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Gods and goddesses are frequently described with objects of power known as "attributes."  Often, they are depicted wielding weapons.  Initially, this may once have stood for their ultimate power -- to take life away without warning; to deprive us of loved-ones. 

As people began to search for significance in the selection of those who died, these weapons took on further meaning. They were understood as weapons in the war of good and evil, of us versus them, of harmony versus chaos. Thus the club, hammer or thunderbolt stood for the unbridled power of nature before it ever became an expression of the wrath of a god. 

In the symbolism of Buddhism, these attributes can also stand for aspects of the condition of sentient beings and in particular, of the hindrances that bind us to existence.

The type of weapon or other object is closely linked to the mythology of a deity (his or her "life story") as well as their characteristic way of acting in the universe.  

Shiva's second son, Skanda, also known as Murugan, is associated with the divine spear or vel.  

Vishnu's inheritance of the discus of Shiva symbolizes the rising eminence of the former while fitting him into the established mythology.  That weapon, a chakra, is the symbol of Order. 

Bow and Arrows

One of the 12 Nidanas, or "links of dependant arising," on the outer ring of the Wheel of Existence depicts a man pierced through the eye by an arrow.  This imagery symbolizes the power of our senses as vectors of attraction (and also, repulsion.)   The hum of the nearly invisible swift-flying arrow does not afford any warning, and the accomplished archer can let loose a multitude of  death- dealing points in a single encounter.  Gods whose domains are the realm of the senses all wield the bow.  Consider Artemis and Eros (Diana and Cupid, to the ancient Romans,) Kama the Hindu god of desire, and the Buddhist deity, Kurukulla

Miranda Shaw:

"Kurukulla appears to have become popular originally, and she remains so even among the Tibetans today, because of her association with the magical function of enchantment (dbang gi 'phrin-las) or the bewitching of people in order to bring them under one's power (dbang du bsdud). "  

We are reminded that, although "Buddhism as a spiritual path is ultimately concerned with enlightenment and liberation from Samsara." which is known as the supreme attainment or siddhi (mchog gi dngos-grub).   There are also possible  "The psychic powers developed through sadhana practice ... known as ordinary attainments or siddhis (thun-mong gi dngos-grub), ... ."  

There are four types of special activity that ritual practices can achieve:  

Sadhana texts speak of the four magical actions or magics:
1. White magic or Shantika-karma (zhi-ba'i 'phrin-las) has the 
function of calming and pacifying conditions and healing. White 
Tara is an example ... . 

2. Yellow Magic or Pushtika-karma (rgyas-pa'i phrin-las) has the function of increasing wealth, prosperity, abundance, merit, knowledge, and so on. Vasundahara and Jambhala are examples ... . 

3. Red Magic or Vashya-karma (dbang gi phrin-las) has the function of bringing people under one's power, of enchanting, bewitching, attracting, subjugating, magnetizing them.  This is the primary function of Kurukulla ... . 

4. Black Magic or Rudra-karma (drag-po'i phrin-las) has the function of  destroying evil and obstructions to the spiritual path.  This is the specific function of many wrathful manifestations such as the Dakini Simhamukha who is dark blue in color.
These four functions are allotted to the four gates of the mandala palace, namely, the white or pacifying function in the east, the yellow or increasing function in the south, the red or enchanting function in the west, and the black or destroying function in the north. 

With each of these four magical functions there exists an elaborate system of correspondences. But generally, in the West, there is a prejudice against magic, especially in Protestant Christian cultures, which makes it difficult for people to understand the ancient Indian and the Tibetan approach to these matters. This is compounded as well by our four hundred years of the scientific world-view, which admits mechanistic causality as the only possible 
natural cause of events. 

Magic principally relates to our dimension of energy, and this energy, according to the traditional way of thinking, is intermediate between the mental and the physical, just as the soul is intermediate between the spirit and the flesh. Ritual is simply one way to access and direct energy. Although mind or spirit is primary, the other dimensions of energy or soul and body are important.

Western tradition speaks only of two kinds of magic: white and black. The former comes from God and his angels and the latter from the Devil and his minions. But the Buddhist distinction between white and black is according to function and not intention; the intention of the Buddhist practitioner in practicing magic is always compassionate and aims at preventing evil acts, to help others and alleviate suffering, whereas the Western understanding of 
black magic involves the deliberated attempt to harm and injure. 
Therefore, in Buddhist terms, the motivation in these four magical actions is always white. Without the presence of the Bodhichitta, the thought of compassion, no action or ritual is considered to be genuinely Buddhist.

