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Chorten (Tibetan stupa)
Tibetan architecture is influenced by its geography and climate, its culture, Tibetan Buddhism, and Indian, Mongol Nepalese and Tang architectural style. Tibetan architecture is often traced back to 1300 years, when the first Buddhist temples were built in central Tibet. One of these, the Jokhang in Lhasa, still exists. [Source: Chloe Xin, Tibetravel.org]

The oldest existing structure are ruins of old forts and castles. During the period of Tubo kingdom in the 7th to 9th century, the first palace Rongbuklakon was built on the top of a small hill in the Yarlong Valley. The following Sampos built a series of palaces such as Qinghandazhi Palace, Potala Palace, and many more. During the time of Trisong Detsan, the emperor from 755 to 797, the first Samye Monastery was built based on the beliefs of Buddhism tenets. The monastery is a magnificent creation consisting of Buddha relics, rites, bonze, and more. From then on, through these first examples, the foundations of the Tibetan housing style and construction had more or less been laid. [Source: Chinatravel.com chinatravel.com \=/]

Tibetan architecture contains Chinese and Indian influence, but has many unique features brought about by its adaptation to the cold, generally arid, high-altitude climate of the Tibetan plateau and to Tibetan Buddhism. The earliest surviving Tibetan religious monuments are closely based on Indian prototypes. Later temples and monuments, built after the period of the second diffusion of Buddhism, are very similar to Tibetan vernacular architecture. They show only limited foreign architectural influences. The earliest extant defensive structures appear likewise to be based on indigenous designs and technologies.

The most common housing style in Tibet has a white stone tower and looks like a military fortification. The stone towers are usually made out a mixture of rocks, wood, cement and earth for Tibet is very rich in these materials. The house of local Tibetan usually has two floors. The lower floor is for livestock and the upper floor is for the family. The upper floor is comprised of living rooms, storerooms and a shrine room. When you are in Tibet, you will see prayer flags on the roof of the houses in Tibet.

Many houses and monasteries are built on elevated, sunny sites facing the south. The roof of Tibetan houses are flat so that it is easier to remove frequent snows. The flat roof is also built to conserve heat as little fuel is available for heat or lighting in Tibet. Each house has many windows for letting in sunlight. The tops of the windows have an eave which is covered with a piece of red, white and blue striped cloth. Walls are usually sloped inwards at 10 degrees as a precaution against frequent earthquakes in the mountainous area.

Tibetans are adept at making watchtower-like buildings. Many built in Tibet no longer exist. There are still many in Bhutan.

Early Tibetan Architecture

The architecture of Tibet has Central Asian influence. Trade between Tibet has Central Asian increased around A.D. 250. Bronze and iron objects, and ritual or status objects, made their to Tibet beginning around then. From A.D. 350, a wave of Eurasian immigrants reached Tibet, bringing with them warrior-related technology and horse gear, all of which requiring storage and therefore, the construction of sturdy warehouses,

Most Tibetan temples and monasteries have been built on the mountains. The formation of the architecture styles of the Tibetan monasteries, it has gone through three stages: 1) the temple, 2) the monastery and 3) the combination monastery and palace.[Sources: “Tibetan Arts” by Wenbin Xiong (2005), Tibetravel.org ]

At the beginning of Buddhism’s introduction to Tibet, religious buildings were seen as places to enshrine mysterious and auspicious treasures—the same as for auspicious objects venerated by Bon followers. According to legend, during the time of the legendary king Tho-tho-ri Nyantran (about 300 A.D.), four treasures of Buddhism, including the stupa and scripture, fell down out of the sky onto the ground of the Yungbulhakang Palace. Tho-tho-ri Nyantranthe tranpo enshrined them in a temple hall in a corner of the palace and held regular rituals such as burning incense, sprinkling water and offering sacrificing objects and so on. |=|

This was the initiation of the Tibetan Buddhist temples. The architectures of Tibetan Buddhism gradually developed from just niches and ritual halls to independent building complexes, and eventually separated from the palace architectures, after the extensive spreading of Buddhism and strong supporting by Songtran Ganpo and his successors. The early Buddhist temples were built under the patronage of Tibetan rulers. But later on the Buddhist followers began to fund the construction of the monasteries. |=|

Tibetan Buddhist Architecture

Tibetan religious architecture has been influenced by the architecture and art of the Pali kingdom in India and the Newari kingdom in Nepal. Even so Tibetan architecture has many features that are unique to Tibet and have a great influence on architecture outside of Tibet. The great American architect Frank Lloyd Wright had a picture of he Potala on the wall of his office.

