Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Another Disquieting Bell and Its Inscription


I can't speak for anyone else, but whenever I catch sight of those light-brown colored country houses dotting the Nepalese landscape from the window of the airplane I feel a deep sense of being at home at last. I love Nepal, and of course that means that I find much of the recent news from there very discouraging, although news in more recent days would seem to justify optimism. As a Tibeto-logical thinker I cannot ignore the fact that with all the positive things that could be said about Tibeto-Nepalese relations over the last 1400 years or so, there was one period in particular that is still causing problems. I mean the war that took place in the late 18th century. Nepalese memories of this war are still rather fresh, children learn about it in school, and so it nowadays has a lot to do with the popular 'image' of Tibetans in Nepali minds. Once I lived in Nepal for a year and a half, and visited several times more, and while I can't pretend to be an expert on that rather small yet extremely diverse and complicated country, as a student of Tibetan I was often perplexed by Nepali attitudes to their Tibetan neighbors. One Nepali friend told me how they are taught in school that the Tibetans were all cowards. And that was by no means the worst of what I heard. I found these negativities troubling, especially given that many elder Newars in the valley have spent long periods of time in Tibet, and given that there are so many practitioners of Tibetan Buddhism among the inhabitants of northern Nepal, and given that some Newars in the valley practice Tibetan Buddhism, or combine it in interesting ways with Newar Buddhism, as well they might, since both have the same source in Buddhism of the Vajra Vehicle.

A number of times I've taken off a whole day to take the walk out of the city of Kathmandu across the river to Swayambhu Nath Stupa (the "Nath," 'Lord,' is an element of high respect added by Hindus, who will often insist on its use). I think it cannot be considered a proper pilgrimage if it doesn't take at least a few hours to walk to the sacred site. Of course it's possible to take a taxi up the back side and be there before you know it, but that would feel like cheating, like some kind of violation. And there is something truly awe-inspiring about Swayambhunath, which is surely an ancient site, although the stupa has undergone considerable enlargement and renovation over the centuries. The very name means something that wasn't created, wasn't crafted, that emerged on its own, owing its existence to none. Everything is magical about it, even the nagging nudnik hustlers and beggars, even the monkeys who slide down the central handrail as you are struggling to reach the top, snatch the bag of bananas from your hands and gobble them down right in front of you. Tibetans call it Pagpa Shingkun ('Phags-pa Shing-kun). It's usually explained to mean the Holy ('Phags-pa) All-Trees (Shing Kun). Of course there are some very impressive trees surrounding the lofty hill of Swayambhu, not as many as there used to be, but I doubt this meaning was really intended. The Shing-kun could be a disguised borrowing from a Newar name that means something else. Such things do occur (as in the case of the Tibetan name of Bodhnath Stupa on the opposite side of the city). But at the moment I'm tending toward an explanation that seems to me an obvious choice. Shing-kun is the regular Tibetan word for what is called hingula in Sanskrit, and mostly simply 'hing' in the marketplaces. If I tell people the usual English name for hing they usually wrinkle their noses in disgust. The 'English' name
asafoetida most people believe is related to fetid, and therefore imagine it to be inedible. Quite the contrary, if used judiciously, if you crush a single tiny glob of the dried resin (or if you take an eentzie pinch of the diluted powdered stuff) before adding it to the onions and cooking oil, it yields such a wonderful aroma and flavor that curry just cannot be made without it or at least, I would say, the result can't be called curry. I personally never make dal (lentils) without it.

Yes, but where was I? Oh yes, as you are approaching the top of this stairway to heaven, clinging tightly to the railing, heart pounding and gasping for air, hovering high above the panoramic view of Kathmandu, you finally catch sight of a giant gilded metal vajra, called dorjé in Tibetan, which symbolizes the indestructible mind of Enlightenment (the subjective side of Enlightenment, as if there were one). As you probably are aware, the vajra is constantly paired with the bell in Newar and Tibetan Buddhist rituals. The bell in this case represents the 'realm of Dharmas' or the full picture of the factors that together make up the external world as it is experienced by the Enlightened mind. Of course you're right in thinking that in Enlightenment there is no such duality of subjective and objective. Given the general pairing of vajras and bells, it ought to be no surprise at all that there is a bell, actually two bells, situated close to the giant Vajra. On one of these bells is a long Tibetan inscription, which I remember reading as best I could on site, recognizing the name of one of the Red Hat Karmapas on it. I should have taken a photograph, but here is a photo of at least one of those large hanging bells up there.



