Place of Origin: Tibet
Date: 18th-19th century
A Tibetan trident which relates to a similar example in the Guimet Museum, Paris, France (accession no. MA 5918). A trident is an important object in Buddhism, and is a frequently used attribute of the dharampalas, a group of wrathful deities who symbolise the tremendous energy required to vanquish evil. Dharmpala is a Sanskrit word which means ‘defender of the dharma’.
The main component is a double-edged flaming sword, with a thick central spine, giving the sword a three-dimensional form. The double-edged blade represents the indivisibility of relative and absolute truth. It is chased in the central areas with flames in gold, and at the tip in openwork-iron is a vajra-flame formation also damascened with gold. At the base of the blade sits a prominent double sided gilt-copper skull, a reminder of our impermanence and of the consequent importance of giving up our desires., For a four-mirror armour with a similar skull on the back plate see Singh (2016), p.76-83, cat.no.33 . The tubular steel socket is fitted to a contemporary wooden shaft painted blood red and mounted on a black steel base plate.
Two curling arms sprout from the sides of the skull in an organic manner, which sets it apart from the example in the Guimet, which is far more symmetrical. The arms curl in and out, and on each outside bend there are two steel flames hung on chain links, four in total; and on every internal bend there are three integral flames, six in total, perhaps symbolising the six perfections of Buddhism (giving, morality, patience, energy, meditation, and wisdom). The tips of the arms are deliberately made to curl in opposite directs for an unknown reason, but to great visual affect, which adds to the uncontrived feeling of the design.
The chased flames on the blade surfaces resemble the decoration on a Tibetan lance head published by Singh (2015), p.64-67, cat.no.27. Both objects would have been installed as part of the panoply of armour and weapons often found in shrines devoted to a dharampalas. They were also used in a divination ceremony conducted by a high-ranking oracle.
The overall form of this trident is complex and unusual, which exposes it to intense debate and speculation.