Forum on the Development of Tibet

August 12, 2014

Among the many issues that relate to the sub-theme of "inheritance and preservation of Tibetan culture", one very important field of inquiry has apparently been neglected by scholars, namely a systematic articulation of the plethora of interlinking features and "shared inheritance" of Tibetan culture across the Sino-Nepal frontier. Till now, not even an annotative bibliography has been compiled on the subject though the need for a more structured approach to the study of a common Tibetan cultural heritage between Nepal and China is long overdue. The main contention of this paper is that, to obtain a more comprehensive and nuanced understanding of the inheritance of Tibetan culture as also to augment preservation efforts, a focus on a shared (cross-border) Tibetan cultural heritage of China and Nepal becomes indispensable. The current exercise will not be an exhaustive one, merely one that examines the issue in a largely illustrative and cursory fashion by drawing on the work of several scholars who have conducted research on the following topics: for example, Amy Heller, who has studied the 'hidden library' of the Nesar Temple in Dolpo in northwestern Nepal which contains more than six hundred volumes of Tibetan manuscripts dating from the 11th to the 16th centuries and which sheds light on the artistic legacy of a remote Tibetan enclave; Helly Pleaez Bozzi, from whose work on the Mani Rimdu, the Dumche and Tsogchen festivals of the Sherpa people of Khumbu region of northeast Nepal we are able to tease out the shared heritage of Tibetan culture between Nepal and China; and Franz-Karl Ehrhard's work on Buddhism in Tibet and the Himalayas which makes use of incredibly rich textual material from which we are able to relate many aspects of Tibetan culture to important and iconic temple in the Kathmandu Valley.

To begin to understand the extent to which Tibetan culture is spread across the frontiers of China and Nepal, we need not go high into the remote Himalayas into Dolpo or the Khumbu region. We can start in the capital of Nepal itself--in Kathmandu--at a famous landmark called Svayambhunath. According to historical records, this famous Buddhist temple or stupa was founded by one of the early kings of Nepal, King Vrsadeva, towards the beginning of the 5th century CE. Inside this temple there is today a Tibetan monastery called the Drugpa Kagyu Gompa within which can be found a man-sized stone covered in Newari and Tibetan inscriptions, the former being an indigenous Nepali language. The inscriptions "describes one renovation of Svayambhunath Stupa extending over a period of eight years, namely from 1751 to 1758."(p. 55, Ehrhard). It becomes relevant here to examine more closely the background to the renovation which the scholar Franz-Karl Ehrhard has done quite thoroughly (footnote). Most important for the purposes of this paper is to mention an individual by the name of Rig-dzin Tshe-dbang nor-bu (1698-1755), a teacher of the rNying-ma-pa school from Kah-thong in Kham, Eastern Tibet. As early as 1728, this teacher is instrumental in conducting repair activities at another famous Buddhist stupa in Kathmandu, namely Boudhnath, and to conclude these activities with a consecration ceremony (rab gnas), after which, several years later, in the year 1751, repair work commences on the Svayambhunath temple and concludes in 1757. Thus this individual from Sa-ngan in eastern Tibet, utilizes his traditional skills in "gter ston" or the discoverer of religious texts and also his considerable skills in the repairing of monasteries, to preserve two of the most iconic temples in the Kathmandu Valley. Here we have a historical example of two processes working in tandem: the recognition of cultural heritage and also the ability and willingness to preserve it.

The influence of Tibetan culture in many other locations of the Kathmandu Valley is marked; the sites are dispersed, plus a serious and coherent study has not been undertaken to identify these, and in many instances the need to carry out preservation work to protect this shared heritage between China and Nepal is acute. For example, in a small town called Panauti which is at the eastern extreme of the Kathmandu Valley, a temple complex called the Indresvara Mahadeva was originally commissioned in the year 1294 by a local princess. Subsequently over the years, many kings, noblemen and even commoners made donations to this temple and some renditions were made to it as well, one of the famous of which is the "fortress-monastery" called Itumbahah. In 1382, a nobleman by the name of Jayasimha Ramavarddhana donated three images to this monastery. One of these is a representation of the goddess Arya-tara (add photo). According to art historian Mary Shepherd Slusser, "tradition claims that the image originated in bhota [or] bhonta, Newari terms denoting Tibet." Sadly, however, the original Tara, said to have been made from clay, no longer exists. Certainly, preservation work in an earlier period may have prevented the destruction of this original image and others like it and allowed us to understand better this particular aspect of Tibetan culture, where it came from and what, overall, is the aesthetic lineage. Moreover, it would have allowed us to elaborate in much greater detail the manner in which Nepal and China are linked by a shared Tibetan heritage.

