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Inside a bon monastery
Before the introduction of Buddhism, animistic worship, generally categorized as Bon , was prevalent in Tibet and the Himalayas. The sun, moon, sky, and other natural elements were worshiped, and doctrine was transmitted orally from generation to generation. Bon, from a Tibetan word meaning invocation or recitation, has priests — bonpo — who perform exorcisms, burial rites, and divinations to tame threatening demons and to understand the wishes of the gods. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1991]

Bon religion is an ancient shamanist religion with esoteric rituals, exorcisms, talismans, spells, incantations, drumming, sacrifices, a pantheon gods and evil spirits, and a cult of the dead. Originating in Tibet, it predates Buddhism there, has greatly influenced Tibetan Buddhism and is still practiced by the Bonpo people. Prayer flags, prayers wheels, sky burials, festival devil dances, spirit traps, rubbing holy stones — things that are associated with Tibetan religion and Tibetan Buddhism — all evolved from the Bon religion. The Tibet scholar David Snellgrove once said “Every Tibetan is a bonpo at heart.”

In 2019, scholars estimated that there were 400,000 Bon followers in the Tibetan plateau. When Tibet was invaded by Communist China in the 1950s, there were approximately 300 Bon monasteries in Tibet and more in western China. Bon suffered the same fate as Tibetan Buddhism did during the Chinese Cultural revolution, and many many monasteries were. Some were rebuilt after 1980. Bonpo is strongest in small hamlets in isolated valleys in eastern Tibet, parts of the Chhnagtang in northern Tibet and the Aba region of northern Sichuan.
[Source: Wikipedia]

Types of Bon

The term Bon has been used to refer to several different phenomena and many diverse religious and cultural traditions. Bon is used to describe three different things: 1) the ancient Bon religion that was supplanted by Buddhism; 2) Bon (Gyyur Bon), a religion systematized along Buddhist lines in the 11th century and still practiced today; and 3) the worship or local spirits and deities. Modern Bon is so similar to Buddhism that the Dalai Lama has accepted it as one of the five schools of Tibetan Buddhism.

Modern scholars often classify bon into four categories: 1) Prehistoric Bon of Zhangzhung and Tibet. This is an ancient system of belief and ritual practice that is mostly extinct today. However, elements of it exist in various religious practices found in the Himalayas — mainly in the calling of fortune rituals, (g.yang 'gug), the soul retrieval or re-call rituals (bla 'gugs) and the ransom rituals (mdos). [Source: Wikipedia]

2) Eternal Bon (Yundung Bon), also called old Bon (Bon Nyingma), which are traced to the Buddha Tonpa Shenrab and other sages from Zhangzhung. These religions developed from the 8th to the 11th century and are similar to Nyingma Buddhism. It includes ancient elements which are pre-Buddhist (including the fortune, bla and ransom rituals).

3) New Bon (Bon Sarma, Bonsar), a syncretic tradition which includes elements form Eternal Bon and Tibetan Buddhism, including the worship of the Buddhist figure Padmasambhava. This movement dates from the 14th century and was mainly active in eastern Tibet.

4) "Mixed Bon" is defined by Dmitry Ermakov as: a blend of these three types of Bön in different proportions, often with the addition of elements from other religions such as Hinduism, Taoism, Himalayan Tribal religions, Native Siberian belief systems etc.

History of Bon Religion

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Bon ritual of burning twigs
A religion known as “the religion or men” preceded the Bon religion. Little is known about it. The earliest forms of Bon — variously known as Black Bon, Bon of the Spirits or Bon of Devils — was concerned with using magical practices to control evil spirits. Bon shaman were called into cure sickness, ensure fertility and bring good weather. The religion is thought to have evolved in western Tibet. Its founder, Tonpa Shenrab (The Teacher of Knowledge), also known as Shenrab Miowoche, lived in the second millennium B.C. His life story is quite similar to that of the Buddha, and some scholars argue was copied from Buddhism.

Around the first century A.D. the religion began to spread eastward until it became widely practiced in the Tsang region and Lhasa region. Bon is still practiced today. It embraces pantheism and beliefs that “everything has a soul”. Bon deities include supernatural powers of mountains, rivers, lakes, seas, the sun, the moon, stars, wind, rain, thunder, lightening, birds, and beasts, as many as one can enumerate. These deities govern the birth, ageing, sickness, death, events and fortunes of people, who can not predict and control their own destinies because people have been created by the deities.

