From the Taklamakan, with Love

Most of the archeological discoveries from Central Asia now in British museums and libraries were brought here by the explorer Marc Aurel Stein in the early 20th century. But not all of them. Others made their way through the hands of collectors like the George Macartney, the British consul stationed in Kashgar during the same period. Some manuscripts were sent to scholars like Rudolf Hoernle (who was based in Calcutta) in the hopes that they might be able to decipher the strange scripts found therein.

Multiple provenance of this sort — found in large manuscript collections all over the world — can be a headache for those who look after these collections, but it can also provide some nice surprises, when one comes across “new” manuscripts that have been in the collection a long time without finding their proper place. Here’s an example that I encountered recently: a bundle of manuscripts with this note attached to them:

On the headed notepaper of the School of Oriental Studies (the ancestor of the current School of Oriental and African Studies) an early to mid 20th century scrawl says “Brought to Sir George Macartney – by natives in Kashgar. Tibetan inventories.” So we’d expect these finds to date from the time when Macartney was stationed in Kashgar, in the late 19th and early 20th century. Macartney was caught up in, and to some extent stoking, the fire of the “manuscript fever” that swept the world at this time, with  explorers from the USA, Europe, Russia and Japan all descending upon the Taklamakan desert.

This manuscript fever had a competitive edge, and Macartney was attempting to outdo his Russian counterpart who was buying up manuscripts from local treasure seekers. So, this particular bundle seems to date back to that time. And the manuscripts? What you see at the top of this post is an envelope of very fragmentary manuscripts written in Central Asian Brahmi. They could be Sanskrit, or perhaps Khotanese, but I’ll leave that aside for now. We also have two wooden documents, written in Tibetan, which looked like this when they were taken out of the bundle:

And on the other side:

So, we now have another person in the story; but who was this R. Corder? By 1967 George Macartney was long gone. Had Corder bought these Tibetan slips from Macartney a long time ago before passing them on to the School of Oriental Studies? I have no idea, but perhaps this is related to the most puzzling thing in the bundle, a couple of photos from a 1960s photobooth:

Is this old fellow, his clothes already old-fashioned in the 1960s, the mysterious R. Corder? Why else would these photographs be in the manuscript bundle? He certainly seems amused by the whole business. Now that we’ve come all the way to a 1960s photobooth, let’s go back to the Tibetan empire and these wooden documents. Such documents (which we often call “woodslips”) were the way the Tibetan military machine communicated across its desert forts and watchtowers. Cheap to produce, and good from quick messages, the woodslip was the telegraph (or reaching for a more contemporary analogy, the SMS) of its day.

Like the telegraph (and SMS) this medium encouraged its users to write in short pithy sentences, leaving out anything that could be easily dispensed with. This fact, along with the military jargon and the foreign words that the soldiers often used, makes the woodslips quite difficult to read. If you know the woodslips that were dug out of the desert by Aurel Stein, this one at least is unusually complete and clearly written. (You can see the others by searching for the prefix “IOL Tib N” on the IDP database.) Judging by the writing style and content, I’m fairly certain it’s genuine.

I can’t claim to have deciphered it though, and I’d love to hear some suggestions. It looks like a message (‘drul) asking for a decision (tag chod) about “provisions for the Tibetans (bod) and provisions for the Khotanese (li).” This makes sense, as the Tibetan army units stationed around Khotan included Khotanese attendants. In fact, each unit stationed in a fort would comprise two or three Tibetan soldiers and one or two Khotanese attendants (see Takeuchi’s article below).

The message seems to be addressed to a place called An tse, which was somewhere in Khotan. That works, for if this woodslip was found in the Khotan region by a treasure seeker, it would not have been far to travel to Kashgar, where Macartney bought it. On the other side of the slip, I see the words “butter” and “wood”, giving us an idea of what the writer of this woodslip was asking for.

The message seems to be incomplete, so it may have continued on another slip; that hole that you can see on the right could be used to string several slips together (in fact it is thought that the earliest Tibetan imperial records may all have come in this form, before they switched to paper — see Uebach’s paper below). On the other hand, it might be incomplete because it was never finished, and never sent to its destination. That would account for its unusually good condition: woodslips were often scraped and reused, or just snapped in two after they had been read (in the watchtowers, some were turned into makeshift knives, spoons and other implements).