The inheritance and preservation of Tibetan culture has been so fundamentally important, as a matter of fact, for Nepal to understand many different facets of its own history as it is enshrined in various temples and stupas. Reference has already been made above to the Bodhnath stupa, arguably the most famous and iconic Buddhist stupa in the Kathmandu Valley. A well-known European writer, L.A. Waddell, commenting more than one hundred years ago, remarked that the Bodhnath stupa "is the chief place of lamaist pilgrimage in Nepal. Its special virtue is reputed to be its power of granting all prayers for worldly wealth, family and everything else asked for" (p.95, Ehrhard). During his visit to the stupa, Waddell is able to get a copy of a printed booklet meant to serve as a "guide for pilgrims to the stupa of Bodhnath." In the text he finds the following passage: "mChod rten chen po bya rungkhashorgyi lo rgyus thos pas grol ba" (The History of the Great Stupa Bya-rung kha-shor, the Hearing of Which Brings Liberation). According to Franz-Karl Ehrhard, this particular text "is still the most important Tibetan source for speculation on the origin and development of the monumental site of Bodhnath" (p.96). He argues that all other sources, incredibly even Nepalese documents, are unreliable as they are likely to have undergone manifold changes over the centuries (p.96). The booklet in which this text is printed, moreover, was apparently made "for the occasion of the stupa's renovation by Zhabs-dkar Tshogs-drug rang-grol (1781-1851)", a Tibetan from Amdo whose contribution to the renovation and decoration of the stupa was substantial.

Less than ten years ago a great discovery was made in a place called Dolpo in a remote north-western part of Nepal. A large collection of ancient Tibetan illuminated manuscripts of the Nesar Temple of Bicher Village in Dolpo, has been studied rather extensively by the Tibetologist and art historian, Amy Heller. She argues that "the ancient library of Tabo Monastery, where altogether sixty volumes with 38,000 pages of Tibetan manuscripts have been inventoried, but only three illuminations, [whereas] at Nesar, there are 642 volumes, each with approximately five hundred to six hundred pages, thus making more than 320,000 manuscript pages, with 150 illustrated leaves" (p. 14, Heller) and affording us the chance to understand how such a library located in a high altitude area of Nepal "represents Tibetan urban culture at its most sophisticated" (ibid). The discoveries at Nesar monastery in Bicher is very important because the manuscripts there, "written in Tibetan yet illuminated with western Tibetan and Nepalese iconographies and aesthetic models, reflect the close cultural ties that existed [between] Dolpo and western Tibet” (p.17). Such discoveries and the research and preservation efforts that undergird them, are vital to develop a more sophisticated understanding of Tibetan culture and moreover to assess the exact manner in which this culture developed over centuries came to be a shared heritage between Nepal and China.

The research conducted by scholars such as Heller and others over the course of time in relation to the discovery at Nesar monastery shows that, "based on accounts in the Tibetan Annals, these regions, along with the general area of present day north-west Nepal, are known to have been part of the Tibetan cultural sphere since the 7th century" (p.17). These annals of course are the oldest Tibetan historical records now known. Some analysis of the history of Bichar village and the Nesar temple are also necessary here. "The history of Bicher village and the foundation of the temple are traditionally linked to the ancient emigration into Dolpo of the lama Tsukna Rinchen [gTsug na rin chen], who came from Tibet" (p.31).This view is also preserved in local lore in Bichar as well as being found in the oldest existing historical records of the village, namely the Bicher Chronicles [Bicher bem chag]which is dated to approximately 1340 CE. Based upon information in the Chronicles, Heller argues that linguistic evidence of the name of the village suggests that the founders of the village migrated to Dolpo from western Tibet. As a matter of fact, the biography of the famous Tibetan hermit Milarepa (1040-1123), "states that when he left his birthplace in western Tibet to learn the esoteric rituals of the yogins, he was accompanied on his wanderings by five men from Dolpo" and as Heller speculated, "perhaps one of these hermits may have served as village lama in Bicher in the late 11th to early 12th century" (p.33).

