Tibetan Four Mirror Armour
Place of Origin: Tibet
Date: 18th Century
A highly interesting and decorative set of steel Tibetan armour, in an arrangement that is commonly seen in India and Persia, and referred to as ‘char-aina’, literally ‘four mirrors’. The Indo-Persian variant was physically more efficient, as the plates were usually rectangular and larger, but for a Tibetan mirror-armour would provide a strong, powerful spiritual protection. In Tibet these mirrors would have been referred to as me long bzhi, again a translation of ‘four mirrors’. In Buddhism the mirror represents the clear karmic past of previous lives, and are one of eight auspicious objects in Tibetan Buddhism of Indic, pre-Buddhist origin.
Held together with leather straps and secured to the body by means of iron buckles, it comprises a highly decorative front plate, with a more restrained back plate and two side plates. The slightly convex breast mirror is fitted with an applied gilt copper border, with the exposed steel showing signs of ‘mechanical damascus’ (folded steel). In the center, a three-dimensional gilt head of Garuda, a large mythical bird of religious and spiritual importance.
The border is in deep repoussé, chased with foliated scrolls. At the top is an interesting depiction of ‘the wrathful offering of the five senses’ (Tib. Khro bo’I dbang po Inga tshogs). Depicted in a traditional ‘torma’ arrangement, it is a dark and gory offering of body parts presented to wrathful deities, Dharmapala’s. Shown is a Kapala skull cup, siting on two severed heads, containing the five sense organs. Centrally a heart (representing touch), attached to the sides of the heart are a pair of ears, and between the ears a nose with flared nostrils. Optic nerves emerge from the cup, with the attached eyes looking toward each other. A tongue hangs limp over the edge of the cup. Symbolically the presentation of this offering of the five sense organs represents the subtlest level of consciousness.
On the opposite side, in a pyramid formation, there is an offering of three jewels, Ratna (Tib rin-chen or rin-poche) or mani ( tib norbu). On a lotus base, they represent the jewels of Buddha, dharma and sangha, single flames emit from the sides reflecting the adamantine Vajra nature.
The handsome Garuda (Tib. Khyung, mkha’ lding), is an assimilation of the Indian Garuda (enemy of the nagas), with the Bon khading – the golden "horned golden", king of birds and the bon bird of fire. Shown here with twisted hair and eyebrows like fire, and between his sharp horns a protuberance symbolizing a concealing of a naga jewel in his skull. This jewel, stolen from the King of the Nagas, is sometimes representing as a head ornament placed above the sun and the moon on his crown. A prominent curved beak, like that of an eagle or falcon, complete the powerful image. Garuda appears in many forms according to different traditions and linages, but assumes greatest prominence in the Dzogchen transmissions of the Nyingma and Bon traditions. He is commonly the vehicle of Amoghasiddhi – the green Buddha of the north.
While the front plate gives spiritual offerings, and displays aggression in the form of Garuda, the pair of side plates, protecting the kidneys, provide defensive and indestructible imagery. The small ‘Vajra’ symbolizing the impenetrable, imperishable, immovable, immutable, indivisible and indestructible, giving the wearer a superhuman belief in himself. The warrior would also be aware that the Vajra symbolizes the masculine principle of method and skill, giving him further belief in his own martial or spiritual prowess.
The rear plate shows a single gilt skull, presented much in the style of the front Garuda head and the vajra’s on the side plates. While it is an obvious symbol associated with death, it is also said to be a reminder of impermanence and the consequent importance of giving up ones’ desires. A powerful object in Tantric ritual, it is further evidence that this armour would have been made for primarily for ceremonial use.
La-Rocca, comments on the presence of skulls on a musket, musket barrel, and a spear in the book Warriors of the Himalayas (2006), suggesting the objects were either installed as part of the panoply of armour and weapons often found in shrines devoted to a guardian deity, or that they were designed for use in a divination ceremony conducted by a high-ranking oracle, such as the State Oracle formally at Nechung in Tibet. This is also a likely possibility for the mirrors show here. A photograph (IBID, fig.37, p.39) shows the oracle of the deity Baung Choje in 1928, wearing a very similar breast plate to the one being discussed here.
It is certainly an important set, and has comparable characteristics to many published oracle mirrors, see Spink (1995), cover image, no.1, p.1. Possibly made for an important lama general, maybe in the context of a Nyingma monastery, it is likely unique, and a wonderful relic of a magical place and people.