Tibetan and Himalayan Library - THL

THL Title Text
Pabongkha Hermitage
by José Ignacio Cabezón
1991
Section 3 of 5

Founding Narratives

PabongkhaPha bong kha, also known as Maru Castle, has a history that spans more than thirteen-hundred years. Traditional accounts tell us that the oldest building on the site, the temple known as PabongkhaPha bong kha (“Boulder House/Man”),8 predates the JokhangJo khang, LhasaLha sa’s central cathedral. If this is true – and carbon-14 dating may prove definitive in deciding this, as it has in helping us to fix the date of the interior portions of the JokhangJo khang itself – it would make the main temple at PabongkhaPha bong kha one of the oldest Buddhist monuments in the Tibetan world, dating to seventh century.

There are two distinct narratives of the founding of PabongkhaPha bong kha. The first relates the founding of the hermitage to the building of the JokhangJo khang. The second relates it to the figure of TönmiThon mi, the legendary founder of the Tibetan writing system and literary language. In each case, the founding of the monastery is associated with foundational events in the introduction of Buddhism into Tibet. In both narratives, the turtle spirit, who resides within the giant boulder at the site, is seen as something to be controlled or dominated. But in the second account, it is portrayed as something wondrous rather than as a threat. In neither of these narratives is the turtle gendered, as it will be in the later apocalyptic myths of the PabongkhaPha bong kha site (see below).

Version One9

According to many Tibetan sources, the JokhangJo khang – the central cathedral of LhasaLha sa and the first Buddhist temple built in Tibet – is said to have been constructed to house the statue of the Jowo Mikyö DorjéJo bo mi bskyod rdo rje, brought to Tibet by Songtsen GampoSrong btsan sgam po’s Nepalese queen. But the building of the JokhangJo khang was no easy thing. The site where the temple was supposed to sit was a swamp or lake (tsomtsho), and the water of this lake was the heart’s-blood (nyingdraksnying khrag) of the female demon that lay supine over (or in some accounts that actually was) the landscape of Tibet. The demoness, we are told, had to be subjugated if Buddhism was to thrive in the country.10 And so, the narrative continues, Songtsen GampoSrong btsan sgam po ordered that the area be filled with dirt. The dirt was carried on the backs of goats.11 Once the site had been prepared, construction on the JokhangJo khang began. But the portion of the walls that went up by day would be destroyed by demons at night. The Nepalese queen asked her co-wife, the Chinese queen, to perform an astrological prognostication to determine how to deal with this problem. The Chinese queen determined that an earth spirit, a golden turtle named Ser MahaGser ma hā,12 who lived in the northern mountains of the LhasaLha sa Valley , was the cause of the problem.13 She recommended that the king build a fortress at the site: an edifice that, being placed atop the huge turtle-boulder, would subdue the spirit beneath it, thus clearing away the obstacles that were impeding the building of the JokhangJo khang temple.

The interior of Songtsen GampoSrong btsan sgam po’s meditation cave located in the Female Turtle Boulder . The throne is said to have been Songtsen GampoSrong btsan sgam po’s actual meditation seat.

Songtsen GampoSrong btsan sgam po then built a nine-story fort made of bricks mortared with molten metal on the “back” of the Female Turtle Boulder .14 It was fastened to the boulder in each of the four directions with powerful, magically-blessed chains. He and his two wives then set themselves to meditating in this building for a period of three years. According to an alternate tradition, Songtsen GampoSrong btsan sgam po meditated not in the castle but in a cave inside the huge boulder: a cave that has been preserved to this day.15 While living in this cave he had a vision of a goddess, Pel LhamoDpal lha mo,16 who promised to act as the protectress of the site, and of Buddhism in general. According to another account,17 on the third day of their retreat, the king and his two queens had visions of the Three Protectors, who promised to help the king realize his plan to introduce Buddhism into Tibet. They dissolved into a rock, and the figures of the three deities then emerged spontaneously from the rock-face. These self-arisen images of the three deities are to this day found on the main altar of the Temple of the Three Protectors in the southern part of PabongkhaPha bong kha hermitage. Finally, PabongkhaPha bong kha is said to be the place where Songtsen GampoSrong btsan sgam po and his court created Tibet’s first legal code: the set of “sixteen rules of purity for the populace” (michö tsangma chudrukmi chos gtsang ma bcu drug), which was then spread throughout the empire.18

The self-arisen image of the protector deity Pel LhamoDpal lha mo inside Songtsen GampoSrong btsan sgam po’s meditation cave.

