291 • An Earthenware skull-Cap (Kapala)

291 • An Earthenware skull-Cap (Kapala)

Tibet, ancient
Size: 20 cm

Alchemical toy-cupboard

Cups made from the human skull are a familiar part of the ritual paraphernalia of Tantric Buddhism in Tibet. Wrathful deities in sculptures and paintings are often shown drinking blood from them. This example is unusual because while it has the shape of a human skull it is made out of fired earthenware, and would seem to belong to the Bon tradition, the principal religion of Tibet before the establishment of Buddhism in the 7th century. Mixed with animism, shamanism and folk religions, Bon was subsequently interwoven with Buddhism, which now makes its history and practices hard to decipher. The crown of the skull is divided into six zones by zig-zag lines, engraved with strange glyphs and Bon symbols such as the swastika and revolving sun. The inside is engraved with what looks like the neurological pathways of the brain, and a hole is pierced at the highest point of the skull, a sort of displaced trepan point. The strangest feature is the three knobs protruding from the frontal lobe, like a control panel for navigating unknown worlds.

The Skull-Cup was acquired in 1970 by David Salmon, the most discerning of collectors, from Nik Douglas, an intrepid rover of Himalayan regions, and author of books on the ‘secrets’ of sex. He in turn had got it from a certain Joel Siskin, who had bought it from a Lama on the highest pass into upper Dolpo, at an altitude of 16,000 feet.

Exhibited and Published: Every Object Tells a Story, Episode  i, Ciancimino Gallery, London, 2012