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Jomo Rirang Khar Introduction (April 13, 2011)

See this essay in its original online publication

Antiquities of Zhang Zhung
by John Vincent Bellezza

I.1. Residential Structures Occupying Summits: Fortresses, breastworks, religious buildings, palaces, and related edifices

Jomo Rirang KharJo mo ri rang mkhar

Basic site data

  • Site name: Jomo Rirang KharJo mo ri rang mkhar
  • English equivalent: Elder Sister Mountain Castle.38
  • Site number: A-54
  • Site typology: I.1a.
  • Geographic coordinate (N. lat.): 30º 53.4΄
  • Geographic coordinate (E. long.): 80º 48.8΄
  • Elevation: 5000 m to 5110 m
  • Administrative location (township): KhyunglungKhyung lung
  • Administrative location (county): TsadaRtsa mda'
  • Survey expedition: UTAE
  • Survey date: April 29, 2001
  • Contemporary usage: None.
  • Identifiable Buddhist constructions: None.

General site characteristics

The large all-stone citadel of Jomo Rirang KharJo mo ri rang mkhar is spread out over the top of a flaming orange-red spur, on the south side Mount Jomo RirangJo mo ri rang. This summit is surrounded by cliffs and very steep slopes, endowing it with an excellent defensive aspect. The site enjoys a panoramic view of the Gya NyimaRgya nyi ma basin, situated some 500 m below the site. Unlike the open and centralized location of Big Sun Castle (A-53), Jomo RirangJo mo ri rang is situated at the head of an uninhabited and isolated valley. The Jomo Rirang KharJo mo ri rang mkhar stronghold consists of three ruined residential complexes: upper, middle and lower. These complexes form contiguous bands of structures and cover no less than 2000 m² in total. The many diminutive buildings are stacked in vertical arrays, which spread out along the steep acclivities of the various summit ridges. Some of the edifices in the upper complex were two stories tall. The present day desolation of the locale contrasts with its ostensible demographic status in ancient times, when hundreds of people must have lived and worked here. Corbelled stone roofs and semi-subterranean, small, windowless rooms are prominent design features of the site, firmly placing it in the archaic cultural horizon. All edifices were built with long corbels, bridging stones and dry-mortar random-rubble walls. Dark gray corbelling and bridging stones, up to 2.3 m in length, are scattered all over the site. The structural evidence indicates that the buildings were finely built, alluding to the one time presence of a sophisticated cultural center.

Oral tradition

Possibly the legendary prehistoric Zhang ZhungZhang zhung association of Big Sun Castle is really intended for jo mo ri rang mkhar. Local drok pa’brog pa consider Mount JomoJo mo ri rang very inauspicious, and the deaths of both people and livestock are commonly attributed to it. It is said that the territorial deity (yüllhayul lha) JomoJo mo ri rang once manifested as an onager (kyangrkyang) and visited a shepherd’s camp near DenchuGdan chu monastery (located on the headwaters of the Sutlej (Langchen Tsangpoglang chen gtsang po)). By circling the tents she slew many livestock. The five families that lived there erected a prayer flag mast in honor of the territorial deity in an attempt to placate her. One of the members of the camp was an avid hunter, and on a hunting foray he spotted a onager with a golden saddle and caparison. When he looked at it a second time it was merely an ordinary onager so he shot it. To his astonishment, when he arrived at the spot of the kill there was an adept (druptopgrub thob) there. He quickly looked away but when he returned his gaze there was the slain onager. He skinned the dead animal and brought the pelt back to his camp. Soon thereafter, he died followed by all the other inhabitants of his camp from one cause or another. For a long time afterwards not even livestock or wild ungulates would graze in the area. JomoJo mo ri rang is reputed to make the buildings on her inner (south) side invisible to onlookers, while at other times visitors see buildings and livestock roaming about. A rock outcrop on JomoJo mo ri rang in the vicinity of the citadel is called Female Srin Spear Carrier (Sinmo Dunkhyersrin mo mdung ’khyer).

