Friday, February 19, 2010

From Gesar: The Place This Time

To frame the two different but mysteriously related questions right away, and in the right way, we should ask, “Who is Gesar?” and “Where is Gesar?” or perhaps “Where is From Gesar (Phrom Ge-sar)?” The first question is not all that easy to answer, but if we just call him Tibet’s national epic hero, I think it’s easier than the second question. It is this other less familiar usage of Gesar as a place name that I want to talk about. Origins are not destiny, as we all know from personal experience. But I think we can say with as much ease as justice that the origins of the name Gesar are in the name, or cognomen* if you prefer, Caesar (Kaiser, Czar, etc.). Now I know this may look like just one more example of Tibet-outsiders finding — or creating or inventing or constructing — ‘linkages’ with Tibetan culture for some strategic reasons of their own. And I won’t argue very strongly against this possibility today.
(*Look on this page under the entry ‘tria nomina’ for an explanation of how the three parts of Roman personal names were supposed to work. Coincidentally, names used in Tibetan imperial times also tended to have three different parts called the rus, the mying and the thabs. Someone ought to do a serious comparison. Meanwhile, have a look at the PDF of this article by the late Hugh Richardson.)

In this blog entry, I would just like, first of all, to point out two or three significant discussions of Phrom Ge-sar in modern academic writings that might easily be overlooked. You will find after that a list of Phrom and Phrom Ge-sar references from (mostly relatively early) Bon historical works. If strings of Tibetan syllable transcriptions are a source of irritation or anxiety for you, no reason to give it much more than a glance. I only do this to make the case that these terms occur quite a bit in more-or-less datable Bon works (most of these haven’t been looked into let alone used much if at all by academics). This is not an exhaustive listing, and I’ll leave for another time occurrences in non-Bon Tibetan sources... along with the brief mentions by modern Tibetanists such as R.A. Stein, H. Hoffmann, Namkhai Norbu, et al.

I think Caesar of Rome is by far the most likely explanation for From Gesar, although at the same time, as I already hinted, one ought to be wary of the tendency of western-world-based researchers in particular to find things close to their ‘home’ in the faraway materials they study. I discussed Gesar some with a few modern Tibet-born savants, and learned that these days the tendency among them is to find a regional ruler of around the 12th century (in the eastern Tibetan plateau or Kham) as the historical personage behind the epic stories.* They give an apparently ‘nativistic’ explanation of Ge-sar as a Tibetan word referring to the anthers of flowers. But, as some past Tibetan glossary makers were aware, the ‘Tibetan’ word ge-sar is actually a direct borrowing from Indic ke-sa-ra (this being in turn a Tibetan transcription of the Sanskrit word kesara, which generally means ‘hair’ but also those filaments found at the center of a flower). Not only that, but the name Καίσαρ itself was first given because of somebody’s luxuriant mane of hair... but then again, the name may have been awarded ironically, since Julius Caesar suffered from premature balding.
(*There are local Kham stories about his relics still there to be seen, especially in the former kingdom of Nangchen.)
From (Phrom) comes via Hrom (pronounced From) from Rome, meaning the eastern Rome of the Byzantines, not that one in Italy you’ve been told about.

 Anthers are called ge-sar or ze-'bru in Tibetan

I do believe the Tibetan evidence for Phrom Ge-sar is very likely to prove relevant to Fromo Kesaro as found in some coin inscriptions, somehow — the Tibetan manuscripts are all much later than the coins, true, but may incorporate earlier texts or oral traditions that would be closer at least to being contemporary. But I should clarify that the Tibetan epic hero is not commonly known as Phrom Ge-sar. When he isn’t called just Ge-sar or King Ge-sar, he’s usually called Gling Ge-sar.  That last name tends to connect him with Gling-tshang area of Kham in eastern part of the Tibetan plateau where, anyway, relics of his are kept and shown to pilgrims. 

Coin of a Turk Shahi king inscribed with "Fromo Kesaro" etc.

[True, some moderns do conflate these two Gesars, the person and the place, but that’s a modern complication in my opinion. To judge from the glossaries available to me, it would seem that even though the Gesar epic is full of geographical names — after all, he conquered countries in every compass direction — the place name Phrom is not to be found in the epics themselves, that is, if you will allow me to avoid addressing the complication that Phrom is often spelled as, or confounded with, Khrom, which does occur there. If this is giving you a headache, you are not alone. Where did I put that box of aspirins?]

One fairly early academic discussion somehow at least moderately relevant to the problem of Fromo Kesaro / Phrom Ge-sar is in Bailey’s article, at p. 427. Bailey considers the idea that a Khotanese name/title rrispurä kheysarä, ‘Prince Kheysara,’ really has ‘Caesar’ behind it. And he mentions the Phrom Ge-sar of Tibetan documents. He notices in this connection kesarî (maned one, lion) and kesara (filament of a flower) as two Sanskrit words that were borrowed into Khotanese, getting slightly altered in the process. He finally concludes that the personal name Caesar is not to be found in Khotanese after all.

Also, have a look at the discussion of Phrom and Ge-sar by F.W. Thomas in Tibetan Literary Texts and Documents Concerning Chinese Turkestan, Part III (London 1955), pp. 79-82. It’s still worth considering what he had to say there. The late Ron Emmerick’s Tibetan Texts Concerning Khotan (p. 69) has a translation from a Tanjur text that does something very exceptional in calling ’Phrom Ge-sar a ‘king’ (rgyal-po).  This King From Gesar's daughter Huronga (Hu-rong-ga) married the Khotanese king and had two daughters who became nuns...

