The Legendary Epic of King Gesar

Just as the Greeks had the Iliad and the medieval Europeans had the legends of King Arthur, Tibetans had the Epic of King Gesar. The Epic of King Gesar is rooted from folklore and oral history passed down from Tibetan generations and its written origins can be traced back to 1716 when it was ordered to be translated from Tibetan by the Qing Emperor. The epic has been called the Orient’s Homeric Epic and is considered to be the longest literary work in the world. Amassing over 120 volumes and 20 million words in more than 1 million verses.

“The epic relates the heroic achievements of Gesar, the superhuman warrior ruler of the Kingdom of Ling, who waged war with the nearby Kingdom of Hor. Distinctly Tibetan in style, the epic appears to date from time of the second transmission of Buddhism to Tibet. Gesar is said to have lived without fear of his rather formidable enemies, subdued monsters, helped the poor and controlled the strong, and brought benefits to the common people”.

To Tibetans, and much of Central Asia, King Gesar is a hero. “He is said to have been born in the 11th century. During his childhood he spent his time as a shepherd and later married “Zhumao” and with her brother built an army of tens of thousands under 30 generals. After defeating their enemies, they established the State of Ling with Ozhu as its base. The Chinese acknowledge that Gesar fought in present-day Golog, Yushuo, Garze, Xinlong, Daofu, Seda, Luohuo, Aba and Qamdo. His generals were granted land in Baiyu, Dengke, Shiqu, Golog, Yushu and Qamdo”.

In old age, Gesar of Ling decided to return home from Chamdo where he had been residing. Legend says that at Dengke, his horse was startled by a dog, and the king was thrown and died.

The Kingdom of Ling:
“The mythological and allegorical elements of the story defy place and time, and several places lay claim to being the former Kingdom of Ling, however both Tibetan and Chinese experts have generally agreed that the strongest claim as the birthplace of King Gesar is Axu town in the prairie of Dege County located in the Garzê Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture of southwest Sichuan Province. Gesar’s “soul mountain”, in turn, was the famous snow peak of Golog, Amnye Machen, in modern Qinghai Province.”
“The legendary locale of his early activity is written Trhom, Phrom or Khrom which does indeed sound like Rome. However, in Asia the name Rum was used to refer to the eastern part of the Roman Empire, ie. Byzantium or Anatolia. Ling is an abbreviation of dzam-ling ( Skt. Jambudvipa) which is the name for our world.

Tibetan tradition suggests that the upper reaches of the Yarlung River in the county of Dege in Kartse, East Tibet (now western Chinese province of Sichuan) was the birthplace of Gesar. De-ge is Tibetan for “benevolent area.” That region is full of traces linking it to King Gesar”.

Varying narratives:

“The Gesar legends vary according to the cultural tradition of the devotee. In the Bon tradition, Gesar is sent by Shenlha Okar. A Mongolian reference links Gesar and Shakyamuni. For some other Buddhists, he is an emissary of the Wisdom Kings of Shambhala, and for many Nyingmapas he is considered an emanation of Padmasambhava. Or was he the eldest of 15 sons “of Heavenly King Baifan,” according to the reporter of China Daily.

Some hold that Gesar was from Jisuya. He was born into a poor herder’s family and it was said a rainbow bridged a sky of fluffy clouds the day his mother, Gorsa, who was working in the fields at the time, felt the pangs of birth. She managed to make it up a large flat rock where her footprints are seen to this day.

Other legends say he was born in the border area of Yushu and Garze. People there describe his birthplace as: to the left of a cypress tree in a place resembling a horse’s tail; to the left of a bowl-like spring lying beneath a rock resembling an arrow.

“In a surprising coincidence,” says the Chinese article, the place at the confluence of two rivers where Gesar’s mother put up her yak hair tent, is amid the ruins of what is known as the Sutra Hall of King Gesar. Behind the ruins is a rock that indeed resembles an arrow. Local history says that the temple was built during the reign of Emperor Daoguang of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).

