Monday, January 31, 2011

Five Ancient Phum dZi beads. Centre bead measures 30 mm x 18 mm.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

A mix of ancient decorated and undecorated agates and carnelians.

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

".......people of ancient times assessed the pattern of gzi stones with attention in order to establish their price: they took into consideration the distinctive characteristics of the object created, as well as the number of fountain of water [chu mig] patterns, and the variety of the lines. This skill in evaluating has been retained to the present time, and is a recognized capacity." 
~ Chögyal Namkhai Norbu ~

I would like to take a brief look at the fairly recent (2009) book by Chögyal Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche, entitled The Light of Kailash - A History of Zhang Zhung and Tibet. There is a short section that focuses on dZi and thogchags (gZi and thog lchags), which I find intriguing and certainly needs further investigation.

It is not made clear whether this knowledge has been gleaned from ancient writings or early texts -- or whether this is purely the understanding of Chögyal Namkhai Norbu -- based on Tibetan oral lore. Several pages include drawings of 'gzi' beads, and the Tibetan names are given for the different types of decoration and the shape of beads. He refers to eyes as 'drop-like' patterns, which are known as 'Chu Mig' and translated in the book as 'fountain of water'. Although a more literal translation would be 'Water Eye' or even 'Water Hole'. Likening the eyes to 'fountains of water' gives us a sense of the dZi overflowing with power and purity and perhaps points at the curative qualities associated with dZi beads.

He also mentions that a dZi bead can be of four types:

  •  White dZi (White base colour) with a dark or red design.
  •  Red dZi (Red base colour) with a white or red design
  •  Dark dZi (Brown and Black base colour) with white or red design.
  •  Variegated dZi. This means the dZi bead has a 'mixed colour' base and a 'less visible' design. I assume that this might include beads that are of the more translucent variety and might even be regarded as a type of Chong dZi.
Chögyal Namkhai Norbu also tells us that dZi can have up to twelve 'fountain of water' patterns [eyes].

What I find most interesting is the inclusion of 'spherical' dZi beads (above), which he also divides into four types, depending on the base colour and the differing 'wave-like' patterns. This is worth attention because in the past 15 years, I have only ever seen two genuine ancient dZi beads of a spherical shape. Both were in a private Taiwanese collection. These beads were distinct and of the same quality and type of manufacture as a pure dZi. The beads I viewed displayed eyes and did not include any other type of decoration. I want to make it clear that these beads were not the same as the dark agate 'spherical' beads with decorated equatorial lines that are usually associated with India and Burma. The beads I viewed were of comparable quality to the oblong, fusiform or oval tube dZi with eyes (see two eyed dZi below), which Tibetans most revere.

It is clear that pure dZi of a spherical shape are extremely rare and virtually unheard of and it somewhat surprised me to see them included in Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche's book. Of course this doesn't mean that other types of spherical dZi do not exist, however, I have personally never encountered a spherical pure dZi with the designs that Chögyal Namkhai Norbu shows. Even other non-pure ancient dZi types (adopted as Tibetan/Himalayan possibly originating from India or Western Asia) do not commonly display this design. It can sometimes be seen on ancient carnelians if found within the Himalayas, however, Tibetans do not regard these beads as a variety of pure dZi.

Since only drawings were included in his book, we can speculate that the beads Rinpoche is referring to might actually be oval beads with 'wave-like' designs. They are known more commonly as Tiger dZi (Taklok) because of their tiger-like stripes. However, this doesn't seem likely because the 'artistic style' shown in the book  is quite different from what we see on ancient Tiger dZi. Oval dZi beads also have a distinct and notable shape, so I very much doubt this would have been overlooked in his publication. Having considered all of this, we can then ask if there are other possibilities. When I look at the bead designs shown in his book, I personally recognise them as being of a different bead type altogether and not necessarily Tibetan. If beads of this type did indeed exist in ancient Tibet and continue to be prized today, then we should look at the possibilities of where they came from and who created them.

Are there any beads of similar appearance found elsewhere in Asia?

Anyone who is familiar with ancient and antique Burmese beads known as Pumtek (Buried Thunderbolt), will recognise the above drawings as displaying designs typically found on these beads. Decorated spherical beads were probably the most common type of stone bead in ancient Burma and they are still prized by the Chin people today. In much the same way that Tibetans prize dZi beads. The bead makers of ancient Burma were master artisans and their decorated stone beads are often compared to ancient dZi. I have also come across a number of ancient agatised/opalised Pumtek beads included on heirloom Tibetan strands in Nepal. It is therefore clear that Pumtek did travel to neighboring countries and perhaps the link between Pumtek and dZi is worth far more investigation. It is possible that the beads Chögyal Namkhai Norbu is referring to, are actually of Burmese origin [Samon or Pyu civilisation] and were traded to Tibet from Burma, or via other trade routes like India and Nepal. Perhaps these early Burmese beads were then adopted as true dZi by Tibetans and have continued to be viewed as such.

Photo right: An ancient heirloom Pumtek bead from Burma with a striking resemblance to the 'spherical gzi' drawings in Chögyal Namkhai Norbu's book.

It would be great if the spherical beads Rinpoche refers to, are genuine ancient dZi beads that are super rare -- and not yet widely known outside of Tibet. Perhaps this design was greatly treasured in Ancient Tibet and it therefore influenced early Burmese bead makers to create similar beads. We know that the earliest settlers in Burma were in fact Sino-Tibetans, so this is also plausible. If we are able get further evidence of ancient spherical dZi found within a Tibetan context then it may just help us to better understand these beads.