Wednesday, June 16, 2010


If you don't know what Birdhorns are, look carefully at this picture until you start seeing them.

A Note (June 16, 2010) — This is an extract from Dan Martin's The Emergence of Bon and the Tibetan Polemical Tradition, doctoral dissertation, Indiana University (Bloomington 1991), pp. 118-137. After two decades it might as well have been written by somebody else, so in any case, please criticize it freely. The original page numbers have been inserted here, but the footnote numbers have been changed and appear here as endnotes. Apart from this, no changes have been made and the text ought to correspond exactly down to the smallest punctuation marks to the "University Microfilms" reprint.    - Dan

p. 118
3.  Birdhorns.

Although in the past many have argued for some amount of Iranian influence on Tibetan culture, these arguments have recently been judiciously reviewed and criticized by P. Kvaerne.  He finds that, of the many arguable points for Iranian-Tibetan cultural contacts, there are only two "which are reasonably certain because they are specific, and which have been transmitted in a way and at a time which can be reasonably well established."[i]  The first is the presence, according to the Tibetan historical tradition beginning with the Mkhaspa'i Dga'ston, of a physician Galenos at the court of the Tibetan Emperor Srongbtsansgampo in the late seventh century.  This Galenos, no doubt a representative and namesake of the Galenic medical tradition, was said to have come from Staggzig Khrom.[ii]  The second is the lion which, as a symbol of royal power, spread from Mesopotamia through Iran to points east, becoming a national symbol in Tibet, not a natural habitat for the King of Beasts.  The stone lions with the visibly Mesopotamian (and very unnaturalistic) hair styles of their manes may still be found among the imperial tombs in the Yarlung Valley[iii] as well as in the streets of Kathmandu.[iv]
p. 119
A third point of contact that has not so far been well considered as such is byaru, or 'birdhorns'.  This item suits the criteria of specificity although, leaving aside testimony of the later Bon histories, we could not find reasonably secure Tibetan textual evidence for it before the eleventh century.  What makes it of significance is that it seems to argue, as is not necessarily the case with Kvaerne's two examples, for a direct eastward transmission from the Iranian cultural realm to western Tibet, even though the circumstances and date of this transmission cannot be ascertained beyond all doubt.  Like the Iranian lion it had close associations with royal cults, yet came to have (in Tibet, if not before) significant religious usages.  Briefly stated, a Sassanian royal symbol seems to have been adopted by both Bon and Chos, only in slightly divergent forms.
Firstly, the meaning of the Tibetan word might be considered separately from the object to which it refers.  At some point in the history of its iconographical representations, the mythic garuḍa (khyung) bird sprouted horns on its head, perhaps as an artistic misinterpretation of feathery tufts.[v]  The horns of the garuḍa seem to have originated in Tibet, since the Indian depictions do not seem to have them.  The word byaru, although not attested in any dictionary, does refer to a specific object and has to my knowledge never been used in a literal sense to mean 'the horns of a bird'.  A frequent, although as we will see not the only, referent is the device found at the top of Bon chortens, which I have sketched in figure 1, corresponding closely
p. 120
to the solar/lunar representation used at the top of Chos chortens (figure 2):

A thangka painting with a series of eight Bon chortens on display at the Antoinette K. Gordon Collection of Tibetan Art (Indiana University, Bloomington) clearly shows finials of the same shape as figure 1, and the same may be seen on the top of actual chortens recently constructed by Bonpos in India.  It is a simple matter to demonstrate that the byaru is currently in use for Bon chortens, but more difficult to determine how far back it goes into history.
Some Bon historians mention byaru as a part of a chorten.[vi]   The following example is in what is apparently an extract from a work believed to be the oldest Bon history entitled Gragspa Rinchen Glinggrags,[vii] excavated by Mtha'bzhi Yeshesblogros, who is said to have lived in the tenth to eleventh centuries.[viii]  He might, however, be the same as the Yeshesblogros who founded a monastery in 1173 A.D.[ix]  
p. 121
The context is a narrative of Lord Shenrab as 'International Buddha', telling how he manifested in different forms in different countries.  The first country was India.

"Then the Teacher manifested as a crystal chorten with two birdhorns, a drum and a gshang bell on the right and left birdhorns.  He went to the Indian country known as Pha‑sha‑ka‑ru,[x] and after he had conferred Bon teachings on the Indians Si‑ti‑gnya'‑na and Lha‑bdag Sngags‑dro, the Indian king began to have faith in him and took the chorten as an object of worship.  When he made offerings, auspicious things happened, and good qualities [developed in him].  That is why now chortens have to have birdhorns, and the birdhorns with gshang and bell attached are a symbol of the everlasting Word of Bon."[xi]

