Join our Mailing List

"For a happier, more stable and civilized future, each of us must develop a sincere, warm-hearted feeling of brotherhood and sisterhood."

Exhibit: Tibetan Arms and Armor

June 1, 2008

Donald LaRocca
Department of Arms and Armor
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
1000 Fifth Avenue. New York, NY

Tibetan Arms and Armor from the Permanent Collection
December 14, 2007 - Fall 2009
Arms and Armor Galleries, 1st floor, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Gallery

Armor and weapons are certainly not among the images usually called
to mind when considering the art or culture of Tibet, which is
closely identified with the pacifism and deep spirituality of the
Dalai Lama and with the compassionate nature of Tibetan Buddhism.
However, this seeming paradox resolves itself when seen in the
context of Tibetan history, which includes regular and extended
periods of intense military activity from the seventh to the
mid-twentieth century. Many excellent examples of Tibetan arms and
armor can be found in museum collections today largely due to the
fact that various types of armor and weapons continued to be used in
Tibet into the early twentieth century, long after they had gone out
of use in the West. Other types were preserved for ceremonial
occasions, the most important of which was the Great Prayer Festival,
a month-long event held annually in the Tibetan capital of Lhasa.
Historical armor and weapons were also preserved due to the
long-standing tradition of placing votive arms in monasteries and
temples, where they are kept in special chapels, known as gonkhang
(mgon khang), and dedicated to the service of guardian deities.


The most characteristic form of body armor associated with Tibet is
called lamellar armor. This type of armor is made up of horizontal
rows of small overlapping plates joined by leather lacing. Two
features of lamellar armor distinguish it from scale and other types
of armor. First, the plates are laced to one another rather than to a
lining or other kind of support material, and second, the rows of
lamellae always overlap upwards. Lamellar armor was probably in use
in Tibet from at least the seventh or eighth century and was the
primary form of body armor until about the seventeenth century,
remaining in sporadic use until the early twentieth. A warrior
wearing armor of this type would have also carried a cane shield
reinforced with iron struts, a sword, a spear, and, suspended from a
waist belt, a quiver of arrows on his right hip and a bow sheathed in
a bow case on his left hip.

A great variety of helmet styles were also used in Tibet, including
examples from or influenced by Mongolia (2005.146), China, and the
Middle East, many of which are lavishly decorated in gold and silver
with Buddhist and other symbols.

Leather armor was also used in Tibet, as it was in many parts of Asia
and Central Asia. In addition to being very protective, some Tibetan
examples are also elaborately decorated with gold leaf, shellac, and
a surface glaze intended to simulate the appearance of lacquer. They
include helmets, lamellar armor, and a characteristic type of defense
for the left forearm.

Leather horse armor was in use from a very early period up to the
sixteenth or seventeenth century. Surviving horse armor from Tibet is
very rare, but the finest examples rank with the best Tibetan
leatherwork of any kind. A characteristic type of Tibetan or
Mongolian shaffron (armor for a horse's head) was made of a
combination of leather, iron plates, and copper trim.

In addition to lamellar and leather armor, mail was also worn in
Tibet. Mail is a strong but very flexible type of armor, made up of
thousands of interlocked iron rings, and was used from Central Asia
to Europe. From the seventeenth or eighteenth century onward, it was
worn by the typical fully equipped Tibetan cavalryman, who was also
protected by a hemispherical iron helmet fitted with textile flaps,
four iron disks strapped over the front, back, and sides of the torso
(called the "four mirrors"), and an iron belt. His weapons included a
matchlock musket, spear, and bow and arrows.


Swords were the primary handheld weapons in Tibet from at least the
seventh up to the early twentieth century. In addition to their
utilitarian function, they could also be clear indicators of rank and
status, based on their quality or amount of decoration. In some
situations, such as among the Khampa tribesmen of eastern Tibet, the
sword was an essential part of male dress and still remains an
important element of traditional attire. The sword also has rich
symbolic significance within Tibetan Buddhism, particularly as the
Sword of Wisdom, which represents the ability to cut through
spiritual ignorance, and is an important attribute of many deities,
such as Manjushri.

Many Tibetan swords are distinguished by light and dark lines that
make a hairpin-shaped pattern visible on the surface of the blade.
This was formed by combining harder and softer iron, referred to as
"male iron" and female iron" in traditional Tibetan texts, which was
folded, nested together, and forged into one piece in a blade-making
technique called pattern welding. The hilts are often made of
engraved silver set with coral or turquoise, or in some rare
instances are intricately chiseled and pierced in iron that is
damascened in gold and silver (1995.136).

