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Skull Drum (Damaru), Eastern Tibet, Mid-19th Century

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NMM 1383.  Skull drum (damaru), eastern Tibet, mid-19th century.

NMM 1383.  Skull drum (damaru), eastern Tibet, mid-19th century. Hourglass-shaped drum constructed of two inverted skull caps, symbolic of the joining of the female and male elements of life. Silver band, ornamented with coral and turquoise stones, connects the two halves. Played by rotating, causing the swinging beater to strike each head. Mantras were often written on the interior of drums such as these. Held in the right hand, the "hand of method," the skull drum is an example of the synthesis of tradition that took place between Bön and Buddhist spirituality. Ringley Fund, 1976.


Side Views of the Damaru

Side view of drum Opposite side of drum

The skull drum, often paired with the thighbone trumpet in ritual use, existed as part of traditional Bön ceremonies prior to the presence of Buddhism in Tibet. Traditionally, the crania would be gathered from a "sky-burial" site, or charnel ground. It is the Tibetan belief that the body is nothing more than a vessel and, upon death, it should continue the cycle that is life; therefore, corpses are exposed to the elements, in order to decompose, in designated areas known as charnel grounds. The selection of skulls from charnal grounds, for use in making the damaru, traditionally involved several factors including age of the deceased, gender, and cause of death.




Tibetan Monk Holding Damaru and Rkang-Gling

Yogi holding damaru and thighbone trumpet

"A wandering Tibetan monk, or yogi, who lives as a hermit and recites the holy texts, gcod. The equipment of the yogi includes the damaru drum and the rkang-gling made from a human femur." From Lucie Rault, Musical Instruments: Craftmanship and Traditions from Prehistory to the Present, translated from the French, Instruments de musique du monde by Jean Brenton (Paris: Editions de la Martinière, 2000 and New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2000), p. 108.  Image source:  A. David-Neel.



Literature:  Thomas E. Cross, Instruments of Burma, India, Nepal, Thailand and Tibet, The Shrine to Music Museum Catalog of the Collections, Vol. II, André P. Larson, editor (Vermillion: The Shrine to Music Museum, 1982), p. 29.

Thomas E. Cross, Instruments of Burma, India, Nepal, Thailand and Tibet, M.M. Thesis, University of South Dakota, May 1983, pp. 73-75.

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