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Ongren: Hometown of Tibetan Opera Founder


A segment of Zhimei Gunden,one of the famous eight Tibet Opera.
Photo by Zhang Ying

Since the 1980s, I don¡¯t know how many times I have walked along the road from Lhasa to Sagya via Yangzhog Yumco, Gyangze Town and Xigaze, so the scenery along the road holds no surprises. It is only when we arrive at Ongren Ngamring that new sights impinge on my consciousness.

 I talk it over with Prof. Nancy about staying another couple of days. The traditional anthropologist only wants to reach our destination as soon as possible to begin an on-the-spot, and is unwilling to delay halfway, so I have to accept her idea.

The reason why I advise to stay another few days is that there are many places deserving of study.

Ongren County seat and Ongqu Monastery.Photo by Degyi

Ongren County is situated in the middle reaches of the Yarlung Zangbo River, and lies in the western part of Xigaze. It abuts Xeitongmoin County and Lharze County in the east, Tingri in the south, and Ngari of Coqen in the southwest. The northern part is a stretch of no-man's land. It borders on Nepal taking Gangdese Mountain as the eastern boundary, and is close to Nagqu in the north, as well as being part of the Xigaze area. The county is 397km west of Lhasa and 160km west of Xigaze.

Before the Democratic Reform (1959-1960) it was known as Ongren Zong, but in 1959 this was changed to Ongren County, becoming subordinated to Xigaze, with a total area of 13,000 square km and a population of 35,000.

Water gusing from the Tagegyi Fountain runs to five meters high in Ongren.
Photo by Degyi

The topography is undulating and varied, with mountains, plain rivers, valleys, extensive grassland. It belongs to what it is called the ¡°Dui area¡± (including Ngari) in Tibetan traditional history books. For example, the coterminous part of Ongren County and the Northern Grasslands was called ¡°Lhaduichiang¡± or northern ¡°Lhadui¡± in ancient times.

About this history, Melvyn C. Goldstein, a famous American anthropologist and Tibetologist, and his companion, Cynthia M Beall, lived with the local farmers and herders in the grasslands of northern Ongren for 16 months and wrote a book entitled Peasants and Herders in West Tibet. It vividly describes the local conditions and customs of this area complete with a great many well-captioned illustrations.

Indiana University Professor Elliot Sperling, who is also a Tibetologist, read out a thesis entitled The Period of Changladui Kingdom at an annual meeting on Tibetan studies in Beijing. The thesis for the first time introduced systematically how the power of the Tubo Kingdom gradually disintegrated in the 9th Century and civil war broke out repeatedly after Nam Dama, the last king, was killed.

Since the 10th century, Ongren had been a small state named ¡°Gungtang Zinbo¡±. Both the research of Sperling and the records in history books show that the king ruling the small state was called ¡°Changbo Dabo¡±, meaning the Lord of the north. But they themselves claimed to be descendants of the Xixia royal family. In the Yuan Dynasty, Pagba of the Sagya Monastery divided the whole of Tibet into ¡°13 10,000-Household Offices¡±, and Changbo Dabo was granted the honorific title of the chief of the 10,000-Household Office.  From then on, the place name of ¡°Lhaduichiang¡± was found in the Chinese and Tibetan literature. What I am most interested in is the route by which the descendants of the Xixia royal family got here by and how they migrated.

We passed by the southern part of Ongren. Along the Yarlung Zangbo River there are a lot of disturbed tombs of the Tubo period. The Yarlung Zangbo River is the cradle of Tibetan culture. During a long stay, I took some photos and learned the structure and distribution characteristics of tumulus rock.

Ongren also is the hometown of Tangdong Gyibo (1385-1464), the founder of Tibetan Opera. As a child he helped grave the herds. When he grew up, he was tonsured to a monastery, and traveled everywhere. He studied all the doctrines of the Gagyu, Sagya and Nyingma sects and was expert at both the open and secret Tantric schools, so he was called ¡°Tangdong Gyibo¡±, meaning the superior person. Legend has it that he built countless bridges throughout his life. The oldest iron-chain bridge, the Riwochi Bridge in Ongren, is the first iron-chain bridge built by him. This bridge was, according to the historical records, built in the 15th century, though, legend has it that it was built in the 14th century. Some people said that he also built the famous Luding Bridge in the Western part of Sichuan.

In order to build the Riwochi Bridge, he organized people to perform Tibetan Opera to raise the necessary money. A few years ago, I got to know a white-haired foreign scholar at an international seminar on Tibetan studies. He intended to specialize in the deeds of Tangdong Gyibo, and wanted to walk to all the places where he had built iron-chain bridges. At the seminar, he introduced the golden dagoba in the Riwochi Monastery in Ongren County. This dagoba is very famous, and looks exactly alike one in the Palkor Monastery in Gyangze County. Seen from a long distance, it looks much like a pyramid.

Chomolong Tibet Opera Troupe is the most famous of its kind in Tibet.
Photo by Zhang Ying

Local legend has it that this dagoba was built earlier than that of Palkor Monastery. Shortly after it was completed, a monk begging alms was very much attracted to the unique form and style of the structure, so he carved a radish into a model, took it to Gyangze, and used this to build the Dagoba there.

According to my knowledge, this is a monastery of the Gagyu Sect, inside which there is a figure of Tangdong Gyibo and some exquisite frescos. The third layer of the frescos, on which there is a dancing girl with the upper part of the body bare and wearing a skirt that sweeps the ground, not only has the style of the flying beauties at Dunhuang but also combines features of the Tibetan ethnic group. The others, like Buddhist warriors, are different in style, too. Their expressions are very rich, and whether they are angry, light-hearted, peaceful or gentle, they display these emotions completely by movement and expression in their eyes.

In this area we also find the cliff carvings and statues alike that of Yushu of Qinghai and the Garma Monastery in Qamdo. It was pity that I just saw the excellent photos taken by a foreigner and could see them with my own eyes.


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