Afterlife has always piqued the curiosity of people across the world. Whilst mummies of Egypt have received their fair share of attention on this subject, there’s a paucity of information on Hindu practices vis-à-vis immortalization of humans. Our ancestors believed in reincarnations and theory of Karma, their ways of ensuring the departed soul got a better life when they were reborn, might make us queasy, but these are practices which have lasted thousands of years. One such practice involves making a cup out of a skull—called Kapala in Hindi. As I gleaned more information about an intriguing Kapala, I stumbled upon symbols of eternal love, few lucky charms and some science behind it.
In the pic: Kapala of a monk, credit: pinterest
The curious case of a beautiful skull
One night surfing on internet for tribal arts, I stumbled upon a bejeweled Kapala–skull cup. Initially I dismissed it as a plastic junk but the dents on the cheeks grabbed my eyeballs. To my horror, I realized it was indeed a bejeweled human skull. After the initial shock, the Hindu in me, reminded me of Goddess Kaali, who wears a garland of skulls and holds a Kapala in one her hands, and of Naga Sadhus, who have similar implements with them, and are believed to do penance in crematoriums and charnel grounds. The proud Hindu that I am, felt embarrassed for not having figured out the connection at the first glance.
Few more pictures later, I stumbled upon a more intriguing Kapala. This one, had mantra and the Hindu auspicious symbol of Om engraved on it, but alas! The world wide web had very little information about it. This is when I decided to decipher the engravings and the possible significance of a 300 year old skull which belonged to a Tibetan.
In the pic: engraved kapala, original pic from: Cultofweird
Tibet and Hinduism
Tibet– the highest plateau on Earth, the land of Buddhist monasteries & mysteries, has long been influenced by Hinduism. This is the land where Mount Kailash is situated, a sacred land where Hindus believe Lord Shiva resides. Tibet was very well connected to Indian subcontinent via Kashmir. Ancient Tibetans, a 1000 yr ago followed Hinduism, used Sanskrit language, and introduced silk to mainland India. The cultures of two regions despite being separated by the tall mountains, were entwined.
In the pic: Mount Kailash credit: secretland.org
In Tibet, sky burials of corpses are common which is unlike the Hindu way of cremating dead ones. A corpse is left in an open ground meant for burial, where the birds feed on the dead, a tradition very similar to the one followed by Parsis. It makes sense to keep the nature’s balance intact by feeding the birds in a hostile environment like Tibet’s. While in India, which mostly has tropical to temperate climatic regions, there’s abundance of life everywhere, ergo arranging funeral pyres for dead bodies is more logical and practical here. Half-century of Chinese rule in Tibet has unfortunately crippled religious and cultural expression in Tibet.
The kapala with mantra
The enthralling skull engraving I was staring into, on my laptop screen that night, had distinct Hindu inscriptions. Kapal/ Khopadee in Hindi means a skull. Most of the blogs and articles on this skull were mere superficial analyses, which motivated me a tad bit more to carry out my own research on it.
With some google assistance I found out that the skull belonged to a lady in Vienna, who had bought it from an antique shop in 2011. The engraved Kapala originally belonged to the head of a monastery in Tibet, who had gifted it to a doctor for his services.
Ostensibly, skulls of mislead humans are engraved with mantras after their death to help find a righteous path in their next life. Buddhism being an offshoot of Hinduism, follows similar practices and teachings, one being that of reincarnations. A Kapala can be used for ceremonies and for holding wine and bread in monasteries. Here’s one video you might like to watch on Kapala.
The main division of symbols:
In the pic: Comparing skull of a new born with Kapala, and the symbol of Dharmodaya Vajrayogini
The bigger engravings on the skull are located in the 7 areas as marked in the pic, 6 areas around the skull and one at the top. Interestingly, this corresponds to the 6 triangles of Dharmodaya Vajrayogini and with the skull of a baby where fontanelle (open center of skull) is very visible. Without complicating it let us try to understand the concept of Dharmodaya Vajrayogini:
- It has 2 triangles, one facing up and the other down.
