Skeletons, Skulls and Bones

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"Dem Bones, Dem Bones, Dem  Dry Bones"

We all have them and rely on them everyday.  However in our culture we do not normally see them nor do we like to.   In fact, we take great care to avoid seeing these things, for in youth-oriented Western society, dying is considered a catastrophe or at least, a "tragedy,"  and death is a secret.  Since the 1920's in most of North America, it has been the practice to embalm corpses and use cosmetics on them.  We rarely get to see the structures that support our bodies and contain our humanity.  


In the highest mountains, where the soil is not deep and the air is clear and dry, the bones of animals and human beings can be seen just as they are.  Also, above the tree line, wood for carving or sculpting is not easily come by, and so bone often fulfills those purposes.   For example, a thighbone makes a good trumpet; a skull, a bowl.   Bones, human and animal are also used to make ornaments and ritual items like malas and bead "aprons."



The Skull

A skull cup (Sanskrit, kapala) is a bowl made from a cranium.  It can serve as a support for contemplation of our impermanence, reminding us to do our practice since death can come at any time.   European monks and scholars kept skulls on their desks to serve as momento mori  -- reminders of the immanence of death -- for much the same reasons.   Sometimes it was sufficient to "hide" the skull in the composition of a painting. 

In Himalayan Buddhism, the skull cup performs a similar purpose to the kumbha, a clay pot used in Vedic ritual.  It is also evocative of the begging bowl used by the Buddha and his monks, and of the gourd or kalasha used in ancient times for carrying water.  As a water pot, it reminds us to heed the teachings, to focus on meditation and not to spring leaks of distraction.

In Buddhist imagery, a kapala can be present as an offering bowl on a shrine, or held in the left hand of a deity.  Sometimes it is held at the heart level, sometimes a dakini raises it as if to drink.  It roils with the ambrosia of wisdom-bliss or it contains a placid, healing nectar. 

Guru Padmasambhava displays a skull cup containing the Ocean of Nectar -- the dharma wisdom teachings -- with a flask of the Essence of Longevity floating in it.  As a shrine offering (in the form of a torma or as it appears in a tangka) the skull cup contains the "sense offering" which, at first glance, may seem gruesome.  In the bowl, often decidedly three-cornered, we can see a pair of eyes on their stalks, two ears, a nose and a tongue.  This is simply a clear one-to-one iconography in which the senses are represented by the organs that are the means of input.  The triangular form of the symbolic skull can be understood to represent the Buddhist practitioner whose mind is being transformed by the Three Jewels and their tantric "corollaries," or Roots. 

Guru Rinpoche and Vajrayogini both are depicted carrying a khatvanga or staff upon which are impaled three severed heads.  The topmost one is a skull, the middle one is not yet dry, the bottom one is described as "fresh."  They stand for the three times (past, present and future.)

For use in benevolent practice, a skull can be donated to a monastery by the family of a deceased.  For other practices (Hindu, Bon and Himalayan Buddhist) 

The skull of a murder or execution victim is believed to possess the greatest tantric power; the skull of one who has died from a violent or accidental death, or from a virulent illness, possesses a medium magical power; the skull of a person who died peacefully in old age has virtually no occult power. The skull of a child who died during the onset of puberty also has great potency, as do the skulls of miscegenated [sic] or misbegotten child of unknown paternity, born from the forbidden union of castes, out of wedlock, from sexual misdemeanor, or particularly from incest. The 'misbegotten skull' of a seven or eight-year-old child born from an incestuous union is considered to possess the greatest power in certain tantric rituals. Here the vital force or potential of the skull's 'previous owner' is embodied within the bone as a spirit, rendering it as an effective power object for the performance of tantric rituals.


In the iconography of wrathful protective deities the skull cup, held at the level of the heart, may also be paired with the curved knife or chopper which may be held above the skull cup. Here the chopper is the weapon that severs the life veins and vital organs of demonic enemies, and the cup is the oblation vessel in which the blood and organs are collected as the deity's sustenance.  Descriptions of the contents of a wrathful deity's kapala include warm human blood, blood and brains, blood and intestines, human flesh and fat, the heart or the heart and lungs of an enemy, the heart of Mara and the blood of Rudra. 

~ Nitin Kumar at

Figures of buddhas and bodhisattvas in their wrathful aspects often display a 5-skull crown.  Here, each skull represents a buddha family and its corresponding quality in the form of the "death" of an associated negativity such as anger, desire, etc. 

"The Beautiful City" where Buddha Shakyamuni's family lived was called Kapilavastu.  It was named for an ancient sage known as Kapila, for Skull (of Wisdom.)  About five hundred years later, Jesus gave teachings on a skull-shaped hill outside Jerusalem called Golgotha, a word meaning Skull Place.  

Shiva's Necklace

The Great God of India, who alone remains when the universe dissolves, is portrayed atop a mound of ashes and incinerated bones.  Symbolizing that he is the sole sustainer of all manifestation (Skt. Shaiva-siddhanta-shara,) he is coated in ash and adorned with a garland of skulls. 

In Hindu practice, the ash (Skt. vibhuti) of ritual fires is used by yogis to coat their bodies, giving them an unearthly, even a corpse-like, appearance.  The whitened effect is a symbol of the complete consumption of mundane desire, especially of a sexual nature.

Bone Aprons 

The use of human bone for the purpose of Buddhist ritual may have originated in India. Some researchers attribute a shamanic origin, but there is evidence to suggest that, on the contrary, shamanism (and true shamanism is a north Asian practice) was not the source. That is, due to the spread of Buddhism to Mongolia and Siberia , the use of this type of ritual adornment may have come from practitioners of Buddhism, and not the other way around.

