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.

I.1. Residential Structures Occupying Summits: Fortresses, breastworks, religious buildings, palaces, and related edifices

Gekhö KharlungGe khod mkhar lung

Basic site data

  • Site name: Gekhö KharlungGe khod mkhar lung
  • English equivalent: Demon Conqueror Castle Valley
  • Site number: A-89
  • Site typology: I.1a, I.2c
  • Elevation: 4380 m to 4500 m
  • Administrative location (township): DerokSde rog
  • Administrative location (county): RutokRu thog
  • Survey expedition: HTCE
  • Survey date: May 25-27, 2002.
  • Contemporary usage: None.
  • Identifiable Buddhist constructions: None.
  • Maps: UTRS I, HAS A1
  • View Place Dictionary Entry
  • View Site Images

General site characteristics

The very important archaic citadel of Gekhö KharlungGe khod mkhar lung is named after GekhöGe khod, the mountain god (lharilha ri) of RutokRu thog.69 This sacred snowy peak towers above the head of the KharlungMkhar lung valley, in direct view of the archaeological site. Geographic access to this territorial god (yüllhaYul lha) and the ritual structures associated with it must have been controlled from Gekhö KharlungGe khod mkhar lung. The castle also overlooks a fairly extensive agricultural enclave that is still partially active, although much of it seems to have been destroyed by flooding and fluvial depositions. The all-stone corbelled facility of Gekhö KharlungGe khod mkhar lung is stacked on an almost vertical spine of rock 110 m in height. Rising above the bank of the Kharlung ChuMkhar lung chu there are a number of notches on this spine, which supported the buildings of the main complex. From the valley below this formation presents a formidable sight with its various levels of structures adroitly clustered on rock ledges and perches. In addition to the fortifications on the spine of the formation, there are extensive semi-subterranean residential ruins on the gravel and rock strewn slopes to the east. The most prominent of these is what appears to have been a temple complex with two underground chapels. All Gekhö KharlungGe khod mkhar lung structures were built of mud-mortared (lightly applied) random-rubble. Some of the variable length stones (up to 1 m) were hewn flat on their exterior faces. The well-built walls are generally 60 cm to 80 cm thick. The buildings probably had an exterior mud-based finish but none of it remains intact. Arable lands located in the valley bottom below the site are likely to have furnished the economic infusions needed in the construction and maintenance of such a large residential facility.

Chronometric data indicates that Gekhö KharlungGe khod mkhar lung was active as a residential center by circa 200 BCE to 100 CE (see below). This periodization roughly corresponds with the transition from the Tibetan Iron Age to the protohistoric period (probably an anachronistic extension of the Iron Age in Tibet). The antiquity of Gekhö KharlungGe khod mkhar lung may prove to have very important ramifications for assessing the age of various BönBon textual traditions associated with Zhang ZhungZhang zhung. For one thing, the establishment of the Gekhö KharlungGe khod mkhar lung citadel and ritual props suggest that the historical basis for certain BönBon myths, rituals and practices may predate the dawn of the historic epoch by at least five or six centuries. By extension, the Gekhö KharlungGe khod mkhar lung chronometric evidence also seems to indicate that the Upper Tibetan infrastructure of all-stone corbelled residential centers was already established or in the process of being so by 100 CE.

Oral tradition

According to residents of DerokSde rog township, Gekhö KharlungGe khod mkhar lung was an ancient Kel MönSkal mon castle.

Site elements

Riverside complex

On a steep slope just above the Kharlung ChuMkhar lung chu there is a retaining wall, 11.5 m in length and a maximum of 2.5 m in height, which creates a 2 m to 3 m wide terrace behind it. To the rear of this terrace there are three small caves, which appear to have been cut from the earth and rock matrix. They have fire-blackened ceilings, a telltale sign of habitation. Two of the caves also have masonry façades. The wall around the mouth of the middle cave is 4.3 m in length, and still has large quantities of mud-mortar in the seams. In the east cave there is an oblong niche and two domed recesses, just as are found in the caves of the GugéGu ge badlands.

Level one complex

This sector boasts the best-preserved building (18.5 m by 7.8 m) at the Gekhö KharlungGe khod mkhar lung site. A good portion of this main building’s all-stone corbelled roof is intact. Smaller buildings are found directly below it on ledges. A poorly preserved part of the main structure extends from the rocky backbone to the adjoining slope. This wing of the well-preserved edifice contained several small rooms. Exterior walls attain an elevation of 5 m and interior walls 2.5 m, creating a striking profile. The intact entrance (1.4 m by 80 cm) to the principal part of the main building is in the east. It accesses a long room that runs the length of the forward section of the lower level of this edifice. On the east side of this long room, six or seven stone steps lead up to the second level of the structure. Walls still project 1 m above the lower level roofline, indicating that this was a two-story edifice. In addition to the long room, there are four lower level rear rooms connected to it by a short corridor. There is an intact entrance (1.4 m by 60 cm) between the forward and rear sections of the main building.

