Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Turkish & Mongolian Loanwords

The Tibetan words here are, to transcribe them into Wylie, in order:  sku-bde-rigsgang-zag, chol-kha, 'jam, thu-lum, na-so, no-kar, pag-shi, beg-tse, sbe-ka, tshan, she-mong, hor-dud, and am-chi.
In times gone by, musk was the most popular Tibetan product in the whole world. Now that the musk deer is considered endangered it’s been replaced by synthetics, so much so that now Tibet’s biggest money maker is Buddhism, which seems to be facing the same fate. The Mongolian is kuderi, and the Tibetan borrowing of it gives it Tibetanizing spellings that make it seem to mean family of healthy bodies, but using very honorable language. Why would Tibetans ever think to borrow yet another word when they already had such a perfect one of their own for it, gla-ba? I have no idea.

Gang-zag is a tricky word, since its usual meaning is person (Sanskrit pudgala), not pipe.

I know I once claimed that sbe-ka had something to do with the Sanskrit word for frog, and now all of a sudden I’m contradicting myself finding an Old Mongolian origin for it in a word for wrestler. I admit I was probably wrong, although come to think of it I could have been right. More on the frog below.

You may well wonder what metal ingots might have to do with whole animal pelts. Well, even if you weren’t wondering: In ancient times in the Middle East and elsewhere, there was a practice of pouring molten metal into whole animal skins immersed in water. The result would be an ingot with four short legs that made the very heavy objects a lot easier to for two people to handle.






Emchi is nowadays a most common Tibetan word for physician, entirely suitable for addressing your doctor in person. Goldstein's dictionary even records the spelling em-rje, one of those cute Tibetanizing spellings since the 2nd syllable means lord, making it all that much more respectful.

I imagine all, or at least most, of these loanwords from Mongolian entered Tibetan during the time of the Mongolian Empire and not before. I doubt you will find any of them in the Dunhuang documents or other pre-Mongol period sources, but you can test this for yourself at the OTDO.

Here is a photo of a horse-hair thug, a traumatic symbol of Mongolian terror in the late 12th-13th centuries that we mentioned in an earlier blog. Still today, Tibetans use it to mark the location of gönkhang chapels where fear is (ideally) taken onto the Path.








The Tibetan words here are, to transcribe them into Wylie, in order:  khol-po, cog, chu-ba (or phyu-ba), 'cham, thug, sbal-kha, yol, gshang, and sag-ri.

Many of these words are not commonly encountered in Tibetan and a few are extremely rare (the names of Turkic gods, cog and yol only occur in long-forgotten Old Tibetan documents), although others such as chu-ba and 'cham are everyday words.

Here is a home video that shows you not only how to wrap your chuba, but momo making, too. There is plenty of evidence for what early Uighur outfits looked like in donor portraits. Look here. Find a discussion of the word-connections here (but please do correct the picture label there to read "Tibetan Chuba").

On the Turkic words for both the masked performers and the bell (just below), see Emel Esin's A History of Pre-Islamic and Early-Islamic Culture (Istanbul 1980), p. 107.

The gshang bell, used primarily by followers of Bön, but also by some Kagyü Lamas and spirit mediums, looks like this:





For the Tibetan word for that shagreen that helps keep a tight grip on knives and swords, have a look at this March 2009 blog entry of Sitahu where C.C. and I had a lot of fun discussing it. I must say, I have nothing more to say about it, much to my chagrin.


I’ve found that you can find a lot more Tibetan words taken from Mongolian in a convenient list — with discussion — in the 2008 doctoral dissertation of Tóth Erzsébet (Elisabeth Toth), Mongol–Tibeti Nyelvi Kölcsönhatások (found online here), pp. 13-34. It’s interesting that the Tibetan word used in recent times for Russia, ཨུ་རུ་སུ་, was taken from Mongolian. It would appear that Rgya-ser/ རྒྱ་སེར་ ['Yellow Expanse'?] is the more genuinely Tibetan name for it, but it, too, doesn’t seem to date back more than a few centuries, so I very much doubt it could have anything to do with the Khazars.


