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Warriors of the Himalayas main exhibition || Review


This exhibition, the first detailed survey of traditional armor and weapons from the Tibetan plateau, comprises material from The Metropolitan Museum of Art and a handful of other museums, most in Great Britain. Until recently, these objects were understood to represent only a few generic types and were dismissed as archaic and simplistic. A more careful appraisal, however, reveals a far wider and surprisingly nuanced variety of styles, decorative techniques, materials, dates, and cultural influences that have been previously unknown or simply overlooked.

The Tibetan plateau, the world’s highest, covers an area roughly the size of Western Europe and is legendary for its elevation and remoteness. Armor and weapons are certainly not what come to mind when considering Tibet, which is identified with the pacifism and deep spirituality of the Dalai Lama and with the compassionate nature of Tibetan Buddhism. This seeming paradox, however, is resolved in the context of Tibetan history, which included regular and extended periods of intense military activity from the seventh to the mid-twentieth century. After becoming largely obsolete in the West, many types of weapons, such as matchlock muskets, swords, spears, and archery equipment, remained practical in Tibet and were in regular use well into the twentieth century. Armor for man and horse was in limited military use by the end of the nineteenth century but was preserved both in regional arsenals and for important ceremonial occasions, such as the Great Prayer Festival held annually in the Tibetan capital of Lhasa. Historical armor and weapons also survive due to the long-standing and widespread tradition of placing votive arms in monasteries and temples, where they are kept in special chapels known as gonkhang (mgon khang) and dedicated to the service of a guardian deity.

The primary goal in presenting this material is to call attention to its existence, with the hope that the variety, complexity, and craftsmanship of armor and weapons from Tibet may begin to be appreciated as yet another facet of its rich and enduring culture.

Decorative Materials and Techniques

Head Defense for a Horse

Iron and leather, the primary structural materials used to decorate arms and armor from Tibet, are frequently used in combination with gold, silver, copper alloys, and wood, and often incorporate turquoise, coral, yak hair, and various textiles. The techniques employed to decorate objects made principally of iron include damascening, inlay, engraving with gold and silver, pierced work, chiseling, and embossing; they can be used alone but are frequently combined.

Damascening (also called overlay) is by far the most common technique used on iron in Tibet. It is done by scoring or crosshatching an iron surface with a pattern of fine lines, usually within the borders of an engraved design. Gold or silver wires are laid over the cross-hatching and rubbed with a burnishing tool to adhere them to the iron ground. Wires laid side by side and properly burnished can produce the effect of a continuous sheet of gold or silver.

Inlay involves inserting gold, silver, or copper wires into grooves engraved into the surface of the iron. True inlay, however, is rarely found on Himalayan ironwork, as damascening was the preferred technique.

Engraving consists of incising a design into a metal surface using punches, chisels, or other specialized tools.


Breast Defense

Mercury gilding (also called fire gilding) is frequently used for applying a thin layer of gold to objects made of silver, bronze, or copper alloys, but seems not to occur before the late nineteenth or early twentieth century on Tibetan objects made of iron. In mercury gilding, a paste (called an amalgam) made from gold mixed with mercury is applied to a metal surface that has been coated with a thin layer of copper or copper sulfate. The surface is then heated until the mercury evaporates, which fixes the gold. In a relatively rare variation on this technique, an iron surface is damascened with a layer of silver and then mercury gilding is applied over it.

Pierced work refers to intricately pierced patterns created in an iron surface with punches and files. It is used on relatively flat panels and on complex surfaces such as saddle plates and is often combined with chiseling and damascening.

Leatherwork includes painted and tooled leather and leather appliqués. Most impressive, however, is the use of gold leaf and pigmented shellacs applied over leather to simulate the appearance of lacquer, which is employed to great effect on horse armor, leather arm defenses, and bow cases and quivers.

Symbols and Iconography

Set of Saddle Plates

The degree of ornamentation and the range of symbols found on Tibetan arms and armor can vary considerably, but generally the same decorative motifs that appear in other Tibetan objects and works of art, such as furniture, ritual implements, sculpture, and paintings, are seen on arms and armor. While these motifs can have deep religious or iconographic significance, on secular objects they usually serve simply as protective and auspicious symbols and as signs of Buddhist piety.

