Monday, May 31, 2021

Combining Sources of Holiness and Blessing

Swayambhunath, Nepal, taken in 2011
The Buddha Image shrines niched into its sides were being renovated


Combining the Cult of the Image with the Cult of the Chorten

I was reading Anne Marie Yasin’s essay “Sight Lines of Sanctity at Late Antique Martyria,” with its theme of how in fairly early centuries of Christian church architecture they were unsure how or how much to combine [1] the site associated with the act of the holy person, called the Martyrium (these were frequently octagonal structures, a subject for another time)with [2] the site of sacred rites, the altar.  The essay begins with an example in Milan in 386 CE, when Bishop Ambrose dug up the bodies of two local saints from their graves outside the city and relocated them inside the walls of the basilica he had just built. One solution was to place the Martyrium and altar in eyeshot of each other, so that anyone who came especially for one purpose could simply turn around to appreciate the other. Other solutions, and the ones that eventually took over, were either [1] to place the altar directly on top of the holy memorial, or [2] to place relics of the holy dead into the altar itself, perhaps in a special chamber beneath the table of the eucharistic mystery. Thereby the two foci of sanctity, the eucharist and relic, were entirely united, although we might wonder if perhaps the relic was in some sense subordinated to the sacrament. It was placed at a lower level, after all. But we might just as well say that the presence of the relic empowers or enhances the sacredness of the rite.

I was wondering if some such situation of indeterminacy might hold if we shift to another religious domain and look at the interesting combination of temple (devoted to image cult, primarily) with stûpa that we find most clearly in the famous temple-chorten of Gyantse and in the Jonang monument. In Gyantse and Jonang there are actually doors in the different levels of the chorten that may be entered, filled with images in 2 and 3 dimensions.  In the comparison, we may observe that the chorten would correspond to the reliquary or monument marking the holy site, and thereby resembling the Martyria. It may be obvious that the altar of early Christians doesn’t correspond with the Buddhist image in this equation, but that’s okay, because we’re thinking about how two domains of holiness might or might not be partially or entirely combined, and result in differing solutions. The special phenomenon in which the Chorten serves as temple — by displaying or housing within it painted or sculpted images — has taken various forms throughout the breadth of the Himalaya chain, with one remarkable example being the Great Chorten at Alchi, Ladakh, mentioned in another blog.

It’s as if different religions have their individual non-disclosure agreements (or covenants) when it comes to the holiness manifested by their high aspiration deities and saintly heros. These agreements had practical consequences for the ways religious activities, particularly lay devotional observances, would then be carried out. 

Of course, there are so many Caityas large and small in Nepal Valley that have images in open niches on their sides. But where do we find such combinations in India? I’m asking because I hadn’t thought about it before, so I don’t have much to say.* 
(*Since I once saw it in person, I can say there are some very well preserved images in niches on the sides of the Shariputra Stupa at Nalanda that must be quite old. I’m not sure the Bodhgaya temple formally qualifies as a stupa [it takes the shape of a Shikhara temple], but if it does then of course it has many images in a band of niches around its four-sided base. I’m momentarily thinking that the eyes on the square harmikas of the largest Caityas in Nepal are another expression of the Image/Stupa combination, and in fact most of these Nepalese structures do have image shrines around their bases where offerings are made just as if they were inside a temple.)

This made me wonder if Newars and Tibetans, either individually or in tandem, may have contributed their own solutions to the holiness combination issues presented by Buddhists during their long history.

Come to reflect on it — what I mean is, going on to muse about it instead of closing with the closure we expect of a conclusion — the Stupa and the Martyrium do have, each one within itself, a dual purpose. The Martyria proper may have been meant to commemorate the sites of holy beings’ actions of every kind, but that included the places of their birth and death and burial, and even (as you might suspect from the name) tombs for the “witnesses,” the martyrs (the original holy persons of Christianity).* The Stupa may have originally been a tomb structure adapted by the Buddha and the Buddhists for Buddhist funerary/reliquary purposes, but at the same time recall that the most popular set of eight is correlated with the sites of the main acts of the Buddha (including His death).** So it isn’t all that farfetched to suggest, as I once did, that pieces of biography can serve as relics.*** They could even be called relics of biography, why not? There does seem to be a degree of logic in the ways holy objects and actions are collected and located, and then go on to be recollected by those who venerate them.

(*The very first Christian shrine-like structure to be called a Martyrium — by Eusebius (265-339 CE) although he used a variant spelling — was the edicule built over the tomb (or site of the resurrection) of Jesus, originally built under Constantine with an octagonal shape. Octagons ought to feature in a blog of their own. Martyrium originally meant [a place of] testimony or witness. That’s why we have to loosen our contemporary assumption that it must always have to do with persons who died for their faith.) 
(**The Buddhist Stupa, unlike the Martyrium at least on the face of things, serves as a set of memory-sites for key doctrinal concepts; each structural element might be keyed to one of the 37 Wings of Awakening for example.)  

Dpal-'khor Chos-sde Monastery, Gyantse, 
Photograph taken in November 2005 by Mark Evans

A very short reading list

Yael Bentor, "On the Indian Origin of the Tibetan Practice of Depositing Relics and Dhâranîs in Stûpas and Images,” Journal of the American Oriental Society, vol. 115, no. 2 (1995), pp. 248-261.

Catherine M. Chin, “The Bishop’s Two Bodies: Ambrose and the Basilicas of Milan,” Church History, vol. 79, no. 3 (September 2010), pp. 531-555.

Juhyung Rhi, “Images, Relics and Jewels: The Assimilation of Images in the Buddhist Relic Cult of Gandhâra: Or Vice Versa,” Artibus Asiae, vol. 65, no. 2 (2005), pp. 169-211. The insertion of Dharma Relics or Dhâranîs into stone sculptures is demonstrated. The insertion of relics into Stûpas is not in question, they always served as reliquaries, but the insertion of bodily or contact relics into Images is still in question as far as Classical India is concerned; see Y. Bentor’s article listed above.

