King of the Wide Plains byWolf Kahlen
Translated from German by LodröSangpo
The Tibetan Mahasiddha Thangtong Gyalpo
Thangtong Gyalpo - the »King of the Wide Plains« - is a concept well known to most of us insofar as that the "Loving Eyes"-prayer(Chenrezig-Puja) utilised in our centres goes back to this Tibetan Mahasiddha. Thangtong Gyalpo lived 1385 to 1510 (!) and was a Tertön and a highly realized Master of the Nyingma-tradition.
The following article by Wolf Kahlen in an impressive way gives an idea how far beyond the "purely religious work" the spectrum of activities of a Bodhisattva may reach.
Wolf Kahlen is a Berlin Art-professor, who in 1980 and 1981 met the 16th Karmapa in New York. On his first research-journey on the track of Thangtong Gyalpo in 1986 he met the group around Lama Ole Nydahl. Since then Kahlen spends some time every year in Tibet and recently also in Mongolia. He readily shows the results of these expeditions, primarily extensive Film-footage, to everyone who is interested. The following article on the technical aspects of the workings of Thangtong Gyalpo already appeared some years ago in the VDI-news under the title: "Tibet's Leonardo".
Picture this: A caravan of yaks and Tibetans on foot in the last remnants of daylight one evening reach Chuwori. It had become later than usual this evening. Otherwise one usually rested already in the early afternoon before the winds reached the Kyichu-valley on whose slopes now in late-summer already the first snows lie, blushing in the sunset. To Lhasa it is yet another day's journey. For months the caravan has been underway; it came out of Bhutan in the vicinity of the later monastery-fortress Drukyel rDzong in the Paro-chu-valley. The load of the yaks was unusual. The old monks of the big monastery Chuwori-monastery had never seen anything like it. The eyes of the young novices must have shone secretly over this sensation, even if they kept their faces very monastic behind a corner of their dark-red robes, because their tutor was near.
In the leather saddlebags of the yaks lay heavy forged chains and iron chain links longer than a hand's width, about a foot long, thicker than a thumb and without the slightest rust-tainting. Everybody wanted to touch and try them. Half-made stuff we'd say, still open, longish squares with round-forged corners, a bit like an ellipse forced into a rectangle, prepared in order to let them be linked here, to close them and weld them together into chains of almost 70 meters' length.
The Master of Chuwori, their abbot Thangtong Gyalpo, the "King of the Wide Spaces(of consciousness)", as they called him, had summoned them. Years ago, as so often in his already now long 69 years of life, tirelessly and equipped with an inexplicable energy, he had been on journeys to "the End of the Tibetan World", between Kashmir in the West and Assam in North-west India.
On the way he had preached, given initiations, composed songs, healed and meditated, explored new image-worlds, had drawn and painted, helped the travelling bards and had already developed the idea of a Tibetan theatre in his head, had done forging himself, which he had learnt as a child, had carved sculptures and had them cast, and discovered that also semi-precious stone like rock-crystal are also suited for sculptures.
And he had discovered, perhaps, as the legend has it, initiated by the Muses, the Dakinis, how to forge stainless iron, especially in the seams, the overlappings, that would last for "Eternity" - until to-day for instance, more than 500 years. For we are talking year 1430 here.
Also for the nomads on the caravan-trails over 6000 meter high passes of Phari in Bhutan through the Chumbi-valley northward into the province of U-tsang in Tibet, as well as for thousands of monks, pilgrims, and villagers in the vicinity of the holiest of Tibetan towns, these pieces of stainless metal were a wonder. To begin with nobody had wanted to transport them. His contemporaries thought the whole idea insane, to move the iron through the Himalayas, out from the Kongo-region in farthest South-East-Tibet or from Assam, and into Bhutan in order to have it forged there, AND then brought to regions in Tibet hundreds of miles apart; still possible probably, for they knew the stamina of their animals and their caravan-leaders. The wonders-full Mahasiddha, the "Holder of Great Power", had been able to persuade them, however. One day as the Bhutanese smiths protested and claimed it would be as impossible to get the cargo to Lhasa as it would be to hang the heavy chains from the nearest tree, he nailed them to their words: If he hung the chains in the tree they must carry the chains for him for the first days of travel. During the night Thangtong Gyalpo hung all the chains in the trees. The next morning they were all filled with fear, which transformed into veneration. Now they regarded it as a blessing to be allowed to assist this Saint. Besides it dawned on them that a pilgrim-route had opened up from Bhutan and Sikkim to Lhasa, if at last a safe way over the Kyichu could be found and the route be shortened by several weeks..
