Phurbu – the Magic Dagger

Phurba 1

Today’s object is the Phurbu, or Phurpa, or Kila in Sanskrit, which we think was acquired in Kathmandu in the 1980s, and is a Buddhist dagger used in tantric and / or shamanic practices.

It has small amounts of wax left in a couple of nooks and crannies which supports the supposition that it is a unique object made using the lost wax method, ie. first the dagger was carved from wax, which was then covered in clay, which hardened, then the clay/wax was heated so that the wax melted and drained out through a small hole leaving a clay mould. Then three metals, copper, brass and lead, were melted and the alloy liquid poured into the mould. Once cool, the clay was removed, revealing the dagger.

Perhaps the most immediately distinctive part is the three-sided triangular blade, which is said to represent the unity of the three bodies of the Buddha, brought to a single point to subjugate evil spirits or negative emotional states, as well as to avert obstacles.  In other words, the phurba is a weapon, but rather than one used to physically attack someone it is used to combat those things that exist beyond the natural and mundane realms.

Some people think that the shape is derived from the wooden tent pegs used by the early Tibetan nomads – in fact ‘phur’ means  peg or nail.

Stemming from a very largely pre-literate society, there are many symbolic elements to the dagger, in common with a lot of Buddhist and Hindu iconography. The three blades, and the three segments of the dagger – head, shaft, blade – represent the three spirit worlds – the sky above and beyond, the earth plane where we presently exist, and the underworld below – and the power of the phurba to transform the three negative energies,  known as the ‘three poisons,’ viz. attachment, ignorance, and aversion.

(The more one looks into it, the more it reminds one the Deck of Cards – hit single by Max Bygraves in 1973. What an odd year for popular music that was.)

When the phurba is used by a shaman or priest, it may be plunged symbolically into a bowl of rice, whence the dagger represents the axis of the three spirit worlds, uniting them in time and space, as an axis mundi. The handle of the phurba represents ‘wisdom’, while the blade represents ‘method’.

Tibetexpedition, Fürst von Gautsa

Photograph of a Tibetan Shaman. Notice the Phurba dagger in his left hand. Photo by Klause Ernst, Tibet, 1938 (Part of the ‘Nazis in Tibet’ tour).

An axis mundi is the point at which the higher realms connect with the lower realms through the present realm. It could be a natural object – mountain, rock, tree etc – or a man-made structure – totem pole, church steeple, maypole – and occurs in many, if not all, cultures and religions, in one form or another. One of the earliest known recorded forms  is the caduceus – a wooden staff around which are entwined two snakes, acting as guardians of knowledge. Two entwined snakes are again a very ancient symbol, representing good and evil, poison and medicine, the yin and the yang. The caduceus remains a symbol of modern medicine.

Phurba head

The head of the dagger has three faces of a ‘fierce protector’ deity known as Vajrakilaya, in our case. Other phurba may have other symbols, such as a skull, or deities, such as Ganesh. Vajrakilaya (by the way, there’s a good deal of debate about the etymology) is a wrathful deity who removes obstacles, protects one from evil spirits and generally keeps you on the right track towards peace, somewhat paradoxically, you might think. Kind of tough love, war is peace sort of thing.

The three faces of Vajrakilaya (which are all slightly different – another sign that this was originally hand-carved from wax) share a single top knot – the axis – and each have three eyes – left, right and the ‘third eye’ in the centre of the forehead. This third, inner or mind’s eye is perceptive beyond the normal visual sense.

The eye-brows are bushy and flame-like, adding to the scariness, as do the canine fangs.

The ears are very long and weighed down with large gold earrings. The Buddha is usually depicted with excessively long ears. For example, this is a Buddha’s head I found on a beach in Japan (Isshiki, to be precise).

Buddha ears

(It’s amazing what you can find on a beach.)

The long ears represent age / wisdom, plus the fact that the Buddha had been a prince, with lots of heavy gold earrings, but he renounced the material world for the spiritual path. The short curly hair is also a sign of renouncement, as he cut off his princely flowing locks.

Large ears also signify a willingness and ability to listen to the sufferings of others – compassion and empathy.

Each face of the Vajrakilaya has his own scary five skulls. Five is another important number, referring to the commitments to abstaining from harming living beings, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying and intoxication.

Looked at from above there are twelve skulls (the ears are shared) in the shape of a wheel with the top knot as hub. Twelve is another significant number, referring to the Twelve Links of Dependent Origination: All things happen through cause and effect, and are interdependent. The twelve links can be broken through enlightenment, in which case one achieves a state of nirvana, but otherwise you’re stuck in an endless cycle of dissatisfaction (samsara). And the twelve links are: Ignorance (of the Four Basic Truths); Volitional Action (acting on impulse); Conditioned Consciousness (distracted by the six sensations/senses); etc etc.

The Wheel is one of the eight auspicious Buddhist symbols – the endless cycle of birth, death, rebirth – made up of three parts: The central hub represents training in moral discipline which stabilizes the mind; the eight spokes refer to the Eightfold Path (right view, right resolve, right speech, right conduct, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right samadhi (‘meditative absorption or union’); and the rim identifies the concentration that allows you to keep a steady practice of Buddhist doctrine.

Dagger monster

Scroll Painting of the Wrathful Deity Vajrakilaya (rdo rje phur pa)
India, 20th century
Acrylic on cloth, mounted on silk brocade
48 1/2 x 31 in. (123 x 78.5 cm.)
(On loan from Gregory and Maricel Hillis)
The Tibetan Book of the Dead exhibition at Virginia University, 1998.

(Note the Phurbu in the centre – busy chap)

Moving down from the head, the shaft consists of two Endless Knots between which are two lotus flowers, one upside down on the other.

Phurba shaft

The Endless Knot, without beginning or end, symbolizes the infinite wisdom of the Buddha, and depicts continuity as the underpinning of the reality of existence. It’s found in many cultures – for example, this is a Celtic cross at an abandoned village on Skye (where we went a couple of years ago):

endless knot

The lotus is another widespread symbol of purity, rising as it does from a filthy stagnant swamp: “the progress of the soul or mind through the mud of materialism, the waters of experience and into the sunshine of enlightenment.”

Below the bottom Endless Knot is the makara, which can take various forms but is often, as here, a water serpent with the head of an elephant on the body of a crocodile.

Phurba makara

As it’s part of a dagger the trunk is, well, truncated, and curled up, and the tusks are likewise rather diminished. Plus he’s got the same fiery bushy eye-brows, extending right round his ears for extra effect. His ears are biggish, relatively speaking. The elephant is not only big and scary, but wise and compassionate – again, a good listener.

The makara also appears on the ends of the main ridge beam in temples (the kurad), like a kind of gargoyle, except it’s an integral part of the beam and not a water spout. Other images are occasionally found but the crocodile/elephant makara is the most common, at least in the Hindu temples around here, as it’s easier to carve into the end of a beam than, say, a peacock.

From the makara’s mouth descend the entwined serpents, mentioned above.

Monks newarkPhurbu virginiaPhurba Newark

Ritual Dagger (kila, phur pa)
Tibet, 17th-18th centuries
Gilded copper alloy, iron, pigments, turquoise
11 x 1 3/4 x 1 3/4 in. (28 x 4.4 x 4.4 cm.)
(On loan from the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts Acc. 93.18 Gift of Arthur Glasgow by exchange, ©1997 Virginia Museum of Fine Arts)

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