Before the arrival of Buddhism in Tibet in the seventh century, the Bön people lived according to a societal hierarchy, including chieftains, shamans, tradesmen, and musicians. A belief system based upon the veneration of ancestors and the appeasement of spirits was central to this pre-Buddhist society. In the seventh century, the addition of Buddhism, migrating north from India, to the already lively native Bön traditions of the Tibetan tribes resulted in a complex hybrid rich in folklore and ceremony. [Source: National Music Museum, University of South Dakota ]

Bon doctrine became so strongly reinvigorated by Buddhism that by the eleventh century it reasserted itself as an independent school apart from Buddhism. Conversely, Bon influenced popular Buddhism, infusing it with an appreciation for omens and demons felt to influence daily life profoundly. The shamanistic customs of the Bön mystics, steeped in ancestor worship and spirit appeasement, combined with the teachings of the Buddha, yielded a multitude of deities and spirits comparable to those of ancient Greece and Rome. Bon established a canon of teachings and continued to be practiced in modern Tibet. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1991]

Tonpa Shenrab

Tonpa Shenrab is the legendary founder of Bon. Various dates are given for his birth date, one of which corresponds to 1917 B.C. Bon as it was originally practiced in ancient Tibet and Zhangzhung taught there were various Buddhas, of which Tonpa Shenrab (whose name means “Supreme Holy Man”) was one. Some Bon texts state that The Buddha (Sakyamuni) was a later manifestation of Tonpa Shenrab. There is also a belief that Confucius is a reincarnation of Tonpa Shenrab. [Source: Wikipedia]

Tonpa Shenrab is believed to have received the teaching from the transcendent deity Shenlha Okar in a pure realm before being reborn in the human realm with the purpose of teaching and liberating beings from the cycle of rebirth. He attained Buddhahood several hundred years before Sakyamuni Buddha, in a country west of Tibet, called Olmo Lungring or Tazig (Tasi), which is difficult to identify and acts as a semi-mythical holy land in Bon (like Shambala).

Tonpa Sherab is said to have been born to the Tazig royal family and to have eventually become the king of the realm. He is said to be the main Buddha of our era. He had numerous wives and children, constructed numerous temples and performed many rituals in order to spread Bon. Like Padmasambhava, he is also held to have defeated and subjugated many demons through his magical feats, and like King Gesar, he is also believed to have led numerous campaigns against evil forces.

Tonpa Shenrab is held to have visited the kingdom of Zhangzhung (an area in western Tibet around Mount Kailash), where he found a people whose practice involved spiritual appeasement with animal sacrifice. He taught them to substitute offerings with symbolic animal forms made from barley flour. Some versions of story say Tonpa Shenrab was a the prince of Zhangzhung kingdom in western and lived in the 5th century B.C.

Bon Teachings and Beliefs

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Bon Shaman
John Power wrote: Adherents of Bon view their tradition as being distinct from Buddhism, although it clearly contains many Buddhist elements. The term bon for Bonpos (practitioners of Bon) signifies "truth," "reality," and "the true doctrine" which provides a path to liberation. For Bonpos, bon has roughly the same range of meanings that the term cho(chos, dharma) has for Tibetan Buddhists: it refers to their religion as a whole-teachings, practices etc.-which are believed to have been revealed by enlightened beings who took rebirth in order to lead others to salvation. Bon today has absorbed many Buddhist elements, and many of its teachings are strikingly similar to those of Tibetan Buddhism. [Source: John Power, “Bon: A Heterodox System”, From Chapter 16 of “Introduction to Tibetan Buddhism”, Snow Lion Publications, 1995. Powers is an American born Professor of Asian Studies and Buddhism who much of his teaching career at the Australian National University in Canberra.]

