Tibetan Ornaments: Mystical Jewelry of Tibet

Features Issue 71 Jul, 2010
Text by Utsav Shakya

In 1959, The Dalai Lama left Tibet for the Northern Indian city of Dharamsala after the failed uprising against Chinese occupation. He has been living there ever since. In March 1959, 100,000 Tibetans fled to Nepal, Bhutan, and India as a result of the Chinese occupation. Today, thirty-five years later, many Tibetan refugees still live in these countries. In Nepal, these families have even grown out into third generation families.

Over 35,000 Tibetan refugees live in Nepal, mainly in Kathmandu. Although Nepal was previously recognized as the only Hindu kingdom in the world, it has always remained very secular in its conduct towards its neighbors. The Nepali people believe guests to be an avatar of God and therefore are respectful and hospitable to all who come to them seeking solace and refuge. Many Tibetans who came to Nepal eventually settled down and now run a large number of industries of their own. They brought with them the skill of carpet weaving, which grew into a major industry, bringing in a large amount of foreign exchange earnings for the country.

Tibetans are generally very proud of their heritage. In fact, most of them have not assimilated culturally into the nations where they have settled including Nepal, but have maintained their traditional practices. Despite this, Kathmandu being the boiling pot of cultures and traditions, the Tibetan people have to some degree, settled down for good. Their attachment to their culture and tradition has only added charm and a beautiful aura to the Tibetan people and all things Tibetan, for the outside world. A majority of the Tibetans that are presently settled in Nepal live in Kathmandu and are predominantly involved in the carpet and hospitality industries. Their naturally hardworking persona and hospitable charm have allowed them a respectable place in the Nepali society.

Tibetan Ornaments

Because of the cultural connotation of Tibetan ornaments, Tara Bassy, owner of Makye Ame, a Tibetan-style bar and restaurant, has become an enthusiastic collector of Tibetan ornaments and articles of daily use. Bassy used to work with a multinational corporation, and through her relationship with her Tibetan husband, she fell in love with Tibetan culture and started her food and beverage business. “It used to mean nothing more than jewelry for me before. But I noticed a very positive change in my personal life as well as in my work after I started to wear these ornaments. Now I feel incomplete without wearing at least one Tibetan accessory to go with my daily attire. I wear mostly smaller items since larger ones are not too practical to wear around the workplace. However, I do collect whatever I can get my hands upon,” says Bassy enthusiastically, about her obsession with Tibetan ornaments.

Tibetan ornaments seem naturally imbued with a mystical flavor. The main materials may include turquoise, yak bones, red and yellow corals, Tibetan silver and other natural elements. Features come together in a simple, unconstrained motif and the brilliant colors and bold, wild designs instill high fashion. There is many a high-class jewelry store in the Nepali market today that combines modern designs with Tibetan motifs. The boldness in design and simplicity seem to pronounce style and a quiet sense of class. With little need for complicated craftsmanship, a wild, trendy bracelet or necklace can come into being simply by joining several natural stones, corals, and a yak-hide string. Authenticity is key here.

There are a variety of Tibetan ornaments, such as rings, bracelets, necklaces and earrings and the crafting techniques include enchasing, inlaying and wire drawing. In a broader sense, Tibetan ornaments also include living and religious articles such as snuff bottles, whose hollowed-out designs demonstrate the craftsmen’s skills; prayer wheels, which can be found throughout Tibet and also in parts of Kathmandu such as Swoyambhunath and Boudhanath.

Compared to ornaments from other regions, the finer crafts of Tibet feature irregular shapes due to the natural quality of the materials, their splendid colors and often rough but unique handcraftsmanship. It is not uncommon to find many stones that appear odd shaped and broken while checking out antique Tibetan ornaments. The roughness only adds to the appeal of the jewelry. The designs mostly derive from religious beliefs and the lifestyle of Tibetan people. The symbols convey special meaning and the deeply-hued Tibetan silver is a mysterious temptation. Many of the Tibetan ornaments are worn for certain reasons and are believed to have the ability to bring a person good luck and success. Genuine Tibetan silver products are handmade by Tibetan silversmiths and each is unique. The originality satisfies the modern spiritual desire of the wearer and their demand for particularity and individuality. Some Tibetan ornaments are more commonplace in Kathmandu than others.

The traditional Ghaau, which is a necklace, looks nothing like any traditional ornament one could ever have seen. It consists of a necklace made of cloth on which is usually attached a huge medallion like pendant, often of a radius larger than eight centimeters. The pendant itself is made out of Tibetan silver and is etched beautifully. Mostly a large number of turquoise stones are laid on it surrounding a central large stone. The pendant is also in many cases replaced by a frame like medallion. They have pictures of the Buddha or Buddhist high priests in the frame. The frames are often made out of silver or copper. The Ghaau is a traditional ornament that is worn by elderly women for most Tibetan festivals such as for Lhosar (New Year’s), Great Prayer Festival, Butter Lamp festival and the Saka Dawa festival. Amongst these, Saka Dawa is said to be the birthday of Sakyamuni, the Buddha, and the day he died and became a Buddha as well as the day of the arrival of Princess Wencheng (queen to Songtsen Gampo, a great Tibetan king of the 7th century AD) in Lhasa. Many religious activities are held this day. Traditional Tibetan attire as well as ornaments is mandatory for all of the above.

