Tibetan Ornaments

Tibetan Ornaments worn on the belt or attached to clothes by Truus Daalder

Many ornaments were sewn onto the clothes of Tibetan nomads by means of lugs, as protective amulets and functional items for easy use during their travels. This can be seen, for example, in the concave ornament which is adorned with small pieces of turquoise and silver-gilt metal in circles around a lotus-shaped centre with eight petals, traditional Buddhist symbols. Its similarity to a mandala-shaped ga’u, or portable shrine, indicates that it may have been a woman’s amulet. Its raised centre may represent Mount Meru, the mountain at the centre of the Tibetan myth of the creation. This ornament is very different from a chunky large silver and coral hook  which hung from the belt and was used by women during milking, to stabilise the bucket. The rope handle of a milk bucket was put around such a hook. It is quite likely that this example, with fine silver repoussé work and coral, was in fact, as Valrae Reynolds suggests in Tibet, a Lost World (1978: 26), decorative and worn by the mistress, while the servant actually performing the task would have used a simpler version.


Pouches of leather decorated with silver and gilt brass (imitating gilt silver or gold) also hung from the belt and were used for many purposes, but no doubt the most essential of these for the Tibetan nomad was the tinderbox. Three different pouches are illustrated here, one of them a steel-edged tinderbox for striking fire, which would have contained a piece of flint. The other two no doubt held tobacco, gunpowder or money. Even such humble utilitarian objects exhibit pleasing decoration, which includes symbols and one or more protective stones of turquoise or coral, to perform the additional role of amulets and shield the wearer from harm. The silver studs on the pouch in the third example show a simplified crossed thunderbolt pattern, a symbol comprising two dorjes, which represents absolute stability, another Buddhist symbol.


Equally essential to Tibetan nomads were their eating sets. The set shown here dates from the 18th century and contains not merely a pair of bone chopsticks, but also two knives of different sizes and, hidden discreetly in the scabbard, an ear cleaner and a toothpick. The scabbard is made of ebony and has beautifully inlaid iron mounts. These sets were most likely imported from China or assembled in Tibet from Chinese materials. Valrae Reynolds illustrates such sets worn by eastern Tibetan nomads, both men and women, attached to their belts or clothes (1978: 29 and 33). The eating set could also be attached to a chatelaine-type object on a silk strap worn by nomadic women from their belts, of the type shown here as the last illustration. The form is that of a lotus petal and it is decorated with repoussé patterns of flowers and leaves. An interesting detail featured in this piece is the so-called ‘monster mask’, or Kirtimukha, visible just below the gilt section. The monstrous head is flanked by two hands holding a snake. The image has a talismanic function and is common in Tibetan jewellery. It is, for example, also just visible on the silver bar at the top of the second pouch illustrated. Two mythical creatures are at the root of the monster mask: the mythical snake-eating Garuda, half bird, half man, and a lion monster told by the Hindu god Shiva to devour itself until only the head was left. Some symbols, such as this one, are shared by Hinduism and Buddhism, although they are at times given different interpretations.


The combination of homely usefulness, amuletic protection, stones and beautiful metal smithing may contribute to the enduring charm of such simple Tibetan objects.


To see other beautiful items from the collection of Truus and Joost, please refer to their book Ethnic Jewellery and Adornment

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