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."

~ ~ ~

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."

~ ~ ~

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.”

~ ~ ~

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.


  1. Why are there hardly any comments on blogs? Does anyone know?

    The Short Person, Scratching the Head

  2. Are you trying to make a liar of me, S.P.? Just joking, you never have bad intentions as far as I've seen. But it does appear that I didn't tell the truth, so if the label fits I'd better wear it. Anyway, I'd get something for that scratching if I were you. Now if one more person posts a comment, I'll be branded for life, stigmatized!

  3. First, let me say that this will not count as your second comment on this post ...! :)

    Having said that, I just wanted to touch base. Really, I had no idea that this was an issue for bloggers nowadays. Personally, I think this blog does the job of getting information and discussion out there on the topics you want made accessible. I hope this all continues. Maybe the topic itself, things-Tibet, is on the wane.

    Anyway, cheer up! Have you had that beer yet, or not? If it's not working, my recommendation is: try egg nog. :)

  4. I just want to report that the URL(?) for the post entitled "A Padampa Portrait Painting, the Middle" has been disabled. "Padampa Portrait, Part 2" is still working.

  5. I think the CAPTCHAs are irritating for one thing. I didn't want to turn them on. But if you don't use them you get floods of spams. I stopped them recently, and no flood of anything (yet).

    I'll look into the URL malfunction and get back with you shortly.

  6. OK, S.P., I think I've fixed the problem. Meanwhile, I had a nice few days of vacation. I think I'll take some more.

  7. The spams are steadily increasing, so now I get one or two a day, which is manageable. If I start getting many more I'll turn on the CAPTCHAs.

  8. Got it. Thanks for the attempt. Happy New Year ...!

  9. Hi, Dan. I've been working on the "silver jug" for a long time now and have come to many same findings as you have. I plan to publish them by the end of this year. Joachim G. Karsten

  10. Hi,
    the 'imperial carafe' is, indeed, mentioned in Grünwedel's translation of the Fifth Dalai Lama's 'catalogue' of the gTsug lag khang (not: "Jokhang"!) at page 59. Hope to publish my study on the 'carafe' by the end of this year.
    Please, go on with your enticing work!
    Joachim G. Karsten


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