The funerals of the ancient Tibetan kings (the tsenpos) were solemn ritual affairs involving a range of specialist priests and lasting months or even years. At the end of the whole process, the tsenpo was buried in a huge mausoleum made of packed earth. It is not very clear exactly what happened during the long period between the tsenpo’s death and his interral in the tomb. But there is a crucial passage in one of the stories in the Old Tibetan Chronicle from Dunhuang, which tells of how the first funeral ceremony for the Tibetan tsenpos came about.
The vital passage appears in the story of Drigum Tsenpo, the first of the royal line not to pulled back up to heaven on a sky cord. In the story, the tsenpo’s body has remained on earth and, to add insult to injury, been kidnapped by a spirit. The spirit demands a child as a ransom for the body of the tsenpo. When a child fitting the purpose is found, the child’s mother makes certain demands that set the precedent for the funeral rituals of the tsenpos for all futurity:
When he asked the mother, “What do you want in recompense for her?” the mother answered: “I want nothing but this: that in all future when a bTsan-po, who has withdrawn as a ruler, dies, a top-knot of the hair should be bound like a braid, the surface (ngo, of the body) should be anointed with vermilion (mtshal), the body should be lacerated and scratched, incision should be made into the corpse of the bTsan-po, and it should be taken away from men that it may decay. Food should be eaten and drunk. Will you do like that, or will you not do like that?” Thus she spoke. (Haarh 1969: 405)
Now, Haarh’s work is a tour de force, but I have some doubts about his translation here. And since one often sees it repeated in accounts of the funerals of the tsenpos, it seems worth having another look at it. Since it’s such an important passage, I don’t want to be dogmatic here. I will just suggest an alternative way of reading the text.
The piercing of the tsenpo’s corpse is mentioned in the Old Tibetan Annals for the tsenpo Dusong (in 778/9) and the regent Tri Malo (712/3). As Haarh says, this probably refers to an embalming treatment of the corpse. But there seem to be no references to cutting off the tsenpo’s hair, anointing his face with vermilion and lacerating his body. And another reason to think the mother is not talking about the tsenpo here is that ordinary words for face and body (ngo and lus) are used, rather than honorific ones (zhal and sku). I also think that it’s logical to translate this passage so that the mother starts to talk about the treatment of the corpse when she specifically says “the corpse of the tsenpo” and not before that.
So, here’s a different way of reading this crucial passage:
When he asked the mother, “What do you want in recompense for her?” the mother said: “I want nothing but this: that forever to come when a noble tsenpo dies, [the mourners] cut off their topknots, anoint their faces with vermilion, and lacerate their bodies. The corpse of the tsenpo is to be pierced, and taken away to the people. The food is to be eaten and drunk. Will you do it like that?”
If it is the mourners who cut off their hair, paint their faces and cut their bodies, and not the tsenpo, that means we need to revise our ideas of the funeral practices of the early Tibetans a little. What interests me most is the way this reading of the text brings the funeral rituals of the tsenpos closer to those of other Eurasian cultures – for example, the Scythians. We know quite a lot about the funerals of the Scythian kings because Herodotus wrote about them in the 5th century BC. Here’s what he wrote:
The tombs of their kings are in the land of the Gerrhi, who dwell at the point where the Borysthenes is first navigable. Here, when the king dies, they dig a grave, which is square in shape, and of great size. When it is ready, they take the king’s corpse, and, having opened the belly, and cleaned out the inside, fill the cavity with a preparation of chopped cypress, frankincense, parsley-seed, and anise-seed, after which they sew up the opening, enclose the body in wax, and, placing it on a wagon, carry it about through all the different tribes. On this procession each tribe, when it receives the corpse, imitates the example which is first set by the Royal Scythians; every man chops off a piece of his ear, crops his hair close, and makes a cut all round his arm, lacerates his forehead and his nose, and thrusts an arrow through his left hand.*
And as a commentator on Herodotus recently wrote: “The magnificent funerals of the Scythian kings have several parallels among Eurasian nomads of every age…” Indeed, restricting ourselves to the practices of cutting off the hair and self-laceration among mourners, we can easily pick out the following further examples. It was reported that at the funeral of Attila the Hun, mourners cut off their hair and made deep cuts in their faces. They kept the body in a ceremonial tent for a time before being buried. The Xiongnu (a nomadic empire that ruled northern China for a while in the 3rd and 4th centuries AD) buried their kings in large tombs, and plaits of hair have been found in some of those that have been excavated. The Khazars (around in the 7th-11th centuries) buried their dead in mausoleums near rivers, and at the funerals they beat drums, whistled and lacerated their faces. And so on
What we see again and again is the mourners cutting off their hair and lacerating their faces and bodies. This seems to me to be quite persuasive circumstantial evidence for rereading the Old Tibetan Chronicle in the same way. It also shows just how much the religion of the early Tibetan clans preserved the culture of their nomadic ancestors from the northern steppes. Other aspects of the tsenpo’s funerals which I haven’t mentioned here are also found among Eurasian nomadic peoples – like the long period elapsing between death and burial; the sacrifice of animals, especially white ones, and especially horses; and the killing and entombment of the king’s retainers.
