Sunday, December 28, 2014

Marvelous Man-Lifting Kites (& Giants in Caves)

Topkapi Palace, Istanbul

Several years ago I joined a Yahoo discussion group devoted to the teachings of Tuesday Lobsang Rampa (1910‑1981). It was not just a whim, I was more than a little curious and thought it would be a learning experience for me. Once again, I heeded that irritating impulse of mine to dig into things a little further, or to do, in a word, research. These are people who have heard all the evidence that Rampa was himself a faker, yet go on insisting that his teachings are none the less true and very effective for them, regardless of all those misrepresentations they are couched in. I am a little perplexed when I see this, thinking that genuinely useful teachings ought to come from a genuine source. I could be wrong about this. People want to grow, that’s for sure, and usually it happens while they are preoccupied with other things. But they don’t have much patience or perseverence, and meanwhile they would really rather just be entertained. I guess we are all familiar with the Barnum effect, the dictum — not Barnum’s own — that a ‘sucker is born every minute’ so why not serve their needs? Excuse me, I’ll be right back. I just remembered I have a giant petrified hominid in my back yard begging for me to dig it up.

If Rampa told something not true about the man-lifting kites to make the story more entertaining, what’s to say he wouldn’t also add non-truths to his instructions on telepathy, astral traveling and so on? People are in some ways and at some times so trusting, so likely to get hooked in. How do you know when you’re real enough to be teaching other people in an honest way (I don’t mean specially religious or spiritual teaching, but any kind of teaching). I think about it and then go on to think some more, and in the end I just don’t know. If every person has to work out her or his own salvation anyway, then the search for the ‘perfect’ teacher could be a distraction. True no doubt, but what would that perfection look like if you found it? If there is no complete fraud, there is no completely genuine article, both are idealizing extremes that ought to be recognized as such.

“They shall have mysteries-- ay precious stuff For knaves to thrive by-- mysteries enough; Dark, tangled doctrines, dark as fraud can weave, Which simple votaries shall on trust receive, While craftier feign belief till they believe.”
— Thomas Moore (1779-1852),
The Veiled Prophet of Khorrasan 

What he says is true enough, but for all we know Moore could have been talking about psychoanalysis... Well, if the word had even been coined yet. The poster above Fox Mulder’s desk in the X-Files, if I remember right, reads “I want to believe.”* Indeed. What are we to believe? Just because something is unbelievable does it mean we have to make an all-out special effort to believe it? Amusing to consider the consequences of applying this axiom in a number of areas!
(*Imagine a man who everyday tries to walk out on a branch, reassuring himself by repeating to himself ‘The branch is strong.  The branch is very strong, very very strong...’ and each day his faith becomes stronger and stronger while he walks out further and further on the branch until one fine day the tree breaks a limb and so does he.)

Rampa was in reality a cranky old opinionated paranoiac, sour and sickly for most of his life, who didn’t mind telling people how he was against women’s rights (for example)  and how everybody — Tibetans, Tibetologists, the press, the governments — had been plotting against him all along...  Sound like somebody you know? And since he didn’t have all that many visitors up in cold Calgary, most of his socializing seems to have taken place through the postal system. 

Okay, more than enough of that sad contemplation, and on to something really interesting, those man-lifting kites!

The Rampa Kite Illustration

Can you make out the human figure standing there in the pilot’s seat? Is that ballast hanging at the ends of the wings?  Do you think they flapped?  Flight worthy you think?

But do notice this:  Man-lifting kites were employed by Chinese generals in warfare in quite early times, or at least the idea that they did is very firmly in place in the Chinese sources.

“Kung-shu* himself made an ascent riding on a wooden kite in order to spy on a city which he desired to capture.”

 ——Berthold Laufer, "The Pre-History of Aviation," Field Museum of Natural History (Chicago 1928), p. 23.
(*This Kung-shu was a contemporary of Confucius.)

And military uses of kites, even for lifting up humans for surveillance purposes, were well known to other nations well before Rampa’s time. Notice the date on the source that follows, six years before the birth of Cyril Hoskins.

