The Life of King Kesar of Ling

translated by Siddiq Wahid and Elizabeth T. Gray Jr.
introduction by Siddiq Wahid


In societies where a majority of the population is not literate storytelling assumes an important position in education and cultural life. The Tibetan epic of Ling Kesar (also transliterated as “Gesar”) is just such a story. Like all epics, it is long and instructive, sometimes taking up to a week of evenings of telling. But the story at its core is simple.

The story is set in the “land of men” (Tibetan: mi-yul), a middle kingdom between the “land of the gods” (lha yul) above and the “land of serpents” (Tibetan: klu yul) below. At the time it takes place there is much confusion in the land of men because the kingdom has become leaderless. An ancestor asks the chief of the gods to give the people a leader, and after three generations of preparation a prince of the chief of the gods dies in heaven so that he may be reborn in the land of men.

This prince, who comes to be known as King Kesar, is part hero, part medicine man, and part trickster. After a childhood spent in disguise, some early adventures as a youth, and various initiations, Kesar sets out to do his work. Through a combination of divine cunning, heroic action, and magical powers of healing, he slays demons, defeats foreign rivals, conjures treatments, and ultimately restores order to the land of men. It is significant that the story does not tell of Kesar’s death; at the end of his mission he presumably departs for the land of gods to await a return.

The epic of Kesar of Ling may be as many as a thousand years old but it has only been known to the scholarly community since the middle of the eighteenth century, when a temple dedicated to him was uncovered by an explorer named P. S. Pallas. The first translations of extracts appeared in the early nineteenth century, when the German scholar Benjamin Bergmann translated two chapters from a Mongolian version. J. Schmidt also retold a Mongolian version of “Gesser” (the Mongolian rendition of the name) in a translation published in Beijing in 1839.

The next work done on this remarkable story was undertaken by A. H. Francke, a Moravian missionary to the Ladakh wazarat, which then included Baltistan, the westernmost bastion of Tibetan civilization. Francke, who had come across the epic in the late nineteenth century, published an important translation of it in 1905 with accompanying abstracts and notes. In 1934, a Central Tibetan version was retold in translation by Alexandra David-Neel. But the most extensive treatment of the epic was undertaken by R. A. Stein in the 1950s, culminating in two major publications in 1956 and 1959.

Curiously, a version also exists in Burushaski a little-known, unclassified, or “orphan” language (that is, one that does not belong to the Tibeto-Burman, Shina, or Indo-European language families) spoken in Hunza and Nagar in the shadow of the Pamirs. This oral recension was transcribed into an invented script (the language has no script of its own) and translated by D. L. R. Lorimer in 1935.

Although the name of the hero remains constant, textual and oral versions of the epic can differ radically in temper and content. Broadly speaking, the textual versions have a Buddhist flavor to them. They are defined by Buddhist patron-deities, sometimes memorized by rote, and read or recited with a semi-religious reverence. The versions studied by Stein and David-Neel, and the Mongolian version belong to this group.

The western Tibetan (or Ladakhi) and Burushaski versions, on the other hand, are direct transcriptions of traditional oral performances. They have been transmitted by word of mouth from singer to singer, each of whom learned the art of narrative in a way that is different from rote memorization. Even today, singers are invited by patrons to tell the tale during the long Himalayan winter nights for the entertainment of villagers. They chant the Kesar epic in a combination of verse and prose to an audience that is familiar with the story.

Part of the problem of studying the Kesar today, in addition to its inherent obscurity, is that there are so many versions. The extracts presented here, for example, are from one narration of one recension of one oral traditional version that was extant during the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in the western Ladakhi village of Khalatse, and was preserved and studied by Francke.

The extracts accompanying this introduction are from the opening of the epic and have to do with the preparations for Kesar’s arrival in the land of men, a mise en scene that combines a foreshadowing of events to come with a kind of pre-theological eschatology contextualizing the arrival of our trickster-hero and his exploits. Although this section is not about the hero Kesar himself—he is barely mentioned—it is indispensable for a proper understanding of the oral traditional narrative. Significantly these “preparatory” episodes are absent in the textual versions of the Kesar.

Francke commissioned a local scribe [Urdu:munshi] to transcribe a version of the story that was being told. The flow of the munshi’s text is hampered by many omissions, especially in these early, and arguably conceptually more remote, beginnings of the story. This is a loss. One consolation is that in recent years there have been many new digital recordings of oral retellings of the story which will have saved much of the wisdom contained in living versions of the epic. Until such time as these are transcribed and translated, however, Francke’s work offers us a tantalizing glimpse into the world of oral traditional narrative and the pre-Buddhist, perhaps “shamanic,” context of Tibetan culture.

from The Life of King Kesar of Ling

A Castle Is Constructed

The oral versions of the Ling Kesar begin with several episodes that prepare Ling for the arrival of our hero. The segment translated below belongs to this section. In the episodes prior to this an elderly couple—alien, wandering, and childless—is magically granted a child. The old man consults a seer, Nine Lives. The adopted child is named Green-One Three-Faced Man. This episode describes his role in the construction of Ling Castle.


