Introduction to the Translation of
The Life of King Kesar of Ling
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.
Many of the themes in the story of Kesar of Ling, including those in the episodes presented here, are easily recognizable. There are contests to woo brides, immaculate conceptions, Hamlet-like ruminations on the part of the hero, slaying of demons by trickery, diversions in a land of sirens, and many other themes common to epics of Central Asia and beyond. But there is also much that is not recognizable to the non-Tibetan reader (and even to some Tibetan speakers). Take, for example, the name of the hero: “Green-One Three-Faced Man” [dong gsum mi-la ngon-mo], or the castle full of “jewels” identified as an axe named “White Moon” or a rope known as “Long Speckled Tiger.” Then there are events that seem inexplicable to the modern mind: chattel and weapons having babies, foundations of a castle built from the body parts of a demon, the life-spirits of individuals lying captive in bowls of milk. How are we to understand such occurrences? One possible interpretation is that these components of the story refer to ancient, shamanic elements from a pre-Buddhist and pre-Islamic time.
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.