Others insist it was built much earlier, during the Song Dynasty (960-1279) by Ling Gesgyia, offspring of Wonbo Nganu Huasang, one the four brave generals of King Gesar. Family records of the Mobudong clan and headman, Ling Chang, say that this was the family temple”.

Historical remains:

“Before the depredations of 1951 and the horrific “cultural revolution” which endured for over 10 years (beginning 1966,) the temple housed Gesar’s ivory seal, the family records of Gesar’s bailiff Ngan-yicha-geng, arrows used by General Nyiancha Ngadain, armour and weapons used by Gesar, some relics of Gesar’s father-in-law, a statue of Gesar’s horse, and clay figurines of Dainma, Shinba and Zhumao.”

(Pictured Above is the shield claimed to have been used by Gesar himself)

“Gone are the original frescoes depicting 30 generals of the State of Ling, 80 heroes who had distinguished themselves during the wars of pacification, 13 Buddhist guardians and the 18 consorts of Gesar. Other frescoes depicted military exploits.

To attract tourism, the Hall of King Gesar was rebuilt and “re-dedicated” in 1999″.

 

Historical relevance/accuracy:

“Somba Yexei Banjor is a scholar who opinion is that Gesar was a real person who lived in the Ling area of Kham.

“His birthplace lies in Lhagyixiong, where the three rivers — Yellow, Lancang River and Jinsha River — meet.” “It was to the left of the Dege Castle … with a mirror-like lake. In the area is a square-shaped rocky mountain. In the centre is a lawn where the parents of Gesar put up a tent.” The place was called Ghinyi Maguanqi. Ren Naiqiang did a 1929 survey of the Kham area in which he suggested that the area “under Headman Ling Chang in the Yarlung River Valley was called Xiongba.”

Gesar’s heirs claim descent through Ling Chang. “Gesar was born in the Chacha Temple,” Ren wrote. “After his birth, grass and flowers thrived in the area a year round. The temple houses Gesar’s weapons and an ivory seal but some of his belongings were moved by a magician lama to Xiangdana, located in Xiangqian County in Qinghai Province.”

In 1942, Li Ming, corroborated that Gesar was born in the area east of Shiqu called Xiongba that is on the western bank of the Yarlung.

“Whether a real person lies behind the epic hero Gesar is still debated. One of the earliest written instances of his name (as Gesar, king of Phrom) appears in a ninth-century Tibetan manuscript, and the name also appears on a coin that may refer to the king of a Central Asian kingdom in the ninth or tenth century. For most Tibetans he is an eleventh-century historical figure who ruled Ling (Tibetan, Gling), a principality in Khams, that reached its peak in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries”.

Sources:

  1. http://www.khandro.net/langnlit_Gesar.htm
  2. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Epic_of_King_Gesar
  3. http://www.kalachakra.org/articles/gesar.shtml
  4. http://www.bookrags.com/research/gesar-eorl-05/
  5. http://www.crosby-lundin.com/tibet/culture/folktales/gesarofling.html
  6. http://www.tibet.cn/tibetzt/tibet50-en/story/doc/story_815.htm
  7. http://www.himalayanart.org/image.cfm/473.html
  8. http://www.china.org.cn/ch-xizang/tibet/newbook/englishhtml/gesare.html

Links:

  1. Robin Kornman – English interpreter of Gesar Epic
  2. Tribute to Robert Kornman

Posted by: Jigme32

5 thoughts on “The Legendary Epic of King Gesar

  1. Dear Jigmela,

    Iam Sonam Chuki from Thimphu Bhutan. I enjoyed reading this story of King Gesar of Ling. I have deep reverence for him and completely facinated by his story. I love writing about him in relation to his profound war ethics. So do keep researching , writing and posting.

    Cheers,
    Sonam.

  2. chewang denzongpa

    I grew up hearing the story of ling GEP geyser and sechun doma .I am a Sikkimese . Your research is highly appreciated and respected.

  3. Pingback: Bringing back a Central Asian legend: The Song of King Gesar - Bookish

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