In Tibetan buddhist art, the skull is a widely used iconographic symbol. It may appear on sculptures and paintings in form of garlands or necklaces of skulls, five-skull crowns or single skulls.

Necklaces of skulls, skull-crowns and a skull-lamp

A necklace of skulls is often worn by female buddhist deities. It usually shows grinning skulls painted in white. Such a necklace (munda mala) usually represents the female principle of emptiness. The skull´s four canine teeth are generally discribed as symbols of the biting through of the four maras (obstructives).

The five-skull crown in Tibetan buddhist art generally represents the undifferentiated union of the five buddhas (Tathāgatas). Often, each skull is surmounted by a jewel or a vajra. These five jewel finals are usually coloured to correspond to the five buddhas.

Single skulls appear in various forms and functions in Tibetan iconography. For example a skull-lamp, which burnes human fat, with its tongue burning as a wick, would be described as a purification symbol. The body (skull) is purified by the flames, as are speech (tongue) and mind (fat). This example derives from ancient Hindu cremation rituals.

Images courtesy of:
The British Museum
Musée Guimet
Field Museum of Natural History

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