In one of the 1017 A.D. gterma of Gshenchen Kludga', the Kunsnang, birdhorns occur within a listing of the parts of a chorten along with their cosmic correspondences.  The 'lifewood' (srogshing) is the 'paradise tree' (dpagbsamljonshing), the universal axis.  The stacked up disks ('khorlo) that form the main part of the spire are the clouds around the paradise tree.  The rain cover (char'khebs) is of silver and corresponds to the formation of the clouds/wheels.  The birdhorns
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correspond to the formation of the king of birds, the khyung (garua) on the highest point of the tree's canopy.[xii]
One of our oldest pieces of Tibetan textual evidence for the use of byaru on chortens is, strangely enough, not within Bon tradition.  A reference to byaru occurs in a consecration text by the Indian master Atiśa.[xiii]  We learn from the colophon that the text was 'made' (mdzadpa) by Atiśa and translated by himself in collaboration with his Tibetan disciple Rgya Brtson'grussengge at Vikramaśīla Monastery in the Pāla kingdom of India.  Based on this, the translation must have been made before 1039 A.D., the date of his departure toward Tibet.  His disciple Rgya Brtson'grussengge died in Nepal on the way.  The word byaru occurs within the context of a symbolic analysis of the parts of a chorten.  The statement reads very simply, "The birdhorns are [symbols for] method and insight."[xiv]  It is surprising that one of our earliest textual
p. 123
sources for these 'birdhorns', otherwise unattested in Chos literature, should be found in such an indisputably Chos context.  It would be helpful to have an Indianlanguage text in order to know whether an Indian term might lurk behind the Tibetan word byaru, but we cannot be sure that this work ever circulated in an Indian language.  At present, the most plausible argument seems to be that Rgya Brtson'grussengge chose the word byaru as a translation because it was an item already familiar to him as a western Tibetan.[xv]  We find use of two other words in the text which have been primarily, although not so exclusively, associated with Bon tradition:  gyerba, meaning 'chanting' and 'brangrgyas,[xvi] meaning a specific kind of ritual offering.  Thus, the choice of this word byaru by a Chos translator seems to indicate at least that the item (or something very similar) was already known to the Tibetan translator, that a name for such an item already had currency in Tibet.  Yet there is an absence of evidence for anything remotely similar to the byaru being found on top of Indian stūpas or their representations.  This suggests that a Tibetan might have had a hand in the production of the text.[xvii] 
p. 124
Birdhorns may also appear on top of the heads of Bon lha[xviii] and on the heads of priests, but most prominently on the heads of certain kings to be discussed shortly.  To supply one example of birdhorns on the head of a lha, I offer this tentative but, I hope, suitably evocative translation of a symbolic analysis in the iconography of Staglame'bar, the central lha of the Bon Phurpa cycle.

The emanated lha Staglame'bar was made to emerge as a mental projection from the open spiritual vortex of the Emanation Body Teacher Shenrab.  The color of his body is blue and red.  The forms of flames that emerge from his body burn all the hidden formations of past deeds and emotional problems.  The tiger stripes show that he has the insight that understands differentiations.  The leopard spots show that he makes no mistakes due to partial (partisan) definitions.  The markings of the gung cat show that the energy of his great qualities dawns unimpededly.  The birdhorns show that wrong conceptualizations are purified on their own ground, and that the benefit of beings is brought to its peak.  The khyung-horns show that he has forcefully broken out of the general confinement [of the egg/body].  His unkempt locks are the rays of compassion and total knowledge shining in all directions.  The small bell shows that the ultimate words of truth about the absence of essence clear away the sufferings of the vicious circle…[xix]

We also have one description of the dress of the royal Gshen priests of the most ancient times:

p. 125
His strands of hair were tied in a topknot and left uncut.  Into the white cotton turban were stuck tufts of eagle feathers.  He wore a golden birdhorn crown and a turquoise forehead ornament.  He dressed in a white lynx and white jackal fur cloak…[xx]

Then there were, according to some Bon texts, one or more Zhangzhung Kings who 'had birdhorns', the Byarucan Kings.  The names of one or more of these Byarucan Kings are connected with the Bon scripture Khrirje Lungbstanpa'i Mdo and with the Gekhod cycle of texts.  A peculiarity of these texts is that, among the many volumes of the Bon canon (Bka' and Bka'rten), they are among the very few that are not excavated but are believed to be products of continuous oral transmission from Zhangzhung.  The Khrirje Lungbstanpa is believed to have been requested from Teacher Shenrab during the latter's visit to Zhangzhung and Tibet by the Golden Birdhorn King (Gsergyi Byarucan) whose capital was located near Mt. Kailash (Tise).[xxi]  In the Gekhod group of texts we find some reference to the Iron Birdhorn King (Lcagskyi Byarucan).[xxii]  It is difficult to judge the age or validity of these traditions
p. 126
about Birdhorn Kings, but for a partial listing and for the entire list of eighteen we are indebted to a work composed in 1844, Dkarru Grubdbang's Guide to Kailash.[xxiii]  First, the partial list  ‑‑  I have listed the king's names in two parts (a and b), the first part (a) being a kind of descriptive title, and the second part (b) the 'proper' title.  Then I give the name of his palace (c) and its geographical location (d).  Finally, I give the name of the Bon teacher in the service of the king (e) and his geographical location (f). 

1.   a.  Zhangzhung Sridpa'i Rgyalpo.
b.  Khriwer la Rje Gsergyi Byarucan.
c.  Galjang G.yulordzongmkhar (note: now called Rgyanggrags Monastery). 
d.  In front of Mt. Tise. 
e.  Gnasbrtan Chenpo 'Odkhrimusangs, disciple of Drangsrong Khrilde'odpo (who flew from Staggzig to Mt. Tise in the form of an eagle).
f.  Taught at Ati Gsangba G.yungdrung Phug (=A Phug, according to a note), on the righthand side of Mt. Tise.
2.   a.  Spungsrgyung Gyergyi Rgyalpo.
b.  Byuru 'Odkyi Byarucan.
c.  Stagchen Rngampa'i Yongsrdzongmkhar.
d.  In Pumarhring district (evidently a part of Purang, as note indicates).
e.  Drangsrong Dangbayidring, disciple of Khrilde'odpo.