Spears and Spearheads

Spears were also frequently used. The typical fighting spear had a
plain and simply made iron spearhead, and a band of iron coiled
around the shaft to strengthen it. In addition to this type, however,
there were also several forms of ceremonial spears with highly
decorated spearheads.

Firearms and Accessories

Firearms were probably introduced into Tibet gradually during the
sixteenth century from several sources, including China, India, and
West Asia, as part of the general spread of the use of firearms
throughout Asia. The traditional Tibetan gun is a matchlock musket,
which appears to have changed little if at all in its construction
and technology from the time of its introduction until the early
twentieth century. Among the most noticeable features of Tibetan
matchlocks are the two long, slender prongs, or horns, which were
pivoted down to rest on the ground and steady the aim of the shooter
when the gun was being fired on foot.

The decoration found on Tibetan matchlock guns varies, but even the
most utilitarian examples generally have some degree of ornament. It
is not uncommon to find stocks with applied plaques of pierced or
embossed silver, copper, or iron, which range from being relatively
simple to fairly elaborate. More rarely, some stocks were painted or
inlaid with bone. The match-cord pouches and pan covers often have
appliqués of colored leather or textile and decorative rivets or
bosses. The barrels are usually plain except perhaps for some fluting
at the muzzle, ring moldings toward the breech, or simple engraved
designs. There are, however, some notable exceptions of barrels
decorated with gold and silver damascening. The accessories used with
matchlock guns are designed for carrying gunpowder and bullets. The
bullets are lead balls or shot, rather than bullets in the modern
sense. They were cast using small stone bullet molds, which could be
carried in a leather case attached to a waist belt.

In Europe, the matchlock was primarily an infantry weapon, but in
Tibet and Central Asia it was also used on horseback in the same way
as the bow. As essential military training, and as part of various
ceremonies and festivals, riders would shoot at targets while riding
past them at a gallop. From the seventeenth century onward, fairly
realistic depictions of matchlocks are also sometimes included in
paintings of offerings to the guardian deities. Beyond its obvious
military applications, use in festivals, and iconographic depictions,
however, the matchlock musket was primarily an essential possession
of pastoralists and nomads for hunting and personal protection, and
as such was found throughout Tibet until relatively recently.

Saddles, Bridles, and Stirrups

Horses and horsemanship were very important in Tibet, as they were
among other nomadic peoples of Central Asia. The saddles found in
Tibet are a mixture of Mongol, Chinese, and Tibetan types and styles.
The structure of a saddle consists of a wood frame, called the
saddletree. This is made up of four basic parts: an arch-shaped front
and back, called the pommel and the cantle, connected by a pair of
sideboards, which are tightly tied together with leather laces. On
most Asian saddles, the sideboards have short paddlelike extensions,
or end-boards, in the front and back. The section of the sideboards
between the pommel and the cantle where the rider would sit was
usually covered by a cushion attached by two or four ornamental
bosses. A set of saddle rugs was also used, one on the horse's back
underneath the saddle and one above, on the seat of the saddle.

The outstanding components of a Tibetan saddle are the metal plates
that cover the outside of the pommel, cantle, and end-boards.
Although these plates reinforce the saddletree, they function chiefly
as a very visible and often very elaborate form of ornament, and as
indicators of the rank, status, and importance of the rider. They can
be made of copper alloy or silver, but the finest are done in pierced
and chiseled iron, usually damascened in gold and silver, and
constitute some of the best examples of Tibetan and Sino-Tibetan
ironwork of any kind. The same is true for bridles, the best of which
can have very delicately pierced and chiseled fittings that rival the
workmanship of the finest saddles.

Citation for this page

LaRocca, Donald. "Tibetan Arms and Armor". In Timeline of Art
History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000

Suggested Further Reading:
LaRocca, Donald J., et al. Warriors of the Himalayas: Rediscovering
the Arms and Armor of Tibet. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2006.
Robinson, H. Russell. Oriental Armour. Mineola, N.Y.: Dover, 1967;
reprint, 2002.
CTC National Office 1425 René-Lévesque Blvd West, 3rd Floor, Montréal, Québec, Canada, H3G 1T7
T: (514) 487-0665
Developed by plank