Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Regalia Untranslatable - Part Three

To start at the beginning, go here.

Look back at the frontispiece of Part Two, the first-listed of the nine regalia, the གསེར་ཁྲི་ཆུ་དར་ཅན་, “golden throne with/having chu-dar” — that term chu-dar that we will prefer to translate very literally as water silkNotice what was said just above about it being a blue material resembling water. (Feather clothing is an interesting side issue we won’t enter into now, although it was possible to use feathers as fiber source for making a fabric...)

Notice now that it is no longer blue but has a golden finish (I would rather interpret as having a golden luster). Remember this, it may prove significant.

As you read here, knowledge of ‘sea wool’ or ‘silk’ goes back to the earlier centuries of first millennium China. Here is what the Mediterranean mollusk Pinna nobilis mentioned here looks like.

And here is what it looks like under water:

The fibers that anchor the mollusk to the rock are semi-translucent, with a smooth tube-like structure — the color changes depending on light, but ranges from brown to orange to golden, with other colors refracting in light. It can be treated to make it even more translucent and shiney. Carded, spun and woven, the fabric is extremely lightweight (and they say a pair of gloves made of it can fit inside a walnut shell). It is said to be difficult if not impossible to make it take dye; if so a blue color would be unlikely. Moths love it, so few medieval examples survive, and those that do had to be carefully stored. It is quite inflammable.

There is a class of icons venerated in Greek Orthodox Christianity called acheiropoieton, ‘not handmade.’ In English they are usually called “Icons not made by hand” (words that may be useful for an internet search). But unlike rang byung images in Tibet, which can take shape on their own, these Christian icons result from direct contact of the body with a cloth or other medium.

It may still be true that few people know about the existence of sea silk, but it’s become better known early in the 21th century largely due to attention paid this icon and because of a 2004 exhibit in a museum in Switzerland that gathered together the rare objects made of it from all over Europe.

So, to sum up, water silk was known in early days at both ends of the Eurasian continent, although it occurs in nature in no other place than the Mediterranean Sea. Chu-dar is known from other contexts in Tibetan literary history where it is often associated with water sheep (chu-lug) and water wool (chu-bal), just as it had been in the Mediterranean region and in early China. And, being a substance of such extreme luxury, it was connected with royalty. I am now convinced it was this very substance that was used to upholster the golden throne of the early Tibetan emperors.

The Tibetan letters fail to stack properly (I apologize)

But we are not quite finished yet. There is a closely related but distinct issue that merits a few words. In a different listing of regalia found in the very same Khepa Deyu history (p. 234), we find as the first listed item “ri-sdzi mgon-bu.”

In this other list of regalia, full of its own obstacles to interpretation, we find objects that came down from the sky with the first Tibetan emperor (Nyatri Tsenpo), most of the objects later on are magical implements of household, hunt and battlefield, tools that do their jobs automatically without the need to expend human energy. These very much resemble the wellknown magical weapons of Indian mythology, in particular the Vajra, a weapon that throws itself, hits the target, and returns to the owner's hand.

With ri-sdzi drawing a complete blank, and unsure what to do with the mgon-bu, I eventually decided that mgon-bu probably had the intended spelling mgron-bu ( མགོན་བུ་ ~ མགྲོན་བུ་). Mgron-bu (also spelled 'gron-bu) is the word for the cowrie shell, well known in ancient India as an object of exchange, a kind of currency (even after coins were introduced they continued to be called by the name karshapani, that was translated into Tibetan as mgron-bu).

I imagined that the entire expression might refer to a particular kind of cowrie shell, so I started looking around for it, and finally by searching for "riji cowrie," something popped up on the internet that astounded me:

Etched Pearl Shells were items of both bodily decoration and of exchange just as the cowrie was in early Africa and India*, and there is an emphasis in the literature on how they work as ‘power tokens’ in exchanges between men, that accumulating them leads to being regarded as Big Men. They are used not only in NW Australia where they have the name riji, but under other names with similar usages in New Guinea and further out into Polynesian island cultures. Within that region, at least, they served as currency for international exchange.
(*I hope to learn more about this, but I believe that since ancient times the Maldive Islands were the main suppliers of cowrie currency to both Africa and India, and it seems entirely possible that the designs were added to the pearl shells to make them resemble cowries, so that they, too, could be used for currency. Evidently the people who make the riji understand these to be water patterns. In his long entry on "Cowries" Paul Pelliot, in his Notes on Marco Polo, gives a lot of evidence that cowries and other shells were used as currency in China from early times, and in some areas such as Yunnan, continued to be so used until recently.)

