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Thogchags Gallery | A Collector Reminisces | Contact the collector
THE ANCIENT AMULETS OF TIBET:
A collection of Miniature Masterpieces
A rare sacred Tibetan Fibula, probably used in Pre-Buddhist Bon religious rites. The top half depicts six birds flanking a sacred vase which rest on energy spirals on the outer ring. Below this are two Bon stupas and stylized motifs. The sacred vase or tsebum has its origins in ancient Bonpo long-life and fortune-bestowing rituals. A sextet of birds found in western Tibetan myths of clan origins may correspond to the birds gracing the fibula. These type of stupas have also been discovered in petroglyphs/pictographs in caves in the north of Tibet, and are related to primitive forms of worship. The juxtaposition of these sacred elements along with the zoomorphic design of the turtle whose head points downwards, and flippers protrude on the side, suggests that this fibula was invested with cosmological symbolism. This is the earliest thogchag Fibula found in perfect condition in this size and could be 4th or 5th Century.
By John Vincent Bellezza
June 1, 1999
This catalogue of thogchags is selected from one of the finest collections in the world, and aims to show the diversity and beauty of these ancient amulets.
With 20 years experience, the collector of this group has established himself as one of the foremost sources of' thogchags. Combing the hinterlands of Asia for these artifacts, he has managed to obtain some of the most outstanding examples of the genre. In my recent article on thogchags for Arts of Asia, I was not able to include pieces from this collection, however, I plan to incorporate them in my upcoming book on the subject.
Thogchags are Tibetan talismans made of bronze and meteoric metals dating as far back as the Bronze Age. While precise dates for the Tibetan Bronze Age have yet to be formulated, archaeological evidence from various sites around the country indicate that it started around the beginning of the Second Millennium BCE. An unbroken tradition of producing amulets extends into the Iron Age and Buddhist periods creating a cultural legacy several thousand years old.
Little archaeological research has taken place in Tibet (as excavation of ancient sites was considered taboo). Only in the last 20 years have thogchags reached international collectors, and systematic research into their materials and origins is a relatively new field. Having studied thogchags for 11 years I appreciate how much there still is to learn. The real significance of these talismans - art and antique value aside - is that they provide a deep insight into the origins and character of Tibetan civilization and its links with contemporary cultures. Save for cave art, no other aspect of the material culture reveals the historical development of Tibet as well as thogchags.
Comparative study of artifacts from adjacent cultures and their stylistic and symbolic metallurgic analysis has permitted me to develop a chronology of thogchags. While my efforts are still in their infancy it is now possible to slot thogchags into certain temporal and cultural contexts.
Highly prized by Tibetans, thogchags were traditionally worn for protection and good luck. In the pre-Buddhist Bon religion rituals to dispel evil and attract good fortune were prevalent. The function of thogchags closely reflects this ancient religious preoccupation.
Although they were often hung around the neck or attached to clothing, thogchags were also sewn on amulet pouches or tied to religious articles. They were frequently used and displayed by healers, spirit-mediums and magicians, the so-called shamans of' Tibet. These practitioners of ancient Tibetan traditions had a special affinity with the equally ancient thogchags.
These sacred objects are believed to be magically formed and not manufactured by human beings. Said to have fallen from the sky, thogchags are steeped in mystery and myth which is only now being unraveled by scholars. My ongoing archeological and ethnographic research is designed to answer some of these questions.
Thogchags are objects representing a wide range of functions, provenances and chronologies. Included among them are materials that were originally utilitarian items but which came to assume a talismanic function in subsequent centuries. Nevertheless, the bulk of thogchags were designed as amulets to be worn next to the body, or to adorn sacred objects.
Thogchags have a close association with indigenous Tibetan religious beliefs and their practitioners and form a very important part of the country's pre-Buddhist and Buddhist heritage. For instance, the frequency of animal designs recalls the sacred status of animals in Tibetan culture. Texts and oral accounts show that indigenous deities are closely associated with animals such as the yak and sheep. Among the indigenous deities that manifest as animals are yul lha (deities of specific locales, dra lha (warrior deities) and menmo (female nature spirits), Thogchags are a part of this heritage, a valuable indicator of a Tibet that is quickly disappearing.
The Introduction of Buddhism beginning in the early 7th century greatly enriched thogchag design. Buddhism with its rich heritage gave rise to the production of a remarkable variety of deities, ritual thunderbolts, stupas and other forms designed to be used in close tactile contact. The integration of these powerful symbols of the new faith with earlier religious motifs is clearly seen in thogchags. Thogchags mirror the history of Buddhist iconography and design from the 7th century onwards.
Not all thogchags were produced in Tibet; some were imported from adjoining countries. Over time and the process of myth even these foreign objects came to be accepted as thogchags. The great diversity of forms and cultures represented in thogchags indicate the links that ancient Tibet forged with its neighbours. There is evidence to suggest that thogchags share cultural affinities with Inner Asian Bronze Age cultures. Although Saka-Scythian animal style bronzes of the first Millennium BCE influenced Tibetan designs, animal style thogchags constitute a separate branch of Eurasian animal art.
The captions describe thogchags found in the accompanying photographs. Organized into pre-Buddhist and Buddhist sections they provide a panoramic look into Tibetan civilization. Thogchags are truly emblematic of one of the world's most enigmatic civilizations.
Note: Pre-Buddhist refers to the period before the introduction of Buddhism to Tibet in the early 7th century. Pre-Buddhist Culture continued to thrive until the late 8th century and residual pockets of pastoralists following a pre-Buddhist religion persisted in the northern plains of Tibet until the l3th Century. Motifs that are pre-Buddhist were generally produced before the 9th century but there are notable exceptions whereby some forms carried on much later. After the 10th century Bon religious art came under heavy Buddhist influence.
Note: Buddhist refers to thogchags produced after the 7th century. The Early Buddhist period continued to the 14th or 15th Century and corresponds with objects that clearly fall into the thogchags category. The Early Buddhist period can in turn be subdivided into categories- Imperial era (7th to 9th century) and the second diffusion of Buddhism and its aftermath (10th to 15th century).