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GESAR . As is the case with most epic textsRāmāyaa, Gilgamesh, and King Arthur, for examplelittle is known of the historical and artistic genesis of the Gesar epic (Tibetan, Gling Ge sar gyi sgrung ), a complex and lengthy narrative relating the heroic deeds of the divine king Gesar. The earliest known written version of the epic dates back to 1716, when it was translatedpossibly from Tibetaninto Mongolian on the orders of the Manchu emperor. Different versions are attested: the Eastern Tibetan from Khams province (Eastern Tibet); the so-called Amdo Tibetan from a province in northeastern Tibet; the Western Tibetan from Ladakh, an oral version that has affinities with both the Eastern and Amdo versions, though it is shorter than the Eastern one; and the Mongolian one, which boasts a great number of episodes that cannot be found in the other versions. Hunza (northeast Pakistan), Lepcha (northeast Nepal), Buriat (North Mongolia), Khalkha (Mongolia), and Kalmuk (Siberia) versions are also recorded. Regardless of discrepancies among all versions, the core of the epic, which is made of six or seven episodes (sometimes called the proto-epic), has been extant since the seventeenth century at the latest.

The Epic: Historical Background and Links with Buddhism

Whether a real person lies behind the epic hero Gesar is still debated. One of the earliest written instances of his name (as Gesar, king of Phrom) appears in a ninth-century Tibetan manuscript, and the name also appears on a coin that may refer to the king of a Central Asian kingdom in the ninth or tenth century. For most Tibetans he is an eleventh-century historical figure who ruled Ling (Tibetan, Gling ), a principality in Khams, that reached its peak in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. It has been suggested that Khrom (or Phrom, pronounced "Throm") could be a distant echo of Rome, via the Turkish word Rûm that designated Rome or Byzance, while Gesar would refer to Kaisar, the Turkish word for "king" or "emperor," derived from Caesar. But Gesar is also seen as a Buddhist character, since he is considered as an emanation of both Avalokiteśvara, the bodhisattva of compassion (also embodied in the Dalai Lamas of Tibet) and Padmasambhava (the semi-legendary introducer of Tantric Buddhism in Tibet in the eighth century). He fights in the name of the Buddhist doctrine and the well-being of all menor, more precisely, Tibetans.

Whether the original epic (if ever there was such a thing) was devoid of references to Buddhism is hard to tell, but it came to pervade most of the narrative. For instance, between wars Gesar is described not as ruling his kingdom but as going into spiritual retreat until a vision summons him to fight another battle against another enemy. Most songs in the epic begin with an invocation of Buddhist or pre-Buddhist local deities and often include a sermon on important aspects of Buddhism. Although certain sects of the Tibetan clergy have shown hostility towards the epic, its content was gradually infused with Buddhist themes until famous Tibetan lamas of the nineteenth century assimilated Gesar to a Buddhist protective dgra lha (war deity). Moreover, the recitation of some episodes have come to acquire a ritualistic dimension: Hor gling the battle against Horis associated with the fight against demons, and Stag gzig nor 'gyed the battle for the wealth of Tagzigwith an increase of wealth. The Manchu emperors of China (16441911) identified Gesar with the Chinese god of war, and a cult to Gesar (Mongolian, Geser) has existed in Mongolia since the seventeenth century.

The Episodes

Most versions of the epic begin with three famous episodes: the decision of the assembly of gods to send a savior (the future Gesar) to defend the world, and more particularly Tibet, against the forces of evil (the episode called Lha gling ); Gesar's childhood as the despised and ugly child Jo ru (the episode called 'Khrungs gling ); and Jo ru's unexpected victory at a horse race at the age of thirteen, whereby he becomes the respected and impressive Gesar, marries the beautiful princess' Brug mo (Drugmo) and becomes the king of the community of Ling (the episode called Rta rgyug ). These are followed by a succession of narratives describing how, riding his supernatural horse and leading his thirty brave companions and his army, Gesar wages a series of wars against four foreign kingdoms and eighteen Tibetan principalities. The episodes always end with Gesar's victory and the pledge of the subdued armies to become his allies in conquests to comeas well as with the plundering of the enemies' wealth and its redistribution to the people of Ling. The last episode recounts how he rescues his mother from Hell. For Tibetan believers, Gesar is now residing in Shambala, a hidden realm from where he will come back to save humanity and Buddhism. A characteristic of this epic is its open ending; in the twentieth century at least two new episodes were added.

The total number of episodes is difficult to assess. The latest figures vary from 120 to 200, of which about 100 had been published by the early twenty-first century. Another peculiarity of the epic concerns its elaboration, which rarely resorts to literary creation, although a few episodes present themselves as rewritings of previously known versions. New episodes mostly appear through vision and revelation to either Buddhist masters or laypersons, who claim to be reincarnations of characters of the epic and whose previous life they recall, thereby "creating" a new episode. There also exist "treasure-bards" (Tibetan, gter sgrung ) who "discover" episodes hidden in their mental continuum, in the same way as Buddhist "treasure-discoverers" (Tibetan, gter ston ) discover Buddhist teachings or narratives thought to have been hidden in a previous time by Padmasambhava.


