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Athena Review, Vol.3, no.4

Ancient Tibet: Bringing to Light the Forgotten

 A comprehensive survey of Pre-Buddhist sites in Upper Tibet (1992-2002)

John Vincent Bellezza

East Asia Center, University of Virginia

In 1992, I began a project to inventory pre-Buddhist archaeological sites in Upper Tibet. Since that time, I have spent nearly three years in the region, covering some 40,000 km by vehicle and more than 5,000 km on foot. In order to locate the sites and collect information on them, it was necessary to interview around 5,000 people. These efforts have led to the documentation of over 400 pre-Buddhist archaeological sites.

Upper Tibet (figs.2-4) is the vast region of northern and western Tibet known traditionally as Töd (Upper Region) and Changthang (Northern Plains), which covers approximately 700,000 km2. This territory comes under the jurisdiction of the Ngari, Nagchu, and Shigatse prefectures. Upper Tibet consists mainly of steppe and grasslands, but alpine deserts, scrub forests, bogs, and geothermal zones are also found. Upper Tibet is a difficult region where snowstorms are possible even during the summer months. Before its incorporation into the People’s Republic of China, vehicular roads did not exist, and bandits roamed at will.

Tibetan culture is often conceived of as synonymous with Buddhism, and certainly Vajrayana Buddhist philosophy, art, and architecture have had a huge impact on Tibetan culture. Tibetans are well known as one of the most devoutly Buddhist populations in the world, and this religion has permeated virtually every aspect of their culture, society, and landscape. However, despite this basic reality, Tibetan culture and civilization long predate the period of Buddhist domination. In fact, beginning in 1976, the Chinese Academy of Sciences made a number of discoveries in Upper Tibet, dating human occupation on the Tibet-Qinghai Plateau to the Middle Paleolithic period, some 30,000 to 50,000 years ago.1 Evidence of the Neolithic is also found in Upper Tibet, including microliths and other types of stone tools deposited on the surface.2 These discoveries by Chinese archaeologists demonstrate that man once lived in the most northern part of Upper Tibet, an area largely abandoned after the Stone Age.

[Fig.1: Exterior of main building at Riu Gonpa, Ruthok county (photo: J.V. Belleza).]

In the 1990s, Chinese archaeologists began excavating what can be termed Metal Age sites in the far western Tibet regions of Guge and Ruthok. At present, due to a lack of archaeological data, dates for the Tibetan Bronze Age and Iron Age have not yet been firmly established. Thus the use of the more inclusive term “Metal Age” is warranted. The Metal Age in Tibet continued as an anachronistic cultural system until the beginning of the Imperial (Tubo) period in the mid-7th century AD. Metal Age culture in Tibet can also be termed pre-Buddhist, because it was not until the 7th century and the reign of King Songtsan Gampo that Tibet began the widespread adoption of Buddhism. The archaeological term Metal Age defines the predominant technological stage of cultural development, while the term pre-Buddhist describes the pattern of cultural organization.

In 1999, the Chinese Institute of Tibetology of Sichuan University excavated 26 tombs in three different cemeteries, in the Dungkar and Chiwang regions of Guge.3 Radiocarbon analysis of these tombs has yielded calibrated dates of 725-170 BC. The tombs of Dungkar and Chiwang are of three major types: 1) stone superstructures with stone-lined burial pits; 2) no superstructure with earthen burial pits; and 3) earthen burial chambers with passageways to the surface. In addition to human skeletal remains, pieces of ceramic jars, as well as copper, bronze, iron, stone, and bone artifacts were discovered. In 1992, six tombs were excavated at Ngalung, in Ruthok county.4 These tombs are believed to date between the 4th and 8th centuries AD, and contained human remains, as well as ceramics, beads, and iron artifacts. The use of textile eye covers at Ngalung mirrors a mortuary practice of the same period found among Uighur tombs in Xinjiang.

Preliminary excavations of two tombs were also conducted at the Mangsen Cemetery in Traza township, Amdo county, in the eastern part of Upper Tibet.5 These tombs, believed to date from the 6th to 9th centuries AD, contained human and sheep bones, a copper object, bits of iron, and a ceramic pot. In 2001, a collaborative project between the University of California at Santa Barbara and Sichuan University resulted in the excavation of a pre-Buddhist village at Dingdum, in the Guge region of Tsamda county.6 The foundations of four residences were found, containing 193 pieces of ceramics in all. Radiocarbon analysis of a piece of carbonized wood recovered from a hearth in Structure 3 yielded a date of ca. 85 BC.