For another picture, with part of the inscription visible, look here. Try viewing this marvelous photograph by Manish Shakya at the highest magnification.

Now the name of the Red Hat Karmapa evokes, well, at least for Tibetanists, the very unusual and interesting story of a reincarnate lama who was officially forbidden to reincarnate. But wait one minute, it would be more accurate to say that his followers were forbidden to recognize his reincarnation. Quite a few Tibetans believe the Tenth Red Hat Karmapa was involved in treachery, or was maybe even a traitor to Tibet. But as always it isn't so much the story but the way it is told that leads us to empathize with or despise the hero or villain. And there are many unclear parts of the story, so one often wishes that someone with the necessary language abilities would do a thorough study of the immense body of literature in Tibetan, Chinese and Nepalese sources. I will just roughly tell the story as it has already been told. In 1772 the Bhutanese invaded the land to their south known as Cooch Bihar and took the king prisoner. This disturbed the British in Bengal who sent an army to fight off the Bhutanese. This in turn disturbed the Panchen Lama who petitioned the British to put an end to the fighting. The connections thus formed led to the mission of George Bogle to Bhutan first, and then to the residences of the Panchen Lama near (and later in) Tashilhunpo in November 1774. Bogle and the Panchen Lama conversed in Hindi and became very good friends, they say. British-Tibetan relations were warming up. Bear in mind that the Panchen Lama was not the ruler of Tibet and had no power to make official treaties with foreign powers. Nonetheless he was a very influential person and could make agreements of his own regarding matters such as trade. As part of their discussions the Panchen Lama asked to build a Buddhist temple near Calcutta, and the request was granted (see the Bysack article). It's interesting that monks from Tashilhunpo had built a monastery in Bhaktapur in the Nepal Valley already in 1666, as known from a surviving inscription. If looked into further we might find that Tashilhunpo had a policy of building religious edifices outside Tibet (as they were certainly doing in Ladakh as well). Then the Panchen Lama was invited to visit the Manchu Emperor in China for the occasion of the Qianlong Emperor's 70th birthday party. He arrived in the middle of 1780 and died that same autumn in Beijing. He surely died of smallpox, in my opinion, although there are those who suspect something more insidious. Rumors of foul play, perhaps started by Abdul Kadir Khan, an agent of the British in Benares, are themselves part of the story. Still, his death in Beijing so soon after his arrival was an acute embarrassment to his Manchu hosts, so much so that they decided it would be best to pay restitution. (Dhungel says this amounted to the considerable sum of 12,000 gold coins.)

It may not be too far beside the point to mention that smallpox, which we now think was successfully eradicated in the mid-1970's, was a fairly constant terror in all of Asia in those times. When Bogle first met the Panchen Lama in November 1774, he was staying outside the city in a place known as "Desheripgay" (Bkra-shis-rab-rgyas?), since there had been a recent epidemic in Shigatse. Just to hint at the wealth of interesting information that would be gained from a close study of the Panchen Lama's 13 volumes of Collected Works, we might take note of a short text in an anthology of miscellaneous works in volume 7, written in the Water Dragon year (1772 CE), which can only be understood as a response to the smallpox epidemic. It is a monastic 'ritual' (or more like a script for a business meeting) that involves choosing eight monks (distributing 'ballot slips' made of wood and collecting them again) who would then be responsible for removing the blankets and other personal items of those who had succumbed to the disease. At the end of the text, the Panchen Lama recommends the recitation of the Entering Vaishali Sutra (Vaiśālī Praveśa Mahāsūtra) on the doorsteps outside the cells of those who are sick, and the reading of sutras on the verandas of those who are not sick. Most people are probably not aware that innoculation using the 'live' virus, as distinguished from vaccination, was a wellknown practice in those days. This involved taking a diluted form of the virus, using tissue taken from the scabs of its victims, and blowing it into the nostrils. That Panchen Lama himself was well aware of this, is clear in another short text immediately following the one just mentioned. He could have been innoculated, but wasn't.

Trouble with Nepal had been brewing for some time. Tibet was using as its main currency silver coins minted in Nepal. Already in 1751 the Seventh Dalai Lama had sent letters to Nepal protesting the fact that they were constantly debasing the silver by adding more and more copper. In 1769 the Gurkhas had established their power in the Nepal Valley. There is a story, evidently first told by the Capuchin Father Giuseppe, that the Gurkha leader punished the people of Kirtipur for resisting his sieges by cutting off the nose of every male over the age of 12. This story, although often repeated, has sometimes been hotly denied by Nepali authors. Tibetans tried to bring Nepal's ruthless new ruler up to speed about Tibetan trade issues, and meanwhile took the opportunity to complain about the debased coins they had been getting.

