Amdo Notes I: Lost soldiers

The first time I read Shakabpa’s Political History of Tibet, I was fascinated by a reference he made to the Kamalog, a group of Tibetan soldiers posted to the far northeastern borders of the Tibetan empire (now known as Amdo). Apparently, when the empire fell apart, these soldiers waited for orders to return but never received them. So they settled down, married, had children, and became Amdo people. Yet they and their descendants always remembered their Central Tibetan heritage.

When I was travelling in Amdo recently, I remembered the Kamalog. Looking through the massive Religious History of Amdo which I had picked up in Xining, I found a brief discussion of the topic:

During the reigns of the dharma king Tri Song Detsen and his fourth son Desongtsen, armies were raised on all the borders of Tibet in order to stop the opposing armies. With many hundreds of thousands of Tibetan soldiers, the meditation centres* of Central Asia were conquered. After that, nine heroes selected from the army for their ability were stationed at the border between Central Asia and Tibet. When they asked, “May we return?” the message from the king was, “Our edict once issued is irreversible.” Thus the descendents of these nine heroes were called Kamalog (“not to return by order”).  Much later, there arose many families of Tibetan nomads who were Kamalogs. Even Sechen’s great minister Sangha Ching seems to have been from a Kamalog clan. Those who became separated from the family line are said to remain in eastern Tsongkha, in the Kokonor basin.

The story, with its symbolically important number of nine heroes, has the flavour of a legend. But the general principle, that some soldiers remained in Amdo after the empire fell apart, is almost certainly true. Still, I wondered, as I passed through Kamalog County, halfway between the modern cities of Xining and Lanzhou, why has the story remained so powerful here in Amdo?

Some Amdowas (a mdo ba: people of Amdo) still trace their ancestry back to Central Tibet — including the Dalai Lama. In his first autobiography, My Land and My People he writes:

Although my family had settled in Dokham, my forefathers came from Central Tibet. How they came to settle in Eastern Tibet is a simple story. Hundreds of years ago, in the reign of King Mangsong Mangtsen, a Tibetan army was stationed in the northeastern part of Tibet to protect the frontiers. In our part of Dokham,† a garrison from Phempo in Central Tibet was stationed, and family tradition said that my forefathers came with that garrison. In our family dialect we still used many words from the Phempo district, rather than the east: words like cheney for bowl and khenbu for spoon.

This is not just a repetition of the story in the Religious History of Amdo. The Dalai Lama’s family tradition specifies which region of Central Tibet their ancestors came from. It also places the event further back in the past, in the reign of Mangson Mangtsen (c.643-676) rather than Tri Song Detsen (756-c.800). I couldn’t possibly confirm or deny the existence and significance of words from Central Tibetan dialects being used in Amdo. What’s clear is that there have been many traditions handed down in Amdo families that tell of an ancestral connection to the armies of the Tibetan empire.

On the maps of “ethnographic Tibet” — i.e. those that attempt to demarcate the extent of Tibetan culture rather than the political rule of Central Tibet — the Dalai Lama’s birthplace is at the very edge. In fact, the Dalai Lama’s first language, and that of his village, was the local Chinese dialect (see Laird 2007). Thus it seems that one of the things that the story of the Kamalog achieves is to bind these people of the borderlands to the centre. It brings the furthest reaches of Amdo into the great narrative of the Tibetan Empire, placing the heroes of the empire among the people of Amdo, and mingling the bloodlines of the Tibetans at the centre with the Amdowas at the border.

*  *  *

* Strange this. I wonder if sgom grwa is a textual corruption?
† Note that Dokham (mdo khams) is another name for Amdo, or for both Amdo and Khams.

1. Shakabpa. 1967. A Political History of Tibet. New Haven: Yale University Press. (On the Kamalog, see p.43).
2. Brag dgon pa dkon mchog bstan po rab rgyas. Mdo smad chos ‘byung, or, Yul mdo smad kyi ljongs su thub bstan rin po che ji ltar dar ba’i tshul gsal bar brjod pa deb ther rgya mtsho. Rig gnas myur skyon dpe mdzod khang. n.p. n.d. (see p.223 for the Kamalog passage.)
3. The Dalai Lama. 1997 (1962). My Land and My People. New York: Warner Books. (Citation is from p.4.)
4. Laird, Thomas. 2007. The Story of Tibet: Conversations with the Dalai Lama. London: Atlantic Books. (The conversation on the Dalai Lama’s village of Taktser, and the speaking of Chinese there, is on pp.262-263.)

Tibetan text
Mdo smad chos ‘byung: 223: bka’ ma log ni/ chos rgyal khri srong lde btsan dang/ de’i sras bzhi pa khri lde srong btsan rgyal po’i sku ring la/ mtha’ dmag dgag phyir bod yul gyi phyogs bzhir sgo srung bskos/ bod dmag khri phrag mang po khyer nas bha ta hor gyi sgom grwa bcom ste g.yul rgyal/ gnang spyad nas phyir byon dus dmag gi nang nas skyen po btus pa’i dpa’i bo mi dgu/ dmag mang po dang bcas hor bod kyi mtshams su bzhag/ nged rnams ci tsam nas log yong zhus par/ rgyal po’i lung gis nged kyi bka’ ma byung bar ldog tu med gsungs pas de phyin dpa’ bo mi dgu’i rgyud pa la bka’ ma log tu thogs/ der yun ring bas bka’ ma log gi bod ‘brog gi sde mang du byung/ seng [sic] chen gyi blon po sa ngha ching yang sang rus pa bka’ ma log yin zer snang/ de rnams kyi che rgyud las chad pa shar tsong kha mtsho sngon gyi mthil na yod par bshad pa de’i le lag yin la/

The meditation cave of Martsang (dmar gtsang), near the modern town of Ping’an, in Tsongkha Khar, near Kamalog, (c) Imre Galambos.

