Place of Origin: Tibet
Date: 19th Century
Tibetans love strong and vibrant colours, and this monastery drum (TIb. rnga) is no exception. 19th century or earlier, it has a wooden body forming the shell, and leather goat skin covering each side. Painted with dragons, skulls, and a large central Gaykil (wheel of joy), a carved socket on the underside to allow the drum to sit on a tripod like stand, or held on a pole by a monk who would play the drum with a curved stick.
We should begin by putting this drum into context, and a big clue lies in the imagery and importantly the colour of the background of the leather skin. Usually the main colour is green, however in this case we see a black background, and thus draw comparisons with ‘nag-thangs’ (black paintings) which can be linked with wrathful deities or ‘Dharampalas’. An inference can now be drawn that the drum was perhaps kept in a ‘Mgon-khang’ (chapel for a wrathful deity), and linked with visions of cosmic apparitions and used for secret initiations or tantric dances, played by a single monk keeping rhythm for chanting, music, dancing and symbolically with cosmic rhythm.
The timber shell is generally in good condition, but probably in its working life the wooden rim, for a small portion, has separated from the main body. It is completely stable now, but it does leave a small gap which interestingly reveals a piece of applied pink material, hardened with the application of animal glue, it begs the question - is this some attempt at a repair or stabilization, or is it a superstitious act?
The timber body is painted with a red background, and depicted are two large dragons (Tib. druk, brug) with scaly bodies and fire like tails, writhing in a scene of storm clouds. The dragon can represent thunder, so in the context of a drum it is quite relevant. Each dragon grasps a pearl in each claw, the pearls producing dew, and when the dragon clenches them tightly, a downpour of rain. The dragon has always had a strong association with weather prognostication, and used in this particular application, particularly relevant due to the association of the drum with music and the weather.
The taught leather skin is stretched over the wooden rim and held with dozens of wooden pegs. The skin decorated in a concentric pattern, with a central large wheel of joy, representing Mount Meru, a sacred mountain with five peaks considered to be the centre of all the physical, metaphysical and spiritual universes. The area around this is considered to be the ‘great salt ocean’ which surrounds Mt Meru, also it is the drums striking area, decorated with eight laughing skulls with orange tendrils. Finally, an outer band of red with black outline, and the outer rim in a deep golden yellow.
It is unusual for the striking area to be decorated, not only is the laughing skull depiction interesting but there is an arresting visual impact, partly due to the surrounding orange flames which represent the incineration of the poisons of ignorance, desire, aversion, pride and jealousy. The Skulls when linked here with the Wheel of Joy, symbolise the capacity to cut through all obstacles and illusions. The wheel of Joy is the central hub of the ‘dharmachakra’, which literally means ‘the wheel of transformation’, or spiritual change. The four yin yang shaped sections are painted to represent the four seasons, and represent Buddha’s four noble truths.