Saturday, October 14, 2017

Tibetan Bell in Armenia - Concluding

We continue where this blog left off.
This hand bell or drilbu, taken from an online auction site, has the mantra oṃ aḥ hūṃ in vertically stacked (not horizontal like ours), raised letters on the interior of the bell.  Click on the photo and perhaps you will see it better. This bell is rather unusual in its appearance, and although there are textual recommendations to place the mantra inside the slope of the bell, this seems to have presented some technical difficulties since it is rarely done. I assume our triply-repeated mantra was written in the form of a band encircling the outside of the slope of the bell, although I admit this is an assumption that could be proved untrue.

In general, what we can say about this three-syllable mantra — more ubiquitous in Secret Mantra Buddhism than the world-famous Mani Mantra — is that it is for blessing offerings.  The three syllables are for the Body, Speech and Mind of the Buddha. The mantra brings the blessings of all three to the offerings being made, whatever they may be. In practically every ritual you can see how the name of the offering is placed immediately after the first two syllables and before the third. In the case of our bell, my intuition is that it isn’t exactly or exclusively intended for offering purposes. For one thing, it is repeated three times, and this kind of repetition seems to be found mostly in food blessings and the like. I think our bell inscription has a consecratory significance, primarily, but I’m open to better suggestions.

So while we are drawing to a close, with a fervently whispered hope for an actual photograph of the inscription, since having one would further our investigation like nothing else could, I’d like to draw attention a few of its interesting features. As we mentioned, it is usual to write oṃ without the length-mark. That the bell inscription surely has this length-mark appears to mark it as archaic or at least archaizing. The visarga here seen as two small circles one on top of the other is missing in the Alishan eye-copy, although it would be strange if it were just overlooked. Schmidt’s metal-type does have it (his own correction based on Csoma de Körös? How can we be sure?). And finally, it violates more recent writing standards to put a tsek-mark, the syllable-dividing mark, in this case, immediately before the shad sentence-ending mark (the vertical stroke). In truth, in writing Indic mantras such as this, it ought to be the rule, a rule not always followed, that no tseks should be used at all. After all, it is Sanskrit language, where nothing like the tsek is needed to begin with. 

Just one more example of the lengthmark, perhaps the earliest one known to me right now, comes from the Tibetan imperial (or early post-imperial) period. It is a “pen-testing” or doodling paper found in Dunhuang.* Here you can see twice the o with the lengthmark beneath. The scribe amused himself, and us, by making the two wings of the vowel ‘o’ look, well, like wings ready to lift off and flutter about the room. This only helps with the point that the lengthmark is indeed found in early times.

(*I seem to remember Sam van Schaik was the first to draw attention to this, although at the moment I can't find the exact blog in Early Tibet. On the pen-testing papers, see Takeuchi.)

Now we should make some brief comments on modern ideas about the bell and the reasons for its unavailability. In 2014, I asked world-renowned Armenian Studies savant Prof. Emeritus Michael Stone some questions via email, and he is the one who suggested to me to have them circulated to an Armenian Studies discussion list. There were a number of responses, but since I haven't asked for let alone received permissions from them to repeat their words, I will just state my own generalizations, additionally based on modern literary sources both on and off-line, such as those you see just below:

Some interesting ideas on how the bell got there, found in recent literary sources.

To judge from the responses received back in 2014, we may say: There seem to be two opinions among the experts about why the bell itself is currently unavailable for inspection. One that it is still at Etchmiadzin Cathedral, but placed in storage somewhere. The other that a public address system was installed and the bells (the Tibetan bell presumably among them) subsequently distributed to churches in other parts of Armenia. My general impression is that for Armenians today, the existence of the Tibetan bell is a matter for pride, and one more indication among many of the wide-ranging activities of their ancestors.

A conclusion for the time being

If we were to draw analogies between philology and archaeology — and I think doing so could make very good sense — I would say that paleography is the pottery analysis of the text philologist. Together with the paper-and-ink analyses now gaining in popularity, paleography can prove a powerful tool for dating physical manuscripts and inscriptions, similar to the dating of archaeological strata through pottery. No serious paleography can be done on Armenia’s Tibetan bell inscription without first having an accurate record of the letters and their very shapes. This is the primary motive for our bell quest. Similar to paper-and-ink analyses, we might add, a 21st-century metallurgical analysis of the Armenian bell could allow certain conclusions about the places where the metal was mined. How unfortunate it is for us that the possibility of paleographical and metallurgical findings seems to have receded out of our reach.

Holy objects present us with the ever-mysterious numen normally out of our grasp in our everyday lives, but they may be the very things that make us hold on to religions as tightly as we do. As objects, they persistently present themselves to us, as if they possessed the formed solidity of text-book materiality, Aristotle’s forma et materia forever superglued together. Some objects are hard to ignore and demand our attention. Out-of-place objects particularly so.

Armenia’s Tibetan Bell bears on its surface an inscription identifying it as a consecrated Buddhist object, made holy through a consecration ritual. And what is consecration but a ritual agreement that with all the odds against it happening the holy can indeed be localized within the most material of things.* And there are reasons this unholy and theologically improbable union should be regarded as helpful.

(*See King Solomon's speech at the consecration of the Jerusalem temple in II Chronicles 6:18 where he brings up exactly this kind of objection.)

Out-of-place artifacts — and I think our Tibet Bell in an Armenian church must surely be seen as an example — threaten our normative academic discourses of difference and belonging. They are matter out of place, so to speak. They violate the normative philological principle of ‘fit’ (the demand that a new bit of evidence can only be accepted in evidence if it fits within a range of earlier well-established evidence). They seem to say, No more business as usual, it’s time for a change of view.

And in the case of our bell, despite all the objective materiality it ought to have, it remains elusive and untouchable, perhaps even hidden from our eyes, our touch, and most significant of all, our hearing. We can only hope that this out-of-place artifact turned mis-placed artifact will turn up soon to help us answer the remaining questions burning in our minds. Until then, I guess we can give the quest a short rest.

Some literature:

The blog called “The Last Yak,” entry dated November 3, 2010: How do You Spell Oṃ Maṇi Padme Hūṃ Anyway?

Yael Bentor, Consecration of Images and Stûpas in Indo-Tibetan Tantric Buddhism, Brill (Leiden 1996).

Tsuguhito Takeuchi, Glegs tshas: Writing Boards of Chinese Scribes in Tibetan-Ruled Dunhuang, contained in: Brandon Dotson, Kazushi Iwao and Tsuguhito Takeuchi, eds., Scribes, Texts, and Rituals in Early Tibet and Dunhuang, Reichert Verlag (Wiesbaden 2012), pp. 101-109, 150-153. 

A hare on a bell?  A highly curious modern sculpture to be seen in Yerevan, at the cascades.
Could this be a clue in favor of Hulegu?

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