All these vocabulary connections are provisional and merit prolonged study, reflection and discussion.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

The Emperor's Beer Jug

Quoted from the Dutch painter Jan Havickszoon Steen (1626-1679 CE)

I just noticed an interesting thing in a drawing I had looked at very many times over the years. I was following up on a reference from Michael Henss’s new book. While looking at that sketch again with the beer jug of Songtsen Gampo on my mind,* I couldn’t help but be impressed at how well Haarh had so long ago caught the shape of this horse-headed (camel-headed?) vessel, especially since I believe he could not have known about the actual one kept in the Jokhang unless Hugh Richardson told him about it. That’s possible, I suppose, although I do doubt it.**
(*Go back to this post if you can't remember what that is. **I should check if Grünwedel could have mentioned it in his German translation of the Fifth Dalai Lama's guide to the Jokhang. Oh well, some other time.)

As you can see in the scan just below, Haarh's version deviates toward an oblong canister shape in place of the near-spherical, but we can overlook that with ease and still remain impressed. The words you see here labeling it, dngul-gyi bum-pa rta'i mgo-can - དངུལ་གྱི་བུམ་པ་རྟའི་མགོ་ཅན་ - may be translated silver vessel having head of horse.

A chart reconstructing a royal cenotaph of Songtsen Gampo.
The text that forms its basis speaks of three silver vessels having horse heads.  Haarh, p. 355.*

*Erik Haarh, The Yar-luṅ Dynasty: A Study with Particular Regard to the Contribution by Myths and Legends to the History of Ancient Tibet and the Origin and Nature of Its Kings, G.E.C. Gad's Forlag (Copenhagen 1969), illustration on p. 355. An amazing accomplishment in its day, Haarh's book is awesome still (and awesomely hard to find; my copy, fast falling out of its cover, is an ex libris of an early Tibetanist now turned Methodist preacher), although today we see faults here and there, especially in the translated passages. Haarh made this work of criticism easy for us by supplying side-by-side paralleled Tibetan texts for all these passages, and for that, too, we have to thank him.

In case you are too tired to look back at the earlier blog, I put a photo of the jug here for you. Now compare the two.





See the resemblance?

Was the Jokhang jug itself just a funerary offering object? If so we would have to wipe out from our imagination any scenes of the living emperor enjoying a beer from it, and that would be more than a little sad and a bit of a shame. Instead we would have to imagine his ghostly spirit doing the same. I think we should keep faith, and regard it as an object meant to be used for its intended purpose, to dispense mildly intoxicating beverages to the Emperor and his most honored guests.

There seems to be ample testimony in the post-imperial accounts of his reign that Songtsen Gampo enjoyed beer drinking. While he and his magically projected puppet-automatons were doing the construction work on the Jokhang his wife or her servant every afternoon brought him a beer snack.* If hard pressed, I could come up with more stories about his drinking, but leave it at that for now.
(*Beware, that unusual word for snack bsang-bu is often disguised under the spelling gsang, that you had always thought means secret)

And even more surprising news awaits you. Among the votes for this or that country of provenance for the imperial jug — Scythian, Greek, Iranian, Tibetan and Sogdian — nobody* has ever mentioned the Uighur Turks. The Uighurs had kingdoms both impressive and prosperous, but bear in mind that the wall painting we will look at in a second could not have been painted before 856 when the Uighur kingdom of Kocho (Qočo) began. Before that their power center was much further north, in the Orkhon River Valley of Mongolia, and that kingdom, too, only formed a century after Songtsen's death.

 (*Except A.H. in an email, which definitely counts)


It was Amy Heller who alerted me to the pictorial evidence that follows, although I extracted it from my copy of Emel Esin's book, A History of Pre-Islamic and Early-Islamic Turkish Culture (Istanbul 1980), and not from her article.



From murals of the palace of the Uighur Rulers in Koco.  Drawn from Grünwedel.




Taking a slow and patient look at it, you will gradually make out a fancy table with small drinking vessels on top of it. Behind the table, and mostly hidden by it, are taller vessels for holding a sufficient amount to serve one table. And there next to the upper human figure are two still-larger vessels with animal heads (which animals do you see?) standing ready to pour into and refill the taller vessels. Observe the transition, the fluid transmission so to speak, from larger to smaller vessels: keg to pitcher to flask, and finally, not least of all, to mouth and stomach and so on.

Well, this is the point where I ought to drop a surprising conclusion, but I'm not sure enough where we stand. My impression is that the Tibetan vessel has enough foreign and primarily Uighur or more broadly Turkic elements in it, that we would be justified in claiming it was brought to Tibet from there. Of course, the Uighurs were living much further from Tibet in the century of Songtsen than they would be in subsequent centuries, but I don’t regard the distance as an insurmountable obstacle, do you? In any case, let’s hold off on strong judgements until more information can make us feel more secure in them. A sense of certainty can often conceal deeper insecurities, certainly if it’s premature.




