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

KharchungMkhar chung

Basic site data

  • Site name: KharchungMkhar chung
  • English equivalent: Little Castle
  • Site number: A-136
  • Site typology: I.1b
  • Elevation: 4220 m
  • Administrative location (township): ShangtséShang rtse
  • Administrative location (county): TsamdaRtsa mda’
  • Survey expedition: TUE
  • Survey date: September 13, 2005
  • Contemporary usage: None.
  • Identifiable Buddhist constructions: None.
  • Maps: UTRS V, HAS C2
  • View Place Dictionary Entry
  • View Site Images

General site characteristics

The single earthen hulk of KharchungMkhar chung is situated on a relatively flat summit suspended 130 m above the Drel DongpoBral gdong po valley floor. The access routes to the site must pass through the difficult earthen and gravel formations that surround it. The north and west sides of KharchungMkhar chung are protected by steep gullies and other sides by sheer drops. To the north a flat-topped ridgeline is connected to the steep slopes that rise out of the badland canyons to the broad esplanade abutting the Ayi LaA yi la Transhimalayan range. KharchungMkhar chung is invested with a commanding position in that all of the surrounding esplanade is visible from this vantage point. Unlike Buddhist sites in the Drel DongpoBral gdong po valley, KharchungMkhar chung appears to have had a defensive function, just as its name suggests. It is a long, narrow structure reminiscent of the lone buildings of Manam KharMa nam mkhar West (B-77) and Hala KharHa la mkhar West (A-58). All three of these sites feature two or three long rows of small rooms oriented along the axis of the building. KharchungMkhar chung is likely to be an archaic cultural site because of the oral tradition associated with it, the lack of Buddhist emblems, the high elevation location, the highly disintegrated state of the ruins (it is much more degraded than the Buddhist structures in the area), and its unusual design characteristics.

Oral tradition

According to lore prevalent in Drel DongpoBral gdong po, KharchungMkhar chung is the oldest monument in this valley system and is not Buddhist in character.

Site elements

KharchungMkhar chung measures 55 m (east-west) by 7 m (north-south) and is quite closely aligned in the compass points. Its width is hard to determine as only a 2.5 m long segment of the south wall is still intact. The edifice dips slightly in elevation from east to west. Standing walls reach a maximum height of 3 m and are highly eroded to 50 cm or less in thickness. They appear to be constructed of rammed-earth (traces of the orifices used to hold the shuttering pins are visible). The walls of KharchungMkhar chung contain copious amounts of a stone matrix. The base of the walls is comprised of several vertical courses of multicolored cobbles and brown sandstone blocks and slabs (10 cm to 50 cm in length). The revetment on the north side of the edifice is of the same type of stonework and is around 1 m in height.

The north wall of KharchungMkhar chung is fairly continuous except for a gap 15 m wide near its west end. The traces of the stone revetment embedded in the north rim of the formation near this gap, however, shows that the north wall was originally continuous. Near the east end of the gap the north wall makes two 90° bends to the south, each 1.3 m in length. At the east end of KharchungMkhar chung, along the rim of the formation, there are the faint remains of a wall that appears to have protected this flank of the installation from the gully below. A tiny extant segment of this wall suggests it was around 75 cm thick. Little of the west wall of KharchungMkhar chung is still intact. Much earth is heaped up against the east wall, obliterating any traces of room partitions that might have survived. The only surviving south wall segment is a masonry structure that was heavily mud mortared. This fragment (2.5 m long and 1.5 m in height) is composed of sandstone blocks and metamorphic cobbles.

