Monday, February 11, 2019

Gold Digging Ants of Herodotus, Part 1

You must have heard the story before. It’s been told for nearly two and a half millennia. People have been arguing for their own views about it since at least the Greek historian Herodotus. The story about the ants — or are those really ants? — he described as digging up gold for the benefit of human prospectors has fascinated a lot of people a lot of times for various reasons. Unfortunately the classic 1870 study by Danish professor Frederic Schiern (1816-1882), in its shortened English translation by Anna Childers, only exists in a version with cracked up letters that won’t scan well. That’s why I resolved to use my own eyesight and keyboard muscles to type it out. My source is The Indian Antiquary, August 1875, pages 225-232. Please forgive me if I’ve made transcription errors of my own (the notes in particular have some terribly unclear letters), although I did double-check and did my best, copying every last jot and tittle as is.* This is only the half of it. There is a brief and I hope representative bibliography at the end for your reading pleasure.**
(*But if you notice inaccuracies in my transcription, please do drop a note in the comments section and I’ll try to fix them.  **This is not a bibliography of the works mentioned by Schiern. He was writing back in the day when abbreviated references were enough.)


by Frederic Schiern, Professor of History at the University of Copenhagen. Translated by Anna M.H. Childers.

HERODOTUS is the earliest Greek writer who mentions gold-digging ants. Omitting irrelevant matter, the following is the account he gives of them:—

“Besides these there are Indians of another tribe, who border on the city of Kaspatyrus and the country of Paktyika: these people dwell northward of all the rest of the Indians, and follow nearly the same mode of life as the Baktrians. They are more warlike than any of the other tribes, and from them the men are sent forth who go to procure the gold. For it is in this part of India that the sandy desert lies. Here in this desert there live amid the sand great ants, in size somewhat less than dogs, but bigger than foxes. The Persian king has a number of them, which have been caught by the hunters in the land whereof we are speaking. These ants make their dwellings underground, and, like the Greek ants, which they very much resemble in shape, throw up sand-heaps as they burrow. Now the sand which they throw up is full of gold. The Indians when they go into the desert to collect this sand take three camels and harness them together, a female in the middle, and a male on either side in a leading-rein. The rider sits on the female, and they are particular to choose for the purpose one that has just dropped her young: for their female camels can run as fast as horses, while they bear burdens very much better . . . .  When, then, the Indians reach the place where the gold is, they fill their bags with the sand and ride away at their best speed: the ants, however, scenting them, as the Persians say, rush forth in pursuit. Now these animals are so swift, they declare, that there is nothing in the world like them: if it were not, therefore, that the Indians get a start while the ants are mustering, not a single gold-gatherer could escape. During the flight the male camels, which are not so fleet as the females, grow tired, and begin to drag first one and then the other: but the females recollect the young which they have left behind, and never give way or flag. Such, according to the Persians, is the manner in which the Indians get the greater part of their gold: some is dug out of the earth, but of this the supply is more scanty.”†
*Professor Schiern's essay was published in the Verhandl. Kgl. Dänischen Gesellsch. der Wissensch. for 1870, and was also printed separately as a pamphlet in Danish, German, and French. My translation is from the French version, which is considerably abridged, and therefore more suited to the pages of the Antiquary. I have slightly condensed the text in a few places. I take this opportunity of pointing out that Professor Schiern is not the first who has supposed the gold-digging ants to be Tibetan miners, as Pall Mall Gazette of March 16, 1869, written by Sir Henry Rawlinson :— 
“Now then for the first time we have an explanation of the circumstances under which so large a quantity of gold is, as is well known to be the case, exported to the west from Khoten, and finds its way into India from Tibet; and it is probable that the search for gold in this region has been going on from a very remote antiquity, since no one can read the Pandit's account of the Tibetan miners, ‘living in tents some seven or eight feet below the surface of the ground, and collecting the excavated earth in heaps previous to washing the gold out of the soil,’ without being reminded of the description which Herodotus gives of the ‘ants in the land of the Indians bordering on Kaspatyrus (or Kaspapyrus for Kaśyapura or Kāśmīr), which made their dwellings underground, and threw up sand-heaps as they burrowed, the sand which they threw up being full of gold.’ Professor Wilson indeed long ago, and before it was known there were any miners actually at work in Tibet, suggested this explanation of the story in Herodotus, on the mere ground that the grains of gold, collected in that country were called pipilika or ant-gold.”
To Professor Schiern is, however, unquestionably due the merit of an independent discovery, and above all of the lucid and laborious exposition of the evidence in favour of his theory.—A.M.H.C. 
†Herodotus, iii 102, 105. I take the translation from Rawlinson.—A.M.H.C.

