Tuesday, February 22, 2011
Other People's Bones
Recently, a friend showed me some images of rare Tibetan relic containers. He wanted my opinion of what they might be used for. All that he could tell me was that they were very old and that the person whom he had purchased them from thought that there was part of a human femur inside one of them. Looking at the base of them, I could tell that they had been sealed and likely consecrated. Coral, amber and turquoise adorned these pieces and they were certainly real and very valuable. What was inside the vessels is still a mystery, however, because there is really no way for me to know without prying them open. As beautiful as these vessels were, they did not appear to be very old, which begs the question, 'Where did they come from and why were they made?'
On one of my early visits to Nepal about 20 years ago, someone showed me a hidden cabinet behind a silk curtain at the back of a small shop. Inside the cabinet was the highly decorated skull of a human being. The shop keeper wanted about $500 for it. I was fascinated, but not at all interested in owning someone's skull.
In Kathmandu, it is not unusual for me to see highly decorated skulls of goats, and I have also seen monkey skulls and bird skulls. For a few years I used to bring back the goat skulls, because they were so interesting, though a bit creepy, covered in pressed-metal skull appliques and with marbles for eyes. They always attracted to my table a lot of people who were simultaneously compelled and repulsed. These goat skulls consistently sold for a few hundred dollars. Sometimes, if all of the flesh had not been completely removed, they would have a pungent rotting carcass odor to them. One day, a woman who was clearly apprehensive about the goat skull on my table asked me a question about it, and at the very moment she pointed her finger at the beast, a potato bug crawled out of its nose. She screamed in the middle of a jewelry show and I laughed, while weakly attempting an apology. Not long after that, I stopped bringing them back. They really were a bit grotesque and a pain to explain to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services.
Over the years several people have asked me if I could get a Kapala, a decorated human skull used as a begging bowl, or a Kangling, a femur bone turned into a horn. You can read more about these items at Kapalaculture. (You can also find several for sale on the internet if you Google these words, so you do not need to ask me for them.) I have never brought any human remains home with me for several reasons. The main reason for me is a moral position, but beyond that, it is simply illegal. It is not legal to sell human remains in Nepal or India and it is not legal to transport them into the U.S. without considerable paperwork. It is also not legal to transport them across certain state lines if you already own them.
I have asked a lot of questions about the process, because I have known more than a couple of people who have brought these relics home for profit or who have acquired them for their collections, or who would like to sell one to me. When I asked U.S. customs about transporting human remains, they say that the FBI will want to know whose bones they are and see the paperwork. When I called the Embassy of Nepal they told me very plainly, human bones are not sold in Nepal, it is not legal, and they cannot be transported. Still, several Kapalas and Kanglings make it into the U.S. every year and the customs officials who do find them on occasion simply have no idea what they are looking at.
Why wouldn't it be legal? It is really very simple. There is such a demand for human remains in the West that the price of a decorated skull can be anywhere from $1,500 to $5,000. Considering that the poorest people in Nepal and Northern India make less than $500 a year, it is easy to imagine that someone could be worth more dead than alive. It is also important to note the history of these items. Many of the older relics belonged to families and monasteries in Tibet. When the price of these artifacts became so inflated, there was an enormous incentive to steal from the few remaining monasteries to satisfy the demands of Western collectors.
On my most recent trips to Nepal I have seen skull cap bowls out in the open for sale to the tourists. What the tourists may not know is that these bowls are actually made of a kind of plastic. It looks very similar to a skull, and then it is decorated with white metal, not silver. They might cost between $15 and $20. That is another reason why 'skulls' are able to leave Nepal with the tourists and enter the U.S. However, the real skulls are still available as well, even though the export of human remains was banned in India in 1987. What the tourist usually hears is a story about the Kapala being a real monk's skull from Tibet and that it is way more than 60 years old, but what they may actually be buying is a human skull made into a bowl last year.
According to an article in The National written by Jalees Andrabi in 2009:
"20,000-25,000 human skeletons are smuggled out of India every year through Nepal, China and Bangladesh. The skeletons reach markets in the US, Japan, Europe and the Middle East, mostly for medical institutions. The price for a complete skeleton in these markets ranges from $700 to $1500 depending on the quality and size. In India a full skeleton costs around $ 350 in the open market. Young Brothers, a Kolkata based bone dealer, sells a human skeleton for $300. While the complete skeletons mostly find their way to medical laboratories mostly in the West, the assorted bones and skulls are used for religious rituals mostly in Hindu and Buddhist dominated areas. As part of their tantric rituals, many tantriks drink wine in human skulls in places such as Nepal and Assam in India."
You can read the full gruesome article about how these skulls are stolen here, The National.
What is it that makes so many Westerners feel the need to own other people's bones? Is it merely an idea that they have the forbidden item? Perhaps it is some feeling of a power over death, or a power over the sacred item of another person's culture. It could be they actually believe in its magical properties and want to use it in ritual.
My business has always been about supporting the living treasures of Nepal--the highly skilled craftspeople! These men and women do still create stunning traditional pieces of jewelry and artwork. The rewards are not only in the beauty created, but in the jobs created as well. And I know that if it were my mother's bones decorating some wealthy person's mantel in a foreign country, I would want them back.