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

SemodoSe mo do South

Basic site data

  • Site name: SemodoSe mo do South
  • Alternative site name: SinmodoSrin mo do South
  • English equivalent: Island of the Srin mo
  • Alternative site name 2: NangdoNang do South
  • English equivalent: Inner Island
  • Site number: B-126
  • Site typology: I.2c
  • Elevation: 4730 m
  • Administrative location (township): PochéSpo che
  • Administrative location (county): PelgönDpal mgon
  • Survey expedition: TILE
  • Survey date: February 12–14, 2006.
  • Contemporary usage: Occasional use of site by religious practitioners and shepherds.
  • Identifiable Buddhist constructions: A small wall with inscribed plaques, Buddhist mantras carved on the formation, and prayers and mantras written in red ochre.
  • Maps: UTRS IX, HAS D5
  • View Place Dictionary Entry
  • View Site Images

General site characteristics

The various caves and man-made structures of SemodoSe mo do South are located at the foot of the limestone escarpment forming the rocky backbone of a 3.5 km long island, which is known as SemodoSe mo do/SinmodoSrin mo do/NangdoNang do. The name NangdoNang do (Inner Island) reflects the privileged geomantic and strategic position of this island. Clearly, the zenith of material cultural development at SemodoSe mo do was reached in the archaic cultural horizon. In the last millennium only individuals have lived here, those devoted to religious practice and the occasional pilgrim or herder. SemodoSe mo do is very similar in size and aspect to Trashi DochungBkra shis do chung (J-1). With the possible exception of Trashi DoBkra shis do (J-1, J-2), SemodoSe mo do gave rise to the largest archaic cultural center at NamtsoGnam mtsho (4720 m).148 Cave hermitages associated with famous Buddhist masters (8th to 13th century CE) sprung up on the much more extensive remains of an earlier phase of occupation. The archaic cultural heritage of SemodoSe mo do is well chronicled in a chain of ruined residential complexes that dot its shores (Phase I occupation). There were no less than 20 Phase I residential loci, ranging in size from one room to clusters of multi-roomed buildings. The extent of these Phase I ruins gives the impression that as many as several hundred people may have once resided on SemodoSe mo do. This thriving island center consisted of well-built habitations, each of which was constructed around a cave or cleft in the base of the escarpment. These natural rock shelters appear to have constituted the inner sancta of the Phase I residential loci.

The remains of what appear to have been large, robustly built buildings indicate that Phase I SemodoSe mo do was a powerful outpost of Upper Tibetan civilization. This cultural nucleus could only have been established with economic infusions from the mainland (currently, the island grasses could potentially support a herd of around 40 sheep and goats). A sequestered island bastion required adequate food reserves, implements, clothing, etc. that could only come from onshore. It is likely that only the social elite of the region could command and centralize such resources. This is corroborated by the size and quality of the Phase I archaic architectural remains; nowhere else in the gnam mtsho basin is there evidence for such a developed archaic residential hub. It seems likely, therefore, that insular se mo do was once the political and social nexus of the region. This is where the socially privileged chose to live, physically removed from the grazing lands, pastoral economy and manual labor on which their well-being was based. Being surrounded by the deep and turbulent waters of gnam mtsho on all sides (landfall is a minimum of 4 km away), se mo do was well insulated from unwanted intrusions and invasion. The island is usually accessed in the winter months when gnam mtsho is frozen. Wintertime passage to SemodoSe mo do is relatively secure and can facilitate the movement of large amounts of supplies.149

Oral tradition

According to cultural luminaries of the region, SemodoSe mo do was the most exclusive of Buddhist meditation centers at NamtsoGnam mtsho. Some of the lore concerning the island is recorded in texts. Probably the most knowledgeable person regarding the oral tradition of SemodoSe mo do is a ngakpasngags pa named A TopA thob, who resides at Trashi DochungBkra shis do chung. He mostly learned about SemodoSe mo do from the late Lama ChödakBla ma chos bdag, a monk at GurchungGur chung monastery. They did not, however, visit the island together.