p. 127
f.  Taught at Zhangzhung Pumarhring district, on an island of Lake Mule (also called Langaggi Do, according to a note).
3.   a.  Guwer[xxiv] Norgyi Rgyalpo.
b.  Galjang 'Odkyi Byarucan.
c.  Dumpa Tshal Gsergyi Mkhar.
d.  In Zhangzhung Tsina, the lower part.
e.  Drangsrong Gungrumgtsugphud, disciple of Dangbayidring.
f.  Taught at Byemag.yungdrungtshal (called Groshod, according to a note) in the district of Tsina in Zhangzhung.
4.   a.  Stagrna Gzibrjid Rgyalpo.
b.  Khrilde Lcagskyi Byarucan.
c.  Stagrna Dbalgyi Rdzongmkhar.
d.  At base of Mt. Sposringadldan in the district of Tsina in Zhangzhung, at the center of the city Stagrna (the note says it is called Bonri Stagrna Rong).
e.  Drangsrong Rdzu'phrulyeshes, disciple of Gungrumgtsugphud.
f.  Lamor (also called Limur, according to the note) Rdoyi Khangbu'i Gling on the eastern side of Mt. Sposringadldan [neighboring Mt. Tise]. 
5.   a.  Sadhri[xxv] Gyergyi Rgyalpo.
b.  Utpal 'Odkyi Byarucan.
c.  Murdzongchenpo Khrochu'i Mkhar.
d.  In Zhangzhung Khayug.[xxvi]
e.  Drang‑srong Ye‑shes‑tshul‑khrims, disciple of Rdzu‑'phrul‑ye‑shes.
f.  Taught in the forest of elixirial herbs (bdud‑rtsi sman‑gyi nags‑tshal) in the district of Kha‑yug in Zhang‑zhung.
p. 128
6.   a.  Slas‑kra[xxvii] Gu‑ge'i Rgyal‑po.
b.  Rin‑chen 'Od‑kyi Bya‑ru‑can.
c.  Dngul‑mkhar Dkar‑po Khro‑chu'i Rmang‑rdo‑can.
d.  In the area of the city Rgyal‑ba‑mnyes.
e.  Drang‑srong G.yung‑drung‑tshul‑khrims, disciple of Ye‑shes‑tshul‑khrims.
f.  Taught at Mt. Khyung‑chen‑spungs‑pa in a mansion (khab) in the area of the city Rgyal‑ba‑mnyes (called Mkhar‑gdong, according to a note) in the area of Khyung‑lung in Zhang‑zhung.
7.   a.  Mu‑mar[xxviii] Thog‑rgod Rgyal‑po.
b.  A‑na [Eṇḍa] 'Od‑kyi Bya‑ru‑can.
c.  Gnam Rdzong‑mkhar.
d.  In Zhang‑zhung Ru‑thog.
e.  Drang‑srong Gtsug‑phud‑rgyal‑ba, disciple of G.yung‑drung‑tshul‑khrims.
f.  Taught at Gsang‑brag G.yung‑drung Gtams‑pa'i Tshal in Ru‑thog in Zhang‑zhung.
8.   a.  Stag‑rna Gzi‑brjid Rgyal‑po.
b.  Khri‑lde Lcags‑kyi Bya‑ru‑can.
c.  Stag‑rna Dbal‑gyi Rdzong‑mkhar
d.  In the center of the park of the city Stag[‑rna] at the base of Mt. Spos‑ri‑ngad‑ldan in the Tsi‑na district of Zhang‑zhung.
e.  Drang‑srong Ye‑shes‑rgyal‑ba, disciple of Gtsug‑phud‑rgyal‑ba.
f.  Taught near the chorten Ghan‑dha‑chen‑po at a mansion in the park (?gling) in the city of Stag‑rna at the base of Mt. Spos‑ri‑ngad‑ldan in Zhang‑zhung.[xxix]

The list of eighteen Birdhorn Kings is given elsewhere in the same source as follows. 
p. 129
1.  Khri‑wer la Rje Gu‑lang Gser‑gyi Bya‑ru‑can.
2.  Zhang‑zhung Zil‑gnon Rgyal‑po Rlabs‑chen Khyung‑gi Bya‑ru‑can.
3.  Hri‑do Gyer‑spungs Rgyal‑po Kang‑ka Shel‑gyi Bya‑ru‑can.
4.  Slas‑kra Gu‑ge'i Rgyal‑po Rin‑chen 'Od‑kyi Bya‑ru‑can.
5.  Rgyung‑[G.yung‑]yar Mu‑khod Rgyal‑po Gzha'‑tshon 'Od‑kyi Bya‑ru‑can.
6.  Kyi‑le Gu‑ge[xxx] Rgyal‑po Un‑chen Dung‑gi Bya‑ru‑can.
7.  Spungs‑rgyung Gyer‑gyi rgyal‑po Byu‑ru 'Od‑kyi Bya‑ru‑can.
8.  Nye‑lo Wer‑ya Rgyal‑po Phra‑men 'Od‑kyi Bya‑ru‑can.
9.  Stag‑rna Gzi‑brjid Rgyal‑po Zom‑shang Lcags‑kyi Bya‑ru‑can.
10.  Dswo‑dmar This‑spungs Rgyal‑po Me‑dpung 'Od‑kyi Bya‑ru‑can.
11.  Bdud‑'dul Dbal‑gyi Rgyal‑po Nyi‑shel 'Od‑kyi Bya‑ru‑can.
12.  Li‑wer[xxxi] Gyer‑gyi Rgyal‑po Zla‑shel 'Od-kyi Bya-ru-can.
13.  Shel-rgyung Hri-do Rgyal-po Dswo-dmar 'Od-kyi Bya‑ru‑can.
14.  Lig‑mur Nam‑mkha'i Rgyal‑po Baidūrya 'Od‑kyi Bya‑ru‑can.
p. 130
15.  Mu‑wer Nor‑gyi Rgyal‑po Ga‑ljang 'Od‑kyi Bya‑ru‑can.
16.  Sad‑hri Gyer‑gyi Rgyal‑po Utpal 'Od‑kyi Bya‑ru‑can.
17.  Nye‑lo Wer‑ya Rgyal‑po Gnam‑lcags Dbal‑gyi Bya‑ru‑can.
18.  Mu‑mar Thog‑rgod Rgyal‑po A‑na [Eṇḍa] 'Od‑kyi Bya‑ru‑can.[xxxii]

