Chang-mo Grottoes (Tibet) : Survey

Survey of the Chang-mo Grottoes in Dinggye County, Tibet

Chinese Institute of Archaeology

Source - 

The Chang-mo Grottoes is located at 3 km south of Chang-mo Village, Qiongzi Township, Dinggye County in Xigazi Region, Tibet. It was carved on the east cliff of a south-north ridge on the Guomei Mountain, which situates at the middle section of the Himalayas and extends along the borderline of China and Nepal. The grottoes distribute in the south-north direction on the left bank of Dge-chu River, a tributary of the Yalutsangpo River. The geography coordinate is 87°57′45″~87°57′46.5″E and 28°08′20.5″~28°07′55.4″N and the elevation is 4506~4600 m. The grottoes are ca. 11~105 m above the river, measuring 863 m long and 65 m wide, covering an area of 56,096 square meters.


Landscape of the site

The earliest survey and documentation of the Chang-mo Grottoes was conducted by the Cultural Relics Survey Team of the Xigazi Region in August 2008 during the third national cultural relics survey. The preliminary result was released on The Third National Cultural Relics Survey in 2008, with very simple data and more or less inaccurate location. In August 2011 experts from the Capital Normal University, Tibetan Institute of Antiquities Preservation and China Tibetology Research Center visited the site respectively. The three caves in Area I were systematically investigated, measured and documented jointly by Tibetan Institute of Antiquities Preservation and China Tibetology Research Center. General Information about its distribution and preservation is also collected.



Mural at Cave IK1

According to geographic features, functions and conception of locals, the total 105 caves are divided into three groups: Area I, II and III, which respectively contain 29, 35 and 41 caves. The three caves in Area I are best preserved, in which clay sculptures of nimbuses, pedestals and cha-cha could be seen. These caves are mainly Buddha halls, and some of them are meditation halls and houses for monks. Grottoes in Area II are all seriously damaged due to collapses of cliffs, which only keeps parts of the structures. Some murals and clay sculptures of nimbuses could be seen from the lower front slope, showing that they once served for Buddha halls. Unfortunately at present they are inaccessible for archaeologists. Grottoes in Area III are well preserved. Most of them are living houses and many have stone walls right in the front.



Mural at Cave IK1

After the field survey and inquiry to the limited records, archaeologists date the grottoes to the 9th to 10th century and no later than the 11th century. The observation to Cave I and Cave 3 in Area I show that the top limit of clay sculptures and murals is impossible earlier than the middle 8th century. According to the documents of the Nyingma School of Tibetan Buddhism, the earliest influence of Vajrayana Buddhism in the region was closely related to Guru Rinpoche Padmasambhava who reached to Tibet in the middle 8th century. Especially the worship caves in such large size and with full of religious rituals could only appear after the end of the 8th~ the 9th century, a period when both elites and common people in Tibet converted to Esoteric Buddhism and started to worship Mahavairocana and his attendants. The most notable detail is that the figures depicted in the mural dress a robe with triangular shaped collars, which was a typical characteristic of the Tubo period costume. If the murals are dated from as early as the 9th~10th century, the Chang-mo Grottoes could be rated as one of the most significant finds in Tibetan archaeological history.


Mural at Cave IK1

Further survey show that the Chang-mo Grottoes is not isolated. Seen from the geographical environment, the place where the site located is a bridge linking Ngari and Central Tibet. In these two regions like Gamba, Kangma and Lhaze counties, similar Vajradhatu deities are often themes of grottoes. At the south in mountainous Nepal there are also many grottoes and monasteries closely related with it. The spatial connection must result from the development of certain social power. Although more work is needed for answering such question in details, it is no doubt that the Chang-mo region was a geographical unit with active cultural communication and consistent religious development.


Mural at Cave IK2


Mural at Cave IK3

The discovery of the Chang-mo Grottoes enriches the sources of Tibetan grottoes in China. Especially the three caves in Area I with clay sculptures and murals full of local characteristics provide invaluable materials for studying ancient Tibetan Buddhist art.     (Translator: Tong Tao)