Buddhist prayer wheel

Maker unknown
Tibetan, 19th century
Inlaid stones on bronze drum with horn handle

The object of the month for January is this Tibetan Buddhist prayer wheel. It is a handheld prayer wheel designed for personal use. Inside the prayer wheel is a tightly rolled slip of paper with many mantras or prayers written on it. Each turn of the wheel counted as a repetition of those mantras. A key Buddhist belief is that people are reborn or reincarnated into a new life when they die, and that a person’s actions effect what they will be reborn as. If a person does good deeds in their life they will accumulate merit, or good karma, and they will be reborn as a human. If they have bad karma they could be reborn as an animal or even a ghost. The ultimate goal of Buddhist practice is to achieve nirvana, or ‘enlightenment’ and an escape from the endless cycle of rebirth. The reciting of mantras, along with the commissioning or making of Buddhist objects and statues, is considered to help a person accumulate merit which will help them in their next life. Turning a prayer wheel is considered to be the same as reciting many mantras.

A Tibetan woman holding a large prayer wheel

Prayer wheels, as well as most other Buddhist objects, are also believed to send out blessings into the world for the benefit of everyone when they are turned. Prayer wheels are spun clockwise, often whilst a practitioner recites the mantra out loud, or whilst they are walking around a sacred site or a temple. Large prayer wheels are also used in Buddhist countries which are either turned by hand or by wind or water. They can be made from luxurious materials as with our object of the month, or they can even be made from recycled tin cans. Handheld prayer wheels are widely used in the Himalayas.  

A row of prayer wheels for turning by hand or in the wind, some made from recycled cans

A common mantra written on prayer wheel slips is om mani padme hum. Om and hum are sacred Buddhist syllables, mani means jewel, and padme means lotus. The lotus is a key Buddhist symbol. A white lotus flower that grows up through the mud of a pond symbolises the belief that those who achieve enlightenment can rise above the suffering of the world. The concept of ‘enlightenment’ is very important in Buddhism. The founder of the religion was a man known as Siddhartha Gautama. He was the son of the king of the Shakyamuni clan in the north-eastern part of ancient India. He is believed to have achieved enlightenment, or the freedom from the cycle of rebirth and an awareness of the true nature of the world, through meditation. He became a traveling sage and teacher and gathered a large group of followers. The title ‘Buddha’ means ‘enlightened one’. Many Buddhist objects serve as visual reminders of the teachings of the Buddha.

Prayer slip from inside a prayer wheel, Tibetan, Horniman Museum and Gardens collection, object number 1992.47iii

The mantra om mani padme hum is associated with the bodhisattva of compassion, Avalokiteshvara. A bodhisattva is a being who throughout many lives has strived to achieve enlightenment, and who is dedicated to helping others do the same. They represent key virtues of a Buddha, such as wisdom or kindness. Avalokiteshvara is the bodhisattva of compassion. He is often depicted in statues and paintings as having many arms and heads, symbolising his ability to reach out and save all living things from suffering.

Statue of many-armed Avalokiteshvara in the Chiddingstone Castle collection, Chinese, 18th century, object number 01.1539

The prayer wheel that we have chosen as our object of the month is missing its counterweight chain that helps it spin around. The handle has been worn smooth, suggesting it was well-used. The inlaid stones are likely to be turquoise and coral, and the top of the wheel has carved details. The jewel inlay suggests that this prayer wheel may have been made for someone important, such as a Lama or an honoured monk.

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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