Divine Dyads: Ancient civilization in Tibet aims to comprehensively document the cultural and
religions history of a neglected but vital part of Tibet, the Divine Dyads of the Byang thang.
This work marshals a wide variety of resources in expounding the history and culture of these two
areas, each revolving around a mountain and take of epic geographical and mythological
proportions. The focus of this work is the development of indigenous religion and mythology in
these areas and its impact on the culture of the Byang thang and Tibet in general.
The Library of Tibetan works and Archives is pleased to be publishing. Divine Dyads: Ancient
Civilization to Tibet by author and explorer John. V. Bellezza. The Divine Dyads, the lake and
mountain pairs of gNyan chen thang lha and gNam mtsho, and rTa rgo rin poche and Dang ra g.yu
mtsho, are analysed in terms of prehistoric significance, cultural and religious history, and in
relation to the civilization hof the Byang thang region of Tibet, specifically during the Zhang
The author traces the significance of each of the Dyad personalities, individually and
collectively, from their nature-based origins, through their incorporation in Bon and Buddhist
tenets, into the contemporary vision of the deities in popular and literary culture. The deities
are compasses along which the cultural, social environmental and religious development of region
can be ascertained.
The research provides important insights into ancient Byang thang civilization and is a stepping
stone towards further discoveries concerning the origins and development of Tibetan culture. We
hope that, with some of the new interpretations presented here by the author, readers will find
this book interesting and that it will expand the unfortunately scant knowledge of ancient
Gyatsho Tshering Director
Library of Tibetan Works and Archives
This book would not have been possible without the collaboration of many fine people from various
walks of life, who willingly devoted time and energy to help me in every stage of the book.
Although I have a working knowledge of the rudiments of the Tibetan language to which I have had
recourse over the last 14 years, I am not a professional translator and, therefore, sought
expertise in unlocking the meaning of Tibetan texts. The co-operation of people in this area was
extremely noteworthy, not least of all because this was voluntary. I ask the reader to bear with
any shortcoming and inadequacies of this book, all which should rest squarely on my shoulders.
Foremost among those who assisted me and whose help was indispensable were Gyalwa Menri Khenpo
Lungtog Tenpai Nyima, Lobpon Tenzin Namdag, and Chado Rinpoche, with whom I had the great
privilege of working over the past five years.
Menri Khenpo (Gyal ba sman ri’I khri’ dzin mkhan rabs so gsum pa, Lung rtogs bstan pa’I nyi ma),
the distinguished supreme leader of the Bon religion, whose headquarters is situated in Dolanji,
Himachal Pradesh, India, kindly took time out of his extremely busy schedule to render invaluable
help. He personally endeavored to answer my many questions and provide guidance. Moreover he
deputed members of his highly competent staff to provide me with assistance. I extend my sincere
and heartfelt gratitude ti Menri Khenpo and his staff.
Lobpon Tenzin Namdag (sLop dpon bstan rnam dag), widely recognized as the foremost Bon scholar
is based at the Khri brtan nor bu rtse monastery in Ichangu, Kathmandu. Despite his engaged
schedule this sincere and modest man repeatedly offered his assistance. The superb scholar is the
unrivalled expert on the Divine Dyads.
Chado Rinpoche (Bya do rin po che bstan dzin) was born at gNam mtsho, Tibet and is the
titular head of the Bya do dgon pa at gNam mtsho. Although Bya do rin po che has sadly spent
little time in Tibet, his razor-sharp intellect and inquisitive mind have insured that he
mastered the history and culture of gNam mtsho. Bya do rub po che has sadly spent little time in
Tibet, his razor-sharp intellect and inquisitive mind have insured that he mastered the history
and culture of gNam mtsho. Bya do rin po che, a dGe lugs pa scholar who gradated with the highest
honors, currently the abbot of rNam rgyal grwa tshang in Dharamsala, devoted countless hours,
towards making this book a reality. His learning kindness and humility were a constant
inspiration and helped to smooth the long and difficult road to the creation of this book.