Many animals and carriers had relieved each other, from the green forested sequested principalities of Bhutan all the way to Phari, with the help of the Prince of Gyaltse over endless passes "down" into the dry high Plateau, and into the sand filled river valleys of the heartland of Tibetan Buddhism. Shortly before their goal the caravan was attacked at Gongkar, and the inhabitants of the region had misused 86 of the 200 iron-loads for their swords and tools. There was at this time not yet any re-incarnated superior spiritual leader, the Dalai Lamas were not recognized as such until much later. Tsongkapa the great reformer guarded the fates in Jokhang, the shrine of Lhasa, while the mighty Monastery-towns and -universities in Drepung, Sera, and Ganden were only now being started and founded. This was a time also of a traffic-geographical Renaissance, for a new infrastructure, for bridges, ferries, architecture, structural elements which would also significantly change the time-frame of the Tibetans. Tsongkapa was the spiritual leader of the time, and Thangtong Gyalpo was their artistic, social and technological pragmatic, a universalist in word and practise, a multimedial and interdisciplinary worker, as an artist of all the arts, a Tibetan Leonardo. His bridge-building was not only a symbolic idea, but also an organisational and technological triumph and an artistic architectural work. The social effort in all parts of non-unified Tibet to build these bridges, is singularly exceptional. As a smith, because smiths remove something from the earth, Thangtong Gyalpo belonged to an inferior "caste". At the same time he was a philosopher, most highly revered, although he always moved around the land as a beggar, incognito. Also this social bridge-building had its methods. "His first expedition on the search for iron was motivated by an incident at the ferry over the Kyichu by Lhasa (there where his bridge was later erected). Thangtong Gyalpo wanted to cross the river, but was scorned by the ferryman because of his appearance(being dressed as a beggar) and after a blow on his head with the rudder was thrown overboard. This endowed him with an insight into the predicament of the poor and the injustices against them, and he wowed to build a bridge at this very place, so that all people without discrimination could cross the river'"; so writes the Tibetologist?? Stearns - a member of our expedition-team - in his analysis of the life of Thangtong Gyalpo. Even the present Chinese government, which looks down on the Tibetan people, in the meantime must recognize that this historic personality of Tibet- as the perhaps only one - can show evidence of having been a "good", a "progressive thinker", a "social" and a "scientific-technologically interested" Tibetan. Therefore the Chinese Academy for Social Sciences are very interested in our research - the making of a comprehensive portrait of this Tibetan universalist - and would like to take part in it.
In the late summer of 1988 I led the "First International Thangtong-Gyalpo-Expedition" for two months through Northern-India, Spiti, To Nepal and Tibet. The expedition , manned in different countries by different participants, consisted chiefly of the American Tibetologist Cyrus Rembert Stearns, the Polish Buddhism-researcher and geologist Marek Kalmus, the Polish Cameraman und Ritual-researcher Waldemar Czechowski, the Tibetan Padma Wangyal and myself as artist, filmmaker and Tibet-researcher.
Already in 1985, as a Consultant for Art and Architecture to the royal government of Bhutan, I had from reliefs, sculptures and thangkas learned about the special veneration of Thangtong Gyalpo's and had come across him incidentally and repeatedly, also under strange circumstances. The Bhutanese jealously count him as one of theirs, which probably goes against his greatest wish for a super-regional universality. For us he is, probably as he'd want it, a personality standing over all Buddhist teaching-traditions of the Tibetan Buddhism, no matter how different they would be named in Bhutan, Spiti, Sikkim or Tibet, as either Kagyupa, Nyingma, Drukpa, Shangpa, Gelugpa or Sakyapa.