Our first conjecture might be that this is not meant to be a list of kings in a single succession.  The first, the Golden Birdhorn King would seem to be the primus inter pares, while most of those remaining would be contemporaneous local kings over such recognizable areas of western Tibet as Khyung‑lung (in upper Sutlej), Ru‑thog, and Ladakh.  However, as may be seen in the first list, the royal priests who served the Zhang‑zhung kings are listed in a single line of guru‑disciple succession.  One modern Tibetan writer says that eighteen kings of Zhang‑zhung formed a dynasty lasting more than five hundred years, prior to the time of the first Tibetan ruler Gnya'‑khri‑btsan‑po (i.e., over 2,000 years ago).[xxxiii]  While intriguing, we have left verifiable history far behind.  I think it is difficult to accept this nineteenth century source as testimony for the eleventh or twelfth centuries, not to mention the centuries B.C.
The only source ever cited for the list of eighteen Bya‑ru‑can kings is the nineteenth century Kailash Guide of Dkar‑ru Grub‑dbang,[xxxiv] and this is of some significance.  What I would suggest as a conclusion about
p. 131
the Birdhorn Kings of Zhang‑zhung is that, since no such listing appears in earlier Bon histories (to the best of my knowledge), the developed tradition about them that emerges in the Kailash Guide might be a later interpretation of (and development on) particular passages found in Bon scriptures that originally had nothing to do with Zhang‑zhung kings.  Although we have given a reference with some claims to age telling about certain individual Birdhorn Kings, our only lists of entities called Bya‑ru‑can from the eleventh to thirteenth centuries occur in contexts where they are clearly Bodhisattva‑like beings (G.yung‑drung‑sems‑dpa' or Ye‑gshen), not kings.  In the early thirteenth century polemic by Dbon Sher‑'byung (translated below) it is asserted that the eight Bya‑ru‑can are Bon equivalents for the eight Bodhisattvas.  It is possible to find support for this claim in earlier Bon scriptures.
In the first, a 1017 A.D. gter‑ma of Gshen‑chen Klu‑dga', the Medium‑Length Khams Brgyad in 25,000 Stanzas, they appear in the opening scene‑setting chapter as part of the audience in attendance.

"The Best Shen (Gshen‑rab) Unchanging Being Great Beings (G.yung‑drung‑sems‑dpa'‑sems‑dpa'‑chen‑po) the supreme 1) the unchanging Having Golden Birdhorns.  2) the great method Having Conch Birdhorns.  3) the beautiful Having Turquoise Birdhorns.  4) the powerful Having Mercury Birdhorns.  5) the stainless Having Crystal Birdhorns.  6) the action Having Iron Birdhorns.  7) the effort making Having Copper Birdhorns.  8) from the mouth (sky?) of the three existences Having Khyung‑bird Birdhorns.  9) working on behalf of beings Having Wing Birdhorns.  10) civilizing all and every Having Light Birdhorns.[xxxv]

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The second list, from a gter‑ma of Khu‑tsha Zla‑'od (b. 1024), the G.yung‑drung las Rnam‑par Dag‑pa'i Rgyud, is practically identical, although it only has the first seven and calls them 'Primordial Sages' (Ye‑gshen).[xxxvi]
My suggestion is that scriptural sources for the Bodhisattva‑like Bya‑ru‑can were conflated with traditions about a few Zhang‑zhung kings (the Golden Birdhorn and Iron Birdhorn kings) to artificially produce a set of eighteen, to correspond to the eighteen clans or the eighteen divisions of Zhang‑zhung.[xxxvii]  But if we were to sum up our Tibetan evidence about birdhorns, we would have to say that, even if we may doubt the existence of eighteen Birdhorn kings as such in ancient Zhang‑zhung, the bya‑ru is certainly connected with royalty in the eleventh‑ to thirteenth‑century evidence.  Since royal ornaments are traditionally used in the portrayal of Bodhisattvas[xxxviii] and other Buddhist lha, we would be careful not to make hasty conclusions about their 'original' symbolism.  My impression is that since lha of the Sambhogakāya level (and Bodhisattvas in general) are supposed to be portrayed with royal ornaments, this would imply the prior existence of the bya‑ru as a symbol of royalty.  The bya‑ru finds a place on the heads of wrathful lha, Bodhisattva-like figures,
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royal priests and kings, but particularly on the tops of chortens in the earliest Bon sources from the eleventh century onward.[xxxix]  The effort to account for this leads us westward.
If we search for a source which could account for both the solar/lunar finial of Chos and the bya‑ru of Bon, we find it most obviously in the crowns of Persian kings of Sassanian times, especially in the numismatic evidence.[xl]  There is evidence, too, that these motives travelled eastward toward Zhang‑zhung.  In well-preserved wall murals within the alcoves of the monumental rock-cut Buddha images of Bāmiyān, we find human figures both with head ornaments in the form of horns and "coiffures surmounted by crescents and globes analogous to those of certain Sassanid Kings and some high dignitaries."[xli]  One scholar, A. Foucher, believed that the crescent and globe combination was spread to Tukharistan[xlii] via Sassanian coins in the fifth century.[xliii]  The

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personages depicted at Bāmiyān with solar/lunar or birdhorn type headpieces might possibly represent royal or other patrons, but they are nonetheless quite obviously represented as holy personages.  All have nimbuses, while one is visibly seated in the crosslegged posture of meditation.
Thus we have evidence for the use of a distinctly Iranian symbol of royalty being used in a Buddhist context, moving closer to western Tibet in around the fifth century (?), but is there evidence to argue a context for its actual entry into Tibet?  None so far; we can do little better than to quote the often cited early eleventh-century statement of Al‑Bīrūnī,

