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

A Tale of Two Rulers

This is a story of two powerful rulers. They stand apart from most other rulers because of their achievements; they differ from each other for many reasons. One ruler was much respected, the other was feared. Archaeologists know of the whereabouts of one ruler’s tomb, although they have not excavated it. The location of the other ruler’s tomb is unknown, but that could change. This rather enigmatic introductory paragraph refers to Genghis Khan and Qin Shi Huang, China’s First Emperor.

Genghis Khan ruled over the world’s largest contiguous empire about 800 years ago. (The term “contiguous” is important here; as the British ruled over more territory during the heyday of their empire. However, those territories were dispersed across the globe).

Genghis Khan, or Temuchin (the spelling varies) as he was first called, had a very eventful childhood. Born in 1165 AD, he was betrothed at a very early age. His father was poisoned by the Tartars and his bride was abducted. Genghis was able to regain his wife with the support of other steppe tribes. Temuchin officially became Genghis Khan in 1206. It is thought that this title means “Oceanic ruler,” or “Firm, Resolute Ruler.”

Creative Commons License photo credit: asobitsuchiya

By that fateful year of 1206, Genghis Khan had united the tribes of Mongolia into one tribe. The stage was set for him to embark on one of history’s most astonishing campaigns of conquest. Historians suggest that there may have been several reasons why Genghis Khan went down this road: a quest for treasure, seeking revenge for past offenses, even megalomania. His conquests would take him into China and Tibet, as well as farther west into the Khwarazm empire which ruled over most of what is now called Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Iran, Afghanistan and Tajikistan.

In 1226, during a campaign against the Xi Xia in northern China, Genghis Khan fell from his horse. He died from his injuries in 1227 and was buried in a secret location. Numerous scientific expeditions have been mounted to try to locate his tomb. Currently yet another attempt is being mounted to find Genghis Khan’s last resting place.

The Mongol Empire continued after Genghis’ passing and his descendants continued to expand it. By the late 13th century, it reached from Hungary to the Sea of Japan. By that stage, the empire was divided into four nearly autonomous areas called khanates: China, central Asia, Persia, and Russia.

In 1294, after the death of Kublai Khan, the empire broke apart. There was a brief resurgence in the late 14th century when Timur (the Lame), who claimed to be descended from Genghis Khan, conquered Persia, Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, and parts of Russia. On the way to attack China, however, Timur died, and the Mongol era was finished.

Pre-dating Genghis Khan by fourteen centuries, an individual by the name of Qin Shi Huang, rose to prominence in what is now China. In 246 BC, when he appeared in the scene, China was going through what historians call its “Warring States” period. In about twenty years, Qin Shi Huang managed to unify the country under one ruler. Qin Shi Huang became China’s First Emperor.  The old feudal system was replaced with a central government. China’s writing and currency was standardized. Commerce benefited from a vast new network of roads and canals. Last but not least, gigantic construction works got started during this emperor’s reign; among them the Great Wall (which would be extended many times in later years) and the Emperor’s mausoleum.

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The mausoleum complex was – and still is – huge, covering approximately four square miles near the modern city of Xi’an. While the tomb itself is not excavated yet, the accompanying army of terracotta soldiers was found and partially excavated.

Both men have left lasting legacies. Without Genghis Khan, there would be no Mongolia today. Moreover, it is said that about 16 million men today can retrace their ancestry back to Genghis Khan. This has led to some people getting their 15 minutes of fame, occasionally incorrectly. China looks back at Qin Shi Huang as its founding father. Many aspects of modern Chinese culture can be retraced to this time period, more than 2200 years ago.

But there is more.

Aside from both rulers featuring in Hollywood made movies – one more recent than the other – both Genghis Khan and the First Emperor are soon taking up residence at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. Come see for yourself what made these two individuals so special.