Jeremy Russell, The Eight Places of Buddhist Pilgrimage, Mahayana Publications (New Delhi 1981).

Tadeusz Skorupski, “Two Eulogies of the Eight Great Caityas,” contained in:  Idem., The Buddhist Forum: Volume VI, The Institute of Buddhist Studies (Tring 2001), pp. 37-55. Translation of Aṣṭamahāsthānacaityastotra (Gnas Chen-po Brgyad-kyi Mchod-rten-la Bstod-pa), Tôh. no. 1134. Dergé Tanjur, vol. KA, folio 82r.3 82v.3, this Tibetan translation done by Tilaka and Pa-tshab Nyi-ma-grags. The relics of the Blessed One were divided between eight places. These eight went on to form the basic map of holy places still visited by Buddhist pilgrims in India and Nepal today.

Ann Marie Yasin, “Sight Lines of Sanctity at Late Antique Martyria,” contained in: Bonna D. Wescoat and Robert G. Ousterhout, eds., Architecture of the Sacred: Space, Ritual, and Experience from Classical Greece to Byzantium, Cambridge University Press (Cambridge 2012), pp. 248-280.

Websites  Notice in particular how what is surely one of the oldest existing Buddha Images is found enshrined on the outermost layer of a reliquary known as the Bimaran Casket, that had in its turn been entirely enclosed within a Stûpa. This reliquary was never meant to be seen, although today it is prominently displayed in the British Museum.

Perhaps you’ll find of interest this video about a very large Stûpa/Temple only now approaching completion in Bendigo, Australia.

Tuesday, May 11, 2021

What Happened to Armenia’s Famous Tibetan Bell? A Guest Blog by Simon Maghakyan

    • This is a guest blog written by Simon Maghakyan, University of Colorado Denver lecturer in international relations and independent researcher of heritage crime. He is best known for his groundbreaking exposé of the covert 1997-2006 erasure of an estimated 28,000 medieval Armenian monuments in post-Soviet Nakhichevan. 
    • Since 2006, several past Tibeto-logic blog entries, more recently one entitled That Tibetan Bell in Armenia Once More, tried to learn more about a large bell with Tibetan letters on it once there to be seen in the bell towers of Etchmiadzin Cathedral. That’s about 2,700 miles from Lhasa. Apart from various speculations we have been unable to say much about what happened to it in recent times, and no one has been able to tell us where it is. To our amazement, a piece of the mystery has now been solved.



In April 2003, as a 16-year-old, I was permitted to do the unthinkable: explore the bells of the Armenian Church’s headquarters, the Holy See of Etchmiadzin, in my teenage quest for a medieval Tibetan bell. This meant climbing on the roof of the world’s most sacred Armenian structure, which made me feel guilty. Alas, despite relentless searches and interviews, I did not find the bell. But I eventually found the only living person who knew what had happened to it.


There were numerous eyewitness mentions of the Tibetan bell throughout history, mostly in the 19th century, and as late as the 1920s. Since books were of no help (an otherwise respected and detailed encyclopedia of toponyms published in 1988 made a reference to the bell in the present tense), I had to interview potential eyewitnesses to the bell’s disappearance. 


I found a perfect source, the now late architect Varazdat Harutyunyan, one of the folks in charge of the Holy See’s major renovations in the 1950s. He told me that he oversaw the restoration of the bell tower. The prominent architect and historian insisted, however, that there was no Tibetan bell in the 1950s at Etchmiadzin. “That’s not something I would have forgotten,” he told me. 


So the Tibetan bell disappeared between the 1920s and 1950s. Apparently there was only one man alive who knew the story, a retired monk at Etchmiadzin: now late Archbishop Husik Santuryan. He used to curate the Holy See. I finally met him after insisting to his successor to talk to elders, since all of my searches were proving to be fruitless. 


Archbishop Santuryan told me that after he arrived at Etchmiadzin in 1951, he befriended a custodian named Yegho Bidza [Old man Elisha], who prided himself as having been the horse-keeper for the epic Catholicos Khrimyan Hayrik. Apparently Yegho Bidza had witnessed what happened to the Tibetan bell. According to Yegho Bidza, passed to me through Archbishop Santuryan, in 1938 the Soviet authorities decided to convert Etchmiadzin into a museum after the “death” of the Armenian Catholicos. 


What followed was a double looting of the Cathedral by Soviet officials and some unethical monks. The looting and desecration included the carving of “STALIN” on a stone inside Etchmiadzin, which was later reversed. The head of the operation was a Soviet official first named Levon, whom “God soon punished” for shining his shoes with the holy myrrh inside the Cathedral. In order to silence the Holy See, its bells were taken down [not sure how many or if any were returned] after a Soviet apparatchik produced a document claiming local complaints of “noise nuisance.”

The bells, including the Tibetan one, were placed on a donkey cart and hauled away. Some items were in later years retrieved through auction, including a large carpet in the Cathedral. But the Tibetan bell was never heard of again.


Some of the elders I interviewed suggested that the Tibetan bell might be at other churches throughout Armenia or at Armenia’s history museum and its branches. I inspected several churches myself, with no traces of the Tibetan bell. A researcher at the history museum spent a week, as per my request, looking for the bell in their inventory; she didn’t find it either. I even got into a verbal fight with China’s cultural attaché at Beijing’s Embassy in Armenia, who refused to help me in translating the Tibetan inscription preserved in sketches.  


It is not out of the question that Armenia’s famous Tibetan bell may still exist. But it certainly left Holy Etchmiadzin in the late 1930s on a donkey cart.


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