Photos of Dabdobs

What is a dabdob?

As Toni Huber asserts, “contrary to recent attempts at portraying prediaspora Tibetan social history as nonviolent and ecologically correct, the bulk of evidence reveals that social violence, warfare, murder, hunting, and butchery were not at all uncommon outside of the relatively small Central Tibetan settled agrarian zone.”(Huber 150) But, it seems that Central Tibet is not an exception either. Even in seemingly the most nonviolent and loftiest Buddhist monasteries in Central Tibet, we can detect some clues of violence and its manifestation: the phenomenon of dabdobs.
fig.1 (from Stein's Tibetan Civilization, pp.142)

Dabdob(ldab ldob, or dobdob, dopdop as ldob ldob) is a term used to distinguish a type of monk who is found throughout Tibet, especially in larger monasteries. It is also known as an athlete, warrior, or fighting monk. Dabdobs’ physical appearance and dress were easily distinguished from the rest of the monastic population. They wear unique dresses different from ordinary monks and have locks of hair behind their ears, with a piece of red cloth above the elbow on their right arms. They even use eye shadow in order to appear more ferocious. (Goldstein 127) (see fig. 1)
A dabdob is carrying a huge key on a strap as a weapon, and sometimes has a knife about him somewhere, even though it is strictly forbidden except for some special cases.(Khedrup 58)
Young monks who are strong and active and who can’t find a teacher or are bad at learning, are drawn to join one of the groups into which the dabdobs organize themselves and which go in for strenuous sports and exercises. The most important exercise was long-jumping off a raised ramp, called chong(mchong). They had competition sessions of jumping among monasteries. (Khedrup 49) (see fig. 2)
fig.2 (from Macdonald's Twenty years in Tibet, pp.130)

More important than sports, the dabdobs love fighting, either among themselves or with laymen. Fights often occur within a monastery and they are not related to any personal grievance or quarrel between the combatants. During fighting, there are no rules concerning the type of weapons to be used. Therefore, these fights often cause serious injury to the combatants and sometimes even death.(Goldstein 132-3)
The proctor during the Monlam(smon lam, the Great Prayer Festival) is one of key roles of dabdobs. Because it would have been impossible for any official to keep order in Lhasa when it was so full of monks, it had long been the custom for complete control of the city to be handed over during the Monlam to two proctors, called Tshogchen Shengo(tshogs chen zhal ngo) As a rule it was a senior dabdob who secured the post and his body of attendants and officers were also dabdobs.(Khedrup 42)
Generally, dabdobs had been burdened with the duties of every kind at the monastery such as cooking for monks, musical performance, preparing offerings, etc. They also served high lamas or aristocrats as bodyguards on their travels.(Stein 140-1)
This group of monks numbers as high as 10 per cent of the monk-population of the larger monasteries. (Goldstein 125) Their existence was not limited to monasteries in Lhasa, since we see their pictures or stories from other monasteries such as Tashilunpo in Shigatse, Pekor Chode in Gyantse, and even Cone(co ne, Choni by Rock) in Amdo area.(Khendrup 62; Macdonald 130; Rock 613)
Dabdobs of Amdo(from Rock's Life Among the Lamas of Choni, pp.613)

Richardson's Pictures of dabdobs

Although we can find some pictures of dabdobs or one of their roles, shengo, from collections of Western photographers, there are few representative explanations of them by photographers themselves. Hugh Richardson’s photos and his analysis of dabdobs are one of few examples.
The Shengo and Abbots of Drepung monastery (from

His pictures of dabdobs mainly show dabdobs as the shengo. The first picture, titled “The Shengo and Abbots of Drepung monastery,” shows a good contrast of dresses between dabdobs and ordinary monks. As the title indicates, if it is correct, all the monks in the photo belong to a high class-not only heirarchicaly but also ecomnically-of the monastic society. Due to the right of control of monks and lay people, shengos usually earned huge material profits.(Khedeup 43)
The second picture provides a stronger and tougher impression of Shengos. Shengos are also called “iron pole monks,”(Ma 61) and this picture gives a proof of the etymology. This photo has the exact date when it was taken(August 30th 1936), and it seems an earlier photo than the first one. It also shows a contrast of dress but the monks around the two shengos look much younger and less formal. If we can say that the first is a horizontal contrast, this second photo provides a sort of perpendicular comparison.
The third one seems a picture of the attendants of Shengo in front of a gate of Jokhang monastery during the Monlam. Although they are many in number, this picture does not provide the details of appearances of these dabdobs. However, one can feel the overwhelming atmosphere formed by these dabdobs with their long poles and postures.
It seems that we can hardly attain Richardson’s appraisal of dabdobs, or shengos, only dependent on these old photos. However, one of his books gives a general evaluation of this group of Buddhist monks.
Shengo at Drepung Monastery(from