The teachings of Bon closely resemble those of Tibetan Buddhism, especially those of the Nyingma (Red Hat) school. Both schools share a focus on Dzogchen (teachings aimed at discovering and continuing in the ultimate ground of existence). Like Buddhism, Bon teachings see the world as a place of suffering and seek spiritual liberation. They teach karma and rebirth as well as the six realms of existence found in Buddhism. [Source: Wikipedia]

In the Bon worldview, the term "Bon" means “truth,” “reality,” and “the true doctrine.” The Bon religion, which is revealed by enlightened beings, provides ways of dealing with the mundane world as well as a path to spiritual liberation. Bon doctrine is generally classified in various ways, including the "nine ways" and the four portals and the fifth, the treasury. Geoffrey,Samuel notes that Bon tends to be more accepting and explicit in their embrace of the practical side of life (and the importance of life rituals and worldly activities).

Per Kværne writes that, at first glance, Bon "appear to be nearly indistinguishable from Buddhism with respect to its doctrines, monastic life, rituals, and meditational practices." However, both religions agree that they are distinct, and a central distinction is that Bon's source of religious authority is not the Indian Buddhist tradition, but what it considers to be the eternal religion which it received from Zhangzhung (in Western Tibet) and ultimately derives from land called Tazik where Tonpa Shenrab lived, ruled as king and taught Bon.

The main Bon teachings are classified into three main schemas: 1) The Nine Successive Vehicles to Enlightenment; 2) Four Portals of Bon and the fifth which is the Treasury; and 3) The Three Cycles of Precepts that are Outer, Inner, and Secret. . The Nine Ways or Vehicles are: 1) Way of Prediction, which codifies ritual, divination, medicine, and astrology; 2) Way of the Visual World, which teaches rituals for local gods and spirits for good fortune; 3) Way of Magic, which explains the magical excorcistic rites for the destruction of adverse entities; 4) Way of Life, which details funeral and death rituals as well as ways to protect the life force of the living; 5) Way of a Lay Follower, which contains the ten principles for wholesome activity as well as worldly life rituals; 6) Way of an Ascetic, or "Swastika Bon", which focuses on ascetic practice, meditation and monastic life; 7) Way of Primordial Sound, or the Way of the White A, which refers to tantric practices and secret mantras; 8) Way of Primordial Shen, which refers to certain special yogic methods and corresponds to the Nyingma school's Anuyoga; and 9) The Supreme Way, or The Way of Dzogchen (Great Perfection). Like the Nyingmapas, Bonpos consider Dzogchen to be the superior meditative path.

Bon and Buddhism

John Power wrote: Bon is commonly considered to be the indigenous religious tradition of Tibet, a system of shamanistic and animistic practices performed by priests called shen (gshen) or bonpo (bon po). Although this is widely assumed by Buddhists, historical evidence indicates that the Bon tradition only developed as a self-conscious religious system under the influence of Buddhism. [Source: John Power, “Bon: A Heterodox System”, From Chapter 16 of “Introduction to Tibetan Buddhism”, Snow Lion Publications, 1995]

When Buddhism entered the country practitioners of indigenous traditions recognized that there were clear differences between their own practices and those of the foreign faith, and in time people who perceived themselves as adherents of the old religion of Tibet developed a separate tradition, but one that incorporated many Buddhist elements. Although later historical works state that the introduction of Buddhism was initially opposed by "Bon," this term is not even used in the early dynastic records to refer to indigenous traditions and practices. Instead, they are called cho (chos), the same term later used to translate the Sinskrit term dharma, which in Buddhist literature refers to Buddhist doctrine and practice. In inscriptions on the tomb of king Senalek (799-815), for example, the term bon refers to the royal priests whose job was to perform rituals for the Yarlung kings.

In early, records, "bon" denotes a particular type of priest who performed rituals to propitiate local spirits and ensure the well-being of the dead in the afterlife. It is only much later, under the influence of Buddhism, that "Bon" comes to designate pre-Buddhist Tibetan religious practices in general. It should also be noted that the rituals performed by these early priests as reported in the old records appear to differ substantially from contemporary Bon. As Per Kvaerne notes, for example, they were by all accounts concerned with taking care of the dead through ceremonies intended to ensure their safe journey to the afterlife and their material prosperity after arrival.1 The rituals of the bon often involved sacrificing animals (mainly horses, yaks, and sheep), making offerings of food and drink, and burying the dead with precious jewels, the benefits of which were apparently transferred to them in the afterlife through shamanistic rituals. The most elaborate of these were the ceremonies for the kings, each of whom was buried in a specially-constructed tomb, and apparently joined in death by servants, ministers, and retainers. The royal priests then performed special ceremonies, which according to old records sometimes lasted for several years. These were intended to ensure the well-being of the kings in the afterlife and to solicit their help in mundane affairs.

