Sunday, September 24, 2017

That Tibetan Bell in Armenia Once More

What do we do with matter out of place? Do we ignore, reject it? Or do we find ways to accommodate it? Is it the exception that only serves to prove the rule? Or does it break and in doing so invalidate the rule? The existence of a bell with a Tibetan inscription in the heart of Armenia is so worthy of comment, we might wonder why it isn’t mentioned much more. But what ought to pique our interest instead risks embarrassing our grand sweeping theories, risks getting swept aside in the Big Sweep of historical narrative.

Map to show the distance the bell would have travelled.    

If you find it disconcerting that a Tibetan bell could possibly pop up in Armenia you should not for that reason feel lonely. After all, the distance "as the crow flies" from Lhasa to Yerevan is 4358 km, or about 2,700 miles, much further than the width of the contiguous-states part of the United States of America. In terms of long-distance horse-back riding, that would mean around 135 days of travel, more than 4 months, carrying an extraordinarily heavy object that would slow down even our hypothetical horse averaging 20 miles a day. Adjusting for the weight of the load and the indirectness of the routes, I’d say we’re talking at least 200 days of travel, perhaps even a year. Today, with two stopovers in Kathmandu and Qatar, you can do it in 17 hours.

Holy Etchmiadzin, the Mother Cathedral of Armenia.

The truth is that this bell has been discovered over and over again for a couple of centuries now, and each time people who hear about it find it surprising news. If you have a short memory, as we tend to, you likely forgot the 2006 blog on the subject called “The Mysterious Whitehead.” What I have to say today is yet another sounding of an alarm clock set at regular intervals in order to tell the world, Yes, what you’ve heard is true, no matter how unbelievable it may sound. But then people say, Okay, now I’m convinced, I can believe it’s there, but that only makes me want to ask you more questions about the hows, the whens and the whys.

Today I’m going to suggest some ideas from a Tibetocentric perspective, naturally, about how those questions might possibly be answered. I’ll supply some probable scenarios in terms of time and place. But regardless of the near impossibility of fully satisfying solutions, we ought to be able to find significance in our failures. So I don’t believe our time dwelling on this fascinating topic will go to waste.

 Two views of Etchmiadzin’s exterior.

The First Christian building was placed there in around 302-303 CE on the site of an ancient fire temple. Here Gregory the Illuminator beheld a vision of Christ descending from heaven.

Etchmiadzin in central position in a floor mosaic in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. 
Views of the bell towers.

This shows a bell consecration ritual for newly constructed St. Gevorg Church of Berd, in Armenia in 2014. This helps to demonstrate the importance of bells in Armenian Christianity, as objects worthy of their own consecration rituals. The Armenian “Book of Rituals” includes a special rite for the anointment and consecration of bells. Sometimes, on special occasions, divine service (or “mass”) was performed in the bell towers rather than in the main part of the church.

Now that the Armenian side has been introduced, I’d like to go with some care through the bits of evidence about the Tibetan bell in 19th-century, primarily western European publications. 

Title page of Frédéric Dubois de Montpéreux.

As far as I know right now, this is the first notice of the bell within the context of a published book. It is based on the author’s own visit to Etchmiadzin in 1831.

The author in the footnote makes reference to the Mani Mantra as if it were relevant to the inscription on the bell, a misunderstanding that took on a life of its own, as confusions tend to do.

Dated 1837 — A notice by Brosset and Schmidt in St. Petersburg, based on the finding of Dubois.

“The bell of the convent of Edchmiadzin carries a Tibetan legend repeated three times on the outer edge: ôm â houm.

“M. Schmidt, in giving us the reading of this inscription, which was collected by the seasoned traveler M. Dubois, in 1831, has communicated to us the following note:” 

The same, continued

“In the Tibetan grammar of Csoma of Körös we find among the interjections* the three mystical characters of the bell of Etchmiadsin explicated as follows: o is the symbol of the substance or the person of Buddha or of a divinity in general, aḥ is the symbol of the word of Buddha etc. and hû the symbol of his grace and mercy. This all together forms the idea or symbol of the Buddhist trinity, commonly called the three precious ones, whose representatives are: Buddha or his image, sacred books and the clergy.”

(*My note: I find in the Csoma de Körös grammar [1834], p. 105 on internet, heading the class of interjections, "oṃ, a mystical interjection, denoting the essential body or person of a Buddha or any other divinity. aḥ, ditto, denoting the word or doctrine of ditto. hûṃ, ditto, denoting the mind or mercy of ditto.”)
(Another note:  The script is here actually metal type for Tibetan that Schmidt himself developed in just about this same time. This same type would continue to be used in St. Petersburg publications for the following century.)

