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Tombs of Early Tibetan Kings

Through the 7th to 9th centuries in Tibet, southwest China, there existed a famous regime -- the Tibetan Regime. Its first ruler, King Songtsen Gambo (617-650), was an accomplished leader. Unifying all the tribes in Tibet, he made Lhasa the capital. He then developed production, created a Tibetan language, made laws, set up official and military systems, and established a Tibetan slavery system.


In order to absorb central China's advanced culture, Songtsen Gambo married Tang Dynasty's Princess Wen Cheng in 641, sent Tibetan aristocratic children to Chang'an for study, invited Han people to take charge of his official documents and letters, dispatched his people to learn central China's production techniques and technology, and otherwise promoted economic and cultural exchange between the Han and Tibetan areas.


In 649 the Tang regime granted him title "Commandant-escort." Songtsen Gambo made great contributions to the social, economic and cultural development of the Tibetan region, to good relations between Han and Tibetan people, and to formation and development of a multi-national China.


According to such Tibetan history books as Grand Ceremonies of the Wise, Chronicle of Tibetan Kings and Officials and Chronicles of Tibetan Kings and Clansmen, there were altogether 35 tombs of Tibetan Kings and concubines, divided into groups, with each group centered in a separate area.


The largest group of known tombs was located on Mure Mountain at the southern bank of the Yarlung Zangbo River, southwest of the Zongsam Mountain and beside the Yarlung River (today under the jurisdiction of Qongyai County in the Tibetan Autonomous Region). Surrounded by open ground and benefiting from moderate weather, rich soil, and beautiful landscape, this area with its favorable natural conditions was the birthplace of the ancient Tibetan nationality and the old home of the founding King, Songtsen Gambo.


After the King chose Lhasa as a capital, this area became his base to strengthen his regime and solidify his rule, and was accorded special attention. It may have been nostalgia, as well as the favorable and rich natural conditions, that decided Songtsen Gambo on this area as his burial place. Later quite a few other Tibetan kings were buried here.


Scattered all over Mure Mountain, nine recognizable mausoleums cover an area of 3 square kilometers. Similarly shaped, they were all high, square earth heaps with flat tops of piled stone and pecked earth, imitating the early tomb styles of central China. But now, after over a thousand years of wind and weather, their characteristics have changed; some have become rounded and flat on top.

Tomb of Tibetan king


According to historical documents and inscriptions on the memorial tablets, only three of the nine tomb occupants have been identified:


The Tomb of Songtsen Gambo  A surviving inscription at the tomb reads that the tomb of Songtsen Gambo was situated at the mouth of the Qingpu Ravine (after several centuries the tomb now is a huge square grave at the center of a plain facing a distant Qongyai County seat). The tomb appears to have been square. The interior had nine chambers, the main one a Buddhist hall, at the center of which stood a 7-or 8-chi-long (3 chi = approx 1 meter) coral lamp that burned day and night. The four corner chambers stored treasure. The inner tomb wall was made of square stone slabs covered by a thick layer of earth, which in turn was covered with broken stones, forming an earth hillock.

Tomb of Songtsen Gambo


The tomb door opened to the west and each side was 100 paces long and over 6 zhang high (1 zhang = 3 1/3 meters). It is said that under the tomb was a spacious underground palace, storing statues of Songtsen Gambo, Sakyamuni and Bodhisattva Guanyin; numerous everyday utensils inlaid with gold, silver, jewelry and agate, and amour and weapons of the day.


Originally a sacrificial temple was atop the tomb, consisting of 20-odd soul towers and four small-sized halls on the four sides. Within the temple were statues of Songtsen Garnbo, Princess Wen Cheng, Princess Chi Zun, Minister Ludongzan and the creator of the Tibetan language, Tunmi Sangpuquan. Over times, the original buildings deteriorated, but in recent years the temple and statues have been restored and a continuous stream of visitors and worshipers pay tribute to this outstanding Tibetan King who devoted himself to the development of Tibetans and unity between the Han and Tibetan people.