I checked the OTDO, and even though six occurrences of the syllable phrom occur in the Old Tibetan (Dunhuang) texts and inscriptions that have been added to this database, not even one of them looks like a proper name in its context. As Old Tibetanists know, prom is simply an alternative spelling for phrom, and this results in four hits, among which one (or two) may be a place name, I’m not sure yet (if you do go to the site, try khrom, too, but you will see that it mostly has the senses of ‘marketplace’ or ‘center of administration’ or part of a personal name). Searching for “ge sar” comes up with nothing. This might be a significant absence, but until all the Old Tibetan documents have been put up on the site, it would be difficult to be sure. And even then we shouldn’t necessarily build arguments based on its non-appearance.

Starting here, you will find quite a few, but not all, Bon sources (with some bits of texts, mostly not critically edited or ‘corrected,’ and with some very quickly done translations and paraphrases that are not yet ready for primetime academic publication or citation). I’ve tried to give some idea of the dating of each of the texts.  These are passages of singular importance that must be accounted for in future Gesar studies.  Still, I imagine there are people who will want to stop here or skip forward to the conclusion.

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SOURCE: G.yung-drung Bon-gyi Rgyud-’bum, as contained in Sources for a History of Bon, Tibetan Bonpo Monastic Centre (Dolanji 1972), pp. 1-46, at p. 23. 

Context: A discussion of Tibet in around the time of Dri-gum Btsan-po (legendary emperor several centuries prior to 600 CE when externally verifiable historical narrative more or less begins in Tibet). 

Date: This particular history belongs to the Rma family lineage histories that date between early 12th through mid or late 13th centuries more or less:

dus de tsam na / rgya gar [23] na chos yod skad / 
rgya nag la gtsug lag rtsis / phrom la sman spyad / bod dang zhang zhung gi yul na bon gyis ’dul zhing spyod pa las / gzhan gang yang med pa lags so //
sman spyad ’di bon gyi lag tu spyod pa lags so //

I interpret this as saying (roughing out a quick translation): In about that time, in India there was Dharma, it is said; in China, gtsug-lag calculation [astro-sciences and divination]; in Phrom, medical treatments; in Tibet and Zhang-zhung countries, apart from practicing and being civilized by Bon there was nothing else. This medical treatment was practiced at the hand of Bon.

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SOURCE: ’Dul-ba Gling-grags, as contained in Sources for a History of Bon, Tibetan Bonpo Monastic Centre (Dolanji 1972), pp. 114-140, at p. 120.

Context: Part of a list of Bon teachings given by Teacher Shenrab’s emanations in different countries.

Dating: This history also belongs to the Rma family group of histories.

Text passage: phrom gyi yul du gye sar bya zhu can la / dgra lha dang ba dang / dgra sri mnan pa bstan nas rtan la phab pa mdzad do // //

Translation: Then [Teacher Shenrab] taught to Gye-sar Bya-zhu-can in the country of Phrom [the teachings called] Dgra-lha Dang-ba and Dgra Sri Mnan-pa and established their texts (reading gtan for rtan of course).

Comments: I think that Bya-zhu-can means he had a bird hat (reading zhwa for zhu, which is entirely possible in these Bon texts, believe it or not). To myself, at least, this does suggest the wings found in many Sassanian crowns... 

I see no problem at all with reading Gye-sar as Ge-sar. 

The teachings taught in Phrom have to do with the ‘enemy god[s]’ (Dgra-lha, although Bon sources usually spell it Sgra-bla). It is usually believed that one of them accompanies each individual human’s body, and that their task is to provide personal protection and the fortitude to overcome one’s enemies (see for example Namkhai Norbu, Drung, Deu and Bön [Dharamsala 1995], pp. 60-62, which is the most succinct English-language discussion I can think of.)

---- ---- ----

SOURCE: ’Bru-ston Rgyal-ba-g.yung-drung (compiler, b. 1242), Gzungs-’dus, Tibetan Bonpo Monastic Centre (Dolanji 1974), in 2 volumes. Vol. 1, pp. 37-119: Byams-ma Chen-mo Rtsa-ba’i Gzungs (excavated by Khro tshang ’Brug lha). Chapter Seven (Skyon-gyis ’Jig[s]-skyobs-ma zhes bya-ba’i Gzungs), pp. 92-102, at p. 92.

Context: This chapter 7 contains the story of the second [legendary] Tibetan Emperor Mu-khri-btsan-po with a brief part at the end about subsequent emperors (which is the context of the passage that follows). In the more specific context, six great scholars of the world collectively called the ’Six Ornaments of [our world of] Jambuling’ are named.

Dating: The Byams-ma texts are considered quite old, and may have ‘emerged’ in mid or late 11th. 

Variants marked ‘C’ are from another text. 