The southwest room of the rear section (interior dimensions: 1.6 m by 2.2 m) of the main building has a floor-to-ceiling height of around 2 m. In one corner of this room there is a stone-lined recess in the floor (60 cm across, 50 cm deep), which appears to have been covered by stone slabs. This may have been a concealed storage facility of some kind. The largely intact ceiling is comprised of bridging stones and stone sheathing resting upon corbels. Some mud plaster remains on the interior walls. The separate entrance to the southeast room (both its lintel and threshold stone are in situ) is 1.1 m high and 70 cm wide. From the southeast room (1.1 m by 2.2 m), the two north rooms are accessed via an intact entranceway (1.4 m by 60 cm). While the southeast room has much of its roof intact, the roof over the north rooms is fractional.

Some fungus-infected mud plaster clings to the walls of the north rooms. In the northwest room (2.3 m by 2.8 m) there are several niches and a stone shelf. In the southeast corner there is a stone box (70 cm by 60 cm by 40 cm) that must have been used for storage. In the northeast room (2.9 m by 2.8 m) there are several niches and a small alcove. In the west side of the north wall (built against the rocky spine of the formation) there is an alcove, which contains a unique stone and mud construction. Covered in mud plaster, this 80 cm-tall ritual structure was painted black and white, however, not enough of the pigment residue have survived to ascertain the design scheme. Upon the square base of this structure (70 cm by 70 cm) are two graduated tiers of the same plan. The bulbous mid-section above them has an arched opening (15 cm by 15 cm) that accesses a hollow center. There are no other openings to the center of the structure, precluding its function as an incense brazier (which it superficially resembles). Surmounting the rounded mid-section are three more quadrate tiers, the top-most of which has a rounded rim. The top of the structure is within 20 cm of the ceiling of the recess in which it is housed. Its most likely identity is a religious receptacle or shrine of the sekhargsas mkhar or tenkharrten mkhar class (used to enshrine deities for ritual purposes). It is very uncommon to discover such a well-preserved shrine inside archaic residential ruins. A small shard of unglazed red-ware was also found in the northwest room.


On the east side of the spine of the formation, across the breadth of the adjoining slope, there are around eight all-stone structures, one set on top of the other. In one of these dependencies a piece of wood was found that yielded a radiocarbon date of circa 200 BC to 100 CE.70 Each of these buildings supported a single row of small semi-subterranean rooms. The low profile and forward position of this series of habitational structures suggests that they were used by a subsidiary social grouping. Such structures are in an inherently more vulnerable position than those perched in the crags. Their “lesser” relative position, combined with the minimal height and shallow depth of the structures, suggests that these were politically and strategically of less importance and probably occupied by lower status residents. They may have served to garrison troops, as servants’ quarters or as artisan workshops.

The lowest dependency is found in the vicinity of the level one complex (17 m by 3 m). It probably contained five rooms. It was built 1.5 m into the rear or uphill slope. The two rooms on its southwest end of the structure still have corbels bearing down upon the rear wall. About 5 m directly above the lowest dependency, running transverse to the angle of the slope, is a similar structure (21 m by 5 m). Its west side is built into a cleft in the rocky backbone. There is one in situ corbel in the rear wall of the west end of the building. Above this structure is a similarly constructed specimen, approximately 33 m in length, but very little of it has endured. Five rooms in a single row are still distinguishable. On the east side of the structure, its north or rear wall is deeply set into the slope. Above it is yet another analogous structure in extremely poor condition, which is about 36 m in length.

Several meters above the 36-m long structure are the hazy remains of the same type of buildings, extending up the slope for another 40 m. This group of ruins has an east-west breadth of about 20 m. The top end of this group of ruins corresponds with the elevation of the level three complex. A few wall segments in these semi-subterranean structures reach 1.2 m in height; nevertheless, most wall footings are obscured by rubble.

