Amulet box, ga-u

Tibetan, 19th century
Incised copper with a silk cord

This amulet box, or ga-u, would have been made with both sacred and practical purposes in mind. Ga-u are used to carry items such as a small image of the Buddha and sacred texts. They could also be used to carry blessed pills – medicine blessed by a monk – as a form of first aid. They are worn around the neck or across the body. Small ga-u could be incorporated into jewellery and decorated with precious stones. Our Object of the Month would have been an important item needed for nomadic life in Tibet. It was made from copper and still has its plaited silk cord attached. It would have provided the wearer with protection and a place to store precious and useful items.

The Tibet Album, “Golok man and his wife” 05 Dec. 2006, The Pitt Rivers Museum

In 2022, we had the opportunity to meet Tsering Passang, Chairman of the Tibetan Community in the UK, and Tashi and Pema Murik, who lived in the Samye Ling Buddhist centre in Scotland for eight years. They viewed Tibetan objects in the Castle’s collection, and we were able to ask about their original meanings and uses. We discovered that there are still some sacred items contained in the copper ga-u – a blessed knot and a tsa-tsa (a small amulet depicting a Buddhist deity). Tsering, Tashi, and Pema explained that the knotted piece of cloth would have been blessed by a monk. He would have said prayers and blown on the knot. Carrying it in the ga-u would have provided protection and enabled the wearer to carry the monk’s blessing with them.

The tsa-tsa found inside the ga-u appears to depict the powerful deity Vajrabhairava. Vajrabhairava is the wrathful form of the bodhisattva of wisdom, Manjusri. He has a buffalo head and holds various weapons in his many hands. His fierce appearance allows him to frighten away anything that causes suffering.

Tsa-tsa found inside amulet box, ga-u, Chiddingstone Castle collection, object number 01.1518

Tsa-tsa are often made from clay which is stamped using a mould and painted. They can be bought to offer at temples and shrines, to be kept at home, or to carry in a ga-u. Making a tsa-tsa, or offering them at a temple is an act which builds merit. Good deeds accumulate merit, which in turn brings happiness and good fortune. There are a few tsa-tsa in the Castle’s collection which can be viewed in the Buddhist Room.

Painted tsa-tsa depicting White Tara, bodhisattva of long life, health, healing, and compassion, Chiddingstone Castle collection, object number 01.1523

The design incised on the lid of the copper ga-u is called the Kalachakra mantra. It consists of ten syllables written in an ancient Indian script, Ranjana, which is still used in Nepal today. A mantra is a set of syllables which have a sacred meaning and are repeated during meditation or prayer.

Kalachakra can be translated as ‘wheel of time’ or ‘cycles of time’, referring to the Buddhist belief in the endless cycle of life, death, and rebirth that humans and everything else in the universe experience. The Kalachakra mantra is believed to be a powerful form of protection which wards off evil. Today people hang this symbol in their car or at home, for example above a doorway.

Amulet box, ga-u, with the Kalachakra mantra and inlaid turquoise, 1800 – 1850, Tibet, V&A Museum collections online, accession number 06125(IS)

Embroidery depicting the Kalachakra mantra, 1600 – 1699, Tibet Museum, Lhasa, Himalayan Art Resources

The current display of Tibetan objects in the Castle’s Buddhist Room was created in 2022 with the help and support of Tsering Passang, Tashi and Pema Murik, and Dr Nick Swann, lecturer in Buddhist Studies at the University of South Wales. Denys Eyre Bower used to display his Buddhist collection in the ‘cabinet of curiosities’ style – crammed into traditional wooden display cases in a way that showed off his collection as a whole, rather than providing insight into each individual object. He didn’t include many labels, and his attitude towards Tibet and Tibetan Buddhism was influenced by Western, colonialist views of the time. The updated Buddhist Room displays explore the original context, uses, and sacred meaning of the Tibetan objects, rather than presenting solely Denys’ view of them.

This object is just one of the many objects that form part of Denys Eyre Bower’s five impressive collections which include Ancient Egyptian, Japanese, Buddhist, Stuart and Jacobite, and Books. For more information on these objects, review our Object of the Month series, visit the Historic House and Collections or contact our Curator, Naomi Collick by email or by calling 01892 870347.

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