“The religious of Edchmiadzin do not know when and by what route this bell has been brought into their convent. It can hardly be doubted that it dates back to the Mongol era.”

Everybody knows Helena Blavatsky as a founder of the Theosophical Society. Long before that, in 1849, she had a very brief, eventful and unconsummated marriage with a Russian vice-governor of Yerevan Province in Armenia. It would have been after their supposed honeymoon, or around the end of August of that year when she visited Etchmiadzin Cathedral. For some time I was fooled by a passage in the book by Marion Meade, Madame Blavatsky, theWoman behind the Myth, that seems to imply that she had taken note of the Tibetan bell during this trip, but further investigation led nowhere, so I’ve abandoned the idea. I think the modern biographer simply slipped in this bit of interesting information for the benefit of her readers. Searching through the 15 volumes of Blavatsky’s online Collected Works, she displays no interest at all in Christian Armenia, only in its pagan and Zoroastrian past, and with only a few mentions of Etchmiadzin, there is nothing to find about any bell there.

She also mentions “Chaldean” inscriptions. As background, we may say that Friedrich Schultz had discovered what we now know to be Urartian inscriptions near Lake Van in 1826. These began being deciphered only in the 1850’s, with success reported in 1882. The oldest inscription in Urartian dates to 9th century BCE. This does help us with the context for understanding why the monks proffered the idea that the bell inscription was Chaldean. But honestly, there is no way Tibetan script resembles Cuneiform. Not to my eyes, but well, you know, there are people who look at the Voynich Manuscript and see Tibetan there, too.*
(*There’s a 58-page pamphlet made available through commercial outlets on the internet entitled, The Voynich Manuscript: The Tibetan Bible. I haven’t worked up the courage to order it yet. If you think it’s worthwhile, write and tell us what you find out.)

James Bryce account.

As you see there is a bare mention only in Bryce’s book on his 1876 travels.

Chart of 19th-century sources on the inscription on the bell. 

To continue reading click here.

Please leave a comment and join the discussion.

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For background, as if you needed any, have a look at these back blogs:

The Mysterious Whitehead, Tibeto-logic blog, December 21, 2006. Notice also, “Renewed Bell Appeal,” May 15, 2007; and “Bell Envy,” June 15, 2009. Also on bells is “Another Disquieting Bell and Its Inscription.”


  1. The Short Person :)Monday, September 25, 2017

    Many thanks for the in-depth history lectures for these last couple of posts.

  2. I thank you for your thanks, S.P. More of similar nature are on their way. But not to worry, Padampa will make a comeback before you know it.

  3. There is an important lesson here for historians---amateur or professional: Be vigilant to scams!

  4. Dear S.P., Being vigilant is always a good idea, but I probably have the wool pulled down so thoroughly over my face I can't even see where the scam might be. The story isn't over yet. The bell was surely there, even if it isn't available for our inspection at this very moment. So stay tuned. The facsimile (more accurately "hand copy" or "eye copy") of the inscription in the Levond book is coming up next.

    Your D

  5. Dear S.P.,
    Now that I thought about it, maybe you were referring to the biographer of Blavatsky embroidering her account to include a mention of the famous Tibetan bell. Now I think we have no way of knowing if Blavatsky actually saw it or not.

    Oh, and an entirely different subject: I was a little shy to put up my translations from French, since my French learning has been on and off for most of my life, but never reached a high level. I'd appreciate if anybody could point out places where the translation could stand improvement.

    Your D

  6. It seems to me that it would be easier to move a Tibetan craftsman to Yerevan, than to move a bell all that way. Has there been any materials analysis of the bell? Alternatively, has anybody considered the possibility that the bell came from the Kalmuck regions on the Caspian?

  7. Yes, Moonlight, Kalmuck origins are a distinct possibility, just that I haven't seen much reason to head in that direction. I believe the comment on a "marauding Tsar" quoted in the concluding blog ("Tibetan Bell in Armenia - Concluding") implies either a Kalmuck or Siberian/Buriat origin for the bell. But the same source is alone in saying the bell is 'golden,' so I tend to doubt what surely is anyway just a guess. What motive would a marauding Tsar have for lifting a Buddhist bell from Mongolians so it could be delivered to a Christian church? But to be clear, the Kalmucks had a tumultuous history in the Tsarist period, and with disruption could have come displacement of their artifacts, so yes, let's consider this as possibility number three. When you read ahead to parts two and three on the bell, you'll see that the possible outcomes of metallurgical analysis is something I did discuss a little. Thanks for your contribution to the discussion, I appreciate it. Yours, D.


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