The most prevalent form of decoration consists of scrollwork, which can range from leafy tendrils to stylized clouds and flame patterns. Scrollwork may be the only design, but it more often serves as the background for other motifs, particularly dragons, which are perhaps the single most frequently used subject. Nearly as popular as the dragon is a type of monster mask known in Tibetan as tsi pa ta or by its Sanskrit name, kirttimukha. It is found throughout Tibet, China, India, and Indonesia, where it is used as a sign of good fortune and to ward off evil. A closely related motif has a similar mask joined to the body of a winged creature that represents the khyung, or garuda, a mythical bird that protects against serpents and illness.



Other important and frequently encountered designs derive from the Eight Auspicious Symbols: endless knot, lotus, umbrella, conch shell, wheel, victory banner, vase, and pair of golden fish. These can appear individually or in groups, as central design features or as subtle accents on virtually any type of Tibetan object, from the most humble utilitarian item to the most elaborate ritual item or painting. Another common motif resembles a flaming jewel that generally takes one of three forms: three distinct orbs representing the Three Jewels; a cluster of elongated shapes representing the Precious or Wish-fulfilling Jewel; and a single flaming jewel or pearl. Other popular subjects are the thunderbolt (rdo rje, or vajra), swastika, and whirling emblem. The less common symbol of dry skulls is associated with ritual offerings to the wrathful deities.

A more unusual but highly evocative type of decoration on armor and weapons is lettering. It usually takes the form of Lantsa (also called Ranjana), an ornamental alphabet derived from ancient Indian scripts that is used for sacred texts, and individual symbolic letters called seed syllables, or bija. In a few instances, more conventional Tibetan scripts are incorporated into decoration or used for inscriptions.

Lamellar Armor and Helmets

Armor and Helmet

Lamellar armor is made of horizontal rows of small overlapping plates joined by leather lacing. The basic features that distinguish this type of armor are that the lamellae, or plates, are supported by being laced only to one another, rather than to a lining or support material of any kind, and that the rows of lamellae always overlap upward. Lamellae were made of leather, bronze, and iron.

Lamellar armor perhaps originated in the ancient Near East as early as the eighth century b.c. Iron lamellar armor was known in China as early as the third century B.C., in Central Asia probably around the same time, and in Western Europe by the fifth or sixth century A.D. Given this long period of use over such a widespread geographical area, it is remarkable that the armors found in Tibet constitute nearly all the examples in existence of lamellar armor made of iron that do not come from an archaeological context.


Armor and Helmet

Most Tibetan lamellar armors share several features. The body of the armor has the form of a sleeveless robe made from twelve to fourteen or more rows of lamellae, and the coat has a distinct waist, with the lamellae being bent in a subtle curve. Some armors have shoulder defenses formed of several rows of lamellae, and at least one has full sleeves. The coat opens down the length of its front, and the back of the skirt is split vertically from the bottom row up to the waist by two seams, one at either side. Some are trimmed with borders made of silk brocade that are attached around the bottom edge of the coat at the base of the skirts and at the bottom of the shoulder defenses. The majority have a simple border at the base of the skirts consisting of two layers of thick leather.

Equally distinctive helmets were made to match the armors and are likewise associated only with Tibet or the Tibetan cultural region. These helmets are constructed of iron plates joined by leather laces. The bowl of the helmet is usually made of eight arched plates, with four narrow outer plates that have cusped edges and four wider inner plates that have smooth edges. In addition to a characteristic plume finial at the top of the helmet, complete examples also have a single row of lamellae encircling the base of the bowl, a pair of cheek defenses made of five to seven rows of lamellae, and a flaring nape defense of three rows.


Multiplate Helmet

The two principal forms of helmets from Tibet are the eight-plate lamellar helmet and a cavalry helmet with a one-piece hemispherical bowl and upturned fabric flaps, usually considered Bhutanese but adapted for use in Tibet. In recent years, several other types have emerged that represent various important but little-known styles that reflect the influence in Tibet of Mongolia, China, and Central and western Asia. These include two distinct kinds of rare multiplate helmets, made of many narrow lames laced or riveted together, which have their roots in the early nomadic cultures of the steppe but were probably introduced into Tibet by the Mongols (cat. nos. 9–13). Another rare type, probably Mongol, has a one-piece hemispherical bowl with a cylindrical apex (cat. no. 14). A later and better-known Mongol helmet style has a stepped bowl made of two or three fitted conical segments (cat. nos. 15, 16). What became the classic helmet style of China during the Qing dynasty is represented by two early examples from Tibet that may be late Ming or early Qing (cat. nos. 19, 20). A few of the helmets are so unusual as to have almost no stylistic parallels but suggest influences from Central and western Asia (cat. nos. 21–23).

