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︎ Ventral Is Golden

The Kapala is a sacred cup that is a distinctive feature of Shivaism, often used ceremonially for offerings to the goddesses and the fierce deities that protect the spiritual and magical rites of pre-buddhist folklore.

The Kāpālika (meaning Skull-men) is a tradition of India dating back to around the 7th Century AD, and is a form of Shivaism, associated with the reproduction and dissolution cycles of the goddesses Kuleśvarī, Kubjikā, Kālī and Tripurasundarī. The Kapala is a sacred cup that is a distinctive feature of this tradition, often used ceremonially for offerings to the goddesses and the fierce deities (Dharmapāla).

The cup itself is fashioned from the cranium of a human after a Sky Burial, often hand carved with impressive bass-reliefs depicting religious scenes and adorned with semi precious stones and silver, in which an offering such as wine or dough balls act as a transubstantiation of blood and body parts that symbolise the Wisdom Nectar, or liquid enlightenment attained by one of the associated deities in the Celestial Palace of the Mandala.

In some mythic representations, the Kapala, also known as a begging cup, was derived from the Bhikshatana aspect of Shiva, after a dispute with Brahman about who was the supreme creator. Bhikshatana removed the fifth head of Brahman, and for this indiscretion, had to perform a vow of Kapali: to wander the world as a naked beggar with the skull attached to his hand as a constant reminder of his violent act. During this nomadic wandering, he encountered sages in the forest, and sought to liberate them from their austerity. He did so, but to their dismay, as all the wives of the sages became enamoured by Bhikshatana’s nakedness and humility. As such, depictions often show him with an entourage of dancing women.

Through further indiscretion, Bhikshatana was then transformed into Kankala-murti (the one with the skeleton) after murdering the gatekeeper of Vishnu’s abode. As a result, Vishnu cut the forehead of Kankala-murti, and his begging bowl was filled with blood, representative of the ritual offering.

Although at first glance this kind of imagery jolts the moral senses of a western mind, as arguably the idea of drinking from the skull of the deceased seems morally ambiguous, the story of the Kapala’s origins are bound with ideals that reach beyond our first impressions. Ideals such as liberation (moksha), has long been associated with the Shakti (divine feminine energy) of Shiva, and in many cases, these profoundly bizarre narratives flow effortlessly into the cosmic drama played out by ourselves and the universe, in way of birth and decay.

Some studies, for example, have postulated that as an embryo develops, the initial state of the hands are webbed, and as such go through a process of molecular regression or decay to form the human hand, thus suggesting that human life is literally sculpted by the presence of death in order to come into existence. This notion intertwines the philosophical aspects prevalent in most eastern cultures, that life and death are products of the same process, and give rise to eternal change and impermanence.
This is embodied in the religious iconography of Buddhism and Hinduism across Tibet, India and China, where each deity becomes a kind of psychological aspect of the other, creating conflict and nuance in order to establish an equilibrium.
One uncomfortable aspect, it could be said, for the western mind, is that of the feminine principles woven into the narratives of the Kapala, perhaps as a result of the one dimensional nature of monotheistic religions, that fail to represent the negative aspects of the diety’s persona.

The nature of the feminine, particulary in Tibetan Buddhism, is conjured by the iconography of the Dakini, which is closely related to the Kapala traditions. The word Dakini is translated as ‘women who dance in the sky’ or interpreted as ‘women who revel in the freedom of emptiness’. Their essential trait is dynamism, often depicted as dancing brilliant red bodies, representing inferno, self transformation and enlightenment. The skull cup which they often carry has been postulated as being filled with menstrual blood, the Wisdom Elixir as afore mentioned, that cleanses and self regulates the female body, coinciding with the rhythmic cycles of nature herself.

In the spirit of equilibrium, the Dakini and the Kapala do not represent the kind of one sidedness associated with western monotheism. The motif of the Tantric shaft (Khatvanga) of the Dakini, denotes masculinity too, as both masculine and feminine can only be characterised by their relationship to one another. If the hardness of wood is evoked by the softness of skin, masculinity is contextualised by the presence of the feminine, never the two are fully separated.
Consequently, as the Kapala signifies symbolic death, it can then be apprehended as a catalyst for life, in the same way the embryo undergoes molecular retrograde (cell death) in its developmental stages.

The Kapala and its associated imagery should not illicit the macabre as first imagined, but transform itself into a state of dissolution within the individual, revealing the symbiotic relationships between ourselves and nature, and inevitably their impermanence.

Further Reading ︎
Dance of the Yogini: Images of Aggression in Tantric Buddhism, by Nitin Kumar
Tribal art, Asia: Kapala Skull cups
Bhikshatana, aspect of Shiva.