The most famous examples of Tibet’s architecture are its Buddhist monasteries and palaces. The most famous is Potala Palace which was designated as a World Heritage Site in 1994 and considered as the most important example of Tibetan architecture. The palace contains of over a thousand rooms within thirteen stories. It is divided into the outer White Palace, which serves as the administrative and living quarters, and the inner Red Quarters, which religious areas. [Source: Chloe Xin, Tibetravel.org]

Tibetan Buddhist Temples

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Jokang Temple

According to Reuters there are about than 1,700 temples and monasteries in Tibet. Tibetan temples have flat roofs and contain ashes of the reincarnations of local lamas. In the old days they were illuminated only with yak-butter lamps. These days the halls in many temples are lit up with electric lamps as well as well as yak-butter lamps.

Temples have a square or rectangular plan and are composed of three main parts: an assembly hall, ambulatory, and cells. The hall serve as a meeting place and a place of worship. The ambulatory is where worshipers walk in a clockwise fashion while praying. It usually surrounds cells — interior rooms filled with images of the Buddha, sacred objects and brightly-colored frescoes of sacred images and scenes from the life of Buddha.

Famous temples in Tibet include: Jokhang Temple in Lhasa, nearby Ramoche Temple in Lhasa and Tashilhunpo Monastery in Shigatse. Among the other well-known tourist sites that all serve as good places to observe Tibetan architecture are Tsurphu, Trandruk, Sera, Drepung, Norbulingka.

On the roof of almost every temple in Tibet is a symbol comprised a religious wheel in between two deer. The center symbolizes the lord Buddha and the deer symbolize human beings. As a whole is represents people learning from Buddha.

Jokhang and Other Early Tibetan Temples

Jokhang Temple and Ramoche Temple, founded in Tibet l,300 year ago, are the earliest temples built in Tibet that are still standing today.They were built originally for enshrining the statues of Buddha and other deities for the followers to worship. The main hall is the center of the building complex. Sakyamuni and the deities were enshrined in the main hall or side halls in accordance with their positions in hierarchical structures. These features are also found in the architecture of 7th century India and Tang Dynasty China. Since the 7th century JokhangTemple has undergone four major repairs and expansions. [Sources: “Tibetan Arts” by Wenbin Xiong (2005), Tibetravel.org |=|]

The first and second floors of the main hall are the original architecture relics, which were obviously influenced by the Indian temple architectures, and were similar in layout with the famous Indian temple, Nolanda Temple. The plan of the two floors is in square shape, with a west facing door, stone laid load-bearing walls, brick laid outer walls, and wooden inner structure. Thus makes a building with an inner court. The center front wall of the first floor is an outer-extended hallway. The gates are installed in the center part of the hallway. Inside the gates, there are four small halls in a row along the front wall. Along each of the reap left and right side walls, there are also five small halls respective1y built. Among them those in the center are 1arger. Especially the one along the rear wall has the same area with the hallway. Between the small halls along the four walls and the square courtyard in the center, there is a circular corridor, used as the praying passage. Thus forms a square-plan architecture style being symmetric in four sides and containing the circular corridor and courtyard. |=|

The hall gates, corridor pillars, door head and etc are beautifully decorated with engraved pictures depicting the Buddhist stories, such as stories about causes and results, about flying goddesses, about the powerful deities and so on. The design of the Ceremonial daggers on the pillars is very unique. The pillar is shaped in different cross section areas in three parts. The lower part is with a square shaped cross section and engraved with relief; the middle part is with a Octagon shaped cross section and with engraved pattern on its two ends; the upper pall is like a group of overlapping blocks of different shape from the top to the bottom: square, octagon, round, square and so on. There are treasures or flowers and leaf patterns engraved on the square block, some general patterns engraved on the octagon b1ock, and doub1e 1ayer lotus patterns engraved on the round bloc. Above the upper layer lotus there are a long and flat plate and an arching bolster. On the two ends of the bolster, there are flying goddesses, animals and plants patterns engraved, while on its central part, there are people engraved. Above the bolster, there is a rafter, on which l08 wooden lions are erected out of eave. The shaping of the lions is similar to that of sphinxes. A bell ting is installed on the chest of each lion. From each bell ring, a round mirror is suspended. The shape and size of the doorframe and corridor pillars as well as the relief style on them are similar to those prevalent in Avidhakar Cave in India in the sixth century. |=|

