October 25, 2012

Himalayan Art 101: Purba

Jeff Watt

Buddhist practice and Buddhist art have been inseparable in the Himalayas ever since Buddhism arrived to the region in the eighth century. But for the casual observer it can be difficult to make sense of the complex iconography. Not to worry—Himalayan art scholar Jeff Watt is here to help. In this "Himalayan Buddhist Art 101" series, Jeff is making sense of this rich artistic tradition by presenting weekly images from the Himalayan Art Resources archives and explaining their roles in the Buddhist tradition.

This week Jeff explains the significance of purba, a ritual implement and corresponding deity.


Himalayan Art 101: Purba

Tibetan Buddhism can be described as a busy religion. There is always a lot going on and there are always things to do, remember, and learn. The learning curve can be very steep due to all of the jargon and special terminology. One example of this is the Tibetan word “purba” (also spelled “purpa”). This word comes up a lot, so what does it mean and to what does it refer?

Simply put, purba is a translation of the Sanskrit word “kīla,” which refers to a peg. Yes, a simple peg or stake—depending on which English speaking country you are from—such as a tent peg. Its function is to stake or peg things in place. It is not a dagger designed to be thrust, pulled out, and then thrust again. A purba is designed to hold something in place, remaining embedded in the ground or ritual surface.

A purba generally has an elongated body measuring a few inches, though in some cases it can measure up to a foot. The bottom portion has three blades that taper to a point at the business end. It is a ritual object used in the creation of complex mandalas and in consecration rituals of all kinds. Styles of purba objects are myriad, with all kinds of animal heads decorating the top (a buffalo head is shown in the example here).

A purba, as described in early Buddhist tantric literature, has two modes of existence in rituals: imagined existence and physical existence. With regard to the physical existence, purba may be fashioned from wood, stone, metal, or any number of materials. In the Tibetan tradition a purba is usually made from metal or wood. Tibetan purba fashioned from iron-nickel meteorite fallen from the skies is highly prized.

According to early Indian tantric texts, a purba is a ritual object. Purba, however, is also the name of a popular Tibetan tantric deity (Dorje Purba, Vajrakīla) who originated in the Nyingma tradition of Tibetan Buddhism. This deity often appears with three faces, six hands, wings, a consort, and with the lower half of his body in the form of a purba, in lieu of legs. One of his hands clasps a small purba with three blades, a decorative handle, and three wrathful faces at the top representing the three faces of the deity himself. Such purbas are manufactured in great numbers, usually from metal, as a required personal object for practitioners of the purba ritual cycle and meditation practices. Sometimes very small purba made from gold or silver are worn around the neck in special metal amulets or textile-wrapped charms.

There exist a number of variant iconographic forms of the deity Dorje Purba. One very popular meditation practice focusing on the early teacher Padmasambhava depicts him in a wrathful form with one face, two arms, and the lower half of the body in the shape of a purba. Thus, in addition to being an important Nyingma meditational deity, Purba is also expressed in the lower body form of many other deities.


Learn more about purba from Himalayan Art Resources here.
See the buffalo headed purba in high-resolution here.
And the Vajrakīla mandala retinue figure here.
For Guru Drapur, click here.
And to see more deities with a "Kīla" lower body, click here.

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Dolgyal's picture

"One of the most effective practices for controlling negativities is Guru Dragphur. This Guru Dragphur, however, is very special because it is the union of Hayagriva, Vajrapani, Garuda and Vajrakilaya as well as Yangdag Heruka. This practice is a terma of my uncle Heka Lingpa, also known as Jamyang Chokyi Wangchuk and Khyentse Yangsid Rinpoche.
In our modern society there are many people who don't believe that other powerful beings really exist but it is important to understand the situation. This doesn't mean we should believe blindly. Instead of believing everything when someone says that there is a deity or a spirit, we should think a little. Then we can discover and understand. For example, in the universe there are many dimensions; that is something we can also understand scientifically. We say there are many galaxies and solar systems, and we know that these stars have immense dimensions. So, if there are these dimensions why should there not be beings there too? How can we decide that there are only human beings?
We have many problems with illnesses, such as cancer and tumours, and now also AIDS. All these illnesses are related with negative provocations. If we do not control this negative energy, but just try to cure this illness with only medicine and therapy, we cannot cure it. However, if we know about that negativity and which kind of practice to use in order to control it, and do that practice together with therapy and medicine, then it really works. So it is very important to understand these provocations. Gyalpo is one of the Eight Classes. The Gyalpo is a very big class and also a very provocative one. Where the Gyalpos provoke, people become nervous; where there are Gyalpos there is war, conflict, problems, and a lot of confusion. Today the class of Gyalpo is really a problem in our society. Provocations from the Gyalpos exist everywhere. Beneath the manifestation of Guru Tragphur there are two figures: the male form is a Gyalpo and looks like Gyalpo Shxxden to show that we have this kind of problem in this epoch. For that reason if you do Guru Dragphur practice you cannot receive negativities, the Gyalpos can never dominate you."
Chogyal Namkhah Norbu