The majority of the decorative motifs are derived from Tibetan Buddhism. They range from simple depictions of the Three Jewels (cat. no. 14), to complex arrangements of deities and mantras (cat. no. 16), to an elegant image of the Buddha Shakyamuni (cat. no. 19).


Although they generally have been overlooked in the little that has been written on the subject, shields appear to have been widely used in Tibet. They were invariably round and of two basic types: those of cane or wicker and those of leather. The cane shields seem to have been made in Tibet, while most, if not all, the leather examples appear to come from India, Bhutan, Sikkim, and probably Nepal. The cane shields have two principal forms: flat (cat. no. 24) and domed or convex (cat. no. 25).

Domed cane shields were used over a wide geographical area, from China to the Middle East. In profile, the Chinese examples are the most deeply domed, the Tibetan ones are less so, and the Middle Eastern style is only slightly convex. In terms of construction and aesthetics, the type culminated with Ottoman cane shields of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the best examples of which are finely made and have exteriors that are delicately embroidered in silk and sometimes beautifully painted. Domed cane shields in Tibet can be completely plain or have varying degrees of painted decoration. They have a small central iron boss and a single handle in the center of the back. The large flat cane shield may have been indigenous to Tibet and perhaps was more prevalent in western Tibet, judging by the examples found there and in Ladakh. These have a peaked iron boss in the center from which a series of iron struts radiate.

Leather shields, sometimes made from rhinoceros hide, are hard, strong, and relatively light. They generally have at least four small metal bosses on the exterior that anchor the handgrips and sometimes an arm strap on the interior. This general type, from India and elsewhere, was probably used in the areas along Tibet’s entire southern border.

Leather Armor

The Tibetan term for leather armor, bse khrab, combines the word meaning “tanned leather” or “rhinoceros” (bse) with the word for “armor” (khrab). Bse, or bse ko, also refers specifically to varnished or dyed leather. Therefore, bse khrab does not refer only to leather armor but also to armor made of leather decorated in this manner, which would describe the majority of surviving examples. The decorative technique appears to be similar to that used on leather horse armor—a combination of pigmented shellac and gold leaf—but differs in terms of the choice and style of ornament.

Armor made from leather plates of various sizes and shapes was in use in China and Central Asia from a very early period; fragments of examples for man and horse occur at archaeological sites dating from the Eastern Zhou period (770–256 B.C.). The earliest examples from a Tibetan context appear to be the remains of armor made of small squares of lacquered leather joined by leather laces that were found by Sir Aurel Stein at Mira–n, on the southern Silk Road in Central Asia at a site identified as a Tibetan fort of the eighth to ninth century A.D.

Based on a limited number of carbon-14 tests, the majority of the examples in the exhibition, like the lamellar armor and horse armor displayed here, appear to date from the fifteenth to the seventeenth century. All the forearm guards exhibited appear to be for the left arm, suggesting that they were not made in pairs. There are two basic types. The first has applied iron struts, like those on Tibetan shields (cat. no. 24) and furniture, but often with ornamental piercings. The second type does not have struts or other applied iron fittings, and the leather surface is covered with gilded and varnished decoration. The same style and technique of decoration are found on a group of bow cases and quivers (cat. nos. 93, 94, 95) and, in one rare instance, on a gunpowder flask (cat. no. 109).

Horse Armor

Horse Armor

The specific form of horse armor found in Tibet exists nowhere else and is known only from rare examples. There is no set that is fully complete and homogenous, the closest being the armor from the Victoria and Albert Museum, London (cat. no. 26, exhibited near the center of the gallery). The next largest set of matching pieces from a single horse armor is from the Royal Museum of Scotland (cat. no. 32). After that, there are only individual elements; the best available pieces, in terms of quality and condition, are displayed here.

The salient features that distinguish Tibetan horse armor are the use of iron lamellae and their combination with distinctive panels of gilded and varnished leather. The decoration of the leather panels has a lacquerlike appearance but is not true lacquer in the sense of urushi. Instead, the effect appears to be achieved through the application of layers of shellac, gold leaf, and a glaze of tung oil. On the best examples the quality of the decoration can be very high. The motifs include a wide array of scrollwork, lotus and other blossoms, dragons and various mythological animals, the Eight Auspicious Symbols, and other Buddhist imagery.

The Metropolitan Museum made five carbon-14 tests on samples from four different elements of horse armor (cat. nos. 27, 30, 31), with the results consistently being from the early to mid-fifteenth century to the mid-seventeenth century. This period coincides with the last two secular monarchies in Tibet, the Rinpung (rin spung, 1435–1565) and the kings of Tsang (1566–1641), an era of intermittent strife and outright civil war.

