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Until recently Bhutan was an anomaly among world nations. The tiny landlocked monarchy at the eastern end of the Himalayas was famous for being untouched by time. Under the absolute authority of the king, the Bhutanese pursued a medieval agrarian lifestyle with few trappings of the modernized world. However in 2006 the king, Jigme Singye, used his absolute authority to proclaim that the kingdom was transitioning to a constitutional monarchy and would hold elections. He then abdicated in favor of his Western-educated son Jigme Khesar Namgyel, who was crowned on November 6, 2008, and is now the figurehead ruler of the world’s youngest democracy. The young king is the fifth monarch of the Wangchuck dynasty which consolidated control of Bhutan’s warring fiefdoms in 1907.
The crown of Bhutan is known as the raven crown. It is based on the battle helmet worn by Jigme Namgyel (1825–81), aka “the black regent” who was the father of the first king (and whose warlike life consolidated central authority over feuding nobles and kept Bhutan independent of Great Britain). The raven is the national bird of Bhutan and represents Mahākāla, a protective deity/ dharmapāla particularly esteemed in the Buddhism of Tibet & Bhutan.
The raven crown is a warrior’s hat surmounted by a raven and embroidered with the skulls, which are emblematic of Mahākāla. The aesthetic effect is striking, but–to anyone unfamiliar with the Buddhism of the Eastern Himalayas—the skulls and ravens make it look like the young king is a dark wizard or a death knight. Fortunately, judging by the esteem in which he is held, this seems to be far from the case!
Today features a short but vivid post. I found the following image of a magnificent Asian crown on the internet but I do not know who crafted it or where it is. Look at how splendid it is!
Although I don’t know where this crown is from, I do understand what it represents. This is the crown of Mahākāla, a syncretic deity who is so different throughout Asia, he could almost be different gods. In India, he is a form of Siva. In Japan, Mahākāla is an exalted household deity associated with the kitchen and with wealth and luck. However the most dramatic and fearsome form of Mahākāla is the black multi-armed version which is universally worshipped in Tibetan Buddhism. The angry Tibetan version of Mahākāla is a dharmapāla–a deity of wrathful justice. Even though Mahākāla is terrifying, he is still a bodhisattva (like the gentle Kuan Yin) and his righteous anger serves a higher purpose. His savagery is actually a form of compassion for other enlightened and thinking beings.
In his form as a dharmapāla, Mahākāla is depicted with a crown of five skulls to represent the transmutation of the five afflictions into five wisdoms. Each of the five jeweled skulls (thod skam gyi dbu rgyan) symbolizes one of the five Buddhas. Although Mahākāla somewhat resembles Kali, his mission, form, and purpose are obscure and different in accordance with the various esoteric sects of Tibetan Buddhism.
Longtime readers know my fondness for Chinese porcelain. Today’s post features an especially characteristic (and magnificent) style of ceramic art object from the Tang Dynasty–one of the golden ages of Chinese civilization. Founded by the shrewd and intelligent Li family (whom you might remember from this thrilling & violent post), the Tang dynasty lasted from 618 AD-907 AD and was one of the most powerful and prosperous imperial dynasties. At the apogee of the Tang era, China had over 80 million families and exerted near hegemonic control throughout Southeast Asia and Central Asia. Additionally, China served as a cultural model for Japan and Korea, where traditions established a thousand years ago still linger, and it controlled North Korea outright for a generation after winning a war against the Goguryeo and Baekje kingdoms (and their Japanese allies).
Alien visitors to Earth in the 9thcentury AD would have had no difficulties choosing where to land in order to talk to the most prosperous and advanced people of the time. During this period great medicinal breakthroughs were made, gunpowder was invented, and printing became commonplace. The silk-road trade, which had been created during the Western Han era, grew in importance and magnitude.
During the Northern Dynasties period (317-581AD) porcelain camels were first created as grave goods so that merchants could take some of their trade empire with them to the next world (a Buddhist innovation—since previous Chinese potentates were inhumed with actual human and animal sacrifice rather than porcelain stand-ins). The sculptures are modeled in the shape of Bactrian camels, which were the principle mode of transportation through the great southwestern deserts of China. Caravans of silk, porcelain and other luxury goods would set out through the barren wastes headed ultimately for Persia or Europe.
