Archive for the ‘Ancient Asia’ Category
In the first post of this series, we learned about the origins of the ancient position known as Dalai Lama—leader of a Buddhist monastic sect which has been around for many centuries (and continues with the 14th Dalai Lama, alive today).
The first Dalai Lama came from humble beginnings as the son of Gonpo Dorjee and Jomo Namkha Kyi—nomadic tribespeople in central Tibet. Born in a cowshed in 1391 and given the name Pema Dorjee, he was raised as a shepherd until seven years old… when he was placed in the Narthang Monastery.
At the age of 20, he became a full-fledged monk and received his new name, Gedun Drup, as part of the vows. It wasn’t long before Gedun showed himself to be worthy of the position of abbot, and he quickly rose to prominence as one of the foremost scholar-saints in Tibet.
According to Buddhist tradition, Gedun received a vision from the sacred lake Lhamo La-tso’s female guardian spirit, Palden Lhamo, which said that she would protect the reincarnation lineage of the Dalai Lamas—essentially promising his reincarnation in a successor.
During his time as an influential scholar and spiritual man, Gedun founded several monasteries and wrote a number of philosophical texts. And unlike the Dalai Lamas of today, Gedun held no political power whatsoever.
It’s also notable that it wasn’t until long after his death in 1474—while meditating at 84 years old!—that he received the title Dalai Lama.
Believe it or not, the role of Dalai Lama hasn’t been around all that long! There have only been 14 Dalai Lamas since the first one took his position of authority in the late 14th century.
The first Dalai Lama was Gedun Drub, born in 1391. He became founder of the Tashi Lhunpo monastery, and wrote many books on philosophy. What was the point? To put it bluntly, he and some other Buddhists thought that people were getting lazy and stupid.
The monastery became home for the “Yellow Hat Sect” of Buddhist monks, or Dgelugs-pa. They’re known for restoring discipline to the monastic lifestyle, promoting vigorous and rigorous academic studies, and minimizing the increasingly common reliance on magical rites.
The renewal of the Buddhist monastic lifestyle also imposed a vow of celibacy and abstinence from alcohol and meat for all monks in the sect.
As tough as it might have seemed for the monks, the Dalai Lamas haven’t had it easy personally, either. Up until 1578, the first and second gentlemen were only known as “abbots”—they didn’t even have a fancy title! It was the third successor who received the title of Dalai Lama, meaning “Ocean of Wisdom,” from the Mongolian king Altan Khan.
During these early centuries, four successors to the position died in their youth.
What does it mean to be a Dalai Lama? Buddhists from this sect believe that the Dalai Lama is a reincarnation of a past lama who made the conscious decision to be re-born, in order to continue his very important work. All Dalai Lamas since the first abbot, Gedun Drub, are reincarnations of Gedun Drub, who lived until 1474.
This means it can take some time to find the new Dalai Lama after the previous one dies! How do they know who the reincarnated child is? There are a number of rituals that High Lamas endure to pinpoint the location of the reborn Dalai Lama, after which they will bring a number of artefacts to the child’s home. If the child chooses the correct artefacts—namely, those that belonged to the Dalai Lama—it’s seen as a sign of reincarnation.
This is a story that could be straight out of an Indiana Jones movie: An ancient artifact made from space rock, stolen by Nazis and recovered decades later!
Sounds crazy, right? But that’s exactly what happened! In 1938, a Nazi expedition recovered a thousand-year old Buddhist statue that weighs about 10kg and is 9.5 inches tall. No one is quite sure how the statue was found, but a large swastika carved into the statue may have been the source of encouragement for the team to take it back to Germany (note that before the Nazis adopted the swastika for their own purposes, it was simply a geometric shape used by many ancient cultures).
Once the statue arrived in Munich, it went through its paces and ended up as part of a private collection… until 2009.
The statue, also called the “Iron Man,” was studied by a team from Stuttgart University. They were able to determine the statue is made of ataxite, a very rare class of iron meteorite. According to team leader Dr. Elmar Buchner, “the statue was chiseled from an iron meteorite, from a fragment of the Chinga meteorite which crashed into the border areas between Mongolia and Siberia about 15,000 years ago.”
Now, the statue itself isn’t actually of Buddha, but portrays a Buddhist god named Vaisravana, god of wealth and war. It’s believed to have originated from an 11th-century pre-Buddhist Tibetan Bon culture.
It’s not that unusual that this ancient culture would have carved a statue out of meteorite, either. Many ancient cultures worshipped meteorites through their own rituals and tributes, and it makes logical sense that a devotional statue would be created from the material… despite how hard it is to work with.
It’s also the only known meteorite statue to depict a human figure.
Little else is known about the statue at this time, due to the lack of information surrounding its Nazi retrieval. However, it’s still considered an invaluable artifact that reveals more about the ancient Bon culture—and Nazi artistic preferences.
Want to know an ancient Chinese secret? Shhh… come closer… good. That rice you’re having for dinner? The sticky rice that’s easy to pick up with your chopsticks? It’s both tasty and practical! If you can’t finish what’s on your plate, no problem! We’ll just make it into a nice paste, and…
Well, the rest is ancient history.
Turns out scientists have discovered the secret behind a super-strong ancient Chinese mortar that was used to build city walls and buildings that could withstand earthquakes. Sticky rice, or the “sweet rice” that’s a mainstay in traditional Asian dishes, was developed into a “sticky rice mortar” about 1,500 years ago by mixing rice with slaked lime.
Slaked lime isn’t a piece of citrus fruit—it’s actually limestone that’s been heated to a very high temperature and then exposed to water. Sticky rice mortar is thought to have therefore been the world’s first composite mortar using organic and inorganic materials.
Sticky rice mortar just so happened to be more resistant to water than mortar made with pure lime, and thus was used to construct things like city walls, pagodas, buildings, and tombs—some of which have survived to today! Despite disturbances from things like modern construction and earthquakes, some of the sticky rice mortar structures have stayed strong over a thousand years later.
For example, a section of tomb from the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) is so strong that even modern bulldozers have been unable to destroy or move it.
To get scientific about it, the complex carbohydrate found in sticky rice called “amylopectin” is the secret ingredient that gives the mortar its incredible strength. It’s also thought that the mortar actually gets stronger over time—yes, even over a thousand years later—because the chemical reaction simply continues to occur.
As a result, sticky rice mortar has been used for modern-day restoration work on ancient Chinese structures, such as the conservation project at 800-year-old Shouchang Bride in eastern China.