Thursday, March 01, 2007

The Chong or Chung dZi - Is it a Lesser dZi?


Photo: Ancient Chong dZi 

Tibetan Buddhism and the Bön religion have been practiced by Tibetans and people of the Himalayas since ancient times. Even today these traditions are still very much alive and they continue to play an essential role within these communities. The wearing of amulets and beads continues to be an important aspect of these traditions. Ancient dZi beads in particular, have long been sought after to protect the wearer from all manner of misfortune and ill health. This also includes protection from unseen forces that might disrupt or harm ones progress to enlightenment.

It is possible that some ancient agate beads that were imported into the Himalayan regions, via established trade routes, were originally viewed as inferior to their already prized 'pure' dZi. However, with the passage of time, they were also adopted and recognised by Tibetans as a type of dZi bead. This also led them to be used as amulets. They were also ground up and used as a special ingredient in Tibetan medicine and therefore they were widely traded as a valuable commodity just as they are today.

The name Chung dZi (say it like Choong), which can mean lesser (as in 'less desirable') or small, might suggest these beads are not as highly regarded as other types of dZi. This does seem to be the most widely adopted view outside of the Himalayan regions (mostly held by Western bead collectors), however, it is doubtful this is the correct meaning.

If pronounced like CHONG it allows a much more accurate understanding of this name. Rather than meaning 'less desirable' or 'small' (Chung), it refers to a specific type of stone material. In this case agate or chalcedony and sometimes it is translated as onyx or crystal. A Tibetan doctor would use the name Chong dZi to refer to a type of gemstone that has unique healing properties. A Chong dZi is believed to have the power to cure paralysis for example. So I personally believe (having discussed this with numerous native Tibetan speakers) that saying it like CHONG is the closest pronunciation to the name given to these beads. In fact the Wylie transliteration is 'mchong', so it is clear that saying it like Choong is mistaken.

Beads that are recognised as Chong dZi are clearly distinguishable from other types of beads within the dZi family. Tibetans basically believe there are supernatural beads (not made from a gemstone of this earth - such as pure dZi with eyes for example) and there are also those that were created by bead makers in ancient times from agate or chalcedony (Chong dZi). Tibetans attribute the name Chong to virtually any ancient agate bead (see below for exceptions) and all are held with high regard. Some of the most amazing Chong dZi are located in the Jokhang temple (which houses Tibet's most sacred statue). These beads are visually stunning and extremely large (significantly larger than any pure dZi) and are obviously valued as a very precious offering. It therefore makes very little sense to call these beads 'small' or 'less desirable'. 


 Photo: The Jowo Buddha housed inside the Jokhang Temple

Chong dZi are not to be confused with 'pure' dZi. 

The most prized pure dZi are generally beads with eyes or unusual decorations. A pure dZi may or may not have eyes but it should always display some form of decoration or motif on the surface. It can be opaque or partially translucent (In Tibet, translucent beads are usually valued lower). The most sought after base colour is an opaque dark brown to black. I personally do not like to use the label 'pure' because each ancient dZi has its own unique qualities, however, it does enable us to make a distinction between the different varieties within the dZi family. I have therefore adopted the use of this term for this reason alone. The ancient eye dZi seem to appear mainly in Tibet and the Himalayan regions, however, there are many similar beads (but not the same) that are also found in other parts of Asia. These beads have made their way to Tibet through trade and pilgrimage and over time the Tibetans have also adopted them as their own. 

Photo: Ancient Sakor Namkor (displays one eye/circle and a square on the reverse)

The bead above is an example of a pure dZi. These beads have a distinct quality that distinguishes them from other decorated agates. It is important to recognise that there are other ancient beads that resemble the pure dZi (see the diamond eye dZi below) but are regarded by Tibetans as a 'special' type of Chong dZi. These decorated 'translucent' agates have found their way into Tibet and are also prized, yet they are clearly of a different quality. Similar beads to the one below are said to be found in Afghanistan or Western Asia and are actually not so common. Because these beads are so close in appearance to pure dZi, they are the most valuable of all types of Chong. They can even be more valuable than a pure dZi if they have rare decorations. These beads are also believed to be ancient, however, there is still little known about their exact age or place of manufacture.

Photo: A diamond eye Chong dZi (this and similar beads
are regarded by Tibetans as a special type of Chong dZi)

The image below is a small example of what a 'Tibetan' would label and recognise as being a type of Chong dZi. Some of these beads are also known by different and perhaps more commercial names. An example of this is the ancient round agates (Bead no.2), which are now commonly known as Bhaisajyaguru, Suleimani or Soloman beads. The name Bhaisajyaguru (the sanskrit name for the Medicine Buddha) seems to be a more recent label given to these beads (possibly Taiwanese influence). In my experience of trading with Tibetans, they are also known as a type of Chong dZi. It is the 'decorated' agates with vertical equatorial stripes (see Chong bead at the top of this post and beads no.10, no.12, no.15 and no.17 below) that are more typically associated with Tibet and the Himalayan regions. These beads are distinct and are often much larger than other Chong dZi. They are also likely to be amongst the earliest types of ancient 'decorated' Chong beads. Undamaged specimens are now very scarce and can command high prices in the marketplace. It is now believed that many striped Chong dZi are excavated in regions of Nepal, which may indicate an ancient Nepalese bead making industry. However, this is still yet to be proven. 

The above 18 beads would be recognised as Chong
dZi types in Tibet and the Himalayan regions.

So what really is a Chong dZi?

Tibetans will give the name Chong dZi to virtually all ancient agate beads that are believed to be man-made in ancient times. This means that Tibetans view only pure dZi to be of supernatural origin and uniquely Tibetan. On many occasions I have also seen Tibetans giving the decorated carnelian beads (also known as etched carnelians) the name Chong dZi. So it is clear that the use of the word Chong is very loose and implies that any agate or carnelian called Chong is not indigenous to Tibet. Even if they have been adopted by Tibetans as a type of dZi bead they are never given quite the same status as a pure dZi.

Above: Large ancient Phum dZi, recently gold capped.

Beads known as Tasso, Phum or Luk Mik are clearly different types of dZi. They have a unique identity and should not be confused with Chong dZi.

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