Sunday, August 11, 2013

Eye Shades

Apologies, dear reader, for the shady snapshot. It was taken under dark conditions in the Choijin Lama Temple in downtown Ulaan Baatar a few days ago. Just seeing this image (not the photo of it) was so exciting for me I was glad to fork over the astronomical camera fee of 25,000 tugruks. I’m supposing you’re already wondering about the title of today’s blog (is it about eye makeup? eyemasks for napping on the plane?) and what it could have to do with this fuzzy photo. Although this small item you can barely make out here has been subject to small but I would say significant confusions, I’ll hold you in suspense no longer than the absolute minimum time necessary, meaning no time at all.

The Yisun dictionary, at the end of its 3 (or 2, or 1) volumes, has among its illustrations something it calls mig-ra, and it looks like this:

I think mig-ra must etymologize as eye wall;
that is, unless you have some better idea.

Rather than calling them shades, perhaps they are better described as snow goggles or sun-reflecting-off-the-snow glasses (sans glass, of course). Anyway, they are used specifically for protecting the eyes from going blind from the glare of the sun on the snow, a condition naturally known as snow blindness.

Three centuries ago, the Jesuit missionary Desideri had this to say about them (in Michael Sweet's fresh new translation, p. 172):
“To protect the eyes from being damaged by the reflection of the sun's rays off the snows through which one has to travel, they use protectors resembling concave nets woven from black horsehair or the black hair of mountain oxen. Lacking these my eyes pained me greatly for some days, and I was in danger of losing my sight when my companions suggested that I rub my eyes with snow over and over, which proved to be the remedy.”
I find personally that hot towels can be very soothing to sore eyes, but I could also concede — or even swear — that the cause of the complaint can at times supply the cure.

William W. Rockhill, one of the most preeminent of the early North American Tibetologists, not only said this,
“The following day we managed, after much hard work through the deep, soft snow, to reach the summit of the Zonyig la (Altitude, 16,300 feet)...  The sky was clear, so the radiation of the sun on the snow caused us much discomfort, though we wore the horsehair eye-shades used in the country, and by the time we made camp in the Ranyik Valley, three of us were nearly blind.”
he even illustrated a set of mig-ra together with a case specially designed to hold it:

Although they do look rather abnormally large, I believe the mig-ra is the thing there on the head of the Karma Kagyü master Go-shri Dpal-’byor-don-grub, as he is depicted in David Jackson’s book, pp. 200-201, and not a “distinctive black-lobed headdress” as it is there infelicitously described. Here is a version of one of these thangkas found through a Google image search:

See, too, Christian Luczanits’s article for a reproduction of a “hitherto unidentified Sakya teacher of c. 1400 with a black net attached to the front of his hat.” I take the liberty of photographing the face of this image:

So sorry, wrong image. Let me try that again:

For those who by chance or innocence or total weirdness didn’t recognize His Holiness in shades, I assure you that what you saw there was none other than He Himself, styling some mean sunblocking instruments in Amsterdam, famous in world history for the invention of optical devices, being home of, among others, Christiaan Huygens (1629-1695), who proved that light doesn’t hit us all at once, but takes a bit of time. I could have told you that.

The Dalai Lama wears a white cowboy hat presented to him by Calgary Mayor David Bronconnier after arriving in Calgary, Wednesday, Sept. 30, 2009. Its honourees range from the Dalai Lama to Dr. Phil and now Prince William and Kate are about to join the ranks of Calgary's "white hatters."Custom-made, white Smithbilt cowboy hats have come to symbolize the city and will be presented to the couple as part of the traditional welcome when they arrive Thursday afternoon at the international airport for the final leg of their royal tour. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh
Here, too, we see Him wearing one of His very many hats. One of my favorites? The Calgary white cowboy hat. But anyway, these are hats, and a little bit off and over the subject.

There’s still a different type of eye shade that shouldn’t be confused with the mig-ra, since actually it’s more like a fringe.  You might see it worn by Tibetan Lamas during initiation rites (when they are wearing the དབང་རྫས་), as well as on Siberian shamans when they go into trance. You decide what that means, if you can.

I believe the word for this special kind of eye-covering fringe is dom-ra,* which would seem to mean bear wall, although the Yisun dictionary, in the previously mentioned section of illustrations, depicts what may be a special kind of dom-ra it knows as gzi-dom (གཟི་དོམ་).
(*Goldstein’s latest dictionary has an entry for དོམ་ར་: “a bear skin band worn with the fur hanging over the eyes to prevent snow blindness.”  For གཟི་དོམ་ there is nothing at all. I can point to one example of usage of the word dom-ra in Roerich’s Blue Annals, p. 888, that you can check if you’re curious.)