Anonymous, Science, New Series vol. 20, no. 497 (July 8, 1904), p. 64:

“IT is stated in the London Times that the man-lifting kite, as invented by Mr. Cody, has during the last few days been subjected to further trials at Aldershot with the view of testing its feasibility and usefulness for observation purposes in war time. The main features claimed for the kite are, first, its extreme simplicity and the ease with which the various component parts required to work it can be transported from place to place; and, secondly, that it can be flown in heavy wind such as would render the use of the war balloon almost impossible. A number of Royal Engineers are now under instruction in the working of the kite in order that it may be thoroughly tested.”

It isn’t exactly the question here whether man-lifting kites were known in China or England at any particular time. The question is ‘Did Tibetans in the first half of the 20th century fly inside kites for recreational (or any other) purposes?’  The answer to that question is by all accounts of Tibetans themselves an unequivocal “No!”

•  •  •

For background on what follows, try looking at L. Fitzpatrick, "L. Rampa: Sacrophagus with Giants of the Past and Machinery in the Caves of Tibet."  Click here.  

The western idea that there was a kind of giant Golem or the like in the Bietala* has a bit of history behind it, going as far back as the 18th century. My position is that it emerged out of a misunderstanding of descriptions of what the tomb-chortens of the Dalai Lamas were built to contain (along with a confusion between container and contents). That Rampa continues this earlier western misconception fits into a larger pattern that extends to his teachings, including practical instructions for astral travel, presented as Tibetan when in fact they are entirely taken from western occultism (Proclus, Blavatskian Theosophy etc.).
(*i.e., Potala; as long ago as 1683 in a book by M.A. Mallet, De L'Asie, some imagined they could hear the Italian word bietola for ‘beet’, the red vegetable source of all borscht.  For the illustration, go here.)

Q: What was gold-covered, in fact?  A: The chortens.  But the mummies could also be gilded.

Q: What was giant in fact?  A: The chortens.

Q: What do the chortens contain?  A: Mummified bodily remains of the Dalai Lamas, mummified in cross-legged seating position, of ordinary human size or smaller.

Q: How ancient are the times we are talking about here?  A: The first in the series of tomb chortens built within the Potala was the one for the Fifth Dalai Lama after His death in 1682.

§  §  §


I noticed an interesting thing in a bibliography, something I haven’t seen yet, that may have a bearing on a future discussion of Rampa kites:  J.E. Nowers, “The Man Lifting Kite: A Forgotten Invention?” Royal Engineers Journal, vol. 109 (1995), p. 96.

If you are deeply into kites, man-lifting or not, you must read Laufer’s little book we mentioned above, but also this:  Joseph Needham, et al., Science and Civilisation in China, vol. 4: Physics and Physical Technology; Part 2: Mechanical Engineering, University Press (Cambridge 1965), pp. 568-602.

If you need some introducing to Rampa, here is something short and to the point from Tricycle magazine: Lobsang Rampa: The Mystery of the Three-Eyed Lama by Donald S. Lopez, Jr.

For Tibeto-logic blogs on the "Three Eyes," see this one and this one from way back in 2007, with some of the more essential Rampa bibliography not mentioned here today. Those old blogs provoked some animated and entertaining discussion, informative, too.

There is, of course, a website devoted to Rampa's teachings, but at this very moment, it is "under construction."  Try your luck and look here.  And yes, there is a Wiki page about him.

Ancient Indian Aircraft on Agenda of Major Science Conference.  Huh? 
(See now the postscript, below.)

§  §  §

After a talk that was then published in 1961, the late Hugh Richardson fielded questions from the audience, including this one:

 Q: Is there any truth in the story of an operation to open the "third eye"? 
 A: None whatsoever. The book which describes it is an utter fraud. It was written by somebody who had never been out of England.

"Utter fraud?"

There are those fascinating figures from long ago who had the vision to believe the moon was a reachable goal.  Were they believed much?

A few like Wm. Blake thought it would be wanting far too much (as we tend to do).

Speedy Gonsalez? Far ahead of his time.
I want!  I want!

There are genuinely people (6% of the population of the U.S.) who believe humans have never set foot on the moon, viewing NASA as an utter fraud. But even if these people are as deeply deluded as I believe they are, isn’t it also the case that the moon landing was "staged" to appear in a particular light, to make a particular type of impression on we the earthlings? Do you think everything about it was utterly spontaneous and unrehearsed? I guess you get my general drift.