Tang camels are magnificently expressive works of art. Rich tricolor glazes of gold, green and brown were dribbled over the animals and then fired, giving an impression akin to abstract expressionism. Although initially stiff and geometrical, the camels become more lifelike as the Tang dynasty wore on. A new sense of realism pervaded art and the camels are portrayed bellowing to each other or striding through the desert sand. Sometimes the camels include riders like Chinese merchants or Sogdian handlers (equipped with Turkic peaked hats). Tang porcelain camels make it easy to imagine the exotic trade routes of medieval China, where the wealth of the world poured into the middle kingdom across an ocean of sand.
It is spring again and the huge ornamental cherry tree which lives in my back yard is blooming (weeks earlier than it bloomed last year). Frequent readers know my fondness for both trees and flower gardens; and the Japanese cherry tree magnificently combines both things. It is a stately and elegant mid-sized tree of great vigor, which for one week (or less) is covered in clouds of gorgeous pale pink flowers. When it is fully in bloom, the tree is unrivaled in its beauty. Even the most lovely orchids and roses do not put on a display so simultaneously delicate and ostentatious.
Last year I wrote about the Hanami festival, which has steadily grown more important in Japanese society since its beginnings a thousand years ago during the Nara period. The flower appreciation festival now grips Japan as a national fervor which dominates the spring season and monopolizes the news. Hanami however is merely an outward expression of a much larger cultural concept, “Mono no aware” (物の哀れ) which translates approximately as “”the pathos of things” or “sensitivity to ephemera.”
Mono no aware involves a gentle wistful sadness for the impermanence of all things. The cherry blossoms come back year after year, yet childhood fades away before one even knows. Lovers with whom we dallied under the pink branches move out and drift away. The mayflies die. Our pets die. We die. Life runs by so quickly that we might as well be cherry blossoms ourselves, here for a beautiful fleeting moment before being shaken away into oblivion by some gust of wind or random happenstance. The idea of life’s beautiful brevity grows out of the flinty Buddhism for which Japan is famous and it gives rise to many famous tropes of Japanese culture (like the stoic samurai prepared to throw away his life in a lightning quick duel, or the suicidal lover, or the moth in the flame). There is an undercurrent of cupio dissolvi running through humankind and it seems particularly pronounced in the Japanese psyche.
However I like to imagine Mono no aware (and the cherry tree, and all trees, and all living things) less in terms of Japan’s Buddhism and more in terms of the animistic nature-based religions of East Asia like Shinto or Daoism. Look at the cherry blossoms more closely over many generations and you will see that they themselves change. Today’s blossoms are big showy gaudy things engineered by untold generations of nurserymen to appeal most directly to human taste. If you look long enough you will see that blossoms themselves are an innovation—a design leap by which plants appeal to animals to help out with the critical work of reproduction (and it works tremendously well! There is a cherry tree from Japan in my back yard in Brooklyn). The seasons themselves change, as demonstrated by this year’s unseasonable warmth (to say nothing of the warmth of the Eocene). The oceans rise and fall. Animals burgeon and fall into extinction. The world is made of clouds and storms and water rather than unchanging stone. In fact that metaphor doesn’t even hold up– geologists look at mountain faces and see the eons of erosion and shift with uncanny clarity. The stones themselves dance and shift and change as much as the fickle water (albeit so slowly that we can not clearly see them do so).
Year after year the blossoms come and go. It is beautiful and sad. But it would be sadder if they never opened up, or even sadder yet if, having bloomed, the pink petals never fell but hung forever as though in some fairy land. Change is a critical part of living things. Children grow up for a reason. Lovers quarrel and part because they did not belong together. The samurais and warriors and noblemen of yesteryear have been replaced by kinder smarter better people, and it is to be hoped that we will likewise be replaced. As you sit drinking beneath the flowers and the stars, don’t be overwhelmed by the fact that spring flashes by so fast. Be appreciative of the beauty and meaning you have today and start dreaming of how to make the next spring even better.