Monday, March 10, 2014

Bird Dogs of Tibet

Yes, I know there are a lot of examples of hybrid animals in Tibetan lore, like combinations of sea creatures and mammals, carp-headed otters and the like, not all of them nearly as cute as what you see above. Some of them like the makara, in Tibetan the chusin (ཆུ་སྲིན་), come from India, true enough. But I really didn’t intend to talk about them today; I’m looking in a different direction altogether. I just came back from what may be the most impressive bird sanctuary in the world, so you may understand I’m still under the spell. What I do want to talk about are dogs raised (and perhaps also hatched) in bird nests. To put it another way, the scene would have to look a lot more like this:

Something I read in an article by Antonio Terrone perked my interest when it came out not so long ago. It’s about one of the most famous Lamas in the Tibetan plateau in recent decades, the much-respected and now sadly departed Khenpo Jigpun་༼མཁན་པོ་འཇིགས་ཕུན་༽. Terrone quotes from Gyurme Dorje’s much-used travel guide, Tibet Handbook, at p. 611.  However, my edition of that book must be a different one, because I found it on page 620 in mine:
"Khenpo Jikpun is well-known for obtaining the ‘bird-dogs’ of Tibet, a tiny dog which is reputably* found in the nest of cliff-nesting birds, and has the power to detect poison in food! He presented one to the Dalai Lama on a recent visit to India. He has also travelled widely in Europe and North America."
(*I guess he means reputedly. I should email the author to be sure.)

I was surprised once again a few weeks ago when I came across another quote, this one by the 11th-century Turkologist Kashgari as translated by the modern Turkologist Robert Dankoff in an oldish article of his.  

“Perhaps,” says Dankoff, “the strangest lore in the Diwan concerns baraq, the shaggy dog (kalb ahlab),” 

Kashgari says: 
“The Turks claim that when the vulture grows old it lays two eggs and then hatches them. From one emerges this dog, called Baraq — it is the swiftest of running dogs and the most reliable in the hunt; from the other emerges a chick, the last of its chicks.”

Well, I wager you’ve already admitted that the ideas are similar. Yes of course, apart from the difference that while one has the ability to detect poison the other can run like the wind. Several Turkic groups were living in close proximity to Tibet for quite a long time, not to mention Kashgari himself. So I don’t know if there is enough chance of finding an answer to justify placing the question how and where the bird-dog exchanges may have come about. I’m afraid I know little more than what I’ve told you already. Still, I somehow regard it as impressive enough to warrant a short blog like this one you see hanging in front of your glazed-over eyeballs, wearily rolling backward in their sockets in utter disbelief at this late-night shaggy dog story. All I can say in my defense is that the dog might not be all that shaggy after all. Go on and stick that in your pipe and smoke it, esteemed professors.

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You must surely be demanding to see sources of authority for these amazing claims. Here you go:

Robert Dankoff, “Kâsgarî on the Beliefs and Superstitions of the Turks,”  Journal of the American Oriental Society, vol. 95, no.1 (January 1975), pp. 68-80, at p. 79.*
(*There are quite a few other things in Dankoff’s article suggesting some remarkably deep Tibeto-Turkic relations. I’m sure you already know that the oldest Tibetan texts display knowledge of the Turks they know as དྲུ་གུ་ or གྲུ་གུ་. I hate to be the bearer of difficult truths, but this dru-gu can in real instances be collapsed into the single syllable drug (དྲུག་), and this unwary translators are bound to render as the number six.  And གྲུ་གུ་?  It can also mean a ball of string.  Well, before I get tooo deep into the labyrinth, I think I’ll save that Turkic connection talk for another time, one more convenient to me.)
Gyurme Dorje, Tibet Handbook with Bhutan, Passport Books (Lincolnwood 1996), at p. 620.

Antonio Terrone, “Visions, Arcane Claims and Hidden Treasures: Charisma and Authority in a Present-day Gter-ston,” contained in: P. Christiaan Klieger, ed., Tibet, Self & the Tibetan Diaspora: Voices of Difference, Brill (Leiden 2002), pp. 213-228, at p. 222.

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PS: Googlebooks tells me there is something about a man nicknamed Shaggy Dog Shaman in Julian Baldick's book Animal and Shaman.  His somewhat more proper name was Baraq Baba. He was a Turkish Muslim and he lived in around the year 1300.
“We are told that Baraq Baba and his followers were beardless, but with long moustaches, and wore felt hats with two horns. Around their necks hung cows’ knuckle bones painted with henna, crooked sticks and little bells. They would beat drums and play other instruments...”
This is complete news to me, but he sure sounds like an entertaining guy to invite to your next party.

If you read Turkish better than I do, have a look at this Vikipedia entry. To believe the entry about him in Encyclopaedia Iranica* as I tend to do, Baraq Baba’s nickname means just the opposite of shaggy dog; it means hairless dog. To tell the truth, disregarding the hair problem for now, he resembles more than a little the young Götsangpa. Maybe it’s just the horned hat* and the showbiz attitude. Hmm... they lived at nearly the same time, didn’t they? 

(*I’m not sure you can get there, but give it a try here.)
(*For more on the horns see the blog on Birdhorns.)

PS:  There is further information of extraordinary interest in the comments section, a comment by "lovesong," so I think you ought to have a look right about now.

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