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

Tara MardingRta ra dmar lding

Basic site data

  • Site name: Tara MardingRta ra dmar lding
  • English equivalent: Soaring Red Horse Corral
  • Site number: B-124
  • Site typology: I.2c
  • Elevation: 4650 m to 4720 m
  • Administrative location (township): ZhungméGzhung smad
  • Administrative location (county): ShentsaShan rtsa
  • Survey expedition: TUE and THE
  • Survey date: October 10, 2005 and April 30, 2006.
  • Contemporary usage: None.
  • Identifiable Buddhist constructions: Plaques inscribed with the manima ṇi mantra.
  • Maps: UTRS VIII, HAS D4
  • View Place Dictionary Entry
  • View Site Images

General site characteristics

The caves, springs and pasturage of the Pel ZimpukDpal gzims phug locale provide an excellent natural resource base, which has been exploited for a very long time. Located approximately 3 km north of Pel ZimpukDpal gzims phug monastery, residential structures are situated in a series of fissures and ledges at Tara MardingRta ra dmar lding. Ensconced in the limestone cliffs on either side of the Tara MardingRta ra dmar lding defile there are the remains of masonry façades, revetments and other types of walls belonging to the archaic cultural horizon. All walls are configured in a random-rubble, dry-fitted texture. These bluish limestone walls were, for the most part, heavily built (50 cm to 80 cm thick with stones up to 1 m in length). Such walled grottos are never associated with Buddhist emblems, at least as regards their primary occupation. Various swastikas painted in red ochre at Tara MardingRta ra dmar lding mark the archaic cultural presence at the site, in a period before the ZimpukGzims phug locale devolved to the Nyingmaparnying ma pa. It appears that the monuments of ZimpukGzims phug represent three distinctive phases in the cultural development of the region: rock shelters of the prehistoric epoch, early historic edifices in the cliffs and the Nyingmarnying ma retreats and temples of later historic times.

Oral tradition

According to senior monks at Pel Zimpuk GönpaDpal gzims phug dgon pa, Pel ZimpukDpal gzims phug is the site of ancient habitations.

Textual tradition

Recently a history and pilgrims’ guide to Pel ZimpukDpal gzims phug was written by its abbot rik dzin chö pelRig ‘dzin chos ‘phel of MayoMa g.yo (born in 1976). This work of 70 pages is entitled Pel Zimpuk Orgyen Chölinggi Jungwa Jöpa Kalzanggi GatönDpal gzims phug o rgyan chos gling gi byung ba brjod pa skal bzang gyi dga’ ston. It was scheduled to be published by Böjong Mimang Petrün KhangBod ljongs mi dmangs dpe skrun khang in 2006. Rindzin ChömpelRig 'dzin chos 'phel kindly let me inspect a proof copy of his work. Guru RinpochéGu ru rin po che is stated to have come to ZimpukGzims phug in 768 CE, two years after his time at SamyéBsam yas.140 It is said that Guru RinpochéGu ru rin po che stayed at ZimpukGzims phug for seven days, marking the beginning of the site’s Buddhist tenure (Rindzin ChömpelRig 'dzin chos 'phel, in personal communication). From that time until the actual monastery was founded in 1095 CE (a 327 year gap), it is thought that local drokpa’brog pa carried out Buddhist rites in the various caves. The founder of Pel ZimpukDpal gzims phug was Lodrö TayéBlo gros mtha’ yas who arrived at the site in 1095 CE (Year of the Wood Pig, in the second rapjungrab byung).141 For around 600 years there was no throne holder at the site.142 The first throne holder was Gyelwa Gargi WangchukRgyal ba gar gyi dbang phyug who arrived in the 17th century CE.143 Pel ZimpukDpal gzims phug was destroyed by the Jungarjun gar in 1718.144