But where we find sadhana or theurgy, that is, high magic, we also find low magic or goetia, that is, common witchcraft. In the Tibetan view, these practices are not necessarily black, no more sinister than finding lucky numbers for betting on the horses, or making love potions or amulets for protection, and so on. For these common practices of folk magic, it is not even necessary to enter 
into meditation and transform oneself into the deity. Nevertheless, Kurukulla is also the patron of such activities. She is pre-eminently the Buddhist Goddess of Witchcraft and Enchantment. In a real sense, she represents the empowerment of the feminine in a patriarchal milieu. Again, one might invoke Kurukulla to win over the heart of one's boss for a raise, or a client for a new sales contract, or convince the personnel representative to hire one for a job. In general, Tibetans take a very clear-eyed and practical view of life, without sentimentalizing spirituality as we tend to do in the West. They do not rigidly separate this world, with its practical concerns, from the world of the spirit."

The Arrow

The IIIrd Jamgon Kongtrul (d. 1992,) one of the great agents of Buddhism in the Western world, said of the archer's weaponry:  "The arrow pierces our hearts with compassion and wisdom.  The bow urges us to be virtuous and meritorious."

In the life story of Saraha, one of the founders of the Kagyu denomination of Himalayan Buddhism, the arrow symbolizes the view that has the power to transcend physical bounds.

Formerly known as the Hindu priest Rahula, Saraha showed great intelligence from a young age and applied himself seriously to his studies, memorizing the Vedas and mastering many other subjects before he converted to Buddhism and became a monk.  Saraha's life took a decisive turn when he allowed some girls to convince him to drink beer, in violation of his monastic vows.  When he was reeling in a drunken euphoria, [Ratnamati,] a bodhisattva appeared to him and directed him to seek out a mystically talented arrow-making woman who lived in the city, promising that many people would benefit from their meeting.

Convinced of the authenticity of this message, Saraha ventured into the marketplace. Among the arrow-makers he spotted a woman who was making arrows with a deliberateness and finesse that bespoke deep meditative concentration.  Wholly focused upon her task, she never looked up or became distracted as she cut the arrow-shaft, inserted the arrowhead, affixed the feathers, and checked the arrow for straightness.  Saraha tried to break the ice with a trivial question but, not one for trivialities, her first words to him were, 'the Buddha's meaning can be known through symbols and actions, not through words and books.'

Instantly realizing that he had found a worthy teacher, Saraha put off the monastic robes and devoted himself to his yogini guru. The arrow-maker accepted Saraha as her disciple and Tantric companion.

~ Miranda Shaw's Passionate Enlightenment

Arrows with 5-colour ribbons attached to the shaft are symbols of the Longchen-nyinthig, a Nyingma lineage.


The Almighty can have a multitude of weapons. For instance in the Enuma Elish, Bel Marduk, Lord of Mesopotamia, uses a net to trap Tiamat, Goddess of the Deep.  Then he pierces her with an arrow. Later, he uses the mace of Kingu, her deputy, to smash her skull. 

With the discovery of metallurgy (at a time known as the bronze age) the blade, though rare, emerges in the hands of the gods. The variety of piercing, slashing and cutting weapons that we find in the images of today, did not emerge until iron could be forged and made to keep an edge. 

The Sword

Bodhisattva Manjushri is known as one possessing an incisive intellect or discriminating wisdom.  This is represented by the sword that he raises high in his right hand.  

To be an accomplished swordsman requires several skills such as balance, concentration and patience.  The sword itself, as we shall see, was originally the product of tradition master-to-student learning and special technique.  Its rarity, flexibility, the fact that it is the product of guarded knowledge, that it is the tool of decisive action-at-a-distance, and that its owner must show restraint also contribute to the use of the sword as a symbol for Wisdom.  All these aspects are represented by the attribute that Manjushri wields. 


When, somewhere in the Middle East, a smith discovered that iron dirtied with embers from his fire was far stronger and more flexible than iron alone, steel was born. This metal, when repeatedly heated and folded, hammered into a thin strip; then heated and folded and hammered over and over again, produced a superior tool for murder.

