Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Hats: Who's who in the world of hats?


Hats are actually a big deal in religion and art. In art they help us to identify particular people, hierarchy and religious traditions. They also help us track hats in different paintings and sculpture over time (art history) and help to determine the age of particular works of art, and why, because hats change over time. More importantly hats are fun, weird and sometimes strange. What about the black hat of the Karmapas supposedly made from the hair of one hundred thousand Dakinis? What's a Dakini?

There is also the raven topped crown of the king of Bhutan. This hat is based on a religious hat used in fearsome protection rituals. How did it end up on the head of a king in a kingdom that still exists? How many Himalayan kingdoms are left?

Hats are interesting and each has a story about how it came about, why it has a certain colour and shape, and who can and who can't wear the hat. It is very much a staus thing. The hat in the image on the left is the special hat of the Mindroling hierarchs and in this case worn by Terdag Lingpa Gyurme Dorje in a very rare Tibetan portrait painting.

Look to Hats of the Himalayas for an overview of the different hats and the traditions to which they belong. This is just a preliminary look and a lot more work needs to be done. What is very important to remember is that hats are one of the most important iconographic keys in the study, identification and recognition of Himalayan and Tibetan teachers. Hats, who knew!

1 comment:

apm said...

The raven crown of the Bhutanese monarch predates the monarchy. The father of the first king, Jigme Namgyal, received the first 'raven-headed crown' from his lama (Wangchuk Tsondup) who designed it, and who was located in Tibet. Apparently, the symbolism conflated a local deity (Gongdu) with that of the raven-headed Mahakala and was intended to imbue the human wearer with the same protective powers found in both entities.

Also, the raven alludes to the role that raven-headed Mahakala played in the life of Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal. When Shabdrung was in Ralung and experiencing the more contentious end of some questions of succession to the Drukpa seat at Ralung, he is said to have had a dream where raven-headed MK offered him the (then-current) area of Bhutan. When Jigme Namgyal later donned the crown in his time, it was conceived of more as a 'war helmet' worn during his efforts to prevail over the Paro Penlop and gain political control.

So the current crown/hat symbolism brings together: 1. historical past, 2. spiritual power directly conferred onto the Shabdrung (and later by proxy, Jigme Namgyal and the monarchy) by raven-headed Mahakala, and 3. socio-political power that the human wearer was able to establish through efforts while wearing said crown.

The evolution of the crown's design was described in a Kuensel newspaper article from November 2007; one notices immediately that essentially all of the 'wrathful' symbolism has been removed-skulls replaced with garudas-and the overall profile is lower and more contained.

Today, the raven crown (obviously) plays a role in the coronation of the king (currently happening in its 'Secret' and then 'Inner' ceremonial phases, with the 'Outer' or public ceremony scheduled for 11.06.08), though as far as I know, the king is the only one allowed to wear it, for the reason that he is responsible for the well-being of the country, and as the crown is invested with the above history/power, only the proper person should wear it to maintain its integrity.

Tshering Tashi, a Bhutanese author based in Thimphu, is in the process of publishing a full-scale study of the coronation process of Bhutan's kings. Though I have not yet seen the manuscript, hopefully that will shed more light on the role of the raven crown in Bhutan.