Since May 2007 Sam van Schaik writes a Silk Road related blog about the history of Tibet, called earlyTibet
Sam is based at the British Library, where he runs a.o. a research project on Tibetan and Chinese paleography, as part of the International DunHuang Project.
His research focuses primarily on the impact of social and historical factors on key issues in Tibetan culture. These include the contemplative tradition of the Great Perfection, the tantric ritual system and its social contexts, and the development of mythical narratives of imperial Tibet. He has also written on the intersection between orality and literacy, and on the social and historical context for the creation and development of the Tibetan writing system.
The site is an evolving resource for the study of the history of Tibet, mostly from the “early” period of the 7th to 10th centuries, but with occasional forays into more recent events and it is written very vividly and understandable for anyone.
On august 25 he published his latest article in a series of three about Amdo, a city at the far northeastern borders of the Tibetan Empire.
Amdo Notes III: Gold and turquoise temples
What brought us to Amdo in the first place was a pilgrim who passed this way in the 960s. He was a Chinese monk from Wutaishan, and like many Chinese Buddhists before him, he dreamed of travelling to India to study at the great university of Nalanda. We know about this particular pilgrim because he left his passport behind in Dunhuang, where it was sealed into the library cave and only emerged again in the 20th century. His name might have been Daozhao.
The passport is more like a series of letters of recommendation written to monasteries along the pilgrim’s route. Interestingly, though he was a Chinese monk, he took a fairly indirect route so that he could visit the major Tibetan Buddhist sites of Amdo. His itinerary through Amdo went like this:
-The city of Hezhou, now known as Linxia.
-The mountain retreat of Dantig (see the previous post).
-The city of Tsongka, near the modern city of Ping’an.
-The city of Liangzhou, now known as Wuwei.
-And then along the Silk Route to Ganzhou and Dunhuang.
All of these places (except Dantig) are now Chinese cities, with very small (if any) Tibetan population. So it’s difficult to imagine that three of them were once Tibetan kingdoms. After the fall of the Tibetan empire, these little kingdoms were strongholds of Tibetan culture and Tibetan Buddhism. The pilgrim’s itinerary tells us that he was visiting Hezhou and Tsongka to see their “gold and turquoise temples.” And these were not little kingdoms either. Chinese sources report that in the year 998 Liangzhou had a population of 126,000, the majority of whom were from Tibetan backgrounds.
So it’s strange to walk through the city of Ping’an now, and imagine what once was there. Tsongka appears in one of the earliest Tibetan inscriptions, the Zhol pillar in Lhasa (dated by Hugh Richardson to the 750s or 760s). Here Tsongka is the site of battles between the Tibetan and Chinese armies. Later, at the beginning of the 11th century, Tsongka came to the aid of China’s Song dynasty, as one of the last bastions holding out against the rising Tangut empire. Since Tsongka was friendly with the Chinese, it was their lifeline in maintaining the trade route with the West.
Tsongka continued as an independent kingdom until the 12th century when it was finally swallowed up by the Tangut empire. But it was still famous enough in the fourteenth century that a local boy who went to study in Central Tibet was known as Tsongkhapa: “the man from Tsongkha.”*
If you squint, can you see Tsongka’s shimmering gold and turquoise temples through the heat haze and pollution of Ping’an? Perhaps not. But you can go just a little way out of the city, where the mountains rise up on the other side of the Yellow River, and visit the ancient cliff temple of Martsang. Here, it’s said, was where the monks who fled the persecution of Buddhism by the emperor Lang Darma (see here), finally came to rest.
Below the temple at Martsang is this image, said to be a self-manifesting Maitreya. That is to say, the image is said to have emerged spontaneously from the rock. I heard that it was dated by scientists to the Tang dynasty, but I haven’t been able to verify that claim. In any case, as you can see, it seems to have been repainted fairly regularly.
And then we looked up… If the temple at Martsang isn’t old, this half-collapsed cave certainly is. Notice the three mandalas painted on the ceiling.
And notice as well the little square holes leading up to the cave. Perhaps this was once a walkway, or an even bigger structure built into the side of the cliffs. When you turn around and look back towards the modern city sprawling below you, and beyond that the lush Yellow River valley you can image that, yes, this could have been the home of a Tibetan kingdom.