Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Other People's Bones

Bone Jewelry from Nepal, these pieces are made of water buffalo bone which is a domesticated animal.  The Mala, necklace, on the right is a modern tantric mala.  I have seen very old tantric malas in Nepal which I have been told were made out of 108 different human skulls and decorated with coral, turquoise and silver, then soaked in yak butter.  The mala above is decorated with coral and turquoise colored glass and copper or white metal rings.

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.


  1. Very interesting! Never contemplated the commmercial value of human bones, or the issue of their transportation, so I learned something new today.

  2. Fascinating post! I wouldn't want someone's bones - not for any reason. Some people want things just because they shouldn't have it - which seems to make it irresistible. Ugh.

  3. Incredible post. I swear, Butternut, you write so movingly of this area, in all its strange and beautiful aspects, that it really is your soul's home. This bone stuff is weird, though.

  4. butternut - my whole-grain bread was a little dry this morning as i read this fascinating writing of yours. i have animal skulls in my class and above all else i put out for the kids to see and learn about, they are the biggest attratcion. i think it's an instrinctive piece, fetishized over the millenia. steven

  5. This is fascinating. I have never really contemplated the draw of bones. Perhaps it is somehow similar to the way a hunter will display his skill and superiority by showcasing the head of his kills. Maybe a way to feel superior in a world that often seems bent on showing us how inferior we are.

    Now, as a religious relic, that's a whole different ballgame. Who can explain the mysteries of spiritual beliefs?

  6. I just visited the Natural History museum in Cleveland on Monday. I thought that it was interesting that they clearly posted that the human bones on display from the Mound Builder Indians were plastic replicas and not real Indian bones.

  7. Sorry, Native American bones. My son has corrected me.

  8. I'm glad there are rules against buying and selling human parts. I would hate to think someone I loved had become someone else's jewelry or ornament--no matter how clever or artistic. I suppose there are different ways to look at an object as being sacred, but I think bones deserve a rest after housing a spirit.

    That being said the jewelry in your photo is beautiful.

    I saw boxes and bins of bones in the basement of a cathedral in South America. As proud as the guide was to show them off--they were just sad and repulsive to me.

  9. Thank you for this riveting tale of human cruelty and thoughtlessness.

    The water buffalo bone jewelry is fascinating, though.
    Such beauty from such humble material!
    (Knowing that the search and recovery of gold and diamonds have such a sad, high human toll, I much prefer jewelry made of simple, easily found natural materials.)

  10. You're a source of such interesting info, just mesmerizing. I wouldn't open the vessel either, can visualize a vapor escaping and then....
    Now will look for my long misplaced mala/bracelet..your examples are beautiful.

  11. as i read this i was kind of shocked that people in the west desire owning a human skull. but surely they wouldn't want their loved ones' remains bought or sold and so i am suspicious of their motivations, as you are. that said, my son would go nuts over a goat skull with pressed metal and fine stone eyes. he'd probably even like potato bug eyes. he has a collection: wolf, deer, elk, rabbit and bird. i think they are quite beautiful. i think i should spend some time with him musing and talking about the life that they sustain though and try to understand just what it is that fascinates him. there is something elusive at play here for me.

    it is so good to hear from you again.