15th/16th century
Ebony with ivory inlay, gilt and polychrome
Height: 37 cm - 14 ½ in

Three menacing faces of the dharmapala, Hayagriva, glare outwardsfrom the hilt of the ritual dagger.[1] Magnificently carved, their features areboth powerful and expressive: Their flaming eyebrows are furrowed, their threeeyes are bulging, their nostrils are flared, and their mouths are open, eachbaring a set of sharp fangs. Theartist has masterfully used ivory inlay both for the eyes and teeth to enhanceHayagriva's terrifying nature. Unifying the three heads, the deities' hair is upswept into a single,massive topknot which is bound by a gracefully entwined serpent and surmountedby three horse heads. The centralsection of the stake consists of three woven structures, similar in appearanceto a vajra scepter, yet more akin tothe "thread-mansion" formations employed magically in the imprisonment ofdemons.[2] Beneath, a three-edged blade ensuesfrom an intimidating, snake-spewing makarahead.

As the embodiment of Vajrakila, the purba represents the ultimate triumph ofgood over evil. Its tripartiteblade, symbolizing the unity of the three doors of liberation (signlessness,wishlessness, and voidness) as well as the Three Bodies of Buddhahood, is theonly force capable of transmuting the powerful negative energy of vice andegocentrism into benevolent compassion.[3] When purportedly introduced in Tibet byPadmasambhava during the eighth century, the magic dagger was thought to beused to suppress forces hostile to Buddhism.[4] From that period on, the purba has been considered to be one ofthe most spiritually important and quintessentially Tibetan ritual weaponsextant. Although always taking theform of a peg or dagger, Tibetan purbasvary greatly in style, material and even iconography. Those carved in ebony are rarer than those cast in metal,yet a wood purba in the collection ofthe Musee Guimet, Paris, and two other examples in private collections, bear aresemblance to the present.[5]


Colonel Henry Warwick-Illius C.I.E. I.M.S(1875-1914)


Bazin, N., Heller, A. andPommaret, F., Rituels tibétains: Visionssecrètes du V Dalai Lama, exhibition catalogue, (Paris, 2002),


[1] Although Vajrakila is most commonly represented as the principalthree-faced deity on a purba, otherassociated deities such as Hayagriva are also sometimes invoked. See Huntington and Bangdel (2003), p.506.

[2] See Thurman and Weldon (1999), p. 146.

[3] See Rhie and Thurman, (2000), p. 435. Vajrakila is an importantempowerment deity in Tibet who is most easily identified by the purba he holds between his primaryhands. It is he who battles evilin order that it be transformed into goodness.

[4] See Pal (2003), p. 271. Interestingly, although the purbais said to have been introduced by an Indian mystic to the Tibetans, an examplefrom the subcontinent or Southeast Asia has yet to be found.

[5] See Bazin et al (2002), nos. 118-120.