are hard to find now, and good ones have to be commissioned specially from craftsmen. The best ones here have been individually hand painted on each panel, and the wooden frame enameled with silver. Other than rGan Gya, where it seemed that every monk had one, I have not seen them in common use elsewhere.

These things are called by are different names in different places. In Labrang they are called Shog Bu Ba Li, in Rebgong they are called Lag Shing, and in Lhasa-dialect they are Shing Leb. Tibetan books (dPe Cha) are long, flat, and loose-leafed. The idea is that you bind the book with cloth, press them between these two boards, and bind the whole thing tight with a cord. I think they are an eminently lovely way to carry your books around.




























Amdo Art Tibet

More Tibetan Doors and Windows


A few weeks ago I had the pleasure to spend two nights in a place called gYu Thog Monastery, in ‘Dzam Thang rDzong of south-eastern Amdo. (The place can be found on the maps as 四川壤塘縣魚托寺). The monastery is one of the few bKa’ rGyud sect institutions in eastern Tibet, and houses several hundred monks. The people I met were extremely kind and hospitable to a foreign traveler who arrived both sunburned and soaking wet, and who was unable to walk for most of the next day due to blisters.



Although the area considers itself part of Amdo, the architectural influence of nearby Khams is everywhere obvious. The traditional houses are built usually built of white-painted stone and red-painted timber, in three stories accessed by stairs or ladders. The lowest story is (traditionally) used as a barn for yaks and sheep. The middle story is living spaces and the third story is a cavernous attic often open on one or two sides, used for storage and for drying grain. In the more modern houses, the first story has become a sort of garage for motorcycles and boots, while the second and third stories contain bed rooms and big multi-use living rooms with central cooking stoves and duvets for sleeping.

As is my usual habit, I went around the place one rainy morning with a camera and a stick for dogs, collecting pictures of doors and windows. Traditionally such windows would have been made of a wooden grill with an outer covering of boards to be closed when foul weather threatened – one or two examples of this can be seen below. In the present day (despite the traditional form, none of these houses are particularly old) glass is commonly used. The results are below; I put what I thought were the prettiest examples at full scale.








Finally, just because I don’t think I ever put these up on this blog before (although they’ve been on the sidebar), here is another collection of doors and windows from places around Khams. These were taken over the course of a walking trip in winter and spring 2009. They represent a variety of different regional styles, from all over both northern and southern Khams.