Why were the two terms riji and cowrie juxtaposed like this? Because the riji is less familiar, and the word cowrie explains its function as currency.  The more familiar explains the less. Or it could be a conjunctive compound, "riji and cowries."

Is it possible that the landlocked Tibetan kings were passing down through the generations two symbols of their royal power that derived from far distant shellfish? Can two different ‘untranslatable’ regalia have conchological explanations? The first of the two I feel quite sure about  (given widespread knowledge of it in medieval Eurasia), and will certainly go with it, translating chu-dar literally as sea silk and adding an explanation in a footnote. The pearl shell I’m still unsure how to proceed. I may just let it go and forget about it. Is an Australian connection too difficult to accept? Will I lose credibility if I pursue it? Will tough-love reviewers say it’s idiotic? What do you think?

So, in conclusion...

There are times I think impossible passages are there to push in front of our noses the unwelcome truth that even our translations of the passably possible passages are not necessarily on the mark, either. The big and glaring failure points to smaller failures, very likely invisible ones. It is hard to discern the hope in this... and I did want to offer some hope.

My history translation experience made me more than ever a big believer in parallel texts. As I mentioned before, there are texts incorporated into the Lde'u history that may no longer exist in any other form (some smaller bits are quoted or summarized in other early histories), but the largest part of it by far is copied out from some existing text, one that simply must be consulted. Often it is the only way to find justifications for emending difficult passages. The parallel texts supply alternative readings, and these help to sharpen your mind to find the solution even when they don’t serve up solutions on a silver platter.

The Tibetan Buddhist Resource Center has just released online their searchable eText repository. As of now, this is the place to go to locate unusually difficult vocabulary items in various contexts. One may also with extreme ease locate parallel passages there that can prove to be essential aides in the overall understanding of difficult passages.

Of course, experts of various sorts need to be consulted, ideally the more the better. They, too, don’t always have immediate or ultimate solutions to offer, but they do very often have ideas that turn you in a different direction where the answer may be found if you persevere. And when this still doesn’t get you anywhere, at least you have the satisfaction of reassuring yourself that since experts X, Y and Z who know so much in this field didn’t offer a conclusive solution to the problem, it’s OK for me not to be able to explain it. At the end of my first two years of translating, I was left with a list of about 200 of what I called ‘double question marks,’ and even after much consultation during the last two years (both in person and by email), I think there are about 100 of these that are to my mind still less than satisfactorily resolved.

Impossible passages demand emendations. These fix-ups might be applied to the text from a variety of angles, but they do need to be justifiable, with the alteration minimal. We try tinkering with a spelling or toy with inserting or removing a  punctuation mark. But in the end, when all our efforts fail us, we may have to admit defeat. And when this happens, it is so much more honest to present the reader with a blank _____ (perhaps in the form of a phoneticized representation of the original wording) rather than slipping in a vague and careless conjecture just to smooth over the difficulty. The text demands too much respect to allow us to take the easy way out, at least not before it drives us crazy. Translators have responsibilities in two directions, both back in time to the composer as well as forward in time to the readers. We can't give up on either one.

So the simple and not very enlightening suggestion I have is this: Translators need to do everything they possibly can to come to an understanding of difficult vocabulary items and phrases. They may have to look very far and wide for the solutions, they may be forced to leave their comfortable positions, to get out from between the covers of the book they’re  translating, and this might lead them to look in some rather unexpected directions even as far away as the distant oceans.

— Continued here —

§  §  §

Listing of some significant writings on sea silk and pearl shells

John H. Appleby, The Royal Society and the Tartar Lamb, Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London, vol. 51, no. 1 (January 1997), pp. 23-34.

Brendan Burke, Looking for Sea-Silk in the Bronze Age Aegean. Follow the link.

