Thursday, 24 January 2013

Introduction to Central Asian Art Beads

Necklace worn by the great-great-grand-mother of Lama Kinga Rinpoche. A note from the lama (a monk or holy man) translated from Tibetan reads: "We don't know how old the actual ambers are, but we do know that this necklace has been with our labrang [family] for more than one hundred years. The design of the vase-shaped dZi beads is prehistoric.  This necklace includes coral, amber, lapis lazuli, and dZi beads, including two round dZi with very rare "lotus "patterns and two less precious dZi on the upper part of the necklace with designs resembling the "horse tooth "pattern. The satin ribbon has the wax seal of the lama. Center amber bead: length, 9 cm. Collection Ivory FreidusCentral Asia is a hybrid of peoples and cultures. It includes the area from Siberia in the north to Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and northern India in the south; from the Caspian Sea in the west to Mongolia in the northeast and China in the east. Today's northern Afghanistan, Soviet Central Asia (Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan), and the Himalayan lands of Tibet, Nepal, Ladakh, Sikkim, and Bhutan are all part of this historic region. 
For millenniums, almost every person in this part of Asia has worn substantial quantities of beads and always prominently displayed them. Whether as objects of wealth and social status or as talismans, beads were and are part of the daily spiritual and secular life of the people. Beads were usually imported. In finished form or as raw materials, they have always been a major component of central Asian trade. Italian coral, Burmese and Baltic amber, Chinese turquoise and silver, and precious gems from India have passed through the region. The elaborate trade routes involving nomadic herdsmen, local merchants, and international brokers that carried goods from Asia and to the West also served to distribute beads to people along the way.
Adornment is one manifestation of the divisions in wealth and circumstances among the pastoral nomads, village agriculturalists, and city dwellers. Each group wore jewelry that was appropriate to its social standing and development. There are frequently greater similarities between beads worn by nomads from Turkmenistan, Nepal, and Mongolia than between the Nepalese nomads and the Nepalese urban dwellers, or even between different social classes in Nepalese cities. This is partly because the wealthy could create elaborate ensembles of foreign imports that were not readily affordable to others. Yet, despite differences in materials, jewelry from central Asia has a common purpose: to endow the owner with the bead's or jewel's spiritual and protective properties. Given this unifying premise a continuation of ancient shamanistic beliefs overlaid with Buddhist, Hindu, or Islamic tenets each ethnic and economic group has chosen distinctive ways to articulate its adornment.
A gold prayer box (gahu), containing a written prayer to appease the evil spirits, set with turquoise, emeralds, rubies, and diamonds and suspended from a neck-lace of pearls, coral, emeralds, naturally banded agate, and two types of dZi beads. Here, the gems are real, but they were often glass simulations. The lavish shoulder ornament on the left, called a tru tru, consists of jade plaques and pearls, as well as dZi, coral, jade, tourmaline, sapphire, emerald, ruby, and citron beads. It is derived in form from an earlier silver version thought to have originated in Mongolia.  Two jeweled straps with hooks anchor the gain, to the wearer's clothing. To compensate for the tru tru's weight on the neck (it sometimes reaches to the wais0, also hooks onto clothing at the shoulder Cascading down the torso, it appears to be part of the necklace. Prayer box: width, 15.5 cm. Collection Ivory FreidusDating to the days of the Roman Empire, the silk routes were the most famous of Asia's trading channels. By the second century B.C., a dazzling array of finished beads and bead raw materials, including silver, coral, amber, glass, and lapis lazuli, was transported eastward along the silk routes, while caravans originating in China arrived at the emporiums of Samarkand, Balkh, Kabul, and Antioch laden with silk, porcelain, lacquer, and vermilion. The international bead trade helped link the extreme ends of the ancient world from the earliest days of the silk routes. Egyptian and Roman glass beads have been excavated in the Warring States period (481-221 B.C.) and Han dynasty (206 B.C.-A.D. 220) tombs!' Under the Kushan dynasty, which controlled territories from northern India to central Asia during the second century A.D., there was intensive trade between India and the eastern provinces of the Roman Empire. 

