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The Buddhist monuments of Khartse Valley, Western Tibet

Date:2011-06-14 20:07 Hits:

Tshe ring rgyal po (Tibetan Academy of Social Sciences, Lhasa) and Christiane Papa-Kalantari (Austrian Academy of Sciences, Vienna)

[Motto: below Fig. 1] The prophesy of the Sage (Śākyamuni) is announced in many sūtras and tantras thus: ‘In seven times five hundred years from my nirvāṇa there will appear a monk with a bird-like face and he will spread my teachings’. The ancestral home of this lama was Hrugs-wer of Kha-tse in Gu-ge (Snellgrove and Skorupski 1980: 85).

From the 10th century onwards, a large number of Buddhist temples and monasteries were founded in the area which constituted the political domain of the kings of Purang Guge (Pu rang Gu ge) in Western Tibet (mNga’ ris). Members of the royal lineages and their aristocratic allies played a vital role as patrons of Buddhism during the phase of the ‘Later Diffusion of Buddhism’ (bstan pa phyi dar) which led to the establishment of impressive intellectual and spiritual (as well as remarkable political) centres. As a consequence, a long tradition of refined and complex artistic Buddhist culture developed in Western Tibet. Major sites (such as Tholing [Tho ling], Tsaparang [rTsa rang], Dungkar [Dung dkar], etc.) have been at least partly studied in detail by various scholars (in the 1930s for example by Giuseppe Tucci and in the last two decades by Chinese, Tibetan and international scholars).

Since the late 1990s, various previously little or unknown sites have been explored and initially documented (see for example Huo Wei 2007). Among these new findings are those made in the Khartse (mKhar rtse) Valley (see Pritzker 2000, von Schroeder 2001, Pritzker 2008). Explorations in this valley carried out by Tshe ring rgyal po since 2002 have not only brought to light the existence of further hitherto unknown Buddhist sites (see Tshe ring rgyal po 2006). They also revealed that the monuments, paintings and objects preserved there represent important examples of a wider historical Western Tibetan Buddhist tradition dating to periods between the 11th and 19th centuries. Moreover, finds of texts and artefacts or other religious items from different epochs also reflect the historical development of the various sites of importance for their Buddhist and art-historical heritage. This wider cultural and artistic perspective constitutes therefore constitutes comparative focus of the present paper. Based on the field research conducted by Tshe ring rgyal po, this article provides a first assessment of the previously almost unknown Buddhist monuments in the Khartse Valley in terms of their historical and art historical value and presents a survey of their interior decoration guided by the aim of demonstrating their considerable potential for further research. Due to the limitations of space, this presentation relates to only a very small selection from the large amount of documented material available, and for the same reason only a very limited number of aspects can be discussed here.

Geographical setting
The Khartse area forms a huge longitudinal valley, enclosed by steep cliffs in the centre of Tsamda (rTswa mda’) County (Figs. 1 and 2; Maps 1 and 2). This county is located in the south-east of the Ngari (mNga’ ris) Prefecture, at a latitude of 30.5˚–32.4˚and a longitude of 78.5˚–79.8˚ and includes one township, five villages, and fifteen administration hamlets. Its area is 24,601.59 sq. km with a population of c. 6,500 people. The southern and northern regions of the county are at higher altitudes than the centre of the county, so that it is shaped like a large basin. The average elevation is around 4,000 m.

Khartse Village lies c. 20 km south of the Sutlej (Glang chen kha ’babs) River at a latitude of 31.29˚ and a longitude of 79.26˚. Coming from Senge Khambab (Seng ge kha ’babs) / Shiquanhe, the modern capital of Ngari Prefecture, one can reach the Khartse area (Fig. 3) today by travelling southwards to Tsamda (Tholing) and from there on a jeepable road c. 70 km distance to the west. Upstream the Sutlej River (c. 20 km away as the crow flies) lies the well-known site of Tsaparang, the former capital of the kings of Guge. To the north-east are the equally significant early Buddhist sanctuaries of Dungkar and Phyiang (Phyi dbang).