Very special thanks are due to my wife Rebecca Claire for her excellent illustrations of cave
paintings and landscapes as well as for the cover photograph. Her tireless support during the
compilation of this book is much appreciated. My gratitude also goes out to Arthur King a retired
professional artist, for his illustrations of deities, landscapes the rTa rgo range profile
I am very grateful to Choegyal Namkhai Norbu for his interest in my work and for kindly writing
the Foreword to this book. I would also like to specifically thank professor per Kvaerne for
taking the time an trouble to look at early stages of the book and for his insightful guidance
and comments. Among the many other people who have helped me is Thubten Rikey, a scholar of great
and modesty. His help, good will and friendship are especially noteworthy. Without his textual
expertise insights and sense of humor, my efforts would have been seriously impeded. I am also
indebted to the Bon scholar Namgyal Nyima Dagkar who not only generously gave me copies of four
excellent articles of his own on Bon before they were published, but also helped me in a timely
manner with translations. Additionally, he inspected the manuscript for spelling errors and
inconsistencies a task which consumed many hours. Four young but fully qualified and gifted Bon
scholars also demand special mention: Latri Khenpo Nyima Dragpa, Khenpo Tenpa for scholars who
work under the auspices of Menri Khenpo and Lobpon Rinpoche, helped with translations and
answered many questions. It was a joy to work with these exceptional men.
Special thanks also go to Gurchung Rinpoche a rNying scholar and Chadur Sonam Sangpo, a Bon po
scholar who found time to answer my incessant questions. Thank must also go to a variety of
friends and mentors who were instrumental in bringing this book to fruition, among whom are the
following: Stan Armington, Kenji Babasaki, Bob Brundage, Geshe Champa Losel, Drubpa Tharchin,
Ven. Gendo Drag, Gochung Rinpoche, Melvin Goldstein, Gyurme Dorje, Lobsang Shastri Lobsang
Tenzin, Gary McCue, Dan miller, Namkhai Dorje, Ven. Nyida Tshewang, Khenpo Nyima Wanggyal, Ven.
Guru Oser, pasang wangdu, Bradley Rowe, George Schaller, Shentshang Rinpoche, Rupert, Smith,
Sonam Dargye, Acharya Sonam Wangdu, Sonam Wangdu, Taglung Matrul Rinpoche, Taglung Tsetrul
Rinpoche, Tashi Tshering, Tenzin Chagdor, Geshe Tenzin Drugdag, Ven. Tenzin Tshultrim, Tshering
Dorje Burangwa, Ven. Tshultrim Rabgye, Susil Upadhaya, Yacob Urban, Roberto Vital, Emil Wendel,
Ted Worcester and Ven. Yungdrung Gyaltshan. I would also like to thank Tashi Norbu for his
This book would never have been realized without the charity and cooperation of scores of people
in Tibet who offered information, advice and logistical support. They are the unsung heroes of
this book and must, for the time being, remain so. From the bottom of my heart I thank and salute
them. Thanks must also go out to numerous officials in the dpal mgon county, Nag chu prefectural
and Xizang provincial governments for their assistance, encouragement and graciousness.
Last but no least, I want to thank the editorial staff of the LTWA including Maura Ginty, Vyvyan
Cayley, Toby Williamson Alex Taylor, Tenzin Sonam, Tenzin Yangchen and Jigme Tsering for all
their hard work. I would also alike to thank the LTWA librarians Pema Yeshe, Geshe Tashi Wanggyal
and the rest of the library staff. These dedicated staff were indispensable in making this book a
Dyad is a word of Greek origin which denotes the two units objects or personalities that make up
a pair. Divine a word of Latin origin means being or having the nature a daily. Although there
are innumerable dyads in Tibet, in the context of the study Divine Dyads refers specifically to
two pairs of mountain and lake deities: gNam mtsho and gNyan chen thang lha, and Dang ra g.yu
mtsho and rTa rgo rin po che. This includes all their manifestations and elaborations as well as
their geographical delimitation. The common mythological denominator and theme, irrespective of
time and individual tradition, is that each mountain and lake are coupled. However this
relationship between the mountain and lake of each Divine Dyad varies greatly and is dependent on
time and context.