Then in 1775 Tibetan relations with Nepal were further soured since Lhasa gave support to Sikkim when she was under attack by the Gurkhas. Nepal sent the message to Tibet that now only the purest silver coins were being minted, and that the old debased coinage would therefore have to be devaluated. This was a demand, not a suggestion. Nepal threatened to take three large chunks of Tibetan territory and hold the Red Hat incarnate hostage until their demands were met. Devaluation would have meant a serious monetary crisis in Tibet, and the Tibetan government, the Kashag, only agreed to this reluctantly, and even then it was a relatively slight devaluation.

Meanwhile the Red Hat incarnate, who was a brother of the Panchen Lama, as well as yet another brother named Drungpa Rinpoche who was placed in charge of the late Lama's estate at Tashilhunpo, were making conflicting claims on both the restitution offered by the Manchus as well as the late Panchen Lama's property in Tashilhunpo (I admit this part of the story is very unclear to me and requires close research... Who took what from where and when?). The Red Hat sought support from the
Gurkhas for his claims, and the Gurkhas in turn took this as a justification for doing what they wanted to do anyway, and invade Tibet, which they did in 1788, although they were stopped at Shelkar, which is not that far from the northern borders of Nepal. The short-lived treaty that ensued was not exactly favorable to the Tibetans, since it involved occupation of lands on the Tibetan plateau as well as payment of a hefty annual tribute. Growing more dissatisfied with these conditions, Lhasa decided to sent a delegation to negotiate with the Nepalese in 1791. The delegation was thrown into prison and the Gurkhas set off on a looting spree at Tashilhunpo Monastery in Shigatsé. Lhasa was not only paying close attention to these events, many important people were terrified, bracing themselves for a siege or packing their valuables in preparation for flight. But in 1792 the Nepalese were forced into retreat. The Red Hat incarnate is said to have committed suicide in that same year by ingesting poison. This time the peace treaty was not so favorable to the Nepalese. They were required to hand over all the followers of the Red Hat along with the Tibetan prisoners and the booty taken from Tashilhunpo (100 porters had to be hired to carry it all). A pillar was erected in Lhasa with a trilingual victory inscription in Tibetan, Manchu and Chinese. The Qianlong Emperor, who at the request of Tibet's government had sent a large contingent of troops (just how many is a matter for dispute) to assist the Tibetans in evicting the Gurkhas, considered this the tenth and last in a series of great victories of his reign (Waley-Cohen). Where the Manchu Emperor saw a triumph of his rule later Chinese would see evidence of their power over Tibet. To Tibetans it was a sign of Tibet's power that it could call upon its patron-priest relationship with the Emperor to bring them assistance in a time of need. To Nepalis, the Tibetans were such cowards they were unable to fight their own battles without bringing in the Manchu troops. Thinking about these different positions leaves your thoughts spinning.

So, I hope I have at least whetted your appetite to learn more (see the reading list below). Not being attached to the academy at the moment, I find my position as a Tibeto-logical researcher to be quite different from the undergraduate lecturers who want to impress their captive audiences with objects of knowledge about which they've already made up their minds. I haven't resolutely made up my mind about any aspect of this story, but I do hope to find out more myself. If one day you do have the opportunity to walk out to Swayambhunath and climb those steps, make sure to stop a moment at the top to have a look at that bell, and think about that holy person, whether hero or villain, who shortly after donating it committed suicide (?). It appears that popular views of the Red Hat's motives were shifting during the war, and it even seems probable that, as Martinov (p. 155) suggests, he supplied a convenient scapegoat for all the problems only after he was dead and the war was over. This could be just another example of how inscriptions on bells can ring out their own stories, even when history comes out sounding like a long string of question marks. Like it or not, the present is the product of arguments from the past. Forgetting history means nothing ever gets resolved.

In closing, here is my translation of the inscription on the bell. I've added some comments afterward to aid comprehension and provoke reflection:


By the virtue of offering this amazing bell of appealing melody
to the supreme precious support of the Victor's Dharma Body,
may I myself and the sentient beings connected with me
find peace from the troubles brought on by inimical circumstances
while increasing long life, disease-lessness, Dharma and wealth.
May we dedicate ourselves to Dharma with the three doors,
so that the negative forces will be powerless to oppress us.
May we obtain the holy Royal Coronation of the Four Bodies,
and until we do, wherever we might dwell,
may we never lose sight of the altruistic enlightened thought.
May we always hear the Dharma melodies of peace.

