A Mancunian Mantra: Part I

As part of his 2012 summer tour the Dalai Lama will visit Manchester on June 16, 17 and 18. During these three days he will address an audience of thousands, both Buddhist and non-Buddhist alike, at the Manchester Evening News Arena.

The 14th and current Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso.

In anticipation of his visit I’ll be sharing with you some wonderful objects from our Tibetan collection and their associated stories. Over the next several weeks you’ll see a fascinating array of objects, and to begin with we have  a stone upon which a six-syllable mantra, or spell, has been shallowly carved.

Stone carved with Tibetan characters. Pre-1938. Tibet, Asia. The Manchester Museum Living Cultures Collection.

Stones like this were used as offerings at, and to build walls between, Buddhist shrines.The inscribed mantra could be invoking Tara, the female wisdom partner of the Bodhisattva of compassion Avalokitesvara.

Thangka, or Buddhist painting, of a four arm Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva flanked by a white and green Tara respectively.

The stone was purchased by the Museum in 1938 from Professor V B Meyer along with other objects in his possession from India, Burma and Sri Lanka. Each of the objects include examples of various scripts and it’s likely Meyer specialised  in Asian languages. Whether he actually visited Tibet is not entirely clear.

Go West

As a young child in the 1980s I have vague memories of watching a Japanese television show called Monkey.  The show was an explosion of martial arts, monsters and magic. The electro-psychedelic theme tune by Godiego was particularly catchy. It wasn’t until the early 2000s as a student when I rediscovered this cult Japanese show, it was a welcome distraction from late night study.

The show was of course a 1970s interpretation of the 16th century Ming dynasty novel Journey to the West by author Wu Cheng’en. The novel details the adventures of the Buddhist monk Tripitaka and his 14 year and 108,000 mile odyssey, with his 3 supernatural companions Monkey, Pigsy and Sandy, to retrieve Buddhist scriptures from the Thunderclap Monastery in India.

Having realised that this piece of Japanese pop culture was actually based on a Chinese epic novel I began reading Wu Cheng’en’s text. Whilst reading volume 3 on a train a young Chinese woman was rather tickled as in her opinion I was reading a children’s story. In China the story is very popular amongst the younger generation and many animations have been based on the novel. The story has not only been a stimulus for animators but graphic novelists, computer game designers, and television, film and theatre directors too. The characters were even used by the BBC to advertise their coverage of the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

This Saturday the Manchester Museum will be celebrating all things Journey to the West including the screening of a contemporary animation. Other events will including handling Buddhist Chinese objects from the Living Cultures collection and a chance to discover more about this captivating Chinese epic. Our exhibition China: Journey to the East full of wonderful Chinese objects will be open throughout the day.

See you there,

Stephen Terence Welsh

Curator of Living Cultures

Demon Defying Dagger

University of Manchester social anthropology student Martin White visited the Museum this week to conduct research on a very special and rare object in the Living Cultures collection. The object is a phur-pa, often refered to as a magical or spirit dagger, from Tibet. It was donated by the collector Arnold Forrester Warden in 1964. Warden was fascinated by Asian cultures and collected vast quantities of Buddhist artefacts.

Phur-pa, Tibet, 19th Century AD. Living Cultures collection, The Manchester Museum.

The bronze phur-pa has a three-sided or tripartite blade which is supported by a beautifully ornate handle or hilt. The blade is meant to represent the fire of wisdom and its three sides the virtues of charity, chastity and patience. The handle consists of a number of  heads with the first being a  demon gripping the blade in its mouth. Above this is a human head, then a skull and at the end, or the pommel, is the head of a deity with three faces and a crown of flames. This deity is known as the wrathful Vajrakīla or Vajrakilaya and his three faces express joy, peace and anger.  He is capable of removing obstacles and negativity.

Vajrakīla (Vajrakīlaya)

In Tibet the phur-pa is wielded by Buddhist magicians and lamas, or teachers of philosophy, and used during various religious ceremonies including blessings, curing disease and even exorcism. During exorcism ceremonies the phur-pa has the power to remove, restrain and ultimately eradicate demons.

Stephen Terence Welsh

Curator of Living Cultures

Living Cultures, Living Planet & Guardian Lions

The Museum is currently looking forward to the opening of the brand new Living Planet gallery in early 2011. This exciting redevelopment will balance the beauty of the Museum’s recently restored Victorian internal design with a radical reinterpretation of the natural environment collections.

As a museum we are always keen to reveal the connections  bewteen the seemingy very different collections and the new Living Planet gallery has provided a perfect opportunity to do this. I have recently been working with Henry McGhie, Head of Collections and Curator of Zoology, to select relevant objects from the Living Cultures collection for incluion in the new gallery.

The gallery will explore the impact of nature on human culture and popular imagination. One animal that has captivated humankind for thousands of years is the majestic lion. The lion is a symbol of strength, boldness and courage. It is little wonder then that lions, or specifically  guardian lions, made from stone or metal, protect the entrance to Buddhist temples, Shinto shrines or even the homes of powerful individuals throughout South-East Asia. In the Living Cultures collection we have a stunning bronze guardian lion from Japan donated in 1958 by Robert Wylie Lloyd. It’s hoped that this sculpture will be included in the new gallery.

Bronze guardian lion, Japan. The Manchester Museum Living Cultures collection. 2010.

To keep up to date with the development of the Living Planet gallery visit Henry McGhie’s blog at http://naturemanchester.wordpress.com/

Stephen Terence Welsh

Curator of Living Cultures