This exquisite kapala bowl and stand represent the luxurious nature of Buddhist implements created for one of the many Buddhist temples within the grounds of the Forbidden City. A kapala (Sanskrit for 'skull') bowl is a vessel that was made from a human skull and used as a ritual implement in the Esoteric Sect for a number of vajrayana deities, mainly wrathful. The Qing emperors were devoted followers of Tibetan Buddhism and while ritual and ceremonial implements were created under heavy supervision to ensure they adhered to canonical prescriptions, they often combined Chinese decorative styles and valuable materials that were suited to the imperial court. This fusion is evident in the floral enamel decoration of the stand in place of representations of fire, and the bands encircling the rim of the bowl which traditionally was embellished with a row of skulls, while the inclusion of bands of ruyi on the cover is also quintessentially Chinese in style.
In its most benign symbolism, as it resembles the begging bowl of a Buddhist ascetic, the kapala bowl serves as a constant reminder of death and impermanence. They were often carved or elaborately inset with precious jewels and mounted on a triangular pedestal. Traditionally the triangular stand, representing the wrathful element of fire, was surmounted by three skulls which have been replaced with three vajra heads on the present stand.
A kapala bowl made of a human skull, also with a turquoise inlaid gold cover but mounted on an intricate foliate gold stand, in the Tibet Museum, Lhasa, was included in the exhibition Treasures from Snow Mountains. Gems of Tibetan Cultural Relics, Shanghai Museum, Shanghai, 2001, cat. no. 71; and another, the cover cast with the bajixiang and the stand with fiery flames, in the Palace Museum, Beijing, is illustrated in Cultural Relics of Tibetan Buddhism Collected in the Qing Palace, Hong Kong, 1992, pl. 140.
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