Monday, March 10, 2014

Bird Dogs of Tibet

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

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

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

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

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

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

§   §   §

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

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

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

§   §   §

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

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

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

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


  1. Garje Khamtrul Rinpoche, who was present during many of the late Khenpo Jigphun's visits with His Holiness the Dalai Lama, told me Khenpo Jigphun offered the Dalai Lama a chihuahua. Incidentally, Khamtrul Rinpoche happened to be holding one in his hands as he said it. Khamtrul Rinpoche corroborated Terrone's report that said dog was reputed to be able to detect poison. When I remarked how odd it was that Tibetans had attributed such powers to a breed of dog from the Mexican state of Chihuahua, Rinpoche expressed surprise, saying that Khampas often used the (possibly corrupt) 'Chinese' words hwa hwa (?) in preference to the Tibetan word khyi for dog. Rinpoche went on to say he had always assumed 'Chihuahua' was a combination of khyi and hwa hwa! I spoke with another friend from Gonjo (a well-educated slob dpon now at Mindrolling Monastery) who reported having often heard puppy-like yelps coming from vultures' nests back home but was unable to scale the rock face to get a better look. Apparently in Gonjo, these dogs are often found not in the nests but on the ground near the nests leading the people of Gonjo to speculate that the mother vulture rejected their strange progeny and pushed them out of the nest. The slob dpon from Gonjo wondered whether a similarity in the Chihuahuas' and baby birds' cranial profile had led to the Tibetan belief that the two were siblings.

  2. Dear Ls,

    Wow! That's absolutely fascinating. The idea that the dog and the bird might be siblings makes it sound even more like the Turkic idea than ever. It had occurred to me that the tiny dogs might have been brought to the nest by the big birds, thinking they were eaglets (or newly born vultures or whatever) that had fallen out of the nest. But then maybe, as the dog started growing fur, the surrogate parents realized their mistake and threw them out again. Just an idea. Could it ever actually happen that a parent eagle would go down and grab an eaglet and put it back in the nest? I wonder since I have no easy way of finding out. I need an ornithologist. What I do know is that late in life the Thirteenth Dalai Lama received a set of Chihuahuas from Suydam Cutting, so those tiny dogs were known to Tibetans from around the 1930's at least. I wonder how the name was spelled in Tibetan in that letter about the dogs... I'll have to try and find it in my notes later today. Thanks so much for writing!


  3. Sorry, my mistake! I just checked my notes and it was a set of Dachsunds, not Chihuahas, that the Thirteen Dalai Lama received from Cutting along with Dalmations. His Holiness sent Cutting Apsos in return. The source is a letter dated Iron Sheep (1931) as found in the letter collection in the Collected Works, at folio 76.

  4. It does seem as if His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama does have a soft spot for the Chihuahuas. Just look HERE.

  5. Hello there,
    interesting topic. What I have to add stands on shaky ground. Within Tibetan dog-breeding circles it is claimed (cf. Tibetan dog name lists) that Tibetan
    goba means eagle. And some people assert that a certain Tibetan dog breed (not the Tibetan spaniel, which certainly looks very similar to the Chihuahua....) is known as goh khi in Tibetan, since it is often found in eagles' nests. This all makes terrible sense. But which word is behind goba, I fail to find it. Any ideas?
    The dgo ba is certainly an antelope, not an eagle. Jim Valby lists the dgo ba gla dkar(Goldstein: dgo ba klad dkar), i.e. white-breasted eagle. But this species (Haliaeetus leucogaster), while commonly seen in India, is unheard of in Tibet. They do have the white-tailed sea-eagle (Haliaeetus albicilla), which is mtsho glag mjug dkar (see Holler's photograph).
    The goh khi creature is also said to be known as "sleeve dog" since the monks used to carry it round in their robes. Might it be more appropriate to trace back its name to Tibetan gos? But where does this leave the nidifugous theory?


  6. Well, Nora, knowing nothing about what the dog people are saying, I googled away and happened on an archived version of Jäschke's dictionary, where on p. 79 it says that the glag-khyi is "an eagle which is said to bark like a dog." That has to be relevant to our questions somehow, doesn't it?

    Well, now I see there are some sites that speak of the "goh khi" just as you say. One says that Goh-Khi is "a very small dog, also known as 'sleevedog,' because it can be kept within one's long sleeves."

