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Mural depicting Gesar

The Epic of King Gesar (pronounced /ˈɡɛzər/ or /ɡəˈzɑr/ in English; also spelled Geser, Ge-sar, Ge Sar, or Gisar) is the central epic poem of Tibet and much of Central Asia. With about 140 Gesar ballad singers surviving today (including singers of Tibetan, Mongolian, Buryat and Tu ethnicities), it is prized as one of the few living epics. The epic, believed to be approximately 1000 years old, concerns the fearless king Gesar, who ruled the legendary Kingdom of gLing (pronounced: Ling.

The epic is considered the longest literary work in the world.[1] Although there is no one definitive compilation, if completed it would fill some 120 volumes, containing over 20 million words in more than one million verses.[2]


Etymology of the name and origin of the epic



Some scholars have proposed that the Tibetan name Gesar derives from the Roman title Caesar by way of the Mongolian Kesar. The Mongolians were allied with the Byzantines, whose emperor still used the title.[3][4] Indeed, at one point it was proposed that the character of Gesar was based on the Roman emperor, which sparked interest in the epic among Western scholars in the 20th century, but this theory has been discredited.[5]

/Geser/, as the name of a legendary king, appears in the Zoroastrian Zend-Avesta, a text many centuries earlier than any Tibetan, Turkish, or Mongolian rendition. Etymologically, the phoneme /-s-/ in Old Persia always represents (when intervocalic) a proto-Indo-Iranian (and Vaidik) etymon */-ś-/, so that the protoytpe of the name should be (approximately) */Gaśar/. This has apparently no proto-Indo-European source, but may derive from Elamitic and/or Sumerian : the deity-name most closely similar in Akkadian texts is /Kišar/ (suggesting an identification of Akkadian "Kišar" with one of Bukhe Beligte's (i.e., Geser's) three older sisters, who were born from[6] their mother Naran Goohon's armpits and navel).

Gesar is variously called Gesar of gLing, gLing Gesar, Gesar Norbu Dradul, and variations thereof. He is claimed as an ancestor of the Tibetan clan called Mukpo Dong gi Gyudpa ("Lineage of the Brown Face").

Traditional Tibetan beliefs

According to the contemporary Chinese Gesar scholar Li Lianrong, a researcher at the Institute of Ethnic Literature at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, "Gesar’s representations of events have long been treated as faithful history by Tibetan scholars."[7] In recent centuries many Tibetan scholars came to believe that Gesar was born in 1027, as reflected in an attestation in Mdo smad chos vbyung by the nineteenth-century historian Brag dgon pa dkon mchog bstan pa rab.[8] Others believed he lived during the early Tang dynasty (the 600s). Liangrong notes, however, that although many contemporary Tibetan scholars still regard the epic as a reliable historical record, "this viewpoint is shifting."[9]

Modern Chinese and Western scholarship

As Lianrong summarizes in his 2001 essay "History and the Tibetan Epic Gesar," over the last century there has been a wide array of theories by modern scholars as to whether or not Gesar was a historical figure or based on one, and if so, who; whether or not the epic began with a single author, and if so, who, and when he or she wrote it.[10] He notes, "as explorations into all aspects of the epic grew more sophisticated, it became clear that no absolute time of origin could ever be established; on the contrary, epic is cumulative. The search for an Ur-text ceded to a desire to understand its ongoing process of formation."[11] As he concludes,

After nearly a half-century of research, scholars have reached basic agreement on the following three points. 1) Either the epic’s protagonist Gling Gesar was a real person or he is a synthetic character created by the combination of historical figures. 2) Tibetan versions of the epic serve as the source for branches of Gesar found among other ethnic groups. Being branches, they have features of their own. 3) Though many views exist, there is basic agreement about the time of the epic’s origin.[12]

Lianrong quotes the work of fellow scholar Jiangbian Jiacuo, whose theories have found general acceptance regarding the time frame of the epic's origin:

The origin, development, and evolution of Gesar has undergone several important stages. It took shape in a historical period when Tibetan clan society started to fall apart and the state power of slavery was forming. This period fell between the birth of Christ and fifth to sixth century CE. During the reign of the Tubo Dynasty, or the seventh to ninth centuries, Gesar gradually took shape. The epic further developed and spread after the collapse of the Tubo Dynasty, or tenth century CE.[13]