Bon Texts

Bon texts can be divided into translations of teachings (the words of Buddha Shenrab, found in the Bon Kanjur) and translations of treatises (philosophical and commentarial texts, the Bon Tenjur). The Bon Kanjur comprises four main categories: the Sutras (mdo), the Perfection of Wisdom Teachings ('bum), the Tantras (rgyud) and Higher Knowledge (mdzod, 'Treasure-house'), which deals with the supreme forms of meditation. [Source: Wikipedia]

The Tenjur material is classified into three main categories according to Kvaerne: "'External', including commentaries on canonical texts dealing with monastic discipline, morality; metaphysics and the biographies of Tonpa Shenrap; 'Internal', comprising the commentaries on the Tantras including rituals focusing on the tantric deities and the cult of dakinis, goddesses whose task it is to protect the Doctrine, and worldly rituals of magic and divination; and finally 'Secret', a section that deals with meditational practices."

Besides these, the Bon canon includes material on rituals, arts and crafts, logic, medicine, poetry and narrative. The largest part of the Bon canon is made up of numerous termas (treasure texts), which were believed to have been hidden away during the period of persecution and to have begun to be discovered during the 10th century. Bonpos hold that their termas were hidden by masters like Drenpa Namkha during the period of decline and persecution under King Trisong Deutsen, and then were rediscovered by later Bon tertons (treasure discoverers). The three principal terma of Yungdrung Bon are: 1) the "Northern Treasure", compiled from texts revealed in Zhangzhung and northern Tibet; 2) the "Central Treasure", from Central Tibet; and 3) the "Southern Treasure" , revealed in Bhutan and Southern Tibet.

Bon Deities

The deities of Bon often resemble Buddhist ones except their names and iconography are different. For example, the Bon deity Phurba is almost the same deity as Vajrakilaya, while Chamma closely resembles Tara. Bon deities also share some similarities to Buddhist Mahayana deities but they also have unique names, iconography and mantras. As in Tibetan Buddhism, Bon deities can be "peaceful" or "wrathful". [Source: Wikipedia]

The most important of the peaceful deities are the "Four Transcendent Lords, Deshek Tsozhi." Each of these four beings has many different forms and manifestations. These are: 1) "The Mother" Satrig Ersang, a female Buddha whose name means wisdom and who is similar to Prajnaparamita (and is also yellow in color); 2) "The God" Shenlha Ökar (wisdom priest of white light) or Shiwa Ökar (peaceful white light), a deity of wisdom light and compassion, whose main color is white and has some similarities with Amitabha; 3) "The Procreator" Sangpo Bumtri, who brings forth the beings of this world and plays an important role in Bon cosmogonic myths; and 4) "The Teacher" Tonpa Shenrab Miwoche (meaning: Supreme Priest, Great Man), who is associated with the nirmanakaya and is the present teacher of Bon in this era.

Bon Yidams (meditation or tutelary deities) are deities which are often used in meditative tantric practice and are the mainly fierce or wrathful forms. These class of deities resemble Buddhist yidams like Chakrasamvara and Hevajra. It includes figures like Magyu Sangchog Tartug ('Supreme Secret of Mother Tantras, Attaining the Limit') and Trowo Tsochog Khagying ('Wrathful One, Supreme Lord Towering in the Sky') The Bonpos also have a tantric tradition of a deity called Purpa, which is very similar to the Nyingma deity Vajrakilaya.

Like the Buddhists, the Bon pantheon also includes various protector deities, siddhas (perfected ones), lamas (teachers) and dakinis. The Bon cosmos contains numerous other deities, including Shangpo and Chucham (a goddess of water) who produced nine gods and goddesses. There is also the 360 Kékhö, who live on the mount Tisé (Kailash) and the 360 Werma deities. Another set of deities are the White Old Man, a sky god, and his consort. They are known by a few different names. Bonpos also recognize household gods in addition to other deities and the layout of their homes may include various seats for protector deities. Chinese influences are also seen. Confucius is worshipped in Bon as a holy king and master of magic, divination and astrology..