    I also found this: "Goh-Khi - that small so it could be in a Chinese bowl. This dog is also known as the sleeve dog, when it was kept in the long sleeves. The word "goh" means eagle, when there were people who believed that these very small dogs could be found in eagle's nests."

    I do remember a nice photo of H.E. the 16th Karmapa with a Chihuahua on his lap, if I could only remember where.


  7. The photo of H.E. Karmapa XVI holding a Chihuahua is here. It was taken in a pet shop, with a selection of dog leashes hanging in the background.

    Jäschke's entry (recording a Western Tibetan usage) makes a lot of sense to me. Barking birds are not unheard of (e.g. the Barking Owl of Australia).

    Meanwhile, I found the term behind the "goba" eagle: as a matter of fact it is not an eagle, but a vulture, namely the Bearded Vulture (Gypaetus barbatus). This interview with Gonsar Rinpoche offers a useful summary on the different Tibetan dog breeds, and on the "go khyi" he states:

    “Go Khyi” is the jewel amongst Tibetan dog breeds. About one per cent of vultures are Tibetan bearded vultures (tib: Gowo), which lay three eggs: the first with a snake, the second with a dog and the third with a bird. If you ever hear a dog bark high up in the mountains near a bearded vulture’s nest, you will find a very small dog there. This dog is called “Go Khyi” and is the most respected dog in Tibet (not FCI recognized).

    Jim Valby does actually list the bird s.v. go bo, I had overlooked that. The species is also known as dur bya, "burial ground bird", as we learn from David Holler's useful site mentioned above.

    Someone really ought to bring in line the Wikipedia entry for the Bearded Vulture ("laying one or two eggs in mid-winter") with Gonsar Rinpoche's explanation: three eggs, not two....

    Cheers, Nora

  8. Nora, OK, yes, གོ་བོ་ means the bearded vulture, & that means the lammergeier, the ones that drop bones from the sky to break them so they can eat the marrow. In Gonsar Rinpoche's telling the bird dogs are indeed born from the egg (not just raised in the nest), just like in the thousand-year (at least) old Central Asian Turkish story, which seems to bring them even closer together.

    However, I'm under lingering influence of reading an anti-diffusionist account of the dragon, and this article by Robert Blust, "The Origin of Dragons," argues for convergence. Perhaps I'm too keen to think there must have been a borrowing of the bird dog between the Turks and Tibetans, when they could have independently came to this conclusion based on observations of nature. Or, it could just be an areal phenomenon that goes way back into proto-history.

    This is from Rinzin Dorji's Food in Tibetan Life: "There are two breeds of dog that I know of in Tibet. One is called gokhi, which means 'entrance dog'. These dogs are very big and longhaired with big bushy tails, and they are very strong. They can also be very vicious..."
    There seems to be room for confusion between the gokhi and the gokhi, you think?

    I'd go into the Wiki and fix this egg problem, but I hate to get started with that.

    Yours, D

  9. Hi Dan,
    The guard dog known as "gokhi" (sgo khyi) as mentioned by Rinjing Dorje has absolutely nothing in common with the "gokhi" canine claiming avian descent. They are two completely different breeds. The sgo khyi is considered a type of the Tibetan mastiff. The latter (most commonly known in the West as "Dokhi") comes in different shapes. There is an abundance of literature on this topic, and I believe no consensus as to what these types are (and how many exist). According to Corneille Jest ("A propos du chien au Tibet", Ethnozootechnie, 25, 1980, pp. 33-37), there are three types, and he does not include the sgo khyi. Others, however, do.

    Ever thought about the etymology of "Dokhi"? Nothing of use on the Tibetan Wiki page, which unconvincingly gives the spelling as དོ་ཁྱི་...
    Two possibilities: 'dogs khyi (cf. Jest, p. 35), which fits nicely with the alleged meaning of "chained dog", or 'brog khyi, "nomad's dog", also in the lexicon.

    The only dog that ever frightened me was the Dokhi chained to a back gate of Kashmir Cottage, McLeod Ganj.