Berthold Laufer, The Story of the Pinna and the Syrian Lamb, Journal of American Folk-Lore, vol. 38 (1915), pp. 103-128.  I also recommend Paul Pelliot's entry "Cotton" (the last several pages of the entry) in his Notes on Marco Polo.  You can get to it page-by-page at this website from Japan.  Try vol. 1, pp. 522-532, and note, too, the lengthy entry "Cowries" immediately following it.

There was a museum exhibition on sea silk in Basel in 2004, that brought together pieces from other parts of Europe.  Look here. A catalog was published: Felicitas Maeder, Ambros Hänggi, and Dominik Wunderlin, eds. Bisso marino: Fili d’oro dal fondo del mare / Muschelseide: Goldene Fäden vom Meeresgrund. Naturhistoriches Museum and Museum der Kulturen, Basel, (2004), bilingual Italian and German. I haven't seen it, have you?

There have been some more or less popular books written about the Manoppello icon coming out in Europe in recent years. See for some examples Das Muschelseidentuch: Auf der Suche nach dem wahren Antlitz Jesu (2005), by Paul Badde; Das Göttliche Gesicht: im Muschelseidentuch von Manoppello, also by Paul Badde; Von der Angesicht: Betrachtungen und Erfahrungen vor dem Muschelseidenbild in Manoppello (2007), by Cornelia Schrader; Der Manoppello-Code: Veronica Manipuli (2013), by von Markus van den Hövel. I see that the Paul Badde books are also available in English. For a dedicated Blogspot, see "Holy Face of Manoppello."

Just last month the icon made a personal visit to the Philippines, meaning I can’t tell you where to find it right now. So I recommend traveling to Sardinia instead of Italy right now, that is, if you dream of dropping in on the last remaining master of sea silk weaving. Look here or here. She has her own website, here. She has a small museum, too.

For a collection of scientific data on the Pinna nobilis, look here.  

For a discussion we once had back in 2009 about ocean products in Tibet with C.C., the author of Sitahu blog, look here. Although originally about a Tibetan word for shagreen, the ray skin grips used on knife or sword handles, Turkic original of the English word chagrin, it turned out to be about sea silk and other matters, and is worth revisiting. Shagreen is yet another sea product Tibetans made use of. (I’ll just mention conch shells, so as not to leave them unmentioned.)

And for pearl shell pendants:

Try searching the net and Googlebooks (or JSTOR, if you have institutional access) for riji and pearl shell. Don’t miss Cloth and Shell: Revealing the Luminous; not only aesthetically pleasing, informative and accessible, it gives inspiration to find out more.

Added Note (July 18, 2015):  

I just finished reading an article by Egami Namio, “Migration of the Cowrie-Shell Culture in East Asia,” Acta Asiatica, vol. 26 (1974), pp. 1-52.  One thing could prove especially relevant for understanding the ri-dzi 'g[r]on-bu of our text.  It is known from excavations of quite early sites in China that cowries were dug up together with other items that often included pang shells. Here pang shells are defined as freshwater bivalves.  However, I've found that  when pang shells are mentioned it can mean either one of two types of shells, one a type of native bivalve (some kind of clam or mollusk), and the other a [likely imported] pearl oyster shell.  I will have to try and find out more before using this to make conclusions about anything. Meanwhile, I ought to read this as well.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Regalia Untranslatable - Part Two

The Nine Royal Heirlooms, which is to say the Tibetan Imperial Regalia.

By way of introduction:  In today’s blog, Part Two of a three-part series that began with Part One, I intend to say a little bit about what regalia means, but my main aim is to establish for those who may be in doubt that a number of items imported from distant lands are indeed associated with the Tibetan imperial period. This background will help open the way for the objects that will be the subject of Part Three. Otherwise it is likely the conclusions would be regarded as, quite literally, going too far. Remember that what you have here are rewritten notes for a lecture, and not the lecture itself (I may put a link to an audio version later on), and this blog is bound to undergo revisions in the future. I expect and hope that some knowledgeable readers will offer suggestions for understanding the more obscure Tibetan terms used in the description of Tibetan regalia you see in the slide reproduced above...  Click on any slide if you wish to enlarge it.