Lianrong continues,

By narrowing the period of its creation to the tenth and eleventh centuries, the dynamic of literary composition is erroneously attributed to an oral epic. Furthermore, the epic reflects Tibetan society during the sixth to ninth centuries rather than the tenth century. Thus a satisfactory conclusion about the epic’s origins cannot be drawn based on the lifespans of historical heroic figures[14] . . . .Jiangbian pointed out that the foundation for the origin of epic is ethnic folk culture. He conjectured that before epics came into being, the Tibetan people “already had a corpus of stories that described the formation of the heavens and the earth, their ethnic origin, and ethnic heroes; these stories provided a foundation for creating the character Gesar, also known as Sgrung in early history. After further polishing by the oral poets, especially the ballad singers, Gesar became a great epic” (1986:51).[15]

Locating the Kingdom of gLing

In Tibetan, /gliŋ/ means, literally, an 'island'; but can have (like Sanskrit dvīpa) the alterative meaning of 'continent'.[16] The mythological and allegorical elements of the story defy place and time, and several places lay claim to being the former Kingdom of gLing. However both Tibetan and Han 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, which lies in the historic kingdom of Lingtsang, which is attested as a significant eastern Tibetan principality from at least the early 15th century. Gesar's "soul mountain", in turn, was the famous snow peak of Golog, Amne Machin, in modern Qinghai Province.[17] In most Tibetan versions gLing is located in eastern Tibet (Tibetan: mdo khams), and often located specifically between the 'Bri (Yangtze) and rDza (Yalong) rivers, which is where the historical kingdom of Lingtsang (Tibetan: gLing-tshang) existed until the 20th century.

Elements of the story

The epic concerns Gesar, the superhuman warrior ruler of the Kingdom of gLing, who waged war with the nearby Kingdom of Hor. Versions of the story often begin with the creation of the world and a compacted pre-history of Tibet. This is followed by a brief traditional account of how Tibet was converted from barbarity to Buddhism under the three great Dharma kings[18] of the Tibetan Imperial Period (7th-9th centuries AD), in particular by the great magician and founder of Tibetan religion, Padmasambhāva,[19] who subdued Tibet's violent native spirits and bound them by oath. It is then explained how the world in general and Tibet in particular later fell into a state of anarchy, since the many negative spirits and demons of Tibet had not been fully conquered. As a result the world came under the dominion of hordes of flesh-eating and human-eating demons and goblins, headed by malignant and greedy kings of many kingdoms.

In order to remedy this situation, various gods-on-high, including Brahma[20] and Indra[21] in concert with celestial Buddhist figures such as Padmasambhāva, and both cosmic and abstract tantric deities such as Amitābha[22] and Samāntabhadra[23], as well as the spirits below the earth or nagas[24], decide that a divine hero must be sent from the heavens to the land of men to conquer these evil sovereigns. It is decided that the youngest son of Brahma and Indra[25] should be sent. He is known by various names in various versions, sometimes Thos-pa dGa', sometimes Bu-tog dKar-po, and perhaps the most universally as Don-grub. This god-child is not very keen on his mission, and tries to evade it, but eventually agrees.

He is then born, with various celestial companions, and after singing to his mother from the womb, asking the way out, as the son of 'Gog-bza, who is sometimes depicted as a beautiful naga princess captured from a neighbouring tribe, but in other versions as an old woman, and of Seng-blon, who is one of the respected elders of the Kingdom of gLing.

The hero has an older half-brother called rGya-tsha, who is a brave warrior and important figure in the epic. He is sometimes said to have been the grandson of the emperor[26] of China, and is killed in the battle with the great enemy of gLing, Hor (often identified by Tibetans with Mongolia). This struggle between gLing and Hor is the central and most important part of the epic.

The young hero has two uncles. One is the wise and very aged elder of gLing, known as the "old hawk", sPyi dPon rong tsha. He supports the child as he has received divine prophecies indicating his importance. The other uncle is Khro-thung, a cowardly and greedy rascal, who sees the child as a threat and tries to do him ill. Khro-thung is normally a comic character in the epic, but his role as the provocateur of many incidents is absolutely central.

