Feature Thesaurus

THL Toolbox > Places & Geography > Feature Thesaurus

Feature Thesaurus

Contributor(s): David Germano

A feature thesaurus presents a typology of geographical features.These categories of geographic places thus help express the general nature of a given place. Overall, the thesaurus constitutes a hierarchical array of conceptual categories that show the relationship between different types of places.

The THL Place Dictionary can be viewed in THL > Reference > Knowledge Maps. This feature thesaurus is under constant development. For reference purposes, we have here pulled together some of the feature typologies that we have consulted.

Tibetan & Himalayan Geographical Feature Thesaurus

Administrative Areas (ཆབ་སྲིད་ཀྱི་ཁོངས།)

political areas

  • countries (rgyal khabs, )
  • countries, 1st order divisions
  • countries, 2nd order divisions
  • countries, 3rd order divisions
  • countries, 4th order divisions
  • China contemporary administrative areas
    • province (zhing chen) (ཞིང་ཆེན།)
    • autonomous region (rang skyong ljong)
      • prefecture (sa khul)
      • autonomous prefecture (རང་སྐྱོང་ཁུལ་ལམ་ས་ཁུལ།)
        • county (rdzong) (རྫོང།)
          • township (with no registered urban population – 乡) (sde shung - or - shang) (སྡེ་གཞུང་།) or (ཤང་།)
          • township (with urban registered population – 针) (sgrong sde)

populated places (གྲོང)

  • cities (grong khyer, (གྲོང་ཁྱེར།))
    • capitals
  • metropolis (ཡུལ་འཁོར།))
  • town (གྲོང་སྡེ།) - or - (གྲོང་བརྡལ།))
  • village (grong tsho, གྲོང་ཚོ་།)) - or - (རུ་ཁག)
  • ritual villages (ser khyim (སེར་ཁྱིམ།)))
  • natural village (སྡེ་ཤོག)
  • hamlet (གྲོང་གསེབ།)
  • encampment (sgar (སྒར།))
  • estate (མཁར་ཤུལ།)
  • manor (མཁར།)
  • fortress (རྫོང་།)
  • palace (ཕོ་བྲང་།)

Historical Polities

We need to attend to a detailed schema of low levels of political power in Tibet to not over-emphasize centralized polities like the Ganden Podrang and the Qing Empire. Some schemas would have the Qing Empire as the main polity of East Asia, with the Ganden Podrang subordinate to it (at some in the 18th c, depending on who you ask), as well as most of eastern Tibet (after 1724, with the fall of Gushri Khan's line from dominating power in eastern Tibet), especially through the tusi institution. The reality is that there is a bewildering complexity of polities, and simplistic typologies cannot cover them. This is especially true if we don't want to subsume every independently-functioning estate under the nearest (potentially hegemonic) power. For instance, Tashilhunpo, which might be considered part of the Ganden Podrang by some, had its own bureaucracy, estates, nobility, and so forth, until at least 1924 (I am not sure when it started). So I have outlined below some of the titles of political leaders, as a way of starting to think about which polities these might fit into. But I cannot say for certain what the lower limits of these polities might be, or what else is missing. I think we need to remain open to the possibility that these will keep changing.

Major Typologies (and examples):

  • empires (Qing, British, Qoshot Mongol Gushri Khan's line): distinguished by their ability to incorporate disparate subordinate internally independent polities with different systems of rule
  • kingdoms (Gungtang, Guge, Mustang, Ngawa, Powo?): "kingdom" means a place is truly independent as opposed to the categories below
  • principalities (Derge, Cone, Muli, Gartok, Gyelrong states): these are below kingdoms despite their leaders' title of "king" (rgyal po), because they were so clearly subordinated, at least eventually, to the Qing empire (or Ganden Podrang in the case Gartok)
  • religious principalities (led by abbot-princes in hierocratic lines, see #2 below) (Labrang, Lamo Dechen, Bhutan until 1862 ?, etc): these are listed as having been examples of joint politico-religious polities in modern Chinese surveys (zheng jiao heyi, presumably a reference to: chos srid zung 'brel)
  • Agricultural Estate led by civil leaders manor lords? (agriculture areas): each ruled an estate (mnga' dag chen po, nang so, sgar ba, stong dpon, rgya dpon, 'go ba), and thus they can be considered polities because they held the power of taxation and such, without, as far as we can tell, having to send it up to higher authorities, as in central Tibet.
  • Nomadic Tribal Area led by tribal leaders tribal chiefs? (stong dpon, rgya dpon, ru dpon) (nomadic areas): they are polities because they held the power of taxation and such. Civil leaders and tribal leaders may have been ultimately subordinate to larger powers but our working impression is they truly ruled localities in much of cultural Tibet without much outside interference, much like the Ganden Podrang did of central Tibet.

It is unclear where to place the Ganden Podrang in this schema. From 1642 until (when?), it was clearly under Gushri Khan and his Qoshot dynasty. By 1724, it was clearly deferring to a great degree to the Qing amban (see Pholhane's biography). By 1757 or 1792 it was clearly subordinate to the Qing, and we can argue about how subordinate it was after that, but it is debatable that the Qing was totally weak in 19th c. Tibet. In any case, much of eastern Tibet fell under Qing control in the 18th c. so the header for that period needs to change in the polity wiki.

