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Prayer Flags on Tomb of Songtsen. View of Chongye Valley to the South from the Tomb.

Tibet's Valley of the Kings: What Hidden Treasures Lie Within This Imperial Tibetan Graveyard?

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Chongye Valley is known also as Tibet’s Valley of the Kings. This site adjoins the Yarlung Valley (about 180 km (111.85 miles)) to the Tibetan capital, Lhasa. The Chongye Valley is famed for its burial mounds. Whilst the valley is sometimes referred to as the ‘Graveyard of Imperial Kings’, these burial mounds contain not only the remains of Tibetan kings, but also those of their wives and officials. Neither the number of tombs contained in this valley, nor their exact locations are known today. Nevertheless, Chongye Valley is regarded as the “largest preserved imperial graveyard in Tibet”.

The Yarlung Dynasty

The Chongye Valley and its neighbouring Yarlung Valley are important sites in Tibetan history as they served as the original seat of power of the Yarlung Dynasty. This was a dynasty that ruled Tibet before the rise of the Tibetan Empire in the 7th century AD. According to tradition, the first monarch of this dynasty came from a northern Indian kingdom known as Magadha. This king, whose name is given as Nyatri Tsenpo, is believed to have been a god who descended from the sky. So too were the six kings who succeeded him. These kings were believed to have returned to their home in the sky with a ‘sky-rope’ after their deaths and were not buried on earth.

Therefore, the burial mounds in the Chongye Valley are associated with subsequent Tibetan kings who ruled the country from the 7th to the 9th centuries AD. The eighth Yarlung king was Zhigung (sometimes transliterated as Drigum) Tsampo, and his tomb is regarded as being the first one in the Chongye Valley. According to Tibetan tradition, Zhigung Tsampo’s tomb is one of 21 burial mounds built in the Chongye Valley. In 1989, a survey of the valley was conducted jointly between the Cultural Relics Administration Committee of the Tibet Autonomous Region and the Archaeology Institute of the Sichuan University. As a result of this survey, 11 tombs were identified. It may be pointed out that as a result of erosion over the centuries, it is difficult for surveyors to identify these tombs accurately.

Structure of the Mounds

The tombs of the Chongye Valley are of a type known as ‘tumuli’ (singular: tumulus). Originally, these tombs had flat tops, and earth and stones were piled on top of them. Over the centuries, however, exposure to the elements caused the tombs to be eroded, resulting in them assuming a rounded shape, and resembling little hills in the landscape. Whilst the kings believed to be buried in the Chongye Valley are associated with the rise of Buddhism in Tibet, their way of burial belongs to the pre-Buddhist culture of the country. Whilst sky burial is used in Tibetan Buddhism for the disposal of corpses, interment and the building of burial mounds has been associated with Bon, another Tibetan religion.

Statue of Songtsen Gampo in the temple on the tomb of Songtsen Gampo, Chongye-Yarlung Valley of Kings, Tibet

Statue of Songtsen Gampo in the temple on the tomb of Songtsen Gampo, Chongye-Yarlung Valley of Kings, Tibet. ( CC BY-NC SA 2.0 )

Songtsen’s Tomb

Of the known mounds in the Chongye Valley, the most revered is the one believed to be the tomb of Songtsen Tsampo, the founder of the Tibetan Empire. The emperor’s tomb is the largest burial mound in the Chongye Valley, and is located closest to the main road. The tomb is about 13 meters (42.65 ft.) high, and topped with a temple, in which the statues of the emperor, his wives, and his ministers are placed. According to Tibetan records, there are five halls within the Songtsen Tsampo’s burial mound, and the remains of the emperor, along with his wives’, may be found in the middle one. In addition, the tomb is said to hold a large amount of gold and silver utensils, reliquaries and artifacts.

Tomb of Songtsen Tsampo with a small Nyingmapa Temple on top. Yarlung-Chongye Valley of Kings, Tibet 2011

Tomb of Songtsen Tsampo with a small Nyingmapa Temple on top. Yarlung-Chongye Valley of Kings, Tibet 2011 (Erik Törner/ CC BY-NC SA 2.0 )

Apart from Songtsen Tsampo and Zhigung Tsampo, other Tibetan kings said to be buried in the Chongye Valley include Nansong Mangsten (Songtsen Tsampo’s successor), and Trisong Detsen (another emperor who played an important role in the introduction of Buddhism to Tibet).

Top image: Prayer Flags on Tomb of Songtsen. View of Chongye Valley to the South from the Tomb. Source: Erik Törner/ CC BY-NC SA 2.0

By Wu Mingren

References:

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