Tibetan and Himalayan Library - THL

THL Title Text

Review of Rulers on the Celestial Plain:
Ecclesiastic and Secular Hegemony in Medieval Tibet.
A Study of Tshal Gung-thang
, by Per K. Sørensen
and Guntram Hazod, with Tsering Gyalbo

JIATS, no. 4 (December 2008), THL #T5567, 7 pp.

© 2008 by Bryan J. Cuevas, IATS, and THL

[page 1]

Per K. Sørensen and Guntram Hazod, in cooperation with Tsering Gyalbo, Rulers on the Celestial Plain: Ecclesiastic and Secular Hegemony in Medieval Tibet. A Study of Tshal Gung-thang. Denkschriften der Philosophisch-historische Klasse 361. Veröffentlichungen zur Sozialanthropologie 10. Wien: Verlag der Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, 2007. 2 vols., 1011 pp., color photos, b&w plates, maps. €220.80 / $278.90.

In recent years the field of Tibetan studies has witnessed a burgeoning literature on the history of early Tibet. Exceptional works have now been published on the cultural transmission and adaptation of Buddhism (and BönpoBon po) in imperial and post-imperial Tibet, on the lives of some of the more prominent male and female Tibetan religious savants of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, and on the social histories of important Tibetan Buddhist traditions and their allied political institutions. At the forefront of this growing movement in Tibetan historical research has been Per K. Sørensen and Guntram Hazod, who in just the last few years have collaboratively produced three remarkable (and admittedly imposing) contributions to our knowledge of the geocultural history of Central Tibet from the imperial age through the waning decades of the seventeenth century. Their most recent work in two volumes, entitled Rulers on the Celestial Plain: Ecclesiastic and Secular Hegemony in Medieval Tibet. A Study of Tshal Gung-thang, is the third in their series of microhistories of Tibet’s central regions. The previous two volumes include Thundering Falcon: An Inquiry into the History and Cult of Khra-’Brug, Tibet’s First Buddhist Temple (Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, 2005) and Civilization at the Foot of Mount Sham-po: The Royal House of lHa [page 2] Bug-pa-can and the History of g.Ya’-bzangCivilization at the Foot of Mount Sham-po: The Royal House of lHa [page 2] Bug-pa-can and the History of g.Ya’-bzang (Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, 2000), each together covering particular aspects of the geopolitical history and religious heritage of YarlungYar lung and its neighboring valleys.

Rulers on the Celestial Plain constitutes the first truly local history of the lha saValley, focusing specifically on the crucial KyishöSkyid shod district of northern Central Tibet as viewed through the lens of the political and religious intrigues of the long-standing TselpaTshal pa hegemony, whose secular and religious lords dominated the area from the late twelfth through fifteenth centuries. At center stage stands the TselpaTshal pa’s most important monastic complex near LhasaLha sa, Tsel GungtangTshal gung thang (established late twelfth century) and the life and legacy of its controversial founding patriarch, Gungtang Lama ZhangGung thang bla ma zhang (1123-93). The study is arranged in two parts, each comprising a separate volume. Volume 1, Part 1 includes three sections: (1) Introduction (7-65); (2) Detailed Outline and Translation of the Gung thang dkar chag – an eighteenth-century history of Tsel GungtangTshal gung thang (67-295); and (3) Illustrations (297-347). Volume 2, Part 2 comprises five hefty appendices (349-776), photographic reproductions of two primary Tibetan texts (777-828), bibliographies of Tibetan and European-language sources (829-914), and indices of Tibetan, Sanskrit, Chinese, and Mongolian names and terms (915-1011).

In the Introduction to Volume 1, Part 1, the authors lay out the broad historical terrain of their study. They provide an overview of the KyishöSkyid shod district, its geographical significance, the history of its local rulers during the pre- and post-TselpaTshal pa periods, the relations and interactions between its clans and religious lineages, the origins of the monastery of Tsel GungtangTshal gung thang, and the biography of the region’s most notorious yogi and warlord, Lama ZhangBla ma zhang. This informative synopsis is followed by Part 1 of the volume, which consists of an introduction and annotated translation of the primary textual source for the study, the Gung thang dkar chag, compiled at the end of 1782 by the GelukpaDge lugs pa scholar Jokripa Ngawang Tendzin Trinlé Namgyel’Jog ri pa ngag dbang bstan ’dzin ’phrin las rnam rgyal. A photographic reproduction of the Tibetan text is included in Appendix 6 (777-804).

