Belief in the power of amulets and talismans is found in all cultures across all time. While these terms tend to be used interchangeably, subtle differences exist: amulets bring protection against ill will, malevolent spirits and the wider unknown, while talismans bestow agency and power to the owner to attract a particular benefit. Mostly wearable objects, they can be natural or made from a variety of materials: wood, stone, gemstones, ivory, clay, metals, cloth, paper, and now even plastic. As mentioned in several articles, traditionally amulets need to be activated by rituals performed by a suitably qualified intermediary such as a Buddhist monk, although today there are many charms that have not been blessed but are still valued for their auspicious connotations.
This issue of the TAASA Review presents a wide-ranging selection of amulets and talismans from several Asian countries. The essays are rich with the accumulated knowledge and beliefs of generations of creators, priests, magicians and devotees, and it is a credit to the contributors that they have distilled so much for us.
Many amulets have religious significance. The beliefs and teachings of Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism have catalysed the creation of amulets and talismans of deities, sacred text, and tokens from pilgrimages to sacred sites. As Joan Bowers elaborates in her article, pilgrims to major Hindu temples across Rajasthan commissioned miniature paintings of Hindu deities to be strung into auspicious garlands (mala). Matthew Stavros considers pilgrimage in Japan, from the establishment of branches by major Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines to the cultivated belief that amulets lose their efficacy after a year and need renewal, a guarantee of economic prosperity for major religious institutions.
Stavros’s article brings us to another important facet of talismans: text. While in Japan calligraphic inscriptions are valued when blessed by temples and shrines, in other Buddhist countries magical diagrams known as yantras often appear. Russell Howard writes about yantra cloths of Northern Thailand that comprise letters, numbers and illustrations, sometimes augmented by the text incantations (gatha) that empower them. The practitioner who creates the yantra draws on a range of inputs, including Buddhist cosmology, numerology, astrology and knowledge of the spirit world. Gill Green’s article on a related Shan State silk jacket inscribed with images and yantras develops further awareness of the complexity of the imagery and sources found on such items.
The handsome pair of Persian war armband amulets discussed by Pedram Khosronejad have inscribed on their lids and sides Islamic inscriptions from the Holy Qur’an and other Shi’a sacred formulas that protect warriors from physical harm in battle. Originally the apotropaic power of such armband amulets was reinforced by their containing pages from small Qur’ans or even handwritten Islamic talismanic manuscripts.
Arabic script that repeats the names of God (Allah) and the Prophet (Muhammad) within a magic diagram is found on a pair of talismanic discs produced by the Bugis people of South Sulawesi in 1903 and discussed by Domonkos Szabó who writes that to activate the powers of such talismans, the wearer would either recite the Qur’anic verses inscribed on the object or simply come into physical contact with the passages.
Clothing with non-textual talismanic motifs is elaborated in other articles. Carol Cains considers parallel traditions of talismanic patterned batik cloths in Java: that of the court and that of the colourful Pasisir batiks made on the north coast of Java and reflecting the influences of the local Chinese, European and Arab communities. Melanie Eastburn discusses some fine examples of protective wear for vulnerable babies and children - from baby carriers to richly embroidered caps. She mentions items with bells and jingling ornaments, whose sound is believed to keep malevolent spirits at bay.
As discussed by David Templeman, the oldest amulets in this selection are Tibetan tokchag which, as ‘found objects’ made from diverse metals, even meteoric iron, are valued for their magical protective powers. Many tokchag, which embrace a wide range of subjects, from Buddhist protective deities to animals and items of everyday use such as spoons and arrow heads, are worn smooth from handling. The tactility of many treasured amulets is part of their appeal as verified by Jocelyn Chey who loves the smooth cool feel of her Chinese ivory toggle, shaped as the mythical three-legged toad believed to attract money as well as warding off evil.
Our need for protection and good fortune ensures the continuing use of amulets and talismans. New forms deal with new fears as exemplified in Japan where contemporary drawings of amabie, a sea monster from 19th Japanese folklore believed to protect from disease, are considered to protect against Covid-19.
3 EDITORIAL: TALISMANS AND AMULETS - Jackie Menzies, Guest Editor
4 FRACTIONS OF THE DIVINE IN JAPANESE HISTORY - Matthew Stavros
7 TALSIMAN GARLANDS: PAINTED MALA FROM RAJASTHAN - Joan Bowers
10 TALISMANIC MOTIFS ON JAVANESE BATIK CLOTHS IN THE COLLECTION OF THE NATIONAL GALLERY OF AUSTRALIA - Carol Cains
12 TOKCHAG AMULETS OF TIBET - David Templeman
15 DIVINE POWER IN INDONESIAN TALISMANIC DISCS (KAWARI) – AN EXAMPLE FROM THE NATIONAL GALLERY OF AUSTRALIA - Domonkos Szabó
18 BELLS, TUSKS AND LOOSE THREADS: TALISMANS TO PROTECT CHILDREN - Melanie Eastburn
20 TALISMANIC OR YANTRA CLOTHS FROM NORTHERN THAILAND - Russell Howard
22 AN ENIGMATIC JACKET FROM SHAN STATE, MYANMAR - Gill Green
24 IN THE PUBLIC DOMAIN: PAIR OF QAJAR WAR ARMBAND AMULETS IN THE PERSIAN COLLECTION, POWERHOUSE MUSEUM - Pedram Khosronejad
25 COLLECTOR’S CHOICE: MY CHANCHU - Jocelyn Chey
26 RECENT TAASA ACTIVITIES
28 TAASA MEMBERS’ DIARY: SEPTEMBER - NOVEMBER 2021
29 WHAT’S ON: SEPTEMBER - NOVEMBER 2021