May it be just as written in these words of prayer by the Tenth Red Hat Incarnate Chödrub Gyatso. Jayantu!

The price of the 170 dharni of bronze that went into making this bell, added to the wages of the artists, totals 1,360 tamkas.


Line 2: All this line is describing the Swayambhu Stupa itself, the holy object to which the bell is given as a meritorious offering. Stupas (chortens in Tibetan) are always conceived as icons of the Buddha's mind. 'Victor' (Jina) is an epithet of the Buddha. For the word "support" read 'icon.' On Dharma Body, see the note on line 8. Aside from being the term by which Buddhism is known to the Buddhists, what most of us nowadays know as 'Buddhism,' the word Dharma has a rich range of meanings that are difficult to encapsulate.

Line 3: This means all beings endowed with thoughts and feelings, since all beings are in any case interconnected.

Line 6: The three doors are those of body, speech and mind. Through ethical disciplines and various practices, Buddhists aim to transform them into Buddhabody, Buddhaspeech and Buddhamind.

Line 8: Royal Coronation is a way of speaking about Vajra Vehicle empowerment. Generally in Tibetan Buddhology one speaks of Three Bodies of the Buddha, the formless Dharma Body, the visionary Enjoyment Body and the generally visible Manifestation Body. Occasionally a body number four, an Essentiality Body, is added.

Line 9: "Wherever we might live" I take to contain an allusion to his state of exile from Tibet. I could be wrong.

Line 10: 'Altruistic enlightened thought' is a way of translating Bodhicitta, the resolve to attain Enlightenment for all sentient beings.

Line 12: The correct spelling of the Tenth Red Hat Karmapa's name is Chos-grub rgya-mtsho. He is sometimes called Könchog Chökyi Nyima (Dkon-mchog chos-kyi nyi-ma). His dates are 1742 through 1792.

Line 13: It is quite common to mention the materials and costs involved in making devotional offerings (for example in offering lamps donated to temples). Since the inscriptions are generally done by the artists, for them it serves as a kind of permanent receipt. It is extremely likely that the bell was cast in Kathmandu or Patan, and not in Tibet. And the monetary term used here, tamka (a word of Mongolian or Turkic origins), very likely means what Tibetans usually call beltam (bal tam), meaning precisely the Nepalese-minted silver coins that were then being used in Tibet. According to Dhungel (p. 193), the Tibetan syllables rdar-ni stand for Nepalese dharni, a unit of weight that some estimate to be over two kilos, perhaps closer to 2 and ½ kilos.


Here is a Wylie transcription of the Tibetan-script version published by Ramesh Dhungel, of the Tenth Karmapa's inscription cast on a bronze bell from Swayambhu. Dhungel gives the date 1791, although I am not sure on what basis he arrives at it:

rgyal ba'i chos sku'i rten mchog rin po cher //
dbyangs snyan dril bu rmad 'byung 'di phul dges //
bdag dang bdag la 'brel bcas sems can rnams //
gnas skabs mi mthun rgud pa zhi ba dang //
tshe ring nad med chos nor yongs 'phel zhing //
sgo gsum dam pa'i chos la bzhol ba la //
nag phyogs rnams kyis brdzi bar mi nus cing //
snying po don mchog gnas lugs legs rtogs nas //
sku bzhi rgyal thab dam pa thab pa dang //
de ma thob kyi bar du gar gnas kyang //
byang chub sems dang nam yang mi 'bral zhing //
zhi ba chos kyi sgra dbyangs rtag thos shog //
ces pa'ang zhwa dmar bcu pa chos grub rgya mtshos smon tshig tu bris pa ltar 'grub par shog // dza yantu /
dril bu 'dis sgyur li rdar ni brgya dang bdun bcu'i rin dang / bzo gla bcas sdom .tam stong phrag gcig dang gsum brgya drug bcu song //





A plate from Daniel Wright's History of Nepal, published in 1877. Notice the giant vajra on the lotus stand at the top of the stairway, looking much like it still does today. The vajra is generally attributed to the reign of Pratap Malla (1641-1674 CE), who constructed the large towering white temples to either side.


Read more!

Sanderson Beck. Try this link.

Lucette Boulnois, Poudre d'or et monnais d'argent au Tibet (principalement au XVIIIe Siècle), Éditions du Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (Paris 1983).

L. Boulnois, Chinese Maps and Prints on the Tibet-Gorkha War of 1788-92, Kailash, vol. 15, nos. 1-2 (1989), pp. 83-112. Available in PDF format here.

