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.2. Residential Structures in Other Locations: Religious and Elite Residences

Riu GönpaRi’u dgon pa

Basic site data

  • Site name: Riu GönpaRi’u dgon pa120
  • English equivalent: Little Mountain Monastery
  • Site number: B-25
  • Site typology: I.2a
  • Elevation: 4850 m
  • Administrative location (township): DungruDung ru
  • Administrative location (county): RutokRu thog
  • Survey expedition: UTAE and HTCE
  • Survey date: May 28, 29, 2001 and October 25, 2002
  • Contemporary usage: Religious shrine and livestock holding area. Also a source of well-formed stones beams and slabs.
  • Identifiable Buddhist constructions: Walls with recently carved plaques of the manima ṇi mantra. These walls are found on the east and west sides of the complex. A few large carved plaques rest on the roof of the main building. There is also a reliquary chötenmchod rten enshrined at the site. A prayer flag mast has been erected in one of the all-stone dependencies.
  • Maps: UTRS II
  • View Place Dictionary Entry
  • View Floorplan
  • View Site Images

General site characteristics

Riu GönpaRi’u dgon pa is a monument of the utmost archaeological and historical importance. Riu GönpaRi’u dgon pa’s extreme isolation from other residential sites adds to its cultural and geographic significance. While there is a string of archaic temples and citadels in lower elevation western RutokRu thog, this is the only all-stone corbelled complex to be found on the lofty plains of northeastern RutokRu thog. At one time, Riu GönpaRi’u dgon pa was clearly the premier religious facility in the region, illustrating that sedentary habitation extended into this marginal physical environment (very high, cold and dry). This unique all-stone temple complex has architectural features of both the BönBon sekhanggsas khang and Buddhist gönpadgon pa. The site is located at the base of a black ridge that is said by local people to have the shape of a Khyungkhyung (horned eagle). The monument consists of a large main temple (18 m by 13.5 m) and several dependencies and chötenmchod rten-like shrines, which overlook the confluence of three rivers (a rare geographic occurrence this far north on the plateau).

All structures are built in a uniform fashion, indicating that Riu Gönpari’u dgon pa was founded as an integrated facility. As such, the various structures were probably constructed in the same general time period. There appears to be no structural evidence to show that Riu GönpaRi’u dgon pa was ever modified or underwent major refurbishment. The implication of this may be that it had a relatively short lifespan as a major religious center before devolving to individual meditators. The most notable constructional feature of the facility is that it was built entirely of stone. Moreover, the quality of the stonework is exceptional. Riu GönpaRi’u dgon pa exhibits Buddhist monastic design traits such as relatively large entrances, inner courtyards, shrine rooms in the west, and the use of embellished doorjambs (ruzhiru bzhi), lintels and cornices (lithic equivalents of Tibetan architectural elements known as bapbab and khashingkha shing). On the other hand, the warren of small, irregularly shaped windowless rooms, semi-subterranean aspect and corbelled roofs are design characteristics derived from the sekhanggsas khang religious architecture native to Upper Tibet. This juxtaposition of the two major forms of Upper Tibetan temple construction may indicate that Riu GönpaRi’u dgon pa represents a transitional architectural form. If this is indeed the case, a periodization to the early historic period is best indicated. This is the time period in which native and Buddhist forms of religion and culture first encountered each other in far-reaching ways.

In recent years, the long stone members of Riu GönpaRi’u dgon pa have been hauled away wholesale in trucks for use at area drokpa’brog pa camps. These appurtenances are considered sacred and have often been engraved with manima ṇi mantras. In 2006 some of the stone members were returned to the site. This dismantling of the various edifices of Riu GönpaRi’u dgon pa threatens the site’s continued survival. If the conservation of archaic cultural monuments ever becomes a priority in Tibet, because of its unique architectural qualities and integral condition, Riu GönpaRi’u dgon pa deserves urgent attention.