Such is the story of the gold-digging ants as told by the far-travelled Herodotus, “the Humboldt of his time,” who had come to Susa for the preparation of his magnificent history, a work scarcely less valuable from a geographical and ethnological than from a historical point of view. The story, for the truth of which Herodotus was compelled to rely entirely upon the statements of the Persians, we find repeated by a great many later Greek and Roman authors.[1] How deeply the legend had taken root among the ancient Greeks may best be seen from the narrative of Harpokration, who records the sarcasms of the comic poets relative to a fruitless expedition against the gold-digging ants undertaken by the Athenians with troops of all arms, and provisions for three days. “It was rumoured among the Athenians one day,” he says, “that a mound of gold-dust had been seen on Mount Hymettus guarded by the warlike ants: whereupon they armed themselves and set out against the foe, but returned to Athens after much expenditure of labour to no purpose, they said mockingly to

[1] Cont. Strabo, II.1; XV.1; Arrian. de Exped. Alexandr. V.4; Indica, 5; Dio Chrysostom, Orat. XXXV.; Philostrat. de l'Iti Apollonii Tyan, VI.1; Clem Alex. Poed, II.12; Allian, de Nat.An. XV.14; Harpokrat. n.t. khrusuthoein(?); Themist. Orat. XXVII; Heliodor. X.26; Tzets. Chil XII.330-340; Pseudo Callisth. II.29; Schol ad Sophoel. Antig. v.1025.


[p. 226]
each-other, ‘So you thought you were going to smelt gold!’”

The gold-digging ants of the Indians are mentioned in the writings of the Middle Ages and in those of the Arabian authors, and the tradition of them survived among the Turks as late as the sixteenth century. None of the authorities throw any doubt upon the truth of the tradition except Strabo, who treats the whole story as a fiction, and Albertus Magnus, who in quoting it adds, “sed hoc non satis est probatum per experimentum.”

The advent of criticism did not at once dispel the belief in this fable. So late as the end of the last century we find the learned Academician Larcher, in his French translation of Herodotus,[1] cautioning his readers against hastily rejecting the narrative of the Greek historian; and two years later, in 1788, Major James Rennel, while admitting the exaggerations of the story, gives it none the less as his opinion that the formidable adversaries of the Indians were termites or white ants.[2] In the 19th century when people at length ceased to look upon these bellicose gold-diggers as really ants, the opinion began to prevail that there had simply been a confusion between the names of the ant and of some animal of larger size. In connection with this view, or even excluding the hypothesis of a confusion of names, it was also supposed that a certain resemblance between the ant and some larger animal had given rise to the fable, or at least contributed to maintain it. The idea of resemblance was especially grounded on the larger animal's mode of digging its burrow, or excavating the earth with any other object. This animal has been variously identified with the corsac or Tartary fox, the hyena, the jackal, the hamster (Mus cricetus) and the marmot.[3] The theory that the auriferous earth cast up by burrowing animals guided the Indian gold-seekers, and originated the tradition of the gold-digging ants, is curiously confirmed by an observation of Alexander von Humboldt: “I have often been struck,” he says, “by seeing ants in the basaltic districts of the highlands of Mexico carrying along shining grains of hyalith, which I was able to pick out of the anthills.”[4] But the supposed similarity which has led to classifying as ants animals widely different from them is not limited to their mode of excavation or throwing up the earth, for an attempt has also been made to extend it to their shape and general appearance. This was done long ago by Jacob Gronovius in his interpretation of the ancient narrative,[5] and even in our own time Xivrey expresses himself still more plainly to the same effect.[6]

The hypothesis of a confusion of names had to be entirely abandoned when Wilson pointed out that the ancient Sanskrit literature of India itself mentions these ants. In a remarkable passage of the great Indian epic, the Mahâbhârata, we have an enumeration of the treasures sent by the Northern tribes to king Yudhisthira, one of the sons of Pâṇḍu, and among them are lumps of paipilika gold, so called because it was collected by ants (pipîlikîs).[7] Apart from this fact, it must be admitted that the burrowing habits of foxes, jackals and hyenas hardly afford a plausible pretext for confounding them with ants : it would be more natural to make comparisons of this sort with certain rodents such as marmots, but even those who adopt this solution make no attempt to ignore its weak points. Thus Lassen writes: “The accounts of their prodigious swiftness, their pursuit and destruction of gold-seekers and their camels, must be looked upon as purely imaginary, since they (marmots) are slow in their movements and of a gentle disposition.”[8] In the same way Peschel makes the following admission : “It has not been hitherto explained on what grounds such remarkable speed and ferocity should be attributed to these ants, while marmots are represented as peace-loving crea-