We don't want to make PRC's arguments for them, but the work we are doing here does lend itself to this, if we are trying to decide who was subordinate to whom. The only way to avoid this is to list leaders & sequences of such (list of regents, rgyal rabs, gdan rabs, etc) with some kind of loose references to their relation to other polities in a separate (and time-related markers of such) as we have with the place based materials. In some ways, Central Tibet fits the imperial model, except that it was subordinate, and it is unclear at times whether it was a principality (under Polhane) and other times a religious principality (under the Dalai Lama and various different kinds of regents).


  • buildings
  • commercial
  • governmental
  • religious
  • residential
  • ruins
  • fortress (rdzong)


  • graveyards
  • stūpas (chod rten, མཆོད་རྟེན)
  • tombs (bang so, ་བང་སོ་)

Managed landscape

agrarian fields

  • barley fields


pasture lands

nomad places (འབྲོག་པའི་ས།)

  • winter habitation (དགུན་ས།)
  • spring habitation (དཔྱིད་ས།)
  • summer habitation (དབྱར་ས།)
  • autumn habitation (སྟོན་ས།)
  • nomad camp (རུ་སྡེ།)
  • nomad 'brigade' (རུ་ཁག)

Natural landscape

biogeographical regions

  • major land regions
    • continents
    • islands

  • plains (ཐང་།)
    • deserts ((བྱ་ཐེང་།་))
    • grassland, pasture ((རྩ་ཐང་།))
    • open lands, unsettled, sparse vegetation ((མྱ་ངན་ཐང་།))
    • cultivatable valley ((གཤོང་ཐང་།))
    • bog ((ན་ཐང་།))
    • farmland ((ཞིང་ཁ།))
    • forests
    • small area e.g. clearing in forest or a field, where camp can be made ((ལྷས།))

  • mountain & rock-related
    • types (རིགས།)
      • snow mountain (གངས་རི།)
      • rocky mountain (རྫ་རི།)
      • forested mountain (ནགས་རི།)
      • grassy mountain (སྤང་རི།)
      • hill (རི་དེའུ།)
    • divisions (དབྱེ་བ།)
      • mountain range (རི་རྒྱུད།)
      • sunny side (ཉིན་རི།)
      • shady side (སྲིབ་རི། )
      • mountain peak (རི་རྩེ།)
      • higher slopes (རི་སྐེད།)
      • lower slopes (རི་འདབས།)
      • valley ((ལུང་པ།))
      • water channel/river valley on upper mountainside (རི་སུལ།)
      • river valley, on lower mountainside (ལུང་ལག)
      • ridge (རི་སྒང།)
      • pass (ཉག་ཁ།)
      • cave (brag phug, བྲག་ཕུག་)
      • cliff
      • gorge, canyon ((གྲོག་རོང་།))
      • pass (ལ་) (this was expressly denied as the proper term for a pass by Tsering Tsering and Chonyi, despite its very frequent use in western writing about Tibet).

  • water-related (ཆུ།)
    • ocean (rgya mtsho, (རྒྱ་མཚོ།))
    • sea or very large lake (mtsho, མཚོ།)
    • lake (མཚེའུ།)
    • pond ((ཆུ་འཁྱིལ།))
    • river (གཙང་པོ།་)་- or - (ཆུ་བོ)
    • large stream (ཆུ་ཕྲན།)
    • waterfall (རྦབ་ཆུ།)
    • spring of flowing water (not spring fed pond)(chu mig, (ཆུ་མིག))
    • spring fed pond (specified as non-potable)(ན་ཆུ།)
    • stream emanating from tree on mountainside (specified as non-potable) (གླང་ཆུ། )
    • water coming out from rocks (specified as potable) (རྫ་ཆུ།)
    • well (ཁྲོན་ཆུ། - or - ཁྲོན་བ།)
    • geyser (བཀོད་མའི་ཆུ།)
    • glacier (གངས་ཆུ།)


  • monasteries (dgon pa, དགོན་པ་)
    • divisions (དབྱེ་བ་)
      • monastery with buildings (དགོན་སྡེ།)
      • religious encampment (ནག་སྒར།)
      • mountain hermitage (རི་ཁྲོད།)
      • sacred mountain (གནས་རི།)
      • nunless monastery (བླ་སེར་དགོན་པ།)
      • nunnery (a ni dgon pa, ཨ་ནི་དགོན་པ་) - or - (ཇོ་མོ་དགོན་པ།)
    • types (རིགས།)
      • large monastery (གླིང་།)
      • monastic college (གྲྭ་ཚང་།)
      • regional house (ཁང་ཚན།)
      • scriptural college (བཤད་གྲྭ)
      • meditation center (སྒྲུབ་གྲྭ)
      • meditation cave (སྒྲུབ་ཕུག)
      • temple (ལྷ་ཁང་།)
      • village temple (gsas khang) (གསས་ཁང་།)
      • central temple (gtsug lag khang) (གཙུག་ལྷ་ཁང་།)
      • retreat house (mtshams khang) (མཚམས་ཁང་།)
  • objects
    • self-emergent image (rang byung, (རང་བྱུང་))
    • edifice with prayer flags on sticks, with incense burner nearby, often on mountain passes (ལབ་ཙེ།)
    • heap of stones with mani carvings or paintings (རྡོ་འབུམ།)
    • prayer flags on staff (དར་ལྕོག)
    • door hanging (སྒོ་དར།)
    • prayer flag (རླུང་རྟ།)


  • building
  • commercial
  • traffic/directional

Transport Infrastructure

  • airports
  • roads
  • bridges

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