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See The Lhasa gTsug lag khang ("Jokhang"): Further Observations on the Ancient Wood Carvings
by Mary Shepherd Slusser for a commentary on this article. (Link will open in new window)

Preface to the edition of this article
By Amy Heller, Jan 21, 2007

I’d like to add these remarks by way of preface to my original article, and specifically in response to Mary Slusser’s article on this subject (see link above).

I am very grateful to Mary Slusser for taking the time to write her critique of my article and provide textual and inscriptional basis for the correct dating of the Vishnu statue at Budhanilakanta to 641 AD and the Sanku water spout gana to 1168.

Slusser's article brings the highly significant new information on radio-carbon dated Nepalese sculptures of the seventh century, as hitherto, only stone carvings of the period were firmly dated. Her critique of my article is more oriented towards the 7th century date of the carving of the Lhasa gtsug lag khang lintels in view of the impact on the dating of Nepalese sculptures.

However, it was the historical and liturgical context which motivated my hypothesis that there was an initial construction as a royal residence in the 7th century and subsequent transformation into a Buddhist sanctuary during the first half of the 8th century.

Slusser writes that "there is a considerable body of evidence " to back the mid-seventh century date and cites publications by Roberto Vitali and Victor Chan. Vitali cites Tibetan historical literature of 11th-15th century for the attribution to Srong btsan sgam po, and as ancient records, cites the 779 AD carved stone decree at the foundation of Samye (bsam yas) and a royal decree on stone stele carved between 800-815 AD. Srong btsan sgam po ruled from 629 until his death in 649 AD. There is thus a gap of more than a century between his lifetime and these two decrees in stone, carved when Tibetan royal support for Buddhism was indeed strong.

There is no mention of Srong btsan sgam po's support for Buddhism in Old Tibetan Annals which give year by year accounts from 650-747 AD of the activities of the Tibetan court, with records starting six years earlier with the arrival of the Chinese princess in Lhasa. The Old Tibetan Chronicle, probably compiled between 800-840 AD, does not mention Buddhism at all during the reign of Srong btsan sgam po and first describes in these words the flourishing of Buddhism during the reign of Khri srong lde brtsan ( reign: 755-ca.797 AD. ), " The incomparable religion of the Buddha had been received and there were sanctuaries in many parts of the land" (Bacot 1940: 152).

There is no specific mention of the Lhasa gtsug lag khang in the Old Tibetan Chronicle, nor in the Old Tibetan Annals.

These passages allow, I hope, some understanding of the contradictions which are found in the most ancient Tibetan historical records of the seventh to ninth century. This means that an assessment of the chronology of the construction and successive renovation phases of the Lhasa gtsug lag khang is truly a vexed question as the later traditional accounts conflict in many respects with the more ancient historical data. Many readers of Tibet Journal are well aware of this but for readers who may be less familiar with many Tibetan historical sources, below I suggest some references which discuss the chronological conundrum of the introduction of Buddhism to Tibet and the construction of the Lhasa gtsug lag khang.

Quoting Matthew Kapstein, “Later Tibetan historiography attributes three great civilizing innovations to the seventh-century ruler Songtse Gampo (c. 617-649), whose conquests are usually seen as defining the beginnings of the Tibetan empire: the introduction of a system of writing, the codification of laws, and the inception of Tibetan Buddhism. These themes have been much mythologized in the writing of post-eleventh century historians and their accounts can only be used with great caution” (2000:54)

Translating the remarks of Paul Demiéville, “The conversion of Tibet to Buddhism, does not go back to the 7th century, as indigenous tradition would like it; it is not to Srong tsang sgam po and his chinese wife the princess Wencheng, it is not even to the first half of the 8th century,..., it is only as of Khri srong lde btsan and his successors, as of the 8th century and more towards the end of that century” (1952: 188-189 – original French is found in the reference below)

I also present the data of the c-14 analysis performed on a sample of wood from a lion-end pillar of the Lhasa gtsug lag khang, analysed by the laboratory of Professor Bonani in Zürich Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in 1998. This analysis indicated a date of AD 275-334, which indicates a chronology of the Lhasa gtsug lag khang. It gives a result of 95.44% probability for a date of 337 AD. While studies have proven that it is possible in c-14 analysis to obtain a "too-early" date, the results of the 1998 sample are clearly fourth century. Slusser referred to the c-14 samples presented by André Alexander as 7th century, however, it is quite possible that a more accurate chronology remains to be determined through additional samples. (I thank Professor Richard R. Ernst for discussion of the c-14 analysis and for sending me Professor Bonani’s report).