[Fig.2: The great mountain-lake dyad, Mount Nyenchen Thanglha and Lake Namtsho, located on the southeast fringe of Upper Tibet (photo: J.V. Belleza).]

The excavation of tombs in Upper Tibet and in various other areas of the Tibet Autonomous Region has provided extremely important archaeological data regarding the character and diversity of Metal Age culture. Nevertheless, this work represents only the initial stage of exploration; many hundreds of Metal Age cemeteries and other types of archaeological sites in Tibet have yet to be explored. Even before preliminary excavations can be carried out, it is essential that these sites be inventoried and mapped. Given the extent of Metal Age civilization in Tibet, this is a gigantic project that will require many years of work, manpower, and technical expertise.

One of the most striking features of pre-Buddhist settlement in Upper Tibet is that it was often located in places that were subsequently abandoned. Where there were once mighty fortresses, elaborate religious complexes, and extensive cemeteries, there is now often no sign of permanent contemporary habitation. Areas that once supported hundreds of residents see occasional visits by individual herders and nothing more. The vigor and strength of pre-Buddhist civilization, as described in Tibetan texts, explains in part why the early inhabitants were able to flourish in such a harsh, high-altitude environment (from 4,200 to 5,500 m). Nonetheless, the most vital factor explaining early patterns of settlement and subsequent dereliction is climatic in nature.

Paleoclimatological studies based on glaciology (the study of glaciers), palynology (the study of spores, pollens, and diatoms), dendrochronology (tree ring dating), and geomorphology (the study of changes in landscape) all broadly agree that, in the last 3,000 to 4,000 years, there has been a pronounced deterioration in the climate of Upper Tibet.7 The trend has been towards a colder and drier climate, and despite more optimal intervals, this has led to a marked degradation of the environment. Lakes have become saline, steppe forests have disappeared, glaciers have receded, and many sources of fresh water have dried up. This environmental degradation has had a disastrous effect on the systems of agricultural and pastoral production in Upper Tibet. Climate change may well have been the most important factor explaining the demise of pre-Buddhist civilization in Upper Tibet and the consequent shifting of political power to the southern and eastern regions of the plateau.

In order to conclude this general introduction, let us place the Metal Age in Upper Tibet in a perspective derived from living Tibetan culture. The Old Tibetan Tun-huang manuscripts (7th to 9th century) and post-AD 980 Tibetan literature (written in a still familiar language) provide a large amount of information about culture and society in the pre-Buddhist and Imperial periods. These sources reveal data on religious practices and beliefs, customs, mythology, martial traditions, toponymy, and contacts with foreign cultures. The study of cultural history, therefore, is highly applicable to archaeology, helping in the effort to frame and interpret what has been discovered. Due to the long process of historical continuity, even contemporary Upper Tibetan culture can provide insights into the character of the pre-Buddhist world. Links between the past and present are linguistic, religious, and societal in nature. Thus, ethnographic studies, focusing on indigenous deities, geographical lore, clan histories, and practices surrounding hunting and herding, are invaluable in obtaining a better picture of the pre-Buddhist cultural legacy.

[Fig.3: Stone doorway at Gekhod Kharlung, Ruthok county, with remains of a shrine inside the structure on the lowest level of the ridge-back (photo J.V. Belleza).]

Project Description and Findings: Over the last decade, I have documented the existence of more than 400 pre-Buddhist sites, reflecting the breadth of civilization in Metal Age Upper Tibet.8 This was the highest altitude civilization ever to have existed in the world. The primary aim has been to make available a body of data that can be utilized for further research and by government planners for conservation efforts. The existence of these pre-Buddhist sites demonstrates that sedentary culture was far more evolved in this period than in the Buddhist period. This study of early sites also helps to distinguish the character of pre-Buddhist religious practices, burial customs, social structures, cross-cultural relations, and environmental change. The project to inventory sites, however, is but an initial step towards understanding pre-Buddhist civilization in Upper Tibet. There is still a tremendous amount of work to do, which will require the expertise of specialists in various academic fields such as archaeology, paleoclimatology, geography, architecture, ethnography, and textual studies.