So... What does regalia mean? One of its most common usages today is to refer to fancy ethnic clothing.  To give an example, “The local Tibetans showed up in full ethnic regalia.”* Often, even more jokingly, people speak of ‘academic regalia.’ Here we mean by it something more technical and more technically correct. Regalia are heirlooms strictly for royalty, passed down via the royal succession, perhaps also handed over (or made use of) as part of a coronation rite. They stand for royal power. That is about as succinct and generally applicable definition as I can come up with for regalia, so I will leave it with that.
(*More frequent are references to ethnic clothing of Native Americans or to the ritual accoutrements of Masonic orders.)

Referring back to the frontispiece, we will not get much further than discussing no. 1 on the list (to be discussed more in Part Three)... which is unfortunate because... well, some things in it are so far simply unintelligible. For myself, at the moment, the most problematic bits are in nos. 2 and 6-9, and I would love to hear your ideas about them!  No. 5 is quite clearly a silver ladle (or serving spoon) with stag [heads] decorating it. It is the one thing most often mentioned in the sources. No. 2 looks like an object called gud-sa that has ivory [or tusks] (following a parallel text reading ba-so instead of bang-so), but what is the gud-sa?  Is it Sanskrit gutsa? At the moment, my best guess is that it's the chowrie (yak-hair fly whisk) used as royal insignia in the Indian subcontinent, and elsewhere.  Loma-gutsa would be the more complete Sanskrit for a hair whisk (gutsa alone means a bunched-up bundle of any kind of thing). And the fact is that many chowries do have handles made of ivory, so this, too, seems to fit. Perhaps we've found the answer to this one?  No. 3  — since gold image having water design doesn't seem to fit the context or even make very good sense — I'm thinking may require a minimal emendation so as to read gser-skud chu-ris-can, with the meaning gold thread[ed brocade robe] having water design.

Guntram Hazod, in his short essay, studies several sources for the lists (including the one in our frontispiece), but never ventures to translate or discuss in any detail possible meanings of the members of those lists. Given the difficulties, there is no wondering why. But note that translations for the less difficult items (in a much later list that is parallel to ours, but with a lot of variants) are indeed found in the main body of the book (in the translation of the 15th-century work itself, at pp. 27-28).  To quote from this section, minus the footnotes:
"...banner with a golden legend of the Ratnakūṭa-sūtra (dkon mchog brtsegs pa gser gyi ba dan can), a smooth-polished golden throne (gser khri phyi dar can) and an ivory bsdus pa ba so can.  As adornment of their body they gave [the parents] a coat [called] gsol ber byi skad can and a necklace of turquoise, whose stones had a spiral pattern (mgul g.yu 'khor mig can), as gifts of weaponry they gave them a hand-spear with magic eyes (phyag mdung 'phrul mig can) and a [stick called] rno bal chod can.  It is said these two were the hand-spear and the stick of the [royal] ancestor Mes-ag-tshom.  [Finally] they gave them a golden scoop with the image of a stag (gser skyog sha ba can) and a silvery scoop adorned with [the image of] the gna' wild sheep (dngul skyog sna ba [=gna' ba?] can)."

Rhyton from the Cleveland Museum.

I just want to emphasize here that some objects associated with Tibets imperial lineage are indeed foreign luxury items, like this rhyton, of Greek conception and possibly manufactured somewhere in between (Sogdian? Persian? Scythian?). The associated cup has an inscription that reads phan shing gong skyes kyi sug byang. I believe this indicates a "finger certificate" of a person with the proper name Phan-shing Gong-skyes, since there are typical elements of an Old Tibetan name. The last two syllables may be correctly read as sug byad, but in any case it appears to mean something like sug rgya, the ‘finger seals’ used in lieu of signatures in the Dunhuang documents. (The inscription has three circles with a set of three vertical lines next to them, probably together indicating the amount of metal it contains.  For more discussion see Amy Heller's article of 2013...) These observations help verify its status as a valuable object that existed in the Imperial Period, even if it was owned by a some unknown person.

By now, what we see in this next slide has to be regarded as the most amazing and celebrated such foreign luxury object to survive from the period of empire. Moreover, it is associated with one of the most famous emperors in all of Tibetan history, Songtsen the Wise.

Emperor Songtsen's Beer Dispenser.