Here, in what follows, I’ve collected for comparison several important quotes that concern Emperor Songtsen Gampo’s beer flask. On the basis of these, Tibetanists ought to be able to form their own conclusions, not forgetting there are some references to Tibetan-language sources we ought to look up, too. That means especially the ones supplied by Roberto Vitali.


I won’t take any of these people to task for not seeing things my way. Anyway, my way is (I know I just said it, but repeat to be sure of not being misrepresented) to wait and see what more connections will be made in the future. I may venture some tiny criticisms here and there that don’t amount to much. Personally, I am more and more willing to see Eurasian luxury trade items in imperial Tibet. At the same time I would wish certain people in the art world would give up their erstwhile assumptions that Tibet did not have worthwhile artists and had to bring artists from abroad (that they did in imperial times and later on make use of foreign artists, Khotanese and Newar artists in particular, and that those artists had a strong impact on local styles is beyond dispute). There are Uighur Turkic and Dunhuang connections not only in the general shape of the jug, as I believe was made clear above, but also in some of the main details of its decoration. I will leave it up to Amy Heller to go into that further since she is the one who pointed the main connections out to me. I just think in upcoming discussion of the jug people ought to concentrate on precisely these issues, and not (or not yet on) the nationality of its makers. We wouldn't want those judgements to be based on ruling assumptions about who was capable of producing what, when it is precisely this kind of ruling assumption that requires reassessment. It isn’t as if we have a tremendous amount of material to work with for these earliest phases of Tibetan artistic history. There are practically no well-established artistic benchmarks from so early on. As far as general history is concerned, we know when Songtsen died, but practically everything else about him is arguably up in the air or at least elusive and shadowy.


The most important available writing on the subject by far is the online article of Amy Heller that we’ve mentioned before,* and there was also a short online reaction to her essay that mainly disputes her ideas about the national identities of the artists, arguing they were Sogdian, not Tibetan. Amy wrote more on early Tibetan metalwork here, and an even more recent and important article available online in PDF here. It appears that Veronica Ronge of Bonn presented a lecture entitled “Srong btsan sgam po's Beer Jug in the Jokhang, Lhasa” at the Tibetan Studies conference in Fagernes, Norway in 1992, although I’m sure I missed the chance to hear it and it was not published in the proceedings. I would have quoted from Ulrich van Schroeder’s book (Buddhist Sculptures in Tibet), but it’s beyond my purchasing power. I know you can find it in a local library if you live in London, but I don’t. Much less expensive, but still expensive, is Michael Henss's very new 2-volume book The Cultural Monuments of Tibet, published by Prestel  (Munich 2014). This is clearly the author’s magnum opus, a labor of love, the work of a lifetime, and one he will be remembered for far into the future.**

(*Amy's essay is beautifully illustrated, just click on the small photos and large ones appear. **Henss's discussion, in vol. 1, pp. 77-79, is a lengthy one, and my keyboard fingers are aching for a rest, but for a little more on it, see below.)


Here are the quotes:

Victor Chan, Tibet Handbook: A Pilgrimage Guide, Moon Publications (Chico 1994), p. 91, in its description of Chogyal Songtsen Lhakhang (a chapel in the Jokhang, one level up from the ground floor):
"Next to the east wall (between the two entrances, on a wood stand in a cabinet) is the Chögyal Trungben, the king's beer container, a round, potbellied silver vessel with a long spout. A horse's head with protruding ears is the terminal decoration. Notice the exaggerated, drunken figures at the bottom of the pot. The workmanship is clearly not Tibetan. The repoussé decorations (garments, boots, hair styles) show a possible Indo-Iranian influence and are often seen in Kushan artwork (late 1st-3rd century). One source suggests a Scythian origin for this vessel. Tradition asserts that this chang bowl was concealed in a gorge of the Kyere Valley in west-central Tibet. Tsongkhapa later discovered it and brought it to the Jokhang."
My note:  Amy Heller — in her online article on the Jokhang jug — quoted from Situ's guide for its 1920-ish description of the same temple chamber, but there it says it was taken as a treasure (gter), meaning it was unearthed, at the intermediate entrance (bar sgo or bar so?) into Yerpa. The Yerpa Valley is a wonderful place rich with historical associations, blessings of holy people and meditation caves just a short drive upstream from Lhasa. This pilgrimage place holds a special connection with the Jokhang and with Lhasa as a whole. Sometimes Lhasa is said to have its life-wood (srog-shing) in Yerpa. I guess Chan means by Kyere Valley, a place southeast of Lhasa called Gye-re. That’s quite a distance from Yerpa and in the opposite direction from Lhasa, so there is some conflicting information to deal with here. I have the feeling someone misspelled Gye-re as G.ye-re, and then misheard it as the Yer in Yerpa, or is that too farfetched? One problem with this idea is I’ve never been able to come up with an instance of the spelling G.ye-re, except as a misspelling noted below.