Not long before the second diffusion of Buddhism under Shantarakshita and Guru Rinpoche, Krishnacharya (Tib. Nagpopa,) the 8th-century Mahasiddha, received the instruction and details of this 6-fold [bone] costume directly from a Dakini. He is responsible for the Anuttara Yoga Tantra of Chakrasamvara (Tib: khorlo demchog) or Wheel of Supreme Bliss.

One of the earliest works to mention the use of human skulls and the bone costume is the biography of Marpa the Translator, guru of yogi Milarepa who instructed Gampopa and founded the Kagyu denomination.

Each of the items represents one of the Six Paramitas or 6 Perfections. The tiara stands for Generosity (Skt. dana.) The armlets represent Morality (shila.) The bracelets are for Patience (kshanti.) The anklets, for energy of action (virya.) The apron, for meditation (dhyana) and the chest piece stands for wisdom (prajna.) 

When the Paramitas are counted as ten in number, then there is a pair of earrings and a set of three separate necklaces that complete the set.  The necklaces include a choker and a waist-length one, with a medium-length one in between. 

In 8th-century Xixia and Tibetan paintings of Vajravarahi, the ornaments appear just as they did in David-Neel's photo of a ngagpa (Tibetan yogin.) The yogin has a khatvanga leaning on his left shoulder and holds bell and dorje. 

Nowadays, the 5-skull crown representing the Buddha families has been replaced by a foldable one of painted cardboard. We would not usually see someone wearing the bone costume in public.  In iconography and "opera," it is reserved for the depiction of early historical figures and dakinis.

Gelugpa practitioners do not use human bone.  Even for the lineages that would do so,  human bones are generally not widely available, since they should be freely donated for the purpose of Buddhist ritual. Also, as in the case of a thigh bone trumpet, the bone should have come from a young person. For those reasons, ivory (at one time) and animal bone are used instead.

Estournel says that the finest of these tantric costumes are from Central Tibet and date from the 14th and 15th centuries.  As the workshops that used to produce them no longer exist, and since the cords and  thongs used to link the bone elements are subject to decay, there are likely no original, complete sets still in existence. The only way of telling whether an item in a set is from one maker or another, and whether a set is complete, is to examine the carving on the plaques that unite the many strings of round beads. 

In a famous tangka of Dorje P'hamo (Vajravarahi) on display in The Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia, the deity wears bone ornaments in the form of a skirt shaped like lotus petals, with dangling bead ties, and a long garland of heads in the manner of the great Indian goddess. (The tangka is known to be based on one that was in Khara-koto, capital of Xiaxa, at the time the region fell to Temujin Genghis Khan in 1227.) 

The apron part of the costume has developed a few different forms over time. In the Estournel article, there are examples of two rectangular types, one has discs carved with dharma emblems linking the strands, as well as the usual type of rectangular plaque. Another one is triangular, but one suspects that that shape may be partly the result of several missing strands.

This segment is primarily based on the article by Jean-luc Estournel called "Rus-pa'i-rgyan: parures tibetaines en os humain" which  appeared in La revue de l'Institut National d'Histoire de l'Art in1992. 

Dancing Skeletons

A pair of skeletons appears in the tangkas of some Himalayan Buddhist lineages.  Each one has a staff, and one holds a flask of amrita while the other bears a skull cup.  They are called the Chitipati.  Interestingly, though most often they dance in parallel (as in a chorus line,) sometimes it is evident that they are a couple -- a male and female that dance in complementary or opposite fashion, intertwined and gazing at each other.  They may be shown dancing on two corpses, or on two shells.

Legend tells how a pair of yogis were so absorbed in their meditation inside a certain Himalayan cave, that they did not even notice when a murderous brigand cut off their heads.  Some believe that they have sworn revenge on all such marauders and will stop at nothing to protect their domain. 

Shri Chitipati arises from the Secret Essence Wheel Tantra and is associated with the Chakrasamvara Tantra (Anuttarayoga Tantra, a highest category.) Primarily employed as a wealth practice with emphasis on protecting from thieves, they also serve as the special protector for the Vajrayogini [Naro Khechari] practice.  Shri Chitipati is now common, to a greater or lesser extent, in all the Sarma ["new translation"] Schools.

~ courtesy H. C.

  • If you zoom in on a Nyingma tangka of Guru Rinpoche as "Lion's Roar," there is depicted a spirit of the charnel grounds in skeleton form dancing in the flames of awareness.

Among the dances performed by the Drepung Loseling monks for the surrounding populace, is Durdak Garcham, "Dance of the Lords of the Cemetery."  The dancers, in  bright red robes decorated with white bones, bend, kick and revolve while waving their long bony "fingers."  However the intention is not to frighten but to remind the audience of the transience of human life.   Dancing is used as an adjunct to Buddhist discourse in Himalayan monasteries because often the discourses are hard to follow, but dance breaks through the intellectual barrier.  Also, the Dance of Death seems to cut through our natural denial of mortality perhaps because of what is known as the kinaesthetic effect.

There are a number of other cham performances in which skeleton dancers figure.

Other Cultures

  • Mexico's Dia de los muertos.


Dance of Death:  Known as the Danse Macabre in the Western cultural tradition, it took the form of a processional kind of rowdy dance with some participants dressing up as skeletons.  It was frequently performed in town squares during the years that the plague or Black Death visited European cities.

kinaesthetic effect:  This is the easily observable effect that causes our own thigh muscles to contract as we watch someone else jump for a basketball hoop, for example.

Estournel:  The original French article on his web site states that, since Waddell's Tibetan Buddhism (1895) and Berthold Laufer's (1874-1934) paper, "The use of human bones and skulls in Tibet" (1923), not much else on the topic is found in the West. 

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