Volume 2, Part 2 is comprised of six appendices, the first four of which are individual, extended essays on the cultural history of the KyishöSkyid shod region and the lha saValley. Each of the essays explore various dimensions of “the innumerable cultic, religious and political bonds that linked people, institutions, sanctuaries and territories” and that exerted the most influence over Central Tibet from the twelfth through seventeenth centuries. Appendix 1 (“Icons of lHa-sa Rulers: Embodied Buddhas, Political Power and Ancestral Authority: The Bla-ma Zhang and the gNyos Patriarch thangka,” 353-97), authored by Sørensen, examines two thirteenth-century tangkathang ka tapestry images of Lama ZhangBla ma zhang and his immediate predecessor, the NyöGnyos lay ruler Drakpa PelGrags pa dpal (1106-65/82). Sørensen relates the history of the paintings, establishes their cultural contexts, and appraises their artistic significance. This insightful essay should be of particular value to scholars of Tibetan art.

Sørensen is also author of the lengthy and exceptional essay comprising Appendix 2 (“Control over the lHa-sa Maṇḍala Zone: Geo-political Schemes, [page 3] National Monuments, Flood Control Politics and Ideological Battlefield,” 401-550). The essay explores the tumultuous history of the lha saValley from the twelfth to the seventeenth centuries, and is indeed, as Sørensen himself admits, the “first serious attempt” to narrate the complicated story of this most pivotal Tibetan region. As is well known, the lha saValley had long been the site of violent contestation between rival clans and their affiliated religious lineages. What was at stake in these ongoing struggles was the claim for exclusive rights to the prestigious LhasaLha sa legacy that hearkened back to the golden age of the YarlungYar lung dynasty and its seventh-century king Songtsen GampoSrong btsan sgam po as divine ruler of the great Buddhist empire of Tibet. Central to this legacy was the most potent of Tibetan political and religious symbols, the JokhangJo khang Temple in LhasaLha sa consecrated by Songtsen GampoSrong btsan sgam po in the seventh century. Sørensen’s essay here is masterful in demonstrating how the eventful history of the lha saValley is best viewed as a history of the various strategies among Central Tibet’s changing rulers to gain control of the JokhangJo khang and to safeguard it against natural disaster (namely floods) and foreign capture. Such strategies, Sørensen rightly emphasizes, involved more than just military might and hydraulic technology but the exercise of ritual power as well, most notably rites of flood control (chudokchu bzlog) and protection against enemy armies (makdokdmag bzlog).

Appendix 3 (“The Tshal-pa Myriarchy: Territory, Appanage Grants and Mongol Patronage,” 553-67), co-authored by Sørensen and Hazod, takes up the history of the establishment and expansion of the TselpaTshal pa myriarchy (trikorkhri skor), beginning with Lama ZhangBla ma zhang and his immediate disciples at the end of the thirteenth century. This essay focuses primarily on TselpaTshal pa interactions with the Mongols of the Yüan court.

The mythic foundations and “cultic history” of the TselpaTshal pa polity are explored in some detail by Guntram Hazod in Appendix 4 (“In the Garden of the White Mare – Encounters with History and Cult in Tshal Gung-thang,” 571-632). In this fascinating essay, Hazod investigates the ritual significance and socio-religious roles of Tsel GungtangTshal gung thang’s two main protector deities, PeharPe har and Gungtang LhamoGung thang lha mo. The intimate correlations that abide between Tibetan deity cults and territory in Tibet are also accentuated in the essay, as are questions concerning the religious geography of old LhasaLha sa. Here Hazod is meticulous in identifying the obscure early toponyms of the lha saValley, including the districts of TselTshal.