Tibetans nowadays seem to know this as Chang-snod Rta-mgo-can (beer vessel having horse head; notice how remarkably close this is in syntactical/metrical structure to most of the names of the nine regalia listed in our frontispiece), although its very clearly a camel head, and camel headed vessels are associated with Emperor Songtsen the Wise in the Kathang De Nga (Roberto Vitali is said to be the ultimate source of this reference, however I've managed to locate another reference in Eric Haarh, Yar-luṅ Dynasty, G.E.C. Gad's Forlag [Copenhagen 1969], p. 354:  dkor-cha rin-po-che dngul-gyi bum-pa rta'i-mgo-can gsum. Here it says the three horse-headed vessels of silver were among a large number of items placed in a tomb mound.  Haarh even makes a drawing showing their placement on his p. 355!)

Closeup of one side of Emperor Songtsen's Beer Dispenser
(click for an even closer look).

A bearded old man is rather tipsy, unable to stand on his own feet, after a night of serious drinking, so two young men are helping him find his way home.

I’ve been wondering about the material substance of this vessel, which appears to be silver with parcel-gilt figures.  As Amy Heller points out, the figures were cast separately before being attached to the silver vase. So perhaps these figures are made of electrum, a naturally occurring combination of silver and gold? And is electrum the thing Tibetans called phra-men, a term that causes translators a lot of headaches? (See this recent discussion. Manganese is another suggestion.) Im as of now unsure whether parcel-gilt silver or electrum would be the true meaning of phra-men, but I do think it was one or the other or (less likely) both. One strong argument in favor of electrum is that it would fit into a list otherwise composed entirely of distinct metals (as we find in the list of official ranks in the Old Tibetan empire). Depicted below is an amazing early Greek-made electrum vase. I’m not sure if you will agree, but I see some remarkable similarity in the figure of the drunken old man and the figure you see here of a man stringing his bow. I can’t quite put my finger on it. It may be an illusion.

Kurgan means a burial mound, one for a Scythian king and his queen.
Although believed to be of Greek manufacture,  it depicts Scythian warriors,
as well as an ancient dentist treating a patient for toothache, and one of
a man helping another man tie up his boots.

I’ll close this blog with few more words about regalia worldwide: The Yoruba in Africa have a myth of royal descent in which particular objects descend with Oduduwa from the sky (but here the objects perform a role in the very creation of the world). Myths of royal descent from the sky occur here and there in Eurasia, perhaps most remarkably in Japan. In Indian Buddhism we have an account of a set of five objects, royal insignia that represented the kingship of Prasenajit, namely his crown, parasol, sword, yak-tail fan and embroidered shoes (and similar or identical lists of "five insignia of royalty" may appear in some accounts of the Buddha's life). When he lost them he lost his kingship to his son. It may indeed pay to compare power symbolism (regalia?) seen on coins of Roman Emperors Caesar and Nero that might include jug, staff (lituus), cup (culullus), sprinkler (aspergillum), ladle (simpulum), tripod and libation bowl (patera), as well as such weapons as the knife and axe.  Some of these items were originally associated with various priesthoods. We should also note the nine regalia, known in quite ancient Chinese history, in the form of nine cooking tripods used for offerings to heaven. These nine Ding are sometimes said to be able to cook by themselves without the help of any fire. This is often true of other regalia in other cultures, that they are regarded as capable of performing their functions on their own (in fact, one list of Tibetan regalia is almost entirely made up of such self-acting objects), as if automated — they may in fact deserve a place in the history of automation. It’s interesting, too, to see that some of these power symbols are connected with the kitchen and with food serving, like the ladles (Tibetan, Roman) and tripods (Chinese, Roman). According to the list of the Nine Can, the first king while still in the sky inherited from his mother a ladle, a copper vessel and another obscure item. Not explicit but implied: these objects must have come down together with him. Let’s leave it at that for now.

For a small essay on Caesar's use of power objects, look here.

(continued here)

For more on foreign luxury goods — primarily of silver and of Greek/Iranian or Hellenistic origins — that are associated with the Tibetan imperial period:

Martha L. CarterAn Indo-Iranian Silver Rhyton in the Cleveland Museum, Artibus Asiae, vol. 41 (1979), pp. 309-325.  —— Three Silver Vessels from Tibet's Earliest Historical Era: A Preliminary Study, Cleveland Studies in the History of Art, vol. 3 (1998), pp. 22-47. 