I’m not sure “exaggerated, drunken figures” is quite right. Only one figure is drunken, the others are either helping the poor drunken man over to the couch or playing musical instruments (drunk or not). Also, I’m unclear on what exactly is exaggerated. What would they have looked like if they were unexaggerated, Any idea?


~ ~ ~

Hugh Richardson, High Peaks, Pure Earth: Collected Writings on Tibetan History and Culture, Serindia (London 1998, but originally published in 1977), p. 254:

"The chang-snod rta-'go-can, or dngul-dam rta-mgo-ma (DLV, p. 59) is a round-bellied silver jar with a long neck surmounted by a horse's head.  DLV states that it was discovered by Tsong-kha-pa in a hidden treasure. The jar, as seen in recent years, bore the date of the fire-dog year of the 16th rab-byung — i.e. 1946 — a new covering in exact replica having been put over the original jar for its protection. The skill of Tibetans in the sixth and seventh centuries in making animal figures of precious metal is attested in several passages in the T'ang Annals (see my 'Early Burial Grounds in Tibet,' [Ch. 28 above]). Another reputed relic of Srong-brtsan Sgam-po is an earthenware beaker, now protected by a silver case, which is taken ceremonially to the bka'-shag and to the houses of the old noble families early in the sixth month."

~ ~ ~

Hugh Richardson, Ceremonies of the Lhasa Year, Serindia (London 1993), p. 96 (with reference to annual observances held early in the sixth month):
"This day [the 4th day of the 6th month] is also associated with King Songtsen Gampo who is said by tradition to have introduced Buddhism to Tibet in 642 A.D., although the manner of this connection seems fairly inappropriate. A drinking mug, trungben, which he is said to have thrown from the roof of the Potala in a drunken frolic and which survived unbroken, is ceremonially taken to the Dalai Lama's morning reception for officials and offered to those present, who ritually flick a drop of its contents into the air. On the following two days it is taken round by its custodians to the houses of the Shappés and other high officials. One year a friend among the custodians brought it to me as a great honor so that I could make the ritual offering. It was a simple earthenware mug in a protective silver cover. It is said that the mug was concealed after the end of the kingdom and recovered by Tsongkhapa in a hillside near Lhasa, where its imprint is still to be seen."

~ ~ ~

Gyurme Dorje, “Zhakabpa's Inventory of the Great Temple of Lhasa,” contained in: G. Dorje, et al., eds., Jokhang: Tibet’s Most Sacred Buddhist Temple, Hansjorg Mayer (London 2010), pp. 47-121, at p. 81 (with small sized photo):

"A cabinet resting on a wooden stand in front of the main image still contains an original silver wine flask which may well be of Scythian or Kushan origin, and which is known as 'khrungs ban rta mgo ma. This was reputedly the wine flask used by King Songtsen Gampo himself. It had been inserted as treasure in the fissure of a rock within the Gye-re (Drakral) Ravine, and later, in the early fifteenth century, it was extracted by Tsongkhapa and presented to this chapel as an offering. The fissure is said to have subsequently assumed the shape of the wine flask. Some reports also suggest the flask has been silver plated in recent centuries. Like the ring, the wine flask appears to have been employed only once a year during the dPal lha ri khrod ceremonies, at which time it is said to have been filled quickly and easily by those of greater merit but slowly by those of feeble merit."  
— Note that there are more references to the beer jug in this same book, just look in the index under "Wine flask of King Songtsen Gampo."

~ ~ ~

Roberto Vitali, Early Temples of Central Tibet, Serindia (London 1990), p. 84, note 4:

“The rGyal.po bKa'.thang (see GPKT&LPKT, 157) gives a review of such concealed treasures [gter.ma] and their hiding places in the Jo.khang. Of particular note is that the king hid several silver chang pots. The Srong.btsan sgam.po chapel on the upper floor today houses a chang pot whose rediscovery tradition attributes to Tsong.kha.pa at dBus.stod Gye.re in the sTod.lung valley (5DL KCh, 36; ZKCh, 64). It is said that he brought it back to the Jo.khang. The latter two sources describe it as a horse-headed pot, though personal inspection suggested a camel’s head, which means that it could be one of the three camel-headed silver chang pots mentioned in the rGyal.po bKa'.thang together with ten other silver pots bearing duck heads.”