The hero as a child grows precociously and vanquishes various diverse foes that present themselves. His behaviour is wild and fearsome, and soon he and his mother are banished from gLing. They go to the deserted lands of the land of rMa (the upper Yellow River) where they live a feral life, and the child is clothed in animal skins and wears a hat with antelope horns.

When the child is twelve a horse race is held to determine who will become the king of gLing and who will marry the beautiful daughter, 'Brug-mo, of a neighbouring chieftain. The hero-child, who in many versions is known as Joru during these early years, returns to gLing, wins the race, marries 'Brug-mo, and ascends the golden throne. He thenceforth assumes the title "Gesar".

Once he is king, his first major campaign is against the man-eating demon of the north, Klu-btsan. While he is on this campaign, his wife is kidnapped by Gur-dkar (literally: "white tent"), the King of Hor. When Gesar returns from a long absence to find this out, he uses his magic to enter the king of Hor's palace, kills him and retrieves his wife.

These two episodes - (the demon of the north, and the war with Hor) constitute the first two of four great campaigns against "the four enemies of the four directions". The next two are King Sa-dam of 'Jang (sometimes located in Yunnan) and king Shing khri of Mon (sometimes located in the southern Himalayan region).

After this he goes on to defeat the "18 great forts", which are listed differently according to different versions and different bards, but nearly always include stag-gzig (Tajik) and kha-che (Muslim) adversaries. Many[27] other "forts"[28] are defeated besides.

When Gesar reaches his eighties, he briefly descends to Hell as a last episode before he leaves the land of men and ascends once more to his celestial paradise.


Distinctly Tibetan in style, the epic appears to date from the time of the second transmission of Buddhism to Tibet (marked by the formation of the Kadampa, Kagyu and Sakya schools), although the story includes early elements taken from Indian tantricism. The oral tradition of this epic is most prominent in the two remote areas associated with the ancient Bönpo (Ladakh and Zanskar in the far west of Tibet, and Kham and Amdo regions of eastern Tibet), strongly suggesting that the story has Bön roots.

As an oral tradition, a large number of variants have always existed, and no canonical text can be written. However, the epic narrative was certainly in something similar to its present form by the 15th century at the latest as shown by the mentions in the rLangs-kyi Po-ti bSe-ru. Despite the age of the tradition, the oldest extant text of the epic is actually the Mongolian woodblock print commissioned by the Qing Emperor Kangxi in 1716. None of the Tibetan texts that have come down to us are earlier than the 18th century, although they are likely based on older texts that have not survived. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries a woodblock edition of the story was compiled by a scholar-monk from Ling-tsang (a small kingdom north-east of sDe-dge) with inspiration from the prolific Tibetan philosopher Jamgon Ju Mipham Gyatso. Tales of King Gesar are also popular in Mongolia, and have travelled as far west as the Caspian Sea, reaching Europe with the Kalmyk people, who also profess Tibetan Buddhism as their religion. The Second King of Bhutan retained a Gesar singer as a full-time entertainer for the royal court, and recitals of the Epic of Gesar were said to be the king's favorite form of edification.

Combining the variants together, the epic is perhaps the longest literary work in the world,[citation needed] containing over 20 million words in more than one million verses.[citation needed] A given Gesar singer would know only his local version, which nonetheless would take weeks to recite.

Oral transmission

It is reported that ballad singers in Tibet and surrounding regions often begin their career by experiencing a strange dream during sleep, after awakening from which they mysteriously and inexplicably gain the ability to recite large sections of this huge epic "King Gesar" poem.[29] They may be able to continuously recite sections of the poem for several hours on end. Sometimes, young children even gain this ability, this very sudden and profound recalling of the poem. There is a research interest in determining the exact brain mechanism that allows this extraordinary and remarkable memorization to occur.[30]


A Russian translation of the Mongolian Geser texts - those texts that had been printed in Beijing from 1716 onwards[31] - was published by the Moravian missionary Isaak Jakob Schmidt in 1836; a German translation followed in 1839. In the 20th century, other Mongolian Geser texts were edited by scientists like Nicholas Poppe and Walther Heissig.