If the message itself is mundane, I find the clear and fresh quality of the object itself quite engaging. It makes you realize that this really is something that was written when Tibet was an imperial power in Central Asia, by a soldier who probably had no idea that this power would crumble within a few decades. And because of the circuitous route that the object took to get to the British Library, this is the first time it this message has been read since that era. The bundling of the woodslips with official notes from another time and place (“Finsbury Circus, E.C.2”) also highlights this contrast. With such disjunctions of time and place, even reading requests for butter and wood can be quite exciting, don’t you think?

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References

Tsuguhito Takeuchi. 2004. “The Tibetan Military System and its Activities from Khotan to Lop Nor.” In The Silk Road: Trade, Travel, War and Faith, edited by Susan Whitfield. Chicago: Serindia. 50-56. (Note that the whole thing can be read on Google Books.)

Helga Uebach. 2008. “From Red Tally to Yellow Paper — The official introduction of paper in Tibetan administration in 744/745.” Revue d’Etudes tibétaines 14: 57-70. (Here’s the link to download the PDF)

* All photographs by Rachel Roberts.

Red Herrings on a High Plateau


When I was working on the later chapters of Tibet: A History I started to explore the archives of India Office Library, where I found thousands of documents from British officials stationed in India, China, and occasionally Tibet itself, mostly from the first half of the 20th century. This is fascinating material, much of it still untapped, though those excellent historians of modern Tibet, Melvyn Goldstein and Tsering Shakya have made good use of it in their books.

One event from Tibet’s recent history that I would like to have said more about in my own book is the expulsion of all Chinese officials from Tibet in 1949. This dramatic move was made by the Tibetan government when they realised that the Chinese Communists were about to defeat the Nationalists and become the ruling power in China. At this point the Tibetans had come to a grudging acceptance of some diplomatic ties with the Nationalists, thawing the 13th Dalai Lama’s total freeze-out of China. But the Tibetan government was deeply mistrustful of the Communists, with their anti-religious idealogy.

So it was probably the idea that Communist officials would simply step in and take the place of the Nationalists in Tibet that prompted this mass expulsion.This effectively returned Tibet to the way things had been under the 13th Dalai Lama, when China had no official presence in Tibet at all. It was a drastic move and a strong reassertion of the declaration of independence that the Dalai Lama had made in 1913. So, what do the India Office archives tell us about it?

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Reading through the file titled “Effect on Tibet of Communist Seizure of Power in China” plunges you back into history, watching a situation unfold. I found it genuinely gripping to read the original reports and telegrams of British officials as they receive information, then try to make sense of it and react to it.

The first ripple that reaches the British High Commission in Delhi of this particular episode is when they hear about a Communist revolt in Tibet. This is July 23rd 1949, and the story comes from a Hong Kong newspaper. The newspaper suggests that the head of the Tibetan “State Department” — who is said to be pro-Communist and anti-Dalai Lama — has expelled the Chinese Nationalists from Tibet. This is a very twisted version of events, but not knowing any better, the High Commissioner duly passes this on to London. Two days later, he has got a better grip on the story, thanks to the Indian foreign secretary. There is no pro-Communist and anti-Dalai Lama faction in the Tibetan government at all; that, as one of the telegrams put it, was a “smokescreen”…

He told me that what had really happened in Tibet was that the Tibetan authorities wished to get rid of the Chinese Government Mission quickly in order to avoid the risk of a future Chinese Communist Government appointing a Chinese Communist Mission or alternatively of the present Mission transferring its allegiance to the Chinese Communists. The Tibetans had therefore asked the Government of India whether they would receive the Mission on its expulsion from Tibet.

