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Thogchags Gallery | Introduction | Contact the collector

A collection of Miniature Masterpieces

A Collector Reminisces

I entered the magical world of shamans, oracles, exorcists, amchis and Tibetan folk fantasies 20 years ago, when I started collecting Thogchags in Leh, capital of the ancient Himalayan kingdom of Ladakh. In those days Ladakhis all wore theatrical hats and chubas, ankle length coats with scarf like belts, the women wore peraks, fabulous turquoise headdresses which contained the family wealth. Schools were held under willow trees and money hardly existed. When the first trucks arrived in Leh, the inhabitants brought out hay to feed them.

I lived as I do now, in a traditional farm house at 12,000 feet, with spectacular views of snow crowned peaks and the Indus river valley, I bath in a beautiful glacier fed stream running through fields of barley and stands of poplar and willow trees.

I gave up living in cities in 1965 when I left London, where I had been art director of Queen and Vogue magazines, and part of the swinging sixties crowd and moved to a 14th century fortified farmhouse overlooking the sea on an island in the Mediterranean where I lived for seven years.

For the past two decades I have spent 3 months every summer in Ladakh and the winters on the beaches of Goa, the Philippines and now Thailand, on an island in the Andaman Sea.

Collecting Thogchags which are exquisite, ancient, portable and indestructible suits my nomadic lifestyle perfectly. While most collectors of Tibetica have a few privately treasured Thogchags, they have become my addiction.

My first piece was purchased from a hole-in-the wall antique shop in a dingy alley in Leh, the capital city through which ran an open drain, many colourful locals and the occasional Westerner, as well as tour groups led by Heinrich Harrer. But my favourite procession was the passing of several hundred belled donkeys, mules and horses brought down to Leh from the high pastures along the ancient route from Yarkand, once the main artery of the kingdom.

I did not visit Tibet until 10 years after it open for foreigners. First I went to Amdo, and the wonderful monastery town of Labrang, still one of my favouite places in Tibet, then through Langmusi, Zoige and Songpan to Chengdu, then Kanding, Litang, Zongdian, Lijiang, Dali and Kunming. This area has many monasteries, largely unaffected by the turmoil in central Tibet.

Later I witnessed the spectacle of Lhasa, where the streets are now paved with fake Thogchags, very skilfully made and almost impossible to discern even for the experienced eye.

One of the points to look for is the wear on the loop where the string passes, but there are ancient pieces with rough loops, which can be misleading. Buying at the source can be hazardous and expensive, especially if you don't like being manhandled by vendors and pushed around by the throngs in the Tibetan bazaars.

Once, on my way from Kashmir to Ladakh, to attend a festival where I hoped to be able to find some Thogchags, I camped on the bank of the Indus on a beautiful sunny autumn afternoon. Fields of golden barley ready for harvest interspersed with apple and apricot trees and wild flowers were everywhere, surrounded a village of flat roofed adobe houses, on a steep incline, so that the entrance of each was higher than the roof of the one below. I decided to walk through this idylic setting along the fast flowing Indus. Just as I reached the village, an unseasonal downpour of heavy rain started. I took shelter in one of the higher houses. I was offered tea and sat at a window with a panoramic view, waiting for the rain to stop; but it didn't and soon every roof had men and women working hard to make sure the water did not accumulate, which would mean the collapse of the mud houses. Still the rain went on: then began wailing and screaming to Allah for help, but still the rain went on. Eventually the steep slopes surrounding the village, built on rock, turned into rivers of mud, that looked like lava from an erupting volcano, and started covering the fields that an hour ago had been picture perfect. More than half were completely destroyed on harvest eve. Adding to the disaster, the mudslide had wiped out the paths leading to the high pastures where most families had young sons with the cattle, due back in the evening, so some of the strongest men set out to rescue them before night fell. After witnessing this devastation, I returned to my tent, shattered by the emotions of the villagers, but could not help thinking that if only they had some Thogchags this disaster could have been averted.

I once purchased at considerable expense, a beautiful Tibetan bronze plaque with a flying horse, in Kathmandu: on showing it to a friend who had just returned from Lhasa, I was informed that there were several on sale around Jokhang, one of the main temples and bazaars. I had not been there for 4 months, otherwise this mistake would not have happened, I might add that it was a particularly fine casting painstakingly patinated, not like the rough ones in the bazaar, and later in Hong Kong I was shown the same, in the Thogchag collection of a most reputable collector with twenty years experience in Tibetan bronzes. So unless one is combing the bazaars on a regular basis, from Beijing to Ladakh, like I do, it is almost impossible to discern the really good reproductions. I would be happy to offer the benefits of my experience to any Thogchag collectors wishing to authenticate their pieces.

In contrast to the above mistake I was actually once forced to purchase a blackened metal disk, for next to nothing, by a very pushy Tibetan vendor, after polishing off the grime of centuries, there emerged a circle of primitive reindeer, dating the mirror to over 2000 years.

Apart from actually buying little treasures in the bazaars of Asia I am drawn to the atmosphere of markets in general, and am quite happy wandering around or sitting or eating in any market that I may come across. So I lead a very pleasant existence travelling between markets, and from pristine mountain valleys and streams, to unspoilt beaches, always following the sunshine. So life is really wonderful.

Thogchags are among the most valued possessions of the Tibetans, they believe them as "falling from the sky", "stones of the sky fire" or "high flying thunder stones", and are supposedly found where lightning has struck. Owning one is especially good karma, but the owner of nine is certainly blessed by the Gods.

Thogchags are most often worn around the neck on a blessed cord, but sometimes attached to a mala, prayer wheel or ritual shamanistic objects. The earliest, most potent pieces are pre-Buddhist, sometimes dating to 500 B.C. These were brought along the Silk Road together with dZi stones from Persia and red coral from the Mediterranean. However these early shapes and symbols are beyond the understanding of present day Tibetans, who value their own known pantheon of deities, the most common being; Khyung (Garuda), Vajrapani (The wielder of the thunderbolt), Manjushri (The Boddhisattva of wisdom) and Avalokitesvara (The patron saint of Tibet and symbol of compassion). Among the other symbols are miniature versions of ritual objects as well as nomadic horsemen and animal style figures, which are usually from the earliest period.

Thogchags were often ritually blessed, and presented by Lamas to patrons of importance, to protect them from harm, and also to cure them from sickness. The medicinal value of these, has often been overlooked since the skin absorbs the minerals the body needs, curing the medical problems of the wearer giving Thogchags an additional supernatural quality. | Articles
Thogchags Gallery | Introduction | Contact the collector