Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Iranian-Aryan Connections with Western Tibet

Also see our page on the Aryan Homeland, and the sections Mount Meru / Sumeru and Airyana Vaeja as Paradise. Shambhala / Shangri-La where we note the possible connections between Western Tibet and Airyana Vaeja, the Aryan homeland.

Evidence of Early Connections between the Early Aryans and Western Tibetans
Dakhma and Sky Burials
A unique connection shared only by Iranian-Aryan Zoroastrians and a group of western Tibetans is the method of disposing of the dead, namely the exposure of the dead bodies to birds.

In addition to the method of exposure, other similarities include the wrapping of the body in a clean white shroud and placing the body on rock. When the Zoroastrians migrated to areas that did not have rocky hills, they constructed towers made from rock and do not permit the body to contact soil.

There are also significant differences in the practice: Zoroastrians place the body in a tower called a dakhma (however, we have read reports that in flat areas, early Zoroastrians did leave bodies in fields ostensibly on a stone platform - away from view - to be devoured by birds) while Tibetans place the body on a designated place on a hillside. In the dakhma, Zoroastrians simply lay the body on a stone surface but do not dismember the body as is the practice in Tibet. Further, Zoroastrians collect the bones in a central ossuary pit where they disintegrate, while the Tibetans do not follow this practice.

Perhaps what is significant when comparing this sharing of a 'burial' custom between the two cultures - one which is not shared with other cultures - is the practical considerations for adopting this form of 'burial' which probably preceded the religious justification and the possible environmental implications.

These practical considerations may give us clues about the environment and topography of the area in which the Western Tibetans and Iranian-Aryans lived.
Savnob Village, Gorno Badakhshan, Pamirs, Tajikistan. Image credit: Hoeck at Flickr
For the people who lived in mountainous regions near the tree line or in small valleys surrounded by rocky mountains, below ground 'burial' options may have been very limited. Arable land would have been scare and digging a deep pit for a burial in the fallow rocky surroundings bordering a village and its meagre fields, would have been very difficult. Wood for cremation would not have been available in sufficient quantities or acquiring such wood would have meant cutting down precious trees and denuding the environment. Improperly disposing a dead body might also have created a health hazard. Residents of such harsh surroundings may have had no sanitary option for disposing of dead bodies other than  exposure to birds and beasts. Cave burials, another possible option would have had limited application.

Questions & Possible Answers to the Original Home of the Aryans
(Also see our page Who Were The Aryans?)
For the preceding observations, the sharing of the 'burial' customs between the Iranian Aryans and Western Tibetans raises some questions:

1. When Iranian Aryans first adopted this custom, were they living in a environment similar to the Western Tibetans?
2. Did the two peoples, the Iranian Aryans and the Western Tibetans live in close proximity?

The unique similarities in this practice may give us clues about the nature, topography and location of the original Aryan homeland. Among the possibilities are:

1. The Western Tibetans and original Aryans lived in mountainous rocky regions.
2. They were neighbours.
3. The Western Tibetans lived in the Western Himalayas and Tibetan plateau while the original Aryans lived immediately west in an area that included the Western Pamirs.

Legend Regarding the First Aryan King & Mountains
Ferdowsi's Shahnameh, complemented by the Farvardin Yasht 13.87, recounts that Aryan prehistory started with Gaya Maretan, founder of the Aryan nation. The Shahnameh states that he was the first Aryan King and that during his reign, people lived in the mountains and wore animal skins and leaves. They gathered fruits and other plant foods. Animals were first domesticated, and the herding of cattle began.

[For other references to the original Aryan homeland being mountainous please see Aryan homeland location: Mountains - Hara Berezaiti)]

Tagzig, Zhang-Zhung, Western Tibet - Land & Culture

In Tibet there is a minority religion (100,000 adherents?) called Bon that long preceded the coming of Buddhism. Present-day Bon practice allies it with Buddhism. However, the original practice may have been quite different.