Text: stag gzigs la mu tsa tra he se / [la: C nas kun shes skyang don la mkhas; mu tsa tra he se: C dmu tsa tra he se] rgya gar la lha bdag sngags grol / [rgya gar la: C rgyar na; sngags grol: C sngag dro; C adds: nang rig pa la mkhas] rgya nag la legs thang rmong po / [rgya nag la: C rgyag; legs thang rmong po: C leg tang rmang ba; C adds: phyi rig pa la mkhas] phrom la gser thog lce ’byam[s] / [C adds: gso ba rig pa la mkhas] zhang zhung la rtswo men rgyung / [C: zhang zhung na tso man gyer rgyung; C adds: sgra rig pa la mkhas]] bod dang me nyag la nam ra rtse sku rnams grag go // [nam ra rtse sku: C rnam ra tsa ku; grag go: C grags so; C adds: srid pa dang rgyud la mkhas]

Discussion of content: The name of the one in Phrom is Gser-thog-lce-’byams (this name appears in very many Bon histories, which may all be assumed to be later, with the possible exception of the list of translators at the very end of the Mdo-’dus biography of Lord Shenrab), which might be interpreted ‘Gold Lightning Tongue Spread Out,’ and the note in C adds that he was a scholar in the science of healing. It’s interesting, too, to see here the Tazig (Stag-gzigs) scholar named Mu-tsa-tra-he-se (noting the Mu in his name, which may be spelled Dmu-tsa-dra-he-pe, etc.).

--- --- ---

SOURCE: The Srid-pa’i Rgyud-kyi Kha-byang Chen-mo (SKC), Tibetan Bonpo Monastic Centre (Dolanji 1976), may be considered the culmination of the Rma family group of histories, and probably dates to a little after 1300 CE. There is a citation of the same passage in the early 20th century Bon history by Shar-rdza, translated by Samten Karmay as Treasury of Good Sayings (1972), p. 80, and for simplicity’s sake I’ll just quote his English translation.

Karmay’s translation (I’ve changed some capitalizations only): “Spe Ne-gu, Phrom-bon Mthu-chen, Bhe Shod-kram, and Rgya-bon Legs-tang Rmang-po, etc. (assisted the king) in bringing ’Jang, Ga-gon, Phrom, China, Mon, and many other countries under Tibetan rule with their miraculous powers.”

Notice the Bonpo of Phrom with ‘Great Magical Power’ (Mthu-chen) [called Phrom-bon Rgyal-ba Mthu-chen in SKC]. And note that Phrom is listed along with Nan-chao, Ga-gon (some Khaganate or another?), China and Mon.

Phrom is mentioned several times in SKC (pp. 23, 42, 90), but most interesting here is the one time it mentions Phrom Ge-sar, on p. 44. The passage on Phrom Ge-sar takes up almost an entire page (again, the context is Lord Shenrab’s emanations in many countries). It does inform us that it is in the northern quarter (byang phyogs Phrom Ge-sar-kyis yul...), while Tazig (Stag-gzig) is in the western. It says that its Bon king is named Phrom-bon Mthu-chen (“Bon-gyi rgyal-po Phrom-bon Mthu’-chen bya-ba yod”). It says the Bon ministers are called E-ber and Ting-wer. I’ll save a full translation of this difficult passage for another time (a second text is badly needed, and some have become available recently, just not available to me yet). It has some interesting references to warfare and weapons of war.

--- --- ---

SOURCE: The Khyung-po Blo-gros-rgyal-mtshan, Rgyal-rabs Bon-gyi ’Byung-gnas, as contained in Three Sources for a History of Bon (Dolanji 1974), pp. 1-196, at p. 43.

Dating: 1439 (?), or possibly 1499 (?).

Note: When first published by Sarat Chandra Das in Darjeeling (1900) and then in Calcutta (1915), the title page of the original text was missing along with the title, so Das just made one up that means ‘Royal Succession Bon Origins.’ The real title ought to include the words Gling-bzhi [i.e. Gleng-gzhi] Bstan-pa’i ’Byung-khungs (‘Original Source of the Teachings, the Scene Setting’), since this is how it is cited in other Bon histories. The 1974 edition was simply copied from the Das edition. Nowadays more manuscripts have been popping up in the form of photocopies, but none of them have been published yet.

Text: mdo las / byang phyogs ge sar phrom gyi yul / mtha’ ras sha zan bod kyi gnas / nying sha nying gi za ba’i yul / zhes dang / mi la gdug pa che ba ni / phrom gyi mtha’ ras bod mi yin / bod la gdug pa che ba ni / nyang dwags kong po gsum yin te / de gsum las gdug pa che ba ni / kong po gdug pa’i mi rnams yin / zhes dang / ...

Comments: The general context is about the countries visited by Lord Shenrab (a long list was just given on p. 42, and Khrom Ge-sar is among them, although it would seem, to judge from the punctuating space, to be divided into two countries, Khrom and Ge-sar... it happens). The discussion is about who the nastiest people in the world might be. The word mtha’-ras is a problem for me, but I judge the meaning from context (the S.C. Das dictionary’s definition “piece-goods imported from border countries” just does not fit). 

Rough translation: The Sûtra says, ‘In the north is Ge-sar, the country of Phrom. At its borders is the place of the flesh-eating Tibetans. It is a country where they eat their own flesh themselves (or, where they eat flesh freshly killed on the same day?)’ and ‘The most despicable of humans are the Tibetans who live on the borders of Phrom. The most despicable of Tibetans are the three [regions] Nyang, Dwags and Kong-po. The most despicable of the three are the despicable people of Kong-po.’

