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This object is currently in storage at the Museum of Natural History in New York City, where it is called by the catalog number 70.0 6597. It was donated to the museum by members of the Cutting-Vernay expedition to Tibet in the mid-1930's. Suydam Cutting and Arthur Vernay, trustees of the museum, were in correspondence with the Dalai Lama for several years before being invited to visit Shigatse and Lhasa in 1935. During that trip they gathered two boxes full of objects such as "temple banners," embroideries, and ritual implements, as well as a collection of plant specimens to bring back to New York. The object above was procured in U-tsang at that time. Its place of origin, previous owners, and sellers/donors are uncertain.

An object like the one pictured above might be called a phurba, purba, phurbu, purbu, kila, dagger or peg.

These names reflect and indicate the multiple contexts that comprise the life story of objects like the one pictured here. In some English language contexts they are called daggers and in others they are called pegs. In Tibetan they are called phurba or phurbu. Their Sanskrit name is kila.

Calling the object a dagger situates it in its use as a weapon, an instrument of violence, a ritual implement used to expel negativity, harm enemies, and pierce the heart of demons.

By calling it a peg, its use as a tool is invoked. In this context the object is utilitarian. It marks boundaries and stakes down physical structures, like the stakes of a tent. As a ritual implement, the peg is used like a conventional peg in drawing borders and securing ritual ground.

In other contexts, this object either represents or is identical with an enlightened figure. Vajrakila.

In a closely related context, the object is the central focus or yidam (link) of meditation practices in which a Nyingma or Bon (links) practitioner identifies with the object as a means of recognizing his or her basic enlightened nature.

Tertons (gter ston) or treasure revealers (links) often wear a small phurba around their neck on on a belt. They also use phurba to dig up treasure (gterma) texts.

Within the context of the terma tradition, phurbas show up as traces of lineage transmission. Tertons or treasure revealers recount visions in which great visionaries of the past give them phurbas. There are often material counterparts to these visions, and the phurbas associated with these visions are passed on to disciples as marks of transmission or “supports for power.”

Some examples of prominent narratives that include these objects are accounts of lives of the Fifth and Sixth Dalai Lamas, accounts of the life of Terdag Lingpa, and the visionary accounts of Jigme Lingpa. These are only a few examples, by no means indicative of the full scope of historical and contemporary visionaries who transmitted phurbas as a physical counterpart to lineage transmission.

For example, After the violent overthrow of the Tsang royal government and in conjunction with the Fifth Dalai Lama’s use of Nyingma rituals, he is reported to have suffered from a severe sore throat that inhibited his ability to speak. During that period, he reported a vision in which Wangpode performed the empowerment of the Karmaguru ritual cycle (a repetition of a vision he had reported in 1640) and gave him the gift of a dagger (phur bu), an implement rich with symbolic import among treasure revealers. From that point onwards, the Dalai Lama wore a dagger of similar aspect in his belt, to the distress of his more orthodox Gelukpa colleagues.

The Dalai Lama is said to have had and worn several other daggers in the course of his life, one of which is said to have been included in the articles that were placed in his tomb. The dagger that Wangpode gifted him in the above mentioned vision had a physical counterpart that likely came into the Dalai Lama’s possession at some point in the late 1650’s or early1660’s, although I have not found an account of the actual exchange of this gift or clear reference to its date. Based on Sangye Gyatso’s account of the time just previous to the Dalai Lama’s death, the dagger worn by the fifth Dalai Lama for a period of twenty to twenty five years (from the 1650's or 60’s until his just before his death) was the same one worn previously by Wangpode, the first two Abbots of Dorje Drak Monastery, and Zur Chochings Rangdrol.

What was likely the same dagger was entrusted to Terdag Lingpa during his last interview with the Dalai Lama, in 1681, with instructions to give it to Pema Thrinle of Dorje Drak. While Terdag Lingpa is not reported to have worn this particular dagger, he became directly involved in its transmission when the Dalai Lama put it under his care.

During the sixth Dalai Lama’s early days as the publicly recognized reincarnation, Pema Thrinle gifted the sixth with a dagger, and blessed him with the one passed on by the fifth, which was said to have been discovered by Pemalingpa and later rediscovered by Wangpode. On the same occasion, Terdag Lingpa conferred the name Dorje Thometsel (the same name he gave to the fifth Dalai Lama) on the sixth Dalai Lama and gave him a tiny dagger, which he wore around his neck for the rest of his life.

