Amdo Notes II: The Hidden Valley and its Name

Back in the tenth century the mountain retreat of Dantig was home to the monk Gewa Rabsel, famed as the saviour of Tibet’s monastic tradition. Here in this remote valley he maintained the Vinaya lineage and passed it on to monks from Central Tibet, who then returned to begin the later diffusion of Buddhism in Tibet. (On all this, see my earlier post.)

Surrounded by steep mountains, the valley of Dantig is still only accessible on foot. Starting from the town of Xunhua, you climb up a steep valley and then walk along a vertiginous mountain ridge. The walk took us about five hours, though the locals claim to be able to do it in two. The valley has an impressive sequence of cave temples, and a relatively small monastery. At the moment, there is also a permanent population of around seventy Tibetan monks, most of whom live in mud-brick houses on the valley floor, and study at the valley’s monastic college (slob grwa).

There are many fascinating things about this site, but the one I want to talk about here is the name itself. I’d always assumed it was a local Chinese name that was transliterated into Tibetan when the valley became a major Tibetan Buddhist site. But it seems the truth may be more complicated, and more interesting.

*  *  *

I travelled to Dantig, with my colleague Imre, to follow the path of a tenth-century Chinese pilgrim. This pilgrim’s itinerary is given in a scroll he carried with him, and left behind in Dunhuang. This itinerary (written in Tibetan) mentions Dantig, and this is in fact the earliest occurence of the name in a documentary source.

So, where does the name Dantig (dan tig) come from?

The ever-informative Religious History of Amdo, begins its section on Dantig with a story from the Jinaputra-arthasiddhi-sūtra. It’s the story of a previous lifetime of the Buddha, when he was a prince called Arthasiddhi. This prince was excessively generous, and when he gave away the king’s best elephant to his enemies, he was exiled to Dantig. (Sound familiar? This is of course a variant on the famous Jātaka story of Prince Vessantara.)

There is a copy of this sūtra in a Tibetan manuscript from Dunhuang – IOL Tib J 76 — which confirms that the story, and the occurrence of the name of Dantig in it, was known in the tenth century.

Now, if we look at the version of the same sutra found in the Tibetan canon, it has a colophon stating that it was translated from the Chinese. And in the original Chinese version of the sutra the name of the mountain is Tante Shan 檀特山. According to the Foguang Dictionary of Buddhism, this in turn represents an Indian place-name, Mount Daṇḍaka, thought to be located in Gandhara.

So, though we have no early source explicitly linking Dantig to the narrative of the Jinaputra-arthasiddhi-sūtra, the mountain named in the Arthasiddhi narrative seems to have provided the Dantig valley with its name. The progress of the name from Sanskrit to Tibetan would then be as follows:

Daṇḍaka (skt.) –> Tante (chi.) –> Dantig (tib.)

*  *  *

The close association between the valley and the sutra is also made very clear when you visit Dantig. One of the cave temples here is dedicated to a certain Gelong Achuda. Though we had a hard time identifying him at first, it turns out that this fellow is in fact another figure from the Jinaputra-arthasiddhi-sūtra, who was said to have meditated in Dantig for a hundred years.

We’ve made some progress towards understanding how Dantig got its name, but the big question remains. Why did the mountain that features in the Jinaputra-arthasiddhi-sūtra became associated with the valley of Dantig in Amdo in the first place? Are there comparable cases in Tibet or China of Jātaka stories being linked to local sites? I’ll leave these questions open for now.

The Sutra
(Ārya) Jinaputra-arthasiddhi-siddhi-sūtra:
Tibetan version: ‘Phags pa rgyal bu don grub kyi mdo (no.1020 in the Peking bka’ ‘gyur).
Chinese version: Taizi Xudanuo jing 太子須大拏經 (vol 3, no. 171 in the Taisho Tripitaka).

Other References
1. 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 pp.222-3).
2. Durt, Hubert. 1999. ‘The offering of the children of prince Viśvantara / Sudāna in the Chinese Tradition’. Journal of the International College for Postgraduate Buddhist Studies 2: 266–309.

1. The approach to the Dantig valley, looking back over the neighbouring valley, (c) Imre Galambos.
2. The cave temple of Gelong Achuda (c) Imre Galambos.