All of Thangtong Gyalpos bridges in Bhutan - except one of which we only heard later - were destroyed by floods, landslides or neglect. The chain-links and -parts were kept reverently as relics in monasteries, at the royal court or by government officials. In the monastery of Tamcho-norbu-gang, the family seat of direct descendants of Thangtong Gyalpo the heavy objects were hung from beams in the ceiling, while at the foot of the monastery-mountain a new little bridge spanned the river. A secret Thangtong Gyalpo-biography which was only readable after immersion in water, had disappeared from the monastery library.
All present abbots, travellers and Tibet- and Bhutan-experts all dismissed it when the question came to still existing bridges. "In Tibet there aren't any more, and if, then only in Bhutan", we were told. But there weren't any more in existence there either. From the study of different biographies and the translation of a reliable source from the 16th century we knew approximate place-names, actually only district-names, but also exact years and many stories. No living eye-witness seemed to be able to help us. Only a high re-incarnated abbot in Nepal remembered a bridge which he had crossed in Northern Lhasa before the 'Cultural Revolution'. Old Lamas in exile in Dharamsala still clearly remembered that the previously mentioned bridge over the Kyichu in the South was still standing in the first decades of the century. A photo of the remaining chains of a bridge was sent to us by Hugh Richardson, who in the 40's was an English representative in Tibet. It could only awaken longings though, not still them. But we wanted to know with certainty.
In Bhutan I had held the chains in my hands and knew their size, their weight, their texture and their colour, I knew that they might have hammered inscriptions made by Thangtong Gyalpo's own hand, primarily a double-vajra (double-Dorje), a double-sided thunderbolt, a diamond-sceptre. But in Bhutan I had found no engravings, and also no intact bridge, until we received a reference to East Bhutan and also a photographic evidence from Harrer. Unfortunately the 1988 expedition could not be continued into Bhutan. But we were about to have much more luck.
In August 1988 we were in a very good mood as we were allowed to work in the foreigner-forbidden and also for Indians almost inaccessible Spiti and made a sensational discovery: We came across an old, not completely documented, magic ritual, presumed lost for over 60 years, which was ascribed to Thangtong Gyalpo, and which is saturated with animistic Bön-relics. With this ritual, still carried out today, Thangtong Gyalpo is supposed to have eradicated a incurable disease in Lhasa and conquered the demonic resistance by the building of his first bridge. In Lhasa, summoned there by Thangkapa, he located the demon responsible for the disease in a rock in which he had hidden himself. Now this stone served as the threshold-stone of the main temple of Lhasa. Thangtong Gyalpo let the stone be carried into the market-place, made offerings, prayed, and finally threatened the demon into leaving the stone and thus the place. As the demon didn't seem to be influenced by this, nor even by a magic sword-dance in which the body of the trance-dancer balanced on sword-points, a second actor went into trance and the rock was placed upon the chest of this man lying on the ground. And with a second, round river-stone, Thangtong Gyalpo shattered the rock with one blow, without injuring the man lying underneath.
This Mahasiddha was believed by his contemporaries to have invented stainless iron and was able to lay tons-heavy bridges over the broad Himalayan-streams. Whenever Thangtong Gyalpo began a new bridge, his biographer Lochen Gyurme Dechen says, demons destroyed during the night what had been erected, and Thangtong Gyalpo banished them through his ritual or in other magic ways.
On Sunday, September 25 1988 we held in our hands the first chain-links from a Thangtong Gyalpo-bridge in Tibet. We had found them "in the vicinity" of a place handed down in tradition, where not even we could find any bridge. They were the same iron pieces as in Bhutan, reddish to yellowish brown, with a forged patina, rather looking more like bronze than like iron. I saw the perfectly forged seams, almost flawless weldings. This weakest spot were their strength. A metallurgic test of a Bhutanese chain-link, made years ago at the Technical College in Zurich, had shown that the seams contained arsenic.