One of Cody's Man-lifting Kites

I’ll end by giving Rampa the final word. These are practically his final words, since they come from the end of his final book, written not long before his death. I want to underline the words true, absolutely true, but perhaps it isn’t necessary:

“These books, my books, are true, absolutely true, and if you think that this particular book smacks of science fiction you are wrong. The science in it could have been many times increased had the scientists been at all interested, but the fiction—there just isn't any, not even “artists' license.” ”


Postscript (May 16, 2015):

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Turkish & Mongolian Loanwords

The Tibetan words here are, to transcribe them into Wylie, in order:  sku-bde-rigsgang-zag, chol-kha, 'jam, thu-lum, na-so, no-kar, pag-shi, beg-tse, sbe-ka, tshan, she-mong, hor-dud, and am-chi.  I know the letters are small, so double-click on the image to enlarge it.
In times gone by, musk was the most popular Tibetan product in the whole world. Now that the musk deer is considered endangered it’s been replaced by synthetics, so much so that now Tibet’s biggest money maker is Buddhism, which seems to be facing the same fate. The Mongolian is kuderi, and the Tibetan borrowing of it gives it Tibetanizing spellings that make it seem to mean family of healthy bodies, but using very honorable language. Why would Tibetans ever think to borrow yet another word when they already had such a perfect one of their own for it, gla-ba? I have no idea.

Gang-zag is a tricky word, since its usual meaning is person (Sanskrit pudgala), not pipe.

I know I once claimed that sbe-ka had something to do with the Sanskrit word for frog, and now all of a sudden I’m contradicting myself finding an Old Mongolian origin for it in a word for wrestler. I admit I was probably wrong, although come to think of it I could have been right. For more on the frog read further.

You may well wonder what metal ingots might have to do with whole animal pelts. Well, even if you weren’t wondering: In ancient times in the Middle East and elsewhere, there was a practice of pouring molten metal into whole animal skins immersed in water. The result would be an ingot with four short legs that made the very heavy objects a lot easier to for two people to handle.

Emchi is nowadays a most common Tibetan word for physician, entirely suitable for addressing your doctor in person. Goldstein's dictionary even records the spelling em-rje, one of those cute (and endearing) Tibetanizing spellings since the 2nd syllable means lord, making it all that much more respectful.

I imagine all, or at least most, of these loanwords from Mongolian entered Tibetan during the time of the Mongolian Empire or at least not before. I doubt you will find any of them in the Dunhuang documents or other pre-Mongol period sources, but Tibetanists can test this for themselves at the OTDO.

Here is a photo of a horse-hair thug, a traumatic symbol of Mongolian terror in the late 12th-13th centuries that we mentioned in an earlier blog. Still today, Tibetans use it to mark the location of gönkhang chapels where fear is (ideally) taken onto the Path.

The Tibetan words here are, to transcribe them into Wylie, in order:  khol-po, cog, chu-ba (or phyu-ba), 'cham, thug, sbal-kha, yol, gshang, and sag-ri.

Many of these words you see here, taken from Turkic languages, are not commonly encountered in Tibetan and a few are extremely rare (the names of Turkic gods, cog and yol only occur in long-forgotten Old Tibetan documents), although others such as chu-ba and 'cham are everyday words.

Here is a home video that shows you not only how to wrap your chuba, but throws in momo steaming as well. What a bargain! There is plenty of evidence for what early Uighur outfits looked like in donor portraits. Look here. Find a discussion of the word-connections for the clothing here (but please do correct the picture label there to read "Tibetan Chuba").

On the Turkic words for both the masked performers and the bell (just below), see Emel Esin's A History of Pre-Islamic and Early-Islamic Culture (Istanbul 1980), p. 107.

The gshang bell, used primarily by followers of Bön, but also by some Kagyü Lamas and spirit mediums, looks like this:

For the Tibetan word for that shagreen that helps you keep a nice and tight slip-free grip on knives and swords, have a look at this March 2009 blog entry of Sitahu where C.C. and I had a lot of fun discussing it. I have to say, I have nothing more to say about it, and I admit this much to my great chagrin.

