Saturday, November 08, 2014

More Questions of Regalia



This list was already posted here. To start at the beginning, go here.

Here we are, back with those nine regalia passed down in the Tibetan imperial line, couched in terms that are mostly very difficult to read and understand. Why bother with them? I know some people are wondering what Tibetans could have done with regalia, anyway. They're thinking, Weren't all Tibetans peacefully meditating in caves all the time so why ever would they need rulers? Or, at one of the other extremes, Weren’t those primitive Tibetans always so completely satisified with their lot being a part of the Chinese motherland in the capable hands of their Han superiors, what could they have possibly been doing with power symbols like regalia? We may have more to say on these much more significant subjects another day. It isn’t my present plan to reduce anybody’s stereotypes to dust, as if they would even begin to let me (just this once excuse my delusions of grandeur thinking I might ever succeed in such wickedness).


Right now we’ll just wonder why it is that we find two very different lists of regalia in the Deyu (ལྡེའུ་) history. Well, the dating of the earliest Tibetan member of the imperial dynasty Nyatri Tsenpo, the one who came down from his home in the sky, is impossible to calculate using our quotidian tools of historical verification. But let’s say for the sake of saying something that he lived around 127 BCE.  (Don’t quote me on that, although this is in truth the basis for calculating the ‘Tibetan royal year’ - བོད་རྒྱལ་ལོ་.)  That’s the time when the first set of regalia would have appeared, the list that begins with the seashell wampum —  the Riji Cowries — but otherwise contains mainly self-powered, even we could say automated tools of warfare, cooking, bodily ornamentation, millstones and so on.*  

(*It also includes an item that excites a lot of popular interest, the nine-stepped Rmu ladder, རྨུ་སྐས་རིམ་དགུ་. We won't go that way today, since it would take all of next week to get this blog up.)
Oh, and another thing — The Deyu history historian doesn’t really say anything for himself. He just quotes from other sources, including some bona fide document-quality sources, and he never tries to make his different accounts harmonize with each other as a careful writer would do. What that really means is we ought to trust the Deyu history even more than, say, Butön's more famous one. Butön was no doubt a great writer, but the Deyu historian was a great collector.

The second list, the one you see above, is mentioned for a historical context around 1,300 years later, the time of Atisha and Rongzompa sometime in the 11th century. There was a problem in the royal succession that involved disputed ownership of the regalia.



We’ve already offered some kind of solutions for numbers 1 through 3 as well as 5. Just yesterday a light switched on above number 4. And perhaps it’s time to turn on a tiny nightlight for no. 6, also, and see if we can get somewhere with it. Let’s get started and get it over quickly, in case you have more important matters begging for your immediate attention. Oh well, I would just like to tell you, Relax, so what if you do?


Number 4 could be very literally translated as copper [thing] - having navel.  As one of the parting gifts from his mother as the first emperor was about to descend from the sky, it is likely something of domestic or culinary use. Here zangs doesn't mean just copper, it means copperware. If there were a syllable preceding it, we would know what kind of copperware was intended, but unfortunately it appears here by itself.* Among the possibilities, more likely intended would be either a water vessel or a cooking cauldron made of copper. Or I suppose a second syllable could have been dropped, in which case we might think of a platter made of copper (zangs-sder - ཟངས་སྡེར་), a copper sheet (zangs-glegs -  ཟངས་གླེགས་ for zangs-ma’i glegs-bu - ཟངས་མའི་གླེགས་བུ་), or again, a water vessel (zangs-bu - ཟངས་བུ་).

(*We would expect a two-syllabled term here. That would preserve the parallelism with the others in the list. It's also possible the initial syllable was dropped here).


The thing that decided me in favor of a more particular shape for the object is the lte-ba-can, meaning having a navel.  How to explain the navel?  Remember we mentioned one of the power symbols used by Caesar, the patera, a kind of ritual libation bowl the Greeks called phiale?  In the middle of this small bowl is what else but a navel? It's called a phiale omphalos (or mesamphalos). An example is illustrated in von Heland's book, and it was that particular one that gave me the Eureka! moment. Just feeding the words into a searchbox can yield a number of examples, like this one:



Taken from an online auction house, where it is given the date 5th century BCE

I add a photo of the bottom side, so you can see that the bulge inside, in the middle, corresponds to the concave outside, in the base.  This indentation allowed use of the bowl with one hand only, with no need of a handle. In ritual lustrations you might need the second hand free for holding other things.  With this kind of bowl one finger and a thumb should be sufficient to keep the bowl under control.


The underside of the same bowl


I'm not sure we should argue that the Tibetan item was the same, or even had the same function, as the Latin and Greek (I think not), just that if we are looking for a piece of metalware that has a navel, no need to look further.  We can at least begin to imagine what the Tibetan item could have looked like and why. This solution has the virtue of requiring not even the least emendation in the reading.*
(*Not overly relevant here, but the Tibetan object that most corresponds to the phiale in both form and function would be the ting offering bowls you find on Tibetan Buddhist altars everywhere.  [The phiale is shallower in its shape, and that is one important difference.] It's been suggested the ting word is a borrowing from Chinese, but some disagree and I'm not ready to reproduce these arguments here and now. I slipped in a photo of the Tibetan bowls further down below. These are totally not the more famous singing ones, in case you were wondering, although another meaning of ting is the sound that comes from striking metal, or as we would say in English, Ding!)