This pairing of mountains and lakes takes on various forms defined by the particular perspective
from which they are viewed. Textual oral and personal perspectives each affect the manner in
which this pairing is described and conceived. The literal translation of Divine Dyad in Tibetan,
rttsa chen cha, is not used as an appellation. General synonyms in Tibetan for the Divine Dyads
include: 1) yab yum (father/ mother-consorts), 2) ri mtsho (mountain/lake) lcam dral (sister/
brother-wife /husband)and 4) mtsho brag (lake/ rock). It must be added that these synonyms are
not only applied to the Divine Dyads but have other application in Tibetan culture and sacred
geography. The relevance of these terms to the Divine Dyads is primarily that they establish a
reciprocal and indivisible relationship between each lake and mountain.
In both of the Dyads here discussed the male aspect is embodied by the mountain gNyan chen thang
lha or rTa rgo po che. While there are mountains in Tibet of female gender the two mountains of
this study are male and they seem to have always been seen as such. Conversely, the gender of the
lakes gNam mtsho and Dang ra g.yu mtsho is always thought of as female. This male/female
assignment of gender is common in Tibet. The maleness of the two mountains and the femaleness of
the two lakes are formative elements in the diverse mythological and religious traditions that
arose around them.
On the 1,300-kilometer-long Byang thang there are three major pairs of sacred mountains and lakes
which crown its eastern central and western sections. In the east is gNam mtsho and gNyan chen
thang lha; in the center, Dang ra g.yu mtsho and rTa rgo; and in the west, mTsho ma pham and
Gangs ti se. they ornament and circumscribe the northern plains of Tibet and constitute the three
most sacred and celebrated mountains and the three most sacred and well-known lakes on the entire
Byang thang. Each of these Dyads is also important in terms of the Byang thang resource base and
local economic activity, which are not unrelated to their sanctified status. As well as being
prominent in the numinous landscape of the Byang thang, the three Dyads also have economic,
geographical and cultural relevance in Tibet as a whole.
These three major pairs of mountains and lakes on the Byang thang were unified into one sacred
geographical tradition known as the gNas chen ganas ri mtsho gsum. This tradition, which is
associated with the Bon religion, calls each of the three Dyads ri mtsho. It has become extremely
obscure. There is apparently not a single text in existence that treats it specifically. The
origins of this Byang thang-based sacred geographical tradition seem to lie in the pre-Imperial
period Zhang zhung. Without concrete historical evidence it is very difficult to assess the
significance of this tradition. However, because the prominent g.yon sgo territories of Zhang
zhung and the gNas chen gangs ri mtsho gsum are virtually synonymous and both are important to
the Bon religion, we can surmise that the gNas chen gangs ri mtsho gsum developed as a flagship
of the Zhang zhung sacred geographical tradition used to demarcate large swathes of territory, it
is also worth considering the possibility that the gNas chen gangs ri mtsho gsum functioned to
define and enhance the political base of Zhang zhung.
In order to limit the size and scope of this book, it was decided to omit a detailed
examination of the cultural history of Gangs ti se and mTsho ma pham, the most famous of the
three Dyads. Because of this Dyad’s fame both within and outside of Tibet, and the sizable body
of primary and secondary literature devoted to them, there was little incentive to rework what
has been already published or discussed at length. Nevertheless parallels and interrelationships
between the two Dyads of this book and Gangs ti se and mTsho ma pham are explored wherever
appropriate. This Dyad shares some of its sacred geography as well as a good portion of its
history culture and physical environment with the two Dyads of this work.
In the vast and largely unstudied matrix of Byang thang sacred geography the three Dyads are the
hubs which co-ordinate and rule over a plethora of minor sacred topographical entities. This
tri-polar system dominated the sacred geography of the Byang thang forging it into a unified
whole. This is an important factor in keeping the gNas chen gangs ri mtsho gsum tradition alive,
despite the loss of whatever ancient political connotations it once might have had. The wide
plains and broad valleys of the Byang thang have an atmospheric quality about them and require
some way to differentiate and quantify them. The Dyads provide such a perceptual benchmark.
The two Dyads of this study gNam mtsho and gNyan chen thang lha, and Dang ra g-yu mtsho and rTa
rgo rin po che, share many common links apart from being members of the obscure Bon gNas chen
gangs ri mtsho gsum. The deities from being associated with the two Dyads bear close resemblance
to one another, especially in their most primitive form as rules and progenitors of the cosmos
and the pantheon of elemental spirit.
