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"Canada can, within a positive friendly atmosphere, ask the Chinese government to resolve the Tibetan situation."

In War and Peace, in Silver and Gold

January 11, 2008

ART REVIEW
Movies, Performing Arts/Weekend Desk; SECTE
By KAREN ROSENBERG
4 January 2008
The New York Times

Tibetan Buddhism, represented by the peace-loving Dalai Lama, is not
normally seen as a religion that advocates violence. Earlier generations
of followers, however, defended the road to enlightenment with armed
horsemen.

Beginning in the seventh century Tibetan Buddhists outfitted their gods
as well as their warriors. In ancient Himalayan paintings, deities
brandish weapons, including the Sword of Wisdom, in defense of religious
doctrines. They also wear protective battle gear, as in the case of the
eighth-to-ninth-century figure Tsenpo, described in an ancient
manuscript as ''a god who became the sovereign of men, due to his power
derived from the great radiance of his sacred helmet.''

This paradox of militant Buddhism inspired the Metropolitan Museum of
Art's fascinating 2006 exhibition ''Warriors of the Himalayas:
Rediscovering the Arms and Armor of Tibet,'' which presented some 130
examples of military art. Donald LaRocca, the museum's arms and armor
curator, has created a follow-up installation of 35 objects from the
Metropolitan's collection (including five acquired in 2007), which
opened in mid-December in the Arthur Ochs Sulzberger gallery. (Mr.
Sulzberger, chairman emeritus of The New York Times Company, is a former
chairman of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.)

This time, in ''Tibetan Arms and Armor,'' the focus is on defense rather
than offense: examples of horse and body armor, dating from the 15th
through the 20th centuries, outnumber swords, guns and spears. Most of
these objects have seen more ceremonial than military action, despite
Tibet's long history of military involvement with India, Mongolia and
China (its current ruler). All of them equate supreme craftsmanship with
defense of the body and Buddhist principles.

A mannequin representing an armored cavalryman shows how the typical
Tibetan warrior, from the 17th century on, dressed for combat. Over a
mail shirt he wore a set of iron discs known as the ''four mirrors,''
protecting the front, back and sides of his torso. He carried a bow case
and quiver, a matchlock musket and a spear. On his head was a domed
helmet that came to a point at the top.

The exhibition includes seven of these helmets, which vary in age,
construction and decoration. Some are made of segmented metal plates,
while others have smooth, richly patterned surfaces. The oldest of the
helmets on view has eight plates and a plume finial and dates from the
8th to the 10th century. The rarest is a one-piece bowl ornamented, in
gold, silver and turquoise, with a Buddhist motif known as the Three
Jewels. It was likely worn by a Mongolian follower of Tibetan Buddhism
sometime from the 14th to 17th century.

Another helmet, of Mongolian origin, is so heavy with text and imagery
that one imagines the wearer collapsing under the spiritual weight.
Encircling the conical form are inscriptions offering protection from
bad planets and stars, destructive demons, weapons, harmful ghosts and a
host of other threats.

Horses were as lavishly and thoroughly equipped as soldiers, to judge
from the variety and intricacy of the saddles, bridles, shaffrons (head
guards) and stirrups on view. The Tibetans, in the tradition of steppe
horsemen, continued to use horse armor long after it went out of fashion
in the West.

One iron and leather damascened (decorated with gold and silver)
shaffron is among the most striking objects in the arms and armor
galleries. Dating from the 15th to 17th century, it is thought to have
been owned by a king or high-ranking general. Delicate scrolls adorn the
area above the eyeholes, which are outlined with tiny iron spheres. A
long strip of textured metal extends from snout to mane, bulging into a
disc in the center of the forehead.

Next to the shaffron a pair of exquisite leather neck defenses from the
same period are painted with rows of gold lotus and peony blossoms.
Pinned to the back of a display case, they resemble angels' wings from a
medieval icon painting but are sturdy enough to function as armor.

Similarly involved techniques were used in the making of stirrups,
saddles and bridles. The Met's display includes a pair of stirrups with
sloping dragon heads on the arch and a tread damascened with the motif
of the Wheel of Law. On the underside are spirals, concentric circles
and a lotus-leaf pattern.

One exceptionally well-preserved saddle appears to have been made in
China for the Tibetan market, during the 17th or 18th century. Its
original seat cover, of silk embroidered with dragons, and the form of
its gold-foil pommel plate resemble features of saddles made in imperial
Chinese workshops. The underside of the saddletree, however, has been
branded with the Tibetan letter ''ka.''

The most riveting of the new acquisitions is a war mask, in iron trimmed
with copper, thought to have been made sometime from the 12th to 14th
century. Unlike the many surviving examples of ceremonial papier-mache,
leather and gilt copper masks, it was meant to be used in battle. Its
fearsome scowl resembles the expressions of Japanese samurai masks meant
to intimidate the opponent (which can be seen in the adjoining galleries
of Ottoman, Chinese and Japanese arms and armor).

Unlike most of the other peoples represented in the Metropolitan's arms
and armor galleries, Tibetans continued to wear their armor into the
20th century. As recently as the 1940s they wore traditional arms and
armor at events like the Great Prayer Festival in the capital city of
Lhasa. At this annual event government officials engaged in contests of
skill with the spear, bow and arrow, and matchlock musket -- a case of
Buddhism's war of art running parallel to the art of war.

''Tibetan Arms and Armor From the Permanent Collection'' continues
through the fall of 2009 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, (212) 535-7710.

PHOTOS: A Mongolian helmet in iron and gold, 15th to 17th century.;
Detail of a breast defense from a horse armor, Tibetan or Mongolian,
15th to 17th century. (PHOTOGRAPHS BY THE METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART)
CTC National Office 1425 René-Lévesque Blvd West, 3rd Floor, Montréal, Québec, Canada, H3G 1T7
T: (514) 487-0665   ctcoffice@tibet.ca
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