What happens between death and the tomb?

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 the mother answered: “I want nothing but this: that in all future when a bTsan-po, who has withdrawn as a ruler, dies, a top-knot of the hair should be bound like a braid, the surface (ngo, of the body) should be anointed with vermilion (mtshal), the body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.

* * *

Tibetan text

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…

* * *

See also
Buddhism and Bon I: the religion of the gods
The Red-Faced Men I: warriors with painted faces

* * *

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).

7 thoughts on “What happens between death and the tomb?

  1. One thing, I think that you ought to include somehow the feminine in your translation of this part:

    nam nam zha zhar / btsan po rje dbyal zhig nongs na /

    I’m not sure, but it looks like you might have just overlooked it.

    stangs-dbyal is the usual pair in Old Tibetan inscriptions, etc., but you also find it in Bon scriptures quite often, too. Sometimes it looks like yin-yang (or rather, yang-yin). I think R.A. Stein discussed it. And Googlebooks took me to p. 35 of H. Richardson’s Corpus of Early Tibetan Inscriptions (1985), which apparently cites this very piece (Cuevas also did something with it in his book Hidden History of the Tibetan Book of the Dead, p. 224, note 36, although it looks like he must be following Haarh here [he cites Haarh p. 405]… He takes the dbyal to mean something like ‘withdrawn,’ which is surely not correct!).

    I’m guessing the btsan po rje dbyal ought to be translated as three separate things: 1. Emperor. 2. lord. 3. lady. Whenever any one of those three happened to get nongs-ed, then the following would apply (the repetitive form of the nam zhar looks like it could be a use of repetition with distributive meaning…. ‘Whenever any one or another of these’).

    There is a lot more to discuss in this. Like I wonder if the mtshal really means ‘vermillion’ here, or is it just a word for ‘blood.’ You find sku-mtshal on a following line of the OT document, where it is evidently just supposed to be a word for the high-class corpse. But in later times it seems sometimes to be an honorific meaning simply ‘blood’ (in context of relic listings). What exact useful effect would smearing vermillion have on the corpse, anyway? (Besides of course to make it red, which I suppose could be enough.) Just thinking aloud.

    It’s still amazing that Haarh was able to work up the confidence to translate it at all. Not at all surprising that there are some problems with his translation.

    And speaking of funerary rites, have you had a chance to have a look at the last part of John Bellezza’s latest book? I haven’t. Happy Halloween.

  2. Dan, thanks for kicking the (Hallowe’en) ball straight back. Or should that be a pumpkin?

    Yes, I glossed over rje dbyal. It could well be, as you say, three kinds of people, tsenpos, lords and ladies. But, seeing as the passage refers specifically to the body of the tsenpo, it doesn’t seem to be describing an all-purpose funeral for any royalty. Perhaps it could be the tsenpo male and female pair: i.e. the tsenpo and his queen(s). This *seems* to be the usual use of stang(s) dbyal (a quick and unscientific assessment made purely from Googling the term just now). There are references in the Annals to funeral rituals for other members of the royal family. Could bstan po ever refer to other royalty? I’d never previously thought that it could.

    As for tshal, I think this came up in those “Red-faced men” posts. If it’s the mourners having their faces painted (and not the corpse) as I argued here, this suggests that funerals were one of the circumstances in which the red face painting that gave the early Tibetans their nickname was practised. I suppose it could have been blood, given that they were lacerating themselves as part of the process. If it was vermillion or another red dye, surely it was meant to represent blood anyway?

    I have much admiration for Haarh, and Bellezza too. I hope to see that new book sometime soon.


  3. S., Well, I can’t come up with any good argument that would persuade in favor of one or the other of our solutions to the problem of the phrase

    btsan po rje dbyal zhig

    but it seems to me that the zhig has to be taken seriously. It’s certainly an indefinite article, isn’t it? So it must mean ‘a/an,’ which helps underline the ‘whichever’ idea. So it wouldn’t be just the Emperor whose funerary procedures ought to be carried out in this way, but the Imperial Consort, or (I would say) the lords and ladies, as well. (Would there be some parallelism here with other phrases like rje-‘bangs and rje-khol? If so I think I might be coming around to your point of view…)

    Leaving that one in limbo, I’m still wondering what you propose to do with these phrases, which I’m not satisfied have yet been comprehended by anyone:

    lus la ni bzhags / btsan po ‘i spur la nI ‘tshog / myI la ‘phrog lom /

    I think there’s still some missing key to understanding here, not that I can put my finger on it. Our wise woman speaketh in riddles it doth seem! And no man understandeth her. Where’s our man Brandon?

    Do you have any idea at all what the syllable lom might mean? Could we connect the dots to make it out as chom or some form of ‘dzom? This syllable lom doesn’t occur once in the entire text of that huge dictionary Rgya bod tshig mdzod chen mo.

