Of Appendages and Anatomies: a Wall Hanging from a Tibetan Gon-khang


This large temple hanging, made of cloth, velvet, silk, thread and cord, measures some 13 feet by 4 feet (395 cm by 121 cm)—it most likely adorned the wall of a gon khang. Similar to another piece also in the collection of the American Museum of Natural History, it consists of a curtain of cutout fabric panels attached to a long banner, featuring a multifarious iconography of indigenous Tibetan motifs, including demons, fantastic beasts, and human heads, skulls and flayed skins. Such assemblies of what has been termed wrathful offerings “often take the form of long horizontal banners, with red brocade borders on the upper three sides and hanging silk valances along the bottom. In this form they are hung upon, or represent, the walls of protective deity chapels (Tib. mgon khang), and are used in sacrificial ceremonies (Tib. bskang rdzas) to appease the wrathful deities.” (1) Function thus suggests possible reasons for form: the gon_khang is the most sacred, secluded spot in a Tibetan temple or monastery, sometimes described as a chamber of horrors that conceals in its unfrequented precincts fearsome images of Tāntric divinities.(2) An early Western account reports:

mGon k’an, literally, means “the mGon po’s house”; the mGon po is the “Lord”, ie. the Yi dam, the protecting deity of the sect or convent …… Yi dam or mGon po, surrounded by the pageant of their terrible followers thus reside and receive their cult in the mGon k’an, mysterious shrines into which it is very difficult to be admitted. The doors giving access to them are low and narrow. …… The locks creak, the doors open. One has the impression of plunging headlong into bottomless night, into solidified darkness …… An elementary, chaotic, contradictory world, like the images formed in a feverish delirium. There is no cruelty or malice in their eyes, but the fury of monsters, exploding with the violence of a storm; you expect them not to speak but to howl like the wind, not to move with a wild animal’s agility but to hurl themselves about with a hurricane’s uncontrollable vehemence. The shrine proper is reached little by little, plodding and groping in the dark. All around, stuffed animals hang from the ceilings: dogs, yaks, horses, wolves …… terrific deities and gruesome offering [sic] of human skulls, eyes and entrails are traced out in thin golden lines. But in both cases the effect is equally obtained: the contrast of strong colours, black backgrounds, fiery images emerging from them in sudden epiphanies, represent in an extremely striking manner the atmosphere of tremendum pervading all the mGon k’an. (3)

The disquieting imagery of the gon khang is typical of Tibetan visual culture in general. The curtain of the wall hanging boasts, in particular, triads of human heads strung in a row; this symbol is most often found on the Tibetan tantric staff, or kha tvam ga (Skt. khatvanga). In Vajrayana Buddhism, the staff represents the union of Heruka Chakrasamvara with his consort, Vajravarahi, or the perfect state of the merging of great bliss and emptiness, ‘ultimate bodhicitta’. The crowning shaft is comprised of 2 impaled human heads, one freshly severed and the other in either a state of decay or maturation, and, above those, a dry, white skull. The first head may be red, and the decaying one blue or green, or the reverse may also be true. Reasons both somatic and symbolic have been offered to explain the colour scheme: red representing blood in a newly decapitated appendage, the latter only turning blue or green upon coagulation of the blood; the trauma of being severed indexes the blue or green colour of the head, which turns red when decomposition sets in; the fresh red head indicates the six heavens of the kamaloka (desire-god realms), the blue or green one signaling the death of desire and thus the eighteen heavens of the desire-less gods in realm of pure forms (rupaloka), and, finally, the white skull marks the move to the four highest, formless realms (arupaloka).(4)


The fleshless human skull is also a significant motif in its own right. Both as part of an entire skeleton and as an independent symbol, it is a prominent part of the wall hanging’s iconographic repertoire, as is the flayed human or animal skin, repeated several times throughout the length of the piece. These offerings to wrathful deities may represent, like some of those gods themselves, the defeat of the foes of Buddhism, the destroyers of dharma or the abusers of the Three Jewels (Skt. triratna); or they may be used as a seat by mahasiddhas, their in this case primary function being to serve as a reminder of the truths of impermanence, suffering, death, and the ultimate emptiness of existence within samsara. Here, the metaphorical deployment of the human body, in its flayed, dissected form, as an index of deeper, more fundamental realities, finds parallels in its reification as an object of knowledge in the West in the eighteenth century, when the rise of medical science trained a new curiosity on its inner workings. As one commentator remarks: “Analogies of dissection, specifically, functioned on two interrelated levels. The literal corporeal sense derived from the tactile cuts inflicted by actual instruments. Digging knives, invading scissors, sharp scalpels mercilessly probed to pry apart and distinguish muscle from bone. The figurative sense played upon the allusion to violent and adversarial jabbing. Such excavation stood for an investigative intellectual method that uncovered the duplicity of the world.” (5) The work of intrusion by medical instruments as an analytical system, in all its sensorial, hair-raising possibilities described above, certainly speaks to the efficacy of the graphic depiction of “quivering mound(s) of skin and flesh”, and “shimmering ocean(s) of blood and desire, and a glistening pile of broken and dry bones” (6), both as an evocation of the brutally decimated bodies of dharmic enemies, as well as the fugacity of material phenomena. The symbolic progression from fleshly head to barren skull as seen in the kha tvam ga, from a state of worldly involvement to transcendence, likewise operates as an analogous development from visible or superficial appearances to the occluded, invisible truth, from the secular world to the dark, sacred interior of the fugacity itself.


1. Robert Beer, The Encyclopedia of Tibetan Symbols and Motifs (Boston: Shambhala Publications, 1999), p. 315.
2. See M. N. Rajesh, Gompas in Traditional Tibetan Society (New Delhi: Decent Books, 2002), p. 96.
3. Giuseppe Tucci, Tibetan Painted Scrolls
4. Beer, p. 253-4.
5. Barbara Stafford, Body Criticism (Cambridge & London: The MIT Press, 1991), p. 47.
6. Beer, p. 315.