Textual tradition

The fact that Buddhist practitioners reoccupied an archaic cultural center at SemodoSe mo do is largely ignored in the Tibetan historical and biographical texts. The Buddhist historical tradition begins with personalities such as Guru RinpochéGu ru rin po che (8th century CE), Pelchen Ga LotsawaDpal chen rgwa lo tsa ba (11th century CE), Gyelwa LorepaRgyal ba lo ras pa (died 1251 CE), MilarepaMi la ras pa (1040-1143 CE), Dopa Darma SherapDo pa dar ma shes rab (born 1228 CE), and RechungpaRas chung pa (1083-1161 CE), all of whom are supposed to have visited SemodoSe mo do.150 These masters have caves dedicated to them in the oral and textual traditions of SemodoSe mo do. Guru RinpochéGu ru rin po che is documented as subjugating the god Ludü DorjéKlu bdud rdo je (Ludü TanglhaKlu bdud thang lha) at SinmodoSrin mo do. The taming of the great mountain god Nyenchen TanglhaGnyan chen thang lha on the island reflects its historical and cultural importance. It is also implicit recognition that an earlier religious order existed on SemodoSe mo do. Aware of the island’s historical significance, Buddhist masters of the tenpa chidarbstan pa phyi dar developed a fascination with SemodoSe mo do and strove to bring it fully into the ambit of their religion. This is graphically illustrated in the red ochre inscriptions found in various caves. Mostly composed of mantras, these writings attempt to symbolically establish Buddhist control over the island. Other inscriptions were written by the BönpoBon po, which tried to achieve the same ends for their religion. The BönBon inscriptions were made from around 1000 CE (possibly even in the early historic period) to perhaps as late as circa 1250 CE, when the last BönpoBon po along the shores of NamtsoGnam mtsho were converted to Buddhism.151 Some BönBon inscriptions and motifs were deliberately erased. Curiously, more of an effort was made to efface or tamper with BönBon inscriptions at SemodoSe mo do than at Trashi DoBkra shis do.

A period of heightened social tensions between conservative native practitioners of BönBon religious traditions and crusading Buddhists coming from other parts of Tibet can well be imagined. This conflict is liable to have had major political overtones with various factions joining each of the religious camps. Any such struggles at SemodoSe mo do before circa 1000 CE are likely to have involved cults adhering to archaic traditions, while those after this time may have involved Lamaist practitioners fighting for ecclesiastic dominance. Be that as it may, Buddhist doctrinal and ecclesiastic victory spelled the end to an earlier era, and the ancient cultural glories of places like SemodoSe mo do were forgotten. For one thing, Buddhist practitioners never saw it necessary in their writings to acknowledge the borrowing of building materials from the archaic complexes for the construction of their much more modestly-sized retreats. Neither does the quasi-historical literature of the BönpoBon po do justice to the ancient cultural and historical significance of SemodoSe mo do.

An oblique reference to BönpoBon po personages (albeit they had converted to Buddhism) at SemodoSe mo do is found in Taklung TsetrülStag lung rtse sprul’s neshégnas bshad where it claims that Guru RinpochéGu ru rin po che gave tantric initiations to Drenpa NamkhaDran pa nam mkha’ and Khyeuchung KhadingKhye’u chung mkha’ lding at this location.152 In BönBon texts the eighth century CE adept Tonggyung TuchenStong rgyung mthu chen is closely associated with NamtsoGnam mtsho. He is commonly portrayed as an ascetic living a solitary existence, not one involved in vibrant social intercourse. The text rik dzin rik pé tuk gyüRig ’dzin rig pa’i thugs rgyud records his death on the island of the bellicose sinposrin po (sinpo drukpé lingsrin po ’khrugs pa’i gling) in the west, a reference to SemodoSe mo do.153 The BönBon magyüma rgyud (Mother Tantra) tradition hints at the elite character of the island, for it is the home of the central figure of the quincunx of luklu-faced goddesses.154 This identification in the magyüma rgyud tradition shows that the island was the divine heart of NamtsoGnam mtsho and a main focus of religious rites.

Site Elements

Residential complex

Every Phase I residential structure at SemodoSe mo do appears to have been razed as only fragmentary walls and footings remain. If left only to natural decay, more extensive portions of these stout structures should have endured. An architectural recreation occurred at SemodoSe mo do, reflecting major cultural, political and economic changes buffeting Upper Tibet. As no ground plans are fully extant, it is not clear what the original configurations of the massive wall traces were. It could not be determined if they supported permanent roofs or if some merely enclosed open courtyards and patios. It appears that stones from ruined walls were restacked, adding to the difficulty of ascertaining the architectural identity of Phase I structures. It is certainly possible, given the thickness and quality of the footings, that these once underpinned all-stone corbelled edifices. Locally available scrub juniper may also have been employed in the construction of roofs. In either case, individual rooms would have been small in size.

