Gzi - The Tibetan diamond

By Giorgio Dallorto


Apart from its beauty, the value of a precious stone is determined by national and ethnic criteria.

For example for many years jade has been considered as the most precious stone by Orientals, while it has long been classified by Westerners among the ordinary stones. The diamond which is now recognized around the world as the most precious and most exorbitantly priced gem was, in the past, considered to be equal in value to the ruby and emerald.

For Tibetans, the most precious stone is neither the jade nor the diamond but the gzi to which are attributed all the characteristics of the amulet.

The most diffused amulets are the thog.chag, the tadrol which is characterized by votive writings and mantras, the tza-tza, small clay forms portraying divinities and finally the colored cords with knots that are empowered by the lamas.

The most diffused and most highly valued among them is the gzi.

In fact gzis are considered to have the power to prevent strokes, to repel the evil influences of the planets and even fight the power of spirits. They are also considered to be able to increase the power and well-being of the owner. When Tibetan girls get married, their dowry consists above all of necklaces of coral, turquoise and gzi, the number, quality and design of the latter depending on the prosperity of the family.

But what is a gzi? It is an agate or a cornelian which is round or oblong and which has undergone a process of coloring in order to obtain linear and circular designs called 'eyes'. They are still worn as ornaments on the body or inserted into the crowns of sacred statues (such as the famous statue of Jowo Rinpoche in Lhasa). It is possible that in ancient times they were used as money, a hypothesis suggested by the great diversity of designs and of the number of eyes which brings to mind different values.

According to the form of cataloguing generally used, authentic gzis are subdivided into pure gzis, or agate uniquely produced in Shang Shung or in Tibet, in an oblong form (called narmo in Tibetan), or oval (rilpo); and chung zgi (literally 'less important' gzis), stones coming from the area of Tibetan culture (but not necessarily Tibet itself), which are differentiated from the pure ones in that they do not have 'eyes', but only a striped design. The latter can have five forms: oblong, oval, yoke shaped, crescent moon and round and flat, called 'goat's eyes'.

They can be translucent or opaque and have one or more stripes.

The name indicates the number of stripes: for example the crescent moon, chung gzi, with double stripes, or the oblong chung gzi with four stripes. Another type of chung gzi is called 'goat's eye': this is a stone which is generally round, smooth and shiny with designs consisting of one or more concentric circles in contrasting black and white colors or other designs such as crosses or swastikas. The type with two concentric circles is called the gzi with 'double goat's eyes'.

There is also an agate that is not part of the gzi family, although it is very similar, which has been subjected to the same process of coloring in both ancient and more recent times and comes from all over the Middle East: these are striped chalcedony, black and white stones, etc.

We, however, are only concerned with the pure gzi and chung gzi, exclusively of Tibetan origin, which can be subdivided into four natural colors: white (gzi kar), red (gzi mar), grey-brown (gzi mug) and pink (gzi tra). The most highly prized are the white and grey-brown ones.

There are many and varied motifs and symbols that can appear on the gzi: different geometrical designs, but also symbols such as the lotus, the long-life vase (bumpa) and tiger's (or horse's) teeth. They are characterized by different names, meanings and functions.

For example, the gzi with a circle is called 'single eye' while the gzi with two circles, 'double eyes' and so on up to twelve. When there a combination of symbols, the stone may take on a new name, for example a circle and square design is called 'door to the sky and door to the earth' (the names come from the Chinese tradition which associates the circle with the sky and the square with the earth), in Tibetan 'samonago'.

At the end of the 'mouth' (kha) of the gzi one or two stripes may appear called 'mouth lines'. The double line is considered to be more precious than the single one. Inside the stone one or more lines called 'internal lines' (deb ri) may appear which have an effect on the value of the talisman: for example the line which connects the upper mouth to the lower is greatly esteemed.

Generally the value of the gzi is linked to the number of 'eyes' which are called chu mig in Tibetan. The term chu indicates 'water' while mig stands for 'eye, thus it is a metaphor to indicate the 'eye' effect which is created by bubbles of spring water.

As has already been said, a gzi may have up to twelve 'eyes', but that which is considered to be the rarest and most precious is the one with nine 'eyes' since it possesses the greatest protective force. This preference for gzis with nine 'eyes' is linked to the Bon tradition in which astrology has a subdivision of nine Mewa.