If the blade, a sandwich of thousands of layers of metal, was "heated red as the morning sun" and judiciously and rapidly cooled or "quenched" in water, the result was a durable flexibility that resisted breakage. 

Its edge did not approach the unblemished blade of a stone knife such as the Aztecs used, but it did not fracture. Its weight and length, limited only by the "play" of the particular blade, permitted bloody killing at a distance -- while mounted or on foot, by slicing or by stabbing. 

The making of swords was a closely guarded secret for at least a thousand years. For most of that time, it was a treasured possession to be found only in the noblest of martial families. Limited by its rarity, a sword would not have been used indiscriminately. In fact, codes of honour (chivalry and in Japan, bushido) developed that regulated its use and these, at first, accompanied the weapon when its use and manufacture first spread to far off lands.

The Japanese Sword

Some of the finest examples of the art of steel-making are Japanese swords. They were the prized possessions of warlords (daimyo) and their samurai who formed a warring class that rose to power in late mediaeval times and which, since WW II, has been officially abolished. 

The conflict between those who wage war and those who wish only to live in peace is rarely glamorized as much as is the combat between two murderous factions. It has, however, been the subject of a number of artful films. One will serve as a segue here: 

Hoichi is the third of the four tales comprising Kwaidan (1964), the film by Kobayashi Masaki after the collection of ghost stories by Yakumo Koizumi (Lafcadio Hearn.)

It opens with shots of the scroll painted about the epic sea battle of Dan-no-ura, and then we see it coming to life. We witness the culmination of the 12th century clash between two samurai clans, the Genji and the Heiki. We learn that Dan-no-ura has been haunted ever since by the ghosts of the Heiki who committed suicide rather than be taken alive. We are shown the unusual species of crab with skulls on their backs that dwell on the shore at the site of the fateful battle.

Several hundred years later, a statue of Amida Buddha was enshrined there to afford a refuge for the souls of those who died at that place. 


Charms are objects carried on the person, on an animal or vehicle or installed in a building. It is called an amulet when its purpose is to protect, and a talisman when it is intended to bring luck or create auspicious influences.

One of the tales featured in the film Kwaidan, a collection of Japanese ghost stories, is 

The Tale of Hoichi the Earless

One night when blind biwa-player, Hoichi, was left all alone at the Amida Temple, he heard the voice of a mysterious nobleman calling his name. He responded, and the man (only we can see he is fully dressed in the armor of a samurai warrior) asked him to accompany him so that his master's court could have the pleasure of hearing him perform the sorrowful ballad of the battle of Dan-no-ura, about which we have already read.

Hoichi reluctantly went with the messenger and, importuned by the voices of those he could not see, he finally agreed to play the climactic section for them. 

"Then Hoichi lifted up his voice and chanted the chant of the fight on the bitter sea, wonderfully making his biwa to sound like straining of oars, and the rushing of ships, the hissing of arrows, the crushing steel upon helmets, the plunging of the slain." 

During pauses in his playing, Hoichi could hear the chorus of voices murmuring praise, and this greatly pleased him.

"But when at last it came to tell the fate of the fair and helpless [the women and children] all the listeners uttered together one long shuddering cry of anguish; and so wildly that he was frightened by the violence of the grief that he had made." 

Hoichi could not continue until the wailing and sounds of sobbing had finally abated, and then a great stillness settled on the audience. They asked if he would return the following night to perform again for the court, and he promised he would. 

Even during a spring thunderstorm, Hoichi felt compelled to visit the strange court, and he did so over and over again. Always, the voices wailed and moaned at the tragic climax of The Ballad of Dan-no-Ura. Each time he managed to find his way back alone, but was so exhausted that he slept like one of the dead. 

The others at the temple became concerned at his unusual habits and pale, tired appearance, and they accused him of meeting a lover. Finally the abbot got word of the situation, and when he questioned Hoichi, he became concerned at his evasive replies. 

He sent men to follow the blind musician, and they discovered that Hoichi was not playing for a splendid living court residing in a great hall, but a powerful company of Heiki ghosts clinging to their memories and haunting the wind-swept graveyard by the sea. 