11 thoughts on “Amdo Notes II: The Hidden Valley and its Name

  1. Great photos, Imre! Have you got any more up on Picasa or somewhere? And fascinating blog, S., as always expected, given who the writer is. Have never heard that anybody had an explanation of the Dan-tig name. And all names do have explanations, don’t they?

  2. Imre is planning to put these images up on the web somewhere soon. I’ll give the link in these comments when he does. I should have said before that credit also goes to Imre for locating the Chinese name Tante Shan in the sutra, and its traditional link to the Gandharan Mt Dandaka.

    I think we have to assume that all names have explanations. If I didn’t assume this, I wouldn’t have spent the past few years wondering where the name of the Dantig valley came from.

    As for other cases of naming places after mythical sites, how about Shangri La County. Does that count?


  3. Dear S.,

    It counts, it counts! I guess everyone believes there must be *some* meaning of the city name Jerusalem. Still, there is no agreement on what that might be. Doesn’t stop the name being used for other cities, like Jerusalem Ohio and Jerusalem Arizona. We also speculate on what the ‘original’ Tibetan spelling of Shangri La would have been, assuming it actually had one. I think it meant Butcher Knife Pass: Shan-gri La. I’m sticking with that. Don’t go there!

    Yours humbly,
    Dan Daka

  4. I don’t know if this is of any pertinence in the present context but in the sNying-thig literature, Dan-tig is also the name of a river (see Bi ma snying thig p. 309.6 : chu bo dan tig) where Garab Dorje did his rainbow body. However, there it points to the river crossing the Shitavana cremation ground. It is regularly spelt Dan-tig but should be read Danatika actually.

  5. Did you see the Dan-tig passage in the medical history by Zur mkhar Blo gros rgyal po (= Legs bshad tshol, b. 1509)? It’s in Sman pa rnams kyis mi shes su mi rung ba’i shes bya spyi’i khog dbubs (Gang dag byang chub sems dpa’i spyod pa spyod par ‘dod pa’i sman pa rnams kyis mi shes su mi rung ba’i phyi nang gzhan gsum gyis rnam bzhag shes bya spyi’i khog dbug pa gtan pa med pa’i mchod sbyin gyi sgo ‘phar yangs po), Si khron Mi rigs Dpe skrun khang (Chengdu 2001), p. 241:

    de’i tshe g.yo dmar gtsang gsum gyis khams su byon nas dan tig shel gyi yang dgon na sgom zhing yod pa las / rma chu kha’i phyugs rdzis mthong ste bsnyad pas las sad pa mu zu dpal ‘bar bya bas rab tu byung / dge ba rab gsal du btags / de nas bsnyen rdzogs byed ‘dod pa la dge slong lnga ma tshang bas / lha lung dpal rdor gyi ngas rgyal po bsad pas mi ‘ong gi zer nas rgya nag ha shang ke ba dang / gyi pan bya ba gnyis rnyed nas bsnyen par rdzogs / thugs rab shin tu che bas bla chen dgongs pa rab gsal du grags /

  6. Hello, I have a friend who is currently in Xining and is trying to get to Dentik.

    Do you have any good directions on how to get there? Is it best just to rent a car/driver to take you there…or can it be done by bus? My friend is interested in volunteering at the school located at Dentik…

    Any help is appreciated!


  7. A rented car or cab may be best, though perhaps a bus from Xining to Xunhua may be an option. The walk from Xunhua to Dentig is a good 5-6 hours though. An easier walk is from the village of Kora to the north of Dentig, but that would require a car to get to the village.

    The instructions in Gyurme Dorje’s Tibet guide are pretty good.

    best of luck to your friend,


  8. I made a trip up to Dan tig a month ago, sort of inspired by your blog. The locals have their own story of what the name means. (I’m getting this from the abbot of the monastery, one Ngag dbang bzod ba). They spell it da ‘dug, which is pronounced about the same in Amdo dialect. The story is that Lha lung dpal gyi rdo rje fled here after assassinating Glang dar ma. He was discovered, unfortunately, and had to flee to a cave near the Xunhua Tianchi lake (not sure what the Tibetan name is). Thus the monastery came to be known as da ‘dug (“stay now”) and the cave as yang ‘dug (“stay again”). Everyone there seems to know this story; a little girl in bus mdo (wendu zangzu xizhi xiang) told me more or less the same thing. Your explanation sounds more legit, but theirs is more fun…

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