Sunday, January 22, 2012

Buddhist Talismans and Amulets

When I am in Shenzhen, I often spend free time wandering around "Antique City," which is like a combination Portobello Road, outdoor flea market, Antiques Road Show, and yard sale, surrounded by dozens and dozens of small curio shops; these, built in a surrounding multistory building, not unlike a Pentagon of curiosity. This is in the 5000 block of Shen Nan Dong Lu, in Luo Hu District -- sort of off the intersection of Hongling Middle Road and Shen Nan East. 

The same sort of thing is found in most other Chinese cities, if not all of them, with the granddaddy in Beijing. The street bourses are all alike: a cloth laid on the ground, a shill "negotiating" with the "owner," and eventually winning an obvious treasure at a ridiculously low price -- all the delightful, illusory flotsam of Samsara's ocean laid there to hook the unwary by any means possible.

Similarly, when I am in Bangkok, I always visit the Amulet Markets -- of which there are actually several -- with the biggest one near the Chao Phraya River -- the Ta Prachan Market, with quite literally hundreds of thousands of amulets on display. It is difficult to describe the intensity of this place. There are sidewalk sellers, stall sellers, shops, and all out bourses. During the terrible floods in Thailand last year, water was knee deep in the market, but business continued as usual. People were searching for amulets to protect them from the waters (and the crocodiles, who came out of the river to swim the streets, and not all of them were wearing makeup).

Invariably, whether in China or Thailand or anywhere else, you will find Buddhist talismans -- which are objects believed to have magic powers and to bring good luck -- amulets -- thought to confer protection -- and the boxes in which to carry said talismans and amulets, among which we find the ubiquitous ga'u, of Tibet.

Depending upon your level of fluency in such matters, it will either surprise or not surprise you to learn that the overwhelming majority of "antique" Buddhist amulets and talismans -- to include the "Tibetan" ones you see all over Asia -- are manufactured in China, where the manufacturing of antiques is itself an antique occupation. How could it be otherwise? In China, there are "fake" antiques hundreds of years old in their own right, and these can occasionally be seen as holding value better than the original they purport to duplicate.

Some people like to collect these, which is iffy as far as I am concerned. Once you learn to distinguish between the "real" ones and the "fake" ones, which is itself a dubious practice -- the "real" ones are generally Nepali, the "fake" ones are frequently Chinese  --  you confront the issue of provenance. Presumably, the "real" ones came from dead Tibetans. Who knows how these came into other hands? I don't want any part of such transactions, do you?

Ga'u are usually distinguished by their contents: one or more pills, nectar, rolled pages from books, small painted images, small clay images, printed talismans sewn into cloth pouches, bits of prayer flags, and protection cords are all typical. In some ways, given the prevalence of Tibetan pills one finds, you could argue that these are not unlike the Native North American's medicine bag. Incidentally, this is just one of the non-medical uses for Tibetan traditional pills. One also finds them in bowls or reliquaries on the altar as offerings, and used to fill statues and stupas.

Nowadays, it is common to find the large traveling shrine boxes, of which the above is a typical example. These are being offered with all sorts of legends attached (they are the property of a saintly lama who is forced to sell them to restore his destroyed monastery) and range in price from around $20.00 to $2,000.00 or more depending upon credulity. More often than not, the large ones contain rather crude clay images painted with pigments that seem surprisingly modern. The cloth protective covers are always dirty, but the cloth itself and the machine stitching are suspicious.

Above is what one normally sees. These purport to be done by the Newari craftsmen who worked in an enclave in Lhasa until the Tibetan Holocaust. In actuality, they are not hammered repousse, but are made by molds in Chengdu, and actually have been for some considerable time now.

The above traveling shrine box begs the question -- who cares where it was made and how old it is? Above is in fact a nicely crafted specimen of relatively recent manufacture. Again, this is not repousse. These are made from molds.

In Nepal, the small traveling shrines are making a comeback. These are beautifully done, and you can get them at reasonable prices even in the United States. Consult Zambala in Southern California for availability, since the firm is the largest distributor of these in the world. Below is a photograph of Dungse Riksin Dorje Rinpoche, son of the late Terton Kunzang Dechen Lingpa, blessing one of these new ga'u for my daughter. (We like this photo because of the "orb.")

The small -- and some not so small -- silver ga'u traditionally worn by both ladies and gentlemen are extremely popular. You used to be able to get nice, solid silver ones from Nepal and Tibet, but these are gradually being replaced by plated ones. These typically contain a pill, a printed talisman, and/or nectar, and almost never contain clay images. Below is what one could expect to find at a street stall in Lhasa.

The larger, turquoise and coral encrusted silver ga'u are also readily available, although the "coral" is more often than not resin, and the "turquoise" is shamelessly dyed. Below is an example of current offerings.

There are a few books about that give learned notice of such matters. Robert Beers gives appropriate discussion in his Handbook of Tibetan Buddhist Symbols. In 1978, Nik Douglas persuaded Dover to publish his Tibetan Tantric Charms and Amulets. Then, there is a book in a class all by itself: an anthropological study by Stanley Jeyaraja Tambiah, The Buddhist saints of the forest and the cult of amulets, published by Cambridge. Tibetan Amulets by Tadeusz Skorupski is also back in print.

Only fair to mention that not all "antique" ga'u you encounter are phony baloney. Above is an example of a wealth ga'u found offered on the Web that is certainly genuine.

The best amulets you can readily obtain today -- no matter where you live -- are those from Dodrupchen Rinpoche's American support operation, Tshog Dag Foundation. Click this link, and you will be taken to an amulet wearer's heaven.

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5 reader comments:

snakespeak said...

Thank you. Fascinating culture. I am also captivated by Buddhist art, although I have no knowledge of the power of such objects. Another fascinating site is the Shwedagon in Yangon. I was fortunate to be able to obtain a beautiful wooden Shakyamuni there several years ago. Perhaps more Americans will now be able to visit the repository of eight hairs from the head of the Tathagata. They have wonderful shops there, as well.

Cliff said...

Great post! Wishing you all the best in the new year!

Anonymous said...

I have been interested in this for a long time. Thank you so much for making all this information available.

Solomon said...

This is such a fascinating and beautiful blog. I am conservation student researching a Tibetan ga'u from the local museum at the moment and would be really interested to know how you can tell genuine ones from those created solely for the tourist trade. The object it in very bad condition, the front has been ripped open but the contents are still intact. I am also curious about the implications of examining the interior of the object while it is open, as part of the conservation work will be to reseal it. Would it be ethically acceptable to take a small sample of the soil within in an effort to learn more about it? If you have the time I would very much like to get in touch directly about some of these issues as you seem to be very knowledgeable about Buddhist beliefs and traditions. Do you have an e-mail address at which you can be reached? Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the nice article, I a ghau collector myself. I have collected my collection painstakingly from villages in ladakh.
I fully subscribe to your views of fake and fabricated antiques.
Good article Sir.