Now the neighbors of the old couple had a dog. When the dog gave birth to two puppies, Green-One Three-Faced Man reared them and trained them to hunt. Every day he took the dogs off hunting for ibex and wild yak. He brought back great quantities of meat and gave it to the old couple.

One day Three-Faced Man set off, letting the dogs run on ahead. As he followed their tracks, he came into the high pastures of the Cold Country. When he arrived he saw a large boulder behind Elder Nine Lives’ hermitage. On the top of the boulder, trapped by his dogs, Three-Faced Man found a demon with nine heads. When he saw Three-Faced Man approach, the demon sang thus:

Alas! Honorable sir, hear me!
          Alas! Great hunter, hear me!
Sir, your dogs have trapped me.
          The hunter’s dogs have cornered me.
Spare me, and I shall be a friend-at-arms.
          Spare me and I shall be your huntsman.
          Spare me and I will help you.

Listening to the demon’s words, Three-Faced Man did not know whether to slay or spare him. So he sang these questions to Elder Nine Lives:

O my Elder, hear me!
          O Teacher Nine Lives, hear my true and essential words!
On that lucky rock is a nine-headed demon.
          My dogs have trapped it on that lucky rock!
That demon, should I kill or spare him?
          Grant me your wisdom.
The nine-headed one, should I kill or spare him?
          Grant me your wisdom.

And the Elder sang in reply:

O hunter child, hear me!
          O Three-Faced Man, hear my true and essential words!
You must slay this demon.
          You must slay this nine-headed one!
Slay it outright and then ride away.
          Ride away and make an invocation.
          Invoke the Precious Lord from the bottom of your heart.

If you cut off the Demon’s four heads and cast them down
          They will become the foundations of Ling castle.
If you cut off the demon’s four other heads and cast them down
          They will become the courtyard of nine-gabled Ling castle.
If you cut off the last head of the Demon and cast it down
          It will become the floor of nine-gabled Ling castle.
If you cut off the Demon’s legs and cast them down
          They will become the pillars of nine-gabled Ling castle.
If you cut off the Demon’s arms and cast them down
          They will become the cross-beams of nine-gabled Ling castle.
If you cut off its fingers and cast them down
          They will become the willow ceiling of Ling castle.
If you break off the Demon’s ribs and cast them down
          They will become the willow trim of Ling castle.
If you extract the Demon’s entrails and cast them down
          They will become the butter-smooth clay roofs of Ling castle.
If you extract its lungs and cast them down
          They will become a yellow mountain of gold.
If you cut out its heart and cast it down
          It will become a white mountain of silver.
If you cut out its stomach and cast it down
          It will become the vast, fertile Plain of Wild Yams.
If you cut out its small intestine and cast it down
          It will become the high valley of Tasty Sausage.
If you cut out its large intestine and cast it down
          It will become the hunting grounds of Soaring Inner Delight.
If you gouge out the Demon’s eyes and cast them down
          They will become the clear spring Complete Pair.
If you cut out its nostrils and cast them down
          They will become the flute Glorious Voice.
If you cut out both kidneys and cast them down
          They will become the boulder Back-Support.

By the time all of these body parts had been cut and cast down, seven days had passed. On the seventh day Three-Faced Man and his dogs returned home, hungry and tired. The old man and old woman had been worried and were glad when the boy returned.

Raiding Pachi Paldong Castle

Ling castle constructed, the seer is again consulted by old man Tashi, resulting in Three-Faced Man’s marriage to eighteen maidens, whom he impregnates simultaneously and who give birth to his eighteen companions on the same day. This episode narrates the first adventure of these heroes of Ling, one of whom begins to emerge as a first among equals.


The sons of Green-One Three-Faced Man then marched off in single file, and each of them built a house. The mothers did not remain, but returned to their family homes. Each of the sons took a wife. As none of them had any belongings they discussed a plan. “There are said to be riches in Pachi Paldong castle. We should all go conquer it and bring them here.” It was agreed and off they went.