Appendix 5 is made up of thirteen minutely annotated lineage tables (635-776), including the major religious seats and clan affiliations of TselpaTshal pa, teachers and students of Lama ZhangBla ma zhang, succession of religious settlements (tsotsho, dewasde ba, korskor) in ÜDbus, the NyöGnyos clan, the abbatial successions of Gyeré LhakhangGye re lha khang, Sangpu NeutokGsang phu ne’u thog, KyormolungSkyor mo lung, Gyama RinchengangRgya ma rin chen sgang, Drigung’Bri gung, and TaklungStag lung, the governor seats (depasde pa) and district capitals (dzongrdzong) of the Pakmo DrupaPhag mo gru pa era (NelpaSnel pa/NeuSne’u, DrakkarBrag dkar, and Ganden KyishöpaDga’ ldan skyid shod pa), and a short chronology of the history of the monastery of Tsel GungtangTshal gung thang. These tables are a wellspring of historical data.

[page 4]

Appendix 6 comprises photographic reproductions of two Tibetan texts: the aforementioned Gung thang dkar chag (777-804) and the Smon lam rdo rje rnam thar (805-27), a rare fourteenth-century biography of the ninth TselpaTshal pa ruler (drungchendrung chen) Mönlam DorjéSmon lam rdo rje (1284-1346/47) written by his son. All six appendices include cartographical documentation and beautiful color and black-and-white photographs of Tibetan historical sites and personalities.

Rulers on the Celestial Plain, as Sørensen and Hazod repeatedly stress, proposes and exemplifies a fresh approach to Tibetan history that combines detailed textual analysis, ethnography, cartography, and toponymic identification. This new approach the authors term “historical geography,” with perhaps a faint nod to the grand tradition of French “geohistory” in the spirit of Fernand Braudel or Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie. But unlike the master works of that distinguished historiographical tradition, the present study never quite achieves the characteristic narrative elegance and sweeping vision of its French counterparts. This in no way detracts from the value of the study, as it does indeed successfully introduce a new, more comprehensive historiographical methodology to a discipline that is certainly maturing and offers an abundant wealth of detail for specialists in the field – serving well as a “source reference book,” to use the authors’ own description – but the style and format in which the authors present those details are a bit too cumbersome for an interested, general readership. I suspect, however, this broader group is not the primary audience the authors intended to reach in their study, so in that regard my critique here is highlighted only as a minor aside. Though unwieldy at times, this volume is a rewarding and exciting work of superior scholarship that advances our knowledge of premodern Central Tibet and signals a bright future for studies in Tibetan local history.

Looking toward that future, Sørensen and Hazod have announced their next collaborative project on the great clans and leading families of Central Tibet from the seventh through seventeenth centuries. Working with a small team of equally adept Tibetological researchers, their goal is to delineate the settlements and migratory patterns of the major family clans who shaped the history of Tibet. Considering the quality of work Sørensen and Hazod have accomplished thus far, we can expect this next study will likely succeed in transforming prevailing conceptions of Tibetan religious history and society.

[page 5]

Note Citation for Page

Bryan J. Cuevas, “Review of Rulers on the Celestial Plain: Ecclesiastic and Secular Hegemony in Medieval Tibet. A Study of Tshal Gung-thang, by Per K. Sørensen and Guntram Hazod, with Tsering Gyalbo,” Journal of the International Association of Tibetan Studies, no. 4 (December 2008): , http://www.thlib.org?tid=T5567 (accessed ).

Note Citation for Whole Review

Bryan J. Cuevas, “Review of Rulers on the Celestial Plain: Ecclesiastic and Secular Hegemony in Medieval Tibet. A Study of Tshal Gung-thang, by Per K. Sørensen and Guntram Hazod, with Tsering Gyalbo,” Journal of the International Association of Tibetan Studies, no. 4 (December 2008): 1-7, http://www.thlib.org?tid=T5567 (accessed ).

Bibliography Citation

Cuevas, Bryan J. “Review of Rulers on the Celestial Plain: Ecclesiastic and Secular Hegemony in Medieval Tibet. A Study of Tshal Gung-thang, by Per K. Sørensen and Guntram Hazod, with Tsering Gyalbo.” Journal of the International Association of Tibetan Studies, no. 4 (December 2008): 1-7. http://www.thlib.org?tid=T5567 (accessed ).

Table of Contents

  1. Review of Sørensen’s Rulers on the Celestial Plain
  2. Glossary
  3. Specify View:
  4. Specify Format:
  5. Download
  6. Cite This Article
  7. Citation Help
  8. Help
  9. Back to Issue 4
  10. Back to JIATS