by Alexandra Cassutt
for INTRO EAST ASIAN CIV: TIBET V2365- 001
While from the outset hundreds of years back Tibet’s economy was run by and largely for patriarchal interests, there continues to this day a tradition of female adornment which expresses, through the use of a multitude of precious stones, a woman’s status and that of her family. The women of the Tibetan cultural region don exuberant, colorful headdresses on special occasions such as festivals, their comings-of-age, and other celebrations. The tradition of this highly movable caching of wealth, and consolidating it not only into an ornament but a wearable one, stems from the historically traditional nomadic lifestyle of this culture. This biography will focus largely on the perak headdress of Ladakh, and include for comparison some of the other styles found in the Tibetan cultural region.
Headdresses and hair ornaments are the main expression of a woman’s status, and varies from region to region. Spiti woman with traditional silver perak, at Kibber village The woman here wears a perak, which falls over the top and back of her head. It is a western-Tibetan and Ladakhi headdress. Peraks normally are made of felt or leather, and are studded with large turquoises- and sometimes also with red or pink coral beads. The perak worn by this woman in Spiti is heavily laden with wrought silver, a popular precious metal for these headdresses, and appears to have a fabric body underneath a heavy distribution of turquoise. The central, boxlike rectangular silver decoration at the top is called the ga’u (Skorupski, xi). As visible in the close-up view above, these peraks are really heavy and need to be fastened both to the hair and onto the face, which is achieved usually by incorporated felted or leather straps, and the use of some strategic braiding of the wearer’s hair to provide a strong base.
Traditionally, the aristocracy in Ladakh used a formal system of expressing, via the perak, the titles and status of the wearer’s family. According to Ravina Aggarwal who does research in Ladakh, nine rows of turquoise beading down the back of the perak signified royal status (Denton, Knox et al.).
This perak displays the typical tassel-like bead drops that frame the face Hanging beads , as well as a central silver ornament which hangs onto the forehead Silver and Coral , usually a type of ga’u whose shape depends on the region and silversmith of its origin.
The appearance of the perak, its shape reminiscent of a cobra’s head and back, is intended to link the body of the woman wearing it to the subterranean lu gods who have a serpentine appearance in myth (Denton, Knox et al.). In this photo one can see the stiff wings which adorn some perak: vanishing-cultures.jpg at left. These wing-like extensions further resemble a serpentine creature and are made of the same material as the perak’s structural material.
This perak, hanging, in the image at left below, shows the scale-like effect of the turquoise as well as the great length of this type of headdress. These are extremely heavy headdresses and while women can now go about daily business without peraks strapped on all day, there are occasions when if a woman of status does not wear her perak, she may be fined for a violation of the proper comportment for nobility (Vanishing Cultures). Some examples of the festivals which call for such formal attire are the “Royal New Year Festival” or Losar celebrations, and takyu horse races which are very merry occasions (Tournadre, 341).
Another form this type of adornment can take is a crown-like hat, also heavy with stones including turquoise and coral, as well as mother-of-pearl and agates, at right. Agate, a rare, paler stone, is used for contrast, see also at right. The shape of the crown’s peaks mimics lotus petals and are delineated by delicate color contrasts from alternate rows of mother-of-pearl and coral beads.
This girl wears her crown headdress during the Litang festival. Her family must be very wealthy due to the use of so much gold, as well as the rare lapis lazuli insets Lapis Lazuli and the intensely pigmented coral. Either that or she comes from a line of women with especially flamboyant taste in colors. When gold is used in a perak, it signifies that woman as royal (Denton, Knox et al).
During the periods in which Tibet engaged actively in trade with the global economy, one prominent category of goods imported by the Tibetans was luxury materials. Exported were such in-demand goods as felted wools, pashm or cashmere, gold, and food salt, as well as many medicinal items both plant- and animal-derived (Tuttle, 469). Tibetan raw materials were of such quality as to fetch a very good price and sustain the demand for expensive imports. These included precious stones such as turquoise, amber, lapis lazuli, and coral, which were conveniently portable due to the high value of even small amounts. As a culture Tibetans prize a greener turquoise turquoise_green which stands in contrast to the aesthetic preference for a robin’s-egg blue in Persia where much of the imported turquoise came from.
While Tibetan jewelry like the earrings shown here, Antique-Ladakh-Jewelry earrings, can be impactful enough on their own praying woman at Jokhang, lending a palpable sense of tradition due to their antique and rather timeless aesthetic. Earring, often times these beautiful earrings are worn in addition to the heavily ornamented headdresses.
Due to the nature of women’s social mobility, and gender roles in Tibetan culture, it became the custom for a woman’s material wealth to be portable and transported with her. The portability of the perak means it can travel with the woman to whom it belongs when she leaves her home for that of her husband (Dentan, Knox et al.). In previous centuries one visiting these cultural regions would see a woman wearing her ornament on a daily basis as she went about her tasks, presenting her status all the while. These days, they are worn mainly on important occasions. They are always worn at weddings in addition to a rich array of other treasured items of jewelry- earrings, bracelets, necklaces… The Tibetan woman on that day is, quite literally, heavily laden with the wealth of her heritage.
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