I think all this helps us to see the early Tibetan religion (at least the myths and rituals surrounding the tsenpos) in the wider Eurasian cultural matrix shared by Scythians, Huns, Khazars, Turks, Mongols, and many more people of nomadic origin. If course that was only one part of the rich cultural heritage that characterized Tibet’s pre-Buddhist religion, but thanks to the success of the tsenpos, a particularly important part.
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Pelliot tibétain 1287, ll.44-47: de blu na ji ‘dod ces ma la drIs na / ma na re gzhan myI ‘dod / nam nam zha zhar / btsan po rje dbyal zhig nongs na / thor to ‘phren mo ni bcings / ngo la mtshal gyis byugs / lus la ni bzhags / btsan po ‘i spur la nI ‘tshog / myI la ‘phrog lom / zas la nI za ‘thung / de ltar bya ‘am myi bya zhes mchi nas /
And another note…
I also have doubts about the latter part of Haarh’s translation, that is, the line (referring to the tsenpo’s corpse “and it should be taken away from men that it may decay.” In Tibetan, this is myI la ‘phrog phom. For a start, I’m pretty certain the last syllable is not phom. I’ve been pouring over the image (see left) and I think the most likely reading is lom, though I’m not sure what this could mean in the context. In any case, that’s not a pha. Haarh interpreted this phom as a form of ‘bam pa, “decay”. There being no reason to read phom, there’s no reason to think the text is talking about decay. Why should it, when the point of piercing the tsenpo’s corpse was embalmment?
It’s also interesting that the Tibetan has myi la, not myi las — that is, it is not clear that the corpse is to be taken “from” the people. The point of the long delay before burial among the Scythians, Ossetians and the Mongols was to bring the corpse to various clans so that they could make offerings and pay homage. Could we read this line then as “it should be taken to the people”? As Haarh pointed out (on pages 358-60), the Old Tibetan Annals mentions corpses being placed in a ring khang, which he interpreted as a Totenhaus, or “house of the dead.” But this doesn’t necessarily exclude the possibility that the tsenpo’s corpse — like those of Scythian and Mongol leaders — was also taken of a grand tour of the major clans first.
Suggestions are welcomed, as ever…
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1. Asheri, David, Alan Lloyd and Aldo Corcella. 2007. A Commentary on Herodotus, Books I-IV. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
2. Baldick, Julian. 2000. Animal and Shaman: Ancient Religions of Central Asia. London: I.B. Tauris.
3. Haarh, Erik. 1969. The Yar-lun Dynasty. Copenhagen: G.E.C. Gad’s Verlag.
4. Heller, Amy. 2003. “Archeology of Funeral Rituals as revealed by Tibetan tombs of the 8th to 9th century.” Transoxiana (Ērān ud Anērān Webfestschrift Marshak 2003). Click here.
5. Herodotus. (translated by George Rawlinson). 1885. The History of Herodotus, New York: D. Appleton and Company.
* You can see the Herodotus quote above in its proper context, which is Book 4 of the Histories, here.
1. Scythian tomb-ware, from the website of CAIS (see here).
2. Pelliot tibétain 1287 (The Old Tibetan Chronicles).