22 • An Earthenware Skull Cup (Kapala)

Tibet; 17th century or earlier
20 cm long

Cups made from the upper cranium of the human skull (kapala) are a familiar part of the Tantric rituals of Vajrayana Buddhism in Tibet. They are both an expression of the transient nature of the human body and the need to detach in order to reveal true clarity of mind, and to achieve enlightenment.

This example is unusual because it is made out of fired earthenware, presumably to allow for the intricate symbols which cover the upper side to be carved, as well as the complex web of lines on the inside, and the three mysterious knobs protruding from the frontal lobe. Recent research suggests these are related to a Tibetan body of literature known as thod brtag, essentially craniological manuals to help interpret the morphology of the skulls and their suitability for different types of ritual. This kapala most probably would have been used as a teaching and reference device, mapping the various characteristics of the cranium.

This skull cup was acquired from a Lama on the highest pass into upper Dolpo at an altitude of 16,000 feet, and subsequently passed through the hands of an illustrious list of owners, including Nik Douglas and David Salmon.