I’ve found that you can find a lot more Tibetan words lifted from Mongolian in a convenient list — with discussion — in the 2008 doctoral dissertation of Tóth Erzsébet (Elisabeth Toth), Mongol–Tibeti Nyelvi Kölcsönhatások (found online here), pp. 13-34. It’s interesting that the Tibetan name used in recent times for Russia, ཨུ་རུ་སུ་, was taken from Mongolian. It would appear that Rgya-ser/ རྒྱ་སེར་ ['Yellow Expanse'?] is the more genuinely Tibetan name for this northern vastness, but it, too, doesn’t seem to date back more than a few centuries, so I very much doubt it could have anything to do with the Khazars.  I think it could very well have something to do with the memory of the Golden Horde.

All these vocabulary connections are provisional and merit prolonged study, reflection and discussion.


Postscript!  (January 18, 2015)

The more I travel the less I know. No need to search afar for something so close to home. These wise adages (or something close) are often repeated and never heeded. But I had a funny experience today that brought it all home for me. I was digging in the back of the refrigerator and came up with a good proof of that ages-old wisdom (wisdom being something I do believe can be found at home, after all). It's been ages since that change of flights in Istanbul, over a month now, but I found the leftovers of something purchased in the duty free there. I hope you won't be offended if I show it to you. I must warn you it is slightly smelly, but not in such a bad way:

Notice those words on the label “Tulum Peyniri.” That means ‘cheese’ (peyniri, evidently the same word you find in palak paneer!) made in a tulum. That’s right, this cheese was traditionally (at least) made inside of a complete skin of a four-legged animal, the same word tulum that Tibetans borrowed at one time or another. A search of the internet came up with this exact cheese, suggesting we ought to mix it with walnuts, and this turned out to be a very good idea. Go ahead and go here and read what it says. I couldn’t find any pictures of how the cheese is or was made in Turkey, although I did find some nice photos of Jordanian Bedouin women showing how it’s supposed to be done.  Go here and here (I didn’t want to swipe the photos, since it’s a commercial site intending to make money... Follow the links, but beware of buying!)

By the way, a quick search of the e-text repository at TBRC immediately turned up 272 matches for ཐུ་ལུམ་ (thu-lum). So it is a word that is encountered in Tibetan literature from time to time (I’ve encountered it mainly in colophons... I remember I once mistranslated it as ‘cannonball.’  Live and learn. See you later. Take it easy.).

±  ±  ±

Oh, I forgot to say that tulum is also a modern Turkish word for the bagpipe. I imagine it has something to do with the way they used to be made. And we really shouldn't leave the subject of inflatable skin bags (a subject that has been interesting me lately for other reasons) without mentioning their use for floating on the water. There is a remarkable Assyrian frieze depicting a man using a skin bag for floating in the water supposed to date from circa 800 BCE.  And the use of flotation devices is well known from Tibetan travel accounts, and in older Tibetan literature we have the very interesting Tibetan words rkyal (རྐྱལ་) used both for the float and for the storage bag and phyal (ཕྱལ་) more with the meaning of a float or a buoy.* To judge from the Englished version, the preparation of flotation devices for crossing rivers was something Padampa used as a metaphor for helping other people to get beyond suffering.**
(*The Rangjung Yeshe Wiki entries I've linked for you don't have either of these meanings with the meanings I've given for them, but that ought to be no great cause for surprise or concern. Longchenpa loved to use the word phyal metaphorically for floating freely with nothing to hold you in place.  **Blue Annals, Roerich tr., p. 922; but now that I check the original text, there is no word for any flotation device there.  It uses the word skya-gdos, སྐྱ་གདོས་, a compound of the words for oars and mast, both of them locomotive rather than flotation devices.  Which goes to show, it can be a problem to rely on translations, even when done by humans as competent as Gendun Choephel, who used the same woodblock printing of the Blue Annals as I do. So don't blame the different readings on variant readings.)

Thursday, November 27, 2014

The Emperor's Beer Jug

Quoted from the Dutch painter Jan Havickszoon Steen (1626-1679 CE)

I just noticed an interesting thing in a drawing I had looked at very many times over the years. I was following up on a reference from Michael Henss’s new book. While looking at that sketch again with the beer jug of Songtsen Gampo on my mind,* I couldn’t help but be impressed at how well Haarh had so long ago caught the shape of this horse-headed (camel-headed?) vessel, especially since I believe he could not have known about the actual one kept in the Jokhang unless Hugh Richardson told him about it. That’s possible, I suppose, although I do doubt it.**
(*Go back to this post if you can't remember what that is. **I should check if Grünwedel could have mentioned it in his German translation of the Fifth Dalai Lama's guide to the Jokhang. Oh well, some other time.)

