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Place of Origin: TIBET

Date: 18th - 19th Century

Mannequin Height: 1800mm (71 Inches)

Reference: 352

Status: Sold

Full Description:

A unique and decorative steel Tibetan armour, the majority of its elements dated to the 18th-19th centuries (the Indian mail shirt is 17th-century and the boots 20th-century, both used here for display purposes). In its entirety, though, the ensemble is firmly in keeping with photographs taken from the Great Prayer Festival in Lhasa (Tibet, 1943) by Harry Staunton.[1] And indeed, the present armour’s only known comparandum, preserved in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, is also assembled from composite elements using Harry Staunton’s photographs.[2]

The armour’s Bhutanese helmet is fitted at its front with a short peak that exhibits a decorative engraved band of interlocking foliate patterns. A brass finial with round base and the miniaturised form of a vajra (translated from Sanskrit as both “thunderbolt” and “diamond”) is attached to the top of the steel bowl. A silk lining is threaded through the holes pierced at the helmet’s brim and exhibits a gold-coloured border, the greater part of its teal surface depicting symbols and stylised cloud formations in its skilful embroidery.

The breastplate comprises armour-panels formed in an arrangement that is commonly seen in India and Persia, and referred to as ‘char-aina’, literally ‘four mirrors’. For a Tibetan warrior, the four-mirror armour (me long bzhi) would provide powerful spiritual protection. The plates are held together with leather straps and secured to the body with iron buckles. The slightly convex breastplate-mirror is fitted with an applied gilt-copper border, the exposed steel showing signs of ‘mechanical damascus’ (folded steel). At the centre is the three-dimensional gilt head of Garuda, a large mythical bird of religious and spiritual importance. The border is in deep repoussé, chased with foliate scrolls; at the top is an interesting depiction of ‘the wrathful offering of the five senses’ (Tibetan: Khro bo’I dbang po Inga tshogs). Depicted in a traditional ‘torma’ arrangement, it is a gory offering of body parts presented to wrathful deities known as Dharmapalas. On the opposite side, in a pyramid formation, there is an offering of three jewels, Ratna (in Tibetan, rin-chen or rin-poche) or mani (norbu).

The armour’s side-plates, protecting the kidneys, represent the armour’s more protective attributes. The small ‘Vajra’ (which, as per the above, also appears at the helmet’s finial) symbolizes the indivisible and indestructible, here fixed to the armour so as to bestow the warrior-wearer with superhuman self-belief. The rear plate shows a single gilt skull, a powerful object in Tantric ritual and further evidence that this armour was primarily for ceremonial use.

The armour includes a belt comprised of thin curved plates riveted to leather support straps that run horizontally across the belt’s interior surface. Viewing the armour from the back, one can also see that the buckles and cords used to fasten the ends together survive. The belts of Tibetan armours are very rarely extant, and it is especially fortunate that the present example is in such excellent condition.

Finally, grasped in the left-hand of our Tibetan warrior is a spear of impressive proportions and form. The spear’s shaft (mdung shing or mdung yu) comprises a wooden core reinforced by spiralling iron strips. The spear is fitted with an iron socket which tapers gently into a faceted stem incised with a variety of diagonal lines. This sits just below the slender spearhead which includes two curved protrusions at its base and is cut with two thin fullers.[3]

The main components of this armour – the helmet, mirror-plates, belt, and spear – are of significant rarity as individual elements. To have them here assembled into a composite armour which accurately reflects those worn by the Tibetan warriors themselves makes this an object matched only by the armour at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York which guards the arms and armour galleries on Fifth Avenue.[4]


Various European and American private collections

[1] See Donald LaRocca, Warriors of the Himalayas: Rediscovering the Arms and Armor of Tibet, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2006, p. 7.

[2] See ibid, pp. 134-137. Accession Numbers: 36.25.25, .28, .351, .476, .583a–c, h–k, .842a–c, .2174, .2461, .2505, .2557. (

[3] For a similar example to this spear, see ibid, p. 175, Cat. No. 75.

[4] See Note 2.


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