The epigraphic and rock art evidence from the site paints a somewhat different picture than the above traditional Buddhist account. This archaeological evidence establishes that there was indeed an archaic cultural (early BönBon) presence at ZimpukGzims phug. No mention of this fact is made in Rindzin ChömpelRig ’dzin chos ’phel’s history. As is customary in Buddhist literature, this “dark period” in Tibetan cultural history is simply skipped over. The epigraphy and rock art indicates that those practicing non-Buddhist religious traditions were active at the site long after Guru RinpochéGu ru rin po che’s supposed visitation. In fact, encounters between the two contending religious groups are chronicled in the not always harmonious juxtaposition of their mantras and symbols. Paleographic evidence indicates that BönpoBon po remained at ZimpukGzims phug for a considerable length of time. The reference to the founding of Pel ZimpukDpal gzims phug monastery in 1095 CE probably heralds the definitive takeover of the site by the Buddhists. The painting of a large manima ṇi mantra exhibiting unusual paleographic qualities at Tara MardingRta ra dmar lding (see below) seems to corroborate the conversion to Buddhism in the same general timeframe as the founding of Pel ZimpukDpal gzims phug.

Site elements

Tara MardingRta ra dmar lding
West rock shelter

Deep in the Tara MardingRta ra dmar lding defile there is a large east-facing shelter under an overhang.145 This west rock shelter is hidden from view until one is well inside the gorge. The lofty west rock shelter (24 m wide, 24 m deep) has a defensible position, a common preoccupation with builders in ancient Upper Tibet. The blue limestone structures have turned red through geochemical action. The remains of a façade 17 m in length enclose the mouth of the overhang. On the southwest end much of this massively constructed front wall (80 cm thick) has disappeared. Other portions of it, however, reach 4 m in height on the exterior face and 1 m on the interior. Given its heavy construction and low interior height, this wall is likely to have been much taller originally. It encloses a fairly level area that extends for 14 m inside the rock shelter. This zone terminates at the faint remains of an inner wall. Beyond this point, the floor is very rocky and steeply sloping to the rear of the cave. In the rear of the cave, three bold red ochre counterclockwise swastikas were painted beyond arm’s length. In close proximity there are also fainter counterclockwise swastikas. Reinforcing its bastion status there are the remains of a small curtain-wall on the floor of the gorge below the west rock shelter. Wall fragments of a residential structure also cling to the north face of the defile.

South rock shelter

The south rock shelter is suspended above the floor of the gorge, investing it with a protective position. It is situated about 20 m lower in elevation than the west rock shelter. The south rock shelter has a high ceiling just like its counterpart. Only small remains of its 22 m long retaining wall have survived. On the east end a segment of this wall is 9 m in length; it reaches 2 m high on the exterior side while its interior is flush with the floor of the shelter. A well-built wall fragment 2 m long was built inside the south rock shelter at a distance of 5 m from the front wall. This internal feature probably had something to do with the residential function of the cave. Along the east flank of the south rock shelter there are wall fragments set deep inside a fissure in the cliff.

Mouth of the defile structures

Above the mouth of the defile on its north side there are the remains of a structure (4 m by 2.7 m) built between the cliff face and an outcrop. Walls of this small shelter reach 3 m in height and exhibit the masonry texture and degradation of the archaic cultural horizon. On the edge of the ledge running northeast from this structure there are the vestiges of footings (probably supported an outer defensive wall) that extend for 23 m. The overarching cliff partially shelters the ledge upon which these structures were built (much of this ledge is around 6 m wide). In the middle portion of the ledge, a small Buddhist retreat house was built against the cliff. The stonework is largely intact, mud mortared and covered in lime plaster. Just north of the ledge there is a fissure in the cliff with the remains of a wall (3 m long) enclosing much of it.