Until the Chinese takeover of Tibet in the 1950s, most versions were passed on orally and few were committed to the written form, as manuscripts or, more rarely, xylographs (i.e., woodblock prints). Amateur performers would recite and sing it, and professional wandering bards (Tibetan, sgrung mkhan or sgrung pa ) would roam the country narrating a few episodes in which they specialized. An estimate by Tibetan and Chinese researchers showed that the total number of bards in Tibet early in the twenty-first century varies between 100 and 140. Female bards are very rare, although women play an important part in the narrative (as mothers, wives, aunts, mistresses, etc.). A bard's performance usually alternates between short prose narrative parts and lengthy versified (often heptasyllabic) monologues in the form of songs. On average, one episode may contain between fifty and one hundred songs, the melody varying according to the character they represent. There are also melodies for certain types of songs (visions, prophecies, etc.). Bards would sometimes accompany their performance with painted prompts (Tibetan, sgrung thang ) on which they would show the scenes referred to in their narrative.

In most cases, bards learn their craft from another bard or from a family member and rely on either a written text or their memory (Tibetan, bshad sgrung literally, "narrating bard"is a sub-category of the generic sgrung mkhan or sgrung pa category). But the most appreciated bards are those whose performance shares common characteristics with certain aspects of Tantric Buddhism and Tibetan "folk," pre-Buddhist religion. Called 'bab sgrung (oracular or divine bards), they are often illiterate nomads who become bards after a serious illness and ensuing visions. They recite episodes of the epic in a state of trance during which they are said to be possessed by one character of the epic who retells the event from his or her point of view. In some instances, they begin their recitation as soon as they put on their "epic hat" (Tibetan, sgrung zhwa ). One of the most famous of these bards, Grags pa (Drak pa) (1904?/6?1986), could recite as many as twenty-five episodes of the epic (equivalent to fifteen thousand pages of a modern text). In the rarest cases, bards can "read" an episode by looking at the surface of a mirror (Tibetan, spra sgrung ) or looking at an empty white page. In these cases, the bard has not memorized the episode, he is in a state of inspired trance.

Appropriation of the Epic

The widespread popularity of the epic and its protagonists in Tibet may be explained by the part everyday Tibetan life plays in its narrativea rare instance in a literature usually dominated by Indian models aloof from the Tibetan world. This popularity may in turn explain why several authorities have vied for its appropriation. As mentioned already, some Buddhist clergy incorporated Gesar into the Buddhist pantheon; the Buddhist tone of a number of passages in the epic can thus be explained as an attempt at exploiting its popularity among the nomads and peasants of Tibet to spread the Buddhist doctrine further. At a more esoteric level, Gesar's battles are sometimes presented as a symbol of the Buddhist follower's struggle toward Enlightenment. Since the takeover of Tibet by China in the mid-twentieth century, the Chinese cultural authorities have supported research on the epic, which represents, in their eyes, a rare case of popular, secular culture within the Buddhist-dominated Tibetan civilization. In response, Tibetans have been quick to associate Gesar (either the divine king or the epic narrative) with Tibetan cultural revival and nationalism and to cherish it as a depository of distinct and authentic Tibetan culture.


The Gesar epic has greatly benefited from support by Chinese authorities, and not a year passes without a new episode being published in China, where the publication of a forty-volume edition, based partly on the twentieth-century bard Drakpa's recitation, is in progress. In Bhutan, K. Tobgyal and M. Dorji edited The Epic of Gesar (Thimphu, Bhutan, 1979), a heterogenous and somehow haphazard compilation in thirty-one volumes. Episodes are also published in India under the auspices of the exiled Tibetan community.

Only parts of the Gesar epic have been translated into Western languages: A. H. Francke collected and published a translation of the Ladakhi version of the epic at the turn of the twentieth century; see his A Lower Ladakhi Version of the Kesar Saga (New Delhi, 2000). An edited synthesis of a version from Eastern Tibet can be found in A. David-Néel's La vie surhumaine de Guésar de Ling, le héros thibétain (Paris, 1931, 1995), translated into English as The Superhuman Life of Gesar of Ling (rev. ed., London, 1959). In his L'Epopée tibétaine de Gesar dans sa version lamaïque de Ling (Paris, 1956), R. A. Stein partly translated a nineteenth-century xylograph that contained three episodes of the core epic. Gesar! The Epic Tale of Tibet's Great Warrior-King, adapted by Zara Wallace (Berkeley, Calif., 1991) is the updated and rephrased prose edition of a 1927 English translation of the 1716 Mongolian version of the epic, via a 1839 German translation.