Affiliated sites

Drel Dongpo Gönpa LhomaBral gdong po dgon pa lho ma

There are two ruined Buddhist complexes in the Drel DongpoBral gdong po valley, north and south. The oldest one, Drel Dongpo Gönpa LhomaBral gdong po dgon pa lho ma, is situated on the south side of the valley (31° 31.8΄ N. lat. / 79° 54.5΄ E. long. / 4120 m). It is perched on a series of benches elevated 30 m above the valley floor. An older foundation date for the south monastic complex is supported by the local oral tradition. The largest group of ruined chötenmchod rten and the main temple of the south site appear to date to the tenpa chidarbstan pa phyi dar (or shortly thereafter). The temple, with its multiple transverse spans, is of a design typical of early GugéGu ge Buddhist architecture. There are also a number of outlying chötenmchod rten complexes at Drel Dongpo Gönpa LhomaBral gdong po dgon pa lho ma. The most unusual feature of this Buddhist center is that it is surrounded on three sides by stone walls (built primarily of sandstone blocks), which are topped by a series of rounded masonry structures similar in shape to the bumpabum pa of chötenmchod rten. There are scores of these interconnected structures extending for hundreds of meters. None of the surmounting structures are complete (total height of the walls has been reduced to 1.5 m or less). We might conjecture that the walls of chötenmchod rten-like structures were covered in a mud veneer and lavishly painted. These walls are situated behind (to the south of) Drel Dongpo Gönpa LhomaBral gdong po dgon pa lho ma and to its east and west. An analogous wall is found further west. The axes of these walls are oriented parallel to the slope of the benches upon which they were built, that is, towards the north Buddhist complex of Drel DongpoBral gdong po. The chötenmchod rten-like walls are arrayed in such a way that from Drel Dongpo Gönpa LhomaBral gdong po dgon pa lho ma they seem to embrace both formations of the north Buddhist complex. These intricately constructed walls, at least in part, may have been built to subdue inimical influences coming from the direction of what became the north Buddhist complex, the original nucleus of settlement in Drel DongpoBral gdong po.

Drel Dongpo Gönpa JangmaBral gdong po dgon pa byang ma

The modern village of Drel DongpoBral gdong po (population: 56) is situated at the foot of the formations that supported the north Buddhist center. Lhundrup ChölingLhun grub chos gling, a small contemporary temple, is also found in the vicinity. It was destroyed in the Chinese Cultural Revolution and was partially rebuilt until 2004. Drel Dongpo Gönpa JangmaBral gdong po dgon pa byang ma, the north Buddhist complex, is divided between two formations: east (dukang’du kang) and west (gönkhangmgon khang). This monastic center remained viable until the Chinese Cultural Revolution. The smaller building carcasses show that this was not a particularly large Buddhist center. The east and west formations (separated by a steep gully) each contain about 100 caves of the GugéGu ge type. They begin at around 4140 m elevation and extend up to 4200 m. KharchungMkhar chung is situated 20 m above the upper extent of caves in the east formation.

Defunct agriculture in the DrelBral valley

A perennial stream still feeds a significant arable land-base near Drel DongpoBral gdong po village, but most cultivated lands in this valley system have been abandoned. Defunct agricultural holdings stretch along the DrelBral valley, especially on its right side, all the way downstream to the confluence of the DrelBral and DongpoGdong po valleys. Above this confluence is drinsaDrin sa (sp?), once a large agricultural plain and significant Buddhist center (31° 31.5΄ N. lat. / 79° 52.5΄ E. long. / 3980 m). It now lies utterly abandoned. In the earthen formation bounding the right side of the valley there are around 100 caves, which were probably the original locus of settlement at drinsaDrin sa. It would appear that at some point in time, this preexisting cave complex was transformed into a Buddhist center. On the summit of the formation with the caves there is a significant rammed-earth shell with tall, straight walls. The Buddhist hierarch or chieftain of the locale may have occupied this high status redoubt. In a cave near the base of the drinsaDrin sa formation there are murals dating to circa 1000 to 1200 CE (painted in a provincial and somewhat naive style probably by native Tibetan artists). With its extensive agricultural lands, hundreds of people may have once lived in the lower DrelBral valley (now devoid of permanent settlement).

Defunct agriculture in the DongpoGdong po valley

In the upper DongpoGdong po valley, a mostly abandoned agricultural settlement is located at Dongpo GongmaGdong po gong ma (31° 32.8΄ N. lat. / 79° 53.7΄ E. long. / 4130 m). There are ruined chötenmchod rten complexes at this location. Disused arable land extends all the way down the DongpoGdong po valley to the confluence with the DrelBral valley. Much of this land is now highly eroded and dissected. It is reported that a minimum of cultivation took place in the DongpoGdong po valley during the Chinese Cultural Revolution but no longer. Residents of Drel DongpoBral gdong po village observe that in dry years the Dongpo ChuGdong po chu is not a reliable source of water. In the lower DongpoGdong po valley there is the old Buddhist center and agricultural settlement of Dongpo OkmaGdong po ’og ma (31° 32.1΄ N. lat. / 79° 53.0΄ E. long. / 4050 m). In the midst of abandoned farmlands here there is a ruined chötenmchod rten complex and around 50 caves in an adjoining formation. The top of this formation is capped with a large rammed-earth carcass with adobe block upper walls. Called a “kharmkhar,” it likely marks the location of an elite habitation. This structure (rising about 60 m above the valley) with its high, straight walls is clearly part of a site founded after 1000 CE. At one time hundreds of people may have lived and worked in the DongpoGdong po valley.


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.