North cliff structures, inscriptions and pictographs

The ledge at the mouth of the defile is interconnected to another ledge to the north that directly overlooks Zimpuk TsoGzims phug mtsho. Rising about 50 m above the lake basin, this ledge is 42 m long and 3 m to 7 m wide. Running along the rim of this ledge there are wall footings, suggesting that it once supported more extensive structures. It is dominated by an old building that evidently had religious functions (18 m in length), whose walls are largely intact (they are 2 m to 2.5 m in height). This structure contains a single line of five rooms. Doors between the rooms have stone lintels, as does one of the two small windows in the exterior wall. Although the design (mud-mortared, high elevation walls, etc.), layout and relatively good condition of the structure indicate that it was established in a later period than the more primitive rock shelters, its cultural identity is not clear. This kind of information was not preserved in the oral tradition of Pel ZimpukDpal gzims phug.

Above the main entrance to the five-roomed edifice, an archaic style chötenmchod rten (with a small bumpabum pa, long banner, etc.) was painted on the cliff face in red ochre and white lime (?).146 Perhaps this is a sign that the structure was built and occupied by the BönpoBon po. Also, within the confines of this building there is a counterclockwise swastika in white, a design resembling the conjoined sun and moon (nyidanyi zla) and the word gönpargon pa written in red ochre. I take this inscription to be an archaic spelling for monastery (gönpadgon pa), identifying the structure as religious in nature. In close proximity to the five-roomed edifice there is a small wall with old plaques inscribed with the manima ṇi mantra, a clear indication of the Buddhist occupation of Tara MardingRta ra dmar lding.

South of the five-roomed edifice there is pictographic panel (1.1 m by 70 cm) that consists of a vertical row of three swastikas, the top two of which point in a clockwise direction, the bottom one in a counterclockwise direction. These swastikas are flanked by about 70 small blotches on each side. This white pigment composition appears to have been charged with symbolic meaning, the precise nature of which is open to debate. Perhaps each dot represents a member of the local community, made in a pre-12th century CE period when a BönBon-Buddhist syncretism possibly prevailed. The integration of swastikas oriented in both directions may hint at such an accommodation. In any event, the significant level of wear and signs of organic infiltrations indicate that this panel was painted centuries ago.

On the cliff face immediately north of the five-roomed edifice there are the remnants of manima ṇi mantras written on a white background. On another panel with a white background, the Riksum GönpoRigs gsum mgon po mantras were written. North of these panels there is a large red ochre manima ṇi mantra adeptly written on a white background. With its reverse letter ii and BönBon-style omoṃ,147 this mantra can probably be dated to the pre-12th century CE cultural milieu. Above this unusual manima ṇi mantra there is a faded red ochre counterclockwise swastika. In close proximity the vajra mantra, lamabla ma and gashwa rimumga shwa ri mum (something to do with a white-headed mountain deer?) were inscribed in red ochre. Below the unusual manima ṇi mantra there are the traces of a well-executed counterclockwise swastika (50 cm high) drawn in an off-white pigment. The same pigment was used to obscure nearly all of it. This appears to be graphic evidence of a BönBon-Buddhist rivalry symbolically played out on the rock faces of ZimpukGzims phug. The propinquity of BönBon and Buddhist symbols and inscriptions at the site seems to indicate a not always easy co-habitation involving the practitioners of archaic religious traditions and Buddhism. This convergence must have occurred during the time in which the religious orientation of this important economic site was being decided once and for all. In the proximity of the inscriptions there are the remains of an archaic style chötenmchod rten or other type of shrine red ochre pictograph. Its total height is 48 cm but only the top 30 cm are clearly visible. The clear portion consists of three graduated tiers surmounted by a short shaft and a crowning spherical structure. The bottom portion of the pictograph appears to consist of a large square base.

Rock shelter south of the defile

There are ancient wall remains south of the Tamar DingRta dmar lding defile (31° 24.07΄ N. lat. / 88° 42.91΄ E. long. / 4680 m). The degraded condition of these walls and their highly inaccessible location are signature features of an archaic cultural occupation. The vestiges of a landing and stairs are found in a fissure below a cave.

