Skull Drum

A relic of monastic rituals in the mountains of Tibet, this skull drum is made from the tops of human heads. Called a damaru, these double-headed drums were used in a variety of mantric ceremonies, but were not always made from bone. Typical damaru were made from wood or metal, with bone being a rarity.

The tops of a human cranium were cut off and joined together by a metal band, then decorated with carvings and semi-precious stones before being attached to an ornate tassel. The markings on the metal ring and flowing tassel were often significant to a particular mantra. In Hindu tradition, this type of drum was symbolic of Shiva, the destroyer and transformer who serves as a principal deity in the faith.

Combining the bones of two people together, one side of the drum was usually female, and the other male. Beneath the skin stretched across the inside of the skulls, special inscriptions or mantras were either carved or written out in gold. The knit tassels attached to the drum would strike the drum gently as it was turned back and forth. The small poms were representative of eyeballs.

Much like the skull bowls in the Ripley’s collection, the bones used in these holy instruments weren’t likely from deceased monks themselves, rather collected from sky burial sites.. Tibetans regarded the skull as the seat of intelligence, and it was thought that their ancestors’ wisdom could be inherited from the use of skeletal damaru.

Rituals using the drums would last for hours and were usually aimed at overcoming the ego. In group settings, a chant leader would use the drum to keep type, using it as a sort of conductor’s baton to lead massive groups.