Bone carving, one of the most ancient crafts of Tibet, is here treated in the context of Mahayoga Tantra.
Since the first missionary report from Tibet in the letters to Rome(17th-18th century) the use of skulls and bones in Tibet was described as sorcery involving all sorts of magic operations, and referred in the context to head hunting practice and ancestry cults.
For the first time a full and thorough ethnohistorical investigation is presented, combining the study of early Indian written documents (5th-12th cent.) and Tibetan texts (11th -20th cent.) on the subject with field study and participating observation (1983- 1994).
The author, herself a practicing Tantrik Buddhist, relates the use of skulls and bones to rituals of the Mahayoga Tantra within Vijrayana Buddhism. On the example of five traditional ritual instruments made of human bones: Thigh bone trumpet, Damaru, Skull cup, Prayer beads and Bone ornaments, she explains the philosophical ground, application and aim of the technology, function and symbolism of Tibetan ‘bone lore’, including relics, sacred mummies and the practice of mummification in Tibet.
Spiced with autobiographical accounts this book gives a rare ethno-historical insight into to the magical mysteries of Tibet. Whoever wants to know about Trance-runners, skull oracles or how to fabricate a Cloak of Invisibility may find here the answers.
Andrea Loseries- Leick An Austrian National, has studied in Paris, Santiniketan and Vienna Tibetology, Indology, History of Asian Arts and Ethnology. Fluent in four European and four Asian Languages she is an expert in field studies, focusing in her research on the cultural history of Tibet and India. As a Buddhist practitioner since 1971 she is specialized in Higher Tantras and Iconolography. Since 2006 she is holding the post of Professor and Head of the Department of Indo- Tibetan and Buddhist Studies at Visva Bharti, Santiniketan, West Bengal.
As a young student of Tibetan Language and Civilisation at Sorbonne University, Paris, I travelled for the first time in 1972 to the Eastern Himalayas, in order to learn about and to practice Vajrayana-Buddhism under the guidance of some of the greatest Tibetan masters then living in exile. Although still in preliminary practice, I felt very attracted to the hyper world of female Tantrik deities like Vajrayogini, Kurukulla, enchanting and frightful, or wild and wrathful like Krodhakali, being adorned with skull diadems, bone ornaments and necklaces of human heads. And at the small monastery in Sonada I listened with fascination to the tenor drumming and recitals of the monks, using bone implements such as trumpets, drums and skulls in their rituals. Having grown up in an Austrian Alpine region as the daughter of a medical practitioner, I was taught at an early age that the calamities of life, illness, accidents, death, should be faced with dignity and fearlessness. Certainly, the Tibetan rituals’ use of human bones captured my interest.
In 1973, it happened that one day in December a Buddhist nun led me to the workshop of a Tibetan bone carver who lived in Jorebungalow (2248 m), in the Darjeeling district of West Bengal. It was already late in the afternoon when we took the jeep from the lower bazaar of Darjeeling town. The village, just half an hour’s drive away, was hidden by while fog. The house and workshop of the bone carver were somewhere off the road, down the slope of the hill. I could hardly see my hand in front of my eyes, when I followed the nun along a slippery path toward a small brick building, where an old Tibetan woman was standing in the door bidding us welcome – the wife of the master craftsman. She took us to a small shine room dimly lit by a butter lamp. While our hostess poured steaming butter tea out of a Chinese thermos flask, she told us that her husband was going to return shortly from his regular errand of bone collecting. And indeed, we soon heard heavy footsteps approaching. The outer door opened and a large man dressed in a black overcoat, a fox fur hat and muddy leather boots, entered the hall. When he dropped the big jute bag he was carrying onto the ground, some blood stained bones rolled towards us. In the dim light, I could not see his features clearly, but when he came into the shrine room to greet us, the flickering light of the offering lamp fell on his face. I was quite shocked to notice red stains around his mouth – the chewing of betel leaf giving such a macabre effect. When I had overcome my initial awe, I questioned him on the kinds of bones he was able to procure. He answered: ‘whatever you like, buffalo, pig, elephant, human bones, I’ve got everything in store. I ordered a pair of earrings made of pig bone for which he charged ten Indian Rupees including material.
A year passed before I visited the bone carver again. By this time the earrings- pig bones being rather brittle had broken. Whenever I had worn them, their strong smell had attracted the street dogs and so I decided to change the material. The new pair was to be made of human bone. For the cost of twenty Indian Rupees the bone carver cut them out of a human femur. They were smaller than the pig-bone earring, but superior in workmanship and texture. Later on, a goldsmith fitted them with gold clasps to be worn and I still have them in my possession.
