Considerations about a “white helmet with blue dots”: a headdress from Central Tibet

Just recently Trine Brox and Miriam Koktvedgaard Zeitzen introduced an object from Prince Peter’s collection in a short blog. The object was called “jewelled skull cap” in Prince Peter’s reports and letters. Trine and Miriam identified it as part of a larger set of jewelleries that was usually worn by female Tibetan aristocracy. They even had the opportunity to experience the entire set of jewelleries and it’s “shape of the crown of one’s head”.

IMG_3565Illustration 1: The “jewelled skull cap” (Photos by Trine Brox)

This object immediately caught my attention since it reminded me about a pecular object shown in a drawing in the Wise Collection – a headdress that looks like a “helmet with blue dots”. Until I saw Prince Peter’s “jewelled skull cap” I have not been able to identify it.

2Illustration 2: the “white helmet with blue dots” worn by the person left side. Extract of a drawing in the British Library’s Wise Collection. Add. Or. 3037. © The British Library Board.

I have been doing research on the British Library’s Wise Collection for many years. The collection consists of 55 drawings – made by a Tibetan lama and commissioned by a British official in mid-19th century. There are six large picture maps – drawn on 27 sheets in total – and 28 accompanying drawings showing monastic rituals and different kinds of ceremonies. The six picture maps cover the areas of Lhasa, Central Tibet, Southern and Western Tibet, and the Western Himalayan Kingdoms of Ladakh and Zangskar. I base my research on these images.

Each drawing in the Wise Collection consists of numerous little detailed illustrations such as mountains, rivers, bridges, animals, buildings, trees and people. Each of those detailed illustrations consists of even more minute details. For instance, monastic buildings are often shown with specific characteristics such as different kinds of roof constructions, flag poles or entrance doors. In a similar way, illustrations of people often show specific clothes like hats, shoes, outer garments, but also ornaments and jewellery. In some cases, it is comparably easy to ‘read’ these illustrations in the drawings and to understand what they represent and what they mean.

Trained in the field of Tibetan studies and experienced in doing fieldwork in Tibet and the Himalayas I am familiar with most of the contents in the drawings. More than 900 numbered English and Tibetan captions and English explanatory notes referring to the numbers on the drawings have been helpful to ‘read’ and understand the images. Nevertheless, full keys exist only for the picture maps of Ladakh and Zangskar and for most of the accompanying drawings. Thus, I have not been able to identify every detail shown in the drawings so far.

Amongst the accompanying drawings there are six pieces catalogued as ‘Wedding ceremonies’. The illustrations on five drawings represent different stages of a Tibetan marriage: the preliminaries of a marriage, wedding preparations and ceremonies, leaving the bride’s home, the bridal journey and wedding celebrations and ceremonies. The sixth drawing refers to a period after marriage: a childbirth and formation of a new family. Understanding specific details in these drawings represents a real challenge. This is for instance the case with the illustrations of the bride, in particular with illustrations of her headdress.

3Illustration 3: one of the drawings showing a scenery during a Tibetan wedding ceremonies. The bride is picked up at her parents’ house and escorted to the groom’s house. Add. Or. 3037. © The British Library Board.

4Illustration 4: extract of the drawing showing the bride sitting on a horse. Add. Or. 3037. © The British Library Board.

The bride’s headdress looks like a white helmet with blue dots. There exist numerous accounts on Tibetan wedding ceremonies, such as one by Tenzin (Tenzin 2008: 34) who states that the bridegroom’s side sends a set of high quality jewellery, such as bracelets, rings, turquoises, earrings and a headdress, to the bride for her to wear on the eve of the wedding. So far, I could not find any specific description of the headdress. If we take a look at the depictions of jewellery and precious metals in other drawings in the Wise Collection we notice that turquoises are represented in blue, corals in red, amber and gold in yellow and silver in white colour (see illustrations 5 and 6).

 

 

 

Illustrations 5 and 6: two Tibetan women from Central Tibet  (left) and Tsang, depicted with several pieces of jewellery. Add. Or. 3033.  © The British Library Board.

Taking a look at Prince Peter’s so-called “jewelled skull cap” I assume that the bride’s headdress in the Wise Collection’s drawings – the “white helmet with blue dots” – probably represents a similar headdress: the white colour represents pearls and the blue dots turquoises. The illustration of the bride’s headdress in the Wise Collection’s drawings probably represents the first visual depiction of such an object – before the first appearance of photographic portraiture. Telling history through objects and images has been an increasingly important tool in academic research. This little blog once more illustrates the importance of bringing together people whose research is based material and visual culture, in particular by bringing different background knowledge into play. This enables us to share our knowledge on the materials we work with and to create historical accounts of Tibetan culture based on in-depth knowledge of objects and images.

References:

Tenzin. Marriage customs in Central Tibet. Masteroppgave, University of Oslo, 2008.

 

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