Tibetan Sources on the History of Helambu

The earliest Tibetan sources mention Helambu as sBas yul Yol mo gangs ra or “Hidden land of Yolmo Snow Enclosure.” It is considered to be one of the seven hidden lands in the Himalaya by the Northern Treasure (Byang gter) lineage of the Nyingma School. These earliest sources are six Tibetan guide books and descriptions attributed to the founder of the Northern Treasure tradition, Rigzin Gödem (1337-1408), a great treasure-revealer and the religious tutor of the kings of Gungthang. In these works (BT) the Hidden Land of Yolmo Snow Enclosure is mentioned as a possible destination for Tibetans, who need to escape from Tibet to avoid religious persecution, foreign invasion, civil war, who want to leave the morally declining society and continue their religious practice in a place of harmony. The texts picture an uninhabited place outside of political control, with rich flora, fauna and freely available land, where an ideal society can be established, and higher spiritual realization can be attained, because it is a sacred land blessed by Padmasambhava. These texts are written in the form of prophecies, and they urge the reader to flee Tibet, when the signs of the Declining Age (snyigs dus) become apparent and settle in Yolmo Gangra or another hidden land in the Himalaya. They do not only describe the routes to get there, but also encourage travellers to use natural resources, gold, turquoise on the way to build rest-houses and temples.

Two other sources mentioning Yolmo Gangra briefly are works written by Tsangnyön Heruka (1452-1507) probably about 1488: Milarepa’s Biography (MRB 2004, 1) and his Hundred-Thousand Songs (MRB 2004, 202). In Milarepa’s Biography, Marpa recommends sacred places for meditation to Milarepa: “There is the Riwo Palbar of Mangyul and the Yolmo Gangra of Nepal, which are holy places prophesised in the Mahāyāna sutras.” Other versions of the same text say, that these places were prophesised in the Avatamṣaka-sūtra. In the Hundred-thousand Songs of Milarepa, the 7th chapter of the 1st part, The Song of a Yogi’s Joy describes how Milarepa went to Yolmo Gangra to meditate in the Singalin forest, at the Tiger’s cave of the Lion’s Fort (sTag phug seng ge rdzong). Here the local goddess appeared in front of him and offered her services, and later, when five young nuns came to visit him from Mon and asked about the place, Milarepa sang the following praise of Yolmo Gangra:

Obeisance to you, my Guru!
I met you through having accumulated great merits,
And now stay at the place you prophesied.
This delightful place, a place of hills and forests.
In the mountain meadows, flowers bloom;
In the woods dance the swaying trees.
For monkeys it is a playground.
Birds sing tunefully,
Bees fly and buzz,
And from day until night the rainbows come and go.
In the summer and winter falls the sweet rain,
And mist and fog roll up in fall and spring.
At such a pleasant place, in solitude,
I, Milarepa, happily abide
Meditating on the void-illuminating Mind.

(translated by Chang 1999, 74.)

Ngachang Shakya Zangpo revealed the treasure teaching called The Legend of the Great Stupa (CHORTEN) in Samye, Tibet in 1512, then excavated and reconstructed the Jarung Khashor Stupa in Nepal. The reincarnation line he belonged to (he received the title posthumously) was considered to be of the helper, who carried the stones during the construction of the Jarung Khashor Stupa. The Legend of the Great Stupa describes how the helper was later reborn in Tibet as Pema Gungtsen, a religious minister in King Trisong Detsen’s court in the 8th century, and how it was prophecized by Guru Rinpoche, that he will reborn in Tibet in the future to reconstruct the Jarung Khashor Stupa. Ngachang Shakya Zangpo has no extant biography, but from biographies of his contemporaries (LEKDEN) it is known, that following Rigzin Godem’s prophecies, he opened the Hidden Lotus Grove (sBas pa Padma tshal) identifying it with Helambu. There he built the first Buddhist temple of this region, today’s Tshiri Gonpa. He transmitted the entire Northern Treasure teaching to his two main disciples, Ngari Panchen Pema Wangyal (1487-1543) and Lekden Dorje, two brothers from Mustang. For a while he was active as the advisor of the king of Gungthang, Kunzang Nyida Trakpa (1514-60), then he spent his final years in the Helambu area surrounded by his disciples.

The second tulku of this lineage, Namkha Gyajin, just like his predecessor, renovated the Jarung Khashor stupa, and was a spiritual preceptor in the court of Gungthang during the reign of Sonam Wangchug De (1577-1627), but there is little known about his life.

The third tulku, Tenzin Norbu (1589-1644) built a wide network of powerful friends in Tibet and Nepal. He was a treasure-revealer and after he performed a great public consecration in front of the king’s palace and visited Swayambhunath and other famous Buddhist places of the valley, he was appointed by the king to be the sexton of the Bodhnath stupa. He restored and consecrated the stupa and returned to Tsang to stay in Cung Riwoche, founded originally by Thangtong Gyalpo. He was an advisor of the 5th Dalai Lama, and visited him several times in 1637 and later, who wrote extensively about his activities. After the death of his main teacher, Rigzin Ngagi Wangpo, he looked after the Dorje Drak Monastery in Central Tibet and just before his own death, he recognized his teacher’s reincarnation. His collected works includes among many other texts his biographies (TN).

Many different manuscript versions of Zilnon Wangyal Dorje’s (1647-1716) autobiographical writings are extant, which shows his immense popularity in the Himalayan region (ZILNON). He received all the teachings, transmissions and empowerments of the Northern Treasure lineage from the 5th Dalai Lama. He not only travelled widely in Tibet, but also spent years of meditation in the Helambu region and had a close contact with the Gorkha ruler, Prithivīpata Shah (1667-1714) and his sister was given in marriage to King Pratap Malla (1641-1674) of Kathmandu. He renovated and consecrated the Bodhnath stupa twice during his lifetime and he was appointed twice to be the overseer of the temples of Helambu. He founded the Samtenling temple in Ragma, Kyirong and he spent his last years there.