Mail and Other Forms of Armor

Mail, a strong and extremely flexible type of armor, is made from hundreds or even thousands of small interlocking iron rings. Texts from the Yarlung dynasty (7th–9th century), during which Tibet’s empire extended through much of Central Asia, indicate that the Tibetans wore mail of high quality in addition to lamellar armor, which was also well known throughout the region at the time.


Mail Shirt

The use of mail in Tibet in the early twentieth century is well documented in accounts of the Younghusband Expedition (1903–4) and in photographs of the armored cavalry participating in the Great Prayer Festival in Lhasa during the 1930s and 1940s. In the photographs it is usually worn with a set of “four mirrors” (four iron disks) and an armored belt. The disks are worn on the center of the chest, back, and under each arm and held by leather cross-straps. Most Tibetan examples appear to have been plain disks of polished iron (cat. no. 46), but some have engraving and damascening (cat. nos. 43, 44), applied borders (cat. no. 42), or raised inlay (cat. no. 41). The armored belts, which are made of as many as one hundred plates and are quite flexible, appear to be unique to Tibet.

The other forms of armor included in the adjacent cases are related only in having been preserved in a Tibetan context and are either unique or one of only a few known examples of their type. Consequently, they offer glimpses of armor styles that might otherwise have remained completely unknown.


Sword and

Swords were the primary hand-held weapons in Tibet from at least the seventh century until the early twentieth. In addition to their utilitarian function, they could also be clear indicators of rank and status, based on their quality or quantity of decoration. Among the Khampas of eastern Tibet, the sword was an essential part of male dress and remains an important element of traditional attire. The different styles of swords found in Tibet can be distinguished by the blade, the hilt, the scabbard, and how the sword was designed to be worn. The sword has rich symbolic significance within Tibetan Buddhism, particularly as the Sword of Wisdom (shes rab ral gri), which represents the ability to cut through spiritual ignorance and is an attribute of many deities, such as Manjushri.


Sword Guard

The patterns of lines and textures that are visible on the surface of a blade can be subtle or extremely clear. This feature is the simplest way to distinguish traditional blades from those made of modern iron or steel, on which these patterns are not present. The effect is created by a technique called pattern welding, which involves combining different types of iron or steel during the forging process, resulting in a pattern in the finished blade. The classic pattern, generally referred to as a hairpin pattern, comprises gently undulating pairs of lines of alternating dark and light colors that run the length of the blade and meet near the tip.

Traditional Tibetan texts divide swords into five principal types, each of which has a main subtype. These are, in turn, subdivided into dozens of further subtypes, many of which may, however, reflect legends and literary conventions rather than actual sword forms.

Spears and Spearheads

Spearhead and

Tibetan spears fall into two basic categories: those made for fighting and those designed for ceremonial use. The fighting spears (cat. nos. 75, 76) generally consist of an undecorated iron spearhead mounted on a plain wooden shaft that is reinforced by a spiraling coil of iron wrapped around most of its length. Often there is also an iron ferrule with a short spike at the base of the shaft. Ceremonial spears can be divided into two general groups: those that seem to be intended for use by oracles (cat. nos. 77, 78) and those for other ceremonial or symbolic purposes (cat. nos. 79–84). They are made with the same materials and techniques as the fighting spears. However, their extensive decoration, usually gold and silver damascening, and their unsharpened edges show that they were not intended for battle. Other spearheads displayed here are Chinese or Mongolian, possibly for hunting spears (cat. nos. 86–88), which were used in Tibet, and a unique shaft socket, inscribed with Tibetan and Mongolian scripts (cat. no. 85).


Archery Equipment


Quiver and Arrows

Tibetan quivers and bow cases are notable for their form, construction, and decoration. Horseback archery was a major component of warfare in Asia, including Tibet, for fifteen hundred years or more, and it provided much of the firepower that made the nomadic peoples of the steppes, from the Huns to the Mongols, feared from Japan to Western Europe. The necessity of being able to carry a bow and a quiver of arrows for long distances on horseback, ready for quick use in battle or the hunt, engendered a method of wearing the bow in a sheath or case on the left hip and the quiver on the right hip, both suspended from a waist belt. One of the earliest quivers worn in this way has the form of a long narrow box, with an open cowl at the top and a flared or triangular base and can be seen in works of art from China to Iran dating from the seventh to the fourteenth century.

