tantra, tantric, mongolia, tibet, buddhism, moesgaard museum, nationalmuseet, exhibition, collection, haslund-christensen

Bones, skin, and silver: Tantric ritual artefacts

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Asia

Let’s not beat around the bush. If I say ‘Tantric’, I know what you’ll all think. Something about very gymnastic and prolonged sexy times. Perhaps involving the singer Sting and some incense. As if that is not interesting enough in itself, I am here to tell you that there is much more to Tantra than that. So cast off your pop culture references and let me take you on a bit of a journey…

Tantra is in fact a philosophy, which dates back over two thousand years and originated in India. It has since been weaved into the fabric of both certain branches of Hinduism and Buddhism. Today, I will focus on Tantric Buddhism, as we have some very interesting – and honestly a little bit shocking – artefacts exhibited at the moment, in our special exhibition ‘On the steppes of Genghis Khan – Mongolia’s nomads’. But I will get to them soon enough.

So, Tantric Buddhism, also known as Vajrayana, is not in fact just a type of kinky and more or less spiritual sex – it is a philosophy, which often has nothing to do with sex at all. Like ‘normal’ Buddhism, followers of Tantric Buddhism seeks to become enlightened, to reach beyond the relative truths of our earthly lives and gain insight into a universal, ultimate truth. This enlightenment is sought through the worship of deities, which represent archetypes to be imitated, as well as through the practice of pleasurable experiences. These experiences, sexual or otherwise, are seen as path to enlightenment.

Now, what then of these above mentioned mysterious artefacts? In the exhibition, displayed in the corner of a temple scene, you will see two quite inconspicuous flutes. Upon closer inspection, you might realise that the thicker, rounded ends of the flutes look strangely familiar, and that is when you might realise that you are looking at two human femurs, the knee joints wrapped in something dark. That is when your eyes find the accompanying text and the words:

“…Human skulls and bones are used in the rituals to transgress the boundary between life and death, clean and unclean. These ritual objects have therefore a rather macabre quality: sacrificial bowls and prayer beads made from human skulls and whistles made from a virgin’s thighbone. The ends of the whistles are covered with human skin, often from a man’s penis. While the masculine element is the object’s tangible form, the feminine aspect is the movement during the ritual.”

Skulls, you will think, and look to your right, where two bowls rest, one silver and one copper. But as you look closer you realise that while the insides of the bowls are metal, the outside is clearly human bone.

tantra, tantric, mongolia, tibet, buddhism, moesgaard museum, nationalmuseet, exhibition, collection, haslund-christensen tantra, tantric, mongolia, tibet, buddhism, moesgaard museum, nationalmuseet, exhibition, collection, haslund-christensen

The artefacts in the exhibition date from the 19th century, but such objects are still in use today. Indeed, a quick Google search will lead you to websites instructing you how to make your own flute, or kangling, that is, if you are able to get your hands on a human femur, which I sincerely hope is not something you have got lying around (unless you are a medical student).

If you want to see the Tantric artefacts for yourself, visit ‘On the steppes of Genghis Khan – Mongolia’s nomads’ at Moesgaard Museum.

//Sophie Seebach

Do you want to know more about the wonderful Mongolian collections? Visit the exhibition ‘On the steppes of Genghis Khan – Mongolia’s nomads’ at Moesgaard Museum, or read Christel Braae’s fascinating and richly illustrated book Among Herders of Inner Mongolia: The Haslund-Christensen Collection at the National Museum of Denmark (2017).

tantra, tantric, mongolia, tibet, buddhism, moesgaard museum, nationalmuseet, exhibition, collection, haslund-christensen

The temple in the exhibition, artefacts from the collection of the National Museum of Denmark.
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