Bon Monks, Lamas and Leaders

Bon lamas and monks play similar roles and have similar duties and practices as those of Tibetan Buddhist lamas. Bon monasticism developed a philosophical and debate tradition which is modeled on the tradition of the Gelug (Yellow Hat) school of Tibetan Buddhism. In the 19th and 20th centuries, the Bon tradition (both New Bon and Eternal Bon lineages) flourished in Eastern Tibet, led by charismatic Bonpo lamas like bDe ch en gling pa and d Bal gter sTag s lag can. [Source: Wikipedia]

Shardza Tashi Gyaltsen (Shardza Rinpoche, 1859-1933) was a particularly important Bon master, whose collected writings comprise up to eighteen volumes. According to William M. Gorvine, this figure is "the Bon religion's most renowned and influential luminary of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries." He was associated with the orthodox Eternal Bon Manri monastery tradition as well as with New Bon figures like the 5th and 6th Kun grol incarnations.” Shardza Rinpoche is also known to have had connections with the non-sectarian Buddhist lamas Shardza Rinpoche had many disciples, including his nephew Lodro Gyatso (1915-1954) who led the lineage and Shardza's hermitage and college, after Shardza's passing.

The present spiritual head of the Bon is Menri Trizin Rinpoché, successor of Lungtok Tenpai Nyima (1929–2017), the thirty-fourth Abbot of Menri Monastery, who now presides over Pal Shen-ten Menri Ling in Dolanji in Himachal Pradesh, India. The 33rd lineage holder of Menri Monastery, Menri Trizin Lungtog Tenpei Nyima and Lopön Tenzin Namdak are important current lineage holders of Bon.

Bon Monasteries

Menri Monastery is the main monastery of Bon. Its name means "medicine mountain", derived from the medicinal plants and medicinal springs found on the mountain.of which the monastery is situated The abbot of Menri is recognized as the spiritual leader of Bon. The monastery was destroyed durig the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) and was refounded in India. [Source: Wikipedia]

Menri Monastery was established in 1405 by Nyammé Shérap Gyeltsen (1356–1416) from Gyarong (Gyelrong), on the slope of Mount Shari Phowa. Nyammé Shérap Gyeltsen had been the eighteenth abbot of an old monastery also called Menri. The first monastery at Menri was founded in 1072 as Yéru Wensakha Monastery and was destroyed by a flood in 1386.

The Menri Monastery established in 1405, was founded in the Bru lineage of Bon and the Yéru Wensakha tradition. The monastery practiced Yungdrung Bon, and was known "for its strict practice of monastic rules, which set a standard for other Bon monasteries." The monastery had 32 abbots between its founding and 1966. The administration of the monastery is the subject of an article by Per Kvaerne.

Menri Monastery had four colleges: These had twelve divisions and all together, in 1959, between 400 and 500 monks. Menri had 250 branch monasteries, in all areas of Tibet except U, as well as in India, China, Bhutan, Sikkim, Nepal, and Mongolia. In 1947, Menri opened a debating college. Monks engaged in debate, the study of sutra, tantra, and dzogchen and carried out a full schedule of tantric rituals and practice.

Other Major Bon monasteries include Yungdrungking in central Tibet and Tengchen in eastern Tibet. Bon's leading monastery in India is the refounded Menri Monastery in Dolanji, Himachal Pradesh. A number of Bon establishments also exist in Nepal; Triten Norbutse Bonpo Monastery is one on the western outskirts of Kathmandu.

Bon Religion Practices

The Bon religion has traditionally used shaman to dispel demons and appease the gods, and employs a number of “mudras” (ritual postures), “mantras” (sacred speech), “yantras” (sacred art) and secret initiation rites.