Level two complex

The level two complex is found on a series of ledges, beginning about 15 m above the level one complex. It extends 54 m up the backbone, over a 20 m vertical expanse. At the bottom end of the complex, exterior walls reach 3 m in height and interior walls 2.5 m. The lowest building and the one immediately above it are around 5 m wide, the width of the ledge. The lowest building has a small intact north-facing entrance. Some corbels are still resting on top of the upper/north wall of this structure. Inside the lowest building there is a 1.5 m deep, 1 m wide cavity in the floor, revealing the formation underneath. To create a level floor, stone slabs were laid across the crags, some of which are still in situ. The adjacent building has been reduced to its foundations and freestanding wall segments no more than 50 cm in height. To the north of these two structures there is a steep rise in the backbone, which terminates in a ledge up to 17 m wide. This ledge is only accessible from the west slope. On it there is a sparse assortment of destroyed buildings. Just above this ledge, on the west slope, there are the remains of a wall 23 m in length and up to 1.2 m in height, which is connected to the rocky backbone of the citadel and an outcrop in the west. This defensive outwork was designed to restrict access between the precipitous flanks of the hill below the wall and the less severe slopes above it.

Level three complex

This large group of buildings begins 25 m above the high end of the level two complex. A vertical rock face separates them. Built on a large knob (44 m by 13 m) in the backbone of the formation, the exterior walls of this dense aggregation of no less than nine buildings, reaches a maximum height of 5 m. In the most southeasterly structure there is a window opening (35 cm high) with an intact stone lintel. On the south side of this building there is a deep recess in the floor exposing the formation below. Some pieces of the stone-slab flooring have survived in place. The interior walls of the southeast building are up to 2.5 m in height. The adjacent southwest building is almost leveled. The next building to the west has heavily buttressed walls and a few in situ corbels resting upon them. Its three rooms were clearly overlain with an all-stone roof. The third building on the west edge of the outcrop is in very poor condition. There is a small gap between the third and fourth building on the west rim of the outcrop, however, they are interconnected by a curtain-wall. The fourth edifice on the west side of the outcrop has a small window in the west wall, flanked by two small square niches inside. The north wall also has a small aperture and a larger niche. This wall appears to have extended right across the rocky platform upon which it sits. The fifth west structure had at least three rooms, and a lintel between the north and central room is in situ. The sixth and most northerly west structure has been mostly obliterated.

On the east edge of the formation, the building adjacent to the lowermost southeast specimen has freestanding walls up to 2.5 m in height. The third building on the east side of level three has been nearly leveled. Its walls continue to the cliff bounding the north side of the indenture in the spine of the formation. A structural extension to this edifice appears to have functioned as a fortified ramp, which traverses the formation to the east slopes and the complex of semi-subterranean dependencies located there.

Summit outpost

On the next highest knob in the spine there is a single building (10 m by 3.5 m) which is the highest structure at Gekhö KharlungGe khod mkhar lung. The exterior walls reach 4 m in height, including the revetment that was needed as a load-bearing device and to even out the floor. There is a small opening in the west and north walls of this structure. This building may have functioned either as a surveillance post or ritual venue. In a crease in the slope east of the summit structure there are a series of interconnected terraces; these small structures either had a defensive or ritual function.


At the same elevation as the level one complex, east of the semi-subterranean dependencies, a relatively large edifice (18 m by 14.7) stands alone. Its design is suggestive of a ritual center. It contains four tiers of rooms built deeply into the rear slope. The upper tier hosted a row of four rooms. The room in the northwest corner of the upper tier (room 1) still has corbels attached to the rear wall. The room beside it (room 2) has most of its all-stone roof intact. The beams and corbels run diagonally as well as in a perpendicular fashion in room 2. Like other rooms in this building, it is small (2.4 m by 2.5 m) and irregularly shaped. The floor-to-ceiling height in room 2 is around 2 m, and there is a smoke hole in the roof. The top of the rear wall is flush with the slope, illustrating how deeply this room was built into the ground. There is a partition wall in room 2 that was used to help support the extremely heavy roof. It is 1 m long on one side and 1.6 m long on the other side, conveying how irregular the ground plan of the structure is. The entrance (1 m by 50 cm) to room 2 is in the preferred eastern direction. The two upper tier rooms (room 3 and room 4) in the east are highly fragmentary.