~ ~ ~


Michael Henss, The Cultural Monuments of Tibet, vol. 1, pp. 77-79.  Here are a few notes on the content of his relatively lengthy discussion:  

He says in the picture caption, with apparently strong conviction, that the “Wine jar of King Songtsen Gampo,” is “Work of a Central Asian artist in Tibet, c. 8th century.” I wonder about the “c. 8th century,” since it seems to suggest it comes from the time of Trisong Detsen, rather than Songtsen Gampo, but I see no discussion, so perhaps it's just a slip. He says the silver was hammered in repoussé technique in four parts. I thought the figures were made separately and then attached, so I confess a little confusion. In his footnote 215 (at p. 198) he supplies an impressive set of references to the discovery of the jar, with the various sites of discovery that have been mentioned, and its presentation to the Jokhang by Tsongkhapa. Here I notice the spelling G.ye-re (i.e. གཡེ་རེ་) for the site name, which is of course quite different from Gye-re (i.e. གྱེ་རེ་), the usual spelling. And there is further discussion of stylistic questions that may argue for the national identity of the artists. 

I have no final or even semi-final judgement of my own to offer about the jug, but I’m quite sure there was a lot of trade in foreign luxury goods in the imperial period. If anyone makes a judgement about this object because they believe Tibet did not participate in international trade in those times, then my feeling is they ought to look into the matter further and change their minds. Not to get into it too deeply, we could just ask, Weren’t Tibetans getting something back in return for all that musk the rest of Eurasia was so eager to obtain? 


The larger photograph on p. 78 of Henss’s book is especially interesting, since it shows the decoration of the upper part of the pot very clearly. You can even make out words from the recently added inscription on the neck, including the date it gives for something or another (what?). One possibility I believe has not yet been offered: the jug was made by local Tibetan artists of the imperial era as a copy of a much-admired foreign object, perhaps one looted through foreign conquest, even if the northern conquests of the Silk Routes seem to have begun only a decade or so after Songtsen Gampo’s time, which is to say in around the 660’s CE. We may have to give up the idea that it belongs to Songtsen Gampo’s time, I’m not sure.

__________



What do we call it?

I suggest in future when discussing this object we use either the word jug or the rather antiquated flagon.  I haven’t noticed anyone so far using flagon, but I think it suits the object well, just that it isn’t used nowadays. In current English the word flask (although it does share its Germanic etymology with flagon) is used for small containers, especially invoking images of hip flasks or pocket flasks used to carry small amounts of alcohol for discrete imbibing in public places. That’s why flask isn’t appropriate for our Tibetan Emperor, if you ask me. But then flagon, a larger container in any case, may be inappropriate just because most people believe a handle and spout to be among its defining characteristics. Did the Jokhang flagon once have a handle that was broken off? While it does appear to have a spout of sorts, the main way of accessing the liquid is via a spigot. Well, yes, I wonder if the spigot wasn’t added later (to be used for more easily and quickly dispensing drops for pilgrims), but if it is an integral part of it we might have to call the whole thing a keg. Trouble is, a keg we imagine as quite a large and even barely liftable object. Kegs would be used to fill flagons. What do you think about all this? And what’re your views on ewer?




__________





Afterword:  An earlier blog “In Praise of Beer” really went off the charts, as the most-accessed Tibeto-logic blog in recent times. I’m positive this one won’t be read nearly as much. That’s entirely okay. I’ve made a decision to make Tibeto-logic less and less popular, and the only way to gauge my success is to see there are fewer and fewer visitors. I’m not the only blogger to notice that in recent times there have been hardly any comments, which is a little sad. I once dreamt of Tibeto-logic becoming a kind of wide-open sounding board for significant Tibetological issues. Should I sign up for Facebook? Shy and antisocial as I am, I dread going there. Instead I’ll make videos of Tibetological celebrities busy about their work and upload them to YouTube. You may think I’m serious. No, I’m just nervous. And for no reason... I think I’ll have a beer.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

A Hard Concept












Tsongge José said, “Oh Dampa, Delusion must have a very good foundation stone. No sooner do you think it’s dissolved but it proves itself invincible.”  Dampa was delighted to hear this, “Nothing could be more true than what you just said,” he replied. “The foundation of our selfhood-concept is harder than rock. Its illusions are more firmly in place than the four-sided mountain, [and that mountain has ] a peak of suffering higher than the sky. You may as well fire away with the catapult of your learning and reflection. You can go ahead and gouge away with the chisel of the [spiritual or meditative] precepts. Destroyed? Hardly! It doesn’t even get a crack. If the foundation that lies at the root [of the selfhood-concept] collapses on its own, it’s only then possible it can be destroyed.”