  10. Dear N,
    Hmmm. The only 'correct' spelling that would seem to work for dokhi is sgrog-khyi (སྒྲོག་ཁྱི་). I just looked into Rinzin Thargyal's book on Eastern Tibetan nomads. His brief discussion of nomad dogs only distinguishes two types based on their jobs. The big 'door dog' is kept chained up, while the smaller dog, allowed to roam around, is expected to yap from time to time to keep intruders away, and to let out a barrage if one actually intrudes. Then the big door dog can be set loose, the man of the house can grab his rifle... For getting frightened, wild dogs can be a lot better than chained ones of any kind, if my experience is any guide.

  11. Dear Dan,
    Not entirely convinced about your sgrog suggestion. I have the feeling (but this is really nothing but a feeling) that sgrog is perhaps denoting a forceful subjugation of a wild animal by means of a rope or chain, like it is happening in this phrase from the Old Tibetan Annals (IOL Tib J 750,233) with a wild Yak: g.yag rgod sgrog du bchug (sic!) .
    The act of tying a watch dog to a doorpost might appear somewhat different. Could "Dokhi" ('dogs khyi) be a word of relatively modern Tibetan usage?
    khyi mi btags na mi la so rgyag gi red, writes Goldstein (s.v. 'dogs). "If you don't tie that dog it will bite people."

    I just realized that Queen Victoria kept her very own Tibetan mastiff, isn't that worth reporting? His name was Bout, and he was given to her in 1847 by Lord Hardinge, Governor-General of India. Here is a photograph of Bout taken by the Queen's photographer William Bambridge in about 1855. Those were the days when proper dogs roamed Buckingham Palace...
    Yours, Nora

  12. Yes, Nora, I guess you're right. Actually I have a note on 'Dogs-kyi, but no idea where I noted it down from — "'DOGS KHYI This is supposed to be the Tibetan word for the mastiff dog, which some also call gtsang khyi."

  13. Has anybody made note of a list of types of Tibetan dogs in a blog entry at Sitahu dated Wednesday, March 24, 2010?

    The source is a modern book from western Tibet.

    zang khyi / bod khyi / sha khyi / shag rtsa / rgya khyug / hab sog //

    Or in real letters: ཟང་ཁྱི། བོད་ཁྱི། ཤ་ཁྱི། ཤག་རྩ། རྒྱ་ཁྱུག ཧབ་སོག།

    I don't know how to differentiate them, do you?

  14. Difficult. The zang khyi is very likely to be a mastiff. Whether the hunting dog referred to as sha khyi represents a distinctive breed is doubtful. Perhaps it simply denotes a dog used for hunting? But then I am reminded of a talk by Toni Huber on hunting in Tibet. When he was asked whether there was a tradition amongst the nomads of hunting with dogs in Tibet, his reply was: no.
    The Tibetan spaniel gzim khyi may be called a spaniel, but it is not really a spaniel in the truest gun dog-type fashion of the English Spaniels. It cannot be used to flush or retrieve game.
    Could rgya khyug refer to a breed used on burrow-dwelling animals like marmots ("sent dashing down into a narrow passage...") like our Dachshund or Terrier? Very unlikely. The Tibetan Terrier is unrelated to any of our terrier breeds, it does not work below the ground. So maybe rgya khyug relates to a dog-breed that is kept in an enclosure as an indoor sentinel dog, like the Lhasa Apso is?
    Otherwise no useful ideas on bod khyi, hab sog and shag rtsa. Could the names reflect local usage in Western Tibet?
    Best, Nora

    1. Dear Nora,
      Yes, the source that Christoph typed into his blog is about the region of Rtsib-ri, which is definitely western Tibet, so the terms are likely ones in local use.

      By the way, Toni's paper for Christoph's Festschrift is a really fascinating one, and evidently only a foretaste of a whole book to come. You can see the paper
      HERE, since he very thoughtfully put it up for download on the internet.


  15. What's going on here, has Tibetologic been temporarily captured by the communists? First I see a short message advising us not to use the criminal services of UPS (with a strange typo in it, too, and there are never any typos on this blog), then I find a blog entry dated 23 March 2014 on the nonsense poem "The Lama" by Ogden Nash, which is there without actually being there. Now it certainly isn't. Is it all going to the dogs? Who is in control right now?

  16. Hi Nora,

    Very strange! I suspect ghosts in the machine. True, I was planning a blog on hang gliding. Who knew?


  17. This is quite amazing that we also translated a piece related to this somehow recently.


  18. Must be some རྟེན་འབྲེལ་s at work.


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