Not far away from Jokhang Temples is the Ramoche Temple, a1so among the first temp1es bui1t in Tibet. As with Jokhang Temple, Ramoche Temple also was repaired and extended respective1y in four different periods. But it is impossible to trace the original appearance of Ramoche Monastery any more. However the documents in Tibetan provide us some valuable description about its original appearance. According to the documents, the original layout of it was like an upper jawbone of a lion, or a ‘U’ shape. The whole structure was east facing. The outer wall was a brick and stone stricture, whi1e the inner was a wooden structure. After the outer wall was laid and the pillars were erected, the workers began to install beams and rafters on the them and laid stone plates on the roof and hang silk curtain on its four sides. The outer walls were decorated with the colorful patterns like those in the body of tigers. After its construction was completed, it enshrined a statue of Sakyamuni brought by Princess Wencheng from the Chinese Tang Court, which was later on transferred to Jokhang Temple. |=|

During the reign of Songtsan Gampo, a dozen of temples were built, such as ‘Zhenbian Temple’, ‘Sizaizhen Temple’, ‘Sizhenzhi Temple’, ‘Jiuduizhi Temple’, and etc., for suppressing the body, limbs of the Mountaim Ogress and the local demons in name, but suppressing the pro-Bon forces in effect. Among the temples, only Chanzhub Temple and Gequ Temple in today’s Shannan Prefecture have remained till today. Meanwhile, Daklha Lubuk Cave Temple, the first cave temple in Tibet, was built up. |=|

Architecture of Samye Monastery: Tibet’s First Buddhist Monastery

After fighting against the Bon cultures for a long period, Buddhism eventually won its steady position during the reign of Trisong Detsan in middle of the 8th century. As a landmark of the victory, Samye Monastery, the first monastery accommodating, training and cultivating songhas in Tibetan history was inauagurated in 763 A.D. in Samye region, in today’s Shannan prefecture. From then on the Tibetan architecture art of Buddhism has gone a further step crossing from the temple architecture stage to the monastery architecture stage. [Sources: “Tibetan Arts” by Wenbin Xiong (2005), Tibetravel.org |=|]

A monastery architecture is a large sized building complex consisting of temples and halls, residence quarters of monks, stupas and several colleges. In terms of shapes, it can be divided into three categories: temples, cave temples and stupa temples built surrounding the main hall. Samye Monastery is a typical representative of it. According to documents, the construction of Samye Monastery was up to the universal model described in the Buddhist doctrines. The main hall in its center, called Uze Hall, has three stories, incorporating three architectural styles: Tibetan, Chinese Central Plain and Indian ones. Frescos are full of inner walls and Buddha and deities are enshrined in it. The inner structure is en evolution from the earlier temple structure, which symbolizes the Mount Sumeru in the Buddhist world. |=|

The main hall is composed of several units: the central Buddha hall, sutra hall, circumambulation passage, inner circumambulation passage, side halls, circumambulation passage outside the hall, circular corridors and so on. The Buddha hall is the center of the entire construction, enshrining Vairocana, the head of the Five Dhyani Buddhas and the Bodhisattvas and deities. The sutra hall is for monks to study and gather. The arrangement of the circumambulation passages is for people to prostrate before Bhudda, the bodhisattvas and deities at any time. The layout of the buildings around the main hall is according to the layout of four continents and eight subcontinents in the Buddhist world. Four groups of constructions and four dagobas of different colors, green, black, red and white, are located respectively at the east, west, south and north sides. |=|