Oral tradition

In local folklore, the foundation of Riu GönpaRi’u dgon pa is connected to the King GesarGe sar epic. GesarGe sar’s uncle Chenpo Pagyel Tsasha KharGcen po spa rgyal tsha sha dkar is said to have resided in the region (at Gyeltsa RongmarRgyal tsha rong dmar to the east), and he apparently was responsible for the construction of the religious facility. The area around Riu GönpaRi’u dgon pa is reported to originally have been called Gyeltsa DzongRgyal tsha rdzong. West of the site there is a prominent black formation called Dotsang NakkhaRdo tshang nag kha and in the vicinity, the support mountain (Gyaprirgyab ri) of GyeltsaRgyal tsha. The goddess A Tak LumoA stag klu mo is also supposed to have resided at Riu GönpaRi’u dgon pa. Near the monastery is a shrine for Dungkyong KarmoDung skyong dkar mo. On account of its springs, many other luklu and lumoklu mo are thought to reside at this locale as well. These legendary tales suggest in themselves that the site is of considerable antiquity, and the personages associated with it may point to a BönBon origin.

It is also believed that Riu GönpaRi’u dgon pa was once a branch monastery of TodingMtho lding, one of NgariMnga’ ris’s most important Buddhist centers. In pre-modern times the site was associated with serious meditation practice. It is said that Tsampa Künga DorjéMtshams pa kun dga’ rdo rje, a disciple of the 15th KarmapaKarma pa, meditated here. Riu GönpaRi’u dgon pa was heavily vandalized during the Chinese Cultural Revolution. According to two regional elders (including one whose relative is enshrined in the Riu GönpaRi’u dgon pa reliquary chötenmchod rten), sometime after its founding, Riu GönpaRi’u dgon pa came under an inauspicious spell. One night this caused the death of a monk who became a reanimated corpse (rolangro lang). This reanimated corpse began touching the sleeping monks around him causing them to also die and become reanimated corpses. One monk, however, managed to wake up before being murdered and bolted from Riu GönpaRi’u dgon pa. Fearing for his life he took his ritual thunderbolt (dorjérdo rje), a staff (khargyuk’khar rgyug) and his wrap (zengzan) and threw them up in the air. These objects magically traveled far and wide, eventually landing at TodingMtho lding in GugéGu ge. The discovery of these objects at this site was taken as a sign that a monastery should be established there. As a result, the great Toding GönpaMtho lding dgon pa was built. This tale, as apocryphal as it may be, clearly places the founding of Riu GönpaRi’u dgon pa in an earlier timeframe than the tenpa chidarbstan pa phyi dar facilities of western Tibet.

Site elements

Main temple
Exterior features

The outer dimensions of the main temple are as follows: 18 m (south wall), 13.5 m (east wall), 14 m (north wall), and 13 m (west wall). The outer walls have numerous angles, creating a series of nooks inside the building and shortened spans for the heavy stone elements of the roof. The south or downhill wall is the highest structure at the site; it is uniformly 3.5 m to 4 m in height. The north or upslope wall is deeply set into the ground. The west half of the north wall has a maximum height of only 1.3 m, while the east half of the north wall is flush with the slope. These elevations include a parapet wall that extends 50 cm above the roofline. Except for the main entrance in the east, the alignment of the main building in the cardinal directions was not a significant consideration.

In the south wall there are two stone gutters that convey runoff from the roof to the ground below, thus protecting the masonry from waterborne damage. Also in the middle of the exterior south wall, at ground level, there is a 1 m high privy pit. Near the west corner of the south wall there is the temple’s only exterior window (25 cm by 30 cm). It is set in an indentation that measures 35 cm by 50 cm. East of the main building there are remnants of walls with small alcoves overlaid with stone beams. These walls appear to have been part of a gallery that enclosed an outer courtyard, 17 m in length. This enclosure is now used as a winter livestock pen. On the east end of the corral there are the remains of an entrance or alcove bridged by stone beams up to 2.5 m in length, the longest appurtenances at the site.

Most of the bridging stones in the roof of the main building are 1.5 m to 2 m in length. The wall thickness of the main temple ranges between 50 cm and 70 cm. The random-rubble walls are of the dry-stone variety or with seams that were minimally mud mortared. Sandstone slabs of variable size (15 cm to 90 cm in length) were used in wall construction. Walls were heavily plastered on both their interior and exterior faces. Clay and possibly other mineral substances were added to this plaster to harden it, as it has proven extremely durable. There is evidence to show that both the exterior and interior walls were tinted with red ochre.