According to Bon tradition, the founder of the orthodox Bon doctrine was Tonpa Shenrab Miwoche of Tagzig some 18,000 years ago. Tagzig is believed to be a form of Tajik and some writers identify the region with Balkh/Bactria. The name Shenrab has an Iranian sound to it.

The Bon religion was spread by Shenrab's disciples and their student-translators to adjacent countries such as Zhang-Zhung (also Zhangzhung, Shang Shung or Xang Xung - a land north of the Himalayas, which contained Mount Kailash in today's Western Tibet), India (northern Indus valley cf. Bru-zha / Gilgit), Kashmir (Kha-che), Western China and eventually Greater Tibet. Tonpa Shenrab is reputed to have visited present-day Tibet once. On that visit he found the people unprepared to receive the entire body of his teachings, but he prophesied that his teachings would flourish in Tibet in the coming ages. The students of his disciples continued his mission and Tibetan Bon scriptures were translated from texts in the language of Zhang-Zhung.

The Bon tradition provides a close link between the Aryan and Tibetan cultures. In addition to the place of its origin, the Bon tradition includes additional links to Zoroastrian Aryan culture including what Western writers have labelled as 'dualism' and the myths about the original homeland and its Shangri-La like beauty.

Tagzig is more completely called Tagzig Olmo Lung Ring and is described in Bon as a non-dual (one which resides beyond dualism) spiritual realm. The feature of this non-dual realm is that it was a timeless perfect realm where peace and joy were the very fabric of being and evil was not known. Ol-mo-lung-ring is thought by some to be derived from the name of the city of Olmaliq now in Uzbekistan but originally in Tajikistan.

In legend, Tagzig Olmo Lung Ring is said to have been a fragrant land, coloured by beautiful flora and surrounded by snow-capped mountains. It was located west of Mount Kailash.

In the centre of Tagzig Olmo Lung Ring was Yungdrung Gutsek, a pyramidal-shaped mountain whose four sides faced the cardinal directions. From its four corners flowed rivers, one of which we can recognize: the river Sindhu (Indus) that flowed south.

It will be of interest to those studying the weather change in Airyana Vaeja, that pollen and tree ring analysis indicates the Chang Tang plateau in Western and Northern Tibet had a far more liveable environment than it has today - one that supported a primordial civilization - until, starting around 1500 BCE, the climate become colder and drier. The climate change would have caused the population to migrate out of the northern plateau. This type of climate change from temperate to cold, and the resulting changes in the environment from comfortable and verdant to harsh and rocky, is similar to the Zoroastrian stories of a climate change during the reign of legendary King Jamshid.

For a further discussion on the possible connections between Zhang Zhung, Tagzig and the original homeland of the Aryans, Airyana Vaeja, please see our page on the Aryan Homeland, and the sections Mount Meru / Sumeru and Airyana Vaeja as Paradise. Shambhala / Shangri-La

Bon Heaven Stones & Luristan Bronzes
Luristan Bronzes at the Louvre, Paris. Julianna Lee's Gallery 
Giuseppe Tucci and Geoffrey Samuel state in their book The Religions of Tibet that according to Bon Tibetan tradition if anyone finds 'heaven stones', thog rde'u, bronze artefacts, in their fields, especially nine together are assured prosperity. Some of the 'stones' are eagle shaped (khyung), while others are round or in shapes representing monkeys. Tucci and Samuel further state that the objects bear a striking resemblance to those found in the western Iran province of Luristan / Loristan indicating a connection if not a trading relationship between the Iranian and Tibetan cultures along the Aryan Trade routes. Luristan straddles the Zagros Mountains. The bronze objects are dated from the first to the second millennium BCE and are thought to have been made by the area's Kassite inhabitants (see Luristan Bronzes by Donald Wilber).

Bon & Buddhism in Central Asia
Buddhism established itself as a major religion and political force in Central Asia long before it was established as the primary religion of Tibet. There is evidence of its presence in the Central Asian region during the 4th century BCE - that is, during the occupation of the region by Alexander and his successors. Buddhism was later adopted by the Central Asian Kushan kings in the first to fourth centuries CE and it likely existed side-by-side with Zoroastrianism in that region. It could be that some of the existing Bon adherents in the region adopted Buddhism and that this phenomenon spread into the Western Tibetan plateau.