Sites in the Khartse Valley
The Buddhist monuments of the Khartse Valley are scattered among various sites all over the area and partly cut into the cliffs of the longitudinal valley. In the lower, northern part of the valley which functions as a ‘winter place’ (dgun sa) are five major sites: (Old) Khartse Village (Map 2: I) and within its residential area the Maitreya Temple (Byams pa lha khang) and Khartse Monastery (Map 2: II) housing the famous Jowo (jo bo) statue and other important early Buddhist sculptures (see von Schroeder 2001: 70–73). To the west of Khartse Village is the famous Nyag Cave Temple (Nyag phug pa lha khang) (Map 2: III), part of a sacred landscape to which the ruins of a monumental temple (lha khang), the shrine of the female protective deity (srung ma) known as Nyag Dorje Chenmo (rDo rje chen mo) as well as monumental stupas (mchod rten) also once belonged. Both the temple and the cave date back to the 11th century. Their interior programmes display strong Indic and Kashmiri artistic affinities which have been adapted to Western Tibetan iconography and aesthetic values. On the top of the hill above Khartse Village old monumental stupas from the same period have fortunately survived in an un-restored state. According to local sources, one of them houses the relics of the body of the Great Translator (lo chen) Rin chen bzang po (pronounced Rinchen Zangpo) (958-1055). The cave complexes known as Brag rdzong (pr. Drakdzong) (Map 2: IV) and lCang lo can (pr. Jang Lojen) (Map 2: V) lie further to the north and contain images of enormous iconographic complexity and colourful splendour displaying strong Central Tibetan affinities characteristic of the historical phases across the whole region from the 13th century onwards.

The upper southern part of the valley is a high-altitude region (4,300 m) and is the ‘summer place’ (dbyar sa) of the local population. It contains the mKhar rdzong (pr. Khardzong) (Map 2: VI) and Bar rdzong (pr. Pardzong) (Map 2: VII) cave sites. The transition between summer and winter place is marked by the seat of three female local deities (yul lha).

Old Khartse Village (mKhar rtse yul)
Old Khartse Village is the centre of the winter place (Fig. 4). The village lies stretched out on a plain in the secluded valley, with a steep cliff positioned like a curtain behind it. Among the low mud-brick buildings merging with the arid surrounding landscape, the Maitreya temple is specifically embellished and honoured by the white colour of its exterior walls.



The historical importance of Khartse is already attested in the hagiography (rnam thar) of lo chen Rin chen bzang po (motto at the beginning/ from a middle-length version). According to the extant versions of this text, the Great Translator belonged to the Hrugs wer clan which had a strong presence in the Khartse area. Its thirteen ancestral branches (pha sgo bcu gsum) are still part of the oral traditions of the area and live on in the aristocratic lineage of the Khartse ‘king’ (rgyal po) to this day. Rin chen bzang po’s hagiography also mentions his subjugation of female local deities and demons and their subsequent appointment as guardians or protective deities of temples founded by him in the Khartse area (see below).

The Maitreya Temple (Figs. 5 and 6) at the centre of Old Khartse Village may perhaps have its origins in an early Buddhist temple. This assumption is also supported by an old, elaborately executed wooden portal (Fig. 7), whose workmanship clearly belongs to the rich tradition of woodcarvings in Western Tibet and its predecessors in India. Among the latter the timber architecture of Chamba and Lahoul is of special significance. While the doorframe may stem from the early Buddhist phase of the valley or slightly later (11th–13th c.), the present interior decoration is clearly from a later period, possibly dating from the 19th century.

Khartse Monastery (mKhar rtse jo bo og dkar phug dgon)
Khartse is most famous for the Jowo statue, which dwells in a prayer hall of a cave complex in the cliffs (Figs. 8 and 9). It is well known throughout and beyond Western Tibet, and must have been a focus of pilgrimage since arriving in the area. According to his hagiography, Rin chen bzang po returned from one of his journeys to India with a bronze statue of Avalokiteśvara, which might possibly be associated with the present image of the Jowo in Khartse Monastery. The Buddha in its crown allows its identification as Avalokiteśvara. The bronze sculpture of the Jowo is remarkable on account of its workmanship and its size, corresponding – according to the same source – to the height of the father of Rin chen bzang po. In his hagiography we are further informed about the circumstances of the transfer of the sacred image to Khartse and about how the statue lost a finger of its right hand, which corresponds to the current state of the statue.

A lock and a key are also said to date from the time of Rin chen bzang po, and people believe it was the private lock that he brought back from Tholing before he died (Fig. 10). The monastery’s murals – painted in a rather simple local style – show an important image of the local sacred landscape, featuring the Jowo, together with depictions of three local deities (yul lha) who are conceived as ‘sisters’ and regarded as protectresses of the area (Fig. 11). The murals featuring Buddhist images are also from a rather late phase (17th/18th century?) but – in contrast to the historic depiction of the sacred landscape – they are executed in an elaborate and refined style displaying strong Chinese-style affinities/tendencies?.