The only entranceway to the main temple is set in the middle of the east wall. As with other constructions at Riu GönpaRi’u dgon pa, this entrance exhibits intricate masonry of a high degree of workmanship. The masterful stonework of the site is seldom matched in other ancient temples in Upper Tibet. The lintel and sill of the entryway (1.3 m by 90 cm) are composed of various worked stone slabs up to 1.6 m in length. As with various inner entrances, the outer entrance features the use of cut stones laid horizontally, which are the lithic equivalents of a multi-tiered lintel (khashingkha shing) and small decorative spacers (bapbab). These functional and ornamental features of doors and windows are commonly represented in Tibetan architecture from the early historic period onwards. The bapbab of Riu GönpaRi’u dgon pa are well-hewn stones, 25 cm to 40 cm in length, and between 4 cm and 8 cm in width and thickness. On either side of the outer entrance to the temple, large stone panels were inserted in stone frames to create wall dividers.

Inner east courtyard

The outer entranceway accesses a small vestibule that has part of its stone roof intact. Its floor-to-ceiling height is 1.6 m. One step leads down from the vestibule to the unevenly shaped inner east courtyard (5.3 m by 3.3 m). The walls surrounding this courtyard are a maximum of 2.2 m in height. To the left of the inner east courtyard entrance there is an alcove (1.5 m by 1 m). To the south of this space there is a latrine with a hole in the floor that opens to the privy pit. This privy pit is conveyed to the exterior of the building. The roof over the latrine has survived the vandalism of recent years.

North courtyard

On the north side of the east courtyard, immediately to the right of the main entrance of the building, an entranceway with five stone steps leads up to the north courtyard (7.8 m by 4.7 m). Like the east courtyard, there is no evidence that the north courtyard was ever roofed. There is a large niche in the north/rear wall of the north courtyard.

Southeast wing

On the east side of the inner east courtyard there is a small entranceway, without any embellishment of the jambs (1 m by 80 cm), which opens to a central corridor with five adjoining rooms. This southeast wing (5.7 m by 5.1 m) has two north rooms, two south rooms, and one east room at the end of the medial corridor. The floor-to-ceiling height of the southeast wing is around 1.7 m. This part of Riu GönpaRi’u dgon pa probably functioned as living quarters for the inmates. In recent years, most of the roof appurtenances have been removed from the southeast wing, endangering its continued existence. The southeast wing is now occasionally used to shelter shepherds.

Inner east courtyard south room

On the south side of the inner east courtyard there is an elaborate entranceway of the same design as the main entrance. It opens to a relatively large room (3.7 m by 3.1) that is partitioned by a wall buttress into two parts. Its roof has only partly survived. There are two recesses and a niche in the walls of the south portion of the room. In recent times this room was used to store animal dung.

West courtyard

On the west side of the inner east courtyard there is another ornamented entranceway (1.4 m by 90 cm) that accesses the west courtyard (5.4 m by 4.8 m). Three upright stone panels were placed on one side of this entrance and one panel on the other side. Until several years ago, the floor in this courtyard was lined with large slabs, most of which have been taken up or broken by local drokpa’brog pa. Immediately to the right or north of the west courtyard entrance there is a single room (3 m by 1.9 m) with a large open entrance (1.9 m by 1.4 m). There are two niches in this room as well as a smoke hole in the intact roof. There is also a small window in the east wall. Perhaps this room functioned as a kitchen (taptsangthab tshang).

Northwest shrine rooms

On the northwest side of the west courtyard there is a pair of shrine rooms with an enduring stone roof. The floor-to-ceiling height in these larger rooms is around 2 m. Several steps lead up from the open entrance to the east room (3.7 m by 1.5 m). In the east wall of the east room there is an entranceway (1.1 m by 60 cm) that accesses the north courtyard. Three steps lead up to this entranceway, which is flanked by vertical stone panels. A fairly elaborate entrance (1.4 m by 70 cm) connects the east and west rooms. The west room (3.1 m by 1.9 m) has a total of seven niches in the walls. The hearth that was built in the middle of this room is not an old appointment. On the other hand, the skylight (50 cm by 50 cm) in the middle of the ceiling appears to be an original feature.

