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

Khyunglung YülméKhyung lung yul smad

Basic site data

  • Site name: Khyunglung YülméKhyung lung yul smad
  • English equivalent: KhyungKhyung Valley Lower Village
  • Site number: B-117
  • Site typology: I.2c
  • Elevation: 4230 m to 4370 m
  • Administrative location (township): KhyunglungKhyung lung
  • Administrative location (county): NyimaNyi ma
  • Survey expedition: UTAE and SSI
  • Survey date: April 30, May 1 and August 27 to September 8, 2001
  • Contemporary usage: A pilgrimage site.
  • Identifiable Buddhist constructions: Prayer flags at various locations, a ruined monastery, a series of broken chötenmchod rten, retreat caves, and manima ṇi walls.
  • Maps: UTRS V, UTRS X, HAS C3
  • View Place Dictionary Entry
  • View Site Images

General site characteristics

The main cave complex and associated ruins of Khyunglung YülméKhyung lung yul smad are found in the lower portion of KhyunglungKhyung lung village. The site occupies a multi-colored (gray, blue-gray, white, yellow, red, and brown) badlands formation below a broad esplanade, on the right side of the Langchen TsangpoGlang chen gtsang po (Sutlej River). The ruined residential complex of Khyunglung KhartséKhyung lung mkhar rtse (also locally known as Khyunglung Ngül KharKhyung lung dngul mkhar and Lhamo DzongLha mo rdzong) occupies the highest part of the site. According to a local sacred geographical tradition, the prayer-flag mast on the rim of the esplanade above the monastery is envisioned as being planted on the head of a giant horned eagle (Khyungkhyung) facing in the direction of the Langchen TsangpoGlang chen gtsang po Valley. The long ridge descending from KhartséMkhar rtse is the Khyungkhyung’s body and the escarpments flanking it, the mythical bird’s outstretched wings. All buildings at the site have random-work or adobe-block walls and appear to have been built with timber roofs.

There are over 250 caves at Khyunglung YülméKhyung lung yul smad, most of which exhibit clear signs of occupation in the form of façades, plastering, and domed and oblong niches and bays. These caves were either cut into the gravel and cobble conglomerate formations or existing natural caves modified for occupation. A significant number of the caves had small buildings consisting of one or two anterooms erected in front of them. Some of the caves are no longer accessible due to the shearing and collapse of various parts of the parent material. The majority of caves are between 9 m² and 20 m² in floor area. The largest cave recorded measures 5 m by 6 m. Typically there is a large recess or bay in the center of the rear wall, opposite the entrance. Small niches often flank this concavity in the wall. Where there are hearths, they are often set in front of the rear bay. Many of the caves have arched entranceways cut into the escarpments. The tops of some of these arches terminate in key-hole-like extensions. These pointed upper slots in the entrances are sometimes connected to a groove carved into the ceiling of caves, which functioned to allow smoke to efficiently escape from the interior. These internal architectural features of the KhyunglungKhyung lung caves are reproduced throughout GugéGu ge, wherever there are analogous geological formations.

The uniformity in the design of cave entrances and wall recesses in GugéGu ge reflect a regional architectural tradition that persisted over a very long period of time. From a survey of sites, it is clear that this type of cave was used in both the prehistoric and historic epochs. The precise function of the recesses and niches may have varied according to the status of the occupant and period of occupancy. In addition to use by anchorites immersed in religious practice, it appears that such caves comprised the habitations of a wider spectrum of archaic society. The groups of caves in YülméYul smad (and YültöYul stod) are likely to have formed the original nucleus of settlement in KhyunglungKhyung lung.

