Friday, October 06, 2017

That Tibetan Bell in Armenia - Part Two

Title page from Ghevond Alishan’s book Ayrarat of 1890.
Today we will pursue those questions on Armenia’s Tibetan bell a little further by first looking at what I believe is, as of the present moment, our best available evidence on what its Tibetan inscription looks like. Then, after saying a little about the types of bells, we will go on to consider the two historical periods of contact between Armenia and Tibet that would best explain the bell being there in the first place.

Taken from the 1890 book Ayrarat. This shows what appears to be an eye-copy of the bell inscription, perhaps the only one in existence. Notice the character that looks like a number '6' or a 'g' at the end is a slightly misinterpreted version of the yig-mgo very often found at the beginning of any piece of Tibetan writing.  My point: If we imagine the inscription as entirely circling the cylinder of the bell, it would prove easy for an innocent copyist to confuse whether it belongs in the beginning or the end. (Indeed, to have a unique punctuation mark to initialize a piece of text is a thing not often seen in the languages of the world.)  I think this detail is quite telling and helps argue for it being an authentic eye copy. 

A clearer image of it.

Showing one of the uncommon but clear examples of a subscribed length-mark with the O (more on this later). This is one of those miraculously self-produced artifacts called rang-byung, one found at the holy place known as Yerpa, not too far from Lhasa, where a number of them can be seen today.

In the next blog we will go more into the epigraphical questions, so for now, just some words about the significance the shape of the bell might have for us, if we only had any clue what shape it actually does have, which we do not. We only know it was a foot and a half high (roughly a cubit, or the distance from your elbow to the tip of your middle finger).

Already in imperial times, Tibetans borrowed the word as well as the form of the Chinese bell. Tibetan bells may have been locally casted, but the casting of large temple bells was done by Chinese artisans. And today we’re really only considering the large temple bells, and not hand-held bells,  the ones with handles used in rituals. They have very different names and are never confused. There is also a type of flat bell, with a clapper, used mainly by Bonpos and spirit mediums. It also has its own distinct name, shang (gshang), borrowed like the instrument itself, from the Persian realm. Curious fact:  One type of Tibetan bell along with its name came from China, another type along with its name came from Persia.

The Dpa’-ris and the Bsam-yas bells, showing typical shapes of Tibet’s imperial period bells.

A typical shape for a European bell is shown for comparison

Erford [Erfurt] Cathedral bell in Germany is, in a well-known volume by Athanasius Kircher, placed side-by-side with a Peking bell for comparison. The Erfurt bell was christened “Maria Gloriosa.” Weighing in at 13 tons, it was cast in the year 1497 and first rung two years later. This 17th-century illustration helps us to underline the point that European and Chinese bells have contrasting shapes.

So, there are two important kinds of information we do not have that would help us a lot in understanding the provenance of the Tibetan bell. First is, as we just showed, the shape of the bell, whether it is a European-style or Chinese-style bell. Just knowing which type it is could sway our arguments. (No need to mention just yet the possibility of metallurgical analysis.) Secondly, we need to know precisely the actual shapes of the letters for a paleographical analysis. Photographs, not just eye-copies, are needed. Later on, I’d like to say more about this. But first, a little discussion on a question of obvious relevance, What are the most likely times in history when a Tibeto-Armenian bell exchange would have taken place? 

The lectionary of Het’um. Het’um actually visited the Mongol Khan Mongke (1209-1259) in 1254. Please note the phoenixes and dragons, but especially the deer in the upper right-hand corner.

Basically there are two likely time frames: [1] The early Mongol Ilkhanid period in second half of thirteenth century, and [2] the second half of the seventeenth century, when Armenian tradesmen labored in Lhasa. These were the two historical periods when significant Tibeto-Armenian contacts are known to have taken place. Let’s start with the earlier period, with Hulegu and the Ilkhanid Dynasty that descended from him.

Between 1261 and 1265 the Mongol ruler Hulegu built a Buddhist monastery called Labnasagut in the Armenian central highlands. Hulegu could draw revenues from lands designated for that purpose (called appanages in the literature) in Tibet, and some of the letters written to him by the Tibetan abbot (who in some way or another represented his interests there) have been published only a few years ago, and some of these were translated with a Tibetan colleague Jampa Samten.  Although I have been unable to identify any particular individuals, it is sure that Tibetan monks were physically present in Armenia in those times. And it is sure from Armenian historical sources that temples with images of the Buddhas Shakyamuni and Maitreya existed there as well.

Not just any old deer.

• As a side issue, I think I can go a little further than Dickran Kouymjian, in his study of the lectionary of Het’um, and help him with his arguments. We can identify the deer depicted here as the one with antlers replaced by the lingzhi fungus of immortality (another lingzhi is held between its teeth). Of this fungus it is said that only deer can ever find them. For ordinary unprepared persons wandering in the mountain they would be invisible. I only delve into this because it seems to show that quite distant cultural elements could be produced by artists in residence in Armenia in the early days of the Mongol Empire.  
The lingzhi deer is a very specifically Chinese element, even more than the dragon and phoenix that are also represented in these tiles from around the same place and only a little later.

If I may be allowed to speculate about possibilities, the Tibetan-inscribed bell could have been (locally?) made for Labnasagut or some other neighboring Buddhist temple, and later got salvaged from the ruins and handed over to Etchmiadzin not far from the place of its original intended use. This is just an idea, just one of the questions we can ask.