Phase I structures include façades built around the mouth of caves and overhangs, and elevated masonry footings extending 5 m to 14 m out from the base of the escarpment. These footings supported one to three vertical tiers of structures. The forward or lakeside edge of the foundations is commonly raised 1 m or more above ground level. Freestanding wall fragments (seldom more than 1 m in height) are limited to outer walls and partition walls subdividing each structure into two to four parts. The well-built random-rubble walls are 60 cm to 90 cm in thickness. Variable-length (up to 1 m) uncut pieces of naturally occurring blue limestone were used in construction. There is very little evidence for the use of adhesive materials. The robustly-built walls of the archaic constructions contrast with the much more lightly and crudely built façades of the Lamaist retreats. These constitute the Phase II architecture of the island. Often, ma Ni mantras are carved in the formation surrounding the Phase II loci. No attempt was made by the Lamaists to redevelop the Phase I structures save for the restacking of stones. The Lamaist façades are in a far better physical state than their archaic counterparts, an important indication of relative age.

There are also a number of rectangular ceremonial structures around the island erected on the lakeshore benches that parallel the escarpments. These appear to be archaic cultural structures, which in some cases, consisted of at least two graduated tiers. No attempt seems to have been made to rebuild them, but they are likely to have undergone a Buddhist reconsecration process. Their numbers underscore the ritual importance of SemodoSe mo do.

Probably, from no later than 1000 CE, the Lamaists (be they Buddhists or BönpoBon po) established a mere shadow of the earlier architectural presence on SemodoSe mo do. The sum total of their building ventures are a few small shrines and the façades around their meditation caves (Phase II monuments). The older ruins provided windbreaks and the walls of the retreat caves kept out the fierce elements, providing the Lamaist inmates with some of the most secure housing anywhere at gnam mtsho. I envision two historical scenarios in which the Phase I infrastructure of SemodoSe mo do was either destroyed or fell into disuse: 1) during the annexation of gnam mtsho by the PugyelSpu rgyal emperors in circa seventh century CE punitive raids, 2) during internecine religious conflicts between 800 and 1000 CE. While these scenarios are highly speculative the end result was the same, the dismemberment of the archaic ritual and political nerve center of SemodoSe mo do. As for the establishment of the archaic insular center, a prehistoric timeframe is suggested by the geomantic perfection of the site, the intensity of occupation and the inherent defensibility of the island (almost always a decisive factor at archaic cultural sites in Upper Tibet).

Easternmost cave

The first cave on the south side of SemodoSe mo do (beginning from the east side of the escarpment) is long and narrow (6 m by 2 m). It is deeply set into a cliff. Like a number of other caves at SemodoSe mo do, this one is not mentioned in Taklung TsetrülStag lung rtse sprul’s neshégnas bshad. The only anthropomorphic modification to the cave is a small panel (50 cm by 18 cm) of red ochre pictographs on the rear wall. In addition to several non-descript pigment applications, there are two cruciform figures, one of which resembles a Dorjé GyadramRdo rje rgya gram (9 cm by 9 cm). The other specimen is cruder and smaller (5 cm by 5 cm). Painted in a deep red ochre pigment and highly worn, these two figures appear to date to the prehistoric epoch or early historic period. Unlike Trashi DoBkra shis do or ChedoLce do (J-7), there is very little representational rock art at SemodoSe mo do. The reasons for this absence are unclear.

LukhangKlu khang

Situated 37 m west of the first unnamed cave is the lukhangKlu khang (30° 49.94΄ N. lat. / 90° 23.55΄ E. long.). This is the prime residence of the BönBon luklu-faced aspect of the NamtsoGnam mtsho goddess (Namtso Chukmo ChéGnam mtsho phyug mo che). The lukhangKlu khang consists of four caves. The most easterly pair of caves is the Lukhang ChéKlu khang che, which is barricaded by massive walls. These walls cover an area of 8 m by 6 m, and are up to 1.4 m thick and 2.4 m high. Their original alignments are uncertain due to the movement of stones and the apparent rebuilding of certain wall sections. These walls may have been part of outlying buildings built at two different elevations. The Lukhang ChéKlu khang che proper (4 m by 4 m) has a masonry façade of Lamaist construction. The wooden lintel over the entranceway (1.7 m by 70 cm) is intact. The inner cave (4.8 m by 1.4 m) at Lukhang ChéKlu khang che has an adobe and stone altar in the rear. On the left/east wall of this cave there is a red ochre inscription consisting of a vertically arrayed counterclockwise swastika and the Wuchendbu can letters mama and humhum. On the right wall there is a counterclockwise swastika with the Wuchendbu can letter a below it. Next to these symbols is an actual handprint in red ochre. These boldly painted figures are of relatively recent origin (they show little sign of wear and were drawn over mineral accretions). They represent a symbolic reoccupation of SemodoSe mo do by the BönpoBon po (probably hailing from their enclave in PochéSpo che).