Caves at YülméYul smad are arrayed as follows:

  1. Right wing of the Khyungkhyung – approximately 35 caves
  2. Body of the Khyungkhyung – approximately 150 caves
  3. Left wing of the Khyungkhyung – approximately 50 caves.
  4. KhartséMkhar rtse – approximately 18 caves

Oral tradition

Native villagers report that most caves, the lower ruins and the KhartséMkhar rtse summit complex of YülméYul smad were abandoned before living memory. The monastery of KhyunglungKhyung lung at mid-elevation, however, was partially active until the Communist period. Local elders believe that the site was occupied by the BönpoBon po before devolving to the Buddhists.109 It is popularly said that the population of KhyunglungKhyung lung was at one time so large that people from one side of the Langchen TsangpoGlang chen gtsang po did not know everyone residing on the opposite side of the river. In one legend the founding of KhyunglungKhyung lung is related as follows: In ancient times there were three brothers in YalaYa la (sp.?), a location in KhyunglungKhyung lung. The elder brother announced, “I am going to PurangSpu rang.” The middle brother said, “I am going to ShakhoklaSha khog la (a Himalayan pass accessing Uttaranchal).” The youngest brother declared, “I will settle in KhyunglungKhyung lung.”

Site elements


On the rim of the esplanade (approximately 4450 m), overlooking the cave complexes, a retaining wall, approximately 40 m in length, surrounds a prayer flag mast. The age and original function of this structure is not clear. The design of the wall could possibly reflect that of a revetment for the support of buildings, but no such residual evidence for habitations is visible. The prayer flag mast at this location serves as the shrine for the KhyunglungKhyung lung village yüllhayul lha known as PiuSpi’u (sp.?). Although all elderly informants of KhyunglungKhyung lung agree on the name of the yüllhayul lha, no lore about this deity appears to have been preserved. On the other hand, the main protector (sungmasrung ma) of KhyunglungKhyung lung monastery is reported to be the goddess Penden LhamoDpal ldan lha mo.

Chöten GupaMchod rten dgu pa

Near the bank of the Langchen TsangpoGlang chen gtsang po, at the base of the escarpment containing the ruins and caves, there is a group of chötenmchod rten that local people indicate was already in a state of disrepair by the time of the Chinese Cultural Revolution. This site is called Chöten GupaMchod rten dgu pa after the number of shrines found here. Several long manima ṇi walls with stone plaques inscribed with Buddhist prayers are also found on the right bank of the Langchen TsangpoGlang chen gtsang po. Some of the highly eroded plaques of the manima ṇi mantra in lentsalan tsha and Wuchendbu can scripts could possibly date to the second diffusion of Buddhism in Tibet. Other plaques such as those with the name of Lozang DrakpaBlo bzang grags pa date to the Gelukpadge lugs pa occupation of KhyunglungKhyung lung. According to a local myth, when a boulder was broken during the construction of a manima ṇi wall, located in the gully between the formations composing the Khyungkhyung’s right wing and body, a huge black serpent came forth and slithered away to PurangSpu rang. It crossed the pass between the KhyunglungKhyung lung valley and Gya NyimaRgya nyi ma, and that is why it is called Purang KhyölSpu rang ’khyol (local variant of khyil’khyil; a twisting or winding motion).

Lower building group

The main group of lower ruins is found in the gully situated below the right wing of the Khyungkhyung. The constructional traits and plans of the buildings located here shows that they were built with wooden roofs. Walls consist of profusely applied mud-mortared random-rubble and are not of a high standard of workmanship, as is encountered in many Upper Tibet religious edifices constructed in later historic times. Some of the walls are still tinted with ochre, indicating that they had a religious function. These structures are arrayed on moderate slopes on each side of the gully, and cover an area of approximately 100 m by 20 m to 30 m. In some places the slopes have failed, engulfing ruined walls. In certain areas the walls of the gully contain strata with significant bone and charcoal remains. This is an indication of significant geomorphologic change to this area of YülméYul smad. It appears that landslides engulfed entire zones of habitation. There are around 50 caves in the escarpment flanking the east side of the gully (Khyungkhyung’s body) and 35 caves on the west side (part of the right wing of the Khyungkhyung). Many of these caves have masonry façades and smoke blackened ceilings, clear indications that they were once inhabited.