As you can see in the scan just below, Haarh's version deviates toward an oblong canister shape in place of the near-spherical, but we can overlook that with ease and still remain impressed. The words you see here labeling it, dngul-gyi bum-pa rta'i mgo-can - དངུལ་གྱི་བུམ་པ་རྟའི་མགོ་ཅན་ - may be translated silver vessel having head of horse.

A chart reconstructing a royal cenotaph of Songtsen Gampo.
The text that forms its basis speaks of three silver vessels having horse heads.  Haarh, p. 355.*

*Erik Haarh, The Yar-luṅ Dynasty: A Study with Particular Regard to the Contribution by Myths and Legends to the History of Ancient Tibet and the Origin and Nature of Its Kings, G.E.C. Gad's Forlag (Copenhagen 1969), illustration on p. 355. An amazing accomplishment in its day, Haarh's book is awesome still (and awesomely hard to find; my copy, fast falling out of its cover, is an ex libris of an early Tibetanist now turned Methodist preacher), although today we see faults here and there, especially in the translated passages. Haarh made this work of criticism easy for us by supplying side-by-side paralleled Tibetan texts for all these passages, and for that, too, we have to thank him.

In case you are too tired to look back at the earlier blog, I put a photo of the jug here for you. Now compare the two.

See the resemblance?

Was the Jokhang jug itself just a funerary offering object? If so we would have to wipe out from our imagination any scenes of the living emperor enjoying a beer from it, and that would be more than a little sad and a bit of a shame. Instead we would have to imagine his ghostly spirit doing the same. I think we should keep faith, and regard it as an object meant to be used for its intended purpose, to dispense mildly intoxicating beverages to the Emperor and his most honored guests.

There seems to be ample testimony in the post-imperial accounts of his reign that Songtsen Gampo enjoyed beer drinking. While he and his magically projected puppet-automatons were doing the construction work on the Jokhang his wife or her servant every afternoon brought him a beer snack.* If hard pressed, I could come up with more stories about his drinking, but leave it at that for now.
(*Beware, that unusual word for snack bsang-bu is often disguised under the spelling gsang, that you had always thought means secret)

And even more surprising news awaits you. Among the votes for this or that country of provenance for the imperial jug — Scythian, Greek, Iranian, Tibetan and Sogdian — nobody* has ever mentioned the Uighur Turks. The Uighurs had kingdoms both impressive and prosperous, but bear in mind that the wall painting we will look at in a second could not have been painted before 856 when the Uighur kingdom of Kocho (Qočo) began. Before that their power center was much further north, in the Orkhon River Valley of Mongolia, and that kingdom, too, only formed a century after Songtsen's death.

 (*Except A.H. in an email, which definitely counts)

It was Amy Heller who alerted me to the pictorial evidence that follows, although I extracted it from my copy of Emel Esin's book, A History of Pre-Islamic and Early-Islamic Turkish Culture (Istanbul 1980), and not from her article.

From murals of the palace of the Uighur Rulers in Koco.  Drawn from Grünwedel.

Taking a slow and patient look at it, you will gradually make out a fancy table with small drinking vessels on top of it. Behind the table, and mostly hidden by it, are taller vessels for holding a sufficient amount to serve one table. And there next to the upper human figure are two still-larger vessels with animal heads (which animals do you see?) standing ready to pour into and refill the taller vessels. Observe the transition, the fluid transmission so to speak, from larger to smaller vessels: keg to pitcher to flask, and finally, not least of all, to mouth and stomach and so on.

Well, this is the point where I ought to drop a surprising conclusion, but I'm not sure enough where we stand. My impression is that the Tibetan vessel has enough foreign and primarily Uighur or more broadly Turkic elements in it, that we would be justified in claiming it was brought to Tibet from there. Of course, the Uighurs were living much further from Tibet in the century of Songtsen than they would be in subsequent centuries, but I don’t regard the distance as an insurmountable obstacle, do you? In any case, let’s hold off on strong judgements until more information can make us feel more secure in them. A sense of certainty can often conceal deeper insecurities, certainly if it’s premature.