Jigme Lingpa recounted a vision in which Terdag Lingpa bestowed a dagger on him. In this case, the envisaged dagger physically manifested as well. It might be that Jigme Lingpa knew that Terdag Lingpa had given the sixth Dalai Lama such a dagger and therefore superimposed himself on the lineage of exchange through having and reporting this vision. Or, it might be that the dagger is such a common trope among tertons that Jigme Lingpa’s vision was a coincidence. In any case, the daggers provide a tangible medium of ritual support and continuity between individuals of the treasure tradition. This particular dagger's life story can be traced to its present location, at a Nyingma monastery in Kham (monastery name?).

In a contemporary context with ties to the traditions mentioned here, in Eastern Tibet there are large ritual gatherings to bless the phurbas of tantric practitioners. Nicholas Sihle has documented one of the largest such gathering. (links)

These objects might be treated as sculptural works of art, as jewelry worn around the neck or on a belt, as objects of interest in museum exhibitions, or stored away for posterity. They might be sold as curiosities in markets, stolen, bought or traded as precious antiques or collector’s items. They might be treated as fetishes, a means of projecting fantasies about Tibetan mystical traditions or vilified as marks of a demonic, violent cult. They also exist as two dimensional images on Himalayan art and Buddhism websites.

Phurbu and phurba, and the English phonetic purba or purbu may also reflect different regions’ pronunciation, or they may reflect a subtle tension over whether these objects are in the context of a weapon, a tool, or a divine ideal. Likewise, the translations “dagger” and “peg” highlight a different context for the object. According to The New Tibetan-English Dictionary of Modern Tibetan, "phurba" refers to a peg shaped object used in a general sense, whereas "phurbu" refers to the ritual implements displayed here. The terms are often used interchangeably.

The object's antecendent are in the Vedic tradition's use of kila, Indrakila or vajrakila.

In Himalayan or Tibetan contexts these objects are typically made of metal or wood, most often iron or sandalwood. They sometimes incorporate other materials such as crystal or gems. They have a three-sided blade and a handle, which is marked by some kind of knobs, whether in the shape of faces, often wrathful, or other designs. A remnant of the Indian roots is visible in the presence of the sea creature who's mouth the blade of many phurbas emerges from. Nagas, mythical creatures associated with protecting the Buddhist teachings, are also frequently depicted on phurbas, perhaps due to the fact that the peg is thrust into the earth and nagas live underground.

The images below are from Himalayanart.org.
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Bibliography:

Aris, Michael. (1984). Hidden Treasures and Secret Lives, London: Kegan Paul International.

Bischoff, F.A., and Hartmann, Ch. (1971). Padmasambhava’s Invention of the Phurpa. Paris: Etudes Tibetaines.

Chandra Das, Sarat. (1896). “A Short Description of the Phurpa,” In Journal of the Buddhist Society, IV, p. 5.

Dudjom Rinpoche, Jikdrel Yeshe Dorje. (1991). The Nyingma School of Tibetan Buddhism: Its Fundamentals and History, Gyumre Dorje and Matthew Kapstein (trans. and eds.), Boston: Wisdom Publications.

Dung dkar tshig mdzod chen mo.

Gyatso, Janet. (1998). Apparitions of the Self: The Secret Biography of a Tibetan Visionary, Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Goldstein, Melvyn. The New Tibetan-English Dictionary of Modern Tibetan.

Huntington, John C. (1975). The Phur-pa – Tibetan Ritual Daggers. Ascona.

Karmay, Samten G., “The Rituals and Their Origins in the Visionary Accounts of the Fifth Dalai Lama”, in Religion and Secular Culture in Tibet, Tibetan Studies: Proceedings of the Ninth Seminar of the International Association for Tibetan Studies, Henk Blezer ed., Brill: Leiden, 2002.

Karmay, Samten G., Secret Visions of the Fifth Dalai Lama, Serindia: London, 1988.

MacDonald, Ariene, with Dvags-po Rinpoche and Yon-tan rgya-mtso. (1977).“Un Portrait du Cinquieme Dalai Lama” in Essais sur L’Art du Tibet, Ariene MacDonald and Yoshira Imaeda, eds.,Paris: Librairie d’Amerique et d’Orient.

Marcotty, Thomas. (1987). Dagger Blessing, the Tibetan Phurba Cult: Reflections and Materials. Delhi: B.R. Publishing.

Martin, Dan. (1999). “Phurpas,” In From the Sacred Realm, Reynolds, Valerie, ed. p. 163-169.

Meredith, Georgette. (1967). “The Phurbu: The Use and Symbolism of the Tibetan Magic Dagger,” In History of Religions, vol. VI no. 3. Chicago.