Amdo Notes III: Gold and turquoise temples

In the late 960s a pilgrim passed through Amdo. He was a Chinese monk from Wutaishan, and like many Chinese Buddhists before him, he hoped to visit India to study at the great university of Nalanda. We know about this particular pilgrim because he left his passport behind in Dunhuang, where it was sealed into the library cave and only emerged again in the 20th century.

This pilgrim’s passport is more like a series of letters of recommendation written to monasteries along the pilgrim’s route. Interestingly, though he was a Chinese monk, he took a fairly indirect route so that he could visit the major Tibetan Buddhist sites of Amdo. His itinerary through Amdo went like this:

  1. The city of Hezhou, now known as Linxia.
  2. The mountain retreat of Dantig (see the previous post).
  3. The city of Tsongka, near the modern city of Ping’an.
  4. The city of Liangzhou, now known as Wuwei.
  5. And then along the Silk Route to Ganzhou and Dunhuang.

All of these places (except Dantig) are now Chinese cities, with very small, if any, Tibetan population. There is little left to show that many of them were once strongholds of Tibetan culture and Tibetan Buddhism. The pilgrim’s itinerary tells us that he was visiting Hezhou and Tsongka to see their “gold and turquoise temples.” And these were not little kingdoms either. Chinese sources report that in the year 998 Liangzhou had a population of 126,000, the majority of whom were from Tibetan backgrounds.

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So it’s strange to walk through the city of Ping’an now, and imagine what once was there. Tsongka appears in one of the earliest Tibetan inscriptions, the Zhol pillar in Lhasa (dated by Hugh Richardson to the 750s or 760s). Here Tsongka is the site of battles between the Tibetan and Chinese armies. Later, at the beginning of the 11th century, Tsongka came to the aid of China’s Song dynasty, as one of the last bastions holding out against the rising Tangut empire. Since Tsongka was friendly with the Chinese, it was their lifeline in maintaining the trade route with the West. Tsongka continued as an independent kingdom until the 12th century when it was finally swallowed up by the Tangut empire. But it was still famous enough in the fourteenth century that a local boy who went to study in Central Tibet was known as Tsongkhapa: “the man from Tsongkha.”*

If you squint, can you see Tsongka’s shimmering gold and turquoise temples through the heat haze and pollution of Ping’an? Perhaps not. But you can go just a little way out of the city, where the mountains rise up on the other side of the Yellow River, and visit the ancient cliff temple of Martsang. Here, it’s said, was where the monks who fled the persecution of Buddhism by the emperor Lang Darma (see here), finally came to rest.

Below the temple at Martsang is this image, said to be a self-manifesting Maitreya. That is to say, the image is said to have emerged spontaneously from the rock. I heard that it was dated by scientists to the Tang dynasty, but I haven’t been able to verify that claim. In any case, as you can see, it seems to have been repainted fairly regularly.

In  the cliffs above the Maitreya image you can see this inaccessible cave. If the temple at Martsang isn’t old, this certainly is. Notice the three mandalas painted on the ceiling.

And notice as well the little square holes leading up to the cave. Perhaps this was once a walkway, or an even bigger structure built into the side of the cliffs. It seems that there was once a larger complex of Buddhist caves here. From here, when you turn around and look back towards the modern city sprawling below you, and beyond that the lush Yellow River valley it’s easier to believe that this was once home to a Tibetan kingdom.

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Ronald Davidson. 2005. Tibetan Renaissance. New York: Columbia University Press.

Ruth Dunnell. 1994. ‘The Hsi Hsia’. In Herbert Francke and Dennis Twitchett (eds.), The Cambridge History of China, vol.6. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press. 907–1368.

Iwasaki Tsutomu. 1993. ‘The Tibetan Tribes of Ho-hsi and Buddhism during the Northern Sung Period’. Acta Asiatica 64: 17–37.

Photographs (c) Imre Galambos.

*  *  *

* Note:

At some point Tsongka seems to have changed its name slightly, with the final ka turning into a kha. I have no idea why this happened, but I suppose it was some time between the tenth and fourteenth centuries.

One thought on “Amdo Notes III: Gold and turquoise temples

  1. Pingback: The Trans-Asia Trek » Out of Tibet

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