Given that the Zoroastrian and Bon religions may have existed side-by-side in Central Asia, the Pamirs and the northern Himalayan region, it is quite possible that even during the time of the Iranian Sassanian dynasty c. 224 - 649 CE, the relations between the Zoroastrian Iranians and the Tibetan Buddhists was collaborative. There is evidence that we will examine below, that this collaboration survived even after the overthrow of the Sassanians by the Arabs.

The land of Zhang Zhung on its part continued its dominance of the Tibetan plateau until it was annexed by Songtsen Gampo in the 7th century. Songtsen Gampo was the thirty-third king of the Yarlung Dynasty which ruled the Yarlung River (the Brahmaputra in India) and is revered by Tibetans as the founder of the Tibetan state and empire. He is also said to have introduced Buddhism to Tibet.

Iranian-Aryan Relations with the Yarlung Dynasty (c. 7th-9th Centuries CE)
The Tibetan empire established by Songtsen Gampo soon grew in power that extended beyond its borders, so much so, that in the year 763, the Tibetans, allied with the Uighur Turks, invaded the Chinese Tang Empire, captured the Chinese capital Chang-an, and replaced the Tang emperor with a candidate of their own choosing (1).

The Yarlung dynasty appears to have continued the collaborative relationship the Zhang Zhung had with the Iranian Aryans (2). The relationship continued even after the Arabs had conquered the Persian empire. Since it is the Tibetans who had become the dominant eastern power in the seventh century CE, it is they who provided the Persians and Sogdians sanctury.

As they fled east, the Persians first took refuge in Sugd (Sogdiana) and their presence there has been recorded on Sogdian inscriptions in Panjakand and Paykand. Then as the Persians and Sogdians continued east into China, their presence during the ninth century was recorded on a Chang’an funerary stele belonging to Mahshi Suren.

Author A. Nikitin (3) has proposed that the rise of Tibetan power was because of the assistance of Persian refugees fleeing from the Arab invasion of Persia in the 650s CE. According to Nikitin, when the Persians arrived in the Tibetan court, they trained the Tibetans in the art of imperial warfare. According to another author Beckwith, a Chinese source describes the Yarlung Tibetan warriors and horses as being completely clad in armour in the Sassanian fashion. An important military technological advance and advantage for the Tibetans was their newly acquired ability to produce chain mail for armour.

After the Arab take over of the Sassanian Iranian state, the Yarlung Tibetans fought against the Arabs together with his Turkic allies in order to expel them from Sugd (Sogdiana)(4).

The Yarlung captured Khotan – an Iranian-Tajik kingdom allied with Kashmir and Sugd (Sogdiana) (5). The Tibetan conquest of Khotan was followed by the immigration of many Khotanese Buddhist monks, craftsmen and merchants into Tibet (6).

Iranian-Aryan Trade Relations with the Yarlung Dynasty
The Yarlung Dynasty continued the tradition of participating in the historic Aryan trade especially with the Sogdians (7). The trade consisted of the import into Tibet of luxury goods that included silks and metalwork. The exports included Tibet's famous perfumed musk must prized in the courts of the western Iranian and Arabs. This trade continued well into the 10th century when the noted Geographer Mas’udi from that era noted that some merchants he had met in Eastern Persia arrived there "from Sogdiana through... the mountains of Tibet and China"(8). Furthermore, the Tibetans were aware of the religions professed by the Sogdians (9).

There is some debate as to whether it was the Chinese or the Sogdians who introduced silk to the Tibetans. Given the Sogdian presence in Tibet and the motif designs on the silk, it is likely that it was the Sogdian traders and settlers who brought the silk with them.

Tibetan and Chinese motifs have been found in Sogdian art within Sugd (Sogdiana), and likewise, Sogdian and Iranian / Persian motifs have been found in art and designs found in Tibet and China.