Willfried Epprecht writes: " This makes it probable that the present sample of iron has been forged together from smaller pieces of varying composition and grain-size... Most likely small rods have been forged which then have been formed into links and finally forged together along a finishing-seam (perhaps at the place of construction ?) into rings..." And in a closer description of the seam-zone: " It seems as if the almost non-corrodible ferrite through forge-welding was rendered a fluid film which adhered to the irregularities of the surfaces to be joined. Of special interest is the fact that also iron-surfaces underneath the slag-areas were covered with the special-ferrite-skin. The seam-film described here is very similar to the one described by G. Becker when he found it in a Roman sword-blade in the connection-zone between the hardened steel-edge and the softer maincore-metal of iron. He established that the connection-zone has an arsenic-content well above 2,8 percent. For this reason a micro-probe-test was made of the chain-welding-seam, since one might assume a similar welding-connection from the discovered arsenic-content. There is in fact an unmistakable arsenic-content ... present."
After a closer description of the arsenic-content we read on: "Already Aristotle is supposed to have know about the high fluidity of certain iron-types. Possibly what was meant was arsenic-rich iron-types. It is also well-known that arsenic-rich iron is particularly low on slag. As for the Roman sword G. Becker presumes that the hot iron-blade, prior to having the steel-edge forged onto it, has been dabbed with low-melting grains of arsenic-rich iron. A similar technique is also thinkable for the final-forging of the present chain-link. Perhaps another method can have been used for the making of the arsenic-rich smelting-film, for instance the application of an arsenic-rich powder (arsenic-oxide) or paste, which melted by the forge-welding and covered the surfaces of the pieces with the film." Such arsenic-seams are not know to us, except perhaps for the Roman sword from the Damascene-blade manufacturers. That the historic connections to the Tibetan-Asian world, for instance via the Silk-route, may be playing a role in bringing the forgery secrets there, cannot be ruled out. Furthermore we know from the biography of Lochen Gyurme Dechen, that the smiths of Paro once manufactured 7000 chain-links for Thangtong Gyalpo and that Thangtong Gyalpo gathered 1400 carrier-loads each consisting of 15 links. Whether these links were as single links or already joined into small chain-lengths is never mentioned.
From where he had gotten this forging-technique, whether received as a religious revelation or brought from somewhere on his restless journeys between India and the Chinese Imperial court in all corners of all the lands of the Himalayas, this is a sensational thing, alone when you think of the conditions here at the "Roof of the World", here where wood is rare and expensive, under which forging at such perfection was being done at charcoal-fires. As for a possible model for the hanging-bridge-construction with iron-chains there are various more or less unproven sources. The Englishman Joseph Needham mentions a Chinese one which is supposed to have been made already the first century AD and was being repaired right around 1410. It is not known however, that Thangtong Gyalpo can have been in Yünnan at the Lantsang river. Also at the Euphrates river and over the Mekong there is supposed to have been early chain-bridges. Only historic chain-remnants are hanging at the first three Thangtong Gyalpo bridges, which we discovered; modern steel-wires carried the true hanging-load.
The chains were now merely relics. At both banks were the foundations made of plastered rocks, repeatedly repaired masses of stone and remnants of a close by destroyed monastery, and the temple-like early bridge-head-building, like we know them from Chuwori and from present day Bhutan. We found carved wooden pillars, threshold-stones and similar objects, endowed by popular belief with having been specially charged with blessings, joined into the construction. And on this riverbank lay a whitish, large, rounded river-stone with a dark "footprint" of Thangtong Gyalpo, just like there are innumerable footprints of the Buddha in the Buddhist world. And on the other side the counterpart of the other foot near the foundation of the chains in the rock, near a relief of Thangtong Gyalpo overgrown by bushes. In between the footprints there is the bridge, an old Buddhist symbol of liberation: what a picture, what a pungent situation, what a great step, did Thangtong Gyalpo make here.
In the heat of the late-summer-noon we examined - hanging upside-down over the roaring mountain-stream - every single chain-link for incisions and we found them. On one link, probably driven into the hot metal with a long chisel and therefore a bit crooked - it said: Precious Bridge. Circumstantial evidence of the authority of a special, a holy builder, if not Thangtong Gyalpo himself. A little later at another bridge we found a year, the water-dog year. But which one? According to the 64 year cycle of the Tibetans this date falls within the lifetime of Thangtong Gyalpo in two places: once in his early childhood, and the other cyclic time in his 81st year, which would be 1442. And he actually did build one of his bridges here in this region at this time, as can be seen from his biography.