[1] Tome III, p. 339.
[2] Memoir of a Map of Hindostan, Int. p. xxix.
[3] Conf. Link. Die Urwelt und das Alterthum (Berlin 1821-22), I, 258; Ritter, Die Erdkunde, III, 659; Humboldt, Kosmos, II, 176; Wahl, Erdbeschreibung von Ostindien (Hamburg 1805-7), II, 185, 486; Wilford, Asiat. Res. XIV, 467. Kruse [?], Indiens alte Geschichte (Leipzig, 1856), p. 39; Heeren, [illeg.] über die Politik, I, 1, 348; Vigne, Travels in Kashmir ¶c, 1f, 287; Peschel, Der Ursprung und die Verbreitung einiger geographischen Mythen in Mittelalter, II, 265; Lassen, Ind.Alt, I, 50, 1022; Cunningham, Ladak, p. 232.
[4] Kosmos, II, 422. Compare the story of the diamond anthill in the case of Rahery [Rubery?] n. Sampson.—Ed.
[5] Worte in den Anmerkungen zu Tschuckes Ausgabe von Pomponius Mela (Leipzig, 1806), III, 3, 245.
[6] Traditions tératologiques, pp. 265, 267.
[7] Wilson, Ariana Antiqua, p. 135, and Jour. R. As.Soc. (1843) vol. VII, p. 148
[8] Ind. Alt. I, 1922.


[p. 227]
tures.”[1] In short, as regards those writers who have endeavoured to explain the confusion of names by a certain external resemblance, suffice it to say that they have themselves despaired of finding an animal that would satisfy the conditions of their theory. Xivrey naïvely attributes this difficulty to the auri sacra fames, holding that a race of gold-digging animals may have really existed, and gradually disappeared before the incursions of man.[2]

We now come to a wholly different solution of the question. So long ago as the year 1819 Malte-Brun wrote : “May we not also suppose that an Indian tribe really bore the name of ants?”[3] It is by following up the clue thus afforded by our learned countryman that we may hope to arrive at a solution of this question. But it will be necessary in the first place to determine, in what direction we are to look for the dwelling-place of the gold-digging ants, by taking as our starting-point the places mentioned by Herodotus. According to the Greek historian, the Indians who went in search of the gold lived in the neighbourhood of the city of Kaspatyrus (Κασπατυρος) and of Paktyike (η Πακτυικη χωρη). Now the inhabitants of Paktyike are none other than the Afghans, who in the west call themselves Pashtun and in the east Pakhtun,[4] a name idéntical with that given to them by Herodotus. As to the second locality, instead of Kaspatyrus, the name given in most editions of Herodotus, the Codex Sancroftianus, preserved in Emanuel College, Cambridge, give that of Kaspapyrus (Κασπαπυρος), a reading found also in Stephanus Byzantinus, and clearly pointing to the ancient name of the capital of Kâśmîr, Kâśyapapura, contracted to Kâśyapura.

We are thus brought to śmîr. We have in our own times seen how the Sikhs, the present masters of śmîr, took possession of large portions of Tibet, namely, of Ladak or Central Tibet in 1831, and of Balti or Little Tibet in 1840. But we know that in former times the Subâhdârs, or governors of śmîr under the Great Mughul, and earlier yet the kings, both Muhammadan and Hindu, of independent śmîr, likewise strove to extend their conquests in the same direction. And hence we may well suppose that it was to Tibet that the Indians of Herodotus repaired when they left their native śmîr in search of gold. This supposition is confirmed by the fact that Strabo and the elder Pliny expressly mention the Dards as those who robbed the ants of their treasures.[5] For the Dards are not an extinct race. According to the accounts of modern travellers, they consist of several wild and predatory tribes dwelling among the mountains on the north-west frontier of śmîr, and by the banks of the Indus : [6] they are the Daradas of Sanskrit literature. They understand Pushtu, the language of the Afghans,[7] but their native tongue is a Sanskritic idiom. Even at the present day they carry on their marauding profession in Little and Central Tibet, and it is chiefly on this account that the picturesque vale of Huzara, which has at all times belonged to Little Tibet, remains in great part waste, in spite of its natural fertility.[8] Mir Izzet Ullah, the travelling companion of Moorcroft, who visited Tibet in 1812, writes as follows in his Journal:—“The houses of this country from Matayin to this place are all wrecked and deserted. Last year a great number of the inhabitants were carried off by bands of Dards, an independent tribe who live in the mountains three or four days’ march north of Diriras, and speak Pashtu and Dáradi. The prisoners made by them in these raids are sold for slaves.”[9]

