Description A rather unusual Vi
63.5 cm / 25 inch
52 cm / 20.5 inch
forte 7 mm
middle 5 mm
near tip 4 mm
forte 34 mm
middle 32 mm
near tip 30 mm
Kham region, Eastern Tibet.
Iron, steel, gold, brass, wood, leather, ray-skin.
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A very rare and early type of Tibetan sword with some fascinating design features. The short and stout single-edged blade is ground flat on the right side and with a chisel edge on the left. Blade with typical Tibetan forging pattern called "hairpin forging". The apex of the fold is normally situated near the tip, but on this example there is a second hairpin fold near the handle, too. Blades with this feature are still produced in Yigong, Eastern Tibet.
The hilt consists of two iron mounts with a lozenge-shaped cross-section and a waisted wooden handle of similar cross-section. The pommel has three cone-shaped protrusions, a stylistic element associated with Kham territory, eastern Tibet. The fittings are pierced with scrollwork on one side, engraved on the other. The handle is covered with ray-skin. The obverse side of the handle is studded with a series of eye-shaped brass plates, eight in total. This reminds strongly of the single edged straightswords worn by Qing imperial attendants during so-called "Auspicious Ceremonies". These swords were designed by the Qianlong emperor who -a Tibetan Buddhist himself- took inspiration from Tibetan examples:
Hilt of a Qianlong period jili suishi peidao (吉禮隨時佩刀) or "Auspicious Ceremony Attendant Backsword"
Palace Museum collection, Beijing.
The wooden scabbard is covered with thin black leather. It has three ribs in the center on the front side. The bottom part is fitted with a U-frame and between the frame is a pierced front plate with peaked top. This configuration is familiar to most from Bhutanese daggers. The plates are elaborately pierced and chiseled on the front side with fine scrollwork among which can be seen a deer and a dragon. On the back are engravings of stylized clouds. All iron fittings with remains of golden damascening.
Various stories explain the significance of the deer in Tibetan Buddhism. One is that the Buddha would have given his first sermon in deer park. Another is a story about a deer king who wanted to sacrifice himself to a hunter, instead of having the hunter kill the mother of a young fawn. Impressed with this feat, the hunter killed neither, swore never to hunt again, and became a Buddha.
The dragon hiding in the scrollwork is not just any dragon: It holds a pearl in three of its four claws. This very closely resembles the Bhutanese thunder dragon or druk as we know it today. A subtle difference is that the druk typically holds a pearl in each of its four claws.
Only one similar published example is known to me at this point.1 It is held in the Metropolitan Museum under accession number 36.25.1465a, b. This beautiful example is very well-preserved with most of the gold intact. It is dated 16th to 18th century. It differs in a few ways from ours: It does not have the cone-shaped protrusions on the top of the handle that are so typical of Kham area swords, and the metalwork on the scabbard is more formalized and repetitive, only floral in nature without dragon or deer such as on ours.
Despite the similarities in general appearance, it seems that ours is from a different period. Metalwork of Tibet evolved over the centuries, and when looking purely at the stylistic elements of this piece we see, among others:
1. Small bifurcating scrolls
2. Starting with thin tendrils, thickening considerably towards their rolled-up ends
2. Scrollwork laid out in a dense, complex, largely non-repetitive pattern
These elements are all strongly associated with ironwork from the 15th and 16th centuries. See:
-A golden damascened iron doorplate at Sera Monastery, 1419.2
-A cup case, Eastern Tibetan, 15th century. 3
-A door fitting. Tibetan, probably 15th - 16th century.4
1. Thin, playful snake-like body
2. With slender claws
3. Grabbing multiple pearls
4. A short elephant-like trunk
The stylistic features of the scrollwork mentioned above, combined with the elements we see on the dragon on this scabbard, are seen on:
-A set of saddle plates, Tibetan or Chinese, c.a. 1400. Featuring all dragon similarities.5
-A cup case, Eastern Tibetan, 15th century. Identical dragon, except it doesn't grasp pearls but its own body.3
-A set of saber fittings, Tibetan, 15th - 16th century. Reproducing all features of scrollwork and dragon.6
Conclusion on dating
Considering the above, the piece most likely represents an earlier version of the example in the Metropolitan Museum, accession number 36.25.1465a, b. Comparing it with other examples of Tibetan pierced ironwork, the style seems typical for such ironwork produced in the 15th and 16th centuries.
The overall style is what we now know as Bhutanese and also the dragon holding pearls would point to Bhutanese origin. However, the pommel with three cones is decisively Tibetan, Kham region to be precise. The city of Derge in Kham, the center of the Kingdom of Derge since the 15th century, was well-known for its high level of pierced metalwork. Craftsmen enjoyed the patronage of the king, and most craftsmen resided around palaces of monasteries. Due to the proximity to Bhutan both geographically and culturally there was quite some exchange going on. For example, the famous bridge builder Thang Tong Gyalpo was invited by a Derge king to establish the Gongchen Monastery. Its style perhaps took after Bhutanese style elements seen on swords and daggers of Bhutanese dignitaries visiting the royal palaces or monasteries that the craftsmen worked for. Alternatively, this being the earliest known example of such a style from either Tibet or Bhutan, there is a slight possibility that the style is not strictly Bhutanese but simply survived in Bhutan longer than in Tibet.
All considering, the piece is most likely made in Eastern Tibetan, Kham region, possibly Derge.
Gold is mostly worn off. Scabbard wood in sound condition, some losses to the leather here and there. Ray-skin has shrunk over time. All parts are tight. Otherwise in remarkable condition for its age. The blade may be a somewhat later replacement because the hairpin lamination doesn't tend to turn up on really early swords. It is a very good fit in its scabbard though.
A very rare type of Tibetan sword with elaborately pierced metalwork fittings that place it well into the 15th or 16th centuries. It combines stylistic elements from the Bhutanese as well as Tibetan culture of the Kham region. It is one of the earliest examples of such metalwork.
1. Donald J. Larocca. Warriors of the Himalayas; Rediscovering the Arms and Armor of Tibet. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Yale University Press, New Haven and London. Page 167.
2. Ibid. Page 28.
3. Ibid. Page 220.
4. Ibid. Page 222.
5. Ibid. Page 216.
5. Ibid. Page 172.
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With broad silver-clad scabbard, worked entirely in repousse.
With markings attributing it to the Tongzhou incident and a Japanese surrender tag.
With bifurcated S-shaped blade in talwar hilt.
Collected by a Russian prince from the hill peoples of central Vietnam in 1892.
Found in excavated condition, published with results of c-14 and XRF analysis.