In this preface to the publication of this article, it is beyond the scope to examine in detail the chronology of the Lhasa gtsug lag khang which remains a subject for further research. I would simply like to point out here that I completely agree that the presence of Narendradeva and some of his court in Tibet from 623-642 is certainly related to the presence of Nepalese esthetic canons and carving techniques in Tibet at that time. However, if the lintels are illustrating Buddhist sutra which were meaningful to the public viewing them, that implies that these texts were translated and known in Tibet. This seems premature for the mid-seventh century Tibet for at that time, it is well known that the Tibetan rulers the btsan po were promoting mass conquests to expand their empire during the entire seventh century. There is no contemporary data linking any of the Tibetan btsan po of the seventh century to the promotion of Buddhism in Tibet, it is only during the eighth century that we have strong evidence of the btsan pos encouraging Buddhism: it is only the later Buddhist historical sources - as of the 12th century - that attribute the introduction of Buddhism to the two foreign wives of Srong btsan sgam po of the mid-7th century. Indeed, the Nepalese wife is not historically recorded in either Tibetan or Nepalese sources prior to this 12th century account in the Tibetan book, the Mani bka' 'bum.

In terms of the architectural hypothesis presented in my article below, of the core of the construction as a royal residence which was subsequently transformed into a Buddhist temple due to the royal support for Buddhism, I would like to draw readers’ attention to the recent publication of Per Sorensen and Guntram Hazod, Thundering Falcon, An Inquiry into the History and Cult of Khra ‘brug, Tibet’s First Buddhist Temple, Vienna, 2005, in which the architectural hypothesis of the construction of Khra 'brug monastery is evoked in very similar architectural model to the core-tower hypothesis (Tibetan: mkhar) I formulated in 1997. Their research was entirely independent of mine. They were also unaware of my research due to the long-delayed publication of my article.

Selected References:

Jacques Bacot, F.W. Thomas, Ch. Toussaint, 1940. Documents de Touen-Houang relatifs à l’histoire du Tibet, Paris, Annales du Musée Guimet. (Translation into French of the Old Tibetan Annals and the Old Tibetan Chronicle, as well as Tibetan transcription)

Paul Demiéville, 1952. Le Concile de Lhasa, Paris, l’Imprimerie Nationale de France. (full quotation from Demiéville translated above: “Ce n’est pas au VIIe siècle, comme le veut la tradition indigène, ce n’est pas à Srong btsan sgam po et son épouse chinoise la princesse Wencheng, ce n’est pas non plus à la première moitié du VIIIe siècle, au roi Khri lde gtsug btsan et à la princesse Kin cheng que remonte la conversion du Tibet au Bouddhisme; c’est à Khri srong lde btsan (755-797),et à ses successeurs, à partir du VIIIe siècle, et plutôt à la fin de ce siècle”.)

Matthew T. Kapstein, 2000. The Tibetan Assimilation of Buddhism. Conversion, Contestation and Memory, Oxford University Press.

Alexander W. Macdonald, 1984, “Religion in Tibet at the Time of Srong-btsan sgam po: Myth as History” in L. Ligeti, ed. Tibetan and Buddhist Studies, Commemorating the 200th Anniversary of the Birth of Alexander Csoma de Koros, vol. 2, Budapest, Academy of Sciences, pp. 129-140 (republished in Alexander Macdonald, Essays on the Ethnology of Nepal and South Asia, Ratna Pustak Bhandar, Kathmandu, Nepal, 1987, pp. 135-147.)

Per Sorensen and Guntram Hazod, 2005, Thundering Falcon, An Inquiry into the History and Cult of Khra ‘brug, Tibet’s First Buddhist Temple, Vienna, Austrian Academy of Sciences.

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