Development of Monastery Architecture in Tibet

Since the beginning of the Latter Prosperity of the Latter Prosperity of Buddhism (in the turn of the 11th century), most of the Tibetan monasteries had been built with the mode what arranged the main hall in the center. This character can be easily found out in the monasteries, such as North Sakya Monastery, South Sakya Monastery, Xalhu Monastery, Palkor Monastey and Tashilhunpo Monastery in Xigaze; Chatang Monastery and Minzholing Monastery in Shannan and Ganden Monastery, Sera Monastery and Dreprung Monastery in Lhasa. In these Monasteries, the main hall is normally used as the gathering hall or grand sutra hall known as ‘Coqen Hall’ or ‘Utse Hall’. Compared with the square shaped halls in the earlier constructions, the halls in this period had massive variations and expansions. [Sources: “Tibetan Arts” by Wenbin Xiong (2005), Tibetravel.org |=|]

Especially since the 13th century, the way of building an outer circumambulating passage and adding the sutra halls, rear chambers, side chambers and gateway, and so on, thus developing the coqen hall into a oblong shaped. In the 15th century, another kind of design: building a left and a right hall respectively at each of the two sides of the main hall. With the gradual development of all sects of Tibetan Buddhism, the number of monks increased, the main hall previously used as the shrine of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas was gradually changed to the important arena for the monks to study, meet and meditate. The designers paid more attention on both the enlargement of the space and the lightening effect. They added top windows and courtyard in the hall. They alternatively used the large block of red and white colors to decorate the outer walls of the buildings, making the hall more sublime-look. Since beginning of the 13th century, Tibetan designers had substantively assimilated the hip & gable roof, as well as the continuous-span components from Chinese hinterlands for the roof construction. They also decorated on the golden roofs of the buildings with the sculptures of animals and objects, such as the double deer, dharma wheels and victory banners, making the whole constructions glittering with the golden shine. Surrounding the main hall, the building s for monk schools, administrative office and residence quarters as well as the dagobas, fencing walls are outward extending. Just because most of the monasteries were built by the mountains, therefore all buildings were rising and lowering with the terrain of the hills but in good order, forming a harmonious, unitary and magnificent and huge building complex. |=|

Tibetan Cave Temples

The cave temples are also one of the Tibetan monastery architecture arts with a distinctive style. But its prevailing period was rather short and spreading region was narrow. The existing cave temples in Tibet are only two, which were built between the period of the former prosperity and the early period of the latter prosperity of Tibetan Buddhism. Daklha Lubuk Cave located in the east side of Chakpori Hill, southwest of Potala Palace is the earliest pattern. Now the wooden structures in the cave all are devastated. The plan of the cave is in a near oblong shape. The cave has a east facing doorway. In the middle rear part of the cave, a central pillar with its cross section being in square shape is erected. On each of the four sides of the pillar, there is a niche. Around the pillar there is a narrow circumambulating passage. On the outer wall of the cave there are niches built on the four sides of the cave, for enshrining of Songtsan Gampo and Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. [Sources: “Tibetan Arts” by Wenbin Xiong (2005), Tibetravel.org |=|]

This pattern is similar to those prevailing in Gansu of Chinese hinterland. Nagri Prefecture is the region where ancient caves are most found today in Tibet. Among the all, the Donggar Cave and Piyang Cave Zanda County are most typical. The wooden structures in the caves have been devastated. On the ceiling of the cave, an “overturn- bin” shape was adopted. The overturn-bin and four-sided overturn slope structure together with frescos forms a huge mandala. There is no central pillar. As a substitute, there is a central niche enshrining Sakyamuni. On the front wall and two sidewalls there are niches for clay sculptured Buddhas. There are more frescos than sculptures in the caves. These patterns were mainly prevalent in the latter prosperity of Tibetan Buddhism. |=|

Tibetan Stupas

Stupas, or chortens, are bell-shaped Tibetan temples with a spike on the top. Built with money donated by rich supplicants, these solid structure usually contain a sacred object such as a body part from an influential deceased monk, an important inscription from a sacred text, or a votive tablets molded from ashes of the dead. The base of the stupa is sealed with a copper plate inscribed with a vishva-vajra crossed thunderbolt design that is regarded as protection from evil.

The first stupas were built in India after the Buddha’s death to house cremated relics associated with the Buddha. Later they also served as reliquaries for lamas and holy men. Some large ones reportedly have whole mummified bodies inside, as is the case with the tombs of the Dalai Lamas at Potala. Many chortens in Tibet have been looted for the objects inside.