Southwest shrine rooms

This wing of the main temple consists of three rooms with a fully intact roof. Three steps lead up to the elaborate entranceway (1.5 m by 1.4 m), which is divided into two halves by a single well-cut narrow stone jamb. The lintel consists of multiple stone slabs, and vertical stone panels flank the door. The exterior entranceway opens to a room (2.6 m by 2 m by 1.8 m) with a recess in the west wall, which is partly enclosed by its own doorway. In the south wall of this room there is another intricately designed entranceway (1 m by 50 cm) that accesses two rooms with a ritual function. The larger room (2 m by 3 m by 1.9 m) opens directly onto the west inner courtyard, and has a stone chötenmchod rten covered in white plaster standing in one corner of the room. This chötenmchod rten is of floor-to-ceiling height. According to the septuagenarian member of the SeroSe ro clan who is in charge of the upkeep of the chapels, this is a reliquary (kudungsku gdung) shrine that contains the remains of his grandfather Orgyen GönpaO rgyan mgon po, a meditator at Riu GönpaRi’u dgon pa. The chötenmchod rten was desecrated in the Chinese Cultural Revolution and subsequently rebuilt by the family. There is also a small rudimentary altar in this room with water bowls and butter lamps, which is only infrequently used for religious ceremonies. In the south wall there is the only small window in the exterior wall of the building. There is also an interior window in the north wall that opens onto the west courtyard. In the east wall of the large ritual room there is an entranceway leading to a smaller room, which is reported to have functioned as a protector chapel (gönkhangmgon khang).

Structures east of the main temple

Near the eastern extension of what was probably the outer courtyard of the main building there are the remains of three all-stone tenkharrten mkhar or chötenmchod rten. All three of these cubic shrines have central axes (sokshingsrog shing) made of stone extending above the top of the structures. This central design element identifies these elementary shrines as tenkharrten mkhar or chötenmchod rten. The uppermost specimen is 2.2 m in height and is coated in white plaster. The middle specimen is 1.8 m high and the lower one consists of just a square base. Below the tenkharrten mkhar or chötenmchod rten there are the obscured vestiges of an all-stone building. A little farther east near several new manima ṇi walls there are the traces of another dokhangrdo khang, 3.5 m in width. Only one room on the west side of the structure has survived with its stone roof intact. In one of the walls of this building there is a window (35 cm by 35 cm), with an ornate lintel that includes a row of stone spacers (bapbab).

Structures west of the main temple

West of the main building there are the ruins of three more dokhangrdo khang and two smaller one-room, all-stone huts. The upper hut (2.5 m by 2.2 m) has a window in the east wall near ground level, which overlooks the main building. The window frame is made in the elaborate fashion characteristic of Riu GönpaRi’u dgon pa. The door is in the south and there is a niche in the interior north wall. The roof is of an all-stone construction and the walls are plastered with clay. The lower hut is of the same design (2 m by 2 m) and has a maximum down-slope elevation of 2 m. It has an intact doorway in the south (1 m by 70 cm), several niches, and a window in the east near ground level. In the middle of the floor there is a 50 cm deep stone-lined pit (80 cm by 80 cm). This pit must have had a ritual function, perhaps for fire offerings (jinreksbyin sreg). Between the upper and lower stone huts there is a rudimentary shrine consisting of a square base (1.1 m by 1.1 m by 80 cm). A central stone axis protrudes 60 cm from the top of the structure.

The lower dokhangrdo khang (5 m by 4.3 m) contained at least four rooms. Its entranceway is well preserved and there are several niches in the rear wall. In the northeast room a window was built near ground level. Walls of the lower dokhangrdo khang reach 1.7 m in height, but none of its stone roof has endured. Only part of the shell of the upper east dokhangrdo khang has survived. It was built with the same plan and general dimensions as the lower dokhangrdo khang. Like its better-preserved lower counterpart, the upper east dokhangrdo khang also has a tiny southwest room with an intact lintel. There are two niches in the rear or upslope wall of the upper east dokhangrdo khang and a window in the east wall near the ground. The upper west dokhangrdo khang has been reduced to foundation remnants. There is a small integral revetment fragment on the west side of the structure. On the cliff above the dokhangrdo khang and stone huts there is another shrine, which also consists of a square pedestal with a protruding stone central axis.


[120] Sometimes amchungam chung (Little Rock Formation), a hill in the vicinity of the site, is appended to its name: Riu Amchung GönpaRi’u am chung dgon pa.

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.