The Stupas (mchod rten)
A remarkable group of stupas is positioned on the top of the hill above Khartse close to Khartse Monastery. One of the stupas (Fig. 12) is particularly interesting, as it has survived in an evidently un-renovated state and thus provides an important document of the original 11th-century structure, providing valuable evidence for the reconstruction of the architectonic development of this type of religious monument in the region. The base of the stupa is fashioned as a three-stepped square and contains niches at the cardinal points. Above this base, which is also conceived as ‘throne’ (khri), there might be the core of a once hemispherical dome conceived as vase (bum pa), shrine or womb (garbha) on which rest the harmikā (the ‘palace of the gods’) and the upper spire; the latter is typically composed of up to thirteen umbrellas (gdugs). Of the crowning finial – usually crescent moon, sun disc and dissolving flame – only a wooden pillar remains, representing the central axis of the stupa and denominated as ‘life-wood’, or ‘life-tree’ (srog shing).

Particularly interesting are not only the specific shape of the monument but also the original decorative elements such as the figural depictions on the zone above the cupola (bum pa, bum sgo) (perhaps representing the Four Great Kings as well as the ornamental details executed in clay recalling the symbolic shape of the ‘ox-eye’ or gavakṣa motif of Indian temple architecture. A stupa depicted in the Alchi Dukhang (’Du khang) has a similar characteristic shape and also displays the figures of a Buddha as well as flanking figures on the cupola. The structure of the building also recalls votive stupas from Northern Pakistan and Kashmir (cf. Zin 2003: fig. 5 on p. 407). The stupa provides important material for detailed comparative studies including this type of monument from the same artistic phase.

Ruins of the Nyag Temple (Nyag lha khang)
In the vicinity of the stupas, below the Nyag cave, are the ruins of a huge free-standing temple which is also of great importance (Figs. 13 and 14). The place name of the cave (Nyag) refers to the body of the scorpion: according to local belief, the Nyag cave sanctuary, together with a stupa erected on a nearby hill (Fig. 15), control the two pincers of the animal. It is thought that the two monuments put pressure on the body of the animal, preventing it from rising and doing harm to the temple lying between.
This impressive monument is situated on a large plain in the valley. The structure measures roughly 15 m from east to west and 7 m from south to north. The massive cube-like shape of the construction is in the tradition of Western Tibetan temple architecture with a combination of stone rubble, timber and mud bricks, adapted to the harsh climatic and seismic conditions of the region. The Tabo Main Temple (gtsug lag khang) shows a comparable typology and dates from the same historical phase. The ground plan of the Nyag Temple includes an entry chamber (sgo khang) in the east leading to the Assembly hall (’du khang), which has a sanctum (dri gtsang khang) with ambulatory (skor lam) in the west. The monument once contained clay sculptures which were affixed to the walls. A view of the south wall of the cella (Fig. 14) shows that very little of these deities, mainly their haloes, is still visible. The figures probably once formed a mandala configuration. This iconographic and compositional scheme characteristic of the period from the mid-11th century onwards contrasts with the monumental standing Bodhisattvas flanking the main icon in the cultic centre of Tabo which stems from an earlier, Central Tibetan-influenced phase at the end of the 10th century (Jahoda and Papa-Kalantari 2009). It is said that ten years ago some parts still had paintings, and in fact traces of haloes in rainbow colours together with a few other elements are still visible. Unfortunately when parts of the remaining roof collapsed the walls started to crumble rapidly from to exposure to rainwater which is gradually washing away the remainder of the paintings. Despite its precarious condition, the temple is of great importance for the study of the evolutionary history of this building type, the underlying geometry of the layout and the original construction technique.(cont......)

List of Plates 
1–2. Khartse Valley (above); view of Tsamda area from Khartse (below)
3. Landscape around Khartse Village area
Map 1. Ngari Prefecture, Tibet Autonomous Region, PR China
I (Old) Khartse Village, II Khartse Monastery, III Nyag Cave, IV Brag rdzong Cave,
V lCang lo can Cave , VI mKhar rdzong Cave, VII Bar rdzong Cave
Map 2. Sites in the Khartse Valley, Western Tibet
4. Old Khartse Village
5. Maitreya Temple (Byams pa lha khang)
6. Chamber with Buddhist sculptures and thangkas, Maitreya Temple (Byams pa lha khang)
7. Detail, wooden portal with a protector deitiy (rNam thos sras) at the centre of the lintel
8. View of the cliff with Khartse Monastery
9. The Jowo (jo bo) Avalokiteśvara bronze sculpture reflecting a Kashmir-style trend in the 11th century
10. Rin chen bzang po’s lock on the entrance door
11. Wall painting featuring the monastery where the Jowo (jo bo) resides and a procession of the ‘three sisters’ (local tutelary deities)
12. Medieval stupa at Khartse (note the images of deities and ornamental features in clay on the spire) 
13. Ruins of the monumental Nyag Temple (Nyag lha khang), view from north
14. Fragmentary remains of the internal decoration of the temple with sculptures in clay


(editor:Pe ma)