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Exhibitions/ Warriors of the Himalayas

Warriors of the Himalayas: Rediscovering the Arms and Armor of Tibet

April 5–July 4, 2006

Exhibition Overview

Not only the birthplace of Tibetan Buddhism, one of the world's great religions, Tibet was also the scene of dramatic artistic, cultural, and political developments involving Tibetan, Mongol, Chinese, Nepalese, and other Himalayan states over the centuries. Many of these cultures left behind evocative evidence of their presence and influence in Tibet in the form of helmets, armor for men and horses, saddles, swords, archery equipment, and other arms, all of which are highly distinctive, often unique examples of previously unknown types. The exhibition highlights stunning examples of pierced ironwork embellished with gold and silver, masterfully crafted swords and sword blades, and extremely rare examples of decorated leatherwork.

The Tibetan plateau covers an area roughly the size of Western Europe and is legendary both for its elevation and its remoteness. The fact that such a large quantity and wide variety of armor and weapons survived into the twentieth century is remarkable but can be explained by the circumstances found in Tibet. Many of the weapons, such as matchlock muskets, swords, spears, and archery equipment, were not outmoded in the Tibetan context and therefore remained in regular use and were still being made on a regular basis up to the twentieth century. Older examples, including complete armor for men and horses, were kept for use on ceremonial occasions, particularly the Great Prayer Festival, a massive event held in the Tibetan capital of Lhasa as part of the New Year celebrations at the start of each year. Another important way in which historical armor and weapons survive in regions where Tibetan Buddhism is practiced involves the long-standing and widespread tradition of placing votive arms in monasteries and temples, where they are kept in special chapels dedicated to the guardian deities of Buddhism.

One of the distinctively Tibetan pieces in the exhibition is the eighteenth–nineteenth-century Armored Cavalryman, equipped with a bow and arrow and a musket (both of which could be expertly fired from horseback) and wearing a helmet and a coat of mail for protection. The figure is modeled after the armored cavalry that took part in the Great Prayer Festival, a famous event held annually in the Tibetan capital of Lhasa as part of the New Year celebrations from the seventeenth century onward.

Several rare and complete lamellar armors and helmets dating from the fifteenth to the seventeenth century are included as well. Superb examples made of hundreds of small plates laced together with leather have been brought together here for the first time.

Many different types of helmets are also featured in the exhibition, including multiplate helmets made of up to forty-nine narrow iron plates and a helmet decorated with a popular Buddhist symbol known as the Three Jewels. Possibly the most elaborately decorated helmet from Tibet is a Mongol example with a stepped bowl made up of conical segments, lavishly adorned in gold with a complex arrangements of deities and mantras. What became the classic Ming helmet style is represented by an early example from Tibet, which may be late Qing or early Ming, that is engraved with an elegant image of Buddha Shakyamuni. A few of the helmets in the exhibition, however, are so unusual as to have almost no stylistic parallels.

The exhibition features unprecedented displays of stunning Tibetan horse armor, a type that did not exist outside of Tibet. On view is a complete figure of a Tibetan heavy cavalryman from the fifteenth to the sixteenth century. Several shaffrons (armor for a horse's head) are also included, one of which is the fourteenth–fifteenth-century piece reinforced with iron plates and densely embellished in gold and silver, the most highly decorated piece of armor of this type known.

The saddles found in Tibet are a mixture of Mongol, Chinese, and Tibetan types and styles. Elaborate and highly decorated saddles were used by Tibetan noblemen and high-ranking monastic officials on important ceremonial occasions from at least the fourteenth century until the twentieth century. This exhibition includes the most important selection of decorated saddles from Tibet ever assembled in one display. The stirrups in the exhibition represent the wide variety of forms, decorative styles, and quality of stirrups found in Tibet. Two of the best examples of Tibetan bridles to exist are included here, and match the saddles with very delicately pierced fittings and chiseled ironwork of incomparable excellence.

Made from hundreds or even thousands of small, interlocking iron rings, mail armor was used in Tibet from a very early date as described in texts from the period of the Yarlung Dynasty (the seventh to the ninth century), during which Tibet's empire extended through much of Central Asia. A classic example of a complete mail shirt of the seventeenth or the eighteenth century from the Himalayas is included in the exhibition along with the accoutrements and other types of armor that would have been worn with it.

Swords were the primary handheld weapon in Tibet from at least the seventh century through the early twentieth century. In addition to their utilitarian function, they could also be clear indicators of social status, based on their quality or amount of decoration. Some of the swords included in this exhibition rank among the most elaborate and artistically accomplished examples of decorated ironwork from Tibet, such as the fourteenth–fifteenth-century sword with a hilt entirely constructed of intricately chiseled iron decorated with gold and silver. The sword also has rich symbolic significance within Tibetan Buddhism, particularly as the Sword of Wisdom, which represents the ability to cut through spiritual ignorance and is an important attribute of many deities, such as Manjushri.

Tibetan spears fall into two basic categories: those made for fighting and those designed for ceremonial use, both of which are well represented by excellent examples in the exhibition. A rare complete set of archery equipment is also on view, in addition to two of the earliest-surviving examples of arrow quivers used in the region. Evocative examples of archery equipment as it was worn and used in Tibet can be seen on the lifesize reconstructed figure of an armored cavalryman of the eighteenth to the nineteenth century displayed in the exhibition and in the various photographs of the armored cavalry participating in the Great Prayer Festival in Lhasa, which are included in the catalogue.

Firearms were probably introduced into Tibet gradually during the sixteenth century from several sources, including China, India, and West Asia, as part of the general spread of the use of firearms throughout Asia. A variety of firearms is represented in the exhibition along with some particularly rare gun barrels that are decorated in gold and silver damascening.

The exhibition is made possible by The Brine Family Charitable Trust.

The exhibition catalogue is made possible by The Carl Otto von Kienbusch Memorial Fund and the Grancsay Fund.