Lower sector ruins

At the base of the defile, flanking the south side of the gully containing the seasonal watercourse, there are two heavily-built foundation walls, each around 21 m in length. This site is called Lhera LhomaLhas ra lho ma. Built upon a bench, these walls appear to have constituted the west and north sides of a large building. These adeptly constructed footings are around 90 cm thick, up to 1 m in height and contain stones a maximum of 80 cm in length. The walls of Lhera LhomaLhas ra lho ma have been incorporated into a corral, built most probably with stones taken from the old structure. The gully has eroded right to the north foundation wall in spots. Above these walls there are the highly eroded square bases (3 m by 3m) of what appear to have been chötenmchod rten or some other type of shrine. Although they have fragments of old inscribed plaques on them, their architectonic makeup is uncertain. On the opposite side of the gully there are also the ruined bases of unidentified ceremonial structures (24.14΄ / 43.06΄ / 4590 m). This location is known as Lhera jangmaLhas ra byang ma. According to the local oral tradition, some of the ruins in the vicinity of Tara MardingRta ra dmar lding are thought to be those of a nunnery destroyed by the Jungarjun gar, but their precise whereabouts are not clear.

Chölung Orgyen Samten LingChos lung o rgyan bsam gtan gling

To the south of Tamar DingRta dmar lding there is another gorge called Chölung Orgyen Samten LingChos lung o rgyan bsam gtan gling (ChölungChos lung). Its name reflects Guru RinpochéGu ru rin po che’s alleged stay at Pel ZimpukDpal gzims phug. High up in this waterless defile there is a lone cave with a heavy façade wall (24.01΄ / 42.35΄ / 4700 m). This cave (7.5 m by 4 m) has an easterly aspect. The 3.8 m long façade consists of a masonry front and two walls that outflank the entrance. The seams in this masonry structure contain copious amounts of a clay-based cement. This façade seems to have been tinted red (in conformance with religious architecture) but most of the color has faded away. Below the façade there is a stairway 5.5 m in height that is embedded in a cleft in the formation (this stairway may have been both a prestige symbol and a defensive feature). The intact entranceway (1.2 m by 50 cm) punctuates the middle of the facade (maximum height 2.4 m). The high, hidden, out of the way location of this nameless ChölungChos lung cave are situational features connected to the archaic cultural horizon. Its highly remote location and perhaps demographic factors has spared it from Buddhist cultural modification.

There are a number of BönBon inscriptions and pictographs inside the ChölungChos lung cave. A medium red ochre pigment was favored for use in this cave, as it was in all the Pel ZimpukDpal gzims phug environs. Near the mouth of the cave there is a counterclockwise swastika (23 cm high) and the Wuchendbu can letter a (28 cm high). In a recess in the south wall of the cave, not far from its mouth, a well-drawn reverse swastika was placed inside a square frame consisting of two parallel lines (43 cm by 55 cm). Adjacent to this framed swastika there is a Wuchendbu can letter a also contained within a frame (60 cm by 60 cm). Inside the parallel lines of this frame there is a band of interconnected triangles. Adjacent to these framed symbols, further inside the cave, there are two counterclockwise swastikas and the Wuchendbu can letter a arrayed in a vertical row. Adjacent to this inscription, deeper in the cave, a om huma oṃ hum was written (the humhum is located below the omoṃ). Below this latter BönBon inscription are two more counterclockwise swastikas. A Wuchendbu can letter a and another counterclockwise swastika are inferior to them. Also on the south wall, deeper in the ChölungChos lung cave there is an obscured a om huma oṃ hum.

