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Cabinet for storing offerings

Enlarge this image. Cabinet for storing offerings, approx. 1700–1800. Tibet. Painted wood. Courtesy of the Asian Art Museun, Museum purchase, 1997.17.a-.c.
What is this?
This black cabinet was once stored in the gongkhang of an unknown temple in Tibet. Forbidden to the uninitiated, the gongkhang is a special room set aside for the worship of wrathful deities, where only the initiated monks of the monastery or nuns of the convent could enter.

What is this used for?

The torgam is used for storing cone-shaped dough offerings made of butter and roasted barley flour called torma. This chest was intended to hold offerings to wrathful deities. The offerings would have sharp and pointed decorations, while those for peaceful deities are more gentle and rounded.

Why are wrathful deities traditionally hidden from the uninitiated?

In Tibet, wrathful deities are never on display to the general public, but are kept in the gongkhang as this chest was. This is because it is so easy to misunderstand their meaning and intent. If taken too literally wrathful deities, with their necklaces of skulls and flayed skin jackets, appear evil and frightening to the uninitiated. This is incorrect. Wrathful deities are protectors and just as benevolent as peaceful ones. Initiates learn that demons represent the bad elements within oneself, such as greed, hatred, delusion. The wrathful deities give hope that each of us can subdue the demons within.

Cabinet for storing offerings (detail), approx. 1700–1800. Tibet. Painted wood. Courtesy of the Asian Art Museun, Museum purchas e, 1997.17.a-.c.
Why are flaming skulls, flayed skins, and eye balls part of the decoration?
If you look closely, you will notice this chest is decorated with flaming skulls and is festooned with intestines hung with flayed skins of demons in human and animal form, eye balls, and organs. Inside are more paintings of wrathful deities, animal skins, and weapons. Because this chest is used in the worship of wrathful deities, it is literally covered with horrific decorations. The skins and body parts are those of destroyed demons. There are skull cups holding the wrathful offerings of the five senses (eyes for sight, tongue for taste, nose for smell, ears for hearing, and heart for touch.), the wild ass belong to the terrifying goddess Penden Lhamo, and severed body parts. The top of the cabinet is painted to resemble the ocean of blood upon which Lhamo would ride, with body parts floating amid the waves.
The flayed skins and body parts, as well as the other offering to wrathful deities, are highly symbolic in nature and require extensive training and meditation to fully appreciate. This is why they are reserved for the eyes of initiates only. It was understood that the ordinary, uninitiated person would be filled with erroneous thoughts if they were to encounter such objects as these outside the proper ritual and intellectual context.

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