Now let’s travel forward a little more than 400 years. Csoma de Körös published an 1833 article about Hyde’s 1700-published version of a Tibetan lam-yig, often translated as passport, but perhaps best understood as a letter of safe conduct, dated 1688. Turrell V. Wylie and Hugh Richardson also wrote about it; Richardson comments that it “appears to be the first example of Tibetan writing to be published in the west.” Wylie and Richardson identified the four travelers, including one named I-wang-na, or John, as Armenians.* Iwangna, although this may be difficult to recognize, has the same name as Armenian Hovhannes who stayed five years in Lhasa from 1686 to 1692, and whose trade ledger has been preserved and studied separately. Richardson says that two Armenians named John stayed in Lhasa at the same time, the John of the so-called passport and the John who kept the ledger.**
(*Hyde goes without saying, but no other European in his day could read or understand it; Hyde even says quite mistakenly that it was to be read from right to left. Truth be told, quite a few otherwise well-taught students of Tibetology still today can’t read cursive letters, let alone the official language of civil documents. A little more truth: even those with experience in these documents constantly run into difficult problems understanding them. **I’ve looked, and found no mention of a bell in the literature about the ledger. ) 

The lam-yig that Hyde published in 1700, itself containing the date 1688.

This is just to show that, after Hyde's book, bits of Tibetan writing started to appear here and there in
European sources as the 18th century wore on, leading up to the Alphabetum Tibetanum in 1762.

These Armenians came from New Julfa just outside Isfahan, in Persia. And New Julfa continued to be the center of their trade operations. So they had continuing ties not only with Armenia, but also with Persia. These ties could reasonably explain how the bell got to Armenia. Being international traders by profession they had all the right connections to be able to transport the bell. 

It may not be irrelevant to ask the question, When were the Etchmiadzin bell towers built? The main bell tower was finished in 1657 by the Catholicos Yakob, and was further decorated in 1664. Soon after, in 1682, three further bell towers were added by Catholicos Eliazar. The building of the bell towers and the activities of the Armenian traders in Tibet very closely coincided in time, yet it is possible to regard the coincidence as ‘circumstantial’ and hardly sufficient to clinch any argument. 

Well, let me say, it could conceivably turn out to be meaningful as part of a future argument not quite ready to be made. And if my experience can serve as a guide, these arguments tend to form slowly and change their shape as new evidence emerges and as old evidence is reconsidered in a new light.

  • Next time, in the concluding blog, we’ll look more at the Tibetan inscription itself, and ask why this particular inscription might be found on this bell or any other for that matter.
  • The continuation and conclusion is HERE.

§   §   §

Some of the publications mentioned here:

Hyde — Thomas Hyde (1636-1703), Historia religionis veterum Persarum, eorumque magorum: ubi etiam nova Abrahami, & Mithræ, & Vestæ, & Manetis, &c. historia, atque angelorum officia & præfecturæ ex veterum Persarum sententia: item, perfarum annus ... Zoroastris vita, ejusque et aliorum vaticinia de Messiah è Persarum aliorumque monumentis eruuntur, primitiæ opiniones de Deo & de hominum origine referantur, originale Orientalis Sibyllæ mysterium recluditur, atque magorum Liber Sad-der, Zorastris præcepta seu religionis canones continens, è Persico traductus exhibetur: dantur veterum Persarum scripturæ & linguæ, ut hæ jam primo Europæ producantur & literato orbi postliminio reddantur, specimina: de Persiæ ejusdemque linguæ nominbus, déque hujus dialectis & à moderna differentiis strictim agitur [1700]. Find the whole book at

Kouymjian — Dickran Kouymjian, “The Intrusion of East Asian Imagery in Thirteenth-Century Armenia: Political and Cultural Exchange along the Silk Road.” Prepublished galley of a "Chapter 6," posted at  

Hulegu's coins feature a hare above a lunar crescent for some
reason or another. Any idea?

Martin and Samten — D. Martin and Jampa Samten, Letters for the Khans: Six Tibetan Epistles of Togdugpa Addressed to the Mongol Rulers Hulegu and Khubilai, as well as to the Tibetan Lama Pagpa,” contained in: Roberto Vitali, et al., eds., Trails of the Tibetan Tradition: Papers for Elliot Sperling, Amnye Machen Institute (Dharamshala 2014), pp. 297-332. Look there for references not supplied in this blog. 

Norwick — Braham Norwick, “The First Tsha-tsha Published in Europe,” contained in: B.N. Aziz & M. Kapstein, eds., Soundings in Tibetan Civilization, Manohar (New Delhi 1985), pp. 73-85.

Richardson — Hugh R. Richardson, “Reflections on a Tibetan Passport,” contained in: High Peaks, Pure Earth: Collected Writings on Tibetan History and Culture, Serindia (London 1998), pp. 482-485. This article was first published in 1984.

Wylie — Turrell V. Wylie, “Notes on Csoma de Körös’s Translation of a Tibetan Passport,” contained in:  Christopher I. Beckwith, ed., Silver on Lapis: Tibetan Literary Culture and History, The Tibet Society (Bloomington 1987), pp. 111-122.  Get it here.

On the dates of the bell towers of Holy Etchmiadzin, see “The Mysterious Whitehead.” Or for a quick reference covering the phases of construction of the cathedral, look here.

  • I would like to thank both Isrun Engelhardt and Ruben Giney. Without their help via email communications of 2013-2014 I would probably never have gained access to the book of Frédéric du Bois de Montpéreux as well as the Armenian-language book by Ghevond Alishan that you see in the frontispiece. Both of these books provide key information.

“Water.” Photograph taken at D.T. Suzuki Museum in Kanazawa, April 16, 2016.

1 comment:

Please write what you think. But please think about what you write. What's not accepted here? No ads, no links to ads, no back-links to commercial pages, no libel against 3rd parties. These comments won't go up, so no need to even try. What's accepted? Everything else, even 1st- & 2nd-person libel, if you think they have it coming.

Follow me on