Sacred Mountains and  Holy Lakes in Tibet (Part 2) : Between creation and governance

Sacred Mountains and Holy Lakes in Tibet (Part 2) : Between creation and governance

"Mongolian Nomad Tents in front of the Nyenchen Tanglha Mountains", May 1939
Photograph by Hugh Edward Richardson


The mountain deity resides in the north
(The protector of grasslands and pastoralists)
One of the most important creator mountain deities in Tibet
Has numerous attendants from the "nyen" (གཉན་)
("Nyen" can represent personified natural spirits)
It is best not to completely equate "nyen" with the mountain deity group
"This mountain deity has a white body, white horse, white clothes, and white ornaments"


"Guardian Spirit of Mount Nenqing Tanggula and its Entourage"
Mid 19th century, collection of Rubin Museum of Art


local: the enduring image of the Mountain God and the mountain behind it



Central in the snowy region,
Surrounded by many realms,
The towering majestic snow-capped mountain,
Like a bright moon shining in all directions.
The crystal mountain emits white light,
Its peak reaching into the sky,
Adorned with the sun and moon like a crown,
Its beauty unparalleled day and night.


From the Eulogy of the Sacred Mountain of Yala Shampo.
The fourth Red Hat, Quzayesi
(ཞྭ་དམར་ཆོས་གྲགས་ཡེ་ཤེས་; 1453-1524)



If there is a cloud gathering on the earth,
Pure white and beautiful, the snow-capped mountain is the master.
Its peak reaches into the realm of the gods,
Forever there, gathering sweet dew in the earth's belly.
Countless rivers flow in all directions,
Three hundred and sixty attendants accompany.
In the center of the barley, there is a Maqin.
This peak far and wide, depending on virtue.


Selected from "Ritual Texts of the Mountain God Animaqing"
Chapter Three: The Third Jigme Khenrab Dorje


"The Mountain God of Yala Xiangbo," Mural at the Yarsa Monastery (near Yala Xiangbo)


The relationship between the Tubo king and the various sacred mountains emphasized and upheld the divine power and special bloodline of the king. As the co-ruler of the world and a key figure in the narratives of the royal dynasty, the Yalashampo Mountain God is considered the chief among the many gods of the Yalong region, riding a white muskox that breathes out snow mist as a symbol of creation.


"Animaqing, the Mountain God, and His Attendants", mid-19th century
Painting from a Bön perspective, in the collection of the Rubin Museum


local: the young warrior-like face of the mountain god and the mountain within the rainbow circle


In any classical painting depicting the sacred mountains and lakes of Tibet, these natural landscapes typically have three identities: individual identity (mountains and lakes), spiritual identity (mountain gods and lake gods), and ritual identity (worship of mountain gods and lake gods). I have elaborated on this in detail in my previous article. When we explore the origins of the sacred mountains and lakes in Tibet, it is best not to start from their deification stage, because for the people living here, the process of attributing power and glory to natural objects is very long and variable, and everything starts from the distinctive features of the mountains and lakes (geographical markers). The classification and imagination of the natural environment by people make it possible to define mountains and lakes, and defining mountains and lakes is defining oneself (ethnic markers).

From the snow-capped mountains (གངས་རི་) covered in white snow, to the rugged rocky mountains (རྫ་རི་) with distinct features, to the rocky mountains (བྲག་རི་) or scattered stone mountains (གཡའ་རི་), and finally to the lush forested mountains (ནགས་རི་) and grass-covered mound mountains (སྤང་རི་). People revere the snowy mountains and snow-water lakes (གངས་མཚོ་), gradually constructing narrative techniques for different landscapes and types of mountains and lakes. Their living space is embedded in these stories, allowing different natural landscapes to correspond to vastly different plots. As the saying goes in the Ali region: "Under the mountain is its domain, the domain has its customs" (རི་འོག་གི་གནས་ཡུལ། གནས་མཆོག་གི་ཡུལ་སྲོལ།). People living near the mountains and lakes have survived by relying on the natural gifts of their environment. They continually use the mountains and lakes to measure and imagine the universe (often depicted as interconnected points or circles), projecting their own insights into eternity and mystery.

On the hilltops, people gaze into the distance and express their emotions; when they look at the peak, they often imagine another world; living on flat ground, people personify the details of life; wandering in valleys or mountain valleys, people are happy to hide or discover many secrets; and at the crossroads, people understand the boundaries between different regions. In this way, the mountains and lakes of different regions are linked together to symbolize the people living here. Their life and death, morality, and memories are gathered in the spirit of the mountains and lakes (which is particularly prominent in local culture), while the different relationships between the mountains and lakes (kinship-subordination-enmity-friendship) reflect the developmental context of early Tibetan history.


"Kurakar Tso and a Corner of Pangong Lake," 1950
Photographed by Hugh Edward Richardson


The Mountain Deity resides in the south
(the supreme protector deity of the Bhutanese)
Residing in a palace adorned with all kinds of precious stones
With numerous attendants known as "Masang" (མ་སངས་)
(Masang - a powerful patriarchal clan)
"The one with a crystal helmet and wolf bone holder on the head"


"The Norjingangsang Temple and Nearby Monastery", 1936-1950
Photographed by Hugh Edward Richardson


The mountain god resides in the west
(Buddhism calls him the earthly incarnation of Vaisravana)
With numerous "norgi" attendants
(Norgi - spiritual beings holding the treasures of the heavens and earth)
"The one adorned in green and holding a black flag"


"Chart of the Nine Primordial Gods of Creation," drawn by the author


Belonging to the "Four Sacred Mountains" are also Kula Kangri and Noijin Kangsang.


Whether it is the "Four Sacred Mountains" (ཕྱོགས་བཞིའི་གནས་རི་; usually centered around the Central Tibetan region), the "Nine Creator Gods" (སྲིད་པ་ཆགས་པའི་ལྷ་དགུ་; a rich concept of combined deities), or the "Four Sacred Lakes" (གནས་ཆེན་མཚོ་བཞི་; often narrated in connection with a particular sacred mountain), people who create order will ultimately trace the beginning of all laws back to the sacred mountains and lakes, transforming them from immense natural entities into deified objects that continually generate meaning and commandments. From creation to governance, these mountains and lakes possess the most primal powers, and the stories between them have become the memories upon which people rely for survival. Unlike the volcanic mountain deities of Japan or Hawaii (essential nature; such as Japan's Mount Kaguaki-Yorihira), or the mountain deities symbolizing specific actions or emotions in Southeast Asia (functional nature; such as the Philippines' Maria Cacao), the mountain and lake spirits of Tibet bear the weighty responsibility of answering the profound wisdom of the universe and life, a position that has never been shaken.

With the narrative of the dynasty occupying the core of Tibetan history, the public belief in the sacred mountains and lakes eventually became the spiritual bond linking different regions of Tibet. From the sacred lineage of the rulers to the daily lives of remote villages, the mountain and lake deities are often seen as constant presences observing and guiding the people. The mountains and lakes are no longer just containers of a specific concept; after years of cyclical worship by the people, the sacred mountains and lakes have found a fitting place in the human world. With the introduction and flourishing of Buddhism during the imperial era, as well as the reutilization and transformation of mountain and lake beliefs by Buddhists, the system of sacred mountains and lakes in Tibet will take on a new appearance, which will be the focus of our next article.

Viewing grand scenery from afar

Approaching the heavens to listen closely.


This article is translated from Sorang Wangqing's blog.

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