We must be hopeful that this project to inventory the archaeological wealth of Upper Tibet will encourage more research and exploration, enabling us to refine our understanding of the region in the Metal Age. It would be excellent if comprehensive archaeological inventories could be made in other regions of Tibet as well. Once we have a better idea of what exists on the ground, we can better know which places should be first excavated, as in salvage operations of damaged or vandalized sites. A plateau-wide inventory of sites will also allow specialists to elucidate patterns of early settlement, trade routes, the effects of climate change, and the ethnohistorical makeup of Tibet. Systematic inventories are also very helpful for government officials involved in the administration and conservation of Tibet’s archaeological heritage.

I have attributed sites to the pre-Buddhist period using non-direct means. It is imperative that these attributions be verified using empirical methods based on the science of archaeometry. For the time being, the attribution of sites as pre-Buddhist must be viewed as provisional. Using a non-direct methodology for the identification of archaeological sites is of variable reliability. Yet despite the scientific uncertainties, the sites surveyed generally represent a distinctive archaic epoch in the civilization of Upper Tibet. Archaeological sites can be provisionally attributed to the pre-Buddhist period on the basis of the following criteria:

[Fig.4: Upper Tibet, with distribution of pre-Buddhist sites discussed in this article (after J.V. Belleza).]

1) Places mentioned in Bön (the ancient and partly indigenous religion of Tibet) literature as belonging to the pre-Buddhist Zhang Zhung kingdom of Upper Tibet.

2) Ruins ascribed in the oral tradition to the ancient Bönpo (adherents of Bön), Kelmon (aboriginal groups), Horpa (Turco-Mongolian and perhaps Indo-European cultures), Zhang Zhung, and Takzig (ancient Persian regions).

3) Sites exhibiting distinctive non-Buddhist morphological and design features, such as arrays of pillars, elaborate burial structures, and all-stone semi-subterranean buildings.

4) The location of sites in characteristic pre-Buddhist geographical settings, such as high mountain peaks, islands, and dry valleys. These are locations that were subsequently ignored in the Buddhist period.

5) Cross-referencing sites with those that have been archaeologically investigated in other parts of Tibet.

6) Cross-cultural comparisons with archaeological sites in adjoining regions of China and other countries. For example, I have established (Bellezza 2002) that the pre-Buddhist archaeological record of Upper Tibet shares substantial cultural affinities with the Scytho-Siberian cultures of first millennium BC Central Asia, Mongolia, and South Siberia.

7) Art and artifacts that exhibit archaic non-Buddhist attributes, such as certain thokcaks (metallic talismans), zi stones (engraved agate beads), and rock art. Prominent pre-Buddhist motifs include ithyphallic portrayals, hunting scenes, and zoomorphic deities.

The methodology used in the inventory of sites is sometimes referred to as “surface archaeology.” At no time did I disturb the sites or in any way affect their integrity. I refrained from turning over stones and from the removal of even handfuls of soil. Whenever possible, local residents were instructed about the significance of pre-Buddhist monuments and rock art, and their conservation. The work carried out during the inventory can be outlined as follows: 1) geographical pinpointing of sites using GPS; 2) description of the geographical setting of sites; 3) photography of all monuments and rock art; 4) measurement of individual monuments and the overall dispersion of sites; 5) description of the structural and design characteristics of sites; 6) recording any vandalism or other contemporary threats to sites; and 7) where possible, the mapping of ground plans.

There is an extensive assortment of pre-Buddhist typologies occupying diverse topographical and ecological niches. The locations of these sites and their mutual relationships provide valuable clues about the patterns of settlement and socio-economic organization in pre-Buddhist times. The networks of monuments also reveal information about ancient trade routes and environmental change over the last three millennia. For example, the data collected indicates that in the pre-Buddhist period the great lakes belt of Upper Tibet served as a major focus of settlement and as a corridor for east-west movement across the region. There was a concentration of high social status architecture (such as that belonging to the priestly and ruling classes) on the headlands and islands of the big lakes, an environmental zone largely vacated in the Buddhist period.

