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

Zhapkar DruppukZhabs dkar sgrub phug

Basic site data

  • Site name: Zhapkar DruppukZhabs dkar sgrub phug
  • English equivalent: Meditation Cave of zhabs dkar
  • Site number: B-20
  • Site typology: I.2a
  • Elevation: 4900 m
  • Administrative location (township): BargaBar ga
  • Administrative location (county): PurangSpu rang
  • Survey expedition: UTAE
  • Survey date: April 25, 2001
  • Contemporary usage: None.
  • Identifiable Buddhist constructions: Scattered plaques with manima ṇi mantras.
  • Maps: UTRS VI, UTRS X, HAS C4
  • View Place Dictionary Entry
  • View Site Images

General site characteristics

Zhapkar DruppukZhabs dkar sgrub phug is an important complex of all-stone corbelled structures (dokhangrdo khang) representing an archaic religious center (sekhanggsas khang/sekhargsas mkhar). Its name therefore is somewhat of a misnomer, for rather than a meditation cave or small retreat house this was a large residential facility. Zhapkar DruppukZhabs dkar sgrub phug is now disused and does not appear to have had much usage even in the pre-modern period. The facility is situated on a rocky bench poised 50 m above the Dzong ChuRdzong chu valley, on the west side of the TiséTi se pilgrim’s circuit (korlamskor lam). Zhapkar DruppukZhabs dkar sgrub phug is found approximately 500 m west of DzuntrülRdzu ’phrul monastery, on the opposite side of the Dzong ChuRdzong chu from the mountain known as Yeshé KhyungriYe shes khyung ri. This is one of at least nine sekhanggsas khang sites (also B-9, B-10, B-21, B-22, B-33, B-41, B-42, and B-113) around Gang RinpochéGangs rin po che, representing a very significant early cultural presence at the celebrated sacred mountain. The edifices of Zhapkar DruppukZhabs dkar sgrub phug exhibit archaic traits common to the dokhangrdo khang typology such as:

  1. All-stone roof and random-rubble walls.
  2. Small irregularly shaped rooms laid out in a decentralized plan.
  3. Small entranceways and windowless walls.
  4. The integration of natural boulders and ledges into the structures.
  5. Low elevation structures.
  6. A semi-subterranean dimension.
  7. A lofty aspect well above the valley floor.

Oral tradition

According to the monks of Dzuntrül PukRdzu ’phrul phug and elderly natives of Mount TiséTi se (gang riwagangs ri ba), Zhapkar DruppukZhabs dkar sgrub phug is the site where the renowned NyingmaRnying ma lamabla ma Zhapkar Tsokdruk RangdrölZhabs dkar po tshogs drug rang grol (1781-1851 CE) spent time in meditation.

Site elements

Zhapkar DruppukZhabs dkar sgrub phug main edifice

The Zhapkar DruppukZhabs dkar sgrub phug main edifice contains around 20 small-scale rooms as well as several dependencies. Such a facility could potentially have been the refuge of several tens of inhabitants. The main edifice measures 11.5 m (north-south) by 26 m (east-west), roughly equivalent in size to the modern monastic complex of Dzuntrül PukRdzu ’phrul phug. Partially dressed variable-sized stones (primarily between 10 cm and 70 cm long) were used in construction. Most walls were mud mortared but some also appear to be of the dry-stone variety. In one wall towards the middle of the main edifice, near the primary south-facing entranceway, chink-stones were inserted into the wall joints, a construction technique common in historical era buildings of Central Tibet. Many of the walls of the main edifice still reach 1.8 m in height. The highest elevation wall (2.5 m) is the outer southwest corner of the structure. The interior dimensions of most rooms range between 2.3 m by 1.7 m (4 m²) and 3.7 m by 3 m (11 m²). The smallest room in the main edifice measures 1.8 m by 70 cm.