Sogdian artefacts dating to the eight and ninth centuries CE have been found in a cemetery in Dulan, not far from Reshui in China's Qinghai Province. The site was then part of the Tibetan empire's Amdo region. One of the artefacts in a silk fragment that has Pahlavi (Middle Persian) language words. Some coins with Pahlavi insciptions have also been found in Tibet. Several textiles and metal objects embellished with Sogdian motifs have also been found in the cemetery at Dulan.(10).

- M. Compareti, "Iranian Elements in Kashmir and Tibet. Sasanian and Sogdian Borrowings in Kashmiri and Tibetan Art"

- Fang-kuei Li, "Notes on Tibetan Sog", Central Asiatic Journal, III, 2, 1957-58: 139-142
- H. H. R. Hoffmann, "The Tibetan Names of the Saka and the Sogdians", Asiatische Studien, XXV, 1971: p. 440-455
- G. Uray, "The Old Tibetan Sources of the History of Central Asia up to 751 A.D.: a Survey", in: Prolegomena to the Sources on the History of Pre-Islamic Central Asia, ed. J. Harmatta, Budapest, 1979: p. 282-283
- É. De La Vaissière, Histoire des merchands sogdiens, Paris, 2002 (reprint 2005) p.152-3

- A. Nikitin, G. Roth, "A New Seventh-Century Countermark with a Sogdian Inscription", The Numismatic Chronicle, 155, 1995: 277-279.

- C. I. Beckwith, The Tibetan Empire in Central Asia: a History of the Struggle for Great Power among Tibetans, Turks, Arabs, and Chinese During the Early Middle Ages, Princeton, 1987: p. 108-110.

- H. W. Bailey, The Culture of the Sakas in Ancient Iranian Khotan, New York, 1982: p. 4, 9, 57.
- H. Kumamoyo, "The Khotanese in Dunhuang", in: Cina e Iran. Da Alessandro Magno alla dinastia Tang, ed. A. Cadonna, L. Lanciotti, Firenze, 1996: 79-101: p. 84-86.
- Mu Shun-ying, Wang Yao, "The Western Regions (Hsi-Yü) Under the T’ang Empire and the Kingdom of Tibet", in: History of Civilizations of Central Asia. Volume III: The Crossroad of Civilizations: A.D. 250 to 750, ed. B. A. Litvinsky, Paris, 1996: p. 349-365.

- H. H. R. Hoffmann, "The Tibetan Names of the Saka and the Sogdians", Asiatische Studien, XXV, 1971: p. 451-453
- G. Gropp, Archäologische Funde aus Khotan, Chinesisch-Ostturkestan: die Trinkler-Sammlung im Übersee-Museum Bremen, Bremen, 1974: p. 36-37.

- C. I. Beckwith, "Tibet and Early Medieval Florissance in Eurasia. A Preliminary Note on the Economic History of the Tibetan Empire", Central Asiatic Journal, vol. XXI, 2, 1965: 89-104: p. 100-103.
- É. De La Vaissière, Histoire des merchands sogdiens, Paris, 2002 (reprint 2005): 303.

- A. M. H. Shboul, Al-Masʻūdī and His World. A Muslim Humanist and His Interests in non-Muslims, London, 1979: p. 162, n. 80

- G. Uray, "The Old Tibetan Sources of the History of Central Asia up to 751 A.D.: a Survey", in: Prolegomena to the Sources on the History of Pre-Islamic Central Asia, ed. J. Harmatta, Budapest, 1979: p. 275-304.

- A. Heller, "Some Preliminary Remarks on the Excavations at Dulan", Orientations, 29, 9, 1998.a: p. 84-92.
- A. Heller, Arte tibetana. Sviluppo della spiritualità e dell’arte in Tibet dal 600 al 2000 d.C., Milano, 1999.
- A. Heller, "Archaeological Artefacts from the Tibetan Empire in Central Asia", Orientations, vol. 34, 4, 2003.a: p. 55-64.
- A. Heller, "Recent Findings on Textiles from the Tibetan Empire", in: Central Asian Textiles and Their Contexts in the Early Middle Ages, Riggisberger Berichte, 9, 2006: 175-188.

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