About Gesar of Ling

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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.

Bardic Visionaries

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.

If anyone does not know this place,
          It is the Kingdom of Ling.
If anyone does not know me,
          I am Ma Nene Karmo.
I live in the blue turquoise palace 
          In the Divine Paradise. 
You appeared in this world
          Where there is so much sorrow and hate.
The people hunt animals;
          They kill and eat them.
The people catch fish
          With hooks of iron.
When you destroy your enemies
       The gods & Padmasambhava take them to the kingdom of heaven.
 I, Ma Nene Karmo, always feel compassion for living creatures.
        Brahma, also, feels compassion and never hate for them.
You have to subjugate the 18 kingdoms
          Of the demons and all their domains.
Collect the treasures of Ling 
          And spread the teachings of Buddha.

Go to the Underworld. 

          When you get there,
Beware of the boar-headed and the dog-headed spirits.
          Furthermore, the cold and the hot hell are there, too.
       There, too, is a bottomless river; 
                 Only you and your horse can cross this river.
  Midshung,Drugmo & PekarLhatse 
            are personifications of goddess Tara. 
  They appear in the world 
            to save living creatures.         
       I, Ma Nene Karmo, work in the upper world of the gods, 
                In the middle world of Ngen, 
      And in the lower world of the water-spirits.
                I work for them all and do not remain idle.
       You, too, must be active. 
               Do not stay here long.
       Go to the underworld to save the living creatures.
               You must pass judgment on what is good and what is bad.
       Follow the white light.

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.


~ 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.

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 for 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.

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.

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.

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.  

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 dry."

More than 150 kilometres to the north of Dege is a "mountain mouth" called Gege That is the spot where, on the advice of a sorcerer, Gesar's uncle tried to murder him. Gesar was forewarned and the sorcerer fled.  All he could say when he saw Gesar in the distance fast approaching was, "Ge Ge."   A rock there resembles the sorcerer.

Other places allegedly related to King Gesar include an ancient castle and temples containing armour used by the king.

King Gesar was born in the 11th century. He spent his childhood as a shepherd.  He 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.

NB The spelling of Tibetan and Chinese names is not consistent,  intentionally. 

Manifestation of Padmasabhava

Gesar is often considered an aspect of Guru Rinpoche.

  • H. E. Namkha Rimed Rinpoche, a supplication and offering prayers.


  • BBC East Asia Today, Feb. 11, 2003: At minute 24, Dawa recounts to Isabel Hilton the circumstances of his designation as a bard, and the three choices offered him by a dream deity.
  • Peter Lieberson's musical work King Gesar, (features Yo-yo Ma, Peter Serkin and Emanuel Ax.)
  • Kassie Holme's paper "Blind Faith" (Fall 2001) on traditional belief including the Gesar legend among Tibetans living in Darjeeling. [cached by Google.com]
  • Geoffrey's Gesar of gLing ("Chapter 8") in .rtf format  NB. This page may only be reached via a Search in Google.  Open in MSWord




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.

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