AElian, who makes the river Kampylinus the limit of the ant country,[10] throws no light upon the question of Tibet, for it is impossible to gather from the text whether or not the Kampylinus denotes a branch of the Indus. But Tibet is indicated with tolerable certainty in the remarkable passage of the Mahâbhârata above referred to, as well as in the statements of Herodotus, Strabo, and Pliny. For among the north-

[1] Der Ursprung und Verbreitung einiger geographischen Mythen im Mittelalter, in Deutsch Vierteljahrschrift, II. 266.
[2] Trad. tératologiques, p. 267.
[3] Mémoire sur l'Inde septentrionale, in Nouvelles Annales des Voyages (Paris, 1819), II. 382.
[4] Hindustanicè Pathân.—Ed.
[5] Strabo, XV. 1; Pliny, Hist. Nat. VI. 22; XI. 36.
[6] Vigne, Travels, II. 300 ; Leitner, Dardistan, II. 31-34.
[7] Vigne, Travels, II. 268.
[8] Moorcroft and xxxx [the notes are illegible here in my copy]


[p. 228]
-ern tribes who brought to king Yudhishṭhira the paipîlika gold the Khaśas are expressly mentioned ; and not only are the Khaśas frequently alluded to in the Kâśmîrian chronicle Râja Taragiî, which locates them in the neighbourhood of the city of Kâśmîr,[1] but they are even known at the present day under the name of Khasiyas, as a people speaking one of the Indian languages, and dwelling on the borders of Tibet.[2] In the passage relating to the tribute brought to the king by the Khaśas and other northern tribes, the Mahâbhârata also speaks of “sweet honey made from the flowers of Himavat,” and of “fine black châmaras , and others that were white and brilliant as the moon.” Now Himavat is only another name for the Himâlaya, and châmara is the name of the fans or fly-flaps which in India kings only are allowed to use, and which are made from the tail of the Yak or Tibetan ox (Bos grunniens).[3] 

[1] Troyer's transl. II. 321 ff. ; Neumann, Geschichte des englischen Reiches in Asien (Leipzig, 1837), I. 209 ; Lassen, Ind' Alt. I. 1820 ; Huc, Souvenirs d'un voyage dans la Tartarie, &c 264-66, 311, 321, 381.
[2] Hodgson in Jour. As. Soc. Beng. (1848) XVII. 546 ; Lassen, Ind. Alt. I. 24, 67, 459, 473=74, 646, 1020-1021.

TO BE CONTINUED!  We’ll start up again at p. 228, the first full paragraph.

Herodotus, one of the world's earliest history book writers.

BRUNIALTI, A. “La tradizione delle formiche che scavano l'oro e il minator del Tibet” [The Tradition of Ants that Dig Gold and the Minator of Tibet], Bol. Soc. Geog. Ital., vol. 40 (1874), pp. 370-6.  Not seen. 

CARDELL, MONIQUE L. “Herodotus and the Gold Digging Ants, A Voyage across Time and Space,” a paper in docx format from the internet (now try this link). 

FRANCKE, AUGUST HERMANN “Two Ant Stories from the Ancient Kingdom of Western Tibet (A Contribution to the Question of the Gold-Digging Ants),” Asia Major, vol. 1 (1924), pp. 67-75.  With patience, you may be able to download the volume here.

JEAN-BAPTISTE, PATRICK “L'historien grec Herodotus a-t-il dit la verite? L'or des marmottes” [Did the Greek Historian Herodotus Tell the Truth?  The Marmots’ Gold], Sciences et avenir, no. 656 (2001), pp. 74-75. 

KARSAI, GY. “Die Geschichte von den goldgrabenden Ameisen” [The Story of the Gold-Digging Ants], Annales Universitatis Budapestinensis, Sectio Classica, vol. 5-6 (1977-8), pp. 61-72. 

KARTTUNEN, KLAUS India in Early Greek Literature, Studia Orientalia series no. 65 (Helsinki 1989), especially the section “Gold-Digging Ants” on pp. 171-176. 
LAUFER, BERTHOLD “Die Sage von den goldgrabenden Ameisen” [The Legend of the Gold-Digging Ants], T'oung Pao, vol. 9 (1908), pp. 429-452. 

McCARTNEY, EUGENE S. “The Gold-Digging Ants,” Classical Journal, vol. 49 (1954), p. 234. For this you need JSTOR and an academic subscription.

PEISSEL, MICHEL The Ants' Gold: The Discovery of the Greek El Dorado in the HimalayasHarvill Press (London 1984). On the author’s very eventful life, try looking here.