The adjacent Lukhang ChungKlu khang chung appears to have had two outlying buildings (5.3 m by 6.8 m) set one in front of the other. The main Lukhang ChungKlu khang chung cave (2.6 m by 3.1 m) has a façade with stone shelving on its inner side. On the left and rear wall of the cave are the following inscriptions and symbols: four counterclockwise swastikas, Bön pukbon phug (BönBon cave), and a counterclockwise swastika with a and mama written vertically below it. On the right wall there are two counterclockwise swastikas. The physical condition of these swastikas and letters shows that they are not of great age. On the rear wall of the east anteroom appended to the Lukhang ChungKlu khang chung there are the remains of at least two old Wuchendbu can inscriptions (four lines and six lines) in red ochre. They are no longer legible.

Adjacent to the Lukhang ChungKlu khang chung is an enclosure (7 m by 9 m) bounded by a rudimentary wall. Next to it is another enclosure (7.5 m by 6.5 m) enveloping two hollows in the escarpment. In one of these hollows the mantra Karmapa Khyennokarma pa mkhyen no was carved in the formation many times. There is also a neatly written red ochre Wuchendbu can inscription of many lines in this hollow comprised of Buddhist prayers and mantras. This partly damaged inscription is of significant age. A short distance west there is a cleft in the formation shut in on two sides by walls (up to 2 m in height, interior dimensions: 2.5 m by 2.3 m). These retreat house walls are of the crude mud-mortar type that typifies Phase II construction at SemodoSe mo do. Extending for 8 m in front of the Lamaist shelter are highly fragmentary footings of the archaic cultural horizon. This shelter and appended ruins form the west end of the lukhangKlu khang complex.

Unnamed east sector dwellings

Twenty-seven meters west of the lukhangKlu khang complex there is a walled area (49.93΄ / 23.50΄). The walls (50 cm to 1.2 m high, 60 cm to 70 m thick) forming this Phase I cliff dwelling (11.2 m by approximately 4 m) are heavily eroded and impacted. There is no evidence for the Buddhist reoccupation of this habitation. There is a cave (5 m by 1.6 m) on the west side of the enveloping outer walls. The remains of a façade connect it to the perimeter wall. In the vicinity there is a natural niche in the escarpment in which Om A Humoṃ a hum was written vertically. This Buddhist inscription is of significant age. A Phase I structure is found 10 m west of this inscription (49.93΄ / 23.51΄). It consists of a narrow cave (7.8 m deep) in the formation, which is enclosed by a massively-built wall (4 m long, up to 1.5 m thick, around 1.3 m high). On the right wall of this cave there are 21 lines of Buddhist prayers and mantras written in red ochre, marking the Buddhist control of the site centuries ago.

Another cave (3.7 m by 4 m) is partly filled with rubble (49.90΄ / 23.45΄). A small fragment of its façade has survived. Extending 4.7 m from the mouth of this cave and elevated about 1 m above the rocky bench that parallels the escarpment there is an area of fragmentary footings. Spanning 5 m along the foot of the escarpment, these Phase I ruins appear to be the remains of outlying rooms. Fourteen meters farther west, other footings belonging to the archaic cultural horizon stretch along the base of the escarpment for 12 m (49.89΄ / 23.43΄). These Phase I structural traces extend out towards the lake for 3 m.

