Context, he writes, has allowed the scholar to correlate
the kind of expression used with certain situations: “kyi-li-li
is used for a woman’s glance, the rainbow, and lightning,
kyu-ru-ru for laughing or songs, khyi-li-li for
a squall and for heaving waves, khra-la-la for the
sound of hooves, tha-ra-ra for 'clouds' of assembled
warriors and the black poison, me-re-re for a thick
crowd, the ocean, stars (the crowd of stars, no doubt),
and so forth.” A similar technique is the prefacing of a song with a version of
its melody sung without actual words, a kind of folderol. “In the epic,” Stein goes on to demonstrate,
“the song is tha-la tha-la la-mo la-ling; it is tha-la
A distinctive evolution can also be discerned in the
use of meter. The dactylic line of five or six syllables
is the most frequently found and traditionally Tibetan meter
in the Tun-hang manuscripts.
But in the epic, as in the poetry of Tibet’s well-loved
poet-saint Mila Repa, the trochee, seemingly of folk origin
itself, has replaced the usual form. A monosyllabic word also may be placed at the beginning of a line
but not counted in the required number of beats—exclamations
like “ho!” or the logical subject of the line may take this
The main story of Gesar is told in prose frequently
interspersed with dialogue.
Professional singers chant the prose narrative rapidly
and on a single note. The dialogue, on the other hand, is presented
in the form of long songs, called glu. A limited variety of melodies (called rta,
or horse) is used to mark situations, and sentiments such
as anger, joy, triumph, or sadness, rather than specific
characters. The presentation is almost theatrical, with each character using
the fixed formula: “Do you know me?
If not, I am …” to introduce himself, his sword or
weapons, and his horse. Most Tibetans know the main outline of the
legend, and have grown up singing its most famous songs,
much as Americans can still sing the early folk tune “Yankee
The written manuscripts
follow the oral tradition quite closely, with the main story
line in prose, and the dialogue in alternating songs in
verse. These two
parts are frequently distinguished further by use of different
scripts. And it is clear that the written epic as it
now appears has preserved fragments of an earlier, independent,
and probably popular song cycle.
Verse fragments depicting the experiences of Joru,
the childhood Gesar, are written in a peculiar style, different
from any other segments of text.
The presently known versions of the epic all agree
on the general outlines of the story revealed in the first
five or six chapters (le’u), each of which forms one or
two volumes in the written form.