Nepalese and Tibetan amulets

Almost every man, woman and child in Tibet, Nepal and the Himalayan area of India carries a variety of charms and amulets on the body. An amulet is typically a small item or items of magic potency attached to the body. The materials , shapes, decoration for amulets are varied, as are the contents. The protective items are wrapped into cloth or placed into a metal container, a tube or a box. Amulet box in Tibet has the name gau and in Nepal - jantar. It is generally suspended from the neck as a central pendant on a string of beads and is made of copper, silver or gold with floral or iconographic designs. One of the sides or the back is left open, so that a protective item may be inserted. Jantar and gau sizes vary widely. Small containers between 2 and 4 sm per side are used as children’s amulets, while those for statues or deities may be as large as 15 sm per side or in diameter and 3 sm deep.

Amulet boxes come in many shapes: round, square, trapezoid, oval, mandala-like but most often is a rectangular with elegantly curved poinst at the sides. Certain gemstones are used to ornament the container: turquise, rubies, diamonds, emeralds, tourmaline, coral, pearls.

A Tibeto-Nepalese woman wearing gold and silver amulet container decorated with torquise and coral

Amulets usually contain sacred formulas or mantras written on paper and especially composed for clients by a shaman, priest or lama. An amulet can also contain the image of a deity, grains of rice charged with sacred power in a tantric ritual or a piece of a child’s umbilical cord. The contents of an amulet may be also a herb or a seed, animal’s tooth or claw; it may be a certain material – iron, for example, is known in many cultures being able to combat evil spirits; or it may be a colour, such as red or black.

Most amulets offer general protection against common evils: malevolent spirits, witches, ghosts, the jelous eye, black magic, disease, death, infertility, misfortune. Othe amulets are very target-specific: the may protect from bullet and knife, stroke or epilepsy, snakebite, lightning, tigers and so on.

On photos: tibetan and nepalese amulets of 19th century from the collection of the British museum and the V&A museum.

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