The first three volumes of the version known as the Lingtsang-Dege woodblock, which was composed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, was published with a very faithful though incomplete French translation by Professor Rolf Stein in 1956. Stein followed this publication with his 600-page magnum opus on the Tibetan Epic entitled Recherches sur l'Epopee et le Barde au Tibet. This remains the most in-depth study of the Tibetan Gesar tradition.

Another version has been translated into German by Prof. Dr. P. Matthias Hermanns (1965). This translation is based on manuscripts collected by Hermanns in Amdo. This book also contains extensive study by Hermanns explaining the epic as the product of the Heroic Age of the nomads of North-eastern Tibet and their interactions with the many other peoples of the Inner Asian steppe. Hermanns believed the epic to pre-date Buddhism in Tibet, and saw in it an expression of the ancient Tibetan archetype of the "heaven- sent king", as found also in the myths of the founders of the Yarlung Dynasty, who founded the Tibetan Empire (7th-9th centuries CE).

AH Francke collected and translated a version from Lower Ladakh between 1905 and 1909.

The most accessible rendering of Gesar in English is by Alexandra David-Neel in her "Superhuman Life of Gesar of Ling", published in French and then English in the 1930s.

Religious dimension

Although the Gesar epic is primarily part of the folk culture of Tibet, over the course of its long history it has both incorporated Buddhist elements and in turn been appropriated for religious use.

As one scholar notes, "attitudes to the Gesar epic vary considerably among Tibetan lamas and monks. Many Gelugpa disapprove of the epic, while Kagyupa and Nyingmapa lamas generally favor it and see it as an expression of the activity of Guru Rinpoche and as a vehicle for Buddhist teachings, especially of the Dzogchen school. Consequentially, the question of whether babdrung [bards of the Gesar epic] should be regarded as chopa [dharma people, i.e. dharma proponents] will be answered differently by those who favor and those who oppose the epic. The babdrung themselves, however, generally emphasize the connection of the epic with cho (Dharma/Buddhism) and see themselves as a kind of chopa (Dharma practitioner)."[32]

Orgyen Tobgyal Rinpoche explains the Nyingmapa perspective:

Some people think of Ling Gesar as a famous warrior king or general, like Alexander the Great or the Chinese war gods. Others are of the opinion that Ling Gesar is primarily something like a tertön, an individual blessed by Guru Rinpoche who manifests to benefit beings through that blessing. But the real nature of the manifestation we know as Ling Gesar is actually that of Guru Rinpoche himself appearing in the form of a drala.

Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche also appropriated Gesar in this way, writing a sādhana for Namkha Drimed Rinpoche centered on Gesar called The Ocean of the Play of Buddha Activity: A Daily Supplication to the Warrior Gesar, the Great Being Döndrup, King of Werma, Tamer of Enemies.[33] Namkha Drimed Rinpoche is particularly interested in Gesar, as he is reputed to be an emanation of Gesar's elder brother Jatsa Shakar, and claims to have memories of that life and his time with Gesar. In his view, Gesar is the embodiment of the three principal bodhisattvas (the body emanation of Mañjuśrī, the speech emanation of Avalokiteśvara and the mind emanation of Vajrapāṇi), appearing in the form of a drala.

Later, in the West, Trungpa incorporated Gesar into Shambhala Training, his "secular" belief system.

In popular culture

In the Russian novel Night Watch, a character is named "Gesar". The novel is part of a series that includes numerous references to famous mythical figures (such as Merlin and Thomas the Rhymer).