Textual tradition

I think it likely that JomoJo mo ri rang is a Buddhist form of the nearly forgotten and demonized ancient Bon goddess Dralé GyelmoSgra bla'i rgyal mo, who has Gya NyimaRgya nyi ma (old Bon name: Nyinö Yenmar GyelkhamNyi 'od g.yen dmar rgyal khams) as one of her main residences.39 This Bon place name probably refers to a fairly large swathe of extreme southwestern Tibet. The implacable savagery (in the service of religious ideals) of Dralé GyelmoSgra bla'i rgyal mo forms a theme in a Bon origin tale appended to a ritual text written for the discharge of wrathful activities.40 Textual descriptions of her abode as a place of red rocks very much fits the JomoJo mo ri rang locale. For instance, in Sangling Meri DzatiGsang gling me ri dzwa this we read:

The female guardian [Dralé GyelmoSgra bla'i rgyal mo] resides between Mount TiséTi se and Lake MapangMa pang on the copper [colored] talus slopes of Yenmar KhamG.yen dmar khams, in a castle of blazing metallic chunks (tulumthu lum) of celestial iron.41

The parentage of this important Bon goddess is provided in a canonical (kabka') text for the tutelary deity MeriMe ri:

Over yonder in that direction, up in the direction of the setting sun, at Nyinö Yenmar GyelkhamNyi 'od g.yen dmar rgyal khams, in the tabernacle (sekhargsas mkhar) of blazing metallic chunks, the father is the honored Gang Dang Lha Yi GyelpoGangs dang lha yi rgyal po (King of Snow Mountains and lhalha) and the mother is the honored Chucham GyelmoChu lcam rgyal mo (Water Lady Queen) of the miraculous crystal ZaBza'.42 Dralé GyelmoSgra bla'i rgyal mo stag ri rong was manifested from this wonderful couple.43

Site elements

Upper complex

The upper complex is perched on the highest summit of the JomoJo mo ri rang site. This narrow ridgeline (32 m x 3 m to 4 m) is densely packed with the walls of crumbling buildings. These structures are staggered in the crags at various elevations. Standing walls are highly fragmentary and most buildings have been reduced to their footings. Isolated wall segments reach 3.2 m in height. Only a single roof beam and one corbel (among many hundreds) seem to have survived in situ. From the summit, a south facing gully (52 m long along the axis of the slope and 14 m wide) spills down the side of the formation. It contains the ruins of a contiguous band of habitational structures. Flanking the gully are stone ribs that hosted continuous lines of analogous structures. These edifices were all small (around 10 m²) and built in the archaic fashion with all-stone corbelled roofs. In total, the upper complex must have contained around 60 rooms and/or interconnected buildings.

Middle complex

The middle complex is located on a 70-m long ridgeline, adjacent to the lower end of the structure-filled gully of the upper complex. The middle complex contained around 40 rooms in total. Its east or upper end consists of a single line of southern aspect all-stone buildings. These poorly preserved structures were deeply built into the rocky mountainside, reducing the amount of stone needed for the construction of their walls. At the lower west end of the middle complex there is a cluster of around 20 rooms and/or buildings. Some of these semi-subterranean structures still have a few roof slabs and bridging stones in place. The longest in situ bridging stone is 2.1 m. At the western extremity of the complex there is a single two-story tall structure, which probably contained four lower rooms and four upper rooms. One of the lower rooms still has a substantial portion of its ceiling intact. The corbelling of the ceiling was skillfully installed to create a robustly designed structure that could easily support a second story.

Lower complex

The lower complex is located some tens of meters east of the middle complex. It contains a few ruined all-stone buildings of diminutive size, along a 27-m length of the summit.


