A Damaru hand drum in Sikkim 1943 and Lhasa in the Present

My father was fascinated by a hand drum he saw a man using in a Gangtok market in 1943.

He took two photographs, which are reproduced below. The drum itself has come out very blurred due to its rapid movement.

He later (1993) recalled, "We spent a few days with the Political Officer for Sikkim, entertained and were entertained by the Maharaja and his three grown up children." The Maharaja was Tashi Namgyal, ruling Chogyal of Sikkim from 1914 to 1963. He was born in Tibet and crowned by the 13th Dalai Lama, Thubten Gyatso.

Back in England, he photocopied part of a book on "Heritage of Tibet"  (W. Zwalf, 1981, ISBN 0-7141-1420-0) and highlighted a 19th century skull drum (damaru) which reminded him of the ritual drum seen in use in Gangtok during WW2. The text states that the damaru was inherited from India, appearing as an attribute of deities in both Hindu and Buddhist sculpture. "The drum could be made of wood, painted with designs, or two skull tops, closed with skin and provided with an ornamental silk pendant. Such drums had many uses. They marked intervals in recitation, drew attention, with other instruments, of the gods being invoked and induced a suitable state of mind in the exorcist during the recitation of his spells. The damaru was ritually paired with the bone trumpet and, with the bell, was used for rain-making. The sources of the skull tops were again various: children who had died at the age of eight or were born of an incestuous union were thought to possess special magical power and the victim of a violent death was also considered suitable. This type of drum was also a frequent attribute of Tibetan deities."

This very same drum was subject of a 2015 article on its conservation and meaning. Anne Bancroft, specialist in the conservation of Buddhist art at the Courtauld Institute of Art, "showed how the drum would be held in the right hand and explained how it was played: using the cotton loop, the drum would be swayed from left to right, allowing the strikers to hit the parchment covering.

Anne explained that the drum was a sacred tantric ritual instrument ‘a hand-drum or damaru’ used most likely in the Tibetan Buddhist ritual practice called ‘Chod’. Chod is normally associated with Vajrayana Buddhism and is a type of meditation practice to cut through our ego.

In order to explain the meaning and context of ‘Tantra’ Anne mentioned that there are different types of Buddhism known as ‘Paths’ or ‘Vehicles’. There are difficulties in defining Tantra, but it is best described as the “path of transformation”  it can be viewed as a ritualised and sometimes esoteric form of Buddhist practice which uses iconographic imagery/objects/visualisation, prayers, offerings and symbolic ‘mudras’ (gestures) to aid ultimately with ending ‘suffering’ and to achieve enlightenment.

Tantra ritual practices are a mixture of visualization, breath control, ritual gestures, mantras, or words of power and ritual is characteristic. Deity yoga employing the visualization of oneself as a deity is key to the process. Wrathful deities, the embodiment of inner forces that can overcome obstacles on the path are often shown holding skull cups and dressed in bone jewellery, These all have strong symbolic meanings, for example skull cups also symbolize emptiness and bliss. Another ancient Indian tantric aspect of the use of bones in rituals or for eating from or dressing in is that the user of them is showing he/she has transcended the opposites of dirty and clean, good or bad having reached a level of being and understanding in which those opposites don’t exist."

In Lhasa this past weekend I came across an old example (decorated with silver skulls) in one shop and a group of new wooden examples in another. Here they are below.

It was fun to watch monks trying out new instruments such as these and the raucous double-reed gyaling.

The Zwalf (1981) text mentioned above noted the damaru drums as an attribute of Hindu, Nepali and Tibetan deities, so I took a close look at a favourite 13th century female deity gilt bronze (10 cm tall) and see a damaru held in one of her 16 hands. Here she is below. I think she is Durga, slayer of the buffalo demon - she has her sword ready for action.

The damaru can be seen in the second of her left hands.

As usual, I very much enjoy these types of connections across space and time.


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