PUSKAS, ILDIKO “On An Ethnographical Topos in the Classical Literature (The Gold-Digging Ants),” Annales Universitaris Budapestinensis, Sectio classica, vol. 5-6 (1977-78), pp. 73-87.

REGENOS, G.W. “A Note on Herodotus III, 102,” The Classical Journal, vol. 34, no. 7 (April 1939), pp. 425-426. 

RIZVI, JANET “Lost Kingdoms of the Gold-Digging Ants” [a review of Michel Peissel's book L'or des fourmis: La découvete de l'Eldorado grec au Tibet], India International Centre Quarterly, vol. 15, no. 2 (Summer 1988), pp. 131-147. 

SCHIERN, FREDERIC “The Tradition of the Gold-Digging Ants,” tr. by Anna M.H. Childers, Indian Antiquary, vol. 4 (August 1875), pp. 225-232. Idem., Über den Ursprung der Sage von den goldgrabenden Ameisen (Copenhagen/Leipzig 1883).  Try this link.  Same title in Zeitschrift für Ethnologie, vol. 6 (1874), 98-101, although this is actually a review by Felix Liebrecht. Many want the ants to be some other larger animal, but Schiern wants them to be a group of humans instead. If you go read Francke, it may sway you back in favor of the antness of the ants, hard telling.

SHARMA, ARVIND “The Story of the Gold-Digging Ants: Greek Rationality or Rationalization?” From the internet; try here. 
I think Arvind Sharma is on to something: Not only later classical Greek authors, but modern classicists as well, have been gripped by the urge to “save” the rationalism of Herodotus, and the Greeks as a whole, from what looks like a fantastically irrational story. Rationalists feel duty-bound to defend what must be perceived by us all as the origins of our European-Aristotelian rationalism. And to do this they see themselves entirely justified in using whatever reasonable-enough-sounding rationalization works for them. True, E.R. Dodds did write that book on The Greeks and the Irrational.

SIMONS, MARLISE “Himalayas Offer Clue to Legend of Gold-Digging ‘Ants’.” New York Times (November 25, 1996).  Try here

THOMAS, DANA “An Explorer’s Answer to the Tale of Furry, Gold-Digging Ants,” The Washington Post (December 16, 1996).  Try here

WARSH, DAVID “Found: Mountain Mouse Ants,” Aramco World (September 1997). Look here. Also reprinted on the internet at

§   §   §

In fact there are any number of internet pieces on the subject, just try cutting and pasting the words

Herodotus and the Gold Digging Ants

into the Schmoogle box and see what pops up.  Like this, for instance.

Saturday, January 26, 2019

The Flood that Backfired, & the Tangut Refugees

A Tangut Tangka
Below is a donor couple, the man holds an incense burner

This is hardly the first time we’ve spoken of Tanguts. You might remember we once blogged on evidence of the Tangut ties of Padampa and his spiritual descendents.* I’m walking on air these days, since an unbelievable source for the history of Tibet and the Western Xia has suddenly popped up. This is the biography of Tishirepa by his Tangut-born disciple Repakarpo. Let me assure you it is chocked full of fascinating information about the life of a court-appointed Tibetan ritual master’s activities in Tangut Land. The proud but few experts in Tangut studies will particularly crave to know everything that is in it. Part of what makes it most fascinating, its frequent first-person narration, also creates difficulties. It’s somewhat colloquial and a challenge getting used to the cadences of the syntax, a style of Tibetan we moderns are bound to find strange.** It is further complicated by being located in a somewhat alien environment that was even then disappearing from the face of the earth, person and place names were transcribed back and forth between very different languages. Here the Tibetanists require the help of Tangutists, Mongolists and Sinologists.
(*See The Tangut Connection, and for more interesting discussion see the articles of Sun Penghao listed below. **Bear in mind the text was put together by a non-native speaker of Tibetan. Tangut and Tibetan may be distantly related, but the two languages were never going to be mutually intelligible.)

We find that Tishirepa very often tells his prophetic dreams, but immediately before and after them he also narrates the events of his day matter-of-factly, in a somewhat glib manner, without a lot of descriptions or adjectives. We can’t dismiss what he says just because we might not think dreams can be taken serious as prophecies or signs as most people did believe in the past, and many in fact still do today. We didn’t have such excellent and contemporary sources on the events in Tangut Land from the Tibetan side before, but now we have something, so I’m asking you, How would it hurt you to stop complaining about the difficulties and try to overcome them?

Today I’m just going to translate one brief paragraph. That should be enough of a taste of it to awaken somebody’s appetite to study the entire text in detail, since I’m not about to do it.