{{The second sutra citation comes from the Gzer-mig (Tibet ed.), p. 491-2: mi las gdug pa che ba ni / phrom gyi mtha’ ras bod mi yin / bod las gdug pa che ba ni / myang dwags kong dang gsum po yin / de gsum la yang gdug pa ni / kong srin gdug pa’i mi rnams yin /}}

Note: The point of this all is that, in his quest to recover his seven stolen horses (yes, I know, the sun has seven horses), Lord Shenrab ends up in Kongpo, home of the worst of the worst. From his external perspective Tibet is truly a savage and forbidding place. (Gdug-pa doesn’t quite mean ‘despicable’ but oh well. Try inserting the translation ‘vicious’ instead.  It seems to have this meaning, also.)

Another note: See S.C. Das’ famous Tibetan dictionary, at p. 845: “Phrom n. of a country situated to the north-east of Yarkand and north of Tibet where Buddhism flourished in and before the 10th century A.D.; but thereafter it became desolate, though traces of its existence are occasionally discovered by travelers. This country in the 6th century A.D. is said to have been under the rule of king Gesar; acc. to Bon : byang phyogs ge sar phrom gyi yul in the north the country of Phrom of Gesar (G. Bon.).”

And while you have your Das dictionary out, have a look at the entry for Ge-sar on p. 224 which says, uniquely I think, that he was a powerful king ruling in Shensi in China.

I don’t see any need to swallow any of the speculative stuff served up here, but note at least that “G. Bon.” means the very same history Das published in 1900, and the very same passage I’ve supplied above.

— — —

In general, to judge from these instances in Bon histories of roughly 10th to 15th centuries, we may say that Phrom is characterized in interesting ways. It’s in the northern quarter (from the perspective of western Tibet?). It’s associated with expertise in medical treatments. It’s associated with warfare (the passage in SKC I didn’t entirely translate, and notice, too, the teachings on enemy gods). It’s always used as a place name rather than a personal name (and the same could be true or nearly true of Ge-sar when it occurs alone) in these Bon sources.

Part of our problem is that the Tibetanists of today are so familiar with the epic hero Gesar that they may not be reading the early sources with their intended meanings. Those sources do not mean him at all, or so I contend.

It would be a mistake of a different order to take the ‘etymologist’ view and think that these Tibetan usages of From Gesar must mean, or ‘truly’ mean, Caesar of Rome. I think the writers of these histories had in mind someone (or some place) closer to home, their home.

But finally, to answer the question Were these Phrom people Turkic? The answer is: Yes, I think so; etymologically or properly it means Roman, ‘Byzantine’ or Greek ethnicity, I suppose...  But ethnonyms do quite often shift from one group of people to another. In order to make this argument in favor of their Turkish identity we have to turn away momentarily from the Bon histories and go to the Tibetan genre of ‘Bone Treasuries’ (Rus-mdzod), which means records of patrilineal descent groups (very likely based on nomadic oral histories recited on speech-making occasions...). Few of these have now become available in printed form. But the Ladakhi Yoseb Gergan (d. 1946, he was one of those Christian converts that were more rarely encountered than udumbara flowers) collected information from several of them in his history published by his son in 1976. Gergan’s history forms the main basis of Roberto Vitali’s recent study in Lungta [a publication of the Amnye Machen Institute, McLeod Ganj, India], vol. 16 (Spring 2003), a special issue entitled “Cosmogony and the Origins,” an article with the title “Tribes which Populated the Tibetan Plateau, as Treated in the Texts Collectively Called the Khungs chen po bzhi,” on pp. 37-63. 

If you look near the bottom of p. 55 in Vitali’s article, you will see that the Ge-sar descent group is made up of Gar-log, Phrom, Gru-gu and Hor. Gar-log means Qarluk Turks, Gru-gu (pronounced Drugu) means Turk of some kind or another, but probably located in or around the western side of the Tarim. Hor means Uighur Turks. Therefore, in this source at least it is clear as day that the people of Phrom are Turkic and counted  among the Ge-sar Turks.

(But look just above Ge-sar on that same page in Vitali, and you see the peoples listed among the Tazig: Tho-gar, Bru-zha, Ju-lig, Gur-khus, Sig-nis, I-ni, A-sog, Ku-tsa-lag, Lag-ring and Gar-ge. The first two are pretty clear, the [western] Tokharians and the Burusho. But who are the others? I haven’t a clue at the moment.  But it sure is fun to give it a shot, or at least to wonder.  Perhaps Gur-khus is Kyrgyz?)

I would like to be able to say, by now, since we will soon bring this blog entry to a close, that there is some simple ending to the story. I will just remind anyone who might have had doubts that what we're doing here is research. The meaning is found more in the path than in some goal that can’t really be known until you get there. Is there a broader pattern, that our Tibetan Caesar could fit into, or is this an anomaly?  a fluke?