A discussion of the Nesar temple in Dolpo and its shared Tibetan heritage between China and Nepal is all the more fascinating if we examine the architecture of the temple. In this regard the commentary of Amy Heller is very pertinent. She does an analysis of an illumination from the oldest Nepalese rajnaparamita manuscript in the world, dated 1015 AD, and shows that the temple architecture depicted there with a portico extension of the roof supported by pillars probably is the same as the Nesar Temple when it was first built in the late 11th. Basic Tibetan architectural form, known since the earliest temples of the Pugyel period (630-850) is a chamber of a modular structure, or a square or rectangular variety, measuring between 4 by 6m, and wooden beams used for the ceilings with interior space defined by a particular layout of pillars and the roof at the front of the main temple building typically extended as a portico. Indeed, "this model of temple construction is evident in the main shrines of the Lhasa Ramoche and Jokhang temples, both of which were founded during the 7th to 8th centuries" (p46). It is further argued by Heller that in Nepal, the same kind of architectural model of a temple with a front portico is well documented in 11th century manuscript illuminations of temple architecture of the Kathmandu Valley. Such connections should be research further and explored with more vigour.

Turing to a discussion of the actual illuminations of the Nesar manuscripts discovered in Dolpo -- manuscripts that span nearly four centuries from 1100 CE to 1500 CE -- it is heartening to know that in spite of the passage of such a long period of time, the colours of the illuminations, as Amy Heller notes, "are brilliant thanks to preservation in the dry climate of the high altitude of Dolpo; the illuminations are in excellent condition" and they reflect certain particular aesthetic tendencies (p.77). The fact that these illuminations and manuscripts are so well preserved allows Amy Heller to analyse them and suggest that, particularly the "illuminations, as well as the calligraphy, archaic spelling, punctuation and page layout are related to 11th-century manuscripts now in Tabo Monastery..and to a volume of manuscripts [from] Tholing" in western Tibet. The main point to make here is that, these illuminations from Nesar, in north-west Nepal, have their provenance—as do similar illustrations from Tabo and Tholing—in western Tibet. In addition, the size and scale of the illuminations, as compared to Indian and Nepalese volumes of the same period, are characteristic of Tibetan manuscripts, being similar to "illuminated Tibetan Prajnaparamita manuscripts in Tholing" (p.83). Obviously, then, such efforts which have led to the discovery in Nepal of ancient manuscripts and illustrations and the subsequent analysis they have undergone, demonstrates with great clarity the Tibetan cultural heritage shared by Nepal and China and moreover, the most critical role of preservation: without it we are unable to properly piece together the past and in a sense, we end up losing some of our identity.

I would like to conclude this paper by highlighting the work of Helly Pelaez Bozzi on the Mani Rimdu, Dumche and Tsogchen festivals of the Khumbu Sherpas who live primarily in the famous Everest region. The Mani Rimdu is a 19-day sequence of sacred ceremonies which culminates in a three day public festival. In brief, the Mani Rimdu is meant to recreate a very special legendary event, namely the establishment of Buddhism in Tibet by the saint, Guru Rinpoche or Padmasambhava. Bozzi explains that the "Mani Rimdu as a popular festival began at the Do-ngag Zungjug Ling Monastery founded by the incarnated lama Dzatul Ngawang Tenzin Norbu in the Upper Valley of the Dzakar River (Dza Rongphu), a few miles below the northern face of Mount Everest" (p.xii), in Dingri, Shigatse Prefecture. The story here is that Dzatul Ngawang Tenzin Norbu "became the main spiritual teacher of the Sherpas, who used to visit Rongpu whenever they needed spiritual instructions or rituals for the deceased" (ibid). The most important point here is that, when in the year 1919 the "lama visited Khumbu to consecrate the new Tengboche Monastery, he advised the Sherpas to celebrate the Mani Rimdu also in Khumbu" (ibid).




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