—The source is the Zhijé Collection, vol. 2, p. 295. I added a few things in parentheses for clarification, but that doesn't mean this is otherwise a word-for-word translation, it isn’t. I was also able to compare with a newly available Bhutanese text from Tsakaling... I'll have more to say about these amazing old Padampa manuscripts that are being made available these days in some other blog.


This Padampa story suits my mood today, so I whipped up a translation.  Besides, I’m sure most regular readers of Tibeto-logic are by now royally sick of all the talk about material goods in those regalia blogs (and there may be more to come, I’m sorry to say).  The Nyingmas have an odd and curious term they use sometimes a-’thas (ཨ་འཐས་), that means something like persistent materialization. Just because  things seem solid doesn’t make them so.  I’ve noticed the term used in ways quite similar to Dzogchen usage in the Zhijé Collection which is an interesting thing. I’ve also noticed some translators using that cold contemporary term as dear as it is endemic to academic theorists —  reification — to stand for a-’thas.  Not completely off, not all that bad really, but still trying to play basketball on what is very clearly a soccer field, I think.

I put the frontispiece — ultimately based on the Berlin manuscript* of the biography of Lord Shenrab known as the Gzer-myig (acquired from Austin Waddell) — for no other reason than it shows a shamanic type of priest holding a feather.  Well, the German caption says it’s a priest, but the Tibetan caption says it’s a donor (yon-bdag - ཡོན་བདག་), quite a different story.  You can see that one hand holds the feather while the other holds a flat-bell, a gshang (གཤང་). In the section that comes immediately after the one we just translated, Padampa does a divination for the community holding a feather in one hand and a bamboo in the other. It isn’t clear how this divination was supposed to work, but I’m trying to figure it out by looking more into his divination practices in general. They seated a young girl on a white felt cloth, and she seems to be the one who made a choice between the feather and the bamboo. The white felt cloth suggests the altar cloths often used by Tibetan shamans and mediums. I’ve noticed Padampa’s use of the white felt as altar cloth on another similar occasion. I believe I can also justify characterizing Padampa's role here as shamanic because of who he invokes. He doesn't call up Buddhas or Bodhisattvas. He calls upon two entities, the lord/owner of the sky and the lord/owner of the earth.
(*You can find it at the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin, where it is the first among the Waddell manuscripts.  Now available online, here [amazing to look at], it was catalogued a long while ago by Dieter Schuh.)


I think in a very real way the Indian master Padampa is here, as in the other example I mentioned, playing the Tibetan-style shaman for the sake of his community of Tibetan meditators. In this case they were facing a potentially devastating problem, one hinted at in other places, a serious epidemic disease that could have wiped them out completely. Even the most seriously spiritual people are likely to have this-worldly problems that require their immediate attention. Unless you see something else here, that may be Padampa's teaching for our day.






Saturday, November 08, 2014

More Questions of Regalia



This list was already posted here. To start at the beginning, go here.

Here we are, back with those nine regalia passed down in the Tibetan imperial line, couched in terms that are mostly very difficult to read and understand. Why bother with them? I know some people are wondering what Tibetans could have done with regalia, anyway. They're thinking, Weren't all Tibetans peacefully meditating in caves all the time so why ever would they need rulers? Or, at one of the other extremes, Weren’t those primitive Tibetans always so completely satisified with their lot being a part of the Chinese motherland in the capable hands of their Han superiors, what could they have possibly been doing with power symbols like regalia? We may have more to say on these much more significant subjects another day. It isn’t my present plan to reduce anybody’s stereotypes to dust, as if they would even begin to let me (just this once excuse my delusions of grandeur thinking I might ever succeed in such wickedness).