The Byzantines, the original ‘Romanians,’ were more connected to Tibet than we have yet imagined.  Just as Roman coins have been found in hoards along the coasts of South India, Byzantine coins have been found in the regions to the north of Tibet, regions that at some times fell under Tibetan imperial power. Significant Greek or Greek-inspired Persian or Byzantine silver vessels were preserved in Central Tibet, including rhyton-type drinking vessels.  It will be argued, in a forthcoming paper, that a Byzantine physician,* likely from roughly the region of Trabizond, near the Black Sea coast of what is now eastern Turkey, came to be a court physician to the Tibetan emperor in the middle of the 8th century.  There are still more indications of Greek and Byzantine Roma connections.  
(*In the Tibetan form, his name appears as Tsan Ba-shi-la-ha.  This could rather closely transcribe the name of one Basileos, with the Tsan representing his clan name...)
~  ~  ~

“One year later, in 739, Tegin shah abdicated the throne of Gandhara in favor of his son, Fu-lin-chi-p’o (also known as Fromo Kesaro, the Bactrian form of his name)...  The name implies an anti-Arab programme and propaganda at the time, which might be explained by Fromo Kesaro's having entered into manhood as an er at (meaning ‘man’s name’) in 719, the year in which a Byzantine delegation travelled through Tokharistan on their way to the Chinese emperor and informed the kingdoms of Central Asia of the great victory they had won over the Arabs the previous year.”
—  Harmatta and Litvinsky, p. 380 

This 'map' is based on textual descriptions of the geography of the world surrounding Tibet as found in the 15th-century Rgyal-rabs Bon-gyi 'Byung-gnas, although very similar maps* are known in quite a few Bon texts starting as early as the 11th century, and in certain non-Bon texts as well (I call this mappa mundi “The 18 Great Countries”).  You can see that Tazig (Stag-gzig) and Orgyan are located west of Tibet (here named by  the epithet ‘Having Glacial Mountain Ranges’).  Even further west, the country Phu-na is the same as Spu-na (in other versions), which is an understandable (but only in cursive manuscripts) misreading of Yu-na, which means the Yavanas, or Ionian Greeks.  Gesar and Hor — Uighurs, evidently — are in the north.  Tazig, Gesar, India and China were among the most important countries in the surroundings of Tibet.  Clearly, Tibet was not a part of any one of those foreign countries. These Tibetans located Tibet in the center of the world, like most peoples did. Like some still do.
(*For more on these maps, see Martin's article.)

Was there a conclusion hiding here somewhere?  How did Gesar, originally the name Caesar awarded to or adopted by a Turk Shahi king in the region of Kabul who was able to hold out against the Arab invaders, come to be used in Tibet for both a country to Tibet's north and for their only real national epic hero?  Should we end with a question?  Haven't we gone some distance toward finding answers?

Has anyone ever heard of Digenes Akrites ?

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There is some follow-up discussion, if you’re interested, at

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Have a look at some of these writings if you want to —

H.W. Bailey, Kusanica, Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, vol. 14, no. 3 (1952), pp. 420-434. Available at JSTOR, if you can get to it...

Solomon George Fitzherbert, The Tibetan Gesar Epic as Oral Literature, contained in: Brandon Dotson, et al., eds., Contemporary Visions in Tibetan Studies, Serindia (Chicago 2009), pp. 171-196.  

J. Harmatta and B.A. Litvinsky, Tokharistan and Gandhara under Western Türk Rule (650-750), contained in: B.A. Litvinsky, Zhang Guang-Da, R. Shabani Samghabadi, eds., History of Civilizations of Central Asia, Volume III: The Crossroads of Civilizations A.D. 250 to 750, Motilal Banarsidass (Delhi 1999), pp. 367-401.  If you can't find the book, UNESCO has thoughtfully provided the world with a PDF of the entire volume on the www here.

Amy Heller, The Silver Jug of the Lhasa Jokhang.  Freely available online here

H. Humbach, Phrom Gesar and the Bactrian Rome, contained in: Peter Snoy, ed., Ethnologie und Geschichte. Festschrift für Karl Jettmar, Franz Steiner Verlag (Wiesbaden 1983), pp. 303-309.

H. Humbach, New Coins of Fromo Kesaro, contained in: Gilbert Pollet, ed., India and the Ancient World: History Trade and Culture Before A.D. 650, = Orientalia Lovaniensia Analecta, vol. 25 (1987), pp. 81-85 plus plates.  

Samten Karmay, The Theoretical Basis of the Tibetan Epic, contained in: Samten G. Karmay, The Arrow and the Spindle: Studies in History, Myths, Rituals and Beliefs in Tibet, Mandala Book Point (Kathmandu 1998), vol. 1, pp. 472-487.  This was previously published as: The Theoretical Basis of the Tibetan Epic with Reference to a ‘Chronological Order’ of the Various Episodes in the Gesar Epic, Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, vol. 65, no. 2 (1993), pp. 234-246.  

Lin Lianrong, History and the Tibetan Epic Gesar, Oral Tradition, vol. 16, no. 2 (2001), pp. 317-342. This article is especially significant for drawing attention to Chinese studies of Gesar done in the 1930’s and ’40’s. On p. 322:  In addition, Han [Han Rulin, in 1988] criticizes the far-fetched claim that Ge sar was Caesar of Rome. However, his criticism did not reach Gesar researchers outside China, who continue to follow in their predecessors’ footsteps.”

D. Martin, Greek and Islamic Medicines’ Historical Contact with Tibet, forthcoming in: Anna Akasoy, Charles Burnett and Ronit Yoeli-Tlalim, eds., Islam and Tibet: Interactions along the Musk Routes, Ashgate (Farnham 2010).  Look here for a TOC.

D. Martin, Tibet at the Center: A Historical Study of Some Tibetan Geographical Conceptions Based on Two Types of Country-Lists Found in Bon Histories, contained in: Per Kværne, ed., Tibetan Studies, The Institute for Comparative Research in Human Culture (Oslo 1994), vol. 1, pp. 517-532.