On a structural, locational, and functional level, pre-Buddhist sites can be generally classified as follows:

I. Monuments: 1) Residential structures occupying summits (95 sites have been inventoried): Most of the residential structures located on hilltops and the spurs of mountains appear to have functioned as fortresses. In some cases, these structures seem to have incorporated elite residences and temples within them. The highly defensive aspect of most of these sites atop nearly vertical slopes leaves no doubt that they represent pre-Buddhist strongholds and military garrisons (fig.5). There are two major types of buildings represented: those that used wooden rafters to support roofs, and those built with stone corbelling. The structures built with all-stone corbels, lintels, beams, and sheathing have a very different appearance. These buildings tend to be smaller, windowless, and semi-subterranean in aspect. Comparative archaeological data from central Tibet and Central Asia indicates that fortresses were probably first constructed in Upper Tibet in the 1st millennium BC.

[Fig.5: Fortress at Kharpoche, Ruthok county, attributed to the aboriginal Kelmon culture (photo: J.V. Bellezza).]

2) Residential structures in other locations (108 sites have been inventoried): As with the fortress typology, the ruins of buildings with wooden roofs and those with all-stone corbelled roofs are also found in this typology. These structures occupy a wide variety of locations, including mountain slopes, valley bottoms, and inside caves and overhangs. Both structures that functioned as religious centers and those with a wider domestic function seem to fall within this typology. In many instances, these appear to represent social elite, pre-Buddhist residential architecture. It seems that the majority of the pre-Buddhist population lived in mobile perishable structures such as the banak (black yak hair tent). The banak remained the dominant residential type in Upper Tibet until the last 20 years, when the construction of permanent housing became popular.

a. Among the most interesting and valuable structures are the all-stone temples and religious residences. These are found throughout Upper Tibet, most notably at the holy mountain Gangs Rinpoche (Gangs Tise). In exceptional cases, these archaic religious buildings were in use well into the 20th century. They appear to have been constructed over a very long period of time, beginning sometime in the 1st millennium BC. Customarily called sekhar/sekhang, they are usually composed of a warren of very small rooms that are partly set into the ground, particularly on the up-slope side of the building. Upwards of 30 buildings, each with 4 to 12 rooms, are found at a single site. By AD 1100, the sekhangs (which must have been associated with the early Bön religion) were being superseded by Buddhist monasteries, which feature a very different type of construction. The monasteries that were constructed have high profiles and large rooms and halls. They feature large central ceremonial spaces, while the sekhangs have decentralized floor plans.

b. Buildings that had permanent wooden roofs and semi-permanent roofs (possibly made of animal hair or animal hides) appear, in many cases, to have been general-purpose villages. The most extensive pre-Buddhist villages are located in Ruthok county, some of which may have been inhabited by as many as 1,500 people. These structures, however, are in a very poor state of preservation. Therefore, little from my inventory could be gleaned about their original architectural character.

c. Façades and buildings were also commonly built around caves, some of which appear to have been abandoned before the Buddhist period. Like their Buddhist counterparts, these usually functioned as religious centers and hermitages. Construction ranged from simple enclosing walls to two- and three-tiered multi-roomed complexes set around the mouth of caves. At some of the early sites counterclockwise swastikas (yungdrung) are found painted in red ochre.

3) Ceremonial pillars (131 sites have been inventoried): There are three distinctive types of pillar monuments in Upper Tibet: a) individual pillars; b) pillars erected inside a walled enclosure; and c) large arrays of pillars with appended buildings. In many instances, all three of these typologies are associated with pre-Buddhist burial grounds.

[Fig.6: Single pillar of Doring Che, Nyima county (photo: J.V. Bellezza).]

a. Individual pillars and rows of up to 20 pillars are found in various locations. They stand alone or occasionally in the vicinity of tombs, and attain a maximum height of 2.3 m (fig.6). Pillars that stand in isolation provide few clues about their function and age. Perhaps in certain situations they were erected as border markers, a practice known to exist in the Buddhist period.

b. Pillars erected within a walled enclosure represent one of the most distinctive types of pre-Buddhist monuments in Upper Tibet and help to define the early ethnohistorical domain of the region. Pillars set on the west side of a quadrangular enclosure aligned in the cardinal directions are well distributed west of 88º E longitude. Anywhere from one pillar to more than a dozen can be found standing inside a single enclosure. These pillars range in height from 30 cm to 2.4 m, plus an additional 40% or so of length underneath the ground. Precedents for this type of monument are found in the south Siberian Tagar culture of the 8th to 6th centuries BC.