The rear of the main edifice was built into a ledge that helps to form the north wall. The rear portion of the structure contains a single line of ten larger rooms aligned east-west. The third room from the west end of the main edifice (rampart R3) has part of its stone roof intact. The longest in situ bridging stone is 1.3 m. R3 was partially divided into two sections, one of which has three niches in the walls. The largest cubby-hole measures 50 cm by 50 cm by 50 cm. The other subdivision of R3 has the remains of a hearth. The entrance to this room is largely complete (1.2 m by 70 cm). Both its lintel (1.1 m in length) and sill are in place. R3 must have been used by ZhapkarZhabs dkar for household chores. It is the only room at the site that is still in relatively good condition, and this may point to its refurbishment by the celebrated lama. The actual Zhapkar DruppukZhabs dkar sgrub phug is located to the north or rear of R3. This subterranean chamber is set about 1.7 m below its anteroom. A 70 cm wide stone stairway leads down to the small chamber, which was probably the geomantic nexus of the ancient facility. This room is lined with masonry on three sides, while its rear wall and roof are part of the formation into which it was built. Zhapkar DruppukZhabs dkar sgrub phug proper contains a stone sleep platform, and along the rear wall there is an altar with a niche for a ritual water vase (bumpabum pa). This subterranean chamber affords excellent shelter from the elements, but I venture to speculate that due to the archaic cultural origin of the site, it was never particularly popular with Buddhist practitioners.

In front of the anteroom to Zhapkar DruppukZhabs dkar sgrub phug there appears to have been a row of four small rooms running perpendicular (north-south) to the rear line of ten rooms. What was the main entrance to main edifice is located in the south wall, east of the row of four rooms. The forward or south wall east of this destroyed entrance structurally incorporates a natural wall of stone into its construction. The east forward portion of the main edifice may have served as a courtyard. To the north of this open space lie the six east rooms of the rear row. There also seems to have been two forward rooms on the east end of the main edifice. A forward room on the west side of the edifice possesses an in situ corbel and bridging stone.

The dependencies

Below the west side of the forward wall of the main edifice there are other structural remains, which probably constituted two or three rooms. They cover an area of 4.5 m (north-south) by 10 m (east-west). Three meters west of the rear west wall of the main edifice there is an isolated building (2 m by 2 m by 1.5 m), with its corbelled stone roof still whole. Its entranceway (1.3 m by 50 cm) lintel is still in place. There are two rooms inside this structure with a small doorway between them. In the rear room there are several niches in the walls. Several meters east of the east wall of the main edifice there are the faint remains of another small building (4.5 m by 2 m). About 10 m above the main edifice there are fractional foundations clinging to the side of a cliff. They seem to have given rise to two buildings approximately measuring 6 m by 8 m and 8.5 m by 4 m. In the latter structure the forward/south wall reaches 2 m in height.

Proximate sites

In close proximity to the wrecked sekhanggsas khang complex there is a site called Zhapkar DurtröZhabs dkar dur khrod, a sky burial ground comprised of naturally occurring horizontal slabs of rocks, said to be in the form of a swastika. Nearby is the ruined Zhapkar ChötenZhabs dkar mchod rten (built by ZhapkarZhabs dkar himself?).

Dzuntrül PukRdzu ’phrul phug (Cave of Miracles)

The Drukpa Kagyü’brug pa bka’ brgyud monastery of Dzuntrül PukRdzu ’phrul phug enshrines a cave that is believed to have been used by the well-known Buddhist ascetic MilarepaMi la ras pa (1040-1123 CE). In front of the cave there are two stone members that are believed to have figured in a famous magical contest, which well-known Buddhist accounts claim was held between MilarepaMi la ras pa and a BönpoBon po named Naro BönchungNa ro bon chung. Moreover, some monks say that MilarepaMi la ras pa used these stones as his walking stick. These stones members were broken during the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Three more stone members from this apocryphal contest are propped up at the monastery’s main prayer flag mast. These stones are a maximum of 1.3 m in length. They are of the type commonly found at archaic all-stone building sites throughout Upper Tibet, which functioned as corbels and bridging stones. Their legendary pedigree and proximity to the so-called Zhapkar DruppukZhabs dkar sgrub phug suggest that originally they were architectural elements belonging to this monument.