Repakarpo’s biography of Tishirepa, at page 304:  

Then on the first day of the third moon the fortress was surrounded by water, which made people anxious. In the evening of 17th day of the 7th moon prior to this I had dreamed it was surrounded by water, but then I dreamed that things turned out well.  But then in the evening of the 15th day the water supply of the fortress overflowed. Just as [the fortress] was about to be breached (?), a way was shown to stop the water, so it did not destroy the fort from within. Later that evening Tsangsoba and I together made tormas and hurled them into the water. Then on midnight of the 6th day the water spilled outward, and much of the Mongol encampment was swept away. On the 14th they made a gift of the king's own daughter and held negotiations. They went back to their own country. On the 17th the Tibetan lama teachers requested a timeout (?tshe-ka) and went each to his own monastery. I, too, went to the Gzing-gha Monastery of Ling-chu.* In those times I had one evening a dream in which the Precious Taglungthangpa was giving teachings and said, “The inhabitant of the center has a lotus ground.”
(*Ling-cu or Ling-chu has sometimes been taken as a Tibetan form of the name of the city of Liangzhou, but Sperling believes it transcribes the name of a different Tangut city, Lingzhou. For its location see this Wiki page. It is just over the river from Yinchuan, so this means Tishirepa didn't go far away.)

Here is the Tibetan text in Wylie transcription:

de nas zla ba gsum pa'i tshes gcig la mkhar chus bskor / blo ma bde bar byung / sngar zla ba bdun pa'i tshes bcu bdun gyi nub mo chus bskor ba rmis nas / de nas bde bar byung bar rmis / de nas tshes bco lnga'i nub mo mkhar gyi chu khung nang du brdol bas / chod la khad du yod pa'i dus su chu 'gog pa'i thabs bstan pas chu khog nas mkhar ma zhig / phyir de dgong mo rtsang so ba dang nged gnyis kyis / gtor ma byas nas chu la 'phangs pas / tshes drug gi nam phyed na chu phyir bo nas / hor gyi dmag ra mang po phyags / tshes bcu bzhi la rgyal po'i bu mo byin nas 'dum byas / khong rang gi yul du phyir song / tshes bcu bdun la bod kyi bla ma dge ba'i bshes gnyen rnams / tshe ka zhus nas rang rang so so'i dgon par song / nged kyang ling chu'i gzing gha dgon du song nas / de'i dus su nub cig rmi lam du rin po che stag lung thang pas / dbus pa padmo'i sa gzhi yod // ces bya ba'i chos bstan gsungs.

The mysterious words received in a dream about the lotus ground I understand to be prophetic in the sense of saying that the “center” (Central Tibet) would be the safer option. Overall, this seems to be the same as the story from Chinese language sources, but our eye-witness Tishirepa saw things differently. According to him, the city’s own water source welled up and overflowed — nothing here about the river water being diverted through Mongol dam and dike building. Yet we are left to wonder why to begin with water surrounded the city. When the water later spilled out of the city to flood the Mongol camp we are meant to understand that this was due to a torma ritual performed by the Tibetans. Admittedly there are problems in the reading of the passage that may allow it to be read differently, and bluntly stated, I have probably made mistakes. But this is the kind of material historians need to do their job, and I think they ought to go to work on it.

Tishirepa says the Mongols “went back to their own country.” This is an overly hopeful statement. I think what really happened is they retreated to higher ground to regroup and rethink strategy. The Mongols kept coming back until 1226 when they finally defeated the Tanguts. We know from their later campaigns in other parts of the world that the Mongols did not in the least appreciate it when people refused to give in to their awesome military power, and they simply could not stand the effort invested in lengthy siege warfare, so in the end they punished and made examples of the resisters by slaughtering them one and all. The only Tangut survivors fled to Tibet and Tibet's eastern borderlands. Tishirepa and his disciple Repakarpo were among them. That’s why they could tell the story of the tragic events they witnessed firsthand.

At the Tangut Royal Tombs. I believe these eerily unearthly monumental figures are protectors.
Photo by Andrew West - see this blog entry at Babelstone CC BY-SA 3.0

Read these today or tomorrow:

Wikipedia has what turns out to be a very creditable page called "Mongol Conquest of Western Xia."
“One of their first endeavors at siege warfare, the Mongols lacked the proper equipment and experience to take the city. They arrived at the city in May, but by October were still unsuccessful at breaking through. Genghis attempted to flood the capital by diverting the river and its network of irrigation canals into the city, and by January 1210 the walls of Yinchuan were nearly breached. However, the dike used to divert the river broke, and the ensuing flood wiped out the Mongol camp, forcing the Mongols to take higher ground.”