    The Btsan-lha dictionary (Brda dkrol gser gyi me long) has it at least twice, although hidden inside these entries where it is preceded by a negation: bu mo ma lom, & ma lom.

    And you can find a couple of instances in OTDO (http://otdo.aa.tufs.ac.jp/).

    I don’t know if any of this helps the least bit, but no one should say I haven’t tried. Happy Diwali, in any case.

    Yours, D.

  4. Sorry it took me a full month to see that I’ve been called out, but unfortunately my reappearance will do little to resolve these problems. Still, it is nice to have a crack at this passage, which purports to be the charter myth for early Tibetan funeral traditions.

    First, Nathan Hill retranslated this, along with all of chapter one of the Chronicle, in RET 10 (available online from Digital Himalaya), and discusses our btsan po rje dbyal problem on p. 95, n. 32. I tend to see it as either “an emperor, lord, or consort,” or “an emperor or consort.”

    Second, like Dan, I can also see chom there, and this fits well with ‘phrog, since they both indicate robbery. Perhaps we must read an ablative function for la and then be stuck with: “rob from the people.”

    Third, I have no solution for the alternation between honorifics and non-honorifics here.

    That doesn’t really take us too far, but I can also add that Helga Uebach, who has written on Tibetan mummification treatises, is of the opinion that the corpse is never “pierced.” So in the Annals the corpse stays in the ring khang and undergoes ring mkhyud, usually for two years. When this is finished, the corpse is btol -ed, and then the funeral (mdad) is performed. So perhaps neither btol nor ‘tshog mean “to pierce.”

  5. Dear Brandon,

    Thank you for responding to the call! I missed Nathan Hill’s translation. Now I’ve read it, and I’m sure he won’t mind my extracting the relevant part here (pp.95-6):

    [I] don’t want other than [this]: Forever more, when the consort
    and the lord emperor die, bind a vphren·mo top-knot, rub the face with vermillion, lay down the body, pierce the corpse of the emperor, expel the men, eat food, drink. Will [you] do like this or not do [like this]?

    I like your and Nathan’s solution: either “an emperor, lord, or consort,” or “an emperor or consort.” And it seems we certainly must accept the possibility that neither verb means ‘to pierce’. Since you and Dan both read the mysterious syllable as chom, I’m happy to accept that.

    But please consider my solution for the alteration between non-honorifics and honorifics: that the words thor to ‘phren mo ni bcings / ngo la mtshal gyis byugs / lus la ni bzhags refer to the actions performed on the hair, face and body of the mourner, while the words btsan po ‘i spur la nI ‘tshog (and perhaps those following) refer to action performed on the body of the tsenpo.

    Admittedly this doesn’t tally very well with Nathan’s translation “lay down the body” – but, he qualifies this with a footnote:

    My translation takes bzhags as the past of vjog, but according to Zhang (1985) the word bzhags can also mean ‘to decorate, beautiful.’ Wang and Bsod nams skyid give « lus povi thog la thig btag [annoint the body] » (1988: 37 n. 143 on p. 80). Gnyav gong dkon mchog tshes brtan gives « lus la ni mdzes par brgy[beautifullly ornament the body] » (19 n. 19 on p. 22 where it is given as n. 20 ).

    This interpretation – “decorate/annoint/ornament the body” – works perfectly well if the body in question is that of the mourner. It could refer to the wearing of actual ornament (jewels etc) or further decoration with the red substance we are calling vermillion. This latter interpretation is attractive to me because it suggests a substitution in Tibet of red face-and-body-painting for the laceration of the face and body found in so many other Inner Asian cultures.

    So I still think this solution is a good one, but feel free to convince me otherwise!

  6. No, I don’t think I want to convince you otherwise. Your solution is the only one that copes with the non-honorifics here.

    On bzhags, though, I will say that I was also struck by its possible meaning as “ornamenting the body,” but I’m more comfortable with reading it as the perfect stem of gshog “to split”. This self-flagellation would also seem to fit better with the context you’ve outlined.

    As for ‘tshog, perhaps it means “to assemble at the corpse.” Otherwise, it may come from the verb ‘tshag, meaning “to save or accumulate”. Or, if you look at it through Buddhist-tinted glasses, one could read tshogs into this, which might fit with the robbing, eating and drinking by the assembled hordes!

  7. @Sebastian
    Your reading of lom is better than chom, bcom (or phom), however, there must have been a superscript r. The cluster rl- (and not the mere radical l) looks exactly like this (except for the white gap) in all other instance. See my note 42 in the translation indicated by the url.

    There a many convergences in your and my translation, and I wish I had seen yours earlier.

    @Brandon: I really wonder if a verb that is used for chopping wood can also be used for flagellation. I would thus opt for adornement, but since the Scythian context is already given, what about tatoos?


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