A Bundle of Prayer Leaves

The object to scale next to a pencil

What does it look like? Smell like? Taste like?

This object is small, about 2 inches in diameter and thickness. There are approximately two-hundred and sixty individual sheets of Tibetan paper tied together with a piece of stiff sinew. The sinew is tied in a square knot. Some of the leaves are not stacked neatly; in some places up to five of the leaves and folded inside of each other. The object fits nicely in the palm. Each of the leaves is block-printed on Tibetan paper with the mantra Om Mani Padme Hum which repeats itself again and again around the circle. The object smells musty and brown mold is visible in a few places. The object is compact and sturdy and from my observations it appears that it was constructed in its present shape and form to serve a functional purpose rather than decorative; this is not an object to display though it may have been part of an object that did have aethestic value. I unfortunately did not taste the object, however if were able to scientifically “taste” the object by taking a sample of its fibers we might be able to further understand when exactly this object was made and from what plants the paper comes from.

What is it?

While it is only possible to speculate, after a fair amount of research and conversations, I have determined that this object may be a collection of individual prayer leaves that, rather than being placed as a unit inside the body of the prayer wheel, would be used individually at the top and bottom of the prayer wheel to lock in the scroll. I was finally able to determine this after finding a diagram of how to make a mani wheel in Lorne Ladner’s book Wheel of Great Compassion (see images below). He writes, “the instructions here conform to the method suggested by the Fourth Panchan Lama (link), which Lama Zopa Rinpoche has said is a correct method for filling mani wheels” (The Wheel of Great Compassion, 87).
Step two
Step one

Below, Lama Zopa Rinpoche has actually drawn a version of earth wheel, which is to be fitted on the bottom of the scroll. The second piece, the sky wheel, fits on the top. lauren8.jpg

It is believed in Tibetan Buddhism that spinning the written form of Om Mani Padme Hum around a prayer wheel, otherwise known as a mani wheel, has the same effect as repeating the mantra out loud and thus the spinner can accrue merit . The prayer wheel is used as a meditation tool.


However, the formal function of this object (or rather, the function of one of its elements, the prayer leaves) that I have named does not mean that this particular bundle of prayer leaves was used for that purpose. To determine where this object might have traveled before its current home on a numbered shelf in the Museum of Natural History in New York City, it is helpful to consider the tactile experience that I and others had when we were able to spend time with the object on February 28, 2008. Mostly notably, after twenty minutes of (gloved) handling of the object, where we counted the leaves and rifled through them to understand their motion and composition, the object degenerated quite a bit; the leaves, particularly those close to the top and bottom, were considerably more wrinkled and worn than when we first picked it up. This signifies that the object has not been handled by human hands very frequently, if at all, since it was constructed. This experience with the object might lead one to believe one of two things: that the object is fairly old and, while it may have been handled frequently by its original owner (or one of its owners), is now in a state of disintegration, or, that the object has always been stored away from human hands, possibly even inside a prayer wheel to take the place of the traditional scrolled mantra. This seems possible because the prayer leaves are pierced in their center and appear to have been compactly held together for a significant period of time; the ink on some of leaves is bleeding and smudged onto other leaves. What is nearly for certain is that these leaves were intended to be spun, either together in their current form or separately as the top and bottom pieces of more conventional prayer wheels, so that the mantra could accrue merit for its spinner.
Prayer Bundle Side View

What else spins?

I am not the first person to posit this question; in 1896 William Simpson published the book The Buddhist Praying Wheel after visiting Tibet. He first recounts his experience with the Buddhist praying wheel and then goes on to describe The Wheel-God in France; the Whirling Dervishes of Cairo, Egypt; the Ka'bah at Mekkah; the Japanese Wheel with Thunder Drums; Wheels with Charms attached, found in Swiss Lake-Dwellings; his list goes on. I have included images of other Tibetan Buddhist uses of the wheel or circle as well as a discussion of a few other examples that he gives.

Similiar object found in a bug-infested statue
Vajravarahi Abhibhava Mandala

Unknown Block-Printed Mantra from statue, AMNH Vajravarahi Abhibhava Mandala 14th c.

First, within Tibetan Buddhism We looked at the object above during the same time that we looked at the Bundle of Prayer Leaves at the American Museum of Natural History; it had been found inside a statue of the Buddha that had been taken apart due to bug infestation.

Whirling Dervishes, Turkey

Whirling Dervishes of the Mevlevi Order; Istanbul, Turkey

X. Theordore Barber, in his 1986 article in Dance Chronicle entitled, Four Interpretations of Mevlevi Dervish Dance, 1920-1929, writes:
"Few dances are as famous as the whirling of the Mevlevi dervishes. For many centuries, despite Orthodox Islam's opposition to dance, some orders of dervishes, or mystics, have employed dance movements in their ceremonies. Each order, congregating in its lodge, or tekke, had its own unique movements meant to induce an ecstatic or trancelike state. In unison, the dervishes would do such things as sway back and forth, turn in a circle while holding each other, or jump at set intervals, all the while repeating the name of God (Allah). Musicians and even singers would often accompany these actions. Yet no dervish sect has fascinated the West more than the Mevlevis, who whirled like tops in the course of their rite."


Ka'bah; Mecca, Saudi Arabia

The Ka'bah is a cube-shaped building at the center of the al-Masjid al-Haram mosque in Mecca. It is considered the most holy place in Islam and during the Hajj, or yearly pilgramage, millions of pilgrams circumambulate around the Ka'bah.

Click here to watch the Youtube video "Inside Mecca, view of Kaaba" to see footage of the actual circling of the Ka'bah.