  1. ^ "Legend of the Snow Land-Epic of King Gesar 2007". National Museum of History. 2007. Retrieved 2009-06-10. 
  2. ^ "King Gesar: Introductory". China Tibet Information Center. Retrieved 2009-06-10. 
  3. ^ Kornman, Robin. "The Influence of the Epic of King Gesar on Chogyam Trungpa," in Recalling Chogyam Trungpa, edit. Fabrice Midal. pgs 367
  4. ^ Kornman, Robin. "The Influence of the Epic of King Gesar on Chogyam Trungpa," in Recalling Chogyam Trungpa, edit. Fabrice Midal. pgs 360
  5. ^ Lianrong, Li. "History and the Tibetan Epic Gesar," in Oral Tradition, 16/2 (2001): 322, 326[1]
  6. ^
  7. ^ Lianrong, Li. "History and the Tibetan Epic Gesar," in Oral Tradition, 16/2 (2001): 334[2]
  8. ^ Lianrong, Li. "History and the Tibetan Epic Gesar," in Oral Tradition, 16/2 (2001): 328
  9. ^ Lianrong, Li. "History and the Tibetan Epic Gesar," in Oral Tradition, 16/2 (2001): 333
  10. ^ Lianrong, Li. "History and the Tibetan Epic Gesar," in Oral Tradition, 16/2 (2001): 317-342[3]
  11. ^ Lianrong, Li. "History and the Tibetan Epic Gesar," in Oral Tradition, 16/2 (2001): 331.
  12. ^ Lianrong, Li. "History and the Tibetan Epic Gesar," in Oral Tradition, 16/2 (2001): 317[4]
  13. ^ Lianrong, Li. "History and the Tibetan Epic Gesar," in Oral Tradition, 16/2 (2001): 332[5]
  14. ^ Lianrong, Li. "History and the Tibetan Epic Gesar," in Oral Tradition, 16/2 (2001): 335[6]
  15. ^ Lianrong, Li. "History and the Tibetan Epic Gesar," in Oral Tradition, 16/2 (2001): 332[7]
  16. ^ Zahler & Hopkins : Meditative States in Tibetan Buddhism. Wisdom Publications, 1983. p. 39
  17. ^
  18. ^ Sanskrit: Dharma rāja"; Tibetan: chos rgyal
  19. ^ Tibetan: padma 'byung gnas
  20. ^ Tibetan: tshangs pa dkar po
  21. ^ Tibetan: brGya-byin
  22. ^ Tibetan: 'od dpag med
  23. ^ Tibetan: kun tu bzang po
  24. ^ Tib: klu
  25. ^ Tshangs pa and brGya Byin - the Gesar texts tend to conflate these two,
  26. ^ Tibetan: mi chen, literally: "big man"
  27. ^ in fact an open-ended number, sometimes listed as forty
  28. ^ Tibetan: rdzong
  29. ^
  30. ^
  31. ^ See above.
  32. ^ Civilized Shamans: Buddhism in Tibetan Societies. Geoffrey Samuel. ISBN 1560982314 pg 293
  33. ^ Nalanda Translation Committee. Newsletter, 2006-7. pg 1

Further reading

  • Francke A.H. 1905-1909. A Lower Ladakhi Version of the Kesar Saga. Reprinted in Delhi 2000. Asian Educational Services.
  • Harvilahti, Lauri. 1996. "Epos and National Identity: Transformations and Incarnations." Oral Tradition 11(1). pp. 40–49.
  • Hermanns, Prof. Dr. P. Matthias: Das National-Epos der Tibeter Gling König Ge Sar, 1965, Verlag Josef Habbel, Regensburg.
  • Hummel, Siegbert. Eurasian Mythology in the Tibetan epic of Gesar. Translated by Guido Vogliotti. (1998) The Library of Tibetan Works and Archives, Dharamsala, H.P., India. ISBN 81-86470-20-4.
  • Lama Yongden, Alexandra David-Neel. The Superhuman Life Of Gesar Of Ling, 2004, Kessinger Publishing. ISBN 0766186865.
  • Samuel, Geoffrey. 1992. "Ge-Sar of gLing: The Origins and Meanings of the East Tibetan Epic" (RTF). In S. Ihara and Z. Yamaguchi (ed) Tibetan Studies: Proceedings of the 5th Seminar of the International Association for Tibetan Studies, Narita, 1989, Narita: Naritasan Shinshoji, pp. 711-722.
  • Stein, R.A. l'Epopee Tibetaine dans sa Version Lamaique de Ling. Paris. Presses Universitaires. 1956.
  • Stein, R.A. l'Epopee et le Barde au Tibet. Paris Presses Universitaires. 1959.

External links


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