Here, in what follows, I’ve collected for comparison several important quotes that concern Emperor Songtsen Gampo’s beer flask. On the basis of these, Tibetanists ought to be able to form their own conclusions, not forgetting there are some references to Tibetan-language sources we ought to look up, too. That means especially the ones supplied by Roberto Vitali.

I won’t take any of these people to task for not seeing things my way. Anyway, my way is (I know I just said it, but repeat to be sure of not being misrepresented) to wait and see what more connections will be made in the future. I may venture some tiny criticisms here and there that don’t amount to much. Personally, I am more and more willing to see Eurasian luxury trade items in imperial Tibet. At the same time I would wish certain people in the art world would give up their erstwhile assumptions that Tibet did not have worthwhile artists and had to bring artists from abroad (that they did in imperial times and later on make use of foreign artists, Khotanese and Newar artists in particular, and that those artists had a strong impact on local styles is beyond dispute). There are Uighur Turkic and Dunhuang connections not only in the general shape of the jug, as I believe was made clear above, but also in some of the main details of its decoration. I will leave it up to Amy Heller to go into that further since she is the one who pointed the main connections out to me. I just think in upcoming discussion of the jug people ought to concentrate on precisely these issues, and not (or not yet on) the nationality of its makers. We wouldn't want those judgements to be based on ruling assumptions about who was capable of producing what, when it is precisely this kind of ruling assumption that requires reassessment. It isn’t as if we have a tremendous amount of material to work with for these earliest phases of Tibetan artistic history. There are practically no well-established artistic benchmarks from so early on. As far as general history is concerned, we know when Songtsen died, but practically everything else about him is arguably up in the air or at least elusive and shadowy.

The most important available writing on the subject by far is the online article of Amy Heller that we’ve mentioned before,* and there was also a short online reaction to her essay that mainly disputes her ideas about the national identities of the artists, arguing they were Sogdian, not Tibetan. Amy wrote more on early Tibetan metalwork here, and an even more recent and important article available online in PDF here. It appears that Veronica Ronge of Bonn presented a lecture entitled “Srong btsan sgam po's Beer Jug in the Jokhang, Lhasa” at the Tibetan Studies conference in Fagernes, Norway in 1992, although I’m sure I missed the chance to hear it and it was not published in the proceedings. I would have quoted from Ulrich van Schroeder’s book (Buddhist Sculptures in Tibet), but it’s beyond my purchasing power. I know you can find it in a local library if you live in London, but I don’t. Much less expensive, but still expensive, is Michael Henss's very new 2-volume book The Cultural Monuments of Tibet, published by Prestel  (Munich 2014). This is clearly the author’s magnum opus, a labor of love, the work of a lifetime, and one he will be remembered for far into the future.**

(*Amy's essay is beautifully illustrated, just click on the small photos and large ones appear. **Henss's discussion, in vol. 1, pp. 77-79, is a lengthy one, and my keyboard fingers are aching for a rest, but for a little more on it, see below.)

Here are the quotes:

Victor Chan, Tibet Handbook: A Pilgrimage Guide, Moon Publications (Chico 1994), p. 91, in its description of Chogyal Songtsen Lhakhang (a chapel in the Jokhang, one level up from the ground floor):
"Next to the east wall (between the two entrances, on a wood stand in a cabinet) is the Chögyal Trungben, the king's beer container, a round, potbellied silver vessel with a long spout. A horse's head with protruding ears is the terminal decoration. Notice the exaggerated, drunken figures at the bottom of the pot. The workmanship is clearly not Tibetan. The repoussé decorations (garments, boots, hair styles) show a possible Indo-Iranian influence and are often seen in Kushan artwork (late 1st-3rd century). One source suggests a Scythian origin for this vessel. Tradition asserts that this chang bowl was concealed in a gorge of the Kyere Valley in west-central Tibet. Tsongkhapa later discovered it and brought it to the Jokhang."
My note:  Amy Heller — in her online article on the Jokhang jug — quoted from Situ's guide for its 1920-ish description of the same temple chamber, but there it says it was taken as a treasure (gter), meaning it was unearthed, at the intermediate entrance (bar sgo or bar so?) into Yerpa. The Yerpa Valley is a wonderful place rich with historical associations, blessings of holy people and meditation caves just a short drive upstream from Lhasa. This pilgrimage place holds a special connection with the Jokhang and with Lhasa as a whole. Sometimes Lhasa is said to have its life-wood (srog-shing) in Yerpa. I guess Chan means by Kyere Valley, a place southeast of Lhasa called Gye-re. That’s quite a distance from Yerpa and in the opposite direction from Lhasa, so there is some conflicting information to deal with here. I have the feeling someone misspelled Gye-re as, and then misheard it as the Yer in Yerpa, or is that too farfetched? One problem with this idea is I’ve never been able to come up with an instance of the spelling, except as a misspelling noted below.