Nakchung PukNag chung phug

Below KhartséMkhar rtse is the cave of Nakchung PukNag chung phug, where the 8th century CE BönBon saint Drenpa NamkhaDran pa nam mkha’ meditated, or so believe the monks of GurgyamGur gyam. It is also reported that the lama Kyungtrül Namkha Jikmé DorjéKhyung sprul nam mkha’ ’jigs med rdo rje (died 1956) stayed here before founding GurgyamGur gyam, some 15 km up the Langchen TsangpoGlang chen gtsang po. KhyunglungKhyung lung elders report that he spent two or three years in Nakchung PukNag chung phug before going to KhunuKhu nu, in India. Nakchung PukNag chung phug is also known to local residents as Yungdrung KhyilwaG.yung drung ’khyil ba. It has three compartments whose walls and floors are beautifully finished in mud plaster. The walls are painted in black and red ochre and decorated with dots, scrolls and the gyanak chakrirgya nag lcags ri border design but little of these motifs has persisted. There are also faint traces of Buddhist frescos in one room of the cave. Recent BönpoBon po pilgrims have scrawled counterclockwise swastikas on the cave wall, as well as the inscription, “a oṃ hum gyer spungs dran pa mu la nye le yo [d]hum ’du,” attesting to the tenure of Drenpa NamkhaDran pa nam mkha’ in Nakchung PukNag chung phug. In a cave adjacent to Nakchung PukNag chung phug two commercial labels dating to the early 20th century written in both Hindi and English were stuck to the walls. The legible English writing on one of the labels reads: “Dharmaratna Kularatna, General Merchant, P. O. Gyantse, Tibet.”

KhyungKhyung’s body

It is about 160 m from the summit complex of KhartséMkhar rtse to the old Buddhist monastery, situated on the opposite or south end of the ridgeline that makes up the body of the Khyungkhyung. In total, there are around 150 caves on the body of the geographic Khyungkhyung. On the top and west flank of this north-south oriented ridgeline are many smaller building remains and caves, some of which have masonry fronts. The collapse of various sections of the slopes has partially buried structures in this sector as well, and some caves are no longer accessible. In one cave near the ridgeline, several Buddhist lamas are depicted in relatively late frescos of mediocre quality. In this cave there is also a Buddha figure with its face largely intact.

Buddhist Monastery

The ruined monastery represents but a small fraction of the Buddhist presence that was once found at KhyunglungKhyung lung as evidenced in the caves and ruins. It is reported that this Gelukpadge lugs pa sect religious institution was destroyed and all its scriptures burnt during the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Local villagers call this monastery Ganden LhatséDga’ ldan lha rtse. It is said to have been founded by one of three brothers belonging to a lineage called ChökuChos sku. The founder’s name is thought to be GönnangMgon snang (sp.?). In general, the ruins found below KhartséMkhar rtse were rather crudely constructed. However, there is one lower wall at the old KhyunglungKhyung lung monastery, which is of similar high quality as the south wall of the so-called KhartséMkhar rtse fortress. In what was a protector chapel (gönkhangmgon khang) of the monastery a band of skulls painted on one wall is still extant. Wooden door frames and other structural elements found in a few caves in the vicinity of the monastery suggest that they were more recently inhabited than most others at the site.

Khyunglung KhartséKhyung lung mkhar rtse

According to elderly natives of KhyunglungKhyung lung, Khyunglung KhartséKhyung lung mkhar rtse was the abode of a line of kings. There are no signs of heavy religious usage or religious monuments at Khyunglung KhartséKhyung lung mkhar rtse, indicating that it did not function as a monastery. It is more likely to represent a high social-status residence of a chieftain or lama. There is no evidence of defensive outworks as would normally be found if the facility had actually functioned as a military garrison. Local residents also report that at one time a long passageway led from the “fortress” to a secret water source. The site is said to be occupied by the protectress Ipi LhamoI phi lha mo (Grandmother Goddess), one of three regional sister deities closely related to Penden LhamoDpal ldan lha mo.

