Posts Tagged 'weapons'

Ceremonial Phurba (Kila) Dagger

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Figure 1. Phurba Dagger within the Sam Noble Ethnology Collection. E/1958/26/001

E/1958/26/001

Ceremonial Dagger: Phurba, Kila

Tibetan or Nepalese

Asia

ca. 18th Century

Bronze, Turquoise Stone

The Tibetan Phurba or Kila (in Sanskrit)  is a ceremonial dagger traditionally used in Tibetan Buddhism for tantric rituals. The Phurba (pronounced Pur-pa) can be fashioned out a of a variety of materials, including: wood, bone, glass, clay, horn and even crystal. (1) See figure 3. to see an example of a crystal phurba dagger on loan to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Despite the array of materials used in the creation of phurbas, these ceremonial daggers have a distinct blade which makes them easily identifiable. The unusual blade of the phurba dagger is designed to have three edges. This gives the blade the appearance similar to a stake used to tether objects to the ground, much like the pegs you see today to secure tents. It has been theorized that this stake design is inspired by earlier Tibetan ceremonies, where shamans tethered sacrificial animals to the ground. However, other researchers debate its shape is meant to represent the pegs used to tether a horse, to keep it from wandering. Whatever its design origins, a phurba dagger is never used to stake anything physical. Its power resides in its spiritual ability to tranfix spirits or demons to the earth. (2)

 

Tibetexpedition, Fürst von Gautsa

Figure 2. Photograph of a Tibetan Shaman. Notice the Phurba dagger in his left hand. Photo by Klause Ernst, Tibet, 1938

Indeed, the dagger’s three sided blade usually has a dull edge, proving ineffective in battle. However, Phurbas have grown in popularity in recent years as tourist items, meditative objects, and have even been adopted as a weapon in some schools of marital arts. An example of the phurba dagger being used non-traditionally as a martial arts weapon can be seen here.

Due to it’s wide use in Tibet and some parts of India, the phurba dagger and its

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Figure 3. A Crystal Dagger on loan to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. 15th Century. Image Courtesy of Metropolitan Museum of Art.

ceremonial origins may have evolved from the ancient and native Bon religion in Tibet. (3)  This argument suggests that the dagger always served a spiritual weapon, intended to tether negative spirits in place so that they can be driven from the sites of sacred ceremonies, or to force demons from the sites where shrines will be constructed. (4) In fact, the phurba’s ability to bind spirits was put to use in building thirteen Buddhist temples and stupas within Tibet. It was believed that before Buddhism could be successfully introduced into Tibet, the wild spirits within the region needed to be subdued. The building of Buddhist temples in the area served as both the symbolic and physical tethers binding the goddess of the region, limiting her powers. (5)

 

Many elaborate daggers depict three different faces on the pommel of the dagger. This particular Phurba dagger appears to show the deity, Vajrakilaya, a wrathful but powerful deity of Tibetan Buddhism. Vajrakilaya is the over thrower of obstacles. By meditating on the forces that work against the user, Vajrakilaya removes the interference to bliss, happiness, and enlightenment. This tantric practice was eventually absorbed into all schools of Tibetan Buddhism, and the phurba dagger serves as the primary object of focus during the mediation process. (6) Unfortunately, the details about this ceremony and the phurba’s exact role have been hidden away. These teachings are left to the understanding of the most devout followers and their instructors.

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Figure 4. Depiction of Vajrakilaya as a ceremonial dagger.

Footnotes:

1. Ryan Hudson, “Phurba with Three Faces of Vajrakila Buddha,”  http://www.tibetanculture.weai.columbia.edu/phurba-with-three-faces/. (accessed August 16, 2017)

2. Georgette Meredith, “The “Phurbu”: The Use and Symbolism of the Tibetan Magic Dagger”, History of Religions 6, no. 3 (1967): 246.

3. Meredith, “The “Phurbu”, 240.

4. Meredith, “The Phurbu”, 246.

5. Janet Gyatso, “Down with the Demoness: Reflections on a Feminine Ground in Tibet”, The Tibet Journal 12, no.4 (1987): 41.

6. Robert Beer, The Encyclopedia of Tibetan Symbols and Motifs (Boston: Shambala Publishing, 1999), 246.

 

Additional Reading:

 

The Tibetan Book of the Dead. “Ceremonial Objects.” Virginia University. Last Modified 2017. Accessed August 16, 2017. https://www.lib.virginia.edu/exhibits/dead/ceremon.html

 

((Christina J. Naruszewicz))


Ethnology @ SNOMNH is an experimental weblog for sharing the collections of the Division of Ethnology at the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History.

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