So, the Indian government knew what was going on, having been in touch with Lhasa since July 17th and were a little bit late in informing the British (who, remember, had only given up their colonial position in India two years earlier). Anyway, the Indians now need the British to help with getting the deported Chinese from India to Canton, so from this point on the High Commissioner is kept fully informed. By July 28th the expulsion of the Chinese is common knowledge in Britain as well, as the Times publishes a brief article on it:

Apparently the Tibetan government had run out of patience waiting for a response from India, and had already expelled the Chinese officials. In Delhi, the British High Commissioner now goes to talk with his Chinese counterpart, the ambassador, who quickly declares that he is certainly no Communist himself. Probably true, as the ambassador was from the Nationalist (Kuomintang) party, who were at this point the sworn enemies of the Communists. And he goes on to say that he doubts that any of the Chinese expelled from Tibet are Communists either. With a clever, if slightly odd metaphor, he suggests that the Tibetans have acted rashly:

Fishing for red herring on a high plateau is too naive an act and politically very unwise.

The Chinese ambassador concludes by reminding his British counterpart that “Tibet is and always has been a part of China” (an interesting comment for anyone who wonders if Tibet would have retained its independence had the Communists not been victorious in 1949). The following week is taken up with the British trying to organize a passage for the expelled Chinese (who are still en-route to India). They are to be sent to Hong Kong, and from there to Canton.

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On the 11th August, the deported Chinese are all encamped at Yadong, near the Indian border, and the trade agent there has drawn up a list of every one of them, 133 people in total. This is a fascinating document. It gives the name, age, birthplace and destination of each of the deportees, suddenly changing our perception of them from a political problem to a group of real people. They are almost all families: wives, husbands, children and their servants. There are several babies, just 3 or 4 months old. There is an English woman married to one of the Chinese officials, and her mother, both born in Darjeeling and now returning there again. And there are Tibetans too, the servants of these families. The image below shows the first 32 people on the list:

After this, we hear no more of these 133 people. The British reports are now more concerned with the propaganda emanating from Communist radio stations in China. A Beijing radio programme on 6th September states that:

Tibetan authorities expelled Han people and Kuomintag personnel in Tibet at the instigation of the British and Americans, and their stooge the Indian Nehru Government.

A few days later the PLA is in Xining, according to a clipping from The Daily Worker (13th September) under the headline MONKS HAIL PEOPLE’S FORCES. Perhaps this journalist was not fully briefed on the Communist propaganda, for he writes that “Chinghai was formerly part of Tibet.” Anyway, in a matter of weeks the deported Chinese officials and their families were forgotten. As I leaf through the last documents in the file, I see the British now turning their attention to the urgent question of how to engage diplomatically with the victorious Chinese Communists and their stated aim of “liberating” Tibet.

I suppose the deportees were left to make their own way home from Canton. If you look at the list, you can see how many of them came from Sichuan and Qinghai (that’s Kham and Amdo in Tibetan terms), meaning a long overland journey back across war-torn China. Even if it’s hardly the most pressing issue of that chaotic time, I can’t help wondering how many of them made it back home.

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Sources

The India Office Records file I have used here is L/P&S/12/4243: “Effect on Tibet of Communist Seizure of Power in China”. Documents therein run from February to December 1949.

Melvyn Goldstein writes about this episode briefly in A History of Modern Tibet, Volume I: 1913-1951 (pp.613-614). His account is based mainly on interviews. Interestingly, one of Goldstein’s sources says that the idea of the expulsion of the Chinese came from Ngapo, who later signed the agreement through which Tibet became part of China, and joined the Communist Party. Another of his sources states that the idea came from the British resident Hugh Richardson, but this was denied by Richardson himself (and the India Office files show that, if Richardson did make the suggestion, it was not with the knowledge of his masters).

Tsering Shakya writes in more detail about the episode in The Dragon in the Land of Snows (pp.5-11). His account is based on a wider range of sources, both oral and written. An authoritative source denies Ngapo’s involvement in the matter at all. Shakya also consulted the British Foreign Office documents held at the Public Record Office. I have not seen these, but I presume there is some overlap with the India Office Records.