Version Two19

In the alternate narrative of the founding of PabongkhaPha bong kha, the JokhangJo khang has already been built, and the king and his ministers are residing in LhasaLha sa. One morning, while inspecting the LhasaLha sa Valley from atop the roof of the White Palace in LhasaLha sa, they noticed “a large dark shape” (nakril chenpo zhiknag ril chen po zhig) in the middle of the trees on the side of Cakrasaṃvara mountain north of LhasaLha sa. The next day they went to inspect the site, and saw that the dark shape was a giant rock shaped like a turtle. Songtsen GampoSrong btsan sgam po thought to himself, “TönmiThon mi is about to return from India, and I should build him a palace that can serve as the headquarters from which he can spread the new written language. This place [PabongkhaPha bong kha] is a beautiful place, and the turtle is a wondrous thing. I will build TönmiThon mi’s palace here.” The king designed the palace himself. Once the foundation was finished, he had molten metal poured onto it so that the turtle-rock and the nine-story building would be forever fused as one. Once TönmiThon mi arrived, Songtsen GampoSrong btsan sgam po set him up in this palace, and TönmiThon mi began to teach the written language – first to the king and his ministers, and then to others, who in turn spread this knowledge throughout Tibet.20 But before beginning to instruct his fellow Tibetans, TönmiThon mi wrote the six-syllable mantra (oṃ maṇi padme huṃ) for the sake of good luck. According to one account, the king saw these letters, was amazed, and had them engraved onto a rock. An alternative account tells us that TönmiThon mi from the outset traced out the letters onto the rock’s surface, and that they then magically emerged in bas-relief in a self-arisen image fashion. This rock has been preserved, and can be seen in the Temple of the Three Protectors at Pabongkha Hermitage (Pabongkha RitröPha bong kha ri khrod) even to this day.21

The stone bearing what oral lore says are the first Tibetan letters written by TönmiThon mi, kept in the Temple of the Three Protectors at PabongkhaPha bong kha.

The Gendered/Sexual Landscape

There is one other aspect of the site – related to the narrative of the turtle – that must be mentioned. Oral tradition has it that there are in fact not one but two turtle spirits on the site, each associated with its own boulder. The boulder that sits lower on the hill – the one on which Songtsen GampoSrong btsan sgam po built his castle – is said to be the Female Turtle. Northeast of the Female Turtle, farther uphill, there is another larger boulder identified as the Male Turtle. A small structure (before 1959, it was a stūpa) has been built atop it. Oral tradition has it that the Male Turtle is attempting to slide down the hill to unite sexually with the Female Turtle, and that if this event occurs, it will usher in an apocalypse – that is, the destruction of the universe by wind, fire, water, and so forth.

There are two factors that are seen as preventing this. First, each of the two turtle boulders is fixed in its respective location by Buddhist monuments. The Female Turtle is fixed in place by the castle/temple built by Songtsen GampoSrong btsan sgam po, which is said to have a mythic axis/pole running through its middle that pierces the heart of the Female Turtle and holds her in place so that she cannot move.22 The Male Turtle is held in place by the previously-mentioned stūpa. Second, the stūpas that have been built between the two turtles are said to act as an additional barrier – a second line of defense, as it were – between the two boulders/spirits. In one account, there are said to be one hundred and eight stūpas, each one of them containing one bead from TsongkhapaTsong kha pa’s rosary.23

The Male Turtle Boulder .

The myth of the turtles both presumes and reinforces aspects of Tibetan gender ideology. First, the relative position of the two turtles is hardly accidental. In the natural world, as in the social world, the male must be located higher. Sexually speaking, as well, the cultural logic requires that the male be in a position to mount the female – yet another reason for situating the Male Turtle on top of (and descending towards) the female. It might seem strange that sexual union, a generative act, should be seen here not only as threatening, but as the very deed that ushers in the end of the world cycle. But we must remember that this was most likely an oral myth created by monks, and that for monks sex is the end of a world – the end of their vows, and therefore of their life/world as celibates. Sex that takes place within the confines of a monastery is, moreover, considered to be a great sin (dikpa chenposdig pa chen po). Sex in a holy place also brings pollution. From several vantage points, therefore, there is an imperative to keep sex from happening within the confines of PabongkhaPha bong kha. Finally, we must not forget that the turtles are in actuality geo-spirits (sadaksa bdag): the powerful indigenous gods who are the original “owners” of LhasaLha sa. The mating of the two spirits might have been seen as potentially leading to the proliferation of these creatures as a species, or to their reassertion of power over the land that was once theirs. To have allowed this to happen is to have risked the destruction of the world of Buddhism, whose existence on Tibetan soil depends metaphysically on the control of Tibet’s native spirits. The stūpas that separate the turtle spirits in the physical space of the monastery are the physical symbols of Buddhism as the force that controls the indigenous spirits of the country in the meta-physical sphere.


