‘The Kingdom of Ni-po-lo has a circumference of about four thousand leagues. It is situated in the heart of the snowy mountains. The capital has a circuit of about twenty leagues… The climate is frigid; the customs and habits are stamped with faithfulness and perfidy; the inhabitants are naturally hard and ferocious; they do not consider good faith and justice as worth having and have absolutely no literary attainments; but they are gifted with skill and dexterity in the arts… To the south-east of the capital is a little pond. If fire is thrown in, a brilliant flame absolutely rises up to the surface of the water; if other objects are thrown in they change nature and become fire.’ ((Sylvain Levi, ‘Nepal: Chinese and Tibetan Documents’, Ancient Nepal, Vol. 27, April 1974. French Indologist Levi’s Le Népal: Étude historique d’un royaume hindou (Nepal: Historical Study of a Hindu Kingdom) was published in 1905-08; the English translation of his work appeared in 44 installments in the journal starting 1973.))

The seventh century Chinese traveller Hieun Tsang’s description of Nepal leads historians like Sylvain Levi to believe it was based more on hearsay than a personal visit – and this wasn’t just about the pond that breathed fire. But his fanciful description nonetheless allowed Nepali historians to accurately place one of the legendary kings of the Licchavi dynasty that ruled Kathmandu until the 11th century. ‘The King belongs to the caste of Tsa-ti-li (Kshatriya) and is connected with the race of the Li-tche-po (Licchavi)…Lately there was a king named Yang-Chon-fa-mo (Amshuvarman) who was distinguished by the firmness of his knowledge and the sagacity of his mind.’ ((Vijay Kumar Manandhar, A Comprehensive History of Nepal-China Relations up to 1955 AD, Volume 1, Adroit Publishers, New Delhi: 2004)) Despite the brief reference about Amshuvarman, Hieun Tsang’s records allowed ancient Nepali history to proceed from a ‘matter of idle speculation’ into recorded history.

The Bodhisattva Padmapani Lokeshvara 11th–12th century. Metropolitan Museum of Art Open Access

While it is generally believed that Buddhism spread from its hub in the Indo-Gangetic plains to other regions through the use of existing trade routes, in no society was this starker than in ancient Kathmandu valley, which was Nepal as it was known until the early days of the 20th century. The Gorkhas did not call their empire ‘Nepal’; that distinction was reserved for the Kathmandu valley. Trans-Himalayan contact occurred in the other bordering regions, but with the opening of the Kerung pass in the early 7th century, trade from Nepal valley to Tibet was formalised along with an exchange of religion and culture.

The root of Nepal-Tibet-China contact inevitably returns to Buddhist proliferation along these existing trade routes. If we regard modern political boundaries as Nepal proper, the 5th century visit of Kapilvastu monk Buddhabhadra to China is perhaps the first recorded instance of a Nepali visiting the country. Tradition holds that Buddhabhadra belonged to the same Sakya clan as Gautama Buddha, and he completed his Buddhist studies at the age of seventeen and went to Kashmir, a Buddhist centre of learning at the time. There, a group of Chinese travellers requested a scholar travel back with them, and Buddhabhadra was chosen, setting out in 406 CE, and reaching three years later.((Manandhar, A Comprehensive History)) 

Historian Manandhar suggests Buddhabhadra was expelled from Changan, the ancient Chinese capital, in 410 CE after a religious dispute with another scholar named Kumarajiva. Buddhabhadra settled at the mountainous district of Lu Shan with 40 disciples, and in 418 CE, he became a translator at Tao Chang Ssu monastery in Chien-yeh, modern-day Nanking, overseeing the more-than-hundred monks who translated Buddhist scriptures into Chinese. 

Buddhabhadra eventually died in China in 429 CE, at the age of 71, after spending 21 years in the country. However, by then, he had translated several Buddhist works into Chinese, including a few with Fa-Hsien, his contemporary. Manandhar emphasises Buddhabhadra’s importance to ancient trans-Himalayan contact by suggesting it was he who taught Chinese monks how to wear monastic robes in the style of the Indian plains, i.e., by baring one shoulder. 

There was another, however, who brought far-lasting changes to relations between these different civilizations. Today, she is regarded as a Buddhist goddess, but Bhrikuti was a 7th century Nepali princess whose political marriage to Srong-Tsan-Gampo, the Tibetan king who united the many tribes into one nation, changed the nature of trans-Himalayan contact from sporadic travels by individual monks into diplomatic visits. 

It is unclear who Bhrikuti really was, or when her story became enshrined in history. Historians have expressed doubt as to her existence, but in Nepal, her story is part of folklore, another evidence provided to suggest Nepal valley’s civilizational roots. She is said to have carried as part of her dowry ‘several valuable Buddhist images’.((Dor Bahadur Bista, ‘Nepalis in Tibet’, Contributions to Nepal Studies journal, Volume 8, No. 1, December 1980, Tribhuvan University)) Most sources – and popular Nepali culture – consider her to be daughter of Amshuvarman, a powerful courtier of the 6th century, such as this Tibetan source: ‘In 632 CE, when Srong-Tsen-Gampo acquired in marriage princess Bhrikuti Devi of king Angsu Verma (sic) of Nepal, the ‘rzong-skhels’ or dowry was also acquired in accordance with Tibetan wishes. Angshu Verma, one of the most reputed kings of Nepal, had no wish to send his daughter in marriage to such a faraway and inhospitable kingdom as Tibet, but he is recorded to have warned his daughter: “If you do not go, the 50,000 soldiers of Tibet will kill me, snatch you away, and destroy all the valleys and towns of this kingdom.”’((Tenzin, Acharya Kirti Tulku Lobsang, and K. Dhondup. ‘Early Relations between Tibbet and Nepal (7th to 8th Centuries).’ The Tibet Journal 7, no. 1/2 (1982): 83-86. http://www.jstor.org/stable/43300047))