These were my first encounters with a Tibetan bone carver. When in 1981 I returned to Darjeeling in order to purpose my PH.D. Research on the subject of bone carving in Tibetan culture, I was not certain whether I would find this man again. I looked for him in Jorebungalow but other tenants in the house seemingly refused to assist. However, a few days later I was walking through a rather shabby lane towards the lower bazaar in Darjeeling, when my attention was attracted by a display of bone carvings on the pavement. A Tibetan man wearing thick spectacles was sitting next to them. How great was my surprise when after an initial exchange of words this man recognized me as his former bone earrings customer. He explained that due to his poor eyesight, he could hardly continue his craft on his apprentices had produced. He also agreed to help me in my research. Later he introduced me to another genuine bone carver, whose detailed explanations greatly influenced the development of my field studies in Darjeeling.
My short conversations with the bone carver (informant A) in 1973 and 1974 had given me the impression that bone carving was one of the most ancient crafts of Tibet. When looking into the derivative literature on the subject, I realized that no systematic and comprehensive study about the processing and the ritual use of bones relating to their historical origination, their functional symbolism, the changing face of the craft etc. has yet been available. The missionary reports from Tibet consisting of letters Rome (17th -18th century) described it as sorcery involving all sorts of magic operations, and referred in the context to head hunting practice and ancestry cults. The few sporadic publications of limited range and scope included W.W. Rockhill’s article ‘On the use of bones in Lamaic ceremonies’ (1888), L.A. Waddell’s study on ‘Lamaic rosaries: Their kinds and uses’(1892), V. Collin’s work ‘Les cranes humaines dans I’art lamaique’ (1913), B. Laufer’s ‘Use of human skulls and bones in Tibet’ (1923), C.A. Llanos’ publication ‘Piezas oseas humanas de uso ritual en el Tibet’ (1952), and enthnographic study by F.Funke, ‘Kultischer Knochenschmuck aus dem Nepal- Himalaya’ (1982), more or less substantiated the general views propagated in the missionary reports to Rome.
Hence, I felt a need for fuller and thorough investigation on the subject. My attention was drawn to this task by going through the Tantrik liturgical texts that I used for my meditative practice. While visualising on and identifying with one’s personal deity (yid dam) in the dynamic process of gradual creation (skied rim ) according to the instruction given in the underlying texts, the functional symbolism of the attributes and implements of the deity has to be recalled and envisioned. In this way, the profound significance of bone ornaments and skulls as depicted in Tantrik iconography began to dawn on me. Further investigations made me come across Tibetan text materials dealing with technical instructions of the ritual and the carving techniques as a craft in its own right. The collected documents made it possible to analyse the religious values of the art of bone carving for ritual purpose. They also served as a framework for the historical evolution of the crafted over the centuries. However, questions regarding the selection of materials, technology, marketing, the socio-economic situation of the bone carver, etc. remained unanswered.
The aim of my first ethnographical field study in Darjeeling and Sikkim (1881-1982) was to document the art of bone carving as practiced by contemporary Tibetan craftsmen in exile at that time. The collected material included recorded gained by interview conducted in Tibetan, as well as momentum surveys in the workshop of my informants. I used the field noted from 1981/82 as ‘fixed points’ to connect with the chronologically ordered historical material derived from oral transmission and authentic texts. This methodology, delineating an ‘ethnohistoric dynamic culture picture’, followed the concept of Viennese Ethno-history developed by Karl Wernhart who eventually supervised the compilation of my research. It was the time when Viennese Ethno-historians had discovered the importance of combining archive studies with field study and participatory observation. It happened that methodically, my thesis, presented in 1983, was one of the first to combine the two areas of study.
Since then, my interest in the topic did not falter. I continued to collect historical text material and oral information. Gradually my focus shifted from the ethnographics of bone carving to general iconography, to the ritual use of skull and bones and to the phenomena of bone relics. In 1986, I published an art historical research of bone ornaments, followed by of other studies on Buddhist Tantrik art. At one point, I discovered some rare manuscripts on skull rituals, which answered many of the left open questions. During field studies in 1987 and 1994 in Tibet, I could collect further material, some parts of which have been published.