Later in September we were to have even more luck. By the discovery of the legendary, never before documented, most important monastery of Thangtong Gyalpo, Cung (or Pal-)Riwoche at Tsangpo in western Central-Tibet, which we only found after long days of roaming through river-beds, we also found the "Picture-book-bridge", standing beside an enormous Stupa-temple made by Thangtong Gyalpo's architectural hand, which we hadn't imagined in our wildest dreams.
It is the proof and masterpiece of his bridge-building art. The bridge of Cung (or Pal) Riwoche from the year 1436 is because of one of the many prophecies of Tibet a warranty for the existence of Tibetan Buddhism, as long as it is standing and revered; it thus takes us directly back to the middle-ages. We found these prophecies by accident in a footnote in an article from Ladakh, after we had returned to Berlin.
Luckily the rGyal-Pos, the keepers of Riwoche, in the preceding centuries have understood their task well and have, both under and after the cultural revolution, guarded and rebuilt the bridge: it is in prime condition for the ritual practises. For over the Brahmaputra, the Tsang-po, which here in autumn by normal water level is but 100 meters wide, a new steel-wire-bridge has been built.
Hardly anyone neglects to make a sacrifice or a show of reverence when passing Thangtong Gyalpo's sacred bridge. Two iron chains along each side, at about the level of a Tibetan's hip, are connected to further chains at foot-level, on which wooden boards are lying, by yak-leather-straps, braided, strengthening leather-straps and ropes; it is not rare to see animal-skins or whole hides hanging at it, for instance a marten or a calf. When stepping onto it one must catch the rhythm of the swinging chains, for the "railings" are, not only for us, too low. The first major step from the bank, stepping through a sacrificial Chörten(Stupa) on which there are always flowers and prayer-flags, the "Windhorses", leads to a heap of rocks in the river: the utilization of a natural island or, as we know, often an artificial foundation, a trademark of Thangtong Gyalpo's bridges. There the second bridge-section, mostly rather much shorter, begins. In Chuwori as in Riwoche or Tsethang.
Presumably he had 50 to 60 iron-chain bridges built, 60 wooden ones, and 118 ferries, the article said. The bridge building only began in his later years. Before that his activities wee concerned with other tasks like architecture and medicine. Therefore he is always depicted with two distinguishing objects in his hands: in his right the links of an iron-chain, and in his left a bowl with the nectar of long life. But those are other as yet untold stories. In the background of the bridge stands one of the most magnificent structures of Thangtong Gyalpo, the seven-storied Stupa-temple with frescos (presumably) by his own hand. The Mandala-like ground-plan of the in part severely damaged shrine is still clearly to be seen. The meter-high level of debris from the caved-in roofs of the many small chapels in the higher stories luckily has protected the extraordinary collection of Mandala-frescos on the lower parts of the walls from the destruction by the harsh and dry climate. We photographed the major part of the accessible frescos and tiny chapels, primarily for the art-history and hope that today this treasure of such extraordinary quality haven't been destroyed by repairs started in the meantime. For to the Tibetan authenticity is of less importance than the completeness and perfection of the holy pictures. Only in their completeness will they become effective. Therefore they like to re-paint them.
This expedition gave us the proofs that Thangtong Gyalpo is the personality of Tibet which we, having compared him to Leonardo da Vinci, had presumed him to be. His universalism was exemplified in many areas, not only bridge-building. The structures of his world-views could become exemplary again today - one of our reasons to keep working, in part financed by the technical University of Berlin, on the comprehensive portrait of Thangtong Gyalpo.
Comments from the translator: 1. welding process for joining separate pieces of metal in a continuous metallic bond. Cold-pressure welding is accomplished by the application of high pressure at room temperature; forge welding (forging) is done by means of hammering, with the addition of heat. In most processes in common use, the metal at the points to be joined is melted; additional molten metal is added as a filler, and the bond is allowed to cool.
2. The affiliation of Thangtong Gyalpo to the Sakya or the Nyingma lines: In this article it is stated that T.G. was from the Nyingma line, but all research seems to suggest that he was in fact a master of the Sakya-line.

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