Caves north of Chölungchos lung

North of the Chölungchos lung gorge, at the base of the escarpment overlooking the Zimpuk Tsogzims phug mtsho basin, there is a 3.5 m-deep cave with a highly eroded and impacted façade (2 m long, 1 m high) around it (23.94΄ / 42.56΄ / 4610 m). Farther north on a ledge that runs along the base of the escarpment (below this ledge steep slopes give way to the Zimpuk TsoGzims phug mtsho basin), there is another modified cave (6 m by 4.7 m) called ApukA phug (23.99΄ / 42.71΄ / 4620 m). The remains of a 4 m high stairway embedded in a cleft in the formation lead up to the mouth of ApukA phug. This cave has a substantial façade (2.5 m in length) and walls set at a 90° angle that border the entranceway (1.8 m by 80 cm). The stone lintel over the entryway is intact. An a has been engraved on the rear of the south wall, lending its name to the cave. Between ApukA phug and the next cave to the south there are said to be the handprint and footprint of Ling GesarGling ge sar, as well as the prints of his horse and dog. North of ApukA phug, at the foot of the escarpment, there are six ruined Tsatsatshwa tshwa receptacles. On the cliff face above these structures, five red ochre counterclockwise swastikas and five clockwise swastikas were drawn in different places. Some of these swastikas are heavily obscured. These pictographs mark cultural encounters between the practitioners of archaic religious traditions and the Buddhists. This tsa tsa khangtshwa tshwa khang may have been built here to efface the archaic territorial imprint.


[140] Rindzin ChömpelRig 'dzin chos 'phel, Pel Zimpuk Orgyen ChölingDpal gzims phug o rgyan chos gling, 12, 13.
[141] Rindzin ChömpelRig 'dzin chos 'phel, Pel Zimpuk Orgyen ChölingDpal gzims phug o rgyan chos gling, 16.
[142] Rindzin ChömpelRig 'dzin chos 'phel, Pel Zimpuk Orgyen ChölingDpal gzims phug o rgyan chos gling, 16.
[143] Rindzin ChömpelRig 'dzin chos 'phel, Pel Zimpuk Orgyen ChölingDpal gzims phug o rgyan chos gling, 21-23.
[144] The current throne holder of Pel ZimpukDpal gzims phug is Künzang Namdröl Tupten Lungtok TendzinKun bzang rnam grol thub bstan lung rtogs bstan ’dzin, the ninth in the line of Pel ZimpukDpal gzims phug spiritual preceptors. He resides in a monastery near ZhikatséGzhis ka rtse called Pema LhundingPad ma lhun lding.
[145] The overhanging rock faces of the defile precluded the use of GPS.
[146] According to the great Tibetan intellectual Gendün ChömpelDge ’dun chos ’phel (1903-1951), the Tibetan stepped chötenmchod rten with a pair of yak horns on top between which khargongmkhar gong (a soft white stone) was placed is connected to the mukhardmu mkhar (receptacle for mudmu deities) of BönBon. The author notes that by looking at the more than 100,000 ruined and intact chötenmchod rten in India, we can know if the Tibetan chötenmchod rten of customary proportions is among their design, it is not. The four well-known types of chötenmchod rten in India have specifically attributed designs: 1) like a bubble, 2) head ornament, 3) bell, and 4) pile of grain. Gendün ChömpelDge 'dun chos 'phel also observes that in India Tormagtor ma (sacrifical cake) offerings of grain, bread, etc. were made, not the high-peaked Tormagtor ma designs of various ancient Tibetan rituals. The Tibetan ancestors preferred hats and Tormagtor ma in the shapes of mountains. They liked various lhatenlha rten (tabernacles) in the shape of very sharp mountain peaks. The author states his belief that these were part of Swastika BönBon practices. See Gndün ChömpelDge ‘dun chos ‘phel, Gendün Chömpelgi Sungtsom: Gyelkham Rikpé Korwé Tamgyü Sergi TangmaDge ’dun chos ’phel gyi gsung rtsom. rgyal khams rig pas bskor ba’i gtam rgyud gser gyi thang ma vol. 1 (Lha sa: Böjong Böyik Penying PetrünkhangBod ljongs bod yig dpe rnying dpe skrun khang, 1994), 63, 64.
[147] This type of omoṃ has five distinct elements. From top to bottom they are: lekorklad kor (the mama or nganga), datsézla tshes, narosna ro, aa, and a chunga chung.

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.