Rechungpa PukRas chung pa phug

Farther along the base of the escarpment there is a zone (11 m by 7 m) of fragmentary walls (up to 90 cm thick) (49.87΄ / 23.41΄). The forward wall is elevated about 1 m above the bench. These walls appear to be the remains of two Phase I habitations (east and west). On the west end of this complex there is a mud-mortared façade, enclosing an area (2.8 m by 3 m) underneath an overhang. On a ledge on the east side of the complex there is a small, lightly built structure (interior dimensions: 1.5 m by 1.3 m maximum, wall thickness: around 30 cm). There is a small opening in the forward wall of this structure and an entrance on its east side (70 cm by 50 cm) with a stone lintel in place. This 2 m-tall ceremonial structure is open at the top but the overhanging cliff face covers nearly all of it. According to the oral tradition, this Phase II “cave” is where the Buddhist saint RechungpaRas chung pa obtained a rainbow body (jalü ku’Ja’ lus sku). The rudimentary construction and degree of preservation of these Lamaist structures strongly contrast with the older walls along the bench.

Yeshé TsogyelYe shes mtsho rgyal phug

Thirteen meters to the west of the leveled complex in the proximity of Rechungpa PukRas chung pa phug, on the west side of a rockslide, there is another Phase I group of ruins at the foot of the escarpment (49.88΄ / 23.39΄). It consists of highly disjointed footings and walls (7.5 m by 5 m) on sloping and pitted ground. The rock slide may have engulfed other structures on the east side of this complex. The maximum height of the forward wall is 2 m, 80 cm of which is freestanding. In the escarpment behind these structures there is an underground cave (5 m by 4 m) called Yeshé TsogyelYe shes mtsho rgyal phug. There are heavy walls on each side of the 1.1 m wide entrance. A stairway must have once led 1.5 m down to the cave floor. In the rear of the cave there is a masonry platform (3 m by 1 m by 40 cm). Like other caves used by Buddhists at SemodoSe mo do, the ceiling of Yeshé TsogyelYe shes mtsho rgyal phug has been blackened by fires.

Central shrine

A rectangular shrine is situated on the level bench below the escarpment, 24 southwest of Yeshé TsogyelYe shes mtsho rgyal phug (49.86΄ / 23.84΄). Its random-rubble walls are aligned in the cardinal directions. These walls appear to have been mud mortared. This shrine measures 4.3 m (north-south) by 1.9 m (north wall) to 2.5 m (south wall), and is divided into two sections (north and south). The 2 m high, 35 cm thick walls extend up to 70 cm above the main body of the structure. There is an opening (60 cm wide) in the south compartment of the structure. On the west side there is a narrow buttress shoring up the shrine. A piece of unglazed redware was recovered from one of the compartments. This tenkharrten mkhar-like shrine is enclosed inside a walled area (7.3 m by 8 m). Most of this wall (1 m to 1.2 m in height) now appears very rough, but on the east side there is still a neatly-built, double-coursed mud-mortared segment. This shrine is situated in the middle or “chest” (drang’brang) of the south side of the SemodoSe mo do, one of its most powerful geomantic positions. Perhaps it was used for the propitiation of the divine dyad Nyenchen TanglhaGnyan chen thang lha and NamtsoGnam mtsho.

Freestanding domicile

Farther to the west on the bench, in close proximity to the foot of the escarpment, there are the remains of a domicile (8.3 m by 7.2 m) (49.87΄ / 23.28΄). It has been largely reduced to crumbling footings and walls, but on the west side there is a substantial wall fragment (1.8 m high on the exterior and 1.4 m high on the interior). These walls are of a random-work fabric and contain variable-sized uncut pieces of limestone (up to 70 cm long). There is no sign of any mortar having been used. This domicile contained two or three east-west rows of rooms. There is a small niche at ground level in a west row room (interior dimensions: 3.2 m by 1.7 m). The outer west wall (around 80 cm thick) of the ruin has rounded corners, which might indicate that this structure was of an all-stone composition. The small interior dimensions of the west row of rooms is also in keeping with dokhangrdo khang construction, however, there are no buttresses or wall indentations.

At the base of the escarpment there are minor Phase I structural remains with an eastern aspect (49.86΄ / 23.23΄). A single wall (2.7 m long, 40 cm to 1.5 m high) appears to have comprised the corner of another rock shelter, which measured approximately 7 m by 2.4 m.