The second tier from the top of the edifice consists of two subterranean chambers. They are accessed from the east side of the third tier. Each chamber had a north-facing entranceway with stone lintels and jambs (1.4 m by 70 cm). These are connected to antechambers, which are approximately 2 m in length. The east subterranean chamber has largely collapsed, filling it and the antechamber with rubble. The west subterranean chamber is 4.5 m deep and 2.5 m high. To the east of the east underground chamber there is an alcove in the north or upslope wall, on which there is a little mud plaster. Some of this plaster is tinted with red ochre, an ostensible sign that this was a religious center. This identification is also supported by the subterranean chambers, which have the aspect of chapels (they face in direction of the sacred mountain GekhöGe khod). The large east room or hall of the third tier (5.5 m by 7.5 m) must have had a wooden roof, if any. Its entrance is in the east. There is a small adjacent room internally connected to the large east room. The west portion of the third tier constitutes a separate wing of the building and had independent entrances. The west portion of the third tier is comprised of two small rooms (2.7 m by 1.6 m and 2.9 m by 1.7 m), built 1.7 m into the slope. The freestanding forward wall of this wing is 2 m in height. The north facing entrance in one of these two rooms is still intact (1.3 m by 60 cm). The fourth or lowest tier of the “temple” has been almost completely destroyed.

East backbone structure

In the crags that enclose the east side of Gekhö KharlungGe khod mkhar lung site there are the remains of a single all-stone structure (11m by 3 m), built against a cliff at 4430 m elevation. It consisted of a single line of three or four rooms. Farther east, in a small side valley, there is an isolated building, measuring 10 m by 7 m (33º 20.9΄ N. lat. / 79º 44.5΄ E. long.). Very little of this structure remains. It appears to have been split into two different levels.

Affiliated sites

Between the Gekhö KharlungGe khod mkhar lung valley and the RutokRu thog basin there is a pass called Sendré LaSer ’bras la (sp.?). Just east of the prayer flag mast marking this pass there are the remains of what may be a funerary superstructure (33° 21.614΄ N. lat. / 79° 40.569΄ E. long. / 4350 m). It consists of single-course walls that form a rectangular perimeter (4.1 m by 3.3 m). These walls are composed of stones up to 70 cm in length, which protrude prominently above the ground. The only long view from this site is in the north, the direction of Rutok DzongRu thog rdzong.


[69] Locally, this 6200 m tall mountain is known as Gekhö NyenlungGe khod gnyan lung, Polha Gekhö GangkharPho lha ge khod gangs dkar and Polha Wangtang KarpPho lha dbang thang dkar po. Its polhapho lha (male god) attribution suggests that at one time the Gekhöge khod mountain was a regional ancestral spirit. According to local legend, the ancient HorHor invaders of RutokRu thog propitiated this god for military success. The main centers of propitaition were Rutok DzongriRu thog rdzong ri (A-17) (see fn. 61) and a small outcrop to the east of this site called Nakchung GongmaNag chung gong ma. In RutokRu thog, Gekhö NyenlungGe khod gnyan lung is closely associated with the HorHor deity Namtel KarpGnam thel dkar po. A small yellow mountain beside it is associated with Bartel TrawoBar thel khra bo, while and even smaller adjacent ridge is the residence of Satel NakpoSa thel nag po. It is also said by some natives of RutokRu thog that Gekhö KharlungGe khod mkhar lung was originally a Mönmon deity. RutokRu thog is recorded as the abode of GekhöGe khod in ritual texts dedicated to this BönBon tutelary deity (BellezzaCalling Down the Gods, 399, n. 199). In the BönBon tradition, GekhöGe khod is considered the chief god of ancient Zhang ZhungZhang zhung. Extensive coverage of GekhöGe khod and his circle of Zhang ZhungZhang zhung deities is found in Bellezza, Zhang Zhung.
[70] An approximately 8 cm long fragment of a round of softwood was discovered sheltered in one of a series of outbound semi-subterranean structures, which formed a dependency of the main citadel. This wood specimen has yielded a calibrated radiocarbon date of circa 200 BCE to 100 CE. As such, a late Iron Age or protohistoric periodization for at least some of the structures at Gekhö KharlungGe khod mkhar lung site is indicated. The assayed round of wood was around 4 cm in diameter; consequently it came from a source that was not so long lived. It is likely that smaller pieces of wood like this one were exploited soon after being cut. The use of the analyzed specimen as a material cultural object at Gekhö KharlungGe khod mkhar lung is likely to have occurred in a period generally corresponding to its measured radiocarbon age. Small rounds of wood such as the one under scrutiny could have been used as architectural elements or as parts of implements with a wide range of functions. Technical specifications: Radiometric, sample no. Beta 200752; Conventional radiocarbon age: 2040 +/-70; 2 Sigma calibrated result: Cal 2150 to 1860 BP (years before present); Intercept of radiocarbon age with calibration curve: Cal 1990 BP; 1 Sigma calibrated result: Cal 2100 to 1900 BP.

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.