Hugh Richardson, Names and Titles in Early Tibetan Records, contained in:  High Peaks, Pure Earth: Collected Writings on Tibetan History and Culture, Serindia (London 1998), pp. 12-24.

Geoffrey Samuel, Ge-sar of gLing: The Origins and Meanings of the East Tibetan Epic, contained as Chapter 8 in: Tantric Revisionings: New Understandings of Tibetan Buddhism and Indian Religion, Ashgate (Hants 2005), pp. 165-191. Someone has nicely put this up on the web in HTML here. I hope the link will work for you.  

R.A. Stein, Introduction to the Ge-sar Epic, The Tibet Journal, vol. 6, no. 1 (Spring 1981), pp. 3-13.  On p. 13:  It is still unknown what really happened.  But it is sure that Ge-sar is a transcription of first the Greek, and later Turkish title kaisar (“king” or “emperor”) and that Khrom, or better Phrom represents Frûm, an Iranian form of the name Rûm that is Eastern Rome (Byzance) and Turkish Anatolia.”  

Uray Géza, Vom römischen Kaiser bis zum König Ge-sar von Gliṅ, contained in:  W. Heissig, ed., Fragen der Mongolischen Heldendichtung, Teil 3, Otto Harrassowitz (Wiesbaden 1985), pp. 530-548. Since this paper is precisely on the topic, I regret not having a copy available to me at the moment. Perhaps you have better library resources.

Lin Yin, Western Turks and Byzantine Gold Coins Found in China, Transoxiana, vol. 6 (July 2003), available on the internet hereSolidus (pl. solidi).  Byzantine coins found in tomb excavations.  Coins were placed in the mouths of aristocratic corpses at burial, a practice known as obolus.

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There is actually quite a bit about Gesar the epic hero scattered about the internet.  I’d especially recommend this blogpage at Tibet Talk.

Someone named Khechok has in the past put up a lot of translations of Gesar material, with poetic verses that impress you with their super-masculine fortitude, honestly. First go here for an introduction, and then go to the blogsite itself. It’s called Echoes in Exile.

The late Robin Kornman — he went on to a purer land in 2007 — used to have a beautiful website devoted to Gesar Epic, with some samples of his carefully crafted translations, but it seems to have been taken down.  The archived version might still be available somehow.

There is a long Wiki entry on Gesar where I find too many reasons for feeling confused and dissatisfied, as is usually the case when there are too many cooks.  That’s not to say that the soup of solitary cooks always turns out well.

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A passage from an introduction to a reading from the Gesar epic by Prof. Matthew Kapstein (Chicago and Paris), located at this webpage (I apologize that this link leads nowhere; I will try to fix it if I can):

“It is not clear whether, during the same early period, one of the heroes thus lauded was Fromo Kesaro, “Caesar of Rome.” This was the title of a Turkish ruler of what is now Afghanistan, whose reign began in about 738 and who was allied for a time with Tibet in its conflicts with other Inner Asian powers. Though later Tibetan history forgot all about this Turkish warlord who had adopted an ancient Mediterranean title (which was, of course, still in use in the contemporaneous Byzantine empire), the name nevertheless lived on in the person of Ling Gesar, who early sources sometimes refer to as “Phrom (or Khrom) Ge sar,” a close transcription of Fromo Kesaro.”

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I bounced some this blog and its Gesar materials off members of the Yahoo discussion group called Sogdian-L some time ago, and derived benefit from some of the ensuing discussions.

La verità non sta in un solo sogno, 
ma in molti sogni.  
—  Paolo Pasolini's 1974 version of One Thousand and One Nights.  

One dream doesn't tell the whole story.
The truth lies in many dreams.

You could learn how to say this in many different languages, if you were only to go HERE.


  1. I heard the Mohican style hats the Gelugpas wear descend from the army of Alexandra the Great. Can you comment on this?

  2. Dear Anon,

    My fast and easy answer is No. But my slow answer is just that I would like to see signs of intermediate transmission. If you look at the Alexander coins, like these at a commercial site (no danger you will buy them since they are already sold!):

    you see that his helmet is tipped back. It includes a mask, with a visible eyehole, so you have to visualize the whole helmet sliding down over his face before you can see how the crest looks on top. Goddess Athena tends to wear a helmet that looks similar in its general outlines at least to his.

    Not all that unlike those Gelugpa hats, is it?

    The top ridge makes structural sense on the top of a helmet, if you just imagine blows raining down on top...

    Most of the helmets have either one or both motifs of a leogryph and a snake. This part of Alexander's helmet makes me think of the garuda-snake combination you see so much in Indian, Buddhist and Tibetan art. At the top of the throne-backing for Buddhas, for example, and what is probably basically the same thing, the toranas above temple doors and the like...

    But I'm not answering your question, which anyway I think is worth pursuing and discussing further before saying Yes or No. Anyone have something interesting to add?


  3. Dear Dan,
    Thanks a lot for this most interesting entry. I would humbly point to a mention of Ge-sar in the Dunhuang document PT 0958 (see S. G. Karmay "The Theoretical Basis of the Tibetan Epic", in The Arrow and the Spindle, p. 482).

  4. Dear Lagaturman,

    Are you a real live Turk Shahi king? We are much honored that you visit us. Do you still reside in the neighborhood of Kabul? I hope you are fine, but I suppose I shouldn't worry. You've weathered a lot of storms over the centuries.