Among them was Pal-le, Prudent Nobleman. Because his mother was born of a blacksmith he was considered polluted and could not go with the others. He cleansed himself often near the house of Elder Nine Lives, in the high pastures of the Cold Country. One day he, too, decided to go to Pachi Paldong castle to find riches. He set off on his horse and after some time came to a wide river. A fox waited on the near side, unable to cross. “Hey, you there,” said the fox, “if you carry me up behind you across the river, I will agree to help you.” “If you will help me, come along,” replied Pal-le, and helped the fox up.

The fox led him through a shortcut, and thus Pal-le, Prudent Nobleman, was the first to arrive at Pachi Paldong castle. Why hadn’t the others arrived? Because they could not avoid the difficult path with its thickets and thorns. Cutting their way through the thickets meant that they made only a rope’s length of progress each day and thus were delayed. Pal-le arrived before them because he went with the fox.

At the edge of the clearing where Pal-le halted lived an elderly woman. After several days he finally decided to ask her, “Honorable grandmother! What kinds of jewels lie in this castle?”

“O son,” she replied, “I shall tell you all that I have heard. It is said that in the land of Ling there will be born to Blue Lady, the Exalted One, a maiden named Digu-ma. There is Tashi, the Auspicious, the blacksmith, who lives beyond Ling castle, and it is said that three daughters will be born to him. The eldest will be named White Spot, the second will be named Black Spot, and the youngest will be named Gogzang-lhamo, Auspicious Goddess of Base and Worthless Birth. Now it is also said that in Heaven three sons will be born to Gyab-zhin, the Lord of the Gods. The eldest will be named Don-dan, the second will be named Don-yod, and the youngest will be named Don-dub. This youngest, it is said, will become Kesar, Chief of the land of Ling, which has long been leaderless.

“How will this come to pass?” she continued. “It is said that Don-dub will give up his life in the land of the gods and will be born to Gogzang-lhamo, daughter of Tashi the blacksmith. It is also said that the bird Ornament Bestowed will be born to the bird King Cuckoo, and that to Ornament Bestowed will be born the bird the Sun. It is said that on the body of Sun, born of a demon, there are nine jewels, and that this bird is to defeat King Kesar of Ling. Until Kesar is born, in the heavens this bird will mark the boundary between the sun and moon. It is said that this bird’s younger brother, Red-Eyed, Red-Toothed One, will be born and then, on top a high boulder, will be made to listen to the news of Kesar’s birth.”

After she had finished, Pal-le again asked her, “O honorable grandmother, I have heard all this. Now can you tell me what kinds of jewels lie in Pachi Paldong castle?”

The elderly woman replied, “These are the jewels among the castle’s belongings: The red-edged pot and the beaked pan. The axe known as White Moon. The rope known as Long Speckled Tiger. The cloth bag known as Thousand Holder of the Pure One. At the head of the herd of horses is Feisty Galloper. At the head of the herd of cows is the she-dzo 1 Crooked-Horn. At the head of the herd of goats is White Goat. At the head of the herd of sheep is Warm One. At the head of the herd of asses is White-Mouthed Black One. At the head of the pack of dogs is the bitch White One. At the head of the pack of cats is Black One. There will be the horse Mouth Aflame. There will be the bow of iron. There will be the hearth-tripod of gold. There will be the hearth-tripod of silver. There will be the copper puppy. There will be the coral hand. There will be a ball of pearl. There will be the seed turquoise. These are all the jewels.” So the elderly woman instructed him.

Then Pal-le went into the castle and carried off all the items of which the old woman had spoken. He then went to the land of Ling. He built a treasure room in the castle of Ling to hold all that he had brought home.

Seven days after Pal-le, Prudent Nobleman had left Pachi Paldong castle, all the other seventeen heroes who had left before him arrived there. Because Prudent Nobleman had taken the jewels, not much remained. They carried away some gold, silver, and copper into the land of Ling, and each went to his own house. Because everything in Pachi Paldong castle had been taken away, it fell to ruins and nothing remains of it.


Don-dub Visits the Land of Men

This last set represents translations of three consecutive episodes at the end of the “preparations.” Much has happened in between with Pal-le emerging as the first among the eighteen heroes. Earlier he had been helpful in the defeat of a demon who is battling Gyab-zhin, the Lord of the Gods. The latter grants Pal-le a boon. Recognizing the need for “a leader in leaderless Ling,” he asks for one and is promised the fulfillment of this request. Gyab-zhin elects to send one of three sons, institutes contests for a selection in which the youngest, Don-dub, emerges victorious. Meanwhile, the hero Pal-le has forgotten about his own request even as the coming is delayed. He travels to the land of the gods and demands the fulfillment of the promise. The youngest son begins his own preparations.