Two of the few surviving examples of this rare type are displayed here (cat. nos. 91, 92). Later and more elaborate bow cases and quivers are made entirely of decorated leather, the same kind of gilded and varnished leather (bse) found on leather arm defenses and horse armor from Tibet. The bows used in Tibet ranged from simple wooden bows to composite bows made of wood, horn, and sinew. Arrows were made of cane or bamboo, fletched with feathers, and fitted with arrowheads made of iron in various shapes.

Firearms and Accessories

Firearms were probably introduced into Tibet during the sixteenth century from China, India, and western Asia as part of the general spread of the use of firearms throughout Asia. The traditional Tibetan gun is a matchlock musket, known as a me mda’ (literally, “fire arrow”), which appears to have changed little, if at all, in its construction and technology between the time of its introduction until the early twentieth century. Among the most noticeable features of Tibetan matchlocks are the two long slender prongs, or horns, that were pivoted down to rest on the ground and steady the aim of the shooter when the gun was being fired on foot.

The decoration on Tibetan matchlock guns varies, but even the most utilitarian examples generally have some ornament. It is not uncommon to find stocks with applied plaques of pierced or embossed silver, copper, or iron that range from relatively simple to fairly elaborate. More rarely, stocks were painted or inlaid with bone. The match-cord pouches and pan covers often have appliqués of colored leather or textile and decorative rivets or bosses. The barrels are usually plain except perhaps for some fluting at the muzzle, ring moldings toward the breech, or simple engraved designs. There are, however, some notable exceptions of barrels decorated with gold and silver damascening. The accessories used with matchlock guns are designed for carrying gunpowder and bullets. The bullets—lead balls or shot, rather than bullets in the modern sense—were cast using small stone molds that could be carried in a leather case attached to a waist belt.

In Europe the matchlock was primarily an infantry weapon, but in Tibet it was also used on horseback much like the bow. As essential military training and as part of ceremonies and festivals, riders would shoot at targets while riding past them at a gallop. From the seventeenth century onward, fairly realistic depictions of matchlocks appear in paintings of offerings to the guardian deities. The matchlock musket was primarily an essential possession of pastoralists and nomads for hunting and personal protection, and as such was found throughout Tibet until relatively recently.

Saddles and Bridles


The saddles found in Tibet are a mixture of Mongol, Chinese, and Tibetan types. The saddle consists of a wood frame called the saddletree that is made of four parts: an arch-shaped front and back, called the pommel and the cantle, connected by a pair of sideboards that are tightly tied together with leather laces. On most Asian saddles, the sideboards have short paddlelike extensions, or end boards, in front and back. The section of the sideboards between the pommel and the cantle where the rider would sit was usually covered by a cushion attached by two or four ornamental bosses. A set of saddle rugs was also often used, one on the horse’s back underneath the saddle and one above, on the seat.

The most outstanding components of a Tibetan saddle are the metal plates that cover the outside of the pommel, cantle, and end boards. Although these plates reinforce the saddletree, they function chiefly as a visible and often elaborate form of ornament and as clear indicators of the rank, status, and importance of the rider. They can be made of copper alloy or silver, and the finest are done in pierced and chiseled iron, usually damascened in gold and silver, and constitute some of the best examples of Tibetan and Sino-Tibetan ironwork of any kind. The same is true for bridles; the best can have delicately pierced and chiseled fittings that rival the workmanship of the finest saddles.

Tack and Stirrups

Pair of Stirrups
The straps that accompany a saddle are referred to as tack and include, in addition to the bridle, the girth or cinch strap, which is usually plain leather or a woven fabric; a breast strap across the front of the horse’s chest; and the crupper straps, which go over the top of the horse’s rump and have a band that passes under the tail. When attached to a decorated saddle, the bridle, breast strap, and crupper often have pierced-metal fittings that can be as elaborate as those of the saddle itself.

The most immediately recognizable feature of stirrups found in Tibet, China, and Mongolia is the nearly ubiquitous pair of dragonheads at the top of the arch, flanking the slot for the stirrup leathers. The stirrups are usually made of iron and can be chiseled in high or low relief, often including pierced work, and may be extensively damascened in gold and silver. They are composed of two posts that form an arch over the foot and a tread on which the foot rests. Beyond these similarities, however, there is amazing variety in the form, decoration, and quality of stirrups from these regions.


all text & images © Metropolitan Museum of Art

Warriors of the Himalayas main exhibition || Review || exhibitions