Besides the Ghaau, there is also a belt like ornament that is as exquisitely laid, with brilliantly colored stones. The belts are often of cloth onto which stones are sewn in to form circular patterns. Some of these belts also feature silver plates on which these stones are laid. The belts are much wider than normal and are mostly worn by Tibetan priests while they perform their various rituals. The belts are usually fastened by a simple knot and ring arrangement or by simply tying a knot at the back.

The Tibetans are also fond of huge bangles and earrings made out of silver and inlaid with similar arrangements of stone and silver etchings. What places them in a class of their own is the size of the ornaments. Apparently, the Tibetans live it large, a fact that is evident in their larger than normal sized ornaments.

Traditional necklaces are also quite popular amongst Tibetan women for special occasions. A choker like necklace made out of cloth and solid balls of silver is common. The inside of these silver balls is filled with a locally made paste that is made out of brick powder and copper. The Newar artisans that make these objects in Kathmandu call this paste Lhay.

These ornaments, previously of a fashion only seen adorning Tibetan women is now also popular amongst a bigger and more upper class clientele. The ornaments have gained particular favor among students and working women seeking to express their individuality in a unique way.

The Local Market

The local scene is not what it is used to be, but that is not to say that Tibetan ornaments are any less attention grabbing. Not only are Tibetan ornaments very elaborately designed, but the sheer scale of the designs is exhausting. Chiefly inspired by Chinese mythology, the motifs often contain dragons, fishes and fairies; the three animals that most feature in Chinese stories.

Tibetan ornaments are dominated by two principal stones; coral and turquoise. Almost all of the antique pieces that are available in the market and are mentioned and seen in Tibetan history feature the two stones. The turquoise used in these ornaments can be of various types too. The money-u-turquoise is one such popular variety. Turquoise traditionally comes from Lhasa in Tibet.

The old Tibetan ornaments today fall in the category of antiques. Because of their size, detail and use of rare stones, these antique pieces often come with exorbitant price tags. But owning one such piece is not just a matter of the price. Most local shops in and around Kathmandu do not even have any real antiques, but a curious eye just might find some shopkeepers that will let you pry into their private collections. And the search if it results in any good finds, is very much worth the effort.

Looking at Tibetan ornaments is like traveling back in time and instantly reminds one of mountains and monasteries. The art itself has such a dreamlike effect. A Tibetan ornament is functional as well and therefore unlike any other kind of ornament that you will ever come across in a normal jewelry store. One of the most striking features of these ornaments is of course its size. Tibetans usually wear their ornaments in festive occasions and as a part of their traditional attire and not just as accessories. Head gear worn as caps have a raccoon like tail which is embellished with a generous number of rubies, gems and turquoise.

Krishna Shrestha, proprietor of Traditional Crafts in Thamel enthusiastically showed us his collection of Tibetan antiques, which are very rare in the market. “Because these antiques are very expensive, people do not like to take the risk of displaying such exclusive pieces. The ones on display in most shops in Thamel and elsewhere are mostly copies of genuine designs,” says Shrestha.

A lot of the antiques that are still around are actually owned by Tibetan families. Malik Ullah, proprietor of Tibetan Arts says, “The designs that I have displayed in my showroom are all copies of antiques that have been in my family for a long time now. I moved to Nepal when I was a very young boy and my parents brought back some of our family ornaments from Tibet. Most of these pieces are not in such good shape due to wear and tear over the years. But the designs on them are exquisite, and I have tried my best to make good copies of them. They are of a more practical size and can be worn every day.”

Most of the stones that are used to make Tibetan ornaments locally are brought in from Jaipur in India. But that is not to say that there are no mines in Nepal. In rural corners of the country such as in Janjarkot and Lamjung, locals have mined and found stones such as Garnet, Aquamarine, Kayonit and Tourmaline in small but considerable amounts. The quality of the stones brought in from Jaipur is however superior to the quality of stones found in Nepal. “The characteristic feature that is most desirable in stones that can be sold to shops here for workability is hardness. The harder the stones are, the more expensive they become,” says Tarun Sharma, an Indian traveling salesman who has been selling stones throughout Kathmandu for the last six years. Sharma travels to Jaipur ever two months or so and buys the stones there, according to the orders placed by shopkeepers in Kathmandu. In fact he hails from Jaipur, Since harder stones are easier to work with and the end results are finer, Sharma tries to get in as early as possible into Jaipur’s bulging stone market to get the good stuff for his clients here.

A Different Kind of Appeal
Some pendants are in the shape of a Vajra, which in Buddhism is a ritual instrument for subduing demons, believed to dispel all sins and bring people power, courage, and intelligence. Amulets are often silver or bronze, small boxes inlaid with pearls or precious stones and are used to contain clay or metal images of Buddha, Tibetan pills, Buddhist paintings or photos of a living Buddha. Another example is Tibetan opals, which fall into 12 categories according to the number of cat’s-eyes one contains, each representing a particular meaning. For example, a one-eye opal represents brightness and wisdom, and a two-eye opal represents harmonious marital relationship and happy family life.

The charm of Tibetan ornaments is tied up with the certain numinous aura that surrounds the Tibetan people. Their personalities, their stubbornness in preserving their culture and traditions even in a foreign land and their much publicized struggle to free their homeland from Chinese rule; all of it adds an allure to the ornaments that seems to fascinate and interest specially the western world a great deal. Tibetan ornaments seem to come with a little bit of the mysticism and magic that they represent.