Goldstein say that, “Another 300 to 400 individuals, mostly Chinese, who had been identified by Namseling as spies were photographed and expelled at the same time as the officials.” This is from his source Sambo (Rimshi), but these people were definitely not deported through India. They are probably the same group as those “Tibetans from the eastern part of the country” mentioned by Shakya (p.9). Thus they were probably sent eastward to China rather than via India.

The Chinese under Tibetan rule

We’ve become accustomed to thinking Tibet in terms of its present status, subsumed by China, so it’s interesting to consider the time when Tibet was an occupying force in parts of China. It’s fairly well-known that the Tibetan army was once a very effective war machine that even got as far as occupying the Chinese capital in 763. But what was it like to be a person of Chinese background living under Tibetan occupation?

After their town fell to the Tibetans in 786, the Chinese inhabitants of Dunhuang were forced to abandon many of their cultural customs. For instance, they had to wear Tibetan clothes, and were only allowed to put on their traditional outfits on special occasions. A passage from the New Tang Annals suggests that this was a cause of secret sorrow:

The inhabitants of the city all adopted foreign dress, and submitted to the enemy; but each year when they worshipped their ancestors, they put on their Chinese clothes, and wept bitterly as they put them by.

The strains in the relationship between the Chinese inhabitants of Dunhuang and their Tibetan overlords can be seen in some of the letters from the sealed cave in Dunhuang. One letter (Pelliot tibétain 1083) deals with about a situation in which Tibetan officials were basically kidnapping Chinese women to be their wives. The letter is from the Tibetan minister responsible for the whole region, who had received several petitions from local Chinese about this abuse of power by Tibetan officials. To his credit, he responded by banning the practice of kidnapping, saying that the women should be able to marry according to their own wishes.

Another letter (Pelliot tibétain 1089) is a response to an uprising by the Chinese in Dunhuang against their Tibetan masters, in which some Tibetans were killed. In response to demands from the Chinese officials for greater powers, the letter sets out the hierarchy of official positions. The long list is a treasure-trove for those who study the bureaucracy of the Tibetan empire. But let us just note one thing: the letter makes it clear that even the lowest-ranking Tibetan is of higher status than the highest-ranking Chinese.

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Not that relations between the Tibetan masters and their Chinese subjects were all about hostility. Over time, a generation of Chinese grew up in Dunhuang, learning to read and write (and presumably, speak) Tibetan. Many of them even had Tibetan names. On the other hand, there was no attempt to stop people using the Chinese language, so a generation of children grew up bilingual.

Out of this came one of the great translators of the time, Go Chodrup. His work translating Chinese texts into Tibetan came to the attention of the Tibetan emperor, who issued Chodrup with commissions to translate Buddhist sutras. Though this point is much contested, it seems that Chodrup was a Chinese (his other, Chinese, name was Facheng) from the same Wu clan as the influential priest Hongbian (see the last post). Much later, some of Chodrup’s translations were accepted into the Tibetan Buddhist canon — a lasting effect of the cultural pluralism at Dunhuang.

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The Tibetanized Chinese people of Dunhuang proved to be useful to the Tibetan empire in another way. With its sophisticated papermaking resources, Dunhuang was an ideal scriptorium, and in the early ninth century thousands of copies of sutras were written here. Most of the scribes were Chinese, but they were overseen by Tibetans. Discipline was tough: wasted paper would be punished by flogging, and failure to produce the sutras on time could result in a scribe’s property being impounded, or his family being held hostage (see this post).

Presumably this didn’t happen too often, for Dunhuang turned out to be a very efficient scriptorium for the Tibetan Empire. Manuscripts of the Perfection of Wisdom sutras produced here have been discovered recently in monastic libraries Central Tibet. How do we know they came from Dunhuang? Because they are signed by the same scribes, Chinese scribes, seen in the colophons of the manuscripts found in Dunhuang itself.

Of course, some of these Chinese scribes must have felt a little rebellious under the thumb of their Tibetan masters. One wouldn’t necessarily expect to see examples of this, history being written by the victors, and so on. But I recently came across a little poem scribbled on a piece of scrap paper owned by one of the scribes (this paper is known as legtsé, wrapping paper for bundles of blank pages delivered to scribes). The scribe has signed it thus:

This is the scrap paper of Lenho Wenman. Anyone who steals it will be cut into pieces!