Does that name mean glare bear? I’d welcome clarification on this point. I’d love clarification on any point, actually. My idea is that the dom-ra may be placed above the eyes to protect them, but unlike the mig-ra it isn’t placed over the eyes, is it? I guess you can see what I’m getting at.

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Publications & web sources cited:

Alexander Gardner, “The First Gyeltsab, Peljor Dondrub.”  Look here, and take note of the shades.

David JacksonPatron and Painter: Situ Panchen and the Revival of the Encampment Style, Rubin Museum of Art (New York City 2009), at pp. 200-201, with reproductions of two paintings of Go-shri Dpal-’byor-don-grub (གོ་ཤྲཱི་དཔལ་འབྱོར་དོན་གྲུབ་), regarded as the first Gyaltsab Rinpoche (རྒྱལ་ཚབ་རིན་པོ་ཆེ་) of the Karma Kagyü (ཀརྨ་བཀའ་བརྒྱུད་) order.  You can find a bit on him at this TBRC page, but much more in the Gardner entry from Treasury of Tibetan Lives just now noticed above.

Christian Luczanits, “Art-Historical Aspects of Dating Tibetan Art,” contained in: Ingrid Kreide-Damani, ed., Dating Tibetan Art, Dr. Ludwig Reichert Verlag (Wiesbaden 2003), pp. 25-57, at p. 46.

Rgod-tshang-pa Mgon-po-rdo-rje (1189-1258 CE).  In a listing of several publications of his collected and selected works, one typed by yours truly (for which, look here) there are several short titles devoted to the mig-ra that I ought to have a look at. I’ll report back to you when I have done this. These works would have a bearing on a question not yet asked about the age of the object in Tibetan cultural history.  (There are some possible but problematic mentions in Old Tibetan documents that ought to be considered.)  [August 21, 2013:  Oh my, this is interesting.  I'll have to put up a new blog on it, but in these 13th-century texts it is quite clear the mig-ra is used to shield the eyes of sentient beings from the intense light emanating from the eyes of the yogi wearing them (or it?)... It doesn't protect the eyes of the wearer from the glare of the light; just the contrary, it protects other people from the glare of the wearer's eyes...  Very interesting... especially in light of what came up in the comments section, below...  And yes, there is another motive for shading the eyes I haven't talked about, one much in evidence with Hollywood celebrities.]

William Woodville Rockhill (1854-1914), The Land of the Lamas: Notes of a Journey through China, Mongolia and Tibet, Longmans, Green and Co. (London 1891), quote at pp. 201-202, with illustration on p. 175.  Even better is another work by Rockhill entitled Notes on the Ethnology of Tibet, fortunately (since I have no print copy) archived on the internet here. Once there, go to the text on p. 722, and plate 30 that comes just after it.

Jeff Watt, “Eye Coverings.”  A much-recommended page at "Himalayan Art Resources."

Zhang Yisun (1893-1983), et al., Bod Rgya Tshig-mdzod Chen-mo, Mi-rigs Dpe-skrun-khang (Beijing 1985). I realize Yisun is not the family name, but I use it anyway because it is more distinctive.

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Nobody should be too surprised that there are some sites on the internet devoted to the hats of His Holiness. Try a google-box search for "Dalai Lama's Hats" and you'll see what pops up. One in particular I hesitate to link you to, even though the photo collection is a fine one, since some of the pictures have been doctored, and the text that goes with them is largely inspired by gangsta rap, which isn't everybody's idea of respect, or even good taste.  Oh well, here it is since you insist, although older people who aren't used to this language ought to stay home and avoid going there. Now go blame its blogger. On a lighter note, some fashion writers have had the temerity to question or cautiously laud His progressive sense of style in His choice of head accessories, in particular the visors, like this one.  One blog questions His tendency to always wear the hat of the home team in the place he happens to be, and there is really something to this when you think about it (besides, have a look at this photographic evidence overwhelmingly in favor of what could otherwise appear to be a feeble thesis).

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“Modern dark spectacles have nothing on primitive eye-shades. In the Arctic split bones or pieces of wood protect the eyes from snow-blindness; woven eye-shades of all shapes are common in Melanesia and Polynesia and in South America, with thin black-felt veils as their Tibetan counterparts.”

For the archived source of the quote, look here.

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Screen shot from the Dolan movie

Next time you're in Ulan Bator, check out the amazing Choijin (in Tibetan ཆོས་སྐྱོང) Temple if you can possibly spare the time. It’s just south of the blue sky.

In the face of so much brilliance, you may need your eye protection. And if you do go there, be so kind as to check the lost and found for my prescription reading glasses. I might have left them there. They had green rims and I do miss them.
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