The priest was informed, and revealed the truth of the situation to the young man. He informed blind Hoichi that he was playing for the ghosts of the dead. At first, Hoichi did not realize the gravity of his circumstance, and so the priest warned him that the dead would not be satisfied until they succeeded in tearing him to pieces. He decides to help protect Hoichi by means of a most powerful amulet. 

The priest gets a monk to inscribe every character of every word of the Heart Sutra all over Hoichi's body, "sealing" his body and his mind with with large red, Oms. However, the monk thoughtlessly forgets to paint Hoichi's ears. The priest does not notice the omission that would complete the protection.

That night, the ghost samurai cannot even see Hoichi who is shielded by the spell: "Form is Emptiness; Emptiness is Form," but as he searches from various angles, he finally notices the two glowing ears where Hoichi should be. Poor Hoichi, who has been instructed not to answer or make any sound, does his best not to stir but horribly, he gets his ears torn off by the angry ghost who must return to his master with proof that he had at least tried to follow orders. 

We see the priest performing a ritual as he admits that ultimately the fault lies in his own negligence, and not that of the monk-calligrapher.

Hoichi is given a special hat with ear lappets intended to hide his deformity, but it serves only to distinguish him, and he becomes famous as word of the story reaches the outside world. Fittingly, the first live company to request a performance appears to be a funeral party. 


The mysterious sword, Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi or Grasscutter, is the Japanese equivalent of Excalibur, King Arthur's sword. Both weapons are associated with underwater deities -- Grasscutter with a naga king, and Excalibur with the Lady of the Lake -- and both are believed to have returned to their place of origin under the water. 

The terrible naval battle of Dan-no-Ura, portrayed at the opening of the film, Kwaidan, occurred on 25 April 1185.  That is believed to be the last time Grasscutter was actually seen. It is said that the boy-emperor, Antoku Tenno was holding it as, when all seemed lost, his grandmother took him in her arms and leapt into the sea where they and all their court perished.

That era of Japanese history is known as the late Heian period, and it was in decline when that final battle of the Genpei war between the Taira and the Minamoto clans took place. The Taira say that since Grasscutter was lost then, all subsequent emperors have not been properly enthroned. However, the Minamoto say that that particular Ame-no-Murakumo- no-Tsurugi (ie, the Kusanagi Sword) was not the genuine article, but only a mere replica, since the original had continuously been preserved and guarded at the shrine at Atsuta. 

The Minamoto further contend that since that defeat of the Tairas, all emperors have been under the protection of the Minamoto clan, and the authenticity of the sword which is one of the ancient ritual objects known as the 3 Emblems of Imperial dignity cannot be questioned. 

On the other hand, it may be that the sword kept at Atsuta-Daijingu in Owari is the replica, for it is known that Emperor Sujin had copies made of the Three Sacred Objects so that their spirits might reside in peace while the originals accompanied the sovereign on his tours. 

The Taira hold that it was truly the genuine sword that was returned to the sea that fateful day and that Susano-o, god of the sea reclaimed it along with the spirit of Antoku. Also, that a fortuitous arrow struck the robes of Taira Shegehira's wife in such a way as to fasten within it the second of the ritual objects, the Sacred Mirror, so that it would not be lost at the bottom of the sea. 

Years later, when Emperor Go Shirakawa faced a war with barbarians and sought the sword, he was told it was lost and he ordered a ritual be held in order to discern its whereabouts. Soon afterwards, he dreamed of a centuries-dead royal lady who told him that it was in the keeping of the naga-king at the bottom of the sea. 

Then divers were dispatched and they reported that this was indeed the case, but the naga claimed that it was his, handed down from its original owner, an 8-headed naga, and did not belong to any Japanese Emperor. It was also revealed that the great serpent had been slain by the hero, Susano-o- no-Mikoto, and that the grandmother of Antoku had actually been a naga princess.   Therefore the enmity between the two clans was not merely a human one. 

The Emperor then prevailed upon a great magician to conjur the Dragon-king and get him to relinquish the sword. Then the divers retrieved it, and that is how the Emperor managed to defeat the barbarians. 