This is seen in the discovery at Kara Bulak, near Ferghana in Turkmenistan, of beads made of carnelian, agate, lapis lazuli, rock crystal, faience, gold-in-glass, and millefiore glass. They were all imported from India, Afghanistan, and the Roman Mediterranean world and can be dated, for the most part, to between the first and the second centuries A.D.
With the end of the Kushan period in the fourth century, the main silk routes came under the control of nomadic Turkish tribes who arrived in central Asia as part of the great movement of populations during the Migrations Period. Under tribal rule, the silk routes were extended into the Himalayan kingdoms of Tibet arid Nepal, while international trade flourished between Byzantium, Sassanian Persia, India, Samarkand, and the Far East. Beads from the West are found in China, Korea, and Japan through the eighth century. However, following the establishment of more economic sea routes by the tenth century and period’s o Chinese isolationism, East-West trade via the silk routes greatly diminished?
A collection of dZi beads. Left to right: (first two beads) asymmetrical pattern of white lines on natural background; asymmetrical pattern of white lines on blackened background; two blackened beads with applied white stripes; two beads with applied stripes and shapes characteristic of Indus Valley beads; blackened .bead with applied white stripes; two-eyed dZi; six-eyed dZi showing circles ("eyes') and stylized eye and zone patterns; round dZi with tiger stripes; two-eyed dZi (top) and "Earth Dom Sky Door" pattern; unusual phum dZi with a W in a cartouche. Far left bead: length, 3.7 cm. Collection David Ebbinghouse, Bloomington, Indiana From A.D. 100 to 700, the expansion of trade routes through central Asia was accompanied by the introduction of Hinduism and the spread of Buddhism. Although Islam eventually dominated western central Asia, and Hinduism and Christianity developed some followers Buddhism made the greatest impact on the region as a whole.
Central Asian Buddhism, rooted in Tibet (the most influential culture in the region), wa5 a blend of orthodox Buddhist teachings adapted to indigenous folk practices. The belief sys-tem had a profound influence on adornment. Living in rugged and sometimes treacherous country Tibetans attributed numerous misfortunes to evil spirits that resided in the environment, their animal herds, and even their own bodies. By wearing talismans in the form of prayer boxes or beads, they believed dangerous spirits could be appeased or suppressed. Jewelry was therefore an important part of people's daily dress, and in most Himalayan countries, even the humblest citizen owned a few amuletic turquoise beads.

rare, "pure "nine-eyed dZi, considered the most precious type; dZi with stripes but no eyes; unusually shaped dZi, recalling bead forms of ancient Mesopotamia and Iran; natural agate bead. Second from top bead: length, 11.5 cm. Collection Ivory Freidus
Turquoise and coral, both thought to have significant protective powers, were applied to religious images and used in many ritual objects. Most sculptures of Buddhist and Hindu gods in central Asia display beads and are often inlaid with semiprecious stones.78 The beads are archetypal and mirror the colors of primal substances: red (coral) represents blood, fire, and light; blue (turquoise) is for water, sky, and air; yellow (amber) is for earth. By wearing beads made from these precious or semiprecious stones, people affirmed their connections to the spiritual realm. By serving as a daily reminder, jewels put people in touch with spirits and deities. Jewels were offered to be set into statues as an act of devotion and also as a way to impart the powers of these stones to the image itself. This gave the image further talismanic power that in turn could help the worshiper.
Himalayan jewelry is often monumental in scale, to express the rank of the owner, and sturdy enough to withstand life on the road. It is characterized by decorative surface designs, bold handling of precious and semiprecious stones, and the liberal use of turquoise, coral, and amber beads. Beads are simple and well proportioned. There is an exuberance of color, which almost acts as an antidote to the region's stark landscape.
Beads were made from the richest and largest materials a family could afford. Nobility sometimes wore necklaces of huge amber and coral beads, sometimes almost long enough to reach the ground. In Tibet, strings of seed pearls were attached to gold prayer boxes inlaid with turquoise and precious stones. The actual value of the jewelry lay not in the precious stones, which were frequently glass simulants, but in the specific components: the intensity of blue in the turquoise set into the face of the charm box; the gold weight of the box; and the size of the red coral and dzi beads of the necklace on which the box was strung. 