And a link…
…to an excellent new website on the Amdo dialect.

9 thoughts on “Amdo Notes I: Lost soldiers

  1. A lazy search reveals that “sgom grwa” also occurs in the Blue Annals (Roerich translation p. 44) – also in an account of Khri srong lde btsan’s reign. And later again, at the very beginning of Book II (phyi dar). Or did I misunderstand you and it wasn’t the term itself you found strange, but rather its use in this particular context?

  2. Hi S,

    Are you back home yet? There’s a nice paragraph on the non-returners in the Dungkar dictionary, p. 178. One interesting thing said there is that Samgha, Qubilai’s (Hu-pi-li) interior minister (nang-blon), was one of their descendants.

    Btw, the late Taktser Rinpoche used to always say that he was a native speaker of Mongolian, but that he spoke Tibetan with an accent. I think you have to read Laird’s account with a grain of salt. It’s entirely possible that the language spoken in the village was a type of Chinese, but I’m quite sure the language spoken inside HH home was Amdo Tibetan (one clue, the children were given Tibetan names, not Chinese). I suspect what’s going on there, not trusting Laird’s understanding, because to say that His parents spoke “broken Chinese” in “my village” doesn’t mean they didn’t know Amdo-ke. They surely did. They were tsampa eaters with prayerflags-pillar in front of their house, not Chinese. That the area when He grew up was a culture contact zone with all kinds of interesting things going on in terms of cultures and languages, is certainly true, and I wouldn’t want to sound as if I were denying it.

    Cheers, D.

  3. Dear Birgit,

    Yes, it was not the term sgom grwa per se, but the fact that the passage tells of the conquest of meditation centres rather than fortresses or even cities. Of course, the dharma histories do tend to focus on religious institutions, so it could just be an example of that. As Dan says, there surely were Buddhist temples in the area at the time.


  4. Dear Dan,

    Thanks for the pointer to the Dungkar dictionary – it’s nice to know the identity of the Sangha in question.

    As for the language question – I suppose it could be used for political ends, one way or another, but isn’t it the case in all cultural border areas that people tend to be multilingual. Unless Laird is misquoting the Dalai Lama, he does explicitly state that Chinese was the main language of his own village, Taktser:

    “At that time in my village,” he said, “we spoke a broken Chinese. As a child, I spoke Chinese first, but it was a broken Xining language which was (a dialect of the) Chinese language.”

    “So your first language,” I responded, “was a broken Chinese regional dialect, which we might call Xining Chinese. It was not TIbetan. You learned Tibetan when you came to Lhasa.”

    “Yes,” he answered, “that is correct, but then, you see, my brother Lobsang Samten entered Kumbum Monastery before me and the Amdo dialect was spoken there. They spoke Amdo Tibetan in the monastery. In other villages they spoke Amdo Tibetan. But in my village, I don’t know why, my parents spoke broken Xining Chinese.”

    My own *very* limited experience of this area was that most Tibetans spoke some Chinese in the local dialect, but were more comfortable speaking Amdo Tibetan. This accords with what the Dalai Lama says about other villages in the area. The educated monks, on the other hand, spoke Mandarin Chinese, along with Tibetan. There’s an interesting brief discussion touching on this issue in:

    Chris Vasantkumar. 2009. “Tibet Incidental to Tibetan Studies? Views from Various Margins,” in Contemporary Visions in Tibetan Studies (edited by Brandon Dotson, et al). Chicago: Serindia.

    Thanks again for your thoughts,

  5. About the odd sgom grwa, would’nt that translate vihāra? Rather than gtsug lag khang.Then it becomes clearer why such a humble name (vihāra = pleasant abode?) could later apply to strategic strongholds. See Vikramaśīla, Nalanda, etc.
    -Sorry my English is still too stiff and/or I am too lazy to elaborate on this. I think it’s a good lead.
    And I really want to say that I delight on everything you post here.

  6. This might be a little too late but I wonder if the word “sgom grwa” is referring to Mosques. Would that be a possibility?

  7. I once came across a very tall, well-built Amdo woman from Mangra who said everyone on her father’s side was equally tall and strong. The story went in the family that they were descendants of the 7 families from Dbus gtsang who had been sent to Bka’ ma log by the btsan po to watch over the border, and who had all been selected for their impressive build. Has anybody heard of this before?

  8. Yes Francoise, I am a Tibetan from the eastern region. I do not have an exact historical evidence, but oral history has it that Tibetans in the eastern most areas were sent from Dbus gtsang to guard the border.
    In fact, Linguists argue this more convincingly as they could study the linguistic resemblance of Tibetans in certain areas of Dbus gtsang to Amdo.

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