In the 1990s, D. J. Pennick used preexisting translations to rewrite the core epic for an opera libretto (The Warrior Song of King Gesar, Boston, 1996). This version has retained the alternance of prose and poetic passages and is clearly formulated for a Western audience. R. Kornman and a team of translators have undertaken the integral translation of the nineteenth-century version used by R. A. Stein for his 1956 summarized translation (cf. supra ). It is due for publication in 2004. Some episodes were translated into German by M. Hermanns in Das National-Epos der Tibeter Gling König Gesar (Regensburg, Germany, 1965) and by R. Kaschewsky and P. Tsering in Gesars Anwehrkampf gegen Kaschmir (Zentralasiatische Studien 6 [1972]: 273400) and Die Eroberung der Burg von Sum-pa (Wiesbaden, Germany, 1987). The most thorough study to date of the epic remains R. A. Stein's Recherches sur l'épopée et le barde au Tibet (Paris, 1959). An updated summary of R. A. Stein's views can be found in his "Introduction" to the 1979 Thimphu version (reprinted in Tibet Journal 6, no. 1 [1981]: 313).

S. Hummel's Eurasian Mythology in the Tibetan Epic of Ge-sar (Dharamsala, India, 1998) suggests the existence of German and Greek mythological influence in a restricted number of the epics's episodes. His views, although tentative and sometimes far-fetched, nevertheless present original mythical and literary openings to links between Central Asian and Tibetan cultures, and his lengthy bibliography includes many German-language sources. M. Helferr is the author of a musicological study of some songs of one episode of the epic, titled Chants dans l'épopée tibétaine de Ge-sar d'après le livre de la Course de cheval (Paris, 1977). In the 1990s, S. G. Karmay dedicated three interesting articles to the epic, which can all be found in The Arrow and the Spindle: Studies in the History, Myths, Rituals and Beliefs in Tibet (Kathmandu, Nepal, 1998): "Gesar: the Epic Tradition of the Tibetan People" is a good summary of the epic in a Tibetan context; "The Theoretical Basis for the Tibetan Epic" gives a clear chronological order of the epic and considers the kingdom of Gling in its relationship to its neighbors, taking into account both historical sources and episodes of the epic; and "The Social Organization of Gling and the Term phu nu in the Gesar Epic" shows how a study of kinship as presented in the epic can be used as a source for a political and social analysis of traditional Tibetan nomad society.

G. Samuel has also undertaken a study of Gesar and its relationship to anthropology, shamanism, music, and so on. For an overview of the epic and the state of the field, see for instance, his "Gesar of Ling: The Origins and Meaning of the East Tibetan Epic," in Tibetan Studies: Proceedings of the 5th Seminar of the International Association for Tibetan Studies, Narita 1989 (Narita, Japan, 1992), edited by Shoren Ihara and Zuiho Yamaguchi; "Ge sar of gLing: Shamanic Power and Popular Religion," in Tantra and Popular Religion in Tibet (New Delhi, 1994), edited by G. Samuel, H. Gregor, and E. Stutchbury; "The Gesar Epic of East Tibet," in Tibetan Literature: Studies in Genre (Ithaca, N.Y., 1996), edited by José Ignacio Cabezón and Roger R. Jackson; and "The Epic and Nationalism in Tibet," in Religion and Biography in China and Tibet (Richmond, U.K., 2002), edited by Benjamin Penny.

For an early twenty-first century assessment of the appropriation of Gesar by China before and above all after 1950, see L. Maconi's "Gesar de Pékin? Le sort du Roi Gesar de Gling, héros épique tibétain, en Chine (post-)maoïste," in Formes modernes de la poésie épique: nouvelles approches (Brussels, 2004), edited by Judith Labarthe. Research on Gesar is also very active in China and Tibet: a number of episodes of the epic have been translated into Chinese, and a Chinese magazine is dedicated to the epic (Gesaer yanjiu jikan [Gesar studies]). See also Yang Enhong's Minjian shishen: Gesaer yiren yanjiu (Popular divine poets: Study on the singing tradition of "King Gesar"; Beijing, 1995), and her "The Study of Singing Tradition of the Tibetan Epic King Gesar " (IIAS Newsletter 18 [1999], p. 16), a short and documented article in English presenting a typology of bards. See also monographs and articles by 'Jam dpal rgya mtsho (Chinese, Jianbian Jiacuo) and Gcod pa don grub (Chinese, Jiaoba Dongzhu), two Tibetan specialists. For a study of Gesar in Mongolia and Tibet, see W. Heissig's The Religions of Mongolia (London, 1980), his Ge-ser Studien: Untersuchungen zu den Erzählstoffen in den "neuen" Kapiteln des mongolischen Geser-Zyklus (Opladen, Germany, 1983), and his Fragen der mongolischen Heldendichtung (Wiesbaden, Germany, 1982, 1985, and 1987), which he edited and which contains several contributions on Gesar as well as translations of some episodes. N. Poppe and Ts. Damdinsüren also dedicated many articles to the fate of the epic in Mongolia. See also Klaus Sagaster's article in the first edition of this encyclopedia for a short and synthetic presentation of Gesar, especially in the Mongolian context (Encyclopedia of Religions 1987: 536537).

FranÇoise Robin (2005)