At the beginning of summer, there is a festival held to honour the sword of Atsuta

The Mythological Origin:

One day when Susano-o no Mikoto, the Storm god, descends to the mountain Tori-kami-yama in Izumo, he comes upon an old couple weeping over their daughter. The man introduces himself as a spirit of the land (kunitsu-kami) and tells the storm god that once a year for the last seven years, an eight-headed, eight-tailed serpent called Yamata no Orochi (or Yamata-no-Tsurugi) has devoured one of his eight daughters, and the time has now come for him to claim the last one. 

Susano-o is moved to compassion and transforms the girl, Kushinada Hime, into a comb that he puts in his own hair. Then he orders that a special wine be prepared and barrels of it placed along a fence with eight apertures. When the serpent comes to drink the irresistible vintage, he eventually falls into a drunken sleep and Susano-o severs each of its heads in turn with his own sword, variously named Ama no Haye-Kiri (Fly-cutter,) Worochi no Kara-sabi or Worochi no Ara-masa. While hacking at the sea-dragon's tail, he noticed his blade has gotten notched.

He slits the naga's tail only to discover in its interior, the sword that was later called Kusanagi. He later presents it to his sister, the sun goddess, Amaterasu. Eventually it was bestowed upon Ninigi no Mikoto by Amaterasu as one of the three symbols of his authority over Ashihara no Nakatsukuni. 

Grasscutter was placed in a chest in Atsuta temple until it was stolen by a Korean priest called Dogio. On the 5th day of the 8th month in 668 CE, when he attempted to make away with it and return to Silla, a storm blew up which the captain of the boat recognized as having been created by a deity. Dogio either had to turn back or, alternately, he threw the sword into the sea in an attempt to pacify the naga.  The naga later ensured that it was returned to Atsuta where it remained for a century before being carried back once again to the realm of the nagas. 

Some say that on rare and auspicious moments, when a certain planet is in the correct position, its light shines through the waves of the sea to focus on the Wisdom Jewel that the naga king possesses. 

More Details

From "A Miraculous Sword" in Richard Gordon Smith's Ancient Tales and Folklore of Japan. Sente, 1918:   Around 110 BCE Prince Yamato-take no Mikoto, one of 80 children of Emperor Keiko, from his aunt, Yamato Hime (princess,) received the gifts of a sword and a tinder box while staying with her to make offerings at the temples of Ise before proceeding to put down a rebellion on the NE coast of Suruga province. 

The rebels knew of his fondness for duck hunting, so they ambushed him while he was in the marsh. Noting the direction of the prevailing wind, they set fire to the dry reeds in an attempt to burn the place where he was concealed in his blind. As the flames came closer, the prince failed to reach a gap in the rushes and frantically began scything them with his sword. In whatever direction he cut a swath, the wind mysteriously followed the gap thus preventing the fire from closing in. 

With his tinder box (to enable him to set his own fires?) and the miraculous weapon, he destroyed his attackers.

New Larousse Encyclopaedia of Mythology:  Susano-o is the Japanese storm god who is also associated with fertility -- he was born from "the nose" of the creator, Izanagi. He was banished to earth for scaring his elder sister, goddess of the sun, Amaterasu, by dropping a flayed horse through the ceiling as she sat at her loom. 

This so frightened her, that she hid in a cave until the gods lured her out with an "8-handed" bronze mirror and a girdle of yasaka gems (maga-tama or seed-jewels) measuring 8 spans.  Susano-o consoled her with the sword, Kusanagi. Her grandson, Ninigi, inherited the 3 heirlooms before he descended to earth at Mt. Takachiho along with several other deities. 

Hikoho no demi, one of his sons, married the daughter of the naga-king. Their son married his mother's sister (another dragon,) and one of their sons eventually became known as Jimmu-Tenno, the founder of the Imperial line.

Nihongi (WG Aston trans., 1972 ed.): Kusanagi was originally named Ama no Mura-kumo no Tsurugi, (sword of the Gathering Clouds of Heaven.) On the 10th of the 6th month in 686, a divination revealed that the Emperor's illness was due to a curse associated with Kusanagi. That is why it was moved to the shrine at Atsuta.

Myths of China and Japan (DA Mackenzie, 1941): The Dragon-king claims that Kusanagi belonged to him and not to the Emperor since it had originally been taken by a dragon-prince long ago. This prince (8-headed) was killed by a hero (Susano-o?)  A dragon-princess (Hikoho-ho-demi's wife or her sister?) was the grandmother of Antoku, now sleeping in the coils of the Dragon-king at the bottom of the ocean.  The Emperor was disappointed by this news, but a magician cast a spell over the naga enabling divers to retrieve the sword, and use it to defeat the barbarians.