I’m not sure “exaggerated, drunken figures” is quite right. Only one figure is drunken, the others are either helping the poor drunken man over to the couch or playing musical instruments (drunk or not). Also, I’m unclear on what exactly is exaggerated. What would they have looked like if they were unexaggerated, Any idea?

~ ~ ~

Hugh Richardson, High Peaks, Pure Earth: Collected Writings on Tibetan History and Culture, Serindia (London 1998, but originally published in 1977), p. 254:

"The chang-snod rta-'go-can, or dngul-dam rta-mgo-ma (DLV, p. 59) is a round-bellied silver jar with a long neck surmounted by a horse's head.  DLV states that it was discovered by Tsong-kha-pa in a hidden treasure. The jar, as seen in recent years, bore the date of the fire-dog year of the 16th rab-byung — i.e. 1946 — a new covering in exact replica having been put over the original jar for its protection. The skill of Tibetans in the sixth and seventh centuries in making animal figures of precious metal is attested in several passages in the T'ang Annals (see my 'Early Burial Grounds in Tibet,' [Ch. 28 above]). Another reputed relic of Srong-brtsan Sgam-po is an earthenware beaker, now protected by a silver case, which is taken ceremonially to the bka'-shag and to the houses of the old noble families early in the sixth month."

~ ~ ~

Hugh Richardson, Ceremonies of the Lhasa Year, Serindia (London 1993), p. 96 (with reference to annual observances held early in the sixth month):
"This day [the 4th day of the 6th month] is also associated with King Songtsen Gampo who is said by tradition to have introduced Buddhism to Tibet in 642 A.D., although the manner of this connection seems fairly inappropriate. A drinking mug, trungben, which he is said to have thrown from the roof of the Potala in a drunken frolic and which survived unbroken, is ceremonially taken to the Dalai Lama's morning reception for officials and offered to those present, who ritually flick a drop of its contents into the air. On the following two days it is taken round by its custodians to the houses of the Shappés and other high officials. One year a friend among the custodians brought it to me as a great honor so that I could make the ritual offering. It was a simple earthenware mug in a protective silver cover. It is said that the mug was concealed after the end of the kingdom and recovered by Tsongkhapa in a hillside near Lhasa, where its imprint is still to be seen."

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Gyurme Dorje, “Zhakabpa's Inventory of the Great Temple of Lhasa,” contained in: G. Dorje, et al., eds., Jokhang: Tibet’s Most Sacred Buddhist Temple, Hansjorg Mayer (London 2010), pp. 47-121, at p. 81 (with small sized photo):

"A cabinet resting on a wooden stand in front of the main image still contains an original silver wine flask which may well be of Scythian or Kushan origin, and which is known as 'khrungs ban rta mgo ma. This was reputedly the wine flask used by King Songtsen Gampo himself. It had been inserted as treasure in the fissure of a rock within the Gye-re (Drakral) Ravine, and later, in the early fifteenth century, it was extracted by Tsongkhapa and presented to this chapel as an offering. The fissure is said to have subsequently assumed the shape of the wine flask. Some reports also suggest the flask has been silver plated in recent centuries. Like the ring, the wine flask appears to have been employed only once a year during the dPal lha ri khrod ceremonies, at which time it is said to have been filled quickly and easily by those of greater merit but slowly by those of feeble merit."  
— Note that there are more references to the beer jug in this same book, just look in the index under "Wine flask of King Songtsen Gampo."

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Roberto Vitali, Early Temples of Central Tibet, Serindia (London 1990), p. 84, note 4:

“The rGyal.po bKa'.thang (see GPKT&LPKT, 157) gives a review of such concealed treasures [] and their hiding places in the Jo.khang. Of particular note is that the king hid several silver chang pots. The Srong.btsan sgam.po chapel on the upper floor today houses a chang pot whose rediscovery tradition attributes to at dBus.stod in the sTod.lung valley (5DL KCh, 36; ZKCh, 64). It is said that he brought it back to the Jo.khang. The latter two sources describe it as a horse-headed pot, though personal inspection suggested a camel’s head, which means that it could be one of the three camel-headed silver chang pots mentioned in the rGyal.po bKa'.thang together with ten other silver pots bearing duck heads.”

