Monday, June 5, 2017

A mysterious miniature implement

Shortly after I joined the International Dunhuang Project (IDP) team, almost a year and a half ago now, an item from the Stein collection caught my eye. Roughly dated from the 9th to 10th centuries, the artefact is catalogued as a ritual implement and comes from the ‘Library Cave’ (Mogao Cave 17), near Dunhuang. It was acquired by Sir Aurel Stein, along with many other manuscripts and objects, during his second Silk Road expedition in 1906-08.

Front of ritual implement IOL Tib J 1364 © The British Library

I showed it to a small group of post-graduate students from the Courtauld Institute just before Christmas in the context of their course on Buddhism, and when I saw that they were as fascinated as I was, I decided that it was high time to write a blog post about it!

The small octagonal object measures 18.2cm by 11cm, and is made of several layers of paper, glued together and mounted onto a pointed wooden stick. Its reinforced structure and size indicate that it could be held upright and could be carried. Although it bears no writing, it is decorated on both sides. At first I thought that it may be a fan, but a closer look revealed I had jumped to this conclusion a little too quickly...

The back is illustrated with some fairly intriguing geometric patterns. Have you ever come across similar designs before? Do you know what they represent? They remind me of a stylised cross-section of a vajra, a ritual object otherwise known as the 'thunderbolt' or 'diamond sceptre'. Quintessential in Tibetan Buddhism, it represents the fundamental nature of the enlightened state as unbreakable and indivisible.

Back of ritual implement IOL Tib J 1364 © The British Library

The association to the vajra makes more sense if we consider the iconography on the other side of the implement. The front depicts a cross-legged figure drawn in black and painted in blue and green. The swirling blue scarves, various princely ornaments and oval halo behind his head indicate that he is a bodhisattva (being on the path of becoming a Buddha). Sitting on a lotus flower, he is holding a vajra in the right hand, close to his heart, and a ritual bell called ghanta in the left hand, against his hip. He is also wearing a tall two-tiered crown displaying five Buddhas. These attributes allow us to identify him as Vajrasattva, the ultimate Buddha.

Detail of the front of ritual implement IOL Tib J 1364 © The British Library

Although it is not square, this object is actually similar to tsakalis or tsaglis, miniature painted cards used in modern Tibetan rites. Normally produced as thematic sets, such as the one in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (see here), they can be laid together to form a mandala, or function individually to evoke a specific deity. Some tsakalis have been known to possess a stick so as to be placed on a shrine or held up during the ritual.

The precise function of this implement remains unknown, but it must also have played a role during religious ceremonies. In the Vajrayana, 'vehicle of the vajra', followers must receive an appropriate initiation or 'empowerment' before they are able to engage in the meditation practices derived from the tantras. One way to do this is to venerate Vajrasattva in order to purify the mind, so it is quite possible that the object presented here served such a purpose.

The Tantric deity, however Chinese in terms of its style, certainly suggests the presence of Vajrayana elements in Dunhuang, despite its distance from Central Tibet. As Stein remarked: 'Considering Tun-huang had been for fully a century under Tibetan domination and that the vicinity of Tibetan tribes made itself felt also later the presence of a certain number of pictures either showing the influence of Tibetan style or bearing Tibetan legends is no cause for surprise' (Serindia).

In conclusion, like some of the manuscripts found in the Mogao Caves, it is quite possible that our ritual implement originated from a community of tantric practitioners active in the region. Its exact function and iconography are still something of a mystery and I would be delighted to hear from anyone with any theories they would like to discuss.

Further reading:

Jacob Dalton and Sam van Schaik. 2006. Tibetan Tantric Manuscripts from Dunhuang, Leiden: Brill.

Sam van Schaik, Agnieszka Helman-Wazny and Renate Nöller. 2015. "Writing, painting and sketching at Dunhuang: assessing the materiality and function of early Tibetan manuscripts and ritual items", Journal of Archaeological Science 53: 110-132.

Aurel Stein. 1921. Serindia. Detailed Report of Explorations in Central Asia and Westernmost China. London & Oxford: Clarendon Press, vol 2: 839.

Susan Whitfield and Ursula Sims-Williams. 2004. The Silk Road: Trade, Travel, War and Faith, London: The British Library: 210-211.