c. Pillars set in rows aligned in the cardinal directions form another characteristic type of monument distributed west of 88º E longitude. At a single site, there can be anywhere from several hundred to several thousand pillars set into the ground in more or less evenly distributed rows. They range in height from 20 cm to 1.4 m, with an average height of around 60 cm. Immediately east of each concourse of pillars is what appears to have been a mortuary temple. Human skeletal remains are reported from certain sites. This fact, along with the oral tradition attributing a funerary function to these sites, indicates that they did indeed function as pre-Buddhist necropolises. Other types of tombs are sometimes found in the vicinity of the pillar complexes. Precedents for extensive Iron Age pillar monuments are found in Central Asia, such as Ichianli in Turkmenistan.

4) Superficial ceremonial structures (69 sites have been inventoried): There are a variety of superficial structures that appear to be the superstructures of tombs found throughout Upper Tibet. There may be structures among them with an alternative function, but this cannot be verified until systematic excavations take place. In the oral tradition of the drokpa (shepherds), they are commonly called Mondur, Monpai Durkhung, and Mondo, and are thought to be the tombs of the Kelmon, a tribal group of unknown origins that appears to have been part of the aboriginal ethnical substrate of Upper Tibet. The oldest tombs potentially date to the 2nd millennium BC.

a. Single-course enclosures: These superstructures of tombs are commonly square, rectangular, sub-rectangular, oval, or irregularly shaped. The enclosures are formed by a single line of stones planted in the ground along the edges of the structure. Perimeter walls are composed either of thin slabs of stone set into the ground edgewise or of blocks of stones. The slab wall constructions bear a strong resemblance to similar funerary structures of the Scytho-Siberian cultures of the first millennium BC. The sheer diversity in the design and construction of the Upper Tibet variants probably indicates that native inhabitants produced them over a very long span of time.

b. Double-course enclosures: This typology shares the same design variations with the single-course type described above, with the exception that the perimeter walls are composed of two lines of stones parallel to one another. The thickness of these walls ranges between 40 cm and 1.2 m.

c. Heaped-wall enclosures: Another type of tomb superstructure is composed of piles of stones heaped along the perimeter to form sub-rectangular, oval, and irregularly shaped enclosures. These vary in length between 4 m and 50 m.

d. Bangso: Burial mounds of earth and stone, known in Tibetan as bangso, are found in various locations throughout Tibet. On account of the substantial resources and labor needed to build them, we can surmise that their use was restricted to high status members of pre-Buddhist Upper Tibet society. Comparative evidence from southern Tibet suggests that they were built between the second half of the first millennium BC and the collapse of Imperial Tibet in the mid-ninth century AD.

e. Terraces: What appears to be another type of burial structure consists of a series of terraced walls on steep mountain slopes (fig.7). This typology is most common in the eastern portion of Upper Tibet.

5) Cubic-shaped tombs: Cubic-shaped masonry tombs located on top of mountain summits are primarily found in far western Tibet (Gertse, Gegye, Gar, Pu-rang, and Ruthok counties). This unique pre-Buddhist burial monument defines a specific Upper Tibetan paleocultural orientation. A literary account of the tombs of the ancient Bön priests matches the locations and general characteristics of the cubic-shaped tombs.12

[Fig.7: Terraced Tomb MD-44 at the La-ro cemetery, Pelgön county (photo: J.V. Bellezza).]

6) Minor stone constructions: At the sites of ancient religious buildings, the remains of small cubic masonry structures are sometimes discovered. These appear to have functioned as shrines, probably used in the worship of indigenous deities. According to Bön tradition, sekhar (referring to both ancient temples and tabernacles), tenkhar, lhatsug, and other similar types of shrines, have their origins in the pre-Buddhist period. On prominent summits, the remains of ancient tho or lhabtse are also occasionally encountered. They are of indeterminable age.

II. Rock Art (31 sites have been inventoried): Several of the rock art sites I have inventoried were previously studied by Chinese and Tibetan specialists.13 Since 1984, around 80 sites have been discovered in Upper Tibet. The oldest sites are thought to date to around 1000 BC. Rock art sites in the region include both petroglyphs (compositions pecked and carved in stone) and pictographs (compositions painted with red ochre and other pigments; fig.8).