- There are 6 triangles or edges, represent 6 perfections of generosity, discipline, patience, effort, concentration and wisdom.
The center of the kapala has a huge engraving, and it is located at the fontanelle. In Hinduism, it is believed that fontanelle is the place through which the last breath exits before death. Also fontanelle plays an imperative role in Ayurveda massages. It is also said that a depression in the fontanelle of a kid represents malnourishment. It’s flummoxing how our ancestors were so well aware of their body, which included the dents and depressions on the skulls.
Meanings of different symbols
In the pic: Crossed Vajra
The symbol at the center of the skull in top view is called a crossed Vajra, it means state of absolute stability. Vajra, diamond or thunderbolt, is associated with Hindu deity Indra. Diamond is the strongest substance available to humans and therefore crossed Vajra represents stability. This area of the head is also associated with the crown chakra in meditation. Crown chakra is about consciousness and interior peace. The placement of the symbol here on this skull, can be interpreted as a wish to grant peace to the departed soul to whom the skull belonged.
In the pic: Different chakra, 7th chakra or the crown being at the top
A lesser evolved form of Vajra can also be spotted on different parts of this skull, as shown in the pic below. If two such single vajras are put together then a crossed Vajra is formed.
In the pic: A simpler Vajra
In the pic: many types of crossed Vajra
Symbol of Om
The skull has Om engraved at 4 different places. The Sanskrit or Hindi style of writing is more curved sans any edges unlike the Tibetan style of writing Om. Yet the Om engraved on the skull lies somewhere between these two styles of calligraphy. But what is the reason Om is engraved on only this part of the skull?
Om, also pronounced Aum, is actually the sound to activate the 6th chakra, the one between 2 eyebrows. When one chants Om, it is believed that 6th chakra also called the third eye chakra, helps them connect to other people through their intuition, and gives one the ability to communicate with the world, or help them receive messages from the past and the future. When Om is chanted, the sound reverberates through the frontal portion of the skull, just through the places where Om has been marked in the Kapala.
In the pic: 6th and 7th chakra associated with Ooo and Mmm, it becomes Om when combined together.
Symbol of Kaali / Vajra Yogini
Kapala’s right side has a female figureengraved on it. The figure has a trishul/ trident in one hand and a head in the other, which unmistakably is Kaali, the Goddess who is the fiercest manifestation of feminine energy. She’s considered a destroyer of evil. In Tibet she’s more popular as Vajra Yogini, the deity who expedites one’s ascension. Many Lamas in the past have said Vajra Yogini’s mantra is the king of all mantras, that which when recited with right intentions helps one attain enlightenment faster. Ah, well! That sounds interesting. Isn’t it?
On one hand, Goddess Kaali is associated with doomsday, sexuality and violence, on the other she’s considered a protective mother, and this must be the reason why Indian Army’s Gorkha Regiment’s war cry invokes her—“Jai Maa (mother) Kaali, aayo Gorkhali”.
This goddess is prolly one of the most misunderstood deities ; she’s associated with some very taboo concepts and traditions. But for the passionate beings it is easier to assimilate the deities’ fierceness. If interested you can also read one of my posts on a Kaali temple in Kerala, where the Goddess is called Kannaki, ostensibly same as the Egyptian goddess Isis. You can read it here– Ancient spice route, city of Muziris and temple of Egyptian/Hindu Goddess.
In the pic: Chakrasamvara and consort Vajravarahi, pic credit: pinterest
Vajrayogini appearing in the form of Vajravarahi, is one of the most popular tantric female deities found in all the traditions of Tibetan Buddhism.
This is a very bold concept for western cultures, but not for the south Asians, especially Hindus. In India, there are temples like Khajraho dedicated to acts of love and passion. The above picture is from Chakrasamvara tantra which is dedicated to siddhis ( accomplishments) like flight and awakening.
So what does Kaali or the Vajra yogini on the skull symbolize? A subtle way of requesting the universe to bestow a life of passion, purity of intentions and inner-awakening to the person in his next reincarnation.