Galo PukGwa lo phug

Galo PukGwa lo phug is a southwest facing Phase II shelter whose walls were built around an overhang in the escarpment (49.85΄ / 23.19΄). There is a red-tinted adobe casement around part of the entrance. The façade (around 70 cm thick) has a maximum exterior height of 90 cm and a maximum interior height of 1.8 m, as the inner space (6 m by 6 m) is set well below ground level. Three stone steps lead down to the rock shelter. It contains a total of five rooms: kitchen, two storerooms, living room and rear meditation room. In the meditation room (gomkhangsgom khang) an iron ring was embedded in the ceiling. It is reputed that Galo RinpochéGwa lo rin po che hung his drum from this ring. There is also a stone and adobe multi-tiered altar in the meditation room. This altar is noted in Taklung TsetrülStag lung rtse sprul’s guide to NamtsoGnam mtsho.155

In the outer wall of the kitchen of Galo PukGwa lo phug, an in situ juniper rafter provided adequate material for radiocarbon analysis.156 This sample suggests that the façade of Galo PukGwa lo phug was built prior to 1000 CE. The historical complexion of NamtsoGnam mtsho, as best as we know it, suggests that the Buddhist retreats of SemodoSe mo do with their typical rudimentary construction began to be founded around 1000 CE with the tenpa chidarbstan pa phyi dar. Juniper is a very durable wood and it may be that the tree from which the rafter was made was cut down some years before it was used to build the Galo PukGwa lo phug façade. If we consider that this piece of wood died circa 780 to 900 CE, it would have been between 150 and 300 years old if indeed it was Galo RinpochéGwa lo rin po che who built the façade. Perhaps he salvaged it from another structure in order to make his cozy rock shelter. On the other hand, results from the assayed piece of wood open the possibility that the façade of Galo PukGwa lo phug was built as early as the last decades of the imperial period or during its unsettled aftermath. If so, it certainly was not Galo RinpochéGwa lo rin po che who constructed the façade but one of his predecessors. This historical scenario places the Phase II retreat cave infrastructure of SemodoSe mo do in a time in which either the BönpoBon po or Buddhists could have been responsible for its establishment. Such a periodization suggests that the demise of the Phase I infrastructure occurred no later than the aftermath of the imperial period. Nevertheless, given the relative physical condition of the Phase I and Phase II structures, a much earlier date for the destruction of the older remains must also be entertained.

Adjacent to Galo PukGwa lo phug there is a cubbyhole in the formation barricaded by massive walls (around 80 cm thick) that appear to have once been part of an anteroom. Just below this structure there is a roughly built enclosure (13 m by 8 m) that did not give rise to any type of high elevation superstructure. A boulder 5 m in length was integrated into the masonry wall of this enclosure. On the overhanging side of the boulder facing NamtsoGnam mtsho, a red ochre patrapa tra (36 cm long) was drawn. It is of the style also found at Lhakhang MarchakLha khang dmar chag (J-8) and Trashi DochenBkra shis do chen (J-2), and was almost certainly made by a BönpoBon po. A seven-syllable manima ṇi mantra was carved over it, probably to affirm the Buddhist identity of SemodoSe mo do at a later date. Above the patrapa tra there is a vertically arrayed Om A Humoṃ a hum and four illegible letters in red ochre. Just in front of Galo PukGwa lo phug there is an area of archaic structural traces covering an area of 21 m by 14 m. These appear to have formed part of a large Phase I residential complex built in two tiers, but only perimeter walls and those dividing the ruins into four sections have survived.

Just east of Galo PukGwa lo phug, on the rear wall of a small cave, there is vertically arrayed red ochre Om A Humoṃ a hum, a huma hum and omoṃ with a counterclockwise swastika below it. A deliberate attempt was made to erase the swastika. On the right wall of this cave there is red ochre motif consisting of flaming swords on a lotus base. In the top of this unusual and well drawn motif Bön ma gyönbon ma gyon/gyengyen was written. The significance of this inscription is not immediately apparent. Just below this composition, flaming jewels resting in a tree were drawn in red ochre. There is also a high exfoliated, illegible three or four line inscription on the right wall. The shape of the letters in this inscription suggests a BönBon paleographic tradition.

On a cliff west of the Galo PukGwa lo phug complex, a om hum ram dzaa oṃ hum ram dza and what appear to be other BönBon mantras (they are not very legible) were written in red ochre. These old inscriptions probably mark the final historic tenure of the BönpoBon po on SemodoSe mo do.

