An Introduction to the Gesar of Ling epic

The Gesar of Ling is the longest and probably one of the most amazing, captivating and frequently recited epics that originated in the Central Asian highlands during the medieval period. More specifically, scholars are of the opinion today that it appeared in Tibet in the 11th century and then later it spread in the areas of Tibetan cultural influence. Ever since that period it has mesmerised and enthralled the entire population of the Tibetan plateau and many areas that surround it geographically. 


Why was it so popular? It is an epic in which the heroes have the natural character of common folk. There are wars and battles; drama and tragedy; love story and intrigues; rulers being out manoeuvred by paupers; jokes and patriotism; and finally as in all things Tibetan there are lessons and spirituality. In a word there’s variety which is the spice of life.

The language is poetic yet simple. The lessons taught are so everyday and common. The scenes in it are often hilarious and sometimes heart-breaking. A most popular saying that sums up the essence of the Gesar of Ling epic is that it is “the hammer to beat rulers” and “a protection for the poor”.  


The epic is centred round the Amnye Machen range in Amdo and Kham regions of Tibet. It is in these regions that it is the most popular. From this region it spread outwards across a vast region that encompassed the areas of Tibetan cultural influence. As result a number of versions of the epic exist. Apart from the various traditional Tibetan versions, there are Mongolian versions in places as far as Siberia where the Buryat republic is present; a Manchurian version; a Ladakhi version; a Lepcha version in Sikkim; a Gilgit version; a Turkic version too has been rediscovered.


Regarding the length of the epic, traditionally it is said to comprise of the 18 volumes which make up events associated with the ‘Eighteen great fortresses’ but in recent years a large number of volumes have been published – as many as seventy or more by some counts; but scholars claim that about forty of them can be considered as separate events, while the rest are duplications and different versions of the same event. All in all, the epic is said to be over a hundred thousand lines in length. 

A living and dynamic epic:  

One of the reasons for this debate on its length is the fact that apart from being very popular and a living, breathing epic in Tibet, it is an epic that was begun some time in the eleventh century and continued to be written since then for a number of centuries. Events and incidents were being continually added during this period. Even today the epic has not come to an end. New volumes have been added by authors or been sung by Ling bards in recent years. Thus the epic is a live, non-static and ever lengthening story of amazing events. 

Ling Bards or Drung-khen:

The drung-khen were people who recited parts of the epic to crowds of people or at homes. Of course considering how many Tibetans loved the epic they were lavishly wined and dined and given various gifts. Some of them did not have any formal education or lessons on the epic but could go into a trance and relate incidents of the epic in a logical manner and in total conformity with the rules of Tibetan poetry. In recent years a few of these bards have been recorded and they have been able to recite extempore without repetition several hours a day for months on end.  

Why was the Ling epic written?

A theory that is generally propounded is that the initial authors of the epic (as there are numerous authors of the various incidents) realising the sad state in which Tibet was following the fall of the Tibetan Royal dynasty of Yarlung (127 BC – 842 AD) and wanting to stimulate and uplift the Tibetan people and give them some of the patriotic fervour of the years of the Tibetan empire wrote the epic constructing it around a historical figure of the period. The wars and conquests represent those of the ruler Trisong Deutsen (742 – 797 AD).   


The central character Gesar was based on a historical figure who was a patron of the revered Buddhist master Ame Changchub Drekol who lived during the period 966 – 1076 A.D. With this historical date well established one can say that it was therefore written in the eleventh and later centuries.

Places and characters:         

The events of the Ling epic centre round the Amnye Machen range and then spread into far off places. Many of the places mentioned in the epic are very much in evidence even today. As for the characters many Tibetans even today claim descent from them. The inhabitants of the Tibetan district of Lingtsang are said to be descended from the Dralha Tsegyel the son of Gyatsa Shelkar who was the half brother of Gesar. 

