Enlightenment through Gems

Center of 8-in. ritual offering dish made in 17th-18th c. Nepal

Turquoise Dhurga defeats a dragon in the center of 8-in. ritual offering dish (17th-18th c. Nepal)

It’s clear that wearing and giving precious (and semi-precious) gems can elevate the mind to higher levels of consciousness – at least in the minds of the Tibetan Buddhists – according to what you’ll see in Sacred Traditions of the Himalayas, running through this weekend at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The curators feature some remarkable statues, ritual dancewear, mandalas, and arms in the show, but let’s focus on the jewel-encrusted mosaics, containers, and jewelry displayed in the corner of the second-floor gallery, estimated to date from the 17th to 20th centuries.

Tibetan Buddhism emerged over the centuries in a dry, dusty, seemingly barren but beautiful region where people’s own adornment or bright flags atop mountain passes seem to be the only bursts of color. Inside homes, personal shrines, and monastery temples hang intricate, colorful mandalas pictorially suggesting the path to enlightenment, often symbolized by brightly adorned temples.

Mrs. Tsarong and two ladies from Tsang wearing special-occasion jewelry and hats as photographed by C. Suydam Cutting in 1937. Courtesy: Newark Museum collection

Mrs. Tsarong and two ladies from Tsang sport special-occasion jewelry and hats near Lhasa in 1937. Photo: C. Suydam Cutting. Courtesy: Newark Museum

These conceptual centers of enlightenment are often thought of as colorful crystal palaces emblazoned with jewels – an attractive image to hold in one’s mind on the lifelong journey to this higher plane of existence. What better way to remember your goal than to contemplate bedazzling diamonds, rubies, emeralds, sapphires, garnets, quartz, pearls, amber, coral, lapis lazuli, and turquoise?

To honor one’s journey to enlightenment, wealthy Tibetans often donated jewels to temples to adorn statues of the deities or commissioned personal devotional objects. That’s why you see so many jewel-encrusted objects in the Met’s collection. Personal shrines had jewel mosaics jam-packed with a dazzling array of stones. Gigantic statues were adorned with jewel-encrusted ornaments and surrounded by similarly elaborate containers for offerings.

This Forehead Ornament for a Deity is only 8 inches long. Four celestial Buddhas are interspersed with diamonds

This Forehead Ornament for a Deity is only 8 inches long. Four celestial Buddhas are interspersed with diamonds

For special occasions, women sported accessories with amazing numbers of stones, reminding everyone of their social status, wealth, and devotion to an enlightened path.

Although some of the metal work was done in and around Lhasa, Tibet’s capital, the majority of the eye-popping jeweled settings were created across the border in Kathmandu, Nepal by Newari masters who created some of the most intricate visions in metal, wood, and paint ever known to the world. We’ve provided you with some close-up looks here and on our Flickr site. As shown, the result is a mix of Tibetan and Hindu imagery – typical of this region where so many cultural influences mix.

Densely packed diamonds, rubies, emeralds, sapphires, garnets, quartz, pearls, amber, coral, lapis, and turquoise in corner of Birth of the Buddha mosaic (18th-19th c. Nepal)

Densely packed diamonds, rubies, emeralds, sapphires, garnets, quartz, pearls, amber, coral, lapis, and turquoise in corner of Birth of the Buddha mosaic (18th-19th c. Nepal)

The Met’s own site for the objects in the show also allows you to zoom in on the details. Learn more about how the Met conserves such intricate jewel work in this blog post by an intern in the conservation department. See close-ups of how the Newaris set their gems.

Finally, explore Tibet as it was 100 years ago through this slideshow prepared for this show at the Met by the Newark Museum, which itself has a world-class collection of Tibetan objects and perhaps the largest collection of photographs of Tibetan people and temples from that time.

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