Examination of a Few Selected Sites: Yul Khambu (4,700 m elevation; fig.9): Probably the single most spectacular pre-Buddhist site in Upper Tibet is the necropolis known as Yul Khambu, in Rishi township, Drongpa county.14 It is a site of global significance, and is probably the largest funerary pillar site in all of Eurasia. I first visited Yul Khambu in 1999, and returned there in 2002. Despite its importance, it has not yet been visited by other researchers. This large pre-Buddhist funerary complex consists of six concourses of standing stones aligned in the cardinal directions, with a temple-tomb edifice appended to the west side of each of the concourses. Adjacent to the east side of the fields of standing stones are long double-coursed slab walls running parallel to one another in an east-west direction. The functions of the pillars and slab walls are not clear. They may have been erected in homage to the constituent members of the ancient community. Their alignment suggests that astronomical and astrological elements may have been an integral part of the ritual practices of the site. According to Bön tradition, the sky realm and celestial deities played an important role in pre-Buddhist religion. The appended tombs are massively built structures where presumably the ancient chieftains and royal priests were interred.

Gyateng Bur Doring (Wide Lofty Hill Long Stones) (4,600 m elevation): The Gyateng Bur site consists of two rectangular enclosures spaced within one kilometer of each another. Inside each of these enclosures is a series of pillars. According to local sources, Gyateng Bur Doring was magically created in primordial times, a mythic attribution pointing to the antiquity of the site.

The west site of Gyateng Bur consists of an enclosure measuring 12 m (east to west) by 14 m (south to north). The enclosure is built of unhewn stones mostly between 10 cm and 25 cm in length, which are level with the surface of the ground. Near the west wall of the enclosure are four standing pillars and two fallen pillars. These pillars are tabular in shape, and those in the ground have their broad faces oriented north to south. The largest pillar stands 2.4 m in height, and has a reverse swastika carved on its south face. The advanced wear and patina of its surface is an indication of the significant age of the carving.

[Fig. 8: Red ochre and white image of Taparista, a Bön saint of the 8th century AD, who is said to have left his body in a rainbow; located at the Lhakhag Marchak hermitage, Drongpa county; painted sometime before the eviction of the Bönpo from the region in the 11th or 12th century AD (photo: J.V. Bellezza).]

The east site of Gyateng Bur is composed of an enclosure that approximately measures 10 m (east to west) by 11 m (south to north). Five pillars are clustered near the southwest side of the enclosure. These mostly tabular stones reach a maximum height of 2.3 m. On the north side of the most southerly pillar are highly worn Tibetan letters, including cha and ma written several times. These Buddhist period inscriptions were produced much later then the founding of the monument.

Gyablung Mondur (Back Valley Mon Tombs) (4,520 m elevation): The Gyablung site (also known as Tswamed Godsa) consists of seven cubic-shaped tombs built on top of a ridge in Rabang township, Ruthok county.15 These tombs overlook Radrok Lake to the south, and from the site there are open vistas in all directions. The walls of the tombs are generally aligned in the cardinal directions. No human remains were discovered in the central depositories of the graves. Only light grazing takes place on the rocky ridge-top, and there are no signs of Buddhist culture, such as prayer flags and stones inscribed with prayers, at the site.

Gekhod Kharlung (4,380 m - 4,500 m elevation; fig.3): Gekhod Kharlung is the name of a location and ancient fortress situated near the famous mountain Gekhod Nyanlung in Ruthok county. Gekhod, an important Bön yidam (tutelary deity), is the main yullha (god of the locale) of Ruthok county. The presence of a large fortress and temple complex at Gekhod attributed to the pre-Buddhist Kelmon ethnic group may help to explain the significance of this mountain to the Bön religion. The bulk of Gekhod Kharlung occupies a rocky backbone with four main levels, each separated by vertical expanses of rock. On each side of the rocky backbone there are other structural remains, the most important of which appears to have been a temple. Near the base of the hill on which the fortress sits are two cave complexes and associated ruins. Most, if not all, the buildings of Gekhod were constructed entirely of stone in the archaic style. A clue hinting at pre-Buddhist origins is the lack of any Buddhist elements at the site, such as stupas (temples), inscribed prayer stones, or prayer flags.