Right now we’ll just wonder why it is that we find two very different lists of regalia in the Deyu (ལྡེའུ་) history. Well, the dating of the earliest Tibetan member of the imperial dynasty Nyatri Tsenpo, the one who came down from his home in the sky, is impossible to calculate using our quotidian tools of historical verification. But let’s say for the sake of saying something that he lived around 127 BCE.  (Don’t quote me on that, although this is in truth the basis for calculating the ‘Tibetan royal year’ - བོད་རྒྱལ་ལོ་.)  That’s the time when the first set of regalia would have appeared, the list that begins with the seashell wampum —  the Riji Cowries — but otherwise contains mainly self-powered, even we could say automated tools of warfare, cooking, bodily ornamentation, millstones and so on.*  

(*It also includes an item that excites a lot of popular interest, the nine-stepped Rmu ladder, རྨུ་སྐས་རིམ་དགུ་. We won't go that way today, since it would take all of next week to get this blog up.)
Oh, and another thing — The Deyu history historian doesn’t really say anything for himself. He just quotes from other sources, including some bona fide document-quality sources, and he never tries to make his different accounts harmonize with each other as a careful writer would do. What that really means is we ought to trust the Deyu history even more than, say, Butön's more famous one. Butön was no doubt a great writer, but the Deyu historian was a great collector.

The second list, the one you see above, is mentioned for a historical context around 1,300 years later, the time of Atisha and Rongzompa sometime in the 11th century. There was a problem in the royal succession that involved disputed ownership of the regalia.



We’ve already offered some kind of solutions for numbers 1 through 3 as well as 5. Just yesterday a light switched on above number 4. And perhaps it’s time to turn on a tiny nightlight for no. 6, also, and see if we can get somewhere with it. Let’s get started and get it over quickly, in case you have more important matters begging for your immediate attention. Oh well, I would just like to tell you, Relax, so what if you do?


Number 4 could be very literally translated as copper [thing] - having navel.  As one of the parting gifts from his mother as the first emperor was about to descend from the sky, it is likely something of domestic or culinary use. Here zangs doesn't mean just copper, it means copperware. If there were a syllable preceding it, we would know what kind of copperware was intended, but unfortunately it appears here by itself.* Among the possibilities, more likely intended would be either a water vessel or a cooking cauldron made of copper. Or I suppose a second syllable could have been dropped, in which case we might think of a platter made of copper (zangs-sder - ཟངས་སྡེར་), a copper sheet (zangs-glegs -  ཟངས་གླེགས་ for zangs-ma’i glegs-bu - ཟངས་མའི་གླེགས་བུ་), or again, a water vessel (zangs-bu - ཟངས་བུ་).

(*We would expect a two-syllabled term here. That would preserve the parallelism with the others in the list. It's also possible the initial syllable was dropped here).


The thing that decided me in favor of a more particular shape for the object is the lte-ba-can, meaning having a navel.  How to explain the navel?  Remember we mentioned one of the power symbols used by Caesar, the patera, a kind of ritual libation bowl the Greeks called phiale?  In the middle of this small bowl is what else but a navel? It's called a phiale omphalos (or mesamphalos). An example is illustrated in von Heland's book, and it was that particular one that gave me the Eureka! moment. Just feeding the words into a searchbox can yield a number of examples, like this one:



Taken from an online auction house, where it is given the date 5th century BCE

I add a photo of the bottom side, so you can see that the bulge inside, in the middle, corresponds to the concave outside, in the base.  This indentation allowed use of the bowl with one hand only, with no need of a handle. In ritual lustrations you might need the second hand free for holding other things.  With this kind of bowl one finger and a thumb should be sufficient to keep the bowl under control.


The underside of the same bowl


I'm not sure we should argue that the Tibetan item was the same, or even had the same function, as the Latin and Greek (I think not), just that if we are looking for a piece of metalware that has a navel, no need to look further.  We can at least begin to imagine what the Tibetan item could have looked like and why. This solution has the virtue of requiring not even the least emendation in the reading.*
(*Not overly relevant here, but the Tibetan object that most corresponds to the phiale in both form and function would be the ting offering bowls you find on Tibetan Buddhist altars everywhere.  [The phiale is shallower in its shape, and that is one important difference.] It's been suggested the ting word is a borrowing from Chinese, but some disagree and I'm not ready to reproduce these arguments here and now. I slipped in a photo of the Tibetan bowls further down below. These are totally not the more famous singing ones, in case you were wondering, although another meaning of ting is the sound that comes from striking metal, or as we would say in English, Ding!)


Now just a word on number 6 and we’re done for the day. No. 6 is the one regalia term that seems most opaque. As it is, hardly anything makes sense. The first two syllables don’t make sense, and neither do the final three. We’re left with little choice but to emend it, the question being only how best to do it.  