A chorten typically has a dome that rests on a five-tiered base. The five levels represent the four elements of the world and eternal space with the square base symbolizing the earth. The dome represents water; the spire, fire; the top, the moon and sun; and the air, space. The sun resting on a crescent moon represents wisdom and compassion. The seed-shaped pinnacle at the top represents enlightenment. The 13 discs of the ceremonial umbrellas may symbolize the 10 powers and the three mindfulnesses of Buddha or branches of the tree of life. Some also see a stupa as the representation of Buddha’s body.

One view of Potala

Stupas are both precious cultural relics and examples of Tibetan art and architecture. Those constructed during the 10th and 15th century have both Indian and Nepalese characteristics: namely the steps often have two or three layers with square or polygonal horizontal profile and an inverted-bowl-like body. Eight major styles of stupa, each closely related to the life stories of Shakyamuni, have been identified in Tibet. [Source: Jegyel Pasang Norbu, expert of the Tibet Museum and Shaka Wangdu, deputy researcher of the Tibet Research Institute of Cultural Relics Preservation, Tibetravel.org tibettravel.org] The eight stupas are: 1) Enlightenment Stupa symbolizes the birth of Shakyamuni, and features in the four circular-lotus-shape levels. 2) Bodhi Stupa symbolizes Shakyamuni’s enlightenment in the Rajagriha. The stupa usually has a regular tetrahedron base and a four-layer step, representing the four avatars of Shakya Buddha respectively. 3) Dharmachakra Stupa shows the scene where Shakyamuni turning the dharma wheel in Varanasi.It is in the form of a wheel with many spokes, representing the Shakyamuni is teaching the spiritual laws of the universe. 4) Miraculous Transformation Stupa shows that Shakyamuni is showing his supernatural power in Shravasti. Its step is either shaped in a four-regular-octahedron or a four-regular-tetrahedron.

5) Descent Stupa symbolizes Shakyamuni’s descent to the man’s world after thirty-three days. It is featured with four levels of regular octahedron. Each has one step representing the heavenly ladder that leads Shakyamuni back to life. 6) Harmonious Stupa symbolizes the peaceful reconciliation of Devadatta’s splitting monastic sects. It also has four levels of octahedrons with the edge angle of the groove surface over 90 degrees. 7) Vijaya Victorious Stupa symbolizes Shakyamuni empowered himself to extend three more months of longevity in the man’s world. The stupa of three circular levels was built to honor his success in beating Monster Death. 8) Nirvana Stupa stupa has no base but a bell-shape body to symbolize Shakyamuni’s nirvana.

“Doubeng” are cairns of stones that are sort of modest versions of stupas. Each pilgrim who passes must add a stone to the cairn and walk around it once, clockwise, an act regarded as engendering as much merit as the recitation of a sutra

Tibetan Pagodas

The pagoda architecture art is another beautiful flower in the Tibetan monastery architecture art garden. Being different from the pagoda affiliated to the monastery complex, the pagoda here became the center of the monastery architectures. The pagoda architectures were prevalent in Tsang region between the 14th and 15th centuries. The most famous are the Jorlung Pagoda, Gyang Pagoda, Riwoqi Pagoda. But the most typical and well preserved one is the Palkor Pagoda (also called Baike qoidain by locals) in Palkor Monastery in Gyangze. The Palkor Dagoba has thirteen storeys. Its plan is mandala. From its bottom to top, thre are several components, such as: thirteen stone stages, a pedestal, an inverted-bowl shaped lower body, a bottle like upper body and a neck known as ‘thirteen heavens’ and so on. [Sources: “Tibetan Arts” by Wenbin Xiong (2005), Tibetravel.org |=|]