The Tomb of Chide Songzan  Reigning from 793-815, late in the Tibetan Regime, King Chide Songzan was also buried in Qongyai County. This was confirmed by the Tibet Committee for Management of Cultural Relics in September, 1984 when his tomb's stele was located and recovered. The Tibetan script called King Chide Songzan very capable, saying: "(He was) farsighted and rigorous. His country was known far and wide to be powerful and prosperous and his people happy and virtuous, something not seen before. Kings and chieftains from all directions came to vow allegiance to him."


This tomb stele, the best preserved of all the Tang steles in Tibet, was a more valuable find than the Monument Stele Commemorating the Tang and Tibet-an Regimes' Alliance in front of the Suglakang Monastery in Lhasa. At 7.2 meters high, it consists of the crown, the shaft and the plinth. The crown capped by tiers of carved gems is a rectangle with a four-faceted bevel, the edge of which turns upward. The four facets display carved designs of floating clouds. Below each corner of the crown are four flying celestials in relief, stripped to the waist and graceful amid colorful fluttering ribbons. The rectangular shaft, 5.6 meters high, tapers to the top. The upper front section displays a carved sun and moon. Below are 59 horizontal lines of ancient Tibetan script, while two dragons mingle in relief with floating clouds on the shaft sides. Supporting the shaft is skillfully carved stone-tortoise plinth. The tomb stele is not only of great historical value, but an excellent art work of sculpture, a rare treasure among Tibetan Tang Dynasty tomb tablets. A pavilion now protects the treasure.

A few steps away is a stone tablet similar to the one in front of the Chide Songzan tomb. With carved jewelry on top, the same floating clouds, flying celestials and dancing dragons on the pillar, its shaft is 3.6 meters high. Inscriptions have been weathered away and the tablet has suffered severe damage. It is also said to be a gravestone of Chide Songzan, but far less valuable than the larger one.


The Tomb of Dusong Mangbujie  Halfway up Mure Mountains stands a large elevated platform of earth and stone which, according to Tibetan chronicles, should be the tomb of Dusong Mangbujie. Besides the huge earth heap, the pair of stone lions in front of the tomb are the most valuable surface artifacts. They are each 1.5 meters high, placed on a 1.2-meter-long and 0.8-meter-wide rectangular pedestal. Facing the tomb, they sit chin up and chest out, powerful and expressive. They are obviously in the early style of stone lions, with bald heads and hairy backs. With decisive carving and smooth lines, the two lions can stand among the best carving works of the Tang Dynasty in China, and are even more precious in Tibet.

Stone lion at the tomb of Tibetan king


Besides the three tombs for which occupants are known, other tombs' occupants, according to Tibetan chronicles, are Mangsong Mangzan, Jiangca Lamu, Chide Zuzan, Mou Ru and Mou Ni, etc. Of them, Jiangca Lamu and Mou Ru were merely crown princes and their mounds are smaller. Scholars find all the tombs are in a line from east to west and mainly placed in patrilineal order. The eastern group included Songtsen Gambo, Mangsong Mangzan, Dusong Mangbujie, Chisong Dezan and Chizu Dezan; while the eastern are Chide Songzan, Mou Ru, Mou Ni and Jiangca Lamu.


Similar in form and structure, all the tombs were of piled stone and packed earth; the earth was 10-20 centimeters thick, sometimes containing stone slabs and sometimes wood. Its construction is no less formidable than that of Qin and Han tombs.


Once they established their powerful regime, these Tibetan kings gathered mammoth amounts of wealth, and built magnificent palaces, monasteries and large-scale tombs. Most of the surface buildings no longer exist, but, according to historical documents, uncounted precious historical relics and treasures were buried in each tomb. What is more, most of them haven't been looted, leaving a large amount of cultural treasure, which, when located, can assist immeasurably the study of Tibetan history and culture.

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