Flying Drums in Tibet July 20, 2013Author: Beach Combing | in : Medieval, Modern , trackback
A lot of interest recently in the objects used by witches to fly: broomsticks, trees etc: Other weird flying objects, drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com. This brought Beach to parallel traditions, among which is the extraordinary flying drum of Tibet. An earliest, perhaps the earliest example on record follows here. The description is of a combat between Na ro Bon chung the leader of the indigenous Bon religion of Tibet and Milaraspa, a flying Buddhist monk who has come to bring enlightenment to the Himalayas. It is an oriental equivalent of early medieval Vitae, which describe a saint turning up and doing battle with this or that pagan priest: e.g. St Patrick against the Magi on Tara.
Early in the morning, Na ro Bon chung, wearing a blue fur cloak, ringing a gShang [flat bell], and mounted on his drum, went flying into the sky…Then, as the sun was rising, Mila snapped his fingers once; and flying by spreading out his robes like wings, he instantly arrived at Ti-se’s peak just as the sun rose….Then, when Na ro Bon chung arrived,…he was unable to stand the sight; he fell out of the sky, and his drum went rolling down the south slope of Ti-se. His pride and arrogance subdued, he begged permission to stay at the foot of Ti-se and practice his rites, which Mila let him do.
Leaving this scene out of a Tibetan Crouching Dragon it should be noted that this is not an isolated example. A sixteenth-century historian describes the Tibetan masters: ‘They all played the drum and gShang. They would fly to heaven mounted on a clay deer; and they would travel mounted on their drums. Many such sinful wonders are told of them.’ Or two centuries later we read of one Bon Teacher who ‘having propitiated the fire and khyung (eagle) gods, could travel in the sky mounted on his drum’. In some parts of the tradition the drum was inhabited by an animal: a tiger or a deer, say. In all the tradition the deer was living and had to be treated as a sentient assistant in rituals. It was ‘refreshed’ with drops of water at the beginning of playing.
The background to this is shamanism (understood in its wider ‘Asiatic’ sense). The Bon mystics use the drum to pound themselves into ecstasy and their experience of flying begins there: the beat, the repeated muttered phrases, the rocking body… Still, whatever the background might be, the picture of five or six saintly men racing through the sky on Tibetan frame drums is surely to be treasured.