Tibetan King Srongtsong Gampo and his wives, Princess Bhrikuti of Nepal (left) and Princess Wencheng of China (right). Wikimedia Commons

Tibetan historian Kirti Tulku Lobsang Tenzin considers this as proof that the Nepal valley was under the suzerainty of Tibet at the time. However, Amshuvarman was a Thakuri feudatory under the Licchavi king Shivadeva, whose ‘ascetic life and his indifference to worldly affairs was one of the main reasons which secured for Amsuvarman an unchallenged position in the realm’.((D.R. Regmi, Ancient Nepal, K.L. Mukhopadhyay: Calcutta, 1960)) There are doubts over whether he remained a titular regent despite being in command, or whether he crowned himself king. In any case, he proved to be an able commander and administrator. The dates with the Tibetan chronicle also do not align with Amsuvarman’s reign; one of Nepal’s most well-known historians put the years of his death as not later than 615-620 CE. Upon his death in the early 7th century, however, the power struggle resumed, and subsequently, Dhruva Deva became king, and his cousin Udaya Deva was exiled to Tibet. Udaya Deva’s son Narendra Deva would regain power with the help of Tibetans, and if the Bhrikuti story is true, she was probably his daughter. This was a time of Tibetan militaristic expansion under Srong-Tsen, and it is not unlikely there were periods where the hill-states found themselves in nominal suzerainty to the Tibetan empire until the latter’s dissolution. 

Manandhar says Nepali tradition does not corroborate Bhrikuti’s marriage, and other historians have doubted whether a high-caste Hindu king would give away his daughter to a non-caste king. But with time, the legend of Srong-Tsen-Gampo’s two wives – the other, a Chinese princess by the name of Wen-Cheng Kung-Chu – has now come to mark the beginning of Tibetan Buddhism, in which both the queens are honored as avatars of the goddess Tara.  

This period also marks the first instance of the use of the Kerung Pass, the same border pass from where China has proposed a railway to Kathmandu. Kerung would be the shortest route across the Himalayas; until then, most travellers used the roundabout way, travelling via Kashmir’s passes or roundabout the Hindukush to enter or exit the Himalayan plateau. It was also through Kerung that Nepal was linked to the world beyond the Gangetic plains, changing Kathmandu’s status from a ‘remote corner’ to a ‘strategic way station, allowing it to exercise a high degree of control over traffic between the markets of India and those beyond the high Himalayas. This position has vitally affected Nepal’s subsequent history to the present day.’((Leo E. Rose and Margaret W. Fisher, The Politics of Nepal: Persistence and Change in an Asian monarchy, Cornell University Press: 1970))

Manandhar also points out that the Nepali worldview until then had focused southwards, i.e., towards the Gangetic plains. However, with the opening up of the Kerung pass, the rulers of Kathmandu valley focused on becoming an entrepot for trans-Himalayan trade, cementing its status as one of the richest hill-states in the Himalayas, as well as becoming a sort of a cultural inspiration for Tibetan art and religion. ‘Nepalese architects and builders and all the necessary craftsmen were sent from Nepal’ to work on the Tsulag Khang, the first temple in Lhasa built to house the deities Bhrikuti had brought with her. Anthropologist Dor Bahadur Bista asserts, ‘Nepali monks along with the traders, craftsmen, masons, builders etc. were the chief agents working actively in the early years to build the so-called [sic] Tibetan civilization.’((Bista, ‘Nepalis in Tibet’))

However, to assume Buddhist exchange was the only point of contact is incorrect. Religion was succeeded by politics, intrigue, and eventually, war. ‘Vishnu Gupta…who occupied the Nepal throne was assassinated with Tibetan help and Narendra Dev was made king.’((Lobsang Tenzin and K. Dhondup. ‘Early Relations between Tibbet and Nepal (7th to 8th Centuries).’)) Vishnu Gupta had succeeded his father Jishnu Gupta, who had sent Udaya Deva into exile and replaced him with his own nominee Dhruva Deva. Mary Slusser adds of the political flux during this turbulent period in Nepali history, ‘[T]he [Abhira] Guptas exercised the real power, while the Licchavi kings were essentially figureheads.’((Mary Shepherd Slusser, Nepal Mandala: A Cultural Study of the Kathmandu Valley, Princeton University Press: 1982)) As Narendra Dev overthrew Vishnugupta with the help of Tibet to reclaim the throne, a new era of contact across the Himalayas occurred.

Pair of Manuscript Covers: Prajnaparamita Flanked by Bodhisattvas (above); Vajrasattva(?) Flanked by Bodhisattvas (below) 12th century. Metropolitan Museum of Art Open Access

Text © Amish Raj Mulmi. Please do not share or reproduce without permission.

Leave a comment