    This Pelliot Tibetan text 958 is the same one Macdonald studied in an article, and that Dietz also wrote about in the Munich 1985 PIATS. It has the country name (not the epic hero) Phrom Ge-sar, and being an early text it's fascinating for me to see that it is located in the western quarter, while Tazig and Dru-gu (Turks) are located in the northern quarter. By the 13th century, at least, both Phrom and Gesar (for sometimes they were divided into two entities) had shifted to the north. I see significance in this shift in location. I should add Karmay's article to my bibliography. Thank you for stopping by and thank you for the tip.


  5. Just thinking out loud... I somehow never made before the connection between al Biruni's "Tibetan" Turki Shahi and Fromo Gesaro's coins. Has it already been discussed somewhere before?

  6. Dear L,

    Yes, have a look at the Humbach articles in the bibliography, although they may be hard to find in most libraries. It would be easier, if you have a good internet connection, to download the book for free by clicking on the link in the bibliography entry for J. Harmatta and B.A. Litvinsky. They all use the term "Turk Shahi," although I'm not sure that actually answers your question directly!

    Fromo Kesaro is called Fu-lin Ki-p'o in Chinese sources. Humbach (1983: 305) says "It was first seen by ... Pelliot (1923)... that the name of Rome (Later on designating Byzance) is represented in the Middle-Persian as Hrôm, in Parthian and Sogdian as Frôm, in Ancient Turkish as Purum and in Chinese as Fu-lin." So the tracing of this Phrom = Rome name across Eurasia is owed to him.

    But it was Harmatta and Humbach, who almost simultaneously made the connection that the Turkish ruler of Kâpisha that is named Fu-lin Ki-p'o in Chinese has a title that came from 'Rome Caesar.' (The syllable p'o is a not uncommon miswriting for the syllable so... so once you make that emendation, the resemblance is clear.

    Later on it was Humbach alone, I believe, who discovered that this person is the same one called in a Bactrian coin inscription (published by Göbl), "Fromo [forom, foromo] Kêsaro bago xoadeo," Caesar of Rome, lord and ruler.

    Unfortunately, I'm not clear about what "Turk Shahi" means in any strict historical sense, besides just meaning a Turkish ruler, probably in Kabul's general area. I believe it is supposed to be used for a specific royal dynasty, is that correct? Without inscriptional materials (Tochi Valley inscriptions & coins), we would hardly be sure this dynasty existed, Isn't that right?


  7. Dear Dan,

    As I was writing quite a long answer I found an article on wikipedia about the Kabul Shahi. It looks pretty new, well documented and probably worth reading.
    It does not seem to refer to Beckwith's "Tibetan Empire..." which also has interesting informations on the IXth century rulers of Kabul nor to M. A. Stein's article "Zur Geschichte der Shâhis von Kâbul".


  8. The Turk[i] Shahi, perhaps sometimes with Buddhist sympathies, were replaced by the Hindu Shahi, obviously leaning toward Hinduism, at some point (870 CE?), is that right? And I've noticed at least since the early part of our new century a lot more people in art history are using the term "Patola Shahi." Does this mean the same thing? Some also say, like M. Stein, "Kabul Shahi."

    I notice the Wiki writers hesitate to identify the Turk Shahi kings as being Turks, and want to call them 'Buddhist Shahi' instead. The Wiki pushes for a Kamboja origin of the royal line very strongly indeed!

    Anyway, it seems that a lot of important information is coming from inscriptions on artworks, including bronzes that were preserved in Tibetan monasteries.

    I've had the idea before that al-Biruni was calling these kings 'Tibetan' just because of their Buddhism. Of course intermarriage could have happened, but basically if royal bloods were moving in any direction, it was from those parts to Tibet (and not from Tibet to there), because of banishment or exile or refuge for other such reasons. As far as I can see!

    I've resolved to learn more and see more. Cheers!

  9. Dear Dan,

    My interest for those people being quite new, I am not yet aware of the most recent studies. I believe that the use of the name "Turki Shahi" is a convention, born from al Biruni's text (while "Kabul Shah" would be used to englobe "Hindu Shah" ?). I might add to the confusion by quoting H. A. R. Gibb for whom the Arabic records use: "the word 'Turk' for all the non-Persian peoples of the east".

    If considering a wider area for comparison (and assuming I remember properly) the Sassanid heir fled the Arab invasion, but in China. The so-called 'Bru-zha family is thought to be coming to Tibet from Gilgit, but only in the XIth century. A Tibetan princess went in the opposite way in the mid-VIIIth century.

    I would gladly hear of more about "royal bloods circulation" between this part of the world and Tibet at that time. Is there anything else than myths on the matter ?


    ps.: sorry if all this sounded like evidence, but I enjoyed reading what might have sounded like evidence to some on the previous discussion on Swat.

  10. Dear T.

    Thanks for your comments. Evidence is important for supporting or discounting ideas. A little conflicting evidence doesn't necessarily overturn a good idea. It may just dampen it down a little bit.

    Who was that Tibetan princess?

    A small point: The 'Bru family, from 'Bru-sha where they were royal bloods, would become one of the six main families for Bon religion in Tibet. But since a member of the 'Bru family was there among the students of Shenchen Luga shortly after the excavation of the scriptures in 1017, then his family had to move into western Tibet and Tsang before the 11th century. (Shenchen himself, came down with his family from area of Tsongkha in NE part of the plateau, in Amdo several generations before he was born...)

