Tibetan and Himalayan Library - THL

THL Title Text
by John Vincent Bellezza
Edited by Geoffrey Barstow, Mickey Stockwell and Michael White
Tibetan & Himalayan Library
Published under the THL Digital Text License.

Site elements

Northwest Horse’s Ear Residential Complex

The design, construction and geographic aspect of the Tamchok Ngangpa DoRta mchog ngang pa doBönBon” ruins on the horse’s ear are reminiscent of Shawa DrakSha ba brag (A-3), a site located approximately 100 km to the west. These two sites featured small limestone block buildings perched on rocky summits that overlook lakes. The structures of each site are arranged in tiers to form compact residential units. Only a small handful of individuals are likely to have resided at either of these two sites. Tamchok Ngangpa DoRta mchog ngang pa do and Shawa DrakSha ba brag (associated with the eighth century CE saint Nangzher LöpoSnang bzher lod po in BönBon literature) are among an elite group of permanent lakeside dwellings in the eastern JangtangByang thang. They appear to have been constituent parts of the archaic cultural horizon religious and possibly political infrastructure of the region. This region was almost certainly part of the proto-tribal country known in Tibetan literature as SumpaSum pa. Tamchok Ngangpa DoRta mchog ngang pa do and Shawa DrakSha ba brag, by virtue of their unassailable positions, appear to have been august residences well insulated from external threats. These socially exclusive sites may have functioned as ritual centers and as the residences of priests and chieftains. Their identity as temples, palaces, and/or hermitages also fits the pattern of cultural usage established in the lamaist architecture of later historic times.

Given the BönBon historical lore connected to Shawa DrakSha ba brag, we might expect that Tamchok Ngangpa DoRta mchog ngang pa do likewise was occupied during the eighth century CE. A much earlier foundation date, nevertheless, cannot be ruled out. The general cultural history of NamtsoGnam mtsho and epigraphic and pictographic evidence obtained from Tamchok Ngangpa DoRta mchog ngang pa do (J-21) and other headlands of NamtsoGnam mtsho indicate that the site may have remained in the hands of archaic religious practitioners until as late as the 13th century CE. This is not to say, however, that Tamchok Ngangpa DoRta mchog ngang pa do did not come under Buddhist religious and moral influences prior to this period. While the local Guru RinpochéGu ru rin po che myth connected to the headland is not likely to have much historical credence, the presence of Buddhist saints at NamtsoGnam mtsho beginning in the tenpa chidarbstan pa phyi dar is well documented in Tibetan literature. They include prominent personalities such as Galo RinpochéGwa lo rin po che (11th to 12th 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) (for further information, see SemodoSe mo do, B-126). We might, therefore, speak in terms of a transitional period between circa 1000 AD and 1250 AD when archaic religious traditions gradually gave way to Buddhist doctrinal and institutional domination at sites such as Tamchok Ngangpa DoRta mchog ngang pa do.

Access to the summit of the formation is gained through a narrow fissure on its east side. Old stone steps embedded in this fissure climb 3.5 m to a level passageway, which is approximately 4 m in length. The opposite or west end of this passageway overlooks NamtsoGnam mtsho. The passageway and fissure are no more than 1 m in width. Above the passageway the remains of a small parapet wall barricade an opening in the east side of the formation. Another wall fragment stands above this point. These two walls appear to have had a defensive function, sealing of a breach in the “horse’s ear” that was potentially vulnerable to attack. Reportedly, steps once continued up from the level passageway to the bottom end of the formation summit, but they are now completely missing. By using a few scant handholds it is still possible to ascend the vertical face of the passageway to the summit.

The summit of the northwest “horse’s ear” slopes steeply up in a westerly direction. The ruined residential complex is situated near the northwest rim of the summit. These diminutive structures face in a northeast direction. The lower edifice consists of just one room and the adjacent the upper edifice contained two rooms. The walls of both buildings are comprised of random-rubble uncut bluish limestone blocks of variable length (10 cm to 60 cm in length). In the seams there are traces of a clay-based mortar that is now heavily impacted. The walls are 45 cm to 55 cm thick, with small pieces of stone filling the interstitial spaces between the outer courses of stonework. Orange climax lichen grows on some stones and they have been subjected to considerable in situ weathering. It does not appear that the ruins have been disturbed in a long time. Both carcasses have been reduced to 1.6 m or less in height, and there is no remaining structural evidence for the roofs. The relatively large rooms and long straight walls of the structures suggest that the roofs were made of wood. However, it seems unlikely that locally available scrub juniper trees could have yielded pieces of wood long enough to use as roof timbers.

The forward/lower and rear/upper walls of the lower edifice measure 5.5 m in length while the two side walls are 4.6 m long. Most of the lower edifice has been leveled to its footings and revetment. The forward wall has a current maximum exterior height of 1.6 m and a maximum interior height of 60 cm, the difference being accounted for by the revetment that underpins the front of the building. Other freestanding wall segments attain only 40 cm in height.