Another commonality among the Dyads is the manner in which the lamaist religious, Bon and
Buddhism, strove to redefine them to conform with their own doctrines, values and beliefs. Both
religions relied on the same kinds of tactics and stratagems to bring the mountains and lakes
into their fold. The result was that the Dyads become for both Bon and Buddhism worldly
protectors of religion, albeit in close correspondence with hierarchically superior deities. This
melding of the identities of worldly elemental spirits with higher deities that have passed
beyond the sphere of transmigratory existence is a hallmark of the religious tradition of the
There are a number of other ways in which the two Dyads resemble one another. They share a common
ground as clan protectors (rus rgyud lha) genealogical deities (A pha’I lha) and ancestral
deities (mes lha) for the inhabitants of the Byang thang. The Dyads are also important in the
cult of spirit mediums in Tibet (ie. Tibetan Autonomous Region) are as celebrated in the folk
oracular tradition. Another link between the Dyads is their influential role in the history of
Zhang zhung. Few other places on the Byang thang have such a density of archaeological sites
purported to date from that time. Since the fall of Zhang zhung in the 7th or 8th century the
Dyads have receded in historical importance and many of their interconnections have been severed.
Despite the loss of national significance, the Dyads have remained core areas on the Byang
Divine Dyads: ancient civilization in Tibet is an interdisciplinary study designed to pave the
way for additional investigation of the literature history archaeology and anthropology of the
Byang thang. The book is compiled from four kinds of sources, giving it a wide scope: 1) Tibetan
textual sources, 2) written sources in other languages, 3) oral sources of information, and 4)
The charting of the course of history through the indigenous cultural fabric of the two study
areas is designed to provide a perspective on the foundation and development of Tibetan
civilization. The historical period began in Tibet in the 7th century and an understanding of the
country heritage prior to that is sparse. A systematic approach and methodology for elucidating
prehistoric culture has not yet been formulated not have many inroads been made in this area.
This exposition of the indigenous religions heritage of gNam mtsho and gNyan chen thang lha, and
Dang ra g.yu mtsho and rTa rgo rin po che is a step towards development a firm base for the study
of Tibetan prehistory through the annals of cultural development, Tibetan have adhered to a
belief system that deifies the natural environment, coloring their perception and helping to mold
their metaphysical and ethical structures. Accordingly a bridge of tradition linking all periods
of the Tibetan cultural legacy is intact to some degree. The goal of this book is to traverse
that bridge by surveying Byang thang culture holistically, thus contributing to our understanding
of the origins of Tibetan civilization.
Indigenous religious traditions were not necessarily terminated with the founding of the modern
lamaist religious of Buddhism and Bon and the period of recorded history. On the contrary these
indigenous traditions continue to thrive in the contemporary period. The indigenous popular
religion –the amorphous body of folk tradition and belief connected to the divinity and sentient
qualities of natural objets and phenomena has always managed to adapt. As such the deification of
meteorological and celestial phenomena, topographical features and animal and plant life remains
a cornerstone of the Tibetan faith. The very character of a way of life directly dependent on the
natural environment ensured the survival of traditions of Tibetan and symbolism derived from it.
Each major economic social and cultural transition of Tibetan civilization has posed its
challenges to the prevailing religious sentiments, customs and beliefs of the Tibetan people.
Through the ages an environment based livelihood reinforced an environment based ethic and belief
system, which is still recognizable in contemporary religious expression.
Oral sources of information proved especially valuable in reference to the popular traditions
surrounding the Divine Dyads, and were also crucial in corroborating, supplementing and
clarifying data obtained from literary sources. Nevertheless most of the information regarding
the personality, mythography and iconography of the Divine Dyads was obtained from written
sources. The Tibetan literary sources used in this work can be broadly classified as follows:
gsol kha (entreaties), bskang ba (offerings and blandishments), gnas bshad (guide books), dkar
chag (registries of sacred places), rnam thar (biographies) chos byung (religions histories) and
lo rgyus (histories).
Language & Literature (443)
Sacred Sites (102)
Tantric Buddhism (87)
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