About Tibet's "first tomb"

(mi yul skyid thon dur khrod ces | gri gum btsan po’i bang so yin |)
(The site of Sa dkyil ’khor in Upper ’Phyong po #0028)

The history of Tibet’s first tomb (bang so) is related in the story of the (violant) death of the king Dri gum btsan po, whose body was thrown into the river at Myang ro Sham po and later, after a daughter of a family in Gang par of Dbye was given as a substitute for the ransom of the king, was buried in a tomb. Among others, the story appears to describe the historical shift from “water burial” to the form of erecting burial mounds for the deceased. While the older version of P.t. 1287 locates this tomb in Rkong po (identified by the Bon po tradition with the famous sky and water burial site of Mi yul Skyid thon/Skyi sdings (see #0097), later tradition has it that the body was brought from Rkong po to Grang mo (in Upper ’Phyong po) to bury it there. It is said the place was called Grang mo Gnam gser thig, which the people used to worship as the place of a local deity. As demonstrated elsewhere, it may correspond place was called Grang mo Gnam gser thig, which the people used to worship as the place of a local deity. As demonstrated elsewhere, it may correspond to the site locally known as Sa dkyil ’khor (or Bang so Sa dkyil ’khor, Earth mandala Tomb) situated in the upper zone of the Zhas pa valley of the Grang mo district (#0028). Grang mo Gnam gser thig is also associated with the dead Spu lde gung rgyal (in the form Grang mo Gnam gser/bse brtsig), the son (and revenger) of Dri gum btsan po, and the same area of Grang mo is given as the place where the group of the “Five Btsan” kings (Btsan lnga) of the Yar lung dynasty had their resting place, described as “piles of earth that were like tent.” This Btsan lnga group is to be dated to the 4th/5th century CE and the figure of Dri gum btsan po we think represents a ruler on the border to this historical period (see Hazod 2007a).

Central Tibet – with some of the major pre-imperial regional dynasties (rgyal phran, names in bold) and the route of Dri gum’s dead body: from Myang ro to Rkong po (blue), and from Rkong po to Grang mo in Upper ’Phyong po (red).
de blu na ji ’dod ces ma la drIs na / ma na re gzhan myI ’dod | nam nam zha zhar | btsan po rje dbyal zhig nongs na | thor to ’phren mo ni bcings / ngo la mtshal gyis byugs / lus la ni bzhags / btsan po ’i spur la nI ’tshog | myI la ’phrog ?rlom | zas la nI za ’thung | de ltar bya ’am myi bya zhes mchi nas / (P.t. 1287, ll. 44-47)

When he (i.e. the Dri gum “son” Ngar le skyes, on this figure see now Dotson 2011) asked the mother (of the girl selected as substitute sacrifice for the deceased, see above), “What do you want in recompense for her?” the mother said: “I want nothing but this: that forever to come when a noble tsenpo dies, [the mourners] cut off their topknots, anoint their faces with vermilion, and lacerate their bodies. The corpse of the tsenpo is to be pierced, and taken away to the people. The food is to be eaten and drunk. Will you do it like that?” (Transl. in S. van Schaik at earlytibet.com - 27.10.2008.)

The greater historical (Central Eurasian) context:

The account of Dri gum btsan po in P.t. 1287 includes an instruction of what was to be done before the entombment. Sam van Schaik has recently pointed to certain parallels in Herodotus’ description of the funerary rituals among the Scythians, and in this context he questioned the often quoted translation in Haarh (1969: 405), which says that after the death of a ruler the face and body of the deceased should be anointed with vermilion and the body should be lacerated and scratched. In Herodotus it is actually the mourners who used to lacerate their bodies etc. as is also noted for other burial-cultures of Central Eurasia (e.g. among the Xiungnu and Huns). In her philological analysis (2008) B. Zeisler suggests a slightly different reading, but what is clear is that the mourners are addressed here (as also in contemporary Chinese descriptions on Tibetan burial customs), a fact which is also relevant to understand the final part of this passage. While in Haarh the dead body is to be taken away from the people (myi la ’phrog pom, but in the facsimile pom is rather rlom, Zeisler, ibid., 163, 203), van Schaik reads it as the corpse being brought to the people, as is similarly attested for the Scythians and elsewhere in Central Eurasia (but see on the other hand B. Zeisler for these lines, ibid. 162-67; see also Hill 2006: 95-96). One may see a certain parallel to this situation of the mourning procedure (or its initial part) having taken place far away from the actual burial site in the Old Tibetan Annals, where it says that the corpse of the emperor (ring, spur) “resided” for a longer period in certain places in Central Tibet before it was brought to the burial ground of ’Phying ba (#0032). Regardless of the partial uncertainties in the reading of this account (as is also the case with other funeral-related Old Tibetan documents), there appears to be no doubt about the close relation of the Tibetan (Empire era) funeral practice (and tumulus tradition) to the Central Eurasian world. Ch. Beckwith in his most inspiring Empires of the Silk Road (2009) classifies the Tibetan burial tradition as significant element of what he calls the “Central Eurasian Cultural Complex” (cf. here especially his notes on the comitatus, pp. 12-28; see also Walter 2009). For the aspect of treatment and reworking of the body (both of the deceased and the mourners) from a broader comparative perspective of mortuary archaeology and anthropology, see Parker Pearson 2012 (repr. 1999): 45ff.