The best-preserved building at Gekhod sits on the lowest level of the rocky backbone. Its external dimensions are 18.5 m by 7.8 m. The east-facing entranceway, measuring 80 cm by 1.4 m, is still largely intact. It accesses a long room on the lower level of the building. On the east end of this room, seven stone steps lead to the poorly preserved upper level of the building. In addition to the long room running the entire length of the lower level, there are five smaller rooms with their stone roofs still partly intact. In the northeast room there is an alcove containing a masonry structure resembling both a bumpa (ritual vase) and a tenkhar (shrine for the worship of indigenous deities), which is in relatively good condition. This structure is composed of seven tiers of various sizes and its overall dimensions are 80 cm by 70 cm. It is rare to find ancient ruins with original appointments and objects inside.

Conservation of Pre-Buddhist Sites: Because the discovery of pre-Buddhist sites in Upper Tibet has only been recently made, a plan for the protection and conservation of these monuments has not yet been formulated by the People’s Republic of China and Tibet Autonomous Region governments. A comprehensive conservation plan, taking into account the natural and manmade threats to these sites, is vital if they are to survive. Each monument will have to be carefully catalogued, mapped, and entered into an official register. A system of regional accountability also must be instituted, so that local people are held responsible for the protection and maintenance of archaeological sites in their area. They should also benefit economically from any excavation or tourism that takes place. For such a plan to be effective, a close central government partnership must be fostered with the townships and counties.

During the Chinese Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), pre-Buddhist sites were mostly spared because they had little modern cultural significance. However, in the last 20 years, with the permanent settlement of Upper Tibet’s shepherds, a huge demand for building materials has ensued. Although, according to Chinese law, it is illegal for individuals to destroy archaeological sites, this has not prevented many of them from falling prey to such desecration. Largely out of ignorance of their own ancient history and the centuries-old Buddhist suppression of pre-Buddhist cultural achievements, local residents frequently see nothing wrong with stealing stones from tombs, temples, and other monuments. Those who carve Buddhist mantras on top of earlier compositions are also defacing pre-Buddhist rock art. Moreover, the construction of roads and towns has taken a large toll on pre-Buddhist archaeological sites. In fact, close to 50% of the more then 400 sites inventoried either have already been vandalized, or are in imminent danger of destruction.

[Fig.9: Yul Khambu, Drongpa county, Lower North Complex (photo: J.V. Bellezza).]

An unfortunate example of an archaeological site of exceptional historical and cultural value that has succumbed to local vandals is Riu Gonpa (Little Mountain Monastery), located in northeastern Ruthok county (fig.1). This unique religious complex appears to have been constructed in the early Buddhist period (AD 620-980) and consists of six all-stone buildings. The main building measures 18 m by 13 m and contains two inner courtyards and approximately 20 small rooms. It was built entirely of skillfully hewn pieces of brown sandstone. The corbelled roof and fine decorative features constitute techniques of construction that have long since vanished in Tibet. The presence of inner courtyards, decorative lintels and jambs (Buddhist features), and the maze of small windowless rooms (pre-Buddhist features), suggests that this monument represents a transitional form of architecture between the pre-Buddhist sekhang and Buddhist monastery. A foundation in the early Buddhist period is also suggested by the legend attributing Riu’s ownership to an uncle of Tibet’s epic hero, Gesar. In the winter of 1999, local herders started to remove the stone beams and slabs from the roof and the paving stones from the courtyards. These well-shaped stones, up to 2 m in length, are believed to have magical religious power and were hauled back to the various homesteads of the shepherds to serve as talismans. Without the benefit of their roofs, the buildings of Riu will quickly crumble, along with the loss of one of Upper Tibet’s greatest architectural wonders.

Conclusion: It is essential to raise interest in the pre-Buddhist heritage of Upper Tibet among the international community and to facilitate a plan for the conservation of pre-Buddhist monuments. The work I have done is a prelude to much more intensive archaeological investigation. It is my hope that concerned government bodies will become involved in the protection and documentation of pre-Buddhist sites. Time is of the essence if we are to save a number of great monuments from destruction by greedy and ignorant people working outside the grasp of the law.

There is still a tremendous amount to discover, for my work is only a first step in a field with great promise. Higher levels of resources, expertise, and commitment are needed if we are to move forward in the exploration of pre-Buddhist Tibet. Such an endeavor will have many long-term advantages, and will help to showcase China’s strong progress in the sciences and humanities. Finally, I would like to call for a strengthening of collaborative research in Tibetan archaeology through the expansion of international partnerships.