In former times Khurāsān, Persis, Irāk, Mosul, the country up to the frontier of Syria, was Buddhistic, but then Zarathustra went forth from Adharbayjan and preached Magism in Balkh (Baktre).  His doctrine came into favour with King Gushtasp, and his son Isfendiyad spread the new faith both in East and West, both by force and by treaties.  He founded fire temples through his whole empire, from the frontiers of China to those of the Greek Empire.  The succeeding kings made their religion (Zoroastrianism) the obligatory state religion of Persia and Iraq.  In consequence, the Buddhists were banished from those countries, and had to emigrate to the countries east of Balkh.[xliv]

There are obvious problems with this testimony.  It seems Alberuni has confounded a late revival of Zoroastrianism with its origins.  He may have been thinking of the 225 A.D. re-establishment of Zoroastrianism as a state religion with the rise of the Sassanids.  The banishment of
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Buddhists would seem to have been a very long process, and due at least as much to foreign invasions as to decrees of local sovereigns.[xlv]  Their migration to "countries east of Balkh" could, however, mean that they entered Zhang‑zhung, among other countries.  The vagueness and confusion of time and place in Al‑Bīrūnī's statement does not allow us to base anything on it, despite its suggestiveness.  It may be little more than a feeble attempt at rationalizing the condition in which he found the Buddhism of his day, 'banished beyond Balkh'.[xlvi]

Finally, there is some Bon evidence which, while not clinching the issue, does add sufficient weight to make a case for the context of transmission.  Of the four ancestral lineages that converged around the revelations of Gshen‑chen Klu‑dga', three had, in ancient times, descended from figures called Bya‑ru‑can.  The Spa family descended from the Khri‑mon Lcags‑kyi Bya‑ru‑can ('Iron Birdhorn'), a king of Zhang‑zhung who dwelt near Mt. Ti‑se in western Tibet.  The Zhu family originated in

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western Tibet (Stod) with an Iron Birdhorn King who lived in the time of the ancient legendary Tibetan Emperor Spu‑lde‑gung‑rgyal.  Most significantly, the ultimate ancestor of the Bru clan, Bru‑sha Gnam‑gsas-spyi‑brdol, "emanated as a Gold Birdhorn [King]."  He visited the areas of Swat (U‑rgyan), Little Balūr (Bru‑sha) and Tukharistan (Tho‑gar).  With the ancestral lineage of Bru, we find a clear story of a family migration from an area west of Tibet, in this case Little Balūr, to Central Tibet (Gtsang Province).  Gnam‑gsas‑spyi‑brdol was made king over all of Little Balūr and Tukharistan.  Some of his great-grandchildren moved into western Tibet.  One of them, G.yung‑drung-rgyal‑mtshan, moved all the way to Gtsang.  To judge from the numbers of generations, this is supposed to have taken place at about the same time that Gshen‑chen Klu‑dga's ancestors migrated to Gtsang from northeastern Tibet (Tsong‑kha) –– perhaps, if we may be allowed a guess, in the late ninth or early tenth century.[xlvii]

To summarize, it was not possible to fulfill all of Kvaerne's requirements for establishing Iranian influence, since we have not been able to ascertain sufficiently the time and circumstances of transmission.  Still, I believe there is enough evidence to speak of the plausibility of such a transmission.  The  route may not have been a direct one, and there may be alternative explanations, such as the existence of the solar/lunar motif in India.  I do not believe that such Indian evidence affects our

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conclusions, since so far as I know the motif has never (until the recent Tibetan diaspora) actually occurred in India on top of stūpas,[xlviii] nor was it actually employed as a symbol of kingship to be worn on the heads of kings and devas.  The use of both globe/crescent and birdhorn on chortens may, then, be seen as a nice Iranian touch on a structure largely composed of cosmic kingship (cakravartin) symbols.  It could even be called a 'crowning achievement'.

An example of a Kadampa Chorten,
 associated with 11th-13th-century 
followers of Atiśa, although they continue 
to be made until today.  
Similar examples, 
like this one, 
may be found 
at HAR.

[i]KVAERNE, 'Dualism', p. 163.

[ii]See BECKWITH, 'Introduction of Greek Medicine', pp. 298-299. Some sources say "Stag‑gzig or Khrom," while others say "Stag‑gzig of Khrom."

[iii]See the illustration facing p. 180 in DOWMAN, Power Places, as well as the discussion in RICHARDSON, 'Early Tibetan Inscriptions', p. 13.  [Look here.]

[iv]Some of these stone lions are so old as to be worn almost beyond recognition, such as the pair on either side of the main entrance to Thām Bahal in northern Kathmandu. One reason for the wear could be that children have always played on top of them as they do now.

[v]This is the opinion of H. Hoffmann, who has studied the problem at some length (oral communication).  See also his note on bya‑ru in HOFFMANN, 'Account', p. 142, note 21 (but notice that the text as published in THREE SOURCES, p. 418.3, has some significantly different readings; example, lngar for ltar, etc.).  For a general discussion of the "Horn‑Owl Garuda" in Eurasia, see BRENTJES, 'Pheasant'.  I must thank Michael Walter for drawing my attention to this article.

[vi]I am very much indebted to the discussion on this subject found in NAMDAK, History, pp. 33-37.  To date, this is the only general scholarly treatment of birdhorns.

[vii]Contained in SFHB, pp. 1-71.  There are two separate titles here, but the colophons make it clear that they form parts of the Grags‑pa Rin‑chen Gling‑grags.

[viii]KVAERNE, 'Canon', no. T222.

[ix]KVAERNE, 'Chronology', no. 103.

[x]SRID‑PA RGYUD‑KYI KHA‑BYANG, p. 45.5, reads "Rgya‑gar Po‑shag‑dkar" in a similar context. I suggest that this might be Puṣkarāvati, a large city once located in present-day Peshawar district of Pakistan.  There is today an old Hindu holy city (one of the few Indian sites sacred to Brahma) in Rajasthan named Pushkar (Puṣkara). The name Si‑ti‑gnya'‑na, which appears below, is a characteristic 'Old Tibetan' way of transliterating Siddhijñāna, although I was unable to learn anything about a person with this exact name. Most likely, he is to be identified with Jñānasiddhi.