Ruth Dunnell, “Translating History from Tangut Buddhist Texts,” Asia Major, third series, vol. 22, part 1 (2009), pp. 41-78. There is quite a lot of discussion here about who the Dishi actually were. The same author has a number of articles on Tanguts that deserve attention.

H.H. Howorth, “The Northern Frontagers of China, Part VI: Hia or Tangut,” Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, new series vol. 15, no. 4 (October 1883), pp. 438-482, at p. 472:
“... after which the Mongols crossed the Yellow River and attacked Chung sing, the Calatia of Marco Polo, and now called Ning hia, which was the capital of the empire of Hia. Finding the city too stong, Chinghis tried to turn the waters of the river into the town; but the current burst the artificial banks which he had erected, and flooded his own camp so destructively that he was obliged to raise the siege. Thereupon he determined to gain his end by peaceful means, and sent an envoy into the city to invite the King to treat with him. To this the King agreed, and in token of his friendship he sent Chinghis his daughter to wife.”

Rob Linrothe, “Xia Renzong and the Patronage of Tangut Buddhist Art: The Stūpa and Usnīsavijayā Cult,” Journal of Sung-Yuan Studies, vol. 28 (1998), pp. 91-123. This essay mostly concerns a slightly earlier period, but it does demonstrate the Vajrayāna interests of the Tangut royalty.

H. Desmond Martin, “The Mongol Wars with Hsi-hsia (1205-27),” JRAS (1942) 195-228, with maps. It has this to say, on p. 201, about the flooding incident of 1210, entirely based on Chinese language sources:

“The enemy at his gates, Li An-chuan took personal command and directed the defence with such energy that by the end of October the Mongols had not gained a single foothold on the walls. But there then occurred a catastrophe that nearly brought the capital to its knees. Seeing that the autumnal rains had swollen the Huang Ho, Chinghiz Khan ordered the construction of a great dyke to turn the river into the city, and the waters entering Chung-hsing, took a fearful toll of life and property. 
“Faced with this predicament, Li An-ch'uan sent in November to beg the Chin for help. Many Chin ministers and high officers urged that troops be dispatched to break the leaguer, for they pointed out that the conquest of Hsi Hsia would certainly be followed by an attack upon their empire. But the new emperor Yüng-chi (1209 1213) regarded both contestants as enemies and turned a deaf ear to the Tangut cry for succour. The siege dragged on until January, 1210, when the walls of the city were on the point of collapse. Then suddenly the pent up waters of the river burst their outer dykes, and spreading over the surrounding plain, forced the Mongols to retire to higher ground.”

Adrienne Mayor, “Rivers as Weapons in Ancient War.” Learn about some historical instances of weaponized water here at “Wonders and Marvels.”

Mi-nyag Ras-pa-dkar-po (1198-1262), Bla ma rin po che 'gro ba'i mgon po ti shri ras pa'i rnam par thar pa, contained in the series entitled Lo paṇ rnam thar phyogs bsgrigs, Krung-go'i Shes-rig Dpe-skrun-khang (Beijing 2018), vol. 7, pp. 255-365. This is the biography of Tishirepa (1164-1236). Note that this volume 7 has its own distinct cover title: Lam yig phyogs bsgrigs.

Kirill Solonin, “Local Literatures: Tangut/Xixia,” Brill Encyclopedia of Buddhism, vol. 1, pp. 844-859. Especially valuable as a survey of surviving writings in Tangut including translations from other languages, and for its bibliography. Other works of the same author should have been listed here, although they haven’t been. And if there is any chance you might be contemplating learning Tangut language, try this link. And don’t be too discouraged, because as you will learn when you watch it, “Compared to Tibetan, Tangut is relatively easy.”  "A very simple language in fact." Well, I can never tell when he’s not joking, and this might not be an example.

Elliot Sperling, “Further Remarks Apropos of the 'Ba'-rom-pa and the Tanguts,” Acta Orientalia Hungarica, vol. 57, no. 1 (2004), pp. 1-26. I believe this article is the only one to take notice of the Tibetan-language flooding account (at pp. 17-20). Of course this mid-15th century history translated by Elliot, the Lho rong chos 'byung, even if it did made direct use of our 13th-century biography, is nonetheless a secondary source compared to the Repakarpo. I only wish Elliot could still be around to hear the news , he would have been so excited.  Although the Lho rong chos 'byung preserves the first-person nature of the account, it abbreviates and leaves out quite a lot, as you can see in Elliot's translation of it:
“...I had a dream that the Xia citadel was surrounded by Mongols. In the first month of the Horse Year [January 17-February 25, 1210] the Mongols surrounded the Xia citadel. Shri Phug-pa, Rtsang-po-pa and I, we three, took steps to repulse the troops. On the 1st day of the third month [March 27, 1210] the citadel was surrounded by water. We did a gtor-ma and on the 6th [April 1, 1210] at midnight the water fell back and many Mongol troops were swept away. On the 14th [April 9, 1210], using the king's daughter, peace was made...”
— Elliot besides his brilliance dealing with languages both old and new had a famously acute sense of humor, and I'm sure he felt no need to point out that the backwash took place on April Fools Day.