Symbol of Garuda eating a snake
Behind the engraving of Kali is a huge bird with a man’s face, eating a serpent. This bird is called Garuda in Hinduism, he flies the lord of benevolence—Vishnu, on his back. Garuda the bird eating a naga ( serpent) symbolizes the perpetual bitterness between the two creatures. Interestingly, none of these creatures are considered good or bad. It is one of those figurines where two creatures appear in pair, just like sun and moon. Garuda has found mention in ancient Hindu scriptures, most of which are believed to be at least 3000 years old, when Buddhism parted ways from Hinduism about 2500 years ago, many stories of Hinduism were passed on to Buddhism. This is why one can spot Garuda, in Tibet, Japan, Thailand, Bali, and myriads of other countries where Buddhism had dropped it’s roots. So one should not be surprised that the national airlines of Indonesia is called Garuda airlines.
Symbol of Stupa
Going from right to left of the Kapala, the figure at the back of the skull is a Stupa. This symbolizes awakening and it is more than a coincidence that the stupa has been engraved where one can find the medulla oblongata. This part of our brain is also called mouth of God, apparently this is the main switch that controls the entrance, storage, and distribution of the life force.
Symbol of Bhairava
Bhairava, is the fierce manifestation of Shiva, associated with annihilation. In Buddhism, he’s called Vajra Bhairava, and he can be spotted in the picture of Vajravarahi, copulating with her passionately. Both Kaali and Shiva, are considered to destroy demons of greed, lust and anger by indulging in passionate acts.
Symbol of Deers
Deers the symbol of harmony and longevity can be spotted on different parts of the Kapala. Both Vajra Bhairava and Vajra Yogini, who can be considered each others counterparts, have deers near them. I did not understand the deep meaning hidden here but was content to have found deers around the fierce deities.
Symbol of Citipati
The two dancing skeletons engraved on the front portion of the Kapala, are called Citipati. A popular folklore says Citipati were a couple who used to mediate in a graveyard. One night a thief who saw them, beheaded them and threw their heads in the dirt. Citipati swore vengeance against thieves, since then on the couple is believed to be reborn every year, and a festival is held for them when monks are seen reenacting jubilant Citipati. Who would not be happy to find their soulmate, in every life? Citipati to me, radiate mirth. I will not be very off the mark if I were to say the engraved symbols of Citipati lie over Hypothalamus, a region associated with anger, frustration and love.
In the pic: ritual daggers with a head towards the end, is called Phurba. This is associated with annihilating obstructions in fulfilling one’s wishes.
In the pic: Arrow of luck
In the pic: Fillers like jewels and wish granting gems
There are also many snakes engraved on the Kapala, in Hinduism it is believed that the treasures are protected by snakes and are associated with deity of destruction–Shiva, and deity of benevolence—Vishnu. So snakes on the Kapala assume a protective role.
While I was at my witsend deciphering the different symbols on the Kapala, my only regret will be to not have found meaning of mantra engraved on the chin. Albeit, I can read the alphabets as Da, ma and ta.
To whoever this skull or Kapala belongs to, is a lucky man. Come to think of it– he has been immortalized by the beautiful engravings on his skull and the stories associated with the symbols. This skull is more than 300 years old and has crossed many oceans before it reached it’s present owner. He may have been a soul who carried the burden of bad-Karma (misdeeds), but these symbols will ensure he’s reborn as a better soul. And probably find a soulmate who quenches his thirst for love. The world wide web will ensure that his story spreads, and someday someone might just give us some nuggets of wisdom about the mantra on the chin. Who knows!
Tibet has many such stories hidden in it’s treasure boxes, let us hope someday this place will regain it’s glory.
An article by Levina
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Very well researched article Levina. Ancient Tibetans have only one commonality with Chinese i.e. their mongoloid features. For all their spiritual, cultural and material needs, they looked towards the great plains of India and its thousands year old Civilization. Buddhism too was born in the lap of Hinduism and was infact a cultural revolt for stagnating Hindu practices of the times. Aadi Shankaracharya prevented Hinduism from further decay and was instrumental in renaissance of Sanatana Dharma. – Alex
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