    Late in the 11th century there was an interesting character named Bha-ro Lag-rdum (Lag-rdum means arm stump) or Skyes-bu Me-lha. His father was a physician in Orgyan named Jinamitra. Lag-rdum became court physician to the king in Orgyan, but was accused of having an affair with the queen, as a result got his hand chopped off and was exiled to Tibet, where he was especially active in western Tibet in Toling, but also had followers of his medical system in the center.

    For an example of a Tibetan royal blood going west we have the abduction of Lha Lama Yeshe-ö by the Qarluqs. I suppose that counts, although he is supposed to have died in captivity, so his being there didn't make much difference to anyone living in that area... (More likely he died in bed, at home, as you find in the Rinchen Zangpo biography.)

    Maybe some Tibetan royal blood did go off to rule in Afghanistan. No reason to deny the possibility. I'll doubt it until I see reason to believe it from the Tibetan side. Outsiders are always confused about 'Tartars' and other such vague terms that may or may not really mean Tibetan.

    Sorry, spinning my mental wheels aloud again. Anyway, I don't see how any of this is necessarily connected to the From Gesar problem, except to show that there was quite a bit of circulation of people in those days (as we would know anyway, from the migrations of so many peoples in the surroundings of Tibet).


  11. Dear Dan,

    If I somehow implied that some Afghan kings were actually of Tibetan origin, it was not what I wanted to mean (and you can blame me for writing too fast).

    About the 'Bru-sha family migration, I was almost sure I read that in Dondrup Lhagyal's article "Bonpo Family Lineage in Central Tibet". Now that I'm checking, I'm afraid I might have mis-remembered that part (or read it elsewhere?). I surely wouldn't contradict you on the matter.

    About the Tibetan princess sent in Bru-zha, the reference is in the Old Tibetan Annals (ITJ 0750 l.283).

    I'm sorry to have brought the discussion off-topic.


  12. Dear T,

    Oh, my. Sorry. Didn't mean to sound like I'm complaining. If everything's interconnected, then nothing can be off topic.

    I'm wishing at the moment that I had access to a recent book by von Hinüber. Apparently we ought to call the Patola Shahi kings the Palola Shahi kings. For bibliographic info, see Indologica:

    The Bon family is always called the 'Bru family, not the 'Bru-sha family, although of course by their national origins they came from Bru-sha/'Bru-zha, and one or two members of the family did place the country name in front of their names.

    There's a passage I think nobody has noticed so far that looks relevant to our discussion. In Bu-ston's Yogatantra history, p. 166, there is a story about a Tibetan translator who was seized by the Bru-sha army and made chaplain of the Bru-sha court (his name was Sbrags Li-chung). Deserves looking into.

    How closely were Gilgit and Kabul areas linked during those centuries?

    Gotta fly.


  13. I removed the addresses from the email before posting this comment (otherwise given as is). -D.

    John Hill has left a new comment on your post "From Gesar: The Place This Time":

    Dear Dan:

    I have just been put on to your great site today by a mutual friend here in McLeod Ganj, Dharamshala, who suggested I contact you. Some years ago I wrote a paper in which I believe I was able to make a strong case for the identification of a real person mentioned in the Chinese histories in the late 8th and early 9th centuries as the "original" Gesar. I won't be home until November 17th, so I can't send the article to you at the moment as it is there on my other (larger) computer.

    If you might be interested to see it, though, please send me an email address and I will forward it to you after I get home.

    All best wishes, and thanks so much for the great blog.


    John Hill

  14. Dear reader,

    S.G. Fitzherbert (Oxford) recently drew my attention to an article that I hadn't known about before, and one that is very relevant to From Gesar and his connectedness to Ling Gesar of Tibetan Epic, which he (Inaba) regards as possible. Here is the reference:

    Minoru Inaba, From Kesar the Kâbulšâh and Central Asia, contained in: M. Alram, D. Klimburg-Salter, M. Inaba & M. Pfisterer, eds., Coins, Art and Chronology II: The First Millennium C.E. in the Indo-Iranian Borderlands, Österreichische Akademie der Wissenschaften (Vienna 2008), pp. 443-455. It's really an interesting paper for pulling so many threads together, paying special attention to an account of a marriage alliance with Khotan, and it includes a map!


  15. I just noticed that this paper was given at the Gesar conference in Paris last October:

    Frantz Grenet – "An Historical Figure at the Origin of Gesar of Phrom: From Kēsar, King of Kabul (738-745)—The State of Current Research."

    Looks extremely interesting! The author is a well known expert in Iranistics.


  16. Oh my, after downloading it at, I just read a brief article by an Iranian professor Daryoosh Akbarzadeh, "A Term for Rome and Byzantium in the Persian Texts," Byzantion Nea Hellás vol. 32 (2013), pp. 225-232. It's about a usage of Frwm (Frôm) in the Kush-nameh, an Iranian Islamic epic written in 1108 to 1111 CE. Seeing that the epic places this Frwm in the general direction of China, rather than in presentday Turkey, the professor argues that it is because Iranian authors had gotten confused about their geography. Anyone who has read this blog will know that there is an alternative reason for finding a place called Frôm in the north/northeast of Iran... a reason that doesn't require that any confusion enter into the picture.


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