In 1991, while touring to major museums and universities in Canada and the United states, I was repeatedly encouraged to present the results of my research to the English speaking public. Therefore, with the support of my publisher, I decided to revise and compile my thesis in English, including a re-study in the Darjeeling in 1994, and material collected since.
Based on historical and ethnographical data this book gives as description of Tibetan rituals using bone objects, as well as a documentation of an exclusive pilot study on the famous Trance Runners of Shalu. Five ritual objects, the thighbone trumpet (rkang gling), the hand drum (damaru), the skull bowl (thod pa) prayer beads (‘phreng ba) and bone ornaments (rus rgyan) are discussed in their use and functional symbolism. An analysis of the selection, the procuring of materials and the carving techniques reflect the changing face of functional art in exile. Finally, the immanence of ritual functions and their changing value system within the cultural pattern of Tibetan Buddhism are envisioned.
The collected material range from the first field study in 1981 to later studies in Ladakh (1991-93), Tibet (1987 – 1999), Mongolia (2000-2006) and Bhutan (2004). It was continuously updated until this publication delayed due to other obligation and research activities.
I take the opportunity of expressing my thankfulness to my precious masters and teachers who in their great kindness bestowed on me initiations, transmissions and personal explanations of the Buddhist Tantras. Thanks to their authorization and guidance, now spanning over a decade of thirty-five years, I learned to perform myself the rituals and the proper use of bones and skulls. Their care, attention and surveillance of my spiritual and academic progress are a continuous source of inspiration.
I would also like to thank my informants in Darjeeling who had given me much of their times and great support for carrying out my research. Without their participation, I could have never completed the field studies. Further I thank Mr. Ernst Senner for his lively interest in my work and for providing me with excellent photo material of his private collection; Joachin Baader, Munich, for gently opening and introducing me into the European world of Tibetan art collection. I also thank Veronika Ronge, Bonn, for sharing with me her collected data and Namgyal Gonpo Ronge for his beautiful drawings and his dynamic support in my research activities.
Finally, I am grateful to Praveen Mittal, Publication Officer, B.R. Publishing Corporation, Delhi, for his valuable cooperation in bringing out this book. Last not least I thank my son Willy putting up with a mother who enjoys cemetaries as dwelling places as much as five stars hotels.
Generally, the magic power of skulls and bones, enchanting and fascinating since prehistoric times, was within the field of religious anthropology interpreted in various ways. In the past, protagonists of the Vienne Cultural History attempted to relate characteristic similarities of form and quantity in different regional and historical contexts of cultures (‘Kulturkreislehre’) in their theoretical approach. Following this conceptual framework, for instance the cattle breeding Mongolian nomads were thought to be the forefathers of magical bone rites and scapulomancy (Andree 1906). Or, Gah (1928) differentiated two ‘kulturkreise’: the elder, today sub- arctic cultural range of rendeer peoples practicing skull and bone offerings; and a southern, where magical bear cults and other animal bone and skeleton related ceremonies were performed. He also thought that the collection and conservation of bones of hunted animals served as offerings to one celestial god or to a highest being. Another theory (Friedrich 1943) implied that only hunting populations could develop the idea of reanimation from bones, correcting thus Andree’s view (1906). The thought pattern further continued (Paulson 1968), with an assumption that a quantitative vital essence (‘Lebensstoff’) must remain in the bones of the dead. And both theories confirmed the earlier formulated thesis (Lehtisalo 1937) that the significance of bone was kept alive in the ecstatic and visionary experience of shamans and found its material replica on the shaman’s regalia. Eliade, a protagonist of the phenomenological school, sees the value system of bones and skeletons to be an archaic shamanistic technique related to mysticism, magic and religion. And a cultural morphological interpretation defined the inner connection and parallels within the conceptual field of bone ritual.
Thus, the ritual use of human and animal bones seems a universal phenomenon since prehistoric times. Skull cults were practiced among the Scythes, the Celtic Boii (216 B.C,), the Langobards (6th century), Bulgars (9th century), Turks (10th century) and the Incas. There were also reports from Chile and Paraguay (18th century) and the Australian aboriginals (1847). Some archaeologists assumed that it was merely for practical purpose that the prehistoric man used skulls as drinking bowls during the Palaeolithic and Neolithic ages. There could be also a connection with the ancient belief in the magical power of bones seen in the veneration of bodily relics of martyrs and saints such as Lucille of Carthage, who habitually kissed a martyr’s bone before partaking of the Eucharist.
