Zhang Zhung culture

From Academic Kids

Zhang Zhung 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. The Zhang Zhung are mentioned frequently in ancient Tibetan texts but only in the last two decades have archaeologists been able to link the text references to archaeological sites. 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.


Textual evidence of the Zhang Zhung

According to various ancient texts, at one point the Zhang Zhung civilization was comprised of 18 kingdoms in the west and northwest portion of Tibet (the exact extent of the civilization and the number of kingdoms varied over time). This region includes the northern Chang Tang plateau (the highest and most desolate plains of Tibet) and western Tibet. Their capital city was said to be Khyunglung Ngulkhar, 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 fact that the some of these texts also claimed the Sutlej valley was also Shambhala, the land of happiness (from which Joseph Conrad derived the name "Shangri La"), perhaps detracted from their serious study by scholars.

Iron Age culture of the Chang Tang — is this the Zhang Zhung?

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.

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.

Modern-day remnant of the Zhang Zhung

The Zhang Zhung language is still spoken by approximately 2,000 native speakers in the Sutlej valley of Himachal Pradesh[1] (http://www.ethnologue.com/show_language.asp?code=JNA). Their language, of the Himalayish family of the Tibeto-Burman family of languages, is the language of the ancient Bön texts so there can be little doubt these people are the remnant of the original Zhang Zhung. It is still an open question, however, if they are the descendants of the Iron Age culture which existed on the Chang Tang plateau to the north.

Were the Zhang Zhung Buddhists?

It is noteworthy that the Bönpo tradition claims its own form of Buddhism did not come from Tibetan Buddhism but actually predated it. The standard model is that Bön was a shamanistic and non-Buddhist religion that was merged into Tibetan Buddhism. The Bön maintain otherwise, however, and claim a transmission which predates Padmasambhava (the father of Tibetan Buddhism), and even predates the Shakyamuni Buddha. This has led some to speculate that Buddhism arrived in Tibet not through the Gandhara culture in the northwest of India but from the western borders of the Zhang Zhung, which would mean through Persia. The Zhang Zhung language is Sino-Tibetan in origin, not Indo-European, so we would not conclude that the Zhang Zhung themselves came from Iran.

See also

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