And --  In 1907, when the City of Nagoya was in search of a municipal emblem they chose the Maru-hachi (Circle-Eight,) seal of the Owari Tokugawa clan. 

Ultimate Treasures

At the Churning of the Primordial Ocean in the cosmogony of India, several wondrous treasures emerged most of which also appear in the Tibetan context:

i. Kalpavriksha, the wish-fulfilling tree that is guarded by the Yakshas.  Its branches bear every kind of fruit and flower.
ii. Kamadhenu, the wish-fulfilling cow that the sages care for. It produces enough food for the whole universe.
iii. Chintamani, the wish-fulfilling gem (Jewel of Wisdom) that the Nagas guard.
iv. Uchaishrava, the seven-headed flying horse guarded by Bali, leader of the Ashuras. 
v. Airavata, the six-tusked elephant that is the mount of Indra, king of gods.
vi. Panchajanya, conch of the Victor.
vii. Saranga, the bow given to the kings of earth.
viii. Rambha, the beautiful, who can delight the senses in 64 different ways.  (Indra  carried her off to Amravati, city of the Devas.)
ix. Chandra, the moon-god that keeps every woman in his sway, charms the world.
x. Varuni, goddess of wine who is consort of Varuna, the ocean god, beloved by all. 
xi. Dhanvantari, the physician who brought Ayurveda, the science of healing.
xii. Sri, goddess of fortune, who some believe placed Vijayanti, garland of eternal victory around Vishnu's neck.  [Sri is the original of Lakshmi.]
xiii. Amrita, elixir of immortality that was stolen by the Ashuras.  In one Indian myth, the enchantress Mohini bewitched them with her beauty so she could give it to the Devas.
xiv.  Halahal the poison Shiva drank to save the world that turned his neck blue.

Spear and Trident

Guru Padmasambhava is sometimes described as holding a "magical staff" in his left hand.  This is not a mere staff, but a weapon that is variously depicted as a trishul or trident (having three sharp tines,) or as a lance (vel.)   When it is wielded by a dakini, it is usually a kind of pike or spear (one-pointed.)  In that form, it is called by the Sanskrit name, khatvanga

Stacked on the lance are three severed heads, a "fresh" one, a decomposing one, and at the top, a clean skull.  They stand for the three times (past, present and future.)

When the attribute is a trishula, its points serve to pierce the three poisons of confusion, attachment, and aversion.  The trident appears in Indian iconography as the iron trident wielded by Lord Shiva.  In the Hindu tradition, the points symbolize the same three qualities but as experienced from the perspective of the Great God.  That is, they stand for sat (truth), chit (mind or awareness,) and ananda (affection.)


Mesopotamia: Name given to the civilization that had its origins over 5, 000 years ago in two states known as Sumer and Akkad. Today the region is Iraq.

It may be that the mountain called Sumeru or Meru in the ancient world view of India and hence, of Tibetan Buddhism, refers to a feature in this area. Perhaps "mount" refers to the sacred site of the temples of Ishtar and Enlil in the city of Nippur on the Euphrates, though it could also have lain much farther to the northwest, as the course of the river shifted a great deal over time. 

Biwa: a very resonant four-stringed lute that came from India to China around the 3rd century CE where it is called the Pi-p'a. (In Tibet, it is called Piwa.) It was introduced to Japan in the Nara period (8th century.) In the Japanese manner, it is played with a large scraper-like plectrum. A biwa selection from the battle epic (<3rd item in left menu.) 

Atsuta Shrine is a famous 3rd century shrine that was founded in a glade of camphor trees. Susano-o, Amaterasu, the prince Yamato-take, his wife Miyazu-hime and her brother Take-ino-tane are all worshipped at the shrine. 

Three Objects: The Ofuda or talismans are the Kenji (Kusanagi sword,) the Magatama (a jade) and the Yata no Kagami (a bronze mirror) are ritually passed to a new Emperor and are essential to his investiture. 


said:  reported by Cl. Ngui in message 161 of Yahoo's Kagyu email group.

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