[38] Nilrang (rnil rwangrnil rwang/rnil rangrnil rang/snil rangsnil rang/snil rwangsnil rwang) is the Zhang ZhungZhang zhung word for snow mountain (gangs rigangri) (Martin, 2001). The usage of riri and rangrang together is a common onomastic application, whereby a Tibetan word is used in conjunction with its Zhang ZhungZhang zhung equivalent. The toponym Jomo RirangJo mo ri rang/Jomo RirongJo mo ri rong also recalls the home of Dralé GyelmoSgra bla'i rgyal mo, the female head of the Zhang ZhungZhang zhung pantheon in the BönBon textual tradition: Tak RirongStag ri rong (Tiger Mountain Valley). A vowel change from rangrang to rongrong is in keeping with the kinds of phonetic and etymological shifts often exhibited by place names in Upper Tibet.
[39] My research shows that in the remote village of TangStang, in the Zarang district of GugéGu ge, Dralé GyelmoSgra bla'i rgyal mo is still the chief female protective deity of the yüllhayul lha class. She plays a prominent role in the shun ballads of the village. See Bellezza 2008, 325 n. 360.
[40] See Welchen Gekhö Sangwa Drakchengyi Kanyen Nagmo Tukkyi Sangdrupdbal chen ge khod gsang ba drag chen gyi bka’ nyan nag mo thugs kyi gsang bsgrub, attributed to Sipa Drema Khösrid pa dre ma khod (the younger brother of Dralé GyelmoSgra bla'i rgyal mo), in the Gekhö Mechage khod smad cha volume (New Collection of Bön bka’ brten, vol. 122, no. 101, ln. 1). A synopsis of this origin tale is given in Bellezza 2008.
[41] Written by the Bön sarmagsar ma lama Sangngak Lingpagsang sngags gling pa (New Collection of Bön KatenBka’ brten, vol. 173, no. 382, lns. 1, 2): ti se gangs dang ma pang mtsho/ bar du gnas pa’i sgrub sde mo/ rol mo (= rom po) rdza zangs g.yeng (= g.yen) dmar khams/ gnam lcags thu lum ’bar ba’i mkhar/.
[42] ZaBza' is a clan signifier of female deities. Chucham GyelmoChu lcam rgyal mo is the main cosmogonic goddess of Bön.
[43] See Zhang Zhung Meri Sekhar Trowo Kyé Mi Göpé ZhungZhang zhung me ri’i gsas mkhar khro bo bskyed mi dgos pa’i gzhung in Zhang Zhung MeriZhang zhung me ri (published by Tenzin Namdak, TBMC, 1973, no. 362, lns. 1, 2): phyogs phyogs de ni pha ki na/ nyi ma nub phyogs ya ki na/ nyi ma g.yen dmar rgyal khams na/ thu lum ’bar ba’i gsas mkhar na/ yab ni gangs dang lha yi rgyal po lags/ yum ni shel bza’ ’phrul gyi chu lcam rgyal mo lags/ de gnyis ya mtshan sprul pa las/ sgra bla’i rgyal mo stag ri rong /. The colophon provides details of the more recent pedigree of the text: “Yangtön Sherap GyeltsenYang ston shes rab rgyal mtshan requested it from the adept and lama KündülKun ’dul. Then, in succession, it went to Tokden DeshéRtogs ldan dad shes and from him to the teacher (loppönslob dpon) Samten RinchenBsam gtan rin chen. He gave it to the lineage of the teacher Tsül ÖTshul ’od. The KhamKhams meditator Trashi RinchenBkra shis rin chen requested it from him. Then, in succession through the lineage, it went to Tretön Püntsok DrakpaTre ston phun tshogs grags pa, the [present] owner.”

Note Citation for Page

John Vincent Bellezza, Antiquities of Zhang Zhung: A Comprehensive Inventory of Pre-Buddhist Archaeological Monuments on the Tibetan Upland (Charlottesville, VA 22904:Tibetan & Himalayan Library, 2010), .

Bibliographic Citation

John Vincent Bellezza. Antiquities of Zhang Zhung: A Comprehensive Inventory of Pre-Buddhist Archaeological Monuments on the Tibetan Upland, . Charlottesville, VA 22904:Tibetan & Himalayan Library, 2010.