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Michael Henss, The Cultural Monuments of Tibet, vol. 1, pp. 77-79.  Here are a few notes on the content of his relatively lengthy discussion:  

He says in the picture caption, with apparently strong conviction, that the “Wine jar of King Songtsen Gampo,” is “Work of a Central Asian artist in Tibet, c. 8th century.” I wonder about the “c. 8th century,” since it seems to suggest it comes from the time of Trisong Detsen, rather than Songtsen Gampo, but I see no discussion, so perhaps it's just a slip. He says the silver was hammered in repoussé technique in four parts. I thought the figures were made separately and then attached, so I confess a little confusion. In his footnote 215 (at p. 198) he supplies an impressive set of references to the discovery of the jar, with the various sites of discovery that have been mentioned, and its presentation to the Jokhang by Tsongkhapa. Here I notice the spelling (i.e. གཡེ་རེ་) for the site name, which is of course quite different from Gye-re (i.e. གྱེ་རེ་), the usual spelling. And there is further discussion of stylistic questions that may argue for the national identity of the artists. 

I have no final or even semi-final judgement of my own to offer about the jug, but I’m quite sure there was a lot of trade in foreign luxury goods in the imperial period. If anyone makes a judgement about this object because they believe Tibet did not participate in international trade in those times, then my feeling is they ought to look into the matter further and change their minds. Not to get into it too deeply, we could just ask, Weren’t Tibetans getting something back in return for all that musk the rest of Eurasia was so eager to obtain? 

The larger photograph on p. 78 of Henss’s book is especially interesting, since it shows the decoration of the upper part of the pot very clearly. You can even make out words from the recently added inscription on the neck, including the date it gives for something or another (what?). One possibility I believe has not yet been offered: the jug was made by local Tibetan artists of the imperial era as a copy of a much-admired foreign object, perhaps one looted through foreign conquest, even if the northern conquests of the Silk Routes seem to have begun only a decade or so after Songtsen Gampo’s time, which is to say in around the 660’s CE. We may have to give up the idea that it belongs to Songtsen Gampo’s time, I’m not sure.


What do we call it?

I suggest in future when discussing this object we use either the word jug or the rather antiquated flagon.  I haven’t noticed anyone so far using flagon, but I think it suits the object well, just that it isn’t used nowadays. In current English the word flask (although it does share its Germanic etymology with flagon) is used for small containers, especially invoking images of hip flasks or pocket flasks used to carry small amounts of alcohol for discrete imbibing in public places. That’s why flask isn’t appropriate for our Tibetan Emperor, if you ask me. But then flagon, a larger container in any case, may be inappropriate just because most people believe a handle and spout to be among its defining characteristics. Did the Jokhang flagon once have a handle that was broken off? While it does appear to have a spout of sorts, the main way of accessing the liquid is via a spigot. Well, yes, I wonder if the spigot wasn’t added later (to be used for more easily and quickly dispensing drops for pilgrims), but if it is an integral part of it we might have to call the whole thing a keg. Trouble is, a keg we imagine as quite a large and even barely liftable object. Kegs would be used to fill flagons. What do you think about all this? And what’re your views on ewer?


Afterword:  An earlier blog “In Praise of Beer” really went off the charts, as the most-accessed Tibeto-logic blog in recent times. I’m positive this one won’t be read nearly as much. That’s entirely okay. I’ve made a decision to make Tibeto-logic less and less popular, and the only way to gauge my success is to see there are fewer and fewer visitors. I’m not the only blogger to notice that in recent times there have been hardly any comments, which is a little sad. I once dreamt of Tibeto-logic becoming a kind of wide-open sounding board for significant Tibetological issues. Should I sign up for Facebook? Shy and antisocial as I am, I dread going there. Instead I’ll make videos of Tibetological celebrities busy about their work and upload them to YouTube. You may think I’m serious. No, I’m just nervous. And for no reason... I think I’ll have a beer.

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