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Ewer with human skulls, approx. 1800–1911

Ewer with human skulls, approx. 1800–1911

Ewer with human skulls, approx. 18001911. China, Dolonnor, Inner Mongolia, Qing dynasty. The Avery Brundage Collection, B60M454.

What is this?
This is a ritual water ewer made from two human skulls and copper decorated with elaborate repousse. It is an extremely unique object even in Tibet. It would have been used to make offerings in ritual, most likely to wrathful deities.

Where did the skulls come from?
These skulls most likely came from the body of a high lama. In the Tibetan view, their use is not morbid at all. There is no sense that bones are dirty or taboo. They are merely a part of life. It was a way of honoring the lamas by using their skulls this way. The object becomes associated with that person and takes on a sacred quality.

How could they use skulls this way?
As discussed in the overview of the cabinet for storing offerings, this type of object would have never been shown to the uninitiated. This is because it may be misinterpreted as a violent image. The Chinese when they invaded pointed to objects like this as confirming the need to liberate Tibetans from a barbarian religion with strange practices. In the west, it is also difficult to understand the use of a human skull in making a ritual object.

Westerners usually want a dead body to be disposed of as quickly as possible. Buddhists have a very different view. For them, even after the heart stops beating there is a continued subtle consciousness in the person for a period of two to three days, or in the case of a high lama it could be up to two weeks. After death, survivors will look for signs that the subtle consciousness has finally left the body, before they dispose of the body. At this point the body has nothing to do with the person who was in it. It is merely inert matter that should be disposed of, or better yet, recycled. 

The traditional burial practice in Tibet is known as sky burial. Once the subtle consciousness has departed for the next life, the old body is fed to wild animals, primarily vultures. This is partly practical—wood is too scarce for cremation, and the ground is too hard for burial—but also is seen as benefitting other creatures. In an ultimate act of compassion, the deceased feeds other creatures with his or her body.

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