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Unveiling the Mystery of the Gongbu Yongzhongzeng Stele, Tubo Period

In the heart of Tibet lies a remarkable piece of history, the Gongbu Yongzhongzeng Stele, a monumental inscription that has captivated scholars and historians alike. This article aims to shed light on this ancient artifact, offering a fresh perspective based on scientific archaeological records. By diving into the essence of this stele, we embark on a journey through time, connecting the dots between history and the art of inscription in ancient Tibet.

Discovering the Stele

Researchers have extensively studied the Gongbu Yongzhongzeng Stele, originally known by various names, yet many aspects have remained obscured due to the lack of comprehensive scientific documentation. In 1999, researchers made efforts to clarify its details, which they further advanced through field investigations in 2013 and 2014. These investigations involved meticulous measurement, drawing, and photographic documentation.

A Journey Through Time

The stele first gained academic attention thanks to the British scholar Richardson, who based his study on a manuscript gifted by a Nyingma scholar in 1950. The findings were published in 1954, igniting interest among scholars. Notably, early attention came from the 18th-century Nyingma scholar Katok Tenzin Norbu, indicating the stele’s long-standing significance in Tibetan history.

Subsequent explorations, including efforts by Chinese researchers in 1961 and international scholars like Hugh Richardson and others, have contributed to a deeper understanding of the stele’s historical value. These investigations highlighted the intricacy of the inscriptions and the challenges of preserving such a monumental piece of history.

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The Name and Nature of the Stele

Clarifying the nomenclature, the article advocates for the name “Gongbu Yongzhongzeng Stele,” aligning with its geographical and cultural context. Unlike previous names, which caused confusion, this designation accurately reflects the stele’s location and significance.

The nature of the stele, often debated among scholars, is conclusively identified as a form of monumental inscription rather than merely a rock carving or a cliff inscription. Its structured design, consisting of a body and a base, signifies its intended role as a stele, emphasizing its importance as a medium for recording historical narratives.

A New Chapter in Inscription Art

The Gongbu Yongzhongzeng Stele stands as a testament to the evolution of recording history in Tibet, marking the transition to using steles as a new medium for narrative and commemoration. This shift, evident in the works from the era of Tride Songtsen, underscores the cultural and historical significance of stele inscriptions in the region.

Final Thoughts

The Gongbu Yongzhongzeng Stele is not just a piece of stone but a bridge to the past, offering insights into the sophisticated methods of historical documentation in ancient Tibet. Through scientific exploration and scholarly dedication, the true nature and significance of this ancient stele have been brought to light, enriching our understanding of Tibetan history and culture. As we continue to unravel the mysteries of the past, the Gongbu Yongzhongzeng Stele remains a beacon of historical knowledge, standing proudly as a monumental reminder of Tibet’s rich heritage.

The Stonework and Design of the Gongbu Yongzhong Zeng Stele

The Gongbu Yongzhong Zeng Stele, a remarkable piece of the Tubo period, exemplifies the art of stonework in ancient Tibet. Unlike other Tibetan steles, which might consist of components like a stele head, body, and base connected via mortise and tenon joints, this particular stele is uniquely carved directly from a massive rock, showcasing an ingenious design reflective of its era.

The Stonework

  • The Rock: The stele is carved on the face of a natural boulder measuring over 3 meters in height and 4 meters in width. The stele’s surface is nearly rectangular, polished smooth on the convex face of the rock, with evident carved borders around its edges.
  • The Inscription: The face of the stele features 21 lines of ancient Tibetan script, all incised in relief. Most of the text is clear and appears to follow the formatting and font standards of royal decrees from the Tubo period. The inscribed area measures 2 meters in height and 1.6 meters in width, with a distinct border at the top indicating a deliberate design choice, making it slightly lower than the rest of the surface.
  • The Base: Below the main text, a rectangular base protrudes outward, measuring 1.6 meters in length and 0.25 meters in height, extending from the stele’s face by 0.2 to 0.25 meters. Originally adorned with ten Yongzhong symbols in relief, only seven remain intact, with the rest severely damaged but still identifiable by their placement on the base. The intact symbols are rectangular, measuring 0.2 meters in length and 0.15 meters in width, projecting about 0.015 to 0.02 meters outward.

The Design

  • The Canopy: To the front of the stele, a meticulously constructed canopy or rock shelf protects the inscribed face. This shelter is formed by two large, trapezoidal stone slabs joined to cover the space in front of the stele, creating a “roof” over the inscription. The slabs measure between 0.8 to 1.6 meters in width and 1.8 meters in length.
  • The Side Walls: On either side of the stele, large rectangular stones are placed as walls, tailored to fit snugly against the rock’s sides. These stones, showing signs of having been partially worked, measure approximately 1.15 to 1.2 meters in length.
  • The Pillars: Two stone pillars stand at the front of the stele, supporting the canopy. These pillars vary in height due to the original ground level being lower than it is today. The pillars’ design includes notches possibly intended for additional protective elements.