The Greenlander Eskimos practiced shamanistic ritual using a wide variety of small figures called tupilaq or tupilak, which represented mythical or spiritual creatures. Figurines were made out of animal parts and bones, human hair or even parts taken from the corpse of a child. Those who knew about witchcraft, gathered these bits and pieces in a secret, isolated place, tied them together, chanted magic spells over them and allowed them to suck the energy from their sexual organs. The tupilak was then put in the sea and sent off ready to kill the enemy. This shamanistic art is still practiced in the arctic where miniature carvings are produced. While in the early 30s until the late 70s tupilak were carved from sperm white ivory, in the late 60s they were produced as a curiosity from buffalo horns imported from Africa.
Excavations in Siberia produced Palaeolithic settlements entirely built out of mammoth and rhinoceros bones. Human skulls recovered in such shelters may well have been used for shamanistic rite, similar to those practiced by contemporary tribes.
In the Chinese Shang era (sometimes called Yin era) 1766-1045 (1523-1027) B.C., an early archaeological period, age of great Bronze castings, bones were used for divination. The so called Jiaguwen, literally ‘characters on shell and on bone’ are one of the oldest known positive/negative kinds of divination of the ‘will there be’ or ‘will there not be’ type- the answer to which was seen as a revelation of the solicited ancestors. The divinatory texts are essential sources of historical and linguistic information. they invoke all spheres of interest of the Shang society: the world of magic, sacrifices, evocation and rites for social function; man’s interaction with the natural world (agriculture, animal husbandry), illness, death and the organization of the human world, with its discussion of strategies and power. The Shang knew how to produce silk, they bred horses and they had advanced farming techniques. The royal court of the Shang was obsessed with prognostication using cracked shoulder bones of water buffalo, and the square plastron on the bottom of a turtle in a kind of dowsing. They attempted to divine the pattern of nature by spontaneously bursting animal bone as a sort of lottery of the moments. The so- called Wu (diviner) interpreted the reading of these natural evidences.
Also, Mongolians used bones for divinations. In the travel accounts of Wilhelm of Rubruk who stayed 1253 in Karakorum, we find the earliest record of scapulomancy in Mongolia. Generally, being herdsmen, the great people of the steppe were accustomed to use sheep and camel bones for all kinds of rituals and shamanistic rites. Particularly recently, since the early 90s under the new democratic government, a revival of Shaman and Buddhist traditions is taking place- a phenomena which I named ‘Mongolian Spring’. After long prohibitions during the Buddhist and later Russian domination, the shamans decorate now again their costumes with bits of bones and feathers. And in supermarkets divinatory bone games with figurines of the four national animal, camel, sheep, goat and horse, sell as curiosities to tourists.
In the highlands of Tibet, there are little Palaeo-ontological records on the use of bones. Excavations carried out in Tibet have produced cultural relics in the form of small bone objects such as needles and spoons, dating back some ten thousand year. However, devoid of any other associated records, there is nothing to indicate that these objects had a ritual function as well.
In prehistoric times, indigenous Tibetan culture had its roots in Central and North Asian shamanism called Bon, the primary objective being healing. These healing practices, as well as other related practices connected to the working with energies, all belong to what is called the Bon of Causality (rgyu’i bon). All these methods related to the man’s palpable existence in the world. Thus, they are concerned with healing various kinds of afflictions, dispelling negativities, ensuring prosperity, fore telling the future and other such activities. This ancient Bon culture used human bones for their ritual purpose. In the first place, the scapulomancy (sog dmar) should be mentioned. Nomadic people of Central Asia and North America, as mentioned before, especially practiced this kind of divination According to Nebesky Wojkowitz it was also in vogue among the Tibetans, that shoulder blade of a sheep being stripped of all meat was laid into a fire. The resulting cracks in the bone were supposed to give an answer to questions concerning luck or misfortune, health, travel, business, etc. The scapulomancy is therefore one of the oldest Tibetan divination methods, having been practiced by Bon Sorcerers already in ancient time. In some special cases, the Bonpos allegedly used the shoulder blades of men instead of sheep. Another method of divination that had been known already in ancient Tibet was the interpretation of the voices of birds, especially raven.