In a work written jointly with David Snellgrove, Richardson briefly analyzes a dabdob as a category of monks. Although first he describes violence and criminal loopholes of dabdobs, Richardson emphasizes the better sides of these monks. Their generosity shown not only within their won group, but also to those destitute, the beggars and the poor, is one affirmative aspect of dabdobs. Their big ratio in monastic population must have been reckoned with by a government which possessed few regular military or police force of its own, and this might made their misdemeanors overlooked. Thus, their possible appropriation as an armed force whenever necessary is one merit of these monks. Most importantly, they were in charge of various chores of the monastic society, and sometimes helped lay people’s affairs.(Snellgrove 241-2) Thus, Richardson emphasizes more on the better side of the existence of these dabdobs.
Dobdob monk policemen outside the Jokhang(from

Chinese view on dabdobs

A Chinese photographic collection has a different standpoint through which the author connects dabdobs with the whole society of monks. As its title indicates, all the photos in this collection are excerpted from old collections, especially mainly from a Chinese photographer whose name is Chen Zonglie. However, it seems that those pictures are compiled with the textual descriptions of Ma Lihua for the purpose of the Chinese authorities. Whatever intention of the original photographers, these photos are probably reevaluated and rearranged under the textual influence of Ma’s explanation of old Tibet and its photos.
from Ma's Old Lhasa, pp.62
In the chapter “A World of Lamas,” Ma describes the Tibetan monks and their monasteries as a reactionary group and exploiters whose evildoing is same as the aristocratic clans’. Especially, their economic affluence is emphasized with the actual data, concluding “a monastery essentially an economic conglomerate.”(Ma 57-8)
The first picture seems an attempt to emphasize this economic aspect, putting stress on the luxury of shengos, called by Ma as “iron pole monks.” In this photo, their violent character is rarely revealed. Through emphasizing their material affluence, they can be easily located in the status of exploiters and reactionaries who keep the position against the socialist revolution.
The second and third pictures seem to keep author’s negative view on dabdobs. Their postures show their authoritarian attitudes over other ordinary monks, standing alone with big poles.
from Ma's Old Lhasa, pp.61

In Ma’s account, dabdobs are called “martial monks,” and introduced as martial art practitioners and laborers of hard and dirty works. Without acknowledgment of affirmative side of these monks, Ma continues to tell that, “the ordinary people were terrified of the martial monks.” Monasteries became organizations of a military nature due to the existence of dabdobs, and they seem to be responsible for main conflicts with Kashag(bka’ shag) government, or even with the Dalai Lama.(Ma 64-5) This militant and aggressive attitude seems to be reflected in this Chinese collection of old Tibet.
from Ma's Old Lhasa, pp.61
In sum, these dabdob and shengo pictures of Chinese collection serve the consolidation of Chinese historical argument on traditional Tibetan society with Ma’s text, no matter what the original pictures were for.


Rock, Joseph F. "Life Among the Lamas of Choni," National Geographic Magazine, vol. LIV, November 1928, pp. 569-619.
Macdonald, David. Twenty years in Tibet. London: Seeley, Service, 1932.
Goldstein, Melvyn. “A Study of the ldab ldob,” Central Asiatic Journal. Vol. IX, No. 2, 1964, pp. 125-41.
Snellgrove, David. & Richardson, Hugh. A Cultural History of Tibet. New York: F. A. Praeger, 1968.
Stein, R. A. Tibetan Civilization. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1972.
Tashi Khedrup, Adventures of a Tibetan Fighting Monk. Bangkok: White Orchid Press, 1986.
Huber, Toni. The Cult of Pure Crystal Mountain: Popular Pilgrimage and Visionary Landscape in Southeast Tibet. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.
Ma Lihua Old Lhasa : a sacred city at dusk. Beijing: Foreign Language Press, 2003.
Hugh Richardson’s photos from