[8] One might image two quite different etymologies of the word “PabongkhaPha bong kha.” The word might be (1) a corruption of pabongkhangpha bong khang, “The house (on) the Boulder”; or (2) a more euphonious form of the word pabongpapha bong pa, “The Man from the (Site of) the Boulder.” In the first instance, it is the architecture that gives the site its name. In the second instance, it is the first inhabitant.
[9] The following account is based principally on Dungkar TsikdzöDung dkar tshig mdzod [Dungkar Dictionary], but see also the version found in Pabongkhé KarchakPha bong kha’i dkar chag, 20bf, which varies insignificantly.
[10] The legend and symbolism of the supine demoness has been discussed by Janet Gyatso in Down with the Demoness: Reflection on a Feminine Ground in Tibet, in Janice Willis, ed., Feminine Ground: Essays on Women and Tibet (Ithaca: Snow Lion, 1987).
[11] The original name of Lha sa was RasaRa sa, that is, “Goat Earth.” There are many legends related to goats in LhasaLha sa – from the Great Female Goat [Temple] (RamochéRa mo che) to the statue of the goat inside the JokhangJo khang itself.
[12] Pabongkhé KarchakPha bong kha’i dkar chag, 21b: sa bdag gser ma hā gser gyi rus sbal gyi dbyibs.
[13] Such a turtle is mentioned in other historical works. For example, the The Clear Mirror: A Royal History (Gyelrap Selwé MelongRgyal rabs gsal ba’i me long) states that “in the north at PabongkhaPha bong kha in NyangdrenNyang bran there is a black turtle”; Sakyapa Sönam GyeltsenSa skya pa bsod nams rgyal mtshan, The Clear Mirror: A Traditional Account of Tibet’s Golden Age, transl. by McComas Taylor and Lama Choedak Yuthok (Ithaca: Snow Lion, 1996), 165. On the relationship of turtle spirits to divination, see R. A. Stein, Tibetan Civilization (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1972), 209-210.
[14] Lhasé GöntoLha sa’i dgon tho, 15, quotes Khöntön’Khon ston’s karchakdkar chag to the effect that Maru Castle was built by Songtsen GampoSrong btsan sgam po “when he was fifteen years old in the female-water-hare (chumo yöchu mo yos) year,” and that he began meditating there when he was twenty-one years old.
[15] Songtsen GampoSrong btsan sgam po’s act of meditating inside the Female Turtle might of course be seen as an act of penetration of Tibet’s natural spirits, a subjugation of the indigenous spirits of Tibet through an act akin to rape.
[16] This goddess, who presumably as the same deity later known as Penden LhamoDpal ldan lha mo, came to be considered the protector deity of Tibet. After the rise of the Ganden Palace (Ganden PodrangDga’ ldan pho brang – the government of the Dalai LamaDa lai bla mas) the cult of Penden LhamoDpal ldan lha mo became incorporated into the rituals of the state. Pabongkhé KarchakPha bong kha’i dkar chag, 31a, states that this cave is the actual palace (podrang ngöpho brang ngos) of the deity.
[17] Pabongkhé KarchakPha bong kha’i dkar chag, 22a.
[18] Pabongkhé KarchakPha bong kha’i dkar chag, 32b-33a.
[19] The account that follows is principally based on that found in Dungkar Dictionary (Dungkar TsikdzöDung dkar tshig mdzod). The account in Pabongkhé KarchakPha bong kha’i dkar chag, 19bf, on the site’s relationship to TönmiThon mi and to the founding of the Tibetan written language, varies only slightly from the one given here.
[20] Lhasé GöntoLha sa’i dgon tho, 15, cites the Fifth Dalai Lama’s The Nāga Song of the Queen of Springtime (Chikyi Gyelmo LuyangDpyid kyi rgyal mo’i klu dbyangs) as the source for this tradition.
[21] Pabongkhé KarchakPha bong kha’i dkar chag, 20a, states that therefore “(PabongkhaPha bong kha) appears to be the site in LhasaLha sa known as the ‘Moon Cliff,’ which is said to be where the first Tibetan letters were engraved.”
[22] In this narrative the Female Turtle takes the place of the supine demoness spoken of in the myths of the founding of the JokhangJo khang.
[23] There is a certain anachronism here, given that (at least in some versions of the history of the site) the stūpas are said to have been built by the early KadampaBka’ gdams pa masters who lived at the site, and who predate TsongkhapaTsong kha pa by several centuries.
#!essay=/cabezon/sera/herm/pabongkha/
Pabongkha Hermitage , by José Ignacio Cabezón

Table of Contents

  1. Introduction
  2. Location and Layout
  3. History
    1. Founding Narratives
    2. Later History
  4. Glossary
  5. Notes
  6. Specify View:
  7. Specify Format: