Tibetan Buddhists use human remains to create ritual artifacts

by Kathleen Terris

Located in the heart of the Asian continent between China and India, Tibet is a region with a complicated political history that has been a part of the People’s Republic of China since 1951. Religion, specifically Tibetan Buddhism, is extremely important to everyday Tibetan life and is derived from the ancient Tibetan religion Bön and Sanskrit Buddhism from Northern India. Tibetan Buddhism has become increasingly popular in the west due to Tibetan emigration.

Rituals and ritual artifacts are important in Tibetan Buddhism, with the artifacts believed to hold tantric powers that determine how successful the ritual will be. Several of these ritual artifacts are made using human bone; these artifacts include the damaru, the kangling, and the kapala. The damaru is a two-headed, hand-held drum that is made from two skulls, a male and a female, which represent the male and female elements of life. These elements are further represented through the male and female mantras that are inscribed on the inside of the corresponding skullcap. This ritual instrument is held in the right hand and is often paired with a bell (ghanta) to create a musical offering to the deities at the center of the ritual.

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A traditional Tibetan damaru. Beasley-Hwang collection.

The kangling is a trumpet traditionally made from a human femur (kangling literally translates to “bone flute”).  Said to have a haunting sound, the kangling is typically used in rituals to summon spirits in order to help relieve their worldly sufferings.

Monk with Damaru Thighbone

A damaru and kangling used together in ritual.

A kapala, or skull cup, is used to hold offerings of herbs and flowers that are mixed with various liquids; this mixture is symbolic of aspects of the body and mind.  The skull cup is supported by a triangular base with a skull decorating each corner; these skulls represent the three vices (greed, hate, and ignorance).  The kapala is topped off with a crown-shaped lid that represents the enlightened body.

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An intricately decorated kangling. Beasley-Hwang Collection.

These instruments are used in chöd ritual, a practice that combines Buddhist meditation and an ancient shamanic ritual native to Tibet and is primarily found in Tibetan Buddhism and Bön. The goal of this practice is to get rid of the Ego, which starts with disconnecting from the body and material objects.

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A Tibetan kapala, complete with separate triangular base and crown-shaped lid. Beasley-Hwang collection.

While these artifacts are traditionally made from human bone, they may also be made from wood. When made from bone, the selection is very important to how much power the artifact has and the success of the rituals it is used in; it is believed that the karmic force of the deceased remains in these skeletal artifacts and is transferred to those who use them in ritual. For example, the bones of an individual who died violently are believed to hold the greatest power while those of someone who died a peaceful death have almost no power; the bones of a respected teacher are also thought to be powerful in ritual use. While it can seem almost morbid to use skeletal remains as ritual objects, these are often seen as the most powerful cultural objects. This is evident in the amount of decoration and symbolism included in the artifacts described here.

Editor’s Note: Kathleen Terris worked with Houston Museum of Natural Science Curator of Anthropology Dirk Van Tuerenhout and recently joined the collections department as a part-time member.

If you’re looking for more bones, visit the Hall of Ancient Egypt and the Morian Hall of Paleontology. #ChillsAtHMNS

100 Years – 100 Objects: Giant Longhorn Beetle

The Houston Museum of Natural Science was founded in 1909 – meaning that the curators of the Houston Museum of Natural Science have been collecting and preserving natural and cultural treasures for a hundred years now. For this yearlong series, our current curators have chosen one hundred exceptional objects from the Museum’s immense storehouse of specimens and artifacts—one for each year of our history. Check back here frequently to learn more about this diverse selection of behind-the-scenes curiosities—we will post the image and description of a new object every few days.

This description is from Nancy, the museum’s director of the Cockrell Butterfly Center and curator of entomology. She’s chosen a selection of objects that represent the rarest and most interesting insects in the Museum’s collections, that we’ll be sharing here – and on hmns.org – throughout the year.

The name says it all:  the Titans were a race of giants in Greek mythology, while giganteus is Latin for giant.  This monster from the rainforests of the Amazon basin in South America is the largest beetle in the world, at least in terms of overall size (the African Goliath beetle, a scarab, is heavier).  The giant longhorn is a member of the Cerambycidae or long-horned beetle family, which includes over 20,000 species worldwide.  The family’s common name describes the very long antennae characteristic of most cerambycids – in some species over twice as long as the body.  Male cerambycids typically have longer antennae than females of the same species.  Shown here are a male (wings spread, longer antennae relative to body size) and female (larger, with somewhat shorter antennae). 

Learn more about beetles and their relatives in a visit to the Brown Hall of Entomology, a part of the Cockrell Butterfly Center – a living, walk-through rainforest at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

You can see more images of this fascinating artifact – as well as the others we’ve posted so far this year – in the photo gallery on hmns.org.

100 Years – 100 Objects: Element III

The Houston Museum of Natural Science was founded in 1909 – meaning that the curators of the Houston Museum of Natural Science have been collecting and preserving natural and cultural treasures for a hundred years now. For this yearlong series, our current curators have chosen one hundred exceptional objects from the Museum’s immense storehouse of specimens and artifacts—one for each year of our history. Check back here frequently to learn more about this diverse selection of behind-the-scenes curiosities—we will post the image and description of a new object every few days.

This description is from Dirk, the museum’s curator of anthropology. He’s chosen a selection of objects that represent human cultures throughout time and around the world, that we’ll be sharing here – and on hmns.org – throughout the year.

This modern piece of art was made by Tammy Garcia (Santa Clara Pueblo, New Mexico). It represents a step-fret motif which we can find in Pre-Columbian cultures dating back more than a millennium. It shows up in Pre-Columbian architecture in Mesoamerica as well as pottery and textiles from South America. This Tammy Garcia piece embodies a link between the past and the present, with the former continuing to be an inspiration for today.

Explore thousands of years of Native American history in the John P. McGovern Hall of the Americas, a permanent exhibition at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

You can see more images of this fascinating artifact – as well as the others we’ve posted so far this year – in the
photo gallery on hmns.org.

100 Years – 100 Objects: Sailor’s Valentine [Happy Valentine’s Day]

The Houston Museum of Natural Science was founded in 1909 – meaning that the curators of the Houston Museum of Natural Science have been collecting and preserving natural and cultural treasures for a hundred years now. For this yearlong series, our current curators have chosen one hundred exceptional objects from the Museum’s immense storehouse of specimens and artifacts—one for each year of our history. Check back here frequently to learn more about this diverse selection of behind-the-scenes curiosities—we will post the image and description of a new object every few days.

This description is from Lisa Rebori, the museum’s Vice President of Collections. She’s chosen a selection of objects that represent our Museum’s history, and our collections of historical technologies, that we’ll be sharing here – and on hmns.org – throughout the year.

Ca. 1850 – 1900
HMNS 1991.1085.1

This antique shell mosaic was a gift from Mr. and Mrs. J.R. Preston.

During the mid 19th century, sailors to the West Indies often returned from their long voyages with mosaic shell boxes for their loved ones. Messages of affection spelled out in shells were included at the center of the designs, surrounded by additional colorful shells arranged in geometric patterns and compartments.

These shell mosaics were commonly fitted into octagonal hinged boxes with glass covers on each half and were known as ‘Sailor’s Valentines.’

Although the shell mosaic featured here is not specifically a Sailor’s Valentine, it dates to the same era. The photograph at the center is a hand-tinted ambrotype of an unidentified woman. This shell mosaic frame is thought to represent a fraternal order or family crest for the recipient. All the shells in this antique frame are from the West Indies which helps to date the mosaic.


Check back soon for more of the
100 most compelling objects from the museum’s collections – we’ll be posting the series throughout 2009 as we celebrate a centennial of science in Houston.