Gönpo PukMgon po phug

Gönpo PukMgon po phug is found west of Galo PukGwa lo phug in the vicinity of Gyelwa Lorepa PukRgyal ba lo ras pa phug (no coordinates are available). Gönpo PukMgon po phug is a fissure in the escarpment containing two chambers. A reliquary (dungtengdung rten) of Wangchuk DorjéDbang phyug rdo rje, the ninth Karmapakarma pa, is enshrined in the west chamber. It appears to have been desecrated in the Chinese Cultural Revolution (although red guards reportedly never reached SemodoSe mo do). There is another reliquary at the juncture of the two chambers of Gönpo PukMgon po phug, which is said to have enshrined the hair and finger nails of the great Tertöngter ston, Chökyi WangchukChos kyi dbang phyug.157 The Buddhist saint Galo RinpochéGwa lo rin po che is supposed to have had a vision of the deity GönpoMgon po at this location.158 In front of Gönpo PukMgon po phug there is a Phase I dispersion (10.5 m by 8.7 m) whose forward wall is elevated 1 m above the lakeshore bench.

Eleven meters east of Gönpo PukMgon po phug there is a cave (6 m by 3 m) with traces of a façade. Ledges on the west side of Gönpo PukMgon po phug also may have been enclosed by walls but virtually no structural evidence remains.

Gyelwa Lorepa PukRgyal ba lo ras pa phug

Gyelwa Lorepa PukRgyal ba lo ras pa phug consists of three rooms built along the base of the escarpment (49.83΄ / 23.04 ΄). These three rooms have a total length of 10 m, and the façade wall is up to 1.9 m in height. This Phase II structure was mud mortared and had a mud veneer. A small cave with a hearth is integrated into the east room (4.1 m by 2 m). Below the east wall of the east room there is a cavity, which is thought to have sheltered the kids belonging to Buddhist practitioners (another such riu tsangri’u tshang exists in the lukhangKlu khang complex). The west room is similar in size to the east room but the central room is smaller. In front of the three rooms, Phase I structural remains cover an area of 11 m by 8.7 m. Only the perimeter (70 cm thick) wall of this dispersion is partly intact. The forward perimeter wall has a maximum height of 1.7 m.

Just to the east of Gyelwa Lorepa PukRgyal ba lo ras pa phug there is a fragmentary wall 7.5 m in length paralleling the foot of the escarpment. It probably helped create a Phase I cliff dwelling around 2.2 m in width.

A cave immediately west of Gyelwa Lorepa PukRgyal ba lo ras pa phug has the remains of a façade wall and various red ochre pictographs and BönBon inscriptions (49.83΄ / 23.01΄). On the right wall we find the a kara dkar mantra for Küntu ZangpoKun tu bzang po. On the lower right wall there is an archaic style chötenmchod rten 50 cm in height with three high graduated tiers surmounted by a hemispherical structure. Many of the inscriptions on the rear wall of this cave were destroyed by having grit rubbed into them. The BönBon mantra andua ’du and two counterclockwise swastikas are all that remain on the rear wall. On the left wall we find written: bön khyenbon mkhyen (BönBon be mindful of me/us). There is also a damaged three-line-inscription, the first line of which reads: tsawé lama khyenrtsa’i bla ma mkhyen (Root lama be mindful of me/us). Also, on the left wall of the cave. an aspiration for the return of a holy figure is expressed: sprul pa’i sku chen po drin can bla ma’i bsgrub sgyud gnam gyis skar ltar lhag par gyur cig (May the lineage of the lama of kindness, the great reincarnate personage, appear like the stars in the sky). There are two highly worn illegible inscriptions of seven lines and five lines as well. A dark red conjoined sun and moon was superimposed right in the middle of the five-line-inscription.

Loppön DruppukSlob dpon sgrub phug

The Loppön DruppukSlob dpon sgrub phug (also known as Ösel Puk’Od gsal phug) is a cave of two chambers (49.82΄ / 22.94΄). The façade is lightly and roughly constructed, typifying Phase II construction at SemodoSe mo do. It was covered in a mud plaster and painted red and white. The west or inner chamber (2.5 m by 2 m) has a stone and adobe altar. In front of Loppön DruppukSlob dpon sgrub phug there is a Phase I dispersion (20 m by 9 m). The forward side of these wall traces is elevated as much as 1.4 m above the lakeshore bench. The scant structural evidence suggests that these footings gave rise to both an inner and outer row of buildings.