After three days had gone by, Gyab-zhin’s youngest son, Don-dub said, “O Father, I will first go to the land of Ling and look around.” He transformed himself into a beautiful bird and flew off. He flew straight to the house of Sro-thung, Short-Tempered, Chief of the Hawks, one of the heroes of Ling, and landed there. Sro-thung saw that the bird was beautiful and sang to his wife:

There is a high-born bird atop our roof today!
          It appears to be a demon-bird!
O Maiden, arise and start a fire in the stove.
          Once it’s started, place a stone pot on it!
Today we will eat bird meat.
          Go to the chamber of arrows and bring out an arrow.
Go to the chamber of bows and bring out a bow.
          We shall cook a stew of bird-meat today!

As Sro-thung, Chief of the Hawks, said this, his wife arose and started a fire. She placed the stone pot on it and brought arrows from the arrow-chamber and bows from the bow-chamber. As she placed these in Sro-thung’s hands, the bird deposited some droppings and flew off.

Then Don-dub, the bird, landed on the roofs of the houses of all the other heroes of Ling. They were pleased, and said, “This bird appears to have come from the Land of the Gods!” So Pal-le, Prudent Nobleman, sang to his wife thus:

O maiden of mine, hear me!
          There’s a bird atop our roof today!
It appears to be a shining bird from the Land of the Gods.
          It appears to be a serpent bird from the Nether-World.
O maiden, rise and prepare a feast.
          O maiden, rise and prepare for a gathering.
          Give a nine-level offering of butter and flour to the Mistress of the Serpents.

Thus he spoke, and went up to the roof carrying an incense offering. The bird then flew back to the Land of the Gods.


Don-dub Asks for Help

When Don-dub the bird arrived back in the Heavens, the Land of the Gods, his father asked him, “O Son! What did you learn about the people and the countryside in the Land of Ling?” His son, Don-dub replied, “Sro-thung, the Chief of the Hawks, appears to be a short-tempered man. Aside from that, all seems well.”

Then his father and mother, his brothers, and his younger sister all gathered together in one room. The mother wept and said to her son Don-dub, “There is not a son who can equal you. There is not a man who can equal you. O son Don-dub! You must go to the land of men. If you should have to do battle, I will give you weapons. If there is a debt you must pay, I will pay it. But a father’s promise cannot be unmade. What was sworn cannot be changed!”

After his mother spoke, the son Don-dub sang to his father:

O my father, hear me!
          O Lord, hear my essential words!
How can I go to the land of men without an earthly mother?
          How can I go to the land of men without an earthly castle?
How can I go to the land of men without an earthly horse?
          How can I go to the land of men without an earthly elder brother?
How can I go to the land of men without bow, arrows, and a scepter?
          How can I go to the land of men without a pot?
How can I go to the land of men without an earthly goat?
          How can I go to the land of men without a plough-bull?
How can I go to the land of men without a Guardian Deity?
          How can I go to the land of men without a goddess?
          How can I go to the land of men without an earthly wife?

In reply, his father sang:

It has come to pass that my son, Don-dub, must go to the land of Ling!
          Your earthly mother is Gogzang-lhamo, of Worthless Low-Birth.
Your earthly castle is Nine-Gabled Ling castle!
          Your earthly horse is the wild horse Jung-cherba!
Your elder brother is Golden Hair!
          Your younger brother is Turquoise Hair!
Your arrow is Arrow White-Notched!
          Your earthly bow is the bow Invincible Steel!
Your scepter is the sword Stone-Cleaver!
          Your earthly lance is the lance Noble and Long!
Your jug is the jug Crooked Spout.
          Your earthly pot is the pot Red Spout.
Your earthly goat is the goat Red-Born Gift.
          Your plough-bull is the bull-mdzo White Hooves!
Your Guardian Deity is Kerzong-nyonpo!
          Your Protective Goddess is Ane-kurman, the Queen, Esteemed Lady!
          Your earthly wife is the Crystal Lady, Digu-ma!

Thus the father spoke, instructing him, and all those gathered around were moved to tears.


Don-dub Dies in the Land of the Gods

Now each of the brothers’ spirits was held in a bowl of milk. Because Gyab-zhin controlled all the bowls of milk, he said to his daughter: “O daughter! In the other room are three bowls of milk, each a different size. Bring the smallest of them here.” So the daughter went and brought the smallest bowl. Then the father said, “Pour out the milk and turn over the bowl.” As soon as the younger sister poured out the milk and turned over the bowl, the boy Don-dub died on the spot.

At this, great clouds gathered in the Land of the Gods, and a great gale and hailstorm began to move toward the land of Ling.

1 The dzo is a cross between a cow and a yak.

Published on February 8, 2012