I wish to express my heartfelt thanks to the many government officials of the Tibet Autonomous Region, the People’s Liberation Army, and the ordinary citizens who assisted me in this project. Without their technical and logistical support, such a large enterprise would not have been possible. I also want to thank the Shang Shung Institute, Spalding Trust, Rubin Foundation, Asian Cultural Council, and all others who provided me with financial support for this work.


1 For data on early human occupation of Tibet, see Huang 1994; Chayet 1994.

2 Refer to An Zhimin 1992.

3 Huo Wei et al. (Chinese Institute of Tibetology) 2001.

4 Huo Wei 1995.

5 Investigation Team of the Cultural Relics Management Committee of Tibet Autonomous Region 1990.

6 Aldenderfer 2002.

7 See Bellezza 1997, 2001, 2002 for a review of paleoclimatic studies conducted by both Chinese and foreign specialists.

8 For detailed information about these findings see Bellezza 1997, 1999, 2001, and 2002.

9 Mortari Vergara Caffarelli 1997.

10 See Bellezza 2002, pp.87-89.

11 See Bellezza 2002, p.96.

12 Hoffman 1961.

13 For information on the study of rock art on the Tibet-Qinghai Plateau see Suolang Wangdui 1994; Li Yongxian 2001; Tang Huisheng and Zhang Wenhua 2001.

14 A description of this site is found in Bellezza 2001.

15 This site is first described in Bellezza 2001.


Aldenderfer, M. In press. “Excavations at Dindun, a Pre-Buddhist Village Site in Far Western Tibet.” In Papers Prepared for the International Conference on Tibetan Art and Archaeology, 2002. Beijing, Institute of Nationality Studies of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

An Zhimin. 1992. “Neolithic Communities in Eastern Parts of Central Asia.” In A.H. Dani and V.M. Masson (eds.), History of Civilizations of Central Asia. The Dawn of Civilization: Earliest Times to 700 BC, vol.1, pp.441-458. Reprint. Delhi, Motilal Banarsidass, 1999.

Bellezza, J.V. 2002. Antiquities of Upper Tibet: Pre-Buddhist Archaeological Sites on the High Plateau. Delhi, Adroit Publishers.

Bellezza, J.V. 2001. Antiquities of Northern Tibet: Pre-Buddhist Archaeological Discoveries on the High Plateau. Delhi, Adroit Publishers.

Bellezza, J.V. 1999. “A Preliminary Archaeological Survey of Da rog mtsho.” The Tibet Journal 24: 56-90. Delhi, Library of Tibetan Works and Archives.

Bellezza, J.V. 1997. Divine Dyads: Ancient Civilization in Tibet. Delhi, Library of Tibetan Works and Archives.

Caffarelli, Mortari Vergara, P. 1997. “Architectural Style in Tombs from the Period of the Kings.” In Tibetan Art: Towards a Definition of Style (J.C. Singer and P. Denwood, eds.), pp.230-261. London, Laurence King.

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Hoffman, H. 1961. The Religions of Tibet (K.A Verlag, trans.). London, Simson Shand.

Huang Weiwen. 1994. “The Prehistoric Human Occupation of the Qinghai-Xizang Plateau.” Gottinger Geographische Abhandlungen 95: 201-219. Gottingen.

Huo Wei et al. (Chinese Institute of Tibetology). 2001. “Trial Excavation of Ancient Tombs on the Piyang-Donggar Site in Zanda County, Tibet.” Kaogu 6: 14-31. Beijing.

Huo Wei. 1995. Xizang Gudai Muzang Zhidushi. Chengdu, Sichuan Renmin Chubanshe.

Investigation Team of the Cultural Relics Management Committee of TAR. 1990. “Zang bei shi guan zang diao cha shi jue jian bao.” Kao Gu Yu Wen Wu 1: 44-49. Beijing.

Li Yongxian. 2001. Xizang Yuan Shi Yi Shu. Hebei, Jiao Yu Chu Ban She.

Suolang Wangdui. 1994. Art of Tibetan Rock Paintings. Intro. by Li Yongxian and Huo Wei. Chengdu, Sichuan People’s Publishing House.

Tang Huisheng and Zhang Wenhua. 2001. Qinghai Petroglyphs: Dualism in Prehistoric Art. Beijing, Science Press.

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