Interestingly, there’s no equivalent protective mechanism on the sides of the stele, suggesting an original design meant to enclose the stele completely, leaving only window-like openings for viewing the inscription. This inferred design aligns with local modern inhabitants’ recollections of the site being closed off in the past, with the stele viewed from outside a barrier.

This elaborate design suggests a significant effort to protect and honor the inscription, pointing to its importance in the Tubo period. However, many questions about the stele’s original setting and the extent of its enclosure remain, inviting further archaeological investigation to fully understand its historical context and significance.

The current study of the Gongbu Yongzhong Zeng Stele provides a glimpse into the sophisticated stone craftsmanship and the cultural significance of stonework in ancient Tibet. Further exploration and research are anticipated to uncover more about this intriguing artifact and its role in Tubo society.

The Inscription Content and Interpretation

The inscription on the Gongbu Yongzhong Zeng Stele consists of 21 lines of text, written in the ancient Tibetan script of Uchen during the Tubo period, specifically in the era of Trisong Detsen (r. 798-815 AD). This script is characteristically used for formal and sacred writings, underscoring the importance of the content engraved on the stele.

Content Overview: The content primarily commemorates a decree issued during the reign of King Trisong Detsen, at the behest of the local leader Gongbu Gabu Mangbu Zhi (also translated as “Gongbu Gaba Mangbu Zhi”), reaffirming and renewing the oath of allegiance made by his predecessor, King Tride Tsuktsen (r. 755-797 AD). The inscription is divided into two main sections:

  • The first part recounts the decrees previously granted to Gongbu Gabu Mangbu Zhi during the reigns of Tride Tsuktsen and Trisong Detsen, tracing the lineage back to the eighth Tubo King, Trigum Tsenpo. It addresses grievances regarding harsh taxation policies by local officials in the domain of Gongbu King, leading to a plea for tax reduction and a decree for perpetual peace and stability.
  • The second part elaborates on the decrees issued to Gongbu King by Tride Tsuktsen and further supplemented during the reign of Trisong Detsen. These decrees acknowledged the special rights of Gongbu Gabu Mangbu Zhi and the hereditary succession of his leadership, exempting him and his descendants from various taxes and levies. This section underscores that these decrees were issued after consultation between the king and his ministers.

Dating and Significance:

The inscription explicitly states Prince Tetsen, i.e., Trisong Detsen, oversaw the erection of the stele between 798-815 AD. Scholars generally concur with this timeline, although they propose different exact years. Wang Yao, in “The Record of Tibetan Stone Inscriptions,” challenges some scholars by proposing the stele’s erection at the beginning of the 9th century or the end of the 8th century.

Chang Fengxuan supports this view, pointing out the formal titles “Tride” and “Tsenpo” are absent from the inscription. This absence suggests craftsmen erected the stele shortly after Trisong Detsen took the throne, likely between 799-800 AD. This timeframe aligns with the establishment of another stele across the Yarlung Tsangpo River in Milin Langka, believed to complement the decrees mentioned in the Gongbu Yongzhong Zeng Stele for Gongbu King, predating the latter.

Contribution to Tubo Period History:

To date, six steles and inscriptions from the era of Trisong Detsen have been discovered in Tibet, including three steles (Gongbu Yongzhong Zeng among them) and three stone inscriptions. This suggests that during Trisong Detsen’s reign, stele inscribing became a novel medium for official narratives and records. Among these, the Gongbu Yongzhong Zeng Stele is especially significant for its detailed account of the legal and administrative decrees, providing invaluable insights into the governance and societal structure of the Tubo period.

Its unique form, structure, and the detailed execution of the inscriptions offer a rich source for studying the script, legal language, and ceremonial practices of the era. The stele not only documents the historical ties between the Gongbu royal lineage and the Tubo royal family but also exemplifies the meticulous art of stele inscription, preserving the formal style of Tubo decrees and oaths. This makes the Gongbu Yongzhong Zeng Stele a precious artifact for the study of Tubo history, offering a direct glimpse into the administrative and legal practices of one of Tibet’s most flourishing periods.

About the author

The Tibetan Travel website's creator, hailing from Lhasa, is a cultural enthusiast. They promote responsible tourism, connecting the world to Tibet's beauty and heritage. Awards recognize their contribution.

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