NamlaGnam la structures

There are the remains of a cliff dwelling at the eastern base of the rocky saddle that separates SemodoSe mo do South from SemodoSe mo do West (B-127) (my associates and I have named this saddle NamlaGnam la). This cliff dwelling consists of a small overhang in the escarpment enclosed by walls (3.2 m by 3 m) (49.80΄ / 22.93΄). A dispersion in front of the cliff dwelling measures 9.6 m by 5.3 m. All of the structures at this location appear to belong to Phase I SemodoSe mo do. Below this location, underneath the lakeshore bench, there is a large cave (7 m by 10 m) with a very crudely built façade. In the rear of this cave there are two enclosing walls set apart from each other. Much of the floor of the cave is paved in flagstones. Rather than habitation, this cave must have had a special economic purpose. At the foot of NamlaGnam la there are the remains of a façade 2 m in length enclosing a small cave set about 1.5 m below ground level (49.82΄ / 22. 90΄).

South shore shrines

Several shrines extend along the south shore of SemodoSe mo do. These poorly preserved ceremonial structures appear to belong to the archaic cultural horizon. The fact that they are even partially standing may indicate that they were reconsecrated by the Buddhists. There is a rectangular shrine (5.8 m by 2.3 m by 50 cm to 1 m) with only small coherent wall sections extant (49.93΄ / 23.52΄). Near the side of the shrine facing NamtsoGnam mtsho, an irregularly-shaped upright stone was planted in the ground (80 cm high, 1.5 m basal girth). There is also a cairn-like structure (5.5 m in circumference, 1.1 m high) near the lakeshore (49.86΄ / 23.21). Nearby, there is a rectangular shrine (4 m by 2 m by 1.4 m) in poor condition (49.86΄ / 23.18΄). Large stones (up to 90 cm long) went into its construction. Another rectangular shrine (2 m by 1 m by 1.1 m) is situated just 8 m away.


[148] It is difficult to know how developed the archaic cultural horizon settlement at Trashi DochungBkra shis do chung was because of the intensive reoccupation of the site by the Buddhists. This ongoing resettlement appears to have effaced various structural traces of the earlier epoch. The same can be said of JadoBya do (B-99), another important residential cave complex at NamtsoGnam mtsho. These two sites are discussed in Bellezza, Divine Dyads.
[149] The use of small craft to reach the island is recorded in a biography of the Buddhist saint, Gyelwa LorepaRgyal ba lo ras pa (1188-1251 CE) (Bellezza, Divine Dyads, 162–165). According to Loppön Tendzin NamdakSlob dpon bstan ’dzin rnam dag (in personal communication), boats were produced in ancient Upper Tibet by slaughtering onagers. The skin of an onager would form the hull, its bones were used for the frame and paddles, and its ligaments for binding the various elements of the craft.
[150] These personalities and others are noted in a neshégnas bshad for NamtsoGnam mtsho compiled by the late Taklung TsetrülStag lung rtse sprul in Böjong NangtenBod ljongs nang bstan (1991), as well as other Tibetan works. See Bellezza, Divine Dyads, 161–166. The original neshégnas bshad manuscript managed to survive the Chinese Cultural Revolution. This manuscript of some ten folios was gifted to Taklung TsetrülStag lung rtse sprul by the Trashi DoBkra shis do ngakpasngags pa, A TopA thob. Over the years, A TopA thob has accompanied me on a number of explorations around NamtsoGnam mtsho, for which I am most grateful. His knowledge of NamtsoGnam mtsho culture, geography and religion has been of great help to me.
[151] As documented in the tak lung chö jungStag lung chos ’byung. See Bellezza, Divine Dyads, 167–173.
[152] Bellezza, Divine Dyads, 161.
[153] Bellezza, Antiquities of Northern Tibet, 60,61.
[154] Bellezza, Divine Dyads, 110; Bellezza, Calling Down the Gods, 314-316.
[155] Bellezza, Divine Dyads, 162.
[156] A piece off the protruding end of the rafter was cut off for sampling. This approximately 10 cm in diameter rafter is in excellent physical condition (the cut piece still emitted the fragrant scent of juniper heartwood). Scrub juniper (bamaba ma), albeit in small amounts, still grows on SemodoSe mo do. Radiometric, sample no. Beta 236000; Conventional radiocarbon age: 1180 +/-BP50; 2 Sigma calibrated result: Cal 1260 to 1020 BP (years before present): 1950 CE; Intercept of radiocarbon age with calibration curve: Cal 1070 BP; 1 Sigma calibrated result: Cal 1170 to 1050 BP.
[157] Bellezza, Divine Dyads, 162.
[158] Bellezza, Divine Dyads, 162.

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.