Around the lower and upper bodies, the ‘inverted-bowl’ and the ‘bottle’, there are many chambers enshrining Buddhas. The ‘inverted-bowl’ has five storeys and each of the first four storeys has 20 Buddha chambers, among which the central chambers in the first and third storey are so spacious that their ceiling extend to the second and fourth storey respectively. So in fact, the re are only 16 chambers in each of the two storeys. The ‘bottle’ has four chambers. There are 108 chamber doors and 76 chambers in the pagoda. There are many sculptures and frescos in the chambers, which make the pagoda brilliant. Outside the pagoda in each storey, there is a fencing with stone wall and clay packing as well as a eave. The cross section of the lower part of the dagoba is in square shape, while that of the upper part is in round shape. From the bottom to the top, the areas of the cross section are gradually reduced. Its design is very smart taking into consideration of both aesthetic appreciation and practical usage. Therefore it deserves the title of the ‘rare work of Chinese architecture arts’. |=|

another view of Potala

Potala Palace

Potala is the massive fortress-like building that is often depicted in photographs of Lhasa. Situated on a slope of Moburi (Red Mountain) and considered the quintessence of Tibetan architecture, it is a massive white and brownish-red structure that casts an imposing shadow over the rest of the Lhasa. Until the Tibetan rebellion in the late 1950s it was the home of the Dalai Lama. Built mostly in the 17th century under the fifth Dalai Lama on the site of the surviving rooms of fort built by Tibetan King Songtsen Gampo in the A.D. 7th century, Potala is composed of two parts: the central Red Palace at the top, which is used for religious affairs, and the secular White Palace at the bottom, which is used for politics and daily life. Potala contains 1,000 rooms — including assembly halls, government offices, and temples — 10,000 altars and 200,000 statues. Constructed of wood, stones and mud bricks and fastened together without steel or nails, it covers an area of 41 hectares and is 13 stories high. The roofs are covered with gilded bronze tiles that glitter in the sun and can be seen miles away.

The Potala Palace symbolizes Tibetan Buddhism and its central role in the traditional administration of Tibet. "Potala" is translation of Sanskrit "Putuoluo" which means "a famous scenic spot of Buddhism". The complex comprises the White and Red Palaces with their ancillary buildings. Construction of a palace on Red Mountain began at the time of Songtsen Gampo of the Thubet (Tubo) dynasty in the A.D. 7th century. Most of the existing structure was built in the mid-17th century by the 5th Dalai Lama in a campaign that lasted 30 years, It reaching its present size over the centuries that followed, as a result of repeated renovation and expansion. [Source: UNESCO]

The Potala is located on Red Mountain, which 3,700 meters above sea level. Located in the center of the Lhasa valley on the northern side of Lhasa city, the palace cover 130,000 square meters. White palace is approached by a winding road leading to an open square in front of the palace. Its central section is the East Main Hall, where all the main ceremonies take place. The throne of the Dalai Lama is on the north side of the hall, the walls of which are covered with paintings depicting religious and historical themes. At the top of the White Palace is the personal suite of the Dalai Lama.

Mysterious Stone Towers in Tibet

Richard Stone wrote in Smithsonian magazine that old stone towers, some vaguely star-shaped and some more than 100 feet tall, are scattered across the foothills of the Himalayas in Tibet and Sichuan Province. When local residents are asked about the towers — Who built them? When? Why? — nobody has a clue. Most of the structures are several hundred years old. But one structure in Kongpo, Tibet, a day's drive from the capital, Lhasa, is much older. It was likely built between 1,000 and 1,200 years ago, before Mongolian tribes invaded Tibet, around 1240. [Source: Richard Stone, Smithsonian magazine, April 2004]

“Local ignorance of the towers' original purpose may trace to the area's history and geography,” Stone wrote. “A millennium ago, the place was dominated by mountain tribes that, over the centuries, have maintained their isolation; in some areas they can barely speak with one another. "People in one valley usually cannot understand what is said in the next valley," one scholar said. Some wonder if knowledge of the towers that was once passed down orally may have been lost as dialects evolved or disappeared.”

Particularly intriguing are the more than 40 roughly star-shaped towers. Some have 8 points, others 12. In both configurations, star-shaped towers are rare, scholars say. At least two others can be found in Afghanistan, including the Minaret of Bahram Shah in Ghazni. Scholars speculate that the star shape makes the structures less susceptible to tremors. "All the people I asked in the villages said the towers resist earthquakes," one scholar said.