I am inclined to see the magical contest between the BönpoBon po and Buddhist as an allegory for a wider scale political and cultural conflict between the two religions, which played itself out all over Upper Tibet, circa 1000 to 1200 CE. According to BönBon tradition, Dzuntrül PukRdzu 'phrul phug was under their custody in early times. As one of the key sacred sites around the Mount TiséTi se pilgrim’s circuit, its control would have been crucial in the subjugation of the region’s BönpoBon po and the consequent Buddhist requisition of the holy mountain. The existence of a major sekhanggsas khang in the same vicinity, which almost certainly was founded before 1000 CE as an archaic cultural facility, reinforces the historical significance of this location.

BönBon historical notions regarding the significance of Dzuntrül PukRdzu ’phrul phug and the antiquity of their tenure at the site are noted in a commentary to Karru DrupwangDkar ru grub dbang’s 19th century CE Tisé KarchakTi se’i dkar chag:

Dzuntrül PukRdzu 'phrul phug monastery: In very early times the cave of this monastery was established by TönpaSton pa [ShenrapGshen rab], thus it is renowned as the Cave of Miracles monastery. Later, since the excellent Jetsün MilarepaRje btsun mi la ras pa, there were always religious practitioners there. From the original cave a monastery gradually developed and was named Cave of Miracles.116

The Tisé KarchakTi se dkar chag itself has this to say about the site:

The omniscient TönpaSton pa [ShenrapGshen rab], the chief, and his circle, visited in person the miraculous mountain called Dzuntrül PukRdzu ’phrul phug. They then went on foot to the eight-spoked wheel crystal formation. Through their sorcery the armies of the black bdud and sinsrin of NyangNyang collapsed all the mountain formations. The stones rained down on the body of TönpaSton pa. At that instant, the radiance of TönpaSton pa’s mind manifested the lhalha, luklu and humans [in the form] of great powerful strongmen (gyégyad). The luklu laid down the foundation (it is [now] said that it was laid by MilarepaMi la ras pa). The human [strongmen] raised the sides. The lhalha erected the roof and the secret miraculous cave appeared [to shelter Tönpa ShenrapSton pa gshen rab]. [Here] there are clearly visible body-prints of TönpaSton pa, the footprints of the Khyeu ChungKhye’u chung117 and the handprints of the great powerful strongmen. ([Now] it is said that these are GötsangpaRgod tshang pa’s). At present [this site] is renowned as Dzuntrül PukRdzu ’phrul phug.118


[116] See “Gangtsö Nyenkhorgi Gönpa KhakGangs mtsho’i nye ’khor g.yi dgon khag,” in Zhang Zhung RiknéZhang zhung rig gnas, 53.
[117] A tutelary god of the Gekhöge khod cycle.
[118] See Zhang Zhung RiknéZhang zhung rig gnas, 21: rnam mkhyen ston pa gtso ’khor bcas/ rdzu ’phrul sprul pa’i ri la (rdzu ’phrul phug gi ri zer) sku ’chags nas/ shel brag ’khor lo rtsibs brgyad zhabs kyis bcags/ nag po bdud dang nyang srin dmag tshogs kyi/ cho ’phrul bstan nas brag ri thams cad bshig ston pa’i sku la rdo yi char pa phab/ de tshe ston pa’i thugs kyi ’od zer las/ lha klu mi yi gyad chen rtsal ldan sprul/ klu yis rmang (mi la ras pas bting ba yin zer) bting mi yi ’gram blangs shing / lha yis thog phug rdzu ’phrul gsang phug byung / ston pa’i sku rjes khye’u chung zhabs rjes dang / rtsal chen gyad kyi phyag rjes (rgod tshang pa’i yin zer) gsal par yod/ da lta rdzu ’phrul phug pa zhes su grags/.

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.