Now just a word on number 6 and we’re done for the day. No. 6 is the one regalia term that seems most opaque. As it is, hardly anything makes sense. The first two syllables don’t make sense, and neither do the final three. We’re left with little choice but to emend it, the question being only how best to do it.  


I was thinking, since this triadic group of regalia is all about food preparation and serving, and given that 4 is a copper vessel and 5 a silver ladle, then what thing resembling me-tor would fittingly fill in the blank?  The answer that came to my mind at least was me-phor. I do recognize the problem that there is insufficient graphic or phonic similarity that could explain the ph-to-t shift, forcing us to argue that a form me-thor could have come in between: ph-to-th-to-t. Whenever an emendation requires more than one stage we are likely to regard it with suspicion, but in this case it only involves change in one letter after all, so why not? The ph (ཕ་) could have shifted to th (ཐ་) for graphic reasons, and then to t (ཏ་) for phonic. To put it simply, to the best of my knowledge me-tor means nothing in Tibetan, while me-phor means a brazier, a metal cannister-shaped implement made to hold coals for cooking or tea warming. A couple of examples of these braziers are illustrated in one of the several books that have come out in recent decades about the Potala Palace of Lhasa. Here is what the more fancy one looks like:



After The Potala: Holy Place of the Land of Snows (1996), p. 191.  The
English-language caption says it is a white copper stove made in 19th century.
The base forms a tripod.


For the time being agreeing the first two syllables mean brazier, what can we do with the last three:  ti-lig-can, or having ti-lig? Any idea what this ti-lig might be? I have none. Yes, it did occur to me it might be something drawn from Sanskrit, and I’m still considering the idea. I think it looks more like Zhang-zhung than Tibetan, but if that were so it would mean water life. That’s not making sense — water life decorating a brazier? I don’t think so! — so I’m wondering how I could emend the reading. Perhaps the scribe was a little dyslexic, and meant to write li-tig. If that were so: Perhaps the brazier had orange lines, or Khotanese lines (in either case the spelling li-thig would be working better), I don’t know. Or is li for bronze or bell-metal, meaning the brazier had lines or drops or bits of bronze decorating it? That seems to work for me, although I’m not sure it’s the truth of the matter.* It’s never a good sign when you’re trying too hard.
(*It may or may not be relevant, but the one item that is most frequently paired with the me-phor is something called the khog-ltir/khog-ldir, a kind of kettle and/or teapot made of either clay or metal. Brazier with kettle would have made sense here, I suppose, but making such an emendation would take far too much work to be believable.)


§  §  §



Places to read or find out a thing or two:


Bu-ston Rin-chen-grub, Butön's History of Buddhism in India and Its Spread to Tibet, a Treasury of Priceless Scripture, tr. by Lisa Stein and Ngawang Zangpo, Snow Lion (Boston 2013).  Butön's history is now available to English readers in a much more readable and less forbidding version than that old (but not badly done) Obermiller translation, and for this we must be thankful. There are about two thousand missing footnotes, but I guess there are readers who won't miss them. Compared to the Deyu, Butön's treatment of Tibet is very thin indeed, largely confined to the history of the translation of Buddhist scriptures into Tibetan, the subject of his greatest concern, obviously.

Madeleine von Heland, The Golden Bowl from Pietroasa, Almqvist and Wiksell (Stockholm 1973). Unfortunately here there are no color photos of this unique gold bowl, associated with some kind of late Platonic cult, so for that we have to go to the internet, especially this short but remarkable video that finds scenes of Orphic initiation in its figures. Interesting.

A.A.Y. Kyerematen, Panoply of Ghana: Ornamental Art in Ghanian Tradition and Culture, Frederick A. Praeger (New York 1964). I just located a copy of this book, very rich in photographs and information on African regalia. As expected anywhere there is a cult of royalty, figuring very largely are chairs, clothing, ornaments and weapons. But there are also musical instruments, umbrellas, fly whisks, palanquins and staffs of office (scepters). If cooking utensils are considered regalia, as it seems they are, they remain the property of the queen. I believe at some point the African evidence will have to be regarded as relevant to rulership patterns throughout Eurasia and beyond. As you probably have heard Africa is now increasingly regarded as the actual Garden of Eden,* with African Eve the genetic mother of all Eurasians.  Hmmm...  Pygmy Kitabu was right after all! Even if Colin Turnbull didn't think so.


Asadullah Souren Melikian-Chirvani & Jaʿfar Šahrī, "Brazier," Encyclopaedia Iranica, vol. 4, fasc. 4, pp. 443-444. Also online here. Nowadays braziers are better known as barbecue grills. Well, not exactly equivalent, but close enough. I found a set of fascinating old photographs from Tehran. You'll find there not only braziers (prepare to be surprised at the way they are being used), but some obvious examples of regalia.








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