Phurbu, or ritual dagger

On display


  • Catalogue text

    This remarkable painted wood dagger is a phurba, a ritual implement which is the embodiment of Vajrakila, a powerful Buddhist deity invoked to subjugate evil forces. The dagger is used during special ceremonies in which the officiating lama meditates on Vajrakila to create an exceptional mental state in which the lama will use the phurba to pierce an anthropomorphic dough or paper figurine which is the embodiment of evil. By the force of his concentration as he destroys the figurine, the lama will eliminate the evil, and sublimate and purify the resulting energies, which are believed to be directed towards a non-malevolent state [1].

    This particular phurba was carved by a virtuoso sculptor. The three wrathful faces of Vajrakila are identical except in their colour (red, white, and black), while at the top of the head is a snake-tied chignon of red hair. The curling eyebrows, moustache, and beard spark with flames, while the mouth opens to reveal ivory fangs. The eyelids are flattened at the centre above the bulbous eyes, creating an intense, ferocious glare. This distinctive carving of the eyelid is also found on a Tibetan stone sculpture of Mahakala, an extraordinary work of art for its highly ornate, dramatic carving in pure Newar style, and also a precious historic document due to its dedication date of 1292 [2]. It has also been observed on a virtually identical phurba dagger, 4 cm longer than this example [3]. The carvers of the two phurba skilfully adapted Mahakala's vivid features to the requirements of the dagger: beneath the head, instead of a body, the dagger has three geometric segments, then three heads of grimacing creatures, from whose mouths emerge entwined serpents and the three blades of the dagger. These monstrous creatures are makaras (mythical water-beasts), which are linked with the mythology of Vajrakila [4].

    Tibetan rituals describe the phurba dagger as the fire of the Cosmic Aeon which consumes the three poisons of ignorance, greed, and delusion, its body comprised of the triangular blade, the tetrahedron knots, and the snout of the makaras [5]. During the ritual performance, several dancers will carry phurba daggers but only the officiating lama will cut the figurine. Thus in a given monastery, several daggers were conserved as part of the dancers' equipment, which would explain the identical features but slight difference in size of the Barrett dagger and the one studied by Thurman and Weldon. The dedication inscription of the 1292 Mahakala sculpture identifies its commissioning by a monastic official linked with the Sakya monastery, which was a major centre in Tibet for the study of the phurba rituals between the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries [6]. Nepalese artists such as the master Aniko were invited to Sakya during this period, when its monks assumed political paramountcy in Tibet, disseminating their religious teachings and their aesthetic tastes as far as the Yuan court in Beijing. The dedication of the 1292 sculpture names the Tibetan artist as Kon chog kyab, which renders an attribution to Aniko gratuitous, yet in view of the numerous artists who worked in this aesthetic and religious context, this dagger is certainly one of the masterpieces created in the fervour of Sakya patronage during the thirteenth to fourteenth century, and could possibly even have been produced at the imperial court [7].


    1 See de Nebesky-Wojkowitz, Tibetan Religious Dances, p. 18, for a description of the Vajrakila dance, and Stein, La civilisation Tibetaine, pp. 127-29.

    2 Beguin, Art esoterique de l'Himalaya: La Donation Lionel Fournier, pp. 53-5; and Heller, Tibetan Art, pls. 69-70 and p. 87, for the reassessment of the identification of the donor lama and the name of the Tibetan artist, although the date 1292 is valid.

    3 Thurman and Weldon, Sacred Symbols, pp. 146-7, for comparison of the 44 cm phurba with the 1292 Mahakala.

    4 Stein, 'La Gueule du Makara: Un trait inexplique de certains objets rituels'.

    5 Ibid, p. 55.

    6 See Roerich tr., The Blue Annals, pp. 103-6, for discussion of the discovery of Vajrakila texts by Sakya Pandita in the mid-thirteenth century.

    7 Vitali, 'Sa skya and the mNga' ris skor gsum legacy: The case of Rin chen bzang po's flying mask', pp. 37-8, n. 45.

    In: Heller, Amy, Early Himalayan Art (Oxford: Ashmolean Museum, 2008)

Further reading

Heller, Amy, Early Himalayan Art (Oxford: Ashmolean Museum, 2008), no. 55 on pp. 158-159, illus. p. 159

Reference URL

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