One of the disciples of Zilnon Wangyal Dorje was Terbon Nyima Sengge (1687-1738), who was born into a family of famous treasure-revealers. According to his biography, the Chariot of Certainty (GSS), he was born in Mangyul in southern Tibet, and he was the hereditary steward of the “border-taming” temple, Jamtrin in Kyirong. He stopped an epidemic in the Kathmandu valley and received a land grant in return from the king, Jagajjaya Malla (1722-1734), the ruler of the independent kingdom of Kathmandu during the time of the three kingdoms (1482-1769) and founded Tarkeghyang village.

His son, Trinle Dudjom (1726-1789) was recognised as the fifth reincarnation, but as he had stronger ties with his mother’s family lineage, the Domarpas, he moved back to southern Tibet and appeared in Bodhnath in 1748 one last time to renovate the stupa with his teacher, the famous Rigzin Tsewang Norbu (1698-1755).

The sources mentioned above are valuable documents of the history of Helambu, however, there are many other texts, local histories, registers, ritual texts which provide further details.

The prophecies attributed to Rigzin Godem inspired Tibetan lamas living in the Kyirong area to visit the Helambu region, do extended retreats and spread the Dharma among the local population.

One of the greatest lamas of the 20th century, Chatral Rinpoche founded retreat centers in Helambu, and he himself also spent long periods in meditation there. He not only wrote about the sacred places of Yolmo Gangra, but also revealed hidden places there. Thanks to him, the area became again a famous spiritual place blessed by Guru Rinpoche.

There was relatively little research done by Westerners on the history of Helambu compared to its easy access and close proximity to the Kathmandu valley, however, some great scholars like Graham E. Clarke, Robert Desjarlais and Franz-Karl Ehrhard made lasting contributions to the study of its unique culture and history. The Nepal-German Manuscript Preservation Project conducted extensive field research photographing old manuscripts in the area about twenty years ago, but many of the Tibetan texts remain unpublished, although they are available on microfilm at the National Archive in Kathmandu and some in digital form on the BDRC website. The first guidebook of the sacred places and Buddhist history of Beyul Yolmo Gangra was published in English by Khenpo Nyima Dondrub, a native of Melamchighyang.

In the last 20 years it was often discussed by community leaders how to express the unique identity and culture of people living in the Helambu region, a place identified with the Hidden Land of Yolmo Snow Enclosure of ancient texts. They decided to use the ethnonym Hyolmo, therefore the name of our project reflects their decision.

In conclusion, let us quote a beautiful prayer written in 1630 by the 6th Shamarpa (SHAMAR) to the protectors of the place:

Knower of three times, immortal Tötrengtsel
Subduer of malice and cruelty, Tropolö
Those, who look after the law and oath,
The protectors of the Hidden Land are the Great Lady of the Sacred Place;
Vajrasādhu; the divine Chati;
Genyen Leru; Jomo Yangri,
Deities, nāgas, the protector of the ground, thinking of all of them,
Joyful companions of the Mantra Lord bound by oath.
Act and protect from harm
And promise, that you’ll forgive all wrong-doings.
May happiness and the profound Dharma spread in the land,
And may the fortune of devotion granted to all.

This short essay was composed by Tenzin Sangmo (Zsoka Gelle, Hungary) at the Jarung Khashor Stupa on the first day of Losar of the Earth-Pig Year.

Tibetan Sources:

BT — Byang gter lugs kyi rnam thar dang ma ‘ongs lung bstan (Biographies and future prophecies of the Northern Treasure tradition), Sherab Gyaltsen and Lama Dawa: Gangtok, 1983, Reproduced from manuscripts from the library of Lama Sengge of Yolmo. W27866; LTWA No. Ka.3:77-2221, fs. 598.

CHORTEN — Mchod rten chen po bya rung kha shor gyi lo rgyus mthong pas grol ba bzhugs so. TBRC Work: W15651; LTWA Acc. No. 2550, fs.32.

GSS — Gu ru Sūrya Sengge’i rnam thar mdor bsdus nges shes ’dren pa’i shing rta, (Manuscript photographed by the author in Nepal) fs. 36.

LEKDEN — Rig ‘dzin mNga ris pa chen po Legs ldan bdud ‘joms rdo rje’i rnam thar. In: bKa’ ma mdo dbang gi bla ma brgyud pa’I rnam thar. Leh: Tashigangpa, 1972, vol. 1, 351-392, W21523.

MRB — gTsang smyon He ru ka, rJe btsun Mi la ras pa’i rnam thar dang mgur ‘bum. (Milarepa’s biography and the Hundred-thousand songs). Delhi: Bod gzhung shes rig dpar khang, 2004.

SHAMAR — 6th Zhva dmar pa Chos kyi dbang phyug. Bal yul du bgrod pa’i lam yig nor bu spel ma’i phreng ba. NGMPP Reel no. L387/3.

TN — Yol mo ba sprul sku bsTan ‘dzin nor bu. Rang gi rtogs pa brjod pa rdo rje’i sgra ma’i brgyud mangs. In Yol sprul bsTan ‘dzin nor bu’i gsung thor bu. Delhi: Dawa Lama, 1982, 95-248, W22115.

ZILNON — Zil gnon dBang rgyal rdo rje’i gsung thor bu. Reproduced from a rare manuscript from the library of bLa ma Ni ma of gLan ’phran. Darjeeling: Konchhog Lhadripa, 1985, W21897.