Gaur Das Bysack, Notes on a Buddhist Monastery at Bhot Bagan (Howrah), on Two Rare and Valuable Tibetan Mss. Discovered There, and on Puran Gir Gosain, the Celebrated Indian Acharya and Government Emissary at the Court of the Tashi Lama, Tibet, in the Last Century, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society (Calcutta Branch), vol. 59, pt. 1 (1890), pp. 50-99.

Phanindra Nath Chakrabarti, Trans-Himalayan Trade, a Retrospective (1774-1914): In Quest of Tibet's Identity, Classics India Publications (Delhi 1990).

Ramesh K. Dhungel, Nepal-Tibet Cultural Relations and the Zhva-dmar-pa (Shyamarpa) Lamas of Tibet, Contributions to Nepalese Studies, vol. 26, no. 2 (July 1999), pp. 183-210. For the bell inscription, see Appendix 3 on p. 205. For the PDF, click here.

Keith Dowman, A Buddhist Guide to the Power Places of the Kathmandu Valley, Kailash, vol. 8, nos. 3-4 (1981), pp. 183-291, especially pp. 208-213 on Swayambhunath. For an internet version, press here.

Karl Gabrisch, Geld aus Tibet, Stadt Winterthur Departement für Kuturelles & Tibet-Institut Rikon (Winterthur 1990). Catalog for an exhibit at the Money Museum (Münzkabinetts) of the city of Winterthur held from Autumn 1989 through Summer 1990. This is one of the finest introductory studies of Tibetan numismatics, and for this reason ought to be translated into English.

Father Giuseppe [Giuseppe da Rovato], Account of the Kingdom of Nepal, Asiatick Researches, vol. 2 (1801), pp. 307-332

Mayura Jang Kunwar, China and War in the Himalayas, 1792-1793, The English Historical Review, vol. 77, no. 303 (April 1962), pp. 283-297. Available from JSTOR with subscription.

Kesar Lall, The Newar Merchants in Lhasa, Ratna Pustak Bhandar (Kathmandu 2001).

Clements R. Markham, Narratives of the Mission of George Bogle to Tibet and of the Journey of Thomas Manning to Lhasa, Cosmo Publishing (New Delhi 1989), first published in 1876, revised 2nd edition in 1879.

A.S. Martinov, The Sa-skya Episode in the Nepal Campaign of 1791-1792, contained in: L. Ligeti, ed., Tibetan and Buddhist Studies: Commemorating the 200th Anniversary of the Birth of Alexander Csoma de Koros, Akadémiai Kiadó (Budapest 1984), pp. 153-8.

Harish Naraindas, Crisis, Charisma and Triage: Extirpating the Pox, Indian Economic and Social History Review, vol. 40, no. 4 (2003), pp. 425-457. Available from Sage Publications if linked through a subscribing institution.

Hugh Richardson, George Bogle and His Children, contained in: Hugh Richardson, High Peaks, Pure Earth: Collected Writings on Tibetan History and Culture, Serindia (London 1998), pp. 468-81.

Alexander von Rospatt, A Historical Overview of the Renovations of the Svayambhûcaitya at Kathmandu, Journal of the Nepal Research Centre vol. 12 (2001), pp. 195-241. The same author wrote an unpublished Habilitation on the same subject at Hamburg in 2000.

Tsepon W.D. Shakabpa (Rtsis-dpon Zhwa-sgab-pa Dbang-phyug bde-ldan), Tibet: A Political History, Yale University Press (New Haven 1973), pp. 153-72.

Hemraj Shakya, Śrī Svayambhū Mahācaitya: The Self-Arisen Great Caitya of Nepal, Svayambhu Vikash Mandal (Kathmandu 2005). I haven't seen this English-language book yet, but it is supposed to have a chapter on the Red Hat incarnate's bell donation.

Kate Teltscher, The High Road to China: George Bogle, the Panchen Lama and the First British Expedition to Tibet, Bloomsbury (London 2006). Find it at Amazon if you want it.

Prem R. Uprety, Nepal-Tibet Relations, 1850-1930: Years of Hopes, Challenges and Frustrations, Ratna Pustak Bandhar (Kathmandu 1998), first published in 1980. See especially pages 20-54, the chapter entitled "An Assertive Nepal in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries."

Joanna Waley-Cohen, Commemorating War in Eighteenth-Century China, Modern Asian Studies, vol. 30, no. 4 (October 1996), pp. 869-899.

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