|Epic or Saga?
The word saga is the Norse word for a song or recitation detailing the acts of founding members of a lineage or society, including the circumstances of those events. A saga often includes accounts of intrigue, betrayal, and bloody battle.
An epic is similar, but the word has an ancient Greek origin. The current connotation is that the action has a divine or higher context, although it may be no less bloody. We have included these definitions here because more than one web author considers the term "epic" to be disparaging when used with regard to The Mahabharata, The Ramayana and other such long poems. Perhaps these writers' only experience with the term is from advertisements promoting Holly- or Bollywood movies. On the contrary, the word "epic" has a noble, even divine, sense.
The Final Epic
Gesar of Ling is considered the world's last living epic. In primarily oral traditions, specific people (such as the bards of the ancient Celts) are charged with the duty of remembering and narrating the legend. In the case of the Tibetan epic, it requires someone who can recall a song that is 25 times the length of The Iliad of ancient Greece.
Gesar fulfills a role in Tibetan culture that is similar to that played by King Arthur in the British Isles. Like the Arthurian material, there is no single version of King Gesar's deeds. The Gesar repertoire, known throughout the vast Himalayan region, contains material that could fill 37 volumes. And, like the Homeric epics, it existed in the oral tradition for generations before it was ever written down. Aspiring balladeers would learn the words and melody by heart from the lips of an experienced, older singer.
Scholars seem to agree that the epic has Mongolian origins. Nowadays, there are a number of different versions, but interestingly the Ladakhi one (West Tibetan cultural area) and the Khampa (East Tibetan) are quite similar. One translation, Gessar Khan, a West Tibet version (first appeared in German in 1836) makes reference to Persian non-Buddhist deities. The "Foreward" also mentions the Kalmyk Little Gesser (Riga, 1804.)
Great Caesar's Ghost
The name, Gesar, is evocative of the Latin Caesar, from which we get the German Kaiser, and also the Russian word for "king," Tsar.) Noted mythologist Joseph Campbell (1968, 107) also had this impression, but pointed out that, although some think the Gesar material refers to "the glories that were Rome," there is also a commonality in the pre-Islamic Persian word for "sovereignty" which is sahr.
There are further links. Gesar is said to have ruled the land of Phrom from a city called Rum. The town that later became the legislative capital of the eastern Roman Empire, Byzantium (Constantinople, now Istanbul) was known as "Rome" or Rum to those who knew of no other Roman centre. Interestingly, its main religious shrine was to the Wisdom Goddess. (It later became a church dedicated to "Santa Sophia," and though it is today a mosque, it is still called Hagia Sophia.
In Tibetan culture, there exists an ancient tradition of drungpas and drungmas. These are the visionary bards who "discover" Gésar material as terma or spiritual treasure. In The Saltmen of Tibet (the prize-winning film by Ulrike Koch, Zeitgeist Films, 1997) the singer of the epic of Gesar of Ling is a drungma called Yumen. Her version was transmitted to her during a dream she had at a turning point in a serious illness when she was a 16 year-old herder.
Mircea Eliade (Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy. Princeton: Bollingen Foundation, 1964) said that in cultures relying on the oral tradition, the myths are recited only during periods of sacred time. "Among the Turco-Mongols and the Tibetans, the epic songs of the Gesar cycle can be recited only at night and in winter."
Then, "Before the recitation begins, a space is prepared by being powdered with roasted barley flour [tsampa.] The audience sit around it. The bard recites the epic for several days. They say that in former times the hoof prints of Gesar's horse appeared in the prepared space."
In film The Saltmen of Tibet, (1998) Yumen, who is venerated in Tibet and also in China where she has been accorded "living treasure" status, sings an especially lilting section of the Gesar epic known as The Song of Ma Nene Karmo. This song is used as a device by the director to introduce us to the worldview or spiritual context of the salt collectors.
Go to the Underworld.
In this way, Ma Nene Karmo sang about the work of Drugmo in this world, about King Gesar's descent into hell, and about his horse.
From the glorious golden throne, King Gesar the heavenly ruler, the earth's tree-of-life, looked upon the assembly with loving and watchful eyes.
All the fathers and mothers, sons and daughters of Ling adoringly offered thanks and good wishes to the king. They joyfully sang old songs and performed propitious dances. They drank tea and barley beer in a festive mood.
OM MANI PADME HUM
~ English subtitle translation, The Saltmen of Tibet
The Saltmen of Tibet follows a small group of Tibetan nomadic herders whose specialty is the scraping of salt deposits from some of "the 12 salt lakes." The salt is later to be traded for barley and tea in the lower agricultural regions. In former days, they also sometimes went to Biru, but they have a special relation with Tsen Tso, the lake (Tib.: tso) known as "heart of Karmapa." They tell us that in the 6 years intervening between the death of the 16th Karmapa, Rigpe Dorje, and the recognition of Urgyen Trinley, the 17th Karmapa, the lake did not give up much of its salt at all.
The Kingdom of Ling
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.
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.
Testimony of the Landscape
Two kilometres from the Hall of King Gesar stands a large rock bearing the
imprint of the boy's bottom. Legend says that this is the spot where he
conquered three demon birds when he was only three. To the left of the
Hall is a gushing fountain that produces pure, clear water.
"Researchers attempted to taste water from the fountain but Bagyia stopped
them, explaining that the fountain would then become contaminated and eventually
Manifestation of Padmasabhava
Gesar is often considered an aspect of Guru Rinpoche.
David-Neel, Alexandra and Lama Yongden. La vie surhumaine de Guesar de Ling. Paris: Editions duRocher, 1978/1992. (Presentation [Introduction] par Francis Lacassin is an excellent brief biography of David-Neel, intrepid traveler and first Western female lama.)
Sonam Zholma's article for China Daily, People's Republic of China, 26 Dec 2001.
Stein, Ralph Aurel (J. E. Stapleton Driver, trans.) Tibetan Civilization. London: Faber and Faber, 1972.
Wallace, Zara. Gesar! The Epic Tale of Tibet's Great Warrior-King, Dharma Publishing, ?
Zeitlin, Ida. Gessar Khan. NY: George H. Doran, 1927.