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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Tibetan Arms and Armor

Armor and weapons are certainly not among the images usually called to mind when considering the art or culture of Tibet, which is closely identified with the pacifism and deep spirituality of the Dalai Lama and with the compassionate nature of Tibetan Buddhism. However, this seeming paradox resolves itself when seen in the context of Tibetan history, which includes regular and extended periods of intense military activity from the seventh to the mid-twentieth century. Many excellent examples of Tibetan arms and armor can be found in museum collections today largely due to the fact that various types of armor and weapons continued to be used in Tibet into the early twentieth century, long after they had gone out of use in the West. Other types were preserved for ceremonial occasions, the most important of which was the Great Prayer Festival, a month-long event held annually in the Tibetan capital of Lhasa. Historical armor and weapons were also preserved due to the long-standing tradition of placing votive arms in monasteries and temples, where they are kept in special chapels, known as gonkhang (mgon khang), and dedicated to the service of guardian deities.

The most characteristic form of body armor associated with Tibet is called lamellar armor (36.25.53a,b). This type of armor is made up of horizontal rows of small overlapping plates joined by leather lacing. Two features of lamellar armor distinguish it from scale and other types of armor. First, the plates are laced to one another rather than to a lining or other kind of support material, and second, the rows of lamellae always overlap upwards. Lamellar armor was probably in use in Tibet from at least the seventh or eighth century and was the primary form of body armor until about the seventeenth century, remaining in sporadic use until the early twentieth. A warrior wearing armor of this type would have also carried a cane shield reinforced with iron struts (2001.55), a sword (36.25.1464), a spear (2001.179a,b), and, suspended from a waist belt, a quiver of arrows on his right hip and a bow sheathed in a bow case on his left hip (2003.344a-c).

A great variety of helmet styles were also used in Tibet, including examples from or influenced by Mongolia (2005.146), China (2005.270), and the Middle East, many of which are lavishly decorated in gold and silver with Buddhist and other symbols.

Leather armor was also used in Tibet, as it was in many parts of Asia and Central Asia. In addition to being very protective, some Tibetan examples are also elaborately decorated with gold leaf, shellac, and a surface glaze intended to simulate the appearance of lacquer. They include helmets, lamellar armor, and a characteristic type of defense for the left forearm (2005.301.2).

Leather horse armor was in use from a very early period up to the sixteenth or seventeenth century. Surviving horse armor from Tibet is very rare, but the finest examples rank with the best Tibetan leatherwork of any kind (1997.242a-c). A characteristic type of Tibetan or Mongolian shaffron (armor for a horse’s head) was made of a combination of leather, iron plates, and copper trim (2004.402; 1997.242d).

In addition to lamellar and leather armor, mail was also worn in Tibet. Mail is a strong but very flexible type of armor, made up of thousands of interlocked iron rings, and was used from Central Asia to Europe. From the seventeenth or eighteenth century onward, it was worn by the typical fully equipped Tibetan cavalryman (36.25.25,.28,.351), who was also protected by a hemispherical iron helmet fitted with textile flaps, four iron disks strapped over the front, back, and sides of the torso (called the “four mirrors”), and an iron belt. His weapons included a matchlock musket (36.25.2174), spear, and bow and arrows.

Swords were the primary handheld weapons in Tibet from at least the seventh up to the early twentieth century. In addition to their utilitarian function, they could also be clear indicators of rank and status, based on their quality or amount of decoration. In some situations, such as among the Khampa tribesmen of eastern Tibet, the sword was an essential part of male dress and still remains an important element of traditional attire. 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.

Many Tibetan swords are distinguished by light and dark lines that make a hairpin-shaped pattern visible on the surface of the blade (36.25.1464). This was formed by combining harder and softer iron, referred to as “male iron” and “female iron” in traditional Tibetan texts, which was folded, nested together, and forged into one piece in a blade-making technique called pattern welding. The hilts are often made of engraved silver set with coral or turquoise, or in some rare instances are intricately chiseled and pierced in iron that is damascened in gold and silver (1995.136).

Spears and Spearheads
Spears were also frequently used. The typical fighting spear had a plain and simply made iron spearhead, with a band of iron coiled around the shaft to strengthen it (2001.179a,b). In addition to this type, however, there were also several forms of ceremonial spears with highly decorated spearheads (2001.180).

Firearms and Accessories
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. The traditional Tibetan gun is a matchlock musket, which appears to have changed little if at all in its construction and technology from the time of its introduction until the early twentieth century (36.25.2174). Among the most noticeable features of Tibetan matchlocks are the two long, slender prongs, or horns, which were pivoted down to rest on the ground and steady the aim of the shooter when the gun was being fired on foot.

The decoration found on Tibetan matchlock guns varies, but even the most utilitarian examples generally have some degree of ornament. It is not uncommon to find stocks with applied plaques of pierced or embossed silver, copper, or iron, which range from being relatively simple to fairly elaborate. More rarely, some stocks were painted or inlaid with bone. The match-cord pouches and pan covers often have appliqués of colored leather or textile and decorative rivets or bosses. The barrels are usually plain except perhaps for some fluting at the muzzle, ring moldings toward the breech, or simple engraved designs. There are, however, some notable exceptions of barrels decorated with gold and silver damascening. The accessories used with matchlock guns are designed for carrying gunpowder and bullets. The bullets are lead balls or shot, rather than bullets in the modern sense. They were cast using small stone bullet molds, which could be carried in a leather case attached to a waist belt.

In Europe, the matchlock was primarily an infantry weapon, but in Tibet and Central Asia it was also used on horseback in the same way as the bow. As essential military training, and as part of various ceremonies and festivals, riders would shoot at targets while riding past them at a gallop. From the seventeenth century onward, fairly realistic depictions of matchlocks are also sometimes included in paintings of offerings to the guardian deities. Beyond its obvious military applications, use in festivals, and iconographic depictions, however, the matchlock musket was primarily an essential possession of pastoralists and nomads for hunting and personal protection, and as such was found throughout Tibet until relatively recently.

Saddles, Bridles, and Stirrups
Horses and horsemanship were very important in Tibet, as they were among other nomadic peoples of Central Asia. The saddles found in Tibet are a mixture of Mongol, Chinese, and Tibetan types and styles (2002.225). The structure of a saddle consists of a wood frame, called the saddletree. This is made up of four basic parts: an arch-shaped front and back, called the pommel and the cantle, connected by a pair of sideboards, which are tightly tied together with leather laces. On most Asian saddles, the sideboards have short paddlelike extensions, or endboards, in the front and back. The section of the sideboards between the pommel and the cantle where the rider would sit was usually covered by a cushion attached by two or four ornamental bosses. A set of saddle rugs was also used, one on the horse’s back underneath the saddle and one above, on the seat of the saddle.

The outstanding components of a Tibetan saddle are the metal plates that cover the outside of the pommel, cantle, and endboards. Although these plates reinforce the saddletree, they function chiefly as a very visible and often very elaborate form of ornament, and as indicators of the rank, status, and importance of the rider. They can be made of copper alloy or silver, but the finest are done in pierced and chiseled iron, usually damascened in gold and silver, and constitute some of the best examples of Tibetan and Sino-Tibetan ironwork of any kind. The same is true for bridles, the best of which can have very delicately pierced and chiseled fittings that rival the workmanship of the finest saddles (1998.282).