Elliot Sperling, “Rtsa-mi Lo-tsâ-ba Sangs-rgyas Grags-pa and the Tangut Background to Early Mongol-Tibetan Relations,” contained in: Per Kvaerne, ed., Tibetan Studies, The Institute for Comparative Research in Human Culture (Oslo 1994), pp. 801-825.

Elliot Sperling, “The Szechwan-Tibet Frontier in the Fifteenth Century,” Ming Studies, no. 26 (Fall 1988) 37-55. This is important for evidence of Tangut migration and eventual integration into the Tibetan population.  In Tibetan, the name for both the original Tanguts and their later descendents is Mi-nyag (མི་ཉག).

Nancy Shatzman Steinhardt, “The Tangut Royal Tombs near Yinchuan,” Muqarnas, vol. 10 (1993), pp. 369-381.

Shen Weirong, “A Preliminary Investigation into the Tangut Background of the Mongol Adoption of Tibetan Tantric Buddhism,” contained in: Orna Almogi, ed., Contributions to Tibetan Buddhist Literature, International Institute for Tibetan and Buddhist Studies (Halle 2008), pp. 315-350.  This article emphasizes significant Sakya connections with the Tangut court. Our source is all about the Kagyü connections, and during the time of Tishirepa the awareness of different subschools of the Kagyü was only just getting started. His biography has important information about a struggle between the Taglung and Drikung subschools that started in around 1209 in an argument about books that escalated. After his return to Tibet from Tangut land Tishirepa tried to mediate peace between the two sides.

Sun Penghao, “Four Texts Related to Pha dam pa sangs rgyas in the Chinese Translation of the Tangut Kingdom of Xia,” contained in: Shen Weirong, ed., History through Textual Criticism (Beijing 2012), pp. 85-97.

Sun Penghao, “Pha-dam-pa Sangs-rgyas in Tangut Xia: Notes on Khara-khoto Chinese Manuscript TK329,” contained in: Tsuguhito Takeuchi, et al., eds., Current Issues and Progress in Tibetan Studies, Research Institute of Foreign Studies (Kobe 2013), pp. 505-521.

Andrew West, Western Xia Tombs Revisited. Totally worth visiting.

Assignment: Go study Tangut art at the site of the Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg.  Notice especially this one that is identified as a Dishi or Guoshi.

It could just be me, but I’ve been there and found it so awesomely hideous it had best be dismantled. You’ll have to go to the link if you want to see it since I won’t put any photo of it here on my blog:

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A note on ethnonymsTibetans always call the Tangut country and nation and language by the name Mi-nyag. The Tanguts called themselves something like "Mi-nia," and their state the "Great Xia" (Chinese sources call them Xixia, or Western Xia, in an effort to disambiguate which Xia is meant). This "Xia" (once upon a time not so long ago transcribed as "Hsia") is represented in Tibetan sources as 'Ga' or Gha (འགའ་ or གྷ་), and later on as Sga and sometimes Rga (སྒ་ and རྒ་). There were a number of famous persons in later Tibetan history who belonged to this clan called Sga, including teachers of both Sakya and Bön schools, and I believe they are all supposed to be descendants of Tangut families who escaped the Mongols and emigrated to Tibet.

—  Oh, and I think the right name of the other Dishi (in the present text it is sometimes spelled De-zhi, and that word is the same as the Ti-shi or Ti-shri in Tishirepa; the "repa" means cotton-clad, just like in Milarepa), or Imperial Preceptor, had the name Tsangsoba, and not Tsangpopa. The 'p' and 's' are close enough to be confused in Tibetan cursive script. To my mind, he was likely from a place called Tsangso (Gtsang-so) in La-stod region rather than from the Tsangpo (Gtsang-po) River. 

I'm not too sure, but this is supposed to be a wall painting of an imperial preceptor
of the Tanguts depicted in Yulin Cave no. 29. 
If there were five points in his hat, I'd say it could be Tishirepa.

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This blog I would like to dedicate to the memory of Elliot Sperling (1951-2017). There is so much more he was meant to do in this world.

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