This paper investigates aspects of Buddhist spiritual songs (Tibetan mgur, Sanskrit dohā) from eighteenth-century Dolpa, Nepal, by examining the song compositions of Tadru Orgyan Tenzin (1657-1737), one of the most prolific historical poet-yogins of Dolpa. Specifically, this paper will address research questions regarding which types of spiritual folk songs were found from Dolpa during that time, and whether instances of inter-textuality and shared authorship can be located in the songs themselves.

Orgyan Tenzin was a teacher of Vajrayāna Buddhist ritual and meditation across Dolpa, well known for restoring temples under the aegis of the Jumla monarch Vikram Śāh,[1] developing retreat centres, and acting as a node for transmissions between Buddhist sects in Dolpa, Upper Gorkha, Mustang, and central Tibet.[2] The range and depth of the 220 songs found in his narrative verse biography and extensive song collection[3] offer us a wide perspective on types of religious songs historically composed in northwest Nepal, a subject that has drawn insufficient discussion based on the significance of the genre to social and religious life in the Himalayas.[4] For example, many of his songs continue to be sung during traditional circle dancing in Dolpa, as the approach of Orgyan Tenzin’s songs continue to capture the zeitgeist of Dolpa religious culture.

This paper will define, categorise, and describe general categories of Himalayan folk religious songs, drawing attention to select examples of literary devices Orgyan Tenzin employed. Discussion of inter-textual characteristics[5] found in the songs will highlight the important role of inter-textuality in the process of their composition.

This paper will also propose eight sub-genres of Himalayan spiritual songs evident in Orgyan Tenzin’s writings, a typology that may be fruitfully applied to similar literature, and provide partial English translations and brief discussions of one song per category: 1) Spiritual Instructions, 2) General Advice, 3) Lamentations, 4) Celebrations and Praises, 5) Autobiographical, 6) Meditation Experiences, 7) Advice to Self, and 8) Guru Supplications. Common literary devices will be highlighted, and appendices will provide full catalogues of the songs. A brief examination of four songs that appear in a modified form between Orgyan Tenzin’s two biographical texts will shed light on the editorial process he and his students may have employed when transferring verse material from the older song collection into the newer biography, describing an example of inter-textual composition that highlights the literary skill and profundity of one of the masters of the genre of Himalayan spiritual song.

[1] Erhard 2013, 336-339.

[2] Ehrhard 2013, 221-223; Drandul, Harrison, Luczanits & Ramble, 2018, 103-116.

[3] The Condensed Life of the Old Beggar Orgyan Tenzin (sprang rgan o rgyan bstan ’dzin pa’i rnam thar bsdus pa) and The Melodies from Mountain Retreat, by the Lord of Yogis Orgyan Tenzin (rnal ’byor gyi dbang phyug o rgyan bstan ’dzin zhes bya ba’i ri khrod kyi nyams dbyangs). Manuscripts available at the Nepal National Archives.

[4] Such as in Snellgrove 1967; Schaeffer 2004, 21-22; and Brown 2020, 1-18.

[5] As in Sujata 2005.