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This fine example of a ga’u or portable talismanic shrine or box is of trefoil shape and comprises a pierced, silver front, copper sheet sides and an embossed copper backing plate.
The silver front is decorated in pierced relief with the eight auspicious symbols of Tibetan Buddhism – the parasol, the pair of golden fish, the treasure or jewel vase, the lotus, the conch, the endless knot, the wheel of dharma and the victory banner. The lower register is decorated with a protective ‘monster’ (kala or kurtimukha) mask. This is all amid a background that is exquisitely rendered and shows delicate floral and leaf scrollwork that is typical of Eastern Tibet or at least in a style of Eastern Tibet. The ‘window’ at the front is of arched form and would have permitted a small painted, clay figure of a deity, usually the Buddha, to be seen, behind a small piece of glass which is no longer present. The window is framed with a decorative border that includes two birds separated by a vase.
Two pairs of rectangular lugs are on each side to allow the ga’u to be attached to a belt, probably worn across the chest.
The copper backing plate on the reverse is embossed with a Tibetan kalachakra symbol, which represents the finality of life but also of death and serves as a reminder to the wearer of the endlessness of the cycle of birth and rebirth.
Ga’us are encountered only in Tibet or areas influenced by Tibetan Buddhism, such as Bhutan. No other Buddhist regions have anything like them. They were worn when travel was undertaken but otherwise were stored on the domestic altar.
This example is not heavy (which would have facilitated it being worn more easily). It is in fine condition.
Clarke, J., Jewellery of Tibet and the Himalayas, V&A Publications, 2004.
Pal, P., Art of the Himalayas: Treasures from Nepal and Tibet, Hudson Hills Press, 1991.
Proser, A., (ed.), Pilgrimage and Buddhist Art, Asia Society Museum/Yale University Press, 2010.