Hair of the buddha

Notwithstanding my [occasional]( [rants]( about museums, they can sometimes be soul-expanding places to spend time in – often despite strenuous efforts by the curators.

That’s certainly true of the Indian section of the British Museum, which I recently visited for the first time in 5 years. The labels are tiny, uninformative and misleading, and try very hard to turn the whole exhibit into a tedious catalogue.

But then I look at the exhibits themselves, and given the right conditions I’ll find a state of trance-like wonder at the beautiness and craziness of it all. It helps that several of them are famous enough that I’ve seen them on slides and book covers in the past, and that such skill has gone into making them.

What really excites me, though, is the way that iconography grows out of the intellectual history of religions. So, for example, the BM had several statues of the Buddha from, iirc, the 17th century. The head of each Buddha would have a pair of massive, incomprehensible growths that looked like medieval weaponry. The museum doesn’t seem to have any pictures online, but [here]( is a much less elaborate example from elsewhere.

Helpful as ever, the label describes this hair-growth as ‘jata’, and leaves it at that. What it doesn’t explain is that


originally meant matted, tangled hair, and that it was one of the signs that an ascetic had abandoned mundane life. Leave your family, go into the forest, and let your hair grow into a gruesome mess. As usual, the poets get overexcited about the nastiness of it all. In the


a sage angrily shakes his head, and:

in all ten directions he scattered splendid red light from the entangled


, which were flying outwards as the knot of his hair-tie was loosened by the shaking of his head in rage

And then, somehow, this turns into the regal costume of a dignified buddha.

[as usual when I get excited by something, it turns out very hard to explain afterwards, when you’ve forgotten all the spurious but fascinating connections between everything. Meh!]

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