Why were they built? One idea is they served a religious function, perhaps representing the dmu cord that, according to Tibetan legend, is said to connect heaven and earth. "The towers might actually symbolize this cord," says Bianca Horlemann, an independent Tibet scholar in Bethesda, Maryland. Alternatively, some scholars suggest the structures were watchtowers or forts. "The towers were built for defense," says Marielle Prins, a linguist with the Southwest Institute for Nationalities in Chengdu, China. "Most of them are from the Jinchuan Wars [of the 18th century] in which the Chinese emperor spent large amounts of silver and human resources to pacify a small part of the Gyalrong area." Eric Mortensen, a Tibet scholar at National Taiwan University, who has traveled in the region, says the structures were "likely used as signal towers." He bases that conclusion on their locations, which generally provide a line of sight from one to another. Finally, the towers might have been status symbols erected by royalty — the Cadillacs of their day. "We can only speculate," says Sperling. "Our knowledge is extremely spotty."

Some scholars suggest that the towers are not so mysterious after all. "If there's any mystery surrounding them, it's no doubt partly a product of Western mythology around anything Tibetan and the fact that until recently the Chinese forbade access to the region," says Alex Gardner, a Buddhism specialist at the University of Michigan. "I don’t see how they could be called 'unknown' when they are visible for miles, and the region is crisscrossed with trading routes and now automobile roads."

Studying Mysterious Stone Towers in Tibet

“Martine "Frederique" Darragon set out from New York City for the hinterlands of western China and Tibet in 1998 to pursue an interest in the endangered snow leopard when she discovered the took it upon herself to unravel the mystery around them,” Richard Stone, Smithsonian magazine. “For Darragon — a 50 something, self-described free spirit who is originally from Paris and boasts an eclectic résumé: an undergraduate degree in economics, founder of an organization that supports education in rural China, star polo player in Argentina, sailboat racer, artist — the towers became her obsession.” [Source: Richard Stone, Smithsonian magazine, April 2004]

“Over five years, she journeyed nine times to western China, where she saw nearly 200 of the towers in Sichuan Province and Tibet. She photographed and measured them, climbed into them when possible and carved off bits of wooden beams for analysis. She talked to local monks who said they'd found no mention of the structures in centuries-old monastery documents. Still, she did find a few references to the towers in some Chinese annals and, back in European libraries, in the diaries of 19th-century Western travelers to the region.”

“From 2000 to 2003, Darragon shipped pieces of wood from 32 towers to a laboratory in Miami for radiocarbon dating. The procedure yields an estimate of a material's age based on the level of the radioactive element carbon-14 in organic material. Most of the wood samples she had tested are several hundred years old; the towers from which they came are presumably about the same age. ...The dating method isn't definitive and it's possible that the wood used by some tower builders was already very old, in which case the structures may be younger. Still, scholars who've heard about Darragon's amateur archaeological sleuthing (the Discovery Channel aired a documentary about it last November) say it is valuable. "Her most important contribution is the attempt to date the towers," says Elliot Sperling, a Tibet scholar at Indiana University.”

“Now that the region is being modernized, Darragon worries that turning the towers into tourist sites too quickly could do more harm than centuries of neglect have done. "Some are being restored in a disastrous way," she says, referring to a few whose crumbling upper reaches have been lopped off. Also, time continues to exact its toll; one of the oldest towers, Darragon says, collapsed last June. So she is trying to convince Chinese and Tibetan authorities, among others, to have UNESCO classify the towers as a World Heritage Site. The designation would likely help protect the towers and raise money to restore them. She is also trying to enlist Sichuan University's help in studying the structures. "Her work might lead to a further opening of the area to scholars," says Sperling. Meanwhile, the peripatetic Darragon is providing herself with an opportunity for more sleuthing by buying a house in a valley in the Kham area of China.”

Image Sources: University of Purdue, Kalachakranet.org, CNTO

Text Sources: 1) “Encyclopedia of World Cultures: Russia and Eurasia/ China”, edited by Paul Friedrich and Norma Diamond (C.K.Hall & Company, 1994); 2) Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, Science of China, China virtual museums, Computer Network Information Center of Chinese Academy of Sciences, kepu.net.cn ~; 3) Ethnic China ethnic-china.com *\; 4) Chinatravel.com chinatravel.com \=/; 5) China.org, the Chinese government news site china.org | New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Chinese government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated September 2022

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