Glass simulants were accepted as colorful and affordable exotic imports. Furthermore, since most Tibetans were not familiar with cut gems, they did not know (or care) about their value. Their main concern was that necklaces look good; whether glass or real stones were used was secondary.'
Glorious beads continue to be worn primarily by Tibetans living in exile within the southern Himalayan borderlands. The Kathmandu Valley in Nepal has long been an important center for trade and for the shelter of political refugees. For many years, migrant groups have arrived in Kathmandu with their "portable banks" jewelry and beads. Since 1959, Kathmandu has been one of the principal centers for Tibetan Buddhists outside of Tibet, and consequently it is a major repository for fine Tibetan beads. During religious festivals, when Buddhists from throughout Nepal and neighboring Sikkim, Bhutan, and Ladakh gather in Kathmandu wearing their turquoise and coral necklaces, the full splendor of Tibetan beads can be seen.

dZi Beads  

Ancient Agate Bead Knot Worked NecklaceThe unique dZi (pronounced zee) bead, a black-and white (or dark brown) bead of etched or treated agate, is revered in Tibet. Tibetans and other Himalayan peoples, the dZi is a "precious jewel of supernatural origin" with great power to protect its wearer from disaster.

There is little precise information available on dZi beads. They are found madly in Tibet, but also in neighboring Bhutan, Ladakh, and Sikkim. Shepherds and farmers pick them up in the grasslands or while cultivating fields. Because dZi are found in the earth, Tibetans cannot conceive of them as man-made. Since knowledge of the bead is derived from oral traditions, few beads have provoked more controversy concerning their source, method of manufacture, and definition.
Mythical stories are usually told to explain the origin of dZi. In ancient times, it is said dZi adorned the gods, who discarded them when they became blemished, thus explaining why they are seldom found in perfect condition. Another story is that, dZi were originally insects that moved around like worms and became petrified."1 One Tibetan gave the following version: "There is a legend of a man on a horse who saw the bead move. If you don't cover it with dust, it will disappear The man threw dust over the bead and caught it, and it petrified. But dZi beads do not remain with unlucky people. The same man traded the bead for so many yaks. The point is, the head was not meant to be with him the animals were." Other Tibetan tales concern unfortunates who sell a valuable dZi, only to become ill or die soon after83 Tibetans are loath to sell prized dZi even for the highest prices. 

Sulemani Typye Ancient Agate BeadsIn some ways dZi resemble etched carnelian beads traded between Mesopotamia, Afghanistan, and the Indus Valley during the third millennium B.C. (Bead Chart 600). Indian and Iranian craftsmen continued making these beads into the first millennium A.D. Although the techniques for making dZi beads may be derived from ancient Indian craftsmen, the beads themselves are never found there. Because dZi are found only in the Himalayas, it appears certain that they were made locally.
 The actual etching of the dZi agate is accomplished by several methods, and scholars have classified all etched beads, including dZi, into several major types and subdivisions based upon their technique of manufacture.
The exact origins and dates of dZi remain elusive. Because Tibetan religious"-''' beliefs have long prevented archaeological excavations (earth spirits, it is believed, would resent intrusion into the earth), no beads have been recovered in Tibet under controlled research circumstances. Chinese texts, however mention dZi beads as early as the seventh century A.D. Legend suggests the beads (or the technical knowledge for making them) came to Tibet in very ancient times from Iran or the "Empire of the Arabs," where the Bon faith, Tibet's pre-Buddhist religion, possibly originated as well. The antiquity of dZi beads has been suggested as a major reason for their great value throughout the Himalayan region.
"Pure" dZi beads an the traditional Tibetan system for evaluating dZi) are regarded as the most valuable and desirable variety 7b qualify as pure, a bead must be genuine etched agate and lie within a certain range of styles. It should also have a sharply delineated pattern, symmetrical shape, strong color; glossy surface, and no flaws. The nine-eyed dZi illustrated on page, bottom is a pure dZi with the most highly desired pattern. Etched agate beads not considered pure are called chung dZi, or "less important dZi.

Writer – Lois Sherr Dubin
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