Zhang Zhung

The first Bon scriptures were translated from the language of Zhang Zhung into Tibetan. The works contained in the Bonpo canon as we know it today are written in Tibetan, but a number of them, especially the older ones, retain the titles and at times whole passages in the language of Zhang-Zhung.

Until the 8th century Zhang Zhung existed as a separate kingdom, comprising the land to the west of the central Tibetan provinces of U (dBus) and Tsang (gTsang) and generally known as Western Tibet, extending over a vast area from Gilgit in the west to the lake of Namtsho (gNam mtsho) in the east and from Khotan in the north to Mustang in the south. The capital was called Khyunglung Ngulkhar (Khyung lung dngul mkhar), the “Silver Palace of Garuda Valley”, the ruins of which lie in the upper Sutlej valley southwest of Mount Kailash. Its people spoke a language classified among the Tibeto-Burmese group of Sino-Tibetan languages.

The country was ruled by a dynasty of kings which ended in the 9th century A.D. when the last king, Ligmincha, (Lig min skya) was assassinated by order of the king of Tibet and Zhang-Zhung militarily annexed by Tibet. Since that time Zhang-Zhung has become gradually Tibetanized and its language, culture and many of its beliefs have been integrated into the general frame of Tibetan culture. Due to its geographical proximity to the great cultural centres of central Asia such as Gilgit and Khotan, it was through Zhang-Zhung that many religious concepts and ideas reached Tibet.

More about Zhang Zhung

(Wikipedia excerpt)

Zhang Zhung (Shang shung) culture is an ancient culture of western and northwestern Tibet which pre-dated Tibetan Buddhism and is best known as the source of the Bön religion. Also known as the Shang Shung, the Zhang Zhung are mentioned frequently in ancient Tibetan texts as the original rulers of central and western Tibet. Only in the last two decades have archaeologists been given access to do archaeological work in the areas controlled by the Zhang Zhung; also the exile of Bönpo priests to India in the wake of Communist takeover has brought to light a great deal of historical information about the Zhang Zhung that was previously suppressed by the ruling Gelugpas.

Recently, a tentative match has been proposed between the Zhang Zhung and an Iron Age culture now being uncovered on the Chang Tang plateau of northwestern Tibet.

Extent of the Zhang Zhung kingdoms

According to Annals of Lake Manasarowar, at one point the Zhang Zhung civilization was comprised of 18 kingdoms in the west and northwest portion of Tibet. The Zhang Zhung culture was centered around sacred Mount Kailash and extended west to Sarmatians and present-day Ladakh, southwest to Jalandhara, south to the kingdom of Mustang in Nepal, east to include central Tibet, and north across the vast Chang Tang plateau and the Taklamakan desert to Shanshan. Thus the Zhang Zhung culture controlled the major portion of the "roof of the world".

The Zhang Zhung capital city was said to be Khyunglung (Khyunglung Ngülkhar), the "Silver Palace of Garuda Valley", southwest of Mount Kailash, which is identified with ruins found in the upper Sutlej Valley, in the modern Kinnaur District of Himachal Pradesh, India.

The Zhang Zhung built a towering fort, Chugtso Dropo, on the shores of sacred Lake Dangra, from which they exerted military power over the surrounding district in central Tibet.

The fact that the some of the ancient texts describing the Zhang Zhung kingdom also claimed the Sutlej valley was Shambhala, the land of happiness (from which James Hilton possibly derived the name "Shangri La"), may have delayed their study by Western scholars.

History of the Zhang Zhung

Paleolithic findings

Pollen and tree ring analysis indicates the Chang Tang plateau was a much more liveable environment until becoming drier and colder starting around 1500 BC. One theory is that the civilization established itself on the plateau when conditions where less harsh, then managed to persist against gradually worsening climatic conditions until finally expiring around 1000 AD (the area is now used only by wandering nomads). This timeframe also corresponds to the rise of the Tibetan kingdoms in the southern valleys which may also have contributed to the decline of the plateau culture.

Recent archeological work on the Chang Tang plateau finds evidence of an Iron Age culture which some have tentatively identified as the Zhang Zhung. This culture is notable for the following characteristics:

- a system of hilltop stone forts or citadels, likely used as a defense against the steppe tribes of Central Asia, such as the Scythians
- burial complexes which use vertical tombstones, occasionally in large arrays, and including up to 10,000 graves in one location
- stone temples located in the mountains adjacent to the plains, characterized by windowless rooms, corbelled stone roofs, and round walls - evidence of a stratified social structure, as indicated by royal or princely tombs
- petroglyphs which shows the culture was a warrior horse culture
These characteristics more closely match the Iron age cultures of Europe and the Asian steppes than those of India or East Asia, suggesting a cultural influence which arrived from the west or north rather than the east or south.

Defeat of the Zhang Zhung in 644 AD

In 644 AD the Zhang Zhung were defeated by Songtsen Gampo, the 33rd King of Tibet, in a battle near Lake Dangra. The Tibetan king and the Zhang Zhung king had married each other's sisters in a political alliance. However the Tibetan wife of King of Zhang Zhung complained of poor treatment by the king's principle wife. War ensued and the Zhang Zhung were decisively defeated and Tibet unified for the first time. However their Bön traditions were absorbed into the greater Tibetan culture and would become some distinctive elements of Tibetan Buddhism.

The Zhang Zhung language

A handful of Zhang Zhung texts and 11th century bilingual Tibetan documents attest to an Zhang Zhung language which was related to Old Tibetan, although it included words of Kinnaur origin. The exact relation to Old Tibetan is subject to dispute. The Bönpo claim that the Tibetan writing system is derived from the Zhang Zung alphabet, while modern scholars consider the question open. Given the rarity of text samples, another possible explanation is that the 11th century Bönpo, struggling for legitimacy as Kadampa and Nyingmapa sought to marginalize Bön, resorted to creating an artificial ancient writing system.

Modern-day Zhang Zhung speakers

A language called Zhang Zhung is still spoken by approximately 2,000 native speakers in the Sutlej Valley of Himachal Pradesh[1]. It is not clear if this language, of the Himalayish family of the Tibeto-Burman family, derives from the language spoken by the Zhang Zhung, or if they are the descendants of the Zhang Zhung as claimed, although this is quite plausible.

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