The use of ritual objects associated with many religious practices has always been part of all cultures, with obvious differences due to the specific conditions of each population.Typical of the ancient nomads groups of the Eurasian steppe is the use of the skull, usually human, but often also of goat or monkey: kapala in Sanskrit, in Tibetan thod pa. This tool, shaped like a cup or a mug, is a peculiar characteristic of Tantric Hinduism and Vajrayana Buddhism, that is, those currents which make use of an articulated complex of initiatory teachings addressed exclusively to a small group of followers.
The traditional symbolism of Hindu religion often represents different deities holding kapalas, usually in their left hand, the one of wisdom: Chinnamasta, wife of Shiva and incarnation of self sacrifice, compared to the Buddhist goddess Vajayogini, drinks blood from this small cup; also other important deities, as Durga, Kali and Shiva himself – in its cruel aspect of Bhairava, as well as in his Buddhist version, Mahakala, the Great Black- in their iconography are often represented with this mystic cup.
In the tantric practice of both religions the skull has a great symbolic value: when depicted with the deity, it indicates the acceptance of the sacred offer, hence the possibility of the devotee to see his prayers fulfilled; metaphor of impermanence, is synonymous with wisdom, self-sacrifice and great righteousness, brings in itself the concept of the Absolute seen beyond any image of dualism.
In Tibet, where the tradition of kapala is very much felt and to this day still transmitted, skulls are carved and decorated as real masterpieces, etched and carved in bas-relief, embellished with precious metals such as gold or silver and adorned with precious stones; they are mounted on pedestals to be showed and at the same time protected.
The kapala could be realized with either the complete skull or only with the upper part, ie the crown; but before being used the skull had to be consecrated.
The most represented motifs are obviously of sacred origin: such as Kali, the goddess of eternal energy, Shiva, creator and destroyer, the principle of all things, and Ganesha, a deity very beloved and adored for its ability to remove every obstacle.
The skulls were found in popular cemeteries, where corpses were left in the open air to be consumed by birds. This practice, now forbidden, is called ‘alms to the birds’, and is linked to the pre-Buddhist cult of the ancestors and to the practice of headhunting; a reminder of the impermanence of life, and of the futility of sensual temptations of the earthly world. From a religious point of view, this tradition is connected to the concept of the ascent of the soul, caught in the circle of perennial rebirth, in a continuous and incessant repetition. Surely, digging deep, further traces of such practice can be found in the ancient rites involving human sacrifices, normally practiced in the past.
Before using it, the skull was immersed in water to make it more malleable and therefore workable; in addition, as reported by ancient scriptures, the skull must possess certain characteristics in order to be transformed into kapala: there were eight marks, such as shape, color, the series of signs -both favorable and non- etched on its surface, and the number of parts composing it; and last but not least the feeling emanating from the skull itself.
The use of these bowls for alms, as they are also called, in Tibetan Buddhist monasteries is associated with the symbolic practice of the offer to the gods: they contain figurines created with flour and butter, called torma, in the shape of tongues, eyes, ears, etc. offered as a sacrifice in tantric rituals.
Depending on the content, the name of the bowl changes in ashrakapala if used for blood, mamsakapala if used for meat or food.
It is not important to know whose skulls kapalas are made with, the important thing is that they have not been stolen or acquired in a dishonest way; this would result in bad karma and bad luck.
Drinking from it would put us in a position to obtain knowledge and to deepen the personality of the person to whom the skull belonged.
Today, in Tibet the verbal tradition of tantric rites and of all the objects related to the Buddhist worship, is still very much felt and passed on, so that the new generations do not lose the memory of everything that the past has generated, and that have always been considered sacred and untouchable.
The skulls having become difficult to obtain, they were replaced by bronze copies, perfect reproductions regarded as authentic skulls.
Symbol of the death of the ego, the skull can be seen as a means, bridge and mediator between the world of the living and the world of the dead, a means to relate with people who existed before us. It allows us to know their qualities, strengths and weaknesses and to intercept all the karmic force of the deceased, still present and intense in the kapala.