Real human skulls in pre-industrial art:
Pre-industrial societies have been incorporating human skulls into sacred artifacts for thousands of years. Authentic traditional skull art is both rare and awe-inspiring.
The bottom of this Tibetan ritual chalice is the crown of a human skull. Tibetan skull cups, or “kapalas,” were used in Tantric Buddhist and Hindu sects to offer libations to the gods. They were often elaborately decorated with semiprecious stones, carvings, and metalwork. The crown of the skull was the part used as an eating or drinking vessel, but the remainder of the skull was sometimes incorporated into the kapala as a decorative base:
The skulls used to make Kapalas were harvested from locations used for “sky burials.” In traditional Tibetan society the dead were interred by placing them high in the mountains and exposing the body to vultures and the elements. Permafrost and rocky soil made below-ground burials impractical, and the scarcity of wood and fuel meant that cremation was reserved for high llamas and other prominent people. Tibetan Buddhists believe that the body retains no special religious significance once the spirit has left, and should be disposed of through a compassionate offering to scavengers. Sky burials are still practiced in some rural areas of Tibet. The body is usually quickly consumed by vultures:
Genuine Tibetan Kapalas are pretty rare outside of the Himalayas. There appear to be only three internet vendors that regularly stock Kapalas, they are reviewed below:
This site appears to have the greatest variety of authentic Tibetan skull art for sale. In addition to Kapalas, Damaru Works (damaruworks.com) also has traditional Tibetan musical instruments made out of human bones. These include the Kangling, a trumpet made out of human thigh bones, and the Damaru, a two-faced drum (pictured at right) constructed of two human skull caps. Kapala prices range from $700-$900 for the Kapala, a Kangling goes for $600. Unfortunately the Kapalas don’t appear to be engraved or otherwise decorated.
Tribal Art Asia:
Tribal Art Asia (tribalartasia.com) stocks an interesting assortment of human skull art from several Asian cultures, including a small collection of Tibetan Kapalas. The Kapalas at Tribal Art Asia have elaborate carvings and inlaid metalwork. Only one Kapala appears to have both the skullcap and the lower portion of the skull, the remaining pieces are skullcap-only. Prices are not listed on the website; you have to email the owner to ask about any items you might be interested in.
Tibetantreasures.com has a small selection of both authentic Kanglings and Kapalas. They are based in Northern California and only ship to addresses in the United States. The Kanglings are priced around $400 and the Kapalas go for $1800. The Tibetan Treasures Kapalas lack engraving or metalwork and don’t seem to be much more than a skullcap on a brass stand.