[xi]SFHB, p. 13.  The drum, flat bell (gshang) and bell are percussive instruments which produce far reaching sounds, and hence serve as metaphors for the proclamation of the Buddhist message (as do also the lion's roar, the call of the cuckoo bird, etc.).

[xii]This is part of the description that occurs in the Kun‑snang as excavated by Gshen‑chen (COLLECTED TANTRAS OF BON, vol. 1, p. 180.5 ff.) and in the nearly identical text excavated by Gyer‑mi Nyi‑'od (KUN‑RIG LAS BZHI, vol. 1, p. 406.5).  Later in both texts, the birdhorns are identified with the Father-Mother (Yab‑yum) form of the Great Lha (Lha‑chen), thus implicating the polarity symbolism of insight and method that will be mentioned presently.  The chapter correspondences between two versions of the Kun‑snang have been supplied in an appendix on the gter‑mas of Gshen‑chen (Appendix C).

[xiii]Work entitled, Sku dang Gsung dang Thugs Rab‑tu Gnas‑pa (Toh. no. 2496), located in SDE‑DGE TANJUR, vol. 53, pp. 508-519.  I am indebted to Yael Bentor for bringing this text to my attention.

[xiv]Bya-ru thabs dang shes‑rab yin/SDE‑DGE TANJUR, vol. 53, p. 514.6-.7.  The larger passage is rather confusing, since a discussion of items that should be offered to the chorten is intermixed with the symbolic analysis of the chorten's parts.  This does make sense in light of the fact that some of the things offered to the chorten actually become a part of it (like the sapphron paint, painted designs like the eyes of Bodhnath Stūpa, cloth drapery [na‑bza'], etc.).  One Tibetan scholar suggested to me that bya‑ru is a mistake for bya‑rung ('suitable to do'), but I was unable to make good sense of this.  Bya‑rung is, of course, a component of the Tibetan name of Bodhnath Stūpa in Nepal — Bya‑rung‑kha‑shor.  A Bon parallel to this passage is found in the Gsang‑ba Bsen‑thub Tantra.  See COLLECTED TANTRAS OF BON, vol. 1, p. 249.1-.2, where we read "Thabs dang shes‑rab‑kyi bya‑ru kun‑tu sprul‑pa" — 'The birdhorns of method and insight manifested everywhere.'  As noted elsewhere, the Gsang‑ba Bsen‑thub was excavated by Gshen‑chen Klu‑dga' (but also later by Gyer‑mi Nyi‑'od and others). 

[xv]FRANCKE, Antiquities, vol. 2, pp. 89, 94-95, 131, 225-227, argues that this Rgya is a town on the frontiers between Rub‑chu and Ladakh, and may be located on the map facing page 61 of the same work. 

[xvi]Both words occur on p. 515.5-.6 (ibid.).  The word 'brang‑rgyas may translate as 'extensive nomad's tent' (felt tent like the Mongolian yurt) or, perhaps, 'well equipped nomad's tent', but better is 'expanded chest'.  It is, in actuality, a heap of barley flour decorated with butter.  This is one of the ritual items for which Sa‑skya Paṇḍi‑ta could find no Indian source. However, I should add that one Rnying‑ma‑pa scholar informed me that 'brang‑rgyas can be used to refer to the 'life vase' (tshe bum) used in many rituals.  I have been unable to come up with confirmation of this usage, but leave the question open.

[xvii]There is a definite possibility that this consecration text was not composed by Atiśa.  Another possibility, the passages with the Bon 'flavor' may be interpolations. I doubt this last possibility, but I am not ready to conclude anything at this point.

[xviii]NAMDAK, History, p. 37.

[xix]From the Don‑bsdus Rtsa‑ba'i 'Grel‑chen (excavated in the eleventh century) as contained in KHRO, p. 643.5‑644.1. We will have more to say about Stag‑la‑me‑'bar in Part 4, below.

[xx]THREE SOURCES, p. 116 (in the so‑called Rgyal‑rabs Bon‑gyi 'Byung‑gnas).

[xxi]See NAMDAK, Bod‑yul Gnas‑kyi, p. 39; NOR‑BRANG, 'Thon‑mi', p. 267.

[xxii]See GE‑KHOD GSANG‑BA DRAG‑CHEN, pp. 98.1, 287.5, 422.3, where the name is given as Zhang‑zhung Khri‑men Lcags‑kyi Bya‑ru‑can and Khri‑lde Lcags‑kyi Bya‑ru (see also KARMAY, Treasury, p. 50).  At least two texts in this collection are said to have been pronounced or composed by the Iron Birdhorn King, and he is believed to have originated the lineage of the Ge‑khod rituals which were excavated by Khyung‑rgod‑rtsal (b. 1175). One may also note in the Don‑bsdus Rtsa‑ba'i 'Grel‑chen, a Phur‑pa commentary excavated by Khu‑tsha Zla‑'od‑'bar (b. 1024), mention of one Kha‑'byam Lcags‑kyi Bya‑ru‑can, an ancient sage (not explicitly a king) in the transmission of Phur‑pa teachings who lived in the 'depths' (rting, =gting) of 'Phan‑yul (text found in KHRO, pp. 393‑721, at p. 398.1). DPAL‑TSHUL, G.yung‑drung Bon‑gyi, vol. 1, p. 271.2, reads:  Zhang‑zhung Khri‑ldem Lcags‑kyi Byar‑can (but see also pp. 278.5, 281.2). These individual Birdhorn Kings are especially associated with the origins of the Zhu, Bru, and Spa lineages, and this may be of some significance.