All that remains of the original access trail to Khyunglung KhartséKhyung lung mkhar rtse is a narrow, highly exposed ledge. The fairly large edifice was created as an integral facility, and was built in three tiers: upper/south, middle and lower/north. Generally aligned in the cardinal directions, it measures 23 m by 24 m (its upper end is somewhat narrower). All walls inside the complex and most exterior walls are made of light-colored adobe blocks (approximately 45 cm by 20 cm by 15 cm). Extant walls are 2 m to 4 m in height. Mud plaster still clings to interior walls and to a lesser extent, to exterior walls. On some outer surfaces red ochre tinting is discernable. Walls of this construction could only have supported a timber roof.

Khyunglung KhartséKhyung lung mkhar rtse is of historic origin (probably founded subsequent to the early historic period) rather than it being the Khyunglung Ngül KharKhyung lung dngul mkhar of Zhang ZhungZhang zhung fame. The most likely candidate for Khyunglung Ngül KharKhyung lung dngul mkhar is KhardongMkhar gdong (A-45), a now leveled stronghold near GurgyamGur gyam identified as such by Kyungtrül Namkha Jikmé DorjéKhyung sprul nam mkha’ ’jigs med rdo rje after discovering a stone statue of the BönBon saint Drenpa NamkhaDran pa nam mkha’ at this site.110 Covering an area of 20,000 m², KhardongMkhar gdong is situated at the highly strategic juncture of the broad alpine valleys of GarSgar and upper PurangSpu rang and the canyon badlands of GugéGu ge. Moreover, it is stunningly set above the confluence of four rivers and is in close proximity to ChunakChu nag (C-121), the largest burial grounds discovered to date in Upper Tibet.

A historic epoch origin for Khyunglung KhartséKhyung lung mkhar rtse is supported by the following factors:

  1. The entire complex is only around 800 m² in area. This is far too small for a capital facility, and is dwarfed by the major citadels of Upper Tibet.
  2. It is located on a subsidiary summit below an esplanade, not on a high, isolated summit like most archaic citadels.
  3. The site is in a deep-set isolated pocket of the Langchen TsangpoGlang chen gtsang po Valley. All major trade routes through the region circumvent this area for higher and more open terrain (such as the GarSgar valley and the Himalayan north slope tablelands). The non-strategic location of the facility does not seem in keeping with a major early political center. Furthermore, the siting of KhartséMkhar rtse does not even permit it to convincingly control traffic through KhyunglungKhyung lung, leaving the three agricultural pockets of the locale (upper: MurtiMur ti, central: TingmurTing mur, lower: ChubukChu sbug) potentially vulnerable to outside incursions.
  4. The edifice was constructed in a style typically found in historic era buildings with open floor plans, high elevation adobe-block walls and wooden rafters. Furthermore, the design of the wooden jambs and sills (ruzhiru bzhi) is of the type found in Buddhist monasteries and other buildings throughout Tibet dating to the historic epoch. It seems likely that this generic form of architecture developed after 1000 CE in Upper Tibet, as it is not encountered at archaic cultural sites.
KhartséMkhar rtse upper tier

The north/upper tier of the edifice contains two large rooms or buildings. The west room is adjacent to cave P10 (see below). The west room measures 7.8 m (north-south) by 6 m (east- west). On the north side of this room there is a recess in the formation partitioned by a wall into two main parts. This recess (3. 2 m wide by 2.2 m deep by 1.6 m in height) was probably walled off from the rest of the west room. The function of this nook is unknown. In the wall fragments around the mouth of this cavity, a piece of wood was used as a bonding structure between courses of stone. A 10 cm long iron spike protrudes from this piece of wood. Most of the north and east walls of the east room integrate the natural formation in them. The east room has largely collapsed and disappeared down the vertical slopes of the escarpment. Its approximate dimensions are 5 m by 5 m. In the rear of the east room there is cave P11 (3.7 m by 3.3 m by 2. 2 m). The damaged entrance (1 m by 60 cm) to this cave is in an adobe-block façade. Some brush is embedded in the wall above the entrance. On the southwest side of the cave there is a mud and stone hearth with a single burner, as well as a berm around its feeding hole to catch ashes. Such hearths are still regularly used in Tibet. This hearth having just a single burner suggests that it did not service many people. The ceiling of P11, like most other caves, is smoke blackened. In the northeast wall of this cave there are three niches. The central niche is mud plastered and its opening is formed by four adobe blocks, which were also plastered and then painted in red ochre. The east niche is also partially plastered.