Elsewhere on the paper this pugnacious scribe has written the first lines of a poem. Here is my very loose translation:

We are the subjects of Tibet,
Which comes down on us like hammer blows
Though the tiger is noble
To challenge it is a great thing!

Eventually, Tibetan rule was seriously challenged by a local Chinese movement called “Return to Allegiance” which reclaimed Dunhuang in the year 848. The Chinese were their own masters again, yet they were not the same as they had been before the Tibetans came. They continued to use the Tibetan language, and to practice Tibetan Buddhism, for many years to come.

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Tibetan text

 IOL Tib J 1273: $/:/bdag cag cag ni bod kyi ‘bangs/ gar bab ni thog thog bzhin/ dpal kyang stag la ‘gran/ bzang khyad ni …

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Images

1. Seal from Pelliot tibétain 1089
2. Detail, including seal, from Pelliot tibétain 1083.

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References

The translation from the New Tang Annals is from: Bushell, Stephen W. 1880. The Early History of Tibet from Chinese Sources. Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society 12: 435–541. (Quote from p.514)

For studies of the two Dunhuang letters, see the Old Tibetan Documents Online website.

On the Chinese-Tibetan names of Dunhuang residents, see: Tsuguhito Takeuchi. 1995. Old Tibetan Contracts from Central Asia. Tokyi: Daizo Shuppan.

And on multicultural Dunhuang, see this excellent article by Tokio Takata.

Finally, my thanks to Pasang Wangdu for discussing his insights regarding these Perfection of Wisdom manuscripts with me.

Secrets of the Cave III: The Cave of Monk Wu

Once upon a time, there was a monk called Hongbian. He was Chinese, but he grew up in a city ruled by the Tibetan empire. So, like everybody else in the city, he wore Tibetan clothes, and learned to read and write the Tibetan language. Because he was from the wealthy Wu family, he quickly rose in the ranks, eventually becoming one of the most senior monks in Dunhuang. This brought him in contact with orders that came from the emperor of Tibet himself.

More than once, the Tibetan emperor commanded that the city of Dunhuang should make hundreds of copies of Buddhist sutras in Tibetan. The copying of these sutras was a massive undertaking, almost turning the whole city into a scriptorium — on which, see my previous posts here. Hundreds of (mostly Chinese) scribes copied the sacred Tibetan syllables onto loose-leaf pecha pages and scrolls. The result was a series of monumental volumes of the Perfection of Wisdom sutra, and many hundreds of scrolls of the Sutra of Aparamitayus (the manuscript Pelliot tibetain 999 links Hongbian to the latter).

Many of these mass-produced sutras still exist today, because quite a few of them were placed in the Dunhuang cave. In an exciting new development, scholars investigating the recently opened libraries of Central Tibetan monasteries (including Drepung) have found more volumes of the same sutras, which seem to have been shipped there from Dunhuang. We know this because the colophons contain the names of the same Dunhuang-based scribal teams.

So Hongbian’s home was one of the major scriptoria of the Tibetan Empire. He was still there when the Tibetan rulers were kicked out of Dunhuang in 848. A few years later, he rose to the eminent position of the head of the Buddhist sangha in the whole of Hexi (basically modern Gansu province). Around the same time, he (and other wealthy relatives) paid for the excavation of a large cave shrine in the Dunhuang cave site. It was actually the third cave that he had commissioned, and all three now formed three stories of a cave temple.

This large new cave (now known as Cave 16) contained a small antechamber (Cave 17). It might have been a meditation retreat. Perhaps it was just for the storage of supplies. In any case, after Hongbian’s death in 862, it was converted into a memorial shrine with a statue of the revered monk in meditation, perhaps with his ashes beneath the statue. An inscribed stone recording his achievements was also placed in the cave. Over the next hundred years, Cave 17 later came to be filled to bursting with manuscripts, and Hongbian’s statue was taken out and put in the cave above.