I was thinking, since this triadic group of regalia is all about food preparation and serving, and given that 4 is a copper vessel and 5 a silver ladle, then what thing resembling me-tor would fittingly fill in the blank?  The answer that came to my mind at least was me-phor. I do recognize the problem that there is insufficient graphic or phonic similarity that could explain the ph-to-t shift, forcing us to argue that a form me-thor could have come in between: ph-to-th-to-t. Whenever an emendation requires more than one stage we are likely to regard it with suspicion, but in this case it only involves change in one letter after all, so why not? The ph (ཕ་) could have shifted to th (ཐ་) for graphic reasons, and then to t (ཏ་) for phonic. To put it simply, to the best of my knowledge me-tor means nothing in Tibetan, while me-phor means a brazier, a metal cannister-shaped implement made to hold coals for cooking or tea warming. A couple of examples of these braziers are illustrated in one of the several books that have come out in recent decades about the Potala Palace of Lhasa. Here is what the more fancy one looks like:



After The Potala: Holy Place of the Land of Snows (1996), p. 191.  The
English-language caption says it is a white copper stove made in 19th century.
The base forms a tripod.


For the time being agreeing the first two syllables mean brazier, what can we do with the last three:  ti-lig-can, or having ti-lig? Any idea what this ti-lig might be? I have none. Yes, it did occur to me it might be something drawn from Sanskrit, and I’m still considering the idea. I think it looks more like Zhang-zhung than Tibetan, but if that were so it would mean water life. That’s not making sense — water life decorating a brazier? I don’t think so! — so I’m wondering how I could emend the reading. Perhaps the scribe was a little dyslexic, and meant to write li-tig. If that were so: Perhaps the brazier had orange lines, or Khotanese lines (in either case the spelling li-thig would be working better), I don’t know. Or is li for bronze or bell-metal, meaning the brazier had lines or drops or bits of bronze decorating it? That seems to work for me, although I’m not sure it’s the truth of the matter.* It’s never a good sign when you’re trying too hard.
(*It may or may not be relevant, but the one item that is most frequently paired with the me-phor is something called the khog-ltir/khog-ldir, a kind of kettle and/or teapot made of either clay or metal. Brazier with kettle would have made sense here, I suppose, but making such an emendation would take far too much work to be believable.)


§  §  §



Places to read or find out a thing or two:


Bu-ston Rin-chen-grub, Butön's History of Buddhism in India and Its Spread to Tibet, a Treasury of Priceless Scripture, tr. by Lisa Stein and Ngawang Zangpo, Snow Lion (Boston 2013).  Butön's history is now available to English readers in a much more readable and less forbidding version than that old (but not badly done) Obermiller translation, and for this we must be thankful. There are about two thousand missing footnotes, but I guess there are readers who won't miss them. Compared to the Deyu, Butön's treatment of Tibet is very thin indeed, largely confined to the history of the translation of Buddhist scriptures into Tibetan, the subject of his greatest concern, obviously.

Madeleine von Heland, The Golden Bowl from Pietroasa, Almqvist and Wiksell (Stockholm 1973). Unfortunately here there are no color photos of this unique gold bowl, associated with some kind of late Platonic cult, so for that we have to go to the internet, especially this short but remarkable video that finds scenes of Orphic initiation in its figures. Interesting.

A.A.Y. Kyerematen, Panoply of Ghana: Ornamental Art in Ghanian Tradition and Culture, Frederick A. Praeger (New York 1964). I just located a copy of this book, very rich in photographs and information on African regalia. As expected anywhere there is a cult of royalty, figuring very largely are chairs, clothing, ornaments and weapons. But there are also musical instruments, umbrellas, fly whisks, palanquins and staffs of office (scepters). If cooking utensils are considered regalia, as it seems they are, they remain the property of the queen. I believe at some point the African evidence will have to be regarded as relevant to rulership patterns throughout Eurasia and beyond. As you probably have heard Africa is now increasingly regarded as the actual Garden of Eden,* with African Eve the genetic mother of all Eurasians.  Hmmm...  Pygmy Kitabu was right after all! Even if Colin Turnbull didn't think so.


Asadullah Souren Melikian-Chirvani & Jaʿfar Šahrī, "Brazier," Encyclopaedia Iranica, vol. 4, fasc. 4, pp. 443-444. Also online here. Nowadays braziers are better known as barbecue grills. Well, not exactly equivalent, but close enough. I found a set of fascinating old photographs from Tehran. You'll find there not only braziers (prepare to be surprised at the way they are being used), but some obvious examples of regalia.