KhartséMkhar rtse middle tier

The middle tier is the largest portion of KhartséMkhar rtse, occupying roughly 70% of its ground plan. On the west side of the middle tier, against the north wall, is cave P12. This cave has an oval plan and measures 2.5 m across. The damaged entrance to the cave is in the east, and its ceiling is about 1.5 m in height. Around the inner walls of P12 there are five rounded niches, the central two of which are situated on top of one another. There was also an anteroom east of the cave (5.6 m by 2 m). East of this anteroom there is an open-air walkway that runs west of the west room of the upper tier, and in between the east and west sections of the middle tier. This walkway then descends below KhartséMkhar rtse, skirting its south wall. Near the southeast corner of the facility it cuts through the formation, creating a tunnel (4 m by 1.2 m by 1.6 m). In the middle tier, east of the corridor, there are the remains of four small rooms laid out in a north-south row. East of this row of rooms there are two larger rooms extending to the exterior east wall of the facility. In the north of these two east rooms there are three rear caves: P13, P14 and P15. They lie directly below the upper tier east room. The smallest cave, P15, has an independent entrance. P13 is a square cave with several oblong and two large rounded niches. The entrance to P13 (1.5 m by 80 cm) is situated west of P15. P13 has a 1.8 m deep entrance that accesses a cave measuring 3.5 m by 3.5 m. The floor of P13 is heaped high with a vegetal substance that resembles chaff. Village elders state that this came from grain imported from India. The entrance to P14 is found inside P13. The south wall of P14 is composed of an adobe-block and stone façade wall.

The south room of the east middle tier has two windows in its south or exterior wall. These two rectangular windows were constructed in typical Tibetan fashion with decorative wooden lintels (khashingkha shing) and spacers (bapbab). These wooden elements are in an excellent state of preservation. Rubble has filled the south room to the level of the windows. In the 3 m high wall segment separating the east rooms of the middle tier from the row of four small rooms there is a large window (1.2 m by 60 cm). The hewn timber over this window is 1 m in length. On the west side of the middle tier, below P12, there are the foundations of three or four other rooms. Below them is what appears to have been a single small outbuilding. Under the revetment of this ruined structure there is a large timber.

KhartséMkhar rtse lower tier

The stonework in the south wall of KhartséMkhar rtse is among the most skillfully executed at Khyunglung YülméKhyung lung yul smad. The exterior south wall is a maximum of 8 m in height and much of it is still over 5 m high. The lower 4.5 m section of this wall is composed of random-work. Copious amounts of mud-mortar were used in the joints between flat blocks, which are primarily 30 cm to 70 cm in length. This reddish mortar has a high gravel content. At the base of the south wall there are two entrances that accessed the lower tier of KhartséMkhar rtse. The west entrance opens to an area that has completely collapsed. The lintel of the west entrance is comprised of four timbers, two hewn outer ones and two middle specimens in their natural, uncut form. These timbers are at least 1.5 m in length. The east entrance (1.2 m by 55 cm) has a lintel made up of six timbers, five of which were dressed. The east entrance also has a wooden jamb and sill. It accesses a small room (1.3 m by 2.6 m by 3 m). The ceiling is composed of timbers above which small rounds were used to create tight-knit panels. In the rear of this forward room an entrance (1 m by 60 cm) accesses a second room (2.7 m by 2.4 by 1.8 m) cut into the formation. The function of these two sequestered rooms is not known. In the interior south wall above the lower tier there is a socket-hole in which a floor joist of the middle tier was inserted. An identical socket-hole is found in a high elevation wall fragment in another part of the middle level as well. A single fragment of a round of wood, probably used for the roof, is still among the ruins.