Religious slant:  

As in almost every feature of Tibetan culture, there appears to be a religious slant to the Ling epic too. There are scholars who feel that this is due to an excessive zealousness by some Tibetan lamas. But if only people understood how widely and truly cherished the epic was in most parts of Kham and Amdo provinces of Tibet as well as in certain areas of the Central province, one can forgive the lamas for using it as another vehicle for propagating their view and conduct to ordinary people.

Gesar of Ling is generally proclaimed to be an incarnation of the great Tibetan ruler Trisong Deutsen. Others claim he was an emanation of the Nyingma deity Dorje Legpa.  

Cultural significance:           

Although the Ling epic was written from the eleventh century onwards, a most important fact is that it contains matter – especially the adages which were the collected wisdom of the Tibetans and their environs – the unique highland plateau of Tibet since times immemorial. Most of these were passed down by word of mouth and experience through each generation till they became imprinted into black and white engravings of the written word. So the epic provides us with Tibetan culture that is pretty ancient. We come to understand what the ancient Tibetans prized; what they loved; what they considered courageous and what cowardice and how they regarded their environment and the forces of nature.   

Additionally, the regional variants of the epic like the Mongolian and other versions would of course have language, observations, feelings, perceptions and world views relevant to those places.

Relevance today: 

What is the relevance of the epic today? Apart from its importance as an immense storehouse of Tibetan poetry and literature, it has value at a sociological and cultural level as it portrays an ancient period of Tibet. Further the contents convey to us how foes and friends should be regarded; it encourages bravery and valour; there are praises for heroes and teases for cowards; there are calls for national unity and patriotism; we are persuaded to endeavour for independence and happiness; there are counsels for way rulers and the ruled should conduct their affairs and then there are strategies in the Tibetan art of war.

Additionally there are lessons on integrity, spirituality, causality and interdependence. The reality of birth, growth and disappearance of phenomenon are also discussed.

Finally one of the enduring glimpses that attracted me was the Tibetan poet’s view of nature – the sky, mountains, rivers, lakes, other landscapes of Tibetan geography which are generally referred to as the environment; the flora and other vegetation, the birds and animals of the plateau of Tibet that along with human inhabitants that are considered as the internal contents. 


What are adages? How does it differ from sayings and proverbs? Sayings are oft repeated familiar expressions.  An adage is a memorable saying, which holds some important fact of experience that is considered true by many people or has gained credibility through long use. When placed in traditional settings, they appear to have a cultural connotation. The term comes from old French and still earlier from the Latin word – adagium.
Proverbs in contrast, are old and popular sayings that are wise or practical. Aphorisms are concise and notable expressions denoting a truth or principle. Maxims denote expressions of a general truth or rule of conduct.

The Adages of the Ling epic:

The numerous volumes of the Ling epic relate various incidents in the life and conquests of Gesar. Yet if one searched for the essence or unique feature of this epic it would probably be the ‘adages’ or sayings contained in it. There are innumerable, beautiful, poetic creations that reflect the ancient culture of the Tibetan plateau. A number of Ling experts in Tibet have got together and brought out a collection of these adages in 1984 titled – ‘gling grung gi gtam-dpe gces bsdus’ or ‘A collection of the cherished adages of the Ling epic’. These are the adages that I have presented before you.  

The Tibetan term for sayings, proverbs and adages is ‘tam-dpe’. The Ling tam-dpe or adages are said to have certain special features which distinguish them from other Tibetan sayings or proverbs. They differ from traditional Tibetan poetry – ‘snyan-ngag’ and Tibetan songs – ‘glu-gzhas’ although many adages may have been originally derived from folk songs or poetry.

Some of their unique features of the adages in the epic are: 

    • They are ancient         
    • They present original arguments        
    • Lengths vary from a line to several large verses
    • Valour and ingenuity are recurring topics
    • Reflections on Tibetan environment and seasons
    • The flora and fauna are common theme
    • Amazing word constructions
    • Limitless number 
    • Short and easy to understand
    • Pleasing to ears
    • Clear meanings
    • Easy to recite 
Published in: on Sunday, February 24, 2008 at 6:56 pm  Leave a Comment