The rear/upper wall of the upper edifice is 9.3 m in length and the side walls approximately 4 m long. Much of the rear wall of the upper edifice stands 60 cm to 80 cm in height on its exterior face and 80 cm to 1.3 m in height along its interior. This difference in elevation is largely accounted for by the slope gradient. The L-shaped upper edifice is divided into sections: west (3.2 m by 2.8 m) and east (6.1 m by 3.5 m). The smaller west section of the upper edifice is situated directly behind the lower edifice at a distance of 1.2 m. The corner of the wider east section is situated just 70 cm from the lower edifice. The L-shaped space created between the two edifices appears to have been an open passageway. The west section of the upper edifice appears to have been a single room. This open space is now sloping and engorged with rubble. The side and forward walls of the west section stand a maximum of 50 cm in height. The footings of the wall that divided the west and east sections of the upper edifice are largely intact. The east section of the upper edifice also appears to have been an unpartitioned space consonant with that of a single room. This open area is largely clear of rubble. The forward wall of the east section has a maximum exterior height of 1.2 m and a maximum interior height of 30 cm, the difference in elevation being accounted for by a fairly prominent revetment. The side walls of the east section have freestanding fragments attaining a maximum height of 50 cm.

Approximately 8 m higher than the upper edifice, on the very apex of the “horse’s ear,” are the remains of another ancient structure (4.8 m by 6.7 m). This platform-like apex structure consists of a less well developed revetment with few or no signs of a superstructure. The tallest revetment fragments are located on its southwest side and reach 1 m in height. The apex structure appears to have been divided into two parts. It is not certain if it was residential or ceremonial in nature, but the latter function seems much more likely. Small cairns line the apex structure illustrating how its sacred status has been maintained to the modern period despite the site’s BönBon connotations. It may be conjectured that the apex structure was a ritual venue. The loftiness and encompassing views from this monument may have imbued it with significant celestial symbolism related to the uranic deities and phenomena of BönBon religious traditions.

Outlying cave shelters

On the north end or base of the Tamchok Ngangpa DoRta mchog ngang pa do headland is a group of a half dozen Buddhist retreat caves belonging to Nyingmaparnying ma pa sect meditators. These caves, like all others detailed in this survey, are found in the rocky backbone of the headland. While the current Buddhist occupied caves are likely to have been exploited over a long period of time, there is little extant structural evidence that can be attributed to the archaic cultural horizon. South of the Buddhist retreat caves there are a number of caves with the remains of ancient masonry fronts. According to local sources interviewed in the 1990s, this string of caves has an ancient BönBon identity. This is corroborated by the presence of BönBon inscriptions and iconic motifs in some of the caves. The first old rock shelters encountered traveling in a counterclockwise direction along the west side of the headland are two small caves with the vestiges of masonry façades. A little south of these two caves there is a rock slide above which is an opening to what appears to have been another anthropogenically modified cave shelter.

Further south along the headland is an overhang with just the footings (70 cm thick) of a masonry façade. This cave is situated opposite the “horse’s ears.” There are the remains of another rock shelter opposite the two “horse’s ears”. The remnants of a wall heaped to a height of 3 m barricade a small cave. Integral fragments of this wall have survived despite much geomorphologic change to the site.

Continuing along the west side of the headland there is a cave with red ochre inscriptions,252 a high ceiling and a massively constructed masonry façade wall. The façade is 11 m in length, around 70 cm thick and has a maximum height of 1.7 m. Running perpendicular to the interior of the façade are the vestiges of two partition walls, 2 m and 1.7 m in length. The heavy construction of this masonry front is congruent with the traits of archaic cultural heritage cave shelters throughout the JangtangByang thang, but reoccupation by Buddhist masters in a later period cannot be ruled out.

Continuing in a counterclockwise direction around the Tamchok Ngangpa DoRta mchog ngang pa do headland are twin caves separated by a distance of about 3 m (49.983΄ / 40.386΄). Both of these caves were enclosed by a massive barrier wall 10.4 m in length. This wall has been reduced to its footings. The west cave contains beige and red ochre pictographs. A long and narrow cave further along the headland also appears to have had a façade (50.006΄ / 40.421΄).

A large east-facing rock overhang on the headland hosts the remains of what is believed to have been a BönBon religious center (50.016΄ / 40.470΄). This seems to be corroborated by the presence of BönBon polychromic motifs (painted circa 900–1250 CE) on the cliff face. A network of freestanding walls stretches for 15 m under the shelter of the overhang. These fragmentary but well built walls were part of several different rooms. The walls are up to 1.9 m in height and bits of mud plaster still cling to them. This site was transformed into a pastoral camp sometime in the past. The construction of corral walls appears to have been at least partly responsible for the extreme degradation of original structural remains.


[252] The inscriptions and pictographs of Tamchok Ngangpa DoRta mchog ngang pa do (J-21) will be treated in a forthcoming inventory of Upper Tibetan rock art sites.

Note Citation for Page

John Vincent Bellezza, (Charlottesville, VA: Tibetan & Himalayan Library, 2010), .

Bibliographic Citation

John Vincent Bellezza. . Charlottesville, VA: Tibetan & Himalayan Library, 2010.