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

PukkharPhug mkhar

Basic site data

  • Site name: PukkharPhug mkhar
  • English Equivalent: Cave Castle
  • Site number: A-133
  • Site typology: I.1b
  • Elevation: 4110 m
  • Administrative location (township): TsarangRtsa rang
  • Administrative location (county): TsamdaRtsa mda’
  • Survey expedition: HTWE
  • Survey date: July 22, 2004
  • Contemporary usage: Seasonal pastoral settlement in lower caves.
  • Identifiable Buddhist constructions: Ruined Chötenmchod rten.
  • Maps: UTRS V, HAS C2
  • View Place Dictionary Entry
  • View Site Images

General site characteristics

The PukkharPhug mkhar formation rises 60 m above the eponymous valley. This is an isolated earthen formation unconnected to the badland canyons bounding the north side of the PukkharPhug mkhar valley. The location presents a fairly good defensive aspect. Due to extreme degradation and geomorphologic changes, very little structural residue remains at the site. Around 20 caves used for habitation and other purposes are found in the vicinity of the PukkharPhug mkhar formation. Some of these caves are occupied in the winter by the pastoralists of BarBar village. The two structures of the summit complex are the only ones that still rise above ground level at PukkharPhug mkhar. Below them there is much building rubble on broad, almost level slopes. The stretch of the streambed that runs below the castle usually has running water, and a small spring is located north of the site at the base of the canyon. A relative abundance of water accounts for present-day seasonal settlement of the site, and must have been a determining factor in the establishment of the ancient facility as well. In the valley bottom there is a good stand of tamarisk trees, a source of fuel and building materials. There are no traces of arable land at PukkharPhug mkhar. However, en route between the village of BarBar and PukkharPhug mkhar, the large tableland at Puling ChungmaSpu gling chung ma was once intensively cultivated. Some farming still takes place here in years with ample rainfall.

Oral tradition

Local sources report that PukkharPhug mkhar was an ancient MönMon stronghold.93

Site elements

Summit complex

On the summit (no longer accessible) of PukkharPhug mkhar there is a moderately sized building carcass with parts of three walls intact. It was built of sandstone slabs (maximum length: at least 50 cm). The walls of this structure reach no less than 2 m in height. Approximately 7 m directly below the summit edifice, on the south side of the formation, a highly eroded earthen building (with a few stone courses visible on its south side) has been cleaved in two by the disappearance of a large piece of the parent formation. This structure appears to have been of modest proportions. Roughly 15 m north of the summit a tiny wall fragment still clings to the highly eroded ridge-top. It is less than 1 m in length and 50 cm in height (none of which is freestanding). Similarly, approximately 7 m below the west side of the summit there is a tiny wall remnant. It contains just six sandstone blocks, each 20 cm or less in length. This wall fragment is embedded in a steep slope. These two wall traces, as minor as they are, appear to signal that the summit and the areas immediately below it supported a contiguous zone of structures.

Shelf and esplanade

Below the summit on the south side of the formation there is a shelf (23 m by around 15 m) that appears to have been a building site, but only rubble and possibly a few in situ stones of footings are all that is left. About 2 m below this shelf there is a sloping esplanade (36 m by 37 m) that also has a fair amount of blue limestone and brown sandstone rubble scattered upon it. On the east side of the esplanade along its narrower upper extent (situated less than 20 m below the summit) there is the foundation of what appears to have been a significant building. However, not one coherent wall fragment has survived. On the south rim of the esplanade, there is the base of a ruined earthen and stone chötenmchod rten (3.5 m by 3.5 m).94 On the east rim there is a single line of stones extending around 1 m, the only coherent wall section still existing on the esplanade. Perhaps defensive works once existed on the low end (south) of the esplanade.

Lower slopes

Below the esplanade, steep slopes drop down to the valley floor. A few meters lower than the esplanade, 15 m to the northeast, there is a cave on the south side of the formation (3.6 m by 2.3 m). The remains of a façade wall (4.4 m in length, 40 cm thick, 1.3 m to 2.3 m in height) barricade the mouth of this cave. This mostly random-rubble wall contains both blocks of limestone and slabs of sandstone. Near its top there are three vertical courses of herringbone masonry, each separated by conventional stonework courses. This particular stone-working technique appears to have been developed no later than circa 500 CE and continued to find expression in architectural monuments (residential and ceremonial) of western Tibet until the tenpa chidarbstan pa phyi dar.95

Cave shelters

To the east, across a gully from PukkharPhug mkhar, three cubic masonry structures were built inside a cave. Their function is not evident. Sockets in a nearby wall suggest that these structures may have helped to support a wooden frame roof. The cubic structures (50 cm to 70 cm in height) are made from smaller stone slabs. In the rear wall of the same cave, an L-shaped wall (1.5 m and 1.1 m in length, 40 cm in height) forms a platform (25 cm to 40 cm in width). The grand aspect of this cave at the base of its own formation and the unusual masonry structures inside suggest that it may have been an archaic shrine of some kind. High above this cave on the same formation, structural detritus scattered on a ledge once formed façades around two shallow caves.


[93] It is reported that in early 2004, a “MönMon” corpse was discovered in the vicinity by local inhabitants. A thin walled shard of unglazed redware (20 cm in length, 8 cm thick) detected on the surface during the survey was identified by local guides as part of a MönMon burial vessel.
[94] This chötenmchod rten must have been erected by the Buddhists to subdue negative influences emanating from the “MönMon” castle. The PukkharPhug mkhar site with its highly valuable hydrological resources would have continued to be inhabited during the era of Buddhist domination, as it is today. On a ridgline at the same general elevation, on the opposite side of the valley, there are three derelict chötenmchod rten, which are said to have been destroyed before living memory. Two other chötenmchod rten at the east foot of the PukkharPhug mkhar formation are reported to have been desecrated during the Chinese Cultural Revolution. These various chötenmchod rten of PukkharPhug mkhar appear to have served as instruments for the symbolic vanquishment of the site, reassuring Buddhist inhabitants that the older “MönMon” habitations would not cast a pall over their lives and aspirations.
[95] Bellezza, Zhang Zhung, 146.

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.