[xxiii]Refer to NORBU, Gzi‑yi Phreng‑ba, pp. 28‑29 [pp. 28 and 29 are printed in reverse order in my copy, creating potential for confusion]. The work by Dkar‑ru Grub‑dbang is published under the cover title MDZOD‑PHUG RTSA‑BA DANG SPYI‑DON (see p. 599 for list).

[xxiv]Gu‑wer is Zhang‑zhung for kun rgyal, 'king of all'.  It may also be a place name?

[xxv]Sad‑hri is probably Zhang‑zhung for Tibetan lha'i bu, or lha‑sras, corresponding to Sanskrit Devaputra, a common title for rulers used in one form or another throughout eastern Eurasia.

[xxvi]See KHRO, p. 91.

[xxvii]Slas‑kra may be Zhang‑zhung for sa grags, 'earth renown'. It may be a place name.

[xxviii]Mu‑mar is Zhang‑zhung for gser btso (or gser rgod) according to KHRO, p. 90.2, a kind of enchanted gold 'bomb' (btso). 

[xxix]This list extracted from the text as given in NORBU, Gaṅs Ti se'i Dkar c'ag, pp. 53‑56.  One might notice that numbers 4 and 8 are nearly identical, and this is rather puzzling.

[xxx]Although we are tempted to identify this with the Gu‑ge district in western Tibet, it is possible that the Kyi‑le may refer to Gilgit (I hope to return to this problem in another place). Kyi‑le and a large variety of similar forms find a place in a traditional 'mapping' of the world which was called "the Eighteen Great Countries."

[xxxi]There was a city in Rgyal‑mo‑rong in eastern Khams by this name.

[xxxii]See NORBU, Gaṅs Ti se'i Dkar c'ag, pp. 70‑73.

[xxxiii]NOR‑BRANG, 'Thon‑mi', p. 267.

[xxxiv]One exception is a citation of a text entitled Me‑ri Gsang‑ba 'Khor‑lo in the modern history by Lopon Tenzin Namdak (THREE SOURCES, p. 624.2). However, I could not locate any names of kings in any of the texts by this title available to me.

[xxxv]KHAMS 'BRING, vol. 1, p. 16.6.

[xxxvi]See COLLECTED TANTRAS OF BON, vol. 1, p. 63.4 ff, as well as RNAM‑DAG PADMA, pp. 250‑251.  NAMDAK, History, p. 37.5 cites a list from page 312 of a Rnam‑dag Sgrub‑pa (which I have not located) where they are called the 'eight Shen who obtained birdhorns' (bya‑ru thob‑pa'i gshen brgyad).  

[xxxvii]These latter are mentioned, but not listed, in KHRO, pp. 55.1, 56.3.

[xxxviii]In some Mahāyāna sūtras, the Bodhisattvas of the tenth Level receive a royal 'empowerment' (abhiṣeka), and this may be the explanation for the royal ornaments in their iconography.  See DAVIDSON, 'Standards', p. 307; STRICKMANN, 'Consecration Sūtra', p. 85.

[xxxix]The solar/lunar motif does occur on top of an eighth century Tibetan inscribed pillar.  See RICHARDSON, 'Early Tibetan Inscription', p. 14.  Richardson does not, however, believe that this was an original part of the pillar's structure.

[xl]These crowns are illustrated, for example, in ERDMANN, 'Entwicklung'. The wings found on many of these crowns might have been the basis for the development of birdhorns, and following this line might require a reassessment of arguments made above. Many later examples from the general area of Bactria are illustrated in GÖBLE, Dokumente.

[xli]See A. GODARD,  Y. Godard and J. Hackin, Les antiquités bouddhiques de Bāmiyān (G. van Oest, Paris 1928), pp. 23‑24, 29, and plates XXIIIa, nos. 5, 9; XXIIIb, nos. 8, 10.  For 'birdhorn' type headpieces, see ibid., plates XXIIIa, nos 3, 5; XXIIIb, nos 8, 10, 14.  Refer also to GRÜNWEDEL, Alt Kutscha, figures 67, 81. See as well line illustrations in TARZI, L'Architecture.

[xlii]Tokharistan is described by him as the area north of Bāmiyān, south of Samarkand, and east of Persia.

[xliii]FOUCHER, L'art gréco‑bouddhique du Gandhāra, p. 360; GODARD et al., op. cit., p. 29. 

[xliv]SACHAU, Alberuni's India, vol. 1, p. 21 (London 1888).  Cited in RAYCHAUDHURI, Studies, pp. 140-141 and in PURI, Buddhism in Central Asia, p. 89.

[xlv]In a reference to the Tibetan imperial period, and in the context of an interpretation of prophecies contained in the Mañjuśrīmūlakalpa, 'GOS (Deb‑ther Sngon‑po, vol. 1, p. 72) says, "The 'Muslim King' (kla‑klo'i rgyal) [mentioned in the Mañjuśrīmūlakalpa] held power over the western country of Tā‑zhig."  There is evidence, the most important being the monks from Khotan, etc. (in the Li‑yul Lung‑bstan‑pa, etc.), that Buddhists of Central Asia during Tibetan Imperial times could migrate extremely long distances to escape an environment hostile to their faith (also demonstrated by the story of the monks who fled the persecution of Glang‑dar‑ma).  We still require definite testimony on Buddhist groups moving into Tibet from 'Iranian' areas in the west, although there is some evidence about Iranian monks in the corpus of Tibetan texts connected with Khotan (NATTIER, The Candragarbha‑Sūtra).  We should hesitate to accept the translation 'Muslim' for kla‑klo  (mleccha) in the Mañjuśrīmūlakalpa, though it seems likely that 'Gos Lo‑tstshā‑ba understood it as such. The word may be applied to any group of people who, in the Buddhist view, have attained some level of civilization, yet are hostile to Buddhism (but it would never be applied to established religions of Indian origin).