Stanislaw J. CzumaSome Tibetan and Tibet-Related Acquisitions of the Cleveland Museum of Art, Oriental Art, vol. 38, no. 4 (1993), pp. 231-248.  —— Tibetan Silver Vessels (Beaker, Rhyton & Vase), Bulletin of the Cleveland Museum of Art, vol. 80, no. 4 (1993), pp. 131-135.

Phillip DenwoodA Greek Bowl from Tibet, Iran, vol. 11 (1973), pp. 121-127. Denwood here describes a "libation bowl" acquired from an aristocratic family from Lhasa by Snellgrove, that may very well be identified as one of the patera mentioned above (this idea merits close examination, I would say, especially since Denwood mentions the Greek name for the same object, phiale).

Assadullah Souren Melikian-Chirvani, Iran to Tibet, contained in: Anna Akasoy, Charles Burnett & Ronit Yoeli-Tlalim, eds., Islam and Tibet: Interactions along the Musk Routes, Ashgate (Farnham 2011), pp. 89-115 and plates 4.1 to 4.17.

Dorothy G. ShepherdTwo Silver Rhyta, Bulletin of the Cleveland Museum of Art, vol. 53 (1966), pp. 289-311.

There is something very interesting about these items in a book edited by Dorothea Arnold entitled Ancient Art from the Shumei Family Collection.  Perhaps you can get to the page by clicking here.

I much recommend another very recent article by Amy Heller:  Tibetan Inscriptions on Ancient Silver and Gold Vessels and Artefacts, published in the maiden issue of Journal of the International Association for Bon Research, vol. 1 (2013), pp. 259-91.  A PDF can be directly downloaded at this link. Here you will also see amazing photographs of a number of these objects.

- - -

On Japanese ideas about the Three Regalia (mirror, sword and jewel), as well as the Ten Sacred Treasures, there is a remarkable new essay by Kadoya Atsushi, "Myths, Rites and Icons," contained in: Bernard Scheid & Mark Teeuwen, eds., The Culture of Secrecy in Japanese Religion, Routledge (London 2006), pp. 269-283.

On Chinese ideas about regalia (but not on the nine tripods we have mentioned here), see the chapter ‘Ritual Robes and Regalia’ in William Edward Soothill, The Hall of Light: A Study of Early Chinese Kingship, Lutterworth Press (London 1951), pp. 194-204.

On two of the Roman power objects, see Roberta Stewart, The Jug and Lituus on Roman Republican Coin Types: Ritual Symbols and Political Power, Phoenix, vol. 51, no. 2 (Summer 1997), pp. 170-189. These may have been meant to serve as regalia in some sense, yet in their origins they were objects associated with various priesthoods. When compared with the nine regalia of Tibetan lore, the Roman set lacks precisely the objects from the father — the court-display objects of seating and attire — although otherwise the objects from the mother and brother are remarkably comparable.

A "water design" in a Chinese robe, called chu-ris in Tibetan;
the motif is common in Tibetan art, too.

Added comments:

  1. In 2015, Joachim Karsten posted an article at academia.edu and opened it for discussion. Just for the record, I put up the title here: “A Notice on an Alleged ‘Silver Seal’ of the Srong-btsan sgam-po Emperor of Tibet.” He prefers to call the jug a carafe, and promises yet another article on the subject. We'll be on the lookout for it. May peace increase!

  2. Just now in Japan and in coming days in Thailand, royal coronations are taking place, so the press has been paying some attention to the 3 Japanese regalia that came down from the sky, as well as Thai regalia that in fact closely correspond to the regalia of Prasenajit, as mentioned in this blog. For the Thai regalia, look at this BBC story:

  3. PS: But surely the BBC story is in error when it says that the crown was a European concept introduced in recent times. Really? They have no idea about the use of crowns and diadems in India in the distant past? A little imperial ethno-narrowness on display here, you think?

  4. Now, in 2019, a series of investiture and enthronement ceremonies are taking place for the new Emperor of Japan Naruhito. You can see a fascinating video lecture (part of a series of Evans-Wentz lectures) by Helen Hardacre on the history of Japanese enthronement rites and their changes through history here:


    You can see in a video within the Hardacre video of the May 1, 2019 presentation of the regalia: a boxed sword, a set of jewels in a square box, and also two velvet bags containing official seals.

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