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Going over this story of how Cave 17 came into being, it is surprising how little it features in the explanations for the manuscript hoard that we have looked at so far. This might be (as Yoshiro Imaeda suggested in a recent article) because the Tibetan aspect of the cave has been neglected. This might be because Dunhuang has been dominated by Sinologists, derspite the fact that the Tibetan manuscripts are nearly as numerous as the Chinese.

What about those massive volumes of Tibetan Perfection of Wisdom sutras found in the cave? These have been of so little interest to Chinese scholars in the 20th century that most of them remain in the stores of the Dunhuang city museum, only recently coming to the attention of a new generation of Chinese and Tibetan scholars. Yet they might be the key to understanding the manuscript hoard. And what about the collection of letters (in Tibetan) addressed to Hongbian? These represent Hongbian’s official responsibilities, and they may have been interred in the cave at the same time as the statue and stone inscription, or some years later. Here’s a detail from a letter addressed to “Khenpo Hongpen”:

So, were the first batch of manuscripts placed in the cave those that belonged to Hongbian himself? These could have been the ‘seed’ for future deposits of manuscripts, until the function of the cave gradually changed into a repository for manuscripts. Perhaps another early batch of manuscripts was deposited after the death of another famous figure from Dunhuang, the Lotsapa* (translator) Chodrup, whose Chinese name was Facheng, and whose family (like Hongbian’s) was Wu. This monk was a contemporary of Hongbian, who also worked during the last decades of Tibetan rule in Dunhuang, translating Chinese texts into Tibetan at the order of the Tibetan emperor. He was also involved in the mass-production of Tibetan Perfection of Wisdom sutras, as a senior editor. In the Dunhuang cave, we find nice copies of Chodrup’s finished translations as well as working notes that may even be in his own handwriting.

Is this a pattern? First Hongbian’s manuscripts are deposited, then a few years later those of his relative Facheng/Chodrup. And then, on the same model, the manuscripts and paintings collected by other monks, once they had passed away. I don’t want to overstate this, but even the pious monk Daozhen (who we talked about in the last post) might be part of this pattern. If Daozhen’s personal manuscript collection was interred after his death, this would also account for the evidence that Rong used for his idea that the cave represented the collection of a single monastery.

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I don’t want to argue for a “funerary deposit” theory to displace the “sacred waste” and “monastic library” theories. After all, human life is organic and messy and rarely reducible to single explanations. Over 150 years, our cave went through several incarnations: storage closet (perhaps), funerary shrine, manuscript repository. The man who built the cave died, a statue of him was placed inside it, and then his letters and books, and those of other people too, and then so many manuscripts that his statue had to be taken upstairs. Other people, born long after the cave was first made, came and performed rituals there, and more manuscripts were deposited, until the cave was filled to the brim. And then it was closed, and then…

What I’m trying to say is, it’s probably better for us to think of this cave in terms of “multiple uses” rather than single, conclusive theories. But let’s always keep Hongbian in the picture. Nowadays, his statue has been put back in the cave, and he sits in meditation under the shade of the tree that was painted on the wall behind him over a thousand years ago. It seems right that Hongbian himself should also return to the centre of our discussion of the manuscripts in the cave.

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References

This post could not have been written without this superb article by Yoshiro Imaeda, in which he does not put forward a new theory about the manuscript cave, but sensitively reviews what has been written in the past, especially in the light of the Tibetan manuscripts:

Yoshiro Imaeda. 2008. “The Provenance and Character of the Dunhuang Documents.” Memoirs of the Toyo Bunko 66: 81–102.

This article is also worth reading (and is available on JSTOR):

Ma Shichang. 1995. “Buddhist Cave-Temples and the Cao Family at Mogao Ku, Dunhuang.” World Archaeology 27.2: 303-317.

And for those who read Chinese:

Ma Shichang. 1978. “Guanyu Dunhuang cangjingdong de jige wenti” 關於敦煌藏經洞的幾個問題. Wenwu 12: 21-33, 20.

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Images

1. Hongbian’s statue, back in Cave 17.

2. Pelliot tibétain 1200, a letter addressed to Hongbian.

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Note:

* The spelling of this mysterious word in the Dunhuang documents is usually lo tsa pa.