Tibetan and Himalayan Library - THL

THL Title Text
Antiquities of Zhang Zhung
by John Vincent Bellezza
Edited by Geoffrey Barstow, Mickey Stockwell and Michael White
Tibetan & Himalayan Library
Published under the THL Digital Text License.

II. Ceremonial Monuments

II.3) Cubic mountaintop tombs

Another characteristic class of archaic monuments in Upper Tibet is cubic stone tombs. In this survey, 22 such sites are presented. The above-ground cubic tombs were erected on the tops of high ridges and mountains to an elevation of 5600 m. The cubic tombs were almost always sited on summits thickly blanketed in talus. They were frequently set on the edge of high points overlooking steep slopes or cliffs with panoramic views of the adjoining countryside. These sites often comprise the highest ground around for some distance. The cubic tombs were generally built of locally occurring dark-colored sandstone and volcanic slabs and chunks (up to 1.2 m in length), laid flat in random-texture, dry-mortar courses. The exterior dimensions of the tombs range between 1.5 m by 1.5 m by 1.2 m and 2.5 m by 3.5 m by 1.8 m. The walls are usually aligned in the cardinal directions, an important feature of many pillar and enclosure sites as well. The top of the tombs are flat, and virtually all have been opened and the contents discarded or stolen.

There is a rectangular chamber set in the center of the masonry carapace elevated around 50 cm above ground level. Measuring in the range of 80 cm by 50 cm to 2 m by 1.1 m, finer sized stones were used to fashion these central chambers. The chambers are also normally aligned in the compass points. These 70 cm to 1.1 m deep openings appear to have functioned as reliquaries. Their association in the oral tradition with the ancient MönMon and the occasional adventitious usage of the chambers to accommodate human burial bear this out. It would appear that skeletal elements, the products of fractional or secondary burials, were deposited in the central chambers. Given their size, extended corpse burials would not have been feasible (unless they were used for juvenile inhumations) except in the largest central chambers, a small minority of the total. Tibetan historic era reliquary structures are mud plastered and colorfully painted, and it does not seem likely that the cubic tombs were originally fabricated as raw unadorned stone chests.

Curiously, the geographic distribution of the cubic tombs is restricted to western Tibet. They occur both north and south of the Transhimalaya (Gangkar TiséGangs dkar ti se) range, between 84° 33΄ and 79° 03΄ E. Longitude. The cultural factors explaining why the cubic mountaintop tombs are confined to this specific region are still obscure. Other characteristic monuments of Upper Tibet, such as the all-stone edifices, pillars erected inside quadrate enclosures, and arrays of pillars appended to edifices, enjoy much wider territorial dispersal

A BönBon scriptural account seems to describe a form of burial for ancient priests known as shengshen, which may correspond to the form and lofty aspect of the cubic mountaintop tombs.24 If indeed this textual source is related to the tombs under consideration, it indicates that they were used to dispose of the mortal remains of high status priests in prehistoric times. Clearly, the siting of tombs in high, inaccessible locales intimates an exclusive social sphere of usage. This aura of special status is supported by the relatively small number of such cemeteries thus far documented.

I have presented ethnographic data to suggest that the lofty aspect of the sites was connected to a belief in a celestial afterlife.25 This is also supported by Tibetan funerary texts that describe a celestial afterlife known as gayüldga’ yul (Joyous Country), a paradise paralleling in ideal terms the mortal way of life.26 It would seem that the mountaintop tombs served as a kind of launch pad for the deceased on its journey to the hereafter. Some mountaintop sites (see E-11, E-19, E-30) with their terraces, pads, pathways and walls, all constructed from talus, indicates that there was indeed a complex ceremonial component attached to the burials.

Special attention has been paid to identifying and collecting osteological samples from the ruins of the central depositories. Only a small fraction of the total number of tombs contain skeletal remains and these are all tiny, hard to distinguish fragments. The samples collected were partially or fully exposed to the elements and subject to infiltration by foreign organic substances. Samples taken from tombs of the EndritséAn ’bri rtse (E-11) (fragment of cranium, human?) and Denjangri Mukpo DongLdan byang ri smug po gdong (E-18) (human cuspid and jaw fragment, other bone matter) cemeteries have yielded dates so recent as to fall outside the range of radiocarbon calibration. One sample of bone (species undetermined), collected from the central depository of a cubic tomb near Denjangri Mukpo DongLdan byang ri smug po gdong, has yielded a calibrated radiocarbon date of circa 1000 to 1210 CE. It is not at all clear, however, if the sample dated represents part of an original interment or a subsequent addition to the tomb. More stringent sampling will be required in order to determine the age of the cubic tombs.


[24] Bellezza, Antiquities of Upper Tibet, 98. After Helmut Hoffmann, The Religions of Tibet, (New York: MacMillian, 1961).
[25] Bellezza, Antiquities of Northern Tibet, 34; Bellezza, Antiquities of Upper Tibet, 98-99.
[26] Bellezza, Zhang zhung.

Note Citation for Page

John Vincent Bellezza, Antiquities of Zhang Zhung: A Comprehensive Inventory of Pre-Buddhist Archaeological Monuments on the Tibetan Upland (Charlottesville, VA: Tibetan & Himalayan Library, 2010), .

Bibliographic Citation

John Vincent Bellezza. Antiquities of Zhang Zhung: A Comprehensive Inventory of Pre-Buddhist Archaeological Monuments on the Tibetan Upland. Charlottesville, VA: Tibetan & Himalayan Library, 2010.