The second higher level of Bon, known as Bon of Fruition (‘bras bu’i bon), is principally concerned with the spiritual path to enlightenment. This teaching and associated practices came to Tibet, not from India towards the south, but from the country of Zhang –zhung towards the West of Tibet and, in turn, at an even more remote time in history, from Tazig or Iranian Central Asia. The ancient kingdom of Zhang-zhung centred on the fabled Mount Kailasa in Western Tibet and, until the 8th century, was an independent country with its own language and culture. Only then was it overwhelmed and incorporated into the growing Tibetan empire under the Yarlung dynasty. This kingdom of Zhang- zhung had close cultural connection with the Persian Empire to the West and Iranian- speaking Central Asia. According to the Bon traditions from Zhang-zhung, the higher teachings of Bons, known as the Yungdrung-Bon, originated with a Buddha named Tonpa Shenrabb Miwo who lived as a prince and spiritual teacher in prehistoric Tazig or Central Asia long before the appearance of the Buddha Sakyamuni in Northern India in the 6th century BC. The teachings of this Central Asian Buddha were translated from the Tazig language into the Zhang-zhung language and later into Tibetan. This latter event began in the time of the second historical king of Tibet, Mutri Tsangpo, hundreds of years before the coming of Indian Buddhism to Central Tibet. In this tradition of the Yungdrung-Bon, we find as in Indian Buddhism, condemnation of blood sacrifices.
Particularly the deities of the so-called Ge khod and Meri cycle of Zhang-zhung were said to be clean (gtsangma). Therefore, those practitioners who were by initiation connected to them, mush abstain from eating human, horse or donkey flesh and should not touch corpses or human bones. Yet, the wrathful deities belonging to the Higher Tantra cycles are adorned with human bones. And their Tantrik teachings and practices belonging to the ‘Bon of Fruition’ contain skull rituals. in the root and commentary texts of the Bon Mother Tantra Sangchog Gyalop (gSang mchog rgyal po), composed by the kingof Tazig, Gyalshen Milu Samleg (rGyal mshen mi lus bsam legs), the function and symbolism of the 36 initiation items are explained, including skins of various kinds, human blood, fat, bones and skulls. They are expounded in the context of the higher level of Bon, the ‘Great Perfection” (rdzogs chen) that is the Base of Everything (kun gzhi), being essentially void (ngo bo stong pa) and pure from the beginning of eternity (ka dag). The attributes refers the nature of mind regarded in Bon as the ‘Base of Everything’.
Thus bone and skull rituals in the ‘Bon of Fruition’ and blood sacrifices to gods and spirits in Primitive Bon or ‘Bon of Causality’ have a different context. The latter are ceremonies for harmonizing energy and correspond rather to ancient North Asian shamanism and animism and represent the religious culture of Tibet before its people came under the influences of Yundrung Bon from Iranian Central Asia. Neither can the Yungdrung Bon’ use of bones in its meaning and symbolism be compared with the later Indian Tantrik Buddhism coming from the South. In fact, there has been much confusion on this point by Tibetan historians writing in the medieval period of the 11th century and afterwards and this requires further research.
In any case, the remote and isolated highlands of Tibet over the centuries developed a culture of highly syncretistic character, combining Buddhist Tantrik traditions of the Indian Pala period (8th -12th century) with indigenous ritual practices. Friedrich saw Tantrism in Tibet as a common heritage from India and neighbouring countries, where in the western and central Asian high plains a certain form of cannibalism had survived. He connected the ritual uses of bones in Tibet with the funeral rites of ancients Iran and with North- Sibirian shamanism, assuming that all central and West Asian countries where bones- also for cannibalism- were ritually used, must have the same religious background. In comparison, Hummel related the use of bones in pre- Buddhist Lamaism to the pre-magical, ‘shaktic’ and phallic character as well as to shamanism. Last but not the least, the following quotation may illustrate the dominant theories on Tibetan bone ritual, previous to the study of Tibetan text sources:
(In Tibet dominated) a peculiar form of ancestral worship, the son being intent of preserving the most enduring part of his father’s body as a constant reminder, and drinking from his skull in his memory on the day of his anniversary. This, without any doubt, has been an indigenous practice in Tibet of considerable antiquity.
Till now Tibetans refer to their paternal lineage as ‘bone’ (rus) and to their mother’s lineage as ‘flesh’ (sha). And on the walls almost all temples, we find a charming skeleton couple dancing in close embrace in the company of Yama, the lord of death. Certainly, it is worthwhile to look into the subject from the perspective of Tibetans themselves on the background of their indigenous shamanistic and Indian Tantrik legacies.
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