KhartséMkhar rtse cave complex

Just north of the KhartséMkhar rtse edifice there is a complex of at least ten caves that were hewn into the conglomerate formation. Their regular walls and cut niches and bays indicate the creation of these caves through excavation. A 5.5 m long subterranean passageway divides the caves into two groups (P1 to P7 and P8 to P10). These caves have blackened ceilings, ostensibly from long years of occupation. The floors of most or all of these caves are finished in a mud- and clay-based coating.

Cave P1

(2.8 m by 2.9 m by 1.7 m)

This northern-most cave has an arched west-facing entranceway (1.8 m by 80 cm), and a regular square plan. The interior walls are mud plastered while the ceiling is not. Like most other inhabitable caves in the GugéGu ge region, P1 has various niches and recesses in the walls. The most notable example is found in the northeast wall. This 1.2 m wide, 70 cm deep bay starts 35 cm from the floor and extends to the ceiling. This recess was well finished with plaster and has a base of four graduated tiers.

Cave P2

(3.3 m by 3 m by 1.8 m)

Located immediately south of P1, this cave also has a west-facing arched entrance. In the east wall of the cave there is a recess with the remains of a wooden lintel. Just above it light-colored coarse hand-woven woolen fabric is embedded in the wall. This fabric appears to be part of the original construction of the cave, serving as a kind of lining.

Cave P3

(2.3 m 2.3 m)

Located immediately south of P2. The entrance is in the west, in an adobe-block façade. There is a wooden beam over the threshold. The lower half of the cave walls is mud plastered.

Cave P4

(5.3 m by 1.4 m)

This was a forward cave flanking the fronts of P1 and P2. Its current dimensions are highly reduced, as much of its breadth has eroded away. Virtually none of the ceiling remains.

Cave P5

(3 m by 3 m)

Located directly below P1 and P4, this cave has a square plan, and its entrance is 1.5 in height, 70 cm in width and 90 cm deep.

Caves P6 and P7

These two caves are situated below caves P1 to P5. Access to them is very difficult.

Caves P8, P9 and P10

These three west-facing caves form a line to the south of the 5.5 m long subterranean passageway. Shallow recesses were roughly hewn into this passageway. To the east of this row of three small caves there are the remains of what were probably two or three other caves.

KhartséMkhar rtse latrine

There is an elaborately built latrine in relatively good condition 3.5 m west of P6 and P7. It is 3 m high on the west, the side overlooking the valley below. The privy hole and the privy pit opening in the base are intact. Such latrines are not encountered at archaic residential sites.

KhyungKhyung’s left wing

There are about 50 caves located in this formation, particularly in a U-shaped offshoot. These caves face in the south, east and west directions. Only two of the caves (west-facing) in this sector exhibit freestanding anterooms. One south-facing cave has two chambers with three hearths. In the rear of this cave there is an altar or storage area that was plastered and painted red and yellow. In the upper-most group of 10 caves known as Metok LingMe tog gling (Flower Garden), I discovered a scrap of an entertainment page from the Daily Mail of 1930s or 1940s vintage. It must have been brought here by traders and by implication they may have found shelter in this cave. Two of the caves in this group have walls that were painted in red ochre, one of which also has white blotches applied to it.


[109] The most notable informants in KhyunglungKhyung lung included Mé Tsewang TendzinMes tshe dbang bstan ’dzin (horse year, 1930; often cited as the most knowledgeable surviving male in the village), Ipi DönselI phi don gsal (pig year, 1923), Ipi YangdzomI phi dbyangs ’dzoms (bird year, 1921), Ipi Tsering PeldrönI phi tshe ring dpal sgron (tiger year, 1926), and Sönam DargyéBsod nams dar rgyas (sheep year, 1943).
[110] Bellezza, Antiquities of Upper Tibet.

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.