The origins of the gzi is shrouded in mystery and dates back to very ancient times. The most archaic gzi have been found among the treasures of ancient Tibetan families, underground, in the ruins of cities, under the debris of crumbling hills and mountains. Even today they are found from time to time during archeological digs on ancient sites that disappeared a long time ago.

Tibetan sources give different origins to these talismans, some of which are typically mythical while others are more scientifically sound.

According to the first belief, they were once living creatures similar to worms which, in time, became petrified. Other beliefs are that they were objects thrown by the gods onto the earth. According to a third hypothesis they are considered to be objects left behind the flight of the mythical Garuda bird.

Based on the hypothesis of the famous scholar R. de Nebesky-Wojkowitz, the gzi originated from a mountain in the surroundings of the town of Ru Thog which is still characterized today by its rocky black and white striped walls in the far east of Tibet, in the district of Ngari. where the heart of the kingdom of Shang Shung was born. Finally some people believe that the gzi were part of a treasure of the legendary hero Gesar of Ling which he, in turn, had plundered from the king of Persia.

From a scientific point of view, however, since the technique for coloring agate was widely known in a vast area between the Indus Valley and the delta of the Tigris River from the 3rd century B.C., it would be correct to affirm that the gzi are manmade, created prevalently to be ornamental, seeing that they always had a hole. But it should be emphasized that the gzi are a special variety of the agate family found exclusively in the Tibetan area.

Most probably the theory that rings most true is that which credits the origin of the gzi to the mountain in the area around the town of Ru Thog. Not far from there is to be found a megalithic site where numerous sDo.Ring (ancient megalithic steles that were funeral monuments) can be found as well as rock carvings.

Now we come to the different techniques for preparing the agate. First the design would be applied using a dense solution of washing soda on which the design would be painted with a brush.

When everything was dry, the stone was buried in the red hot coals in a brazier. When the cooking time was over the stone was cleaned so that the white design that had been etched on the natural color would stand out.

Another process which used an inverse procedure consisted in dipping the whole stone in a solution of sodium and then cooking it until it became lighter in color. After this a solution of copper nitrate was applied to obtain the design.

The best stones are opaque and are not chipped, with a color that penetrates right into the inner part of the stone while the surface is smooth and soft to the touch. The form should be well preserved and undamaged. When the stone is placed in front of a light source, it should appear translucent or opaque.

Tibetan artists use gzi to make the gold applied to Thangkhas shine, using a fragment placed on a brush.

The powder from the gzi is also used in the Tibetan pharmacopoeia in the production of the famous precious pills, mixed with other ingredients.

In the last century, the gzi have been abundantly imitated using material such as porcelain, resin, glass, yak horn, etc. Today copies are still created in Taiwan which are very difficult to distinguish from the original antique gzi, using modern techniques such as laser and probably the original process of firing. Original pieces have reached astronomical prices on the market.

Under the guidance of king Triwer Sergyi Charucen, a contemporary of the famous Master Tonpa Shenrab Miwoche, the kingdom of Shang Shung had its greatest moment of territorial expansion extending in the west to the region of mNa'-ris sKorgsum, or what was actually called the country of Shang Shung, in the centre to the regions of Bus and gTsan and in the east to the regions of Amdo and K'ams.

Many of the legends connected with the figure of king Gesar, which as we have seen were linked to the origins of the gzi, lead back to the region of Ngari, the cradle of Shang Shung. South of the region of Ngari we also find the famous Mount Kailash, the mountain identified as Mount Meru and considered to be the axis of the world according to Bonpo, Buddhist and Shivite cosmography. According to Bonpo cosmography in particular, this mountain was not created from the five elements but was a miraculous emanation of the Tathagata and at the end of time will not be destroyed along with the elements but will dissolve into ethereal space without coming to an end.

All our information suggests, therefore, that the gzi have their origins in the kingdom of Shang Shung, near Lake Manasarovara where the Bonpo religion was diffused and where the Master Shenrab Miwoche was born (1917 BC).

Future archeological research on the ancient culture of Shang Shung will be the key to reach a complete understanding of the origins of the ancient Tibetan culture.

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