Modern Bon religion, known as Yungdrung, and Buddhism are very similar. They embrace many of the same practices and rituals except they have different names or slight variations. Bonpo pilgrims, for example, circumambulate monuments and mountains and turn prayer wheels counterclockwise rather than clockwise as Buddhists do. They recite the Bon mantra “om matri muye sale du” rather than the Buddhist mantra “om mani padem hum.” The concepts of karma and rebirth and the six states of existence are featured prominently in Bon as they are in Buddhism. The word Bon sometimes carries with it the same meaning as dharma.

There are some differences, though. The swastika, or yungdrung, is Bon’s primary symbol. Bon has its own canon and sacred text — The Nine Ways of Bon — and a number of gods unique to Bon. One of the primary religious figures is Tonpa Shenrab, who is often shown holding the Bon scepter, two swastikas joined by a column. Many Bonpo regard Buddhism as a false religion. Some Tibetan Buddhists are suspicious of Bonpo people and will not go anywhere near Bonpo religious sites.

Bon Rituals

According to the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life”: “Beliefs in sorcerers, spirits, demons, and the need for exorcisms are a part of everyday religious practices. Lamas skilled in rituals are used to perform the necessary religious observances. Animal sacrifice has been replaced by the offering of torma, ritual figures made from dough and butter. [Source: “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life”, Cengage Learning, 2009]

Bon includes many rituals and concerns that are not as common in Tibetan Buddhism. Many of these are worldly and pragmatic, such as divination rituals, funerary rituals that are meant to guide a deceased person's consciousness to higher realms and appeasing local deities through ransom rituals. Bon practice salutations and offerings of water and go on pilgrimages like Tibetan Buddhists. Mt Kailas and Bonri are Bon’s holiest mountains. During the pilgrimage season you can see many Bon pilgrims at Mt. Kailas as well as Buddhist and Hindu pilgrims.

Journalist Dianne Summers witnessed a Bon-style ritual in the Dolpo region of northern Nepal presided over by a shaman, dressed completely in white, with his hair in a long braid coiled in a knot on the top of his head. The shaman, she wrote: "rolls his head from left to right, yawns, and grimaces. He jumps like an animal around the primitive wooden statues. The bell in his hand rings erratically as he shakes. His braid falls to his waist...The shaman takes a handful of rice which he pours into the other hand...[He] starts to speak in a high pitched voice, as if possessed by the god." [Source: Eric Valli and Diane Summers, National Geographic, December 1993]

Is Bon a Heretical Form of Tibetan Buddhism

John Power wrote: David Snellgrove contends that Bon has incorporated so many Buddhist elements that it has become a form of Buddhism that may fairly be regarded as heretical, in that those who follow it have persisted in claiming that their religion was taught not by Sakyamuni Buddha, but by Shen-rab [Shenrap], likewise accepted as Buddha, and that it came not from India, but from Ta-zig [Taksik] and by way of Zhang-zhung [Shangshung]. Such are the Bonpos, who have managed to hold their own down to the present day against the enormously more powerful representatives of orthodox Buddhism, while they are constantly and quite wrongly identified by other Tibetans ... as the persistent practitioners of pre-Buddhist Tibetan religion. [Source: John Power, “Bon: A Heterodox System”, From Chapter 16 of “Introduction to Tibetan Buddhism”, Snow Lion Publications, 1995]

In Buddhist sources, the Bonpos are commonly portrayed as malicious reactionaries whose manipulations hindered the dissemination of the dharma, who caused Santaraksita to be driven from the country, and who tried to prevent Padmasambhava's arrival. As Snellgrove and Richardson contend, however, such characterizations are probably unfair to Bon and are written from a rather narrow perspective.

Like all national historians, Tibetan writers of history see everything from a Tibetan point of view, and being fervent Buddhists as well, they inevitably see everything from a rather special Tibetan Buddhist point of view. Their view of the world around them is a simple one: in so far as it furthers the interests of their religion in general and their own religious order and monastery in particular, it is good; in so far as it works against their religion, their order and their monastery it is evil. Intemally the Bon-pos tend to become the scapegoat for everything that had rendered the Buddhist conversion of Tibet at all difficult, while most Tibetan Buddhists themselves remain almost innocently unaware of the great variety of pre-Buddhist beliefs and practices that they have absorbed as an accepted part of their daily thoughts and actions

Image Sources: Antique Tibet, Purdue University,, Tibetan art.

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2022

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