[xlvi]There was in the third to fourth centuries, evidently not far from Balkh, a kingdom ruled by a Warucan‑Śāh.  At one time I had thought that there was a remarkable similarity in the sound of this and Tibetan "Bya‑ru‑can." At this point I would certainly not argue for their identity, although this may possibly repay closer research. See HENNING, 'Warucan‑Śāh'.

[xlvii]I hope to return to this issue in another place. Meanwhile, see HOFFMANN, 'Account', and KARMAY, Treasury, pp. 3-11.  This discussion should go along with a general discussion of Bon geographical conceptions, and these could only be touched on here.  There is a rather interesting Chos parallel to the Bon story of Gnam‑gsas-spyi‑brdol in the story of *Dhītika's conversion of Tho‑gar told by Tāranātha (TĀRANĀTHA, History of Buddhism, p. 46).  On the Bru, or 'Bru family, see STEIN, Tribus pp. 45-46, where a connection is made between the 'Bru and the Skyu‑ra (the clan of 'Jig‑rten‑mgon‑po, and the predominating family in the 'Bri‑gung Bka'‑brgyud‑pa sect) which might prove significant for some of our later arguments.

[xlviii]There is some rather problematic textual evidence found in a fifth-century (?) Vaiṣṇava text, the Viṣṇu Dharmottara  Purāṇa, in which the sun and moon are part of a description of the aiḍūka (or stūpa).  See PAL, 'Aiḍūka', p. 49.

§  §  §


The short-form bibliographical abbreviations used here are practically all to be found in the bibliography to Unearthing Bon Treasures.

For a nice new study of Birdhorns, see this article by Roberto Vitali published in a free online journal (as all articles should be) coming from Paris called Revue d'Etudes Tibétaines.  Title: A Tentative Classification of the Bya ru can Kings of Zhang zhung.

For the full picture of the painting of the birdhorns in our frontispiece, see the original at HimalayanArt (HAR no. 20005).  If you look on the back side of the painting you will see a lengthy inscription in cursive Tibetan script.  Do notice the words bya-ru gnyis, meaning two birdhorns, toward the beginning of line 6.

The word bya-ru occurs in at least three Old Tibetan texts from Dunhuang.  Search for it yourself in OTDO, or press here.  Two of these speak of bya-ru khyung-ru, meaning birdhorn garuḍa-horn.  This evidence is surely older than the 11th century, so I am inclined to reconsider the words that appear above, 
"we could not find reasonably secure Tibetan textual evidence for it before the eleventh century."
Study this remarkable rock art that accompanies an article by John Bellezza.  More such examples could be given.  Search through all these petroglyphs, and you are bound to find something worth your while.

For a written record of a birdhorn hat being worn by traveling minstrels in 13th-century Tibet, look here.  There are more examples of birdhorns appearing in fairly early works that are not otherwise associated with Bon religion, including a consecration text by Atisha (this one was mentioned above), the 13th-century history by  Mkhas-pa Lde’u, and so on.

Mehdad Shokoohy, Sassanian Royal Emblems and Their Reemergence in the Fourteenth-Century Deccan.  Download it here.

One of the most relevant articles is this one: P.O. Harper, Thrones and Enthronement Scenes in Sasanian Art, Iran, vol. 17 (1979), pp. 49-64. The illustrations will speak for themselves if you can get access (try JSTOR if you can).

I had to search hard on the internet to come up with clear Iranian examples to show the sun-moon crown as part of a sacral kingship complex. The best I could find so far is in the Walter's Art Gallery, Baltimore, site. Look here, and see it in big size. This same silver vessel was long ago illustrated (fig. 55) and discussed in H.P. L'Orange, Studies in the Iconography of Cosmic Kingship in the Ancient World (Oslo 1953), pp. 78-79. Oddly L'Orange has nothing to say about the sun-moon on the king's head, since in this chapter at least he is more interested in the animals, in this case eagles with wings spread in flight, that elevate the king's seat. Another great example is the so-called Cup of Solomon (illus. just below) kept in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris. L'Orange (fig. 52 on p. 74) and Harper both have poor black-and-white illustrations.  I tried to find a good color illustration of this vessel made of rock crystal, glass and gold on the internet, but the best I could come up with is this one, on a commercial site, where the central enthronement scene is not very clear. I guess you'll just have to fly to Paris. 

Added note (September 14, 2011):  

For a direct link to an important article on Sassanian crowns, in German, and with great drawings of the various types, look HERE.


  1. Unable to critique because of lack of knowledge, I, nonetheless, much appreciate this attempt to observe comings and goings in the history of Central Asia. It is especially rare to get dibbs on the West-to-East movements. Frankly, even responsible analysis of East-to-West movements is often lacking. In comparison, there are gazillions about the South and Far East Asian regions ....

    Kudos to Martin.

  2. There is another excellent example of a Sassanian solar-lunar crown in this royal hunting scene.

    Go here for the original context:


  3. A.H. kindly sent this reference to me. It looks interesting! Kageyama, Etsuko. "The Winged Crown and the Triple-crescent Crown in the Sogdian Funerary Monuments from China: Their relation to the Hephthalite Occupation of Central Asia" in Journal of Inner Asian Art and Archeology 2/2007:11-22.

    Another thing to check next time (if ever) I go to that big university library. (BREPOLS site handles the journal, but no access for me!)

    There is something about the "triple-crescent crown" in this fresh new free dissertation, now that I think to google for it:

    Aydogdy Kurbanov, The Hephthalites: Archaeological and Historical Analysis, Free University (Berlin 2010).

  4. I also just noticed this interesting essay by Judith A. Lerner: Animal Headdresses on the Sealings of the Bactrian Documents. Try here.

    Or Google for the title.

    There is much mention of bird crowns, and horned crowns, but nothing I could notice about bird horn crowns.


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