Asian Urns

On the history, culture & significance of (mostly) Asian Urns

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Eliminate Confusion, Navigate through Grief… and Begin the Healing Process

When dealing with the loss of a loved one, no matter how expected or unexpected it may be, invariably the moment arrives when we realize there are arrangements to make, questions to ask, and issues to settle.

These can be weighty matters… and would be difficult even without the emotions that accompany loss. Add in questions about finances, and you have a recipe for the “perfect storm” of stress.

For example, even though how you personally handle it may be unique, everyone deals with the 7 stages of grief. Knowing what these are and how they may affect you can help you separate emotions that will pass from sentiments that will last.

And that can make all the difference between having memories of this experience that you’re glad about instead of filling you with regret.

Creating a Unique Farewell

Regardless of whether you’re planning for burial or cremation, as human beings, we have a need to say, “goodbye.” The experience you create for yourself, other loved ones and friends should be as distinct and exceptional as the person whose life you are celebrating.


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A History of Stupas

There’s no doubt that the stupa (thupa, chaitya, cetiya, pagoda, dagoba) is the earliest, and some consider most significant, architectural Buddhist expression.  Today the various forms of stupas can be found through out the world, with the oldest ones existing in Asian countries such as Tibet, India, Malaysia, China and Japan.

The story of the stupa began in India before the birth of Buddha Shakyamuni where mounds of dirt were built around a tree as a tomb for the remains of important figures such as kings and heroes. It’s said that the Buddha was the one who changed that practice when he asked that his own remains be placed in eight different locations within stupas that would represent the Awakened Nature, as a reminder of the potential for enlightenment within us all.

Today, the building of a stupa is a complex, sophisticated set of steps that requires great care as well as the supervision of a trained master, and will result in a powerful structure whose shape represents the Buddha in meditation or full lotus position. Specific ceremonial rites must be performed before, during and after the building of a stupa and many blessings, prayers and other auspicious items populate the interior, creating profound opportunity for enlightenment. Stuffing a stupa with thousands of prayers
Stuffing the Amitabha Stupa in Sedona, Arizona
The word “Stupa” is a Sanskrit word that is loosely translated as “a knot or tuft of hair”.  In Rigveda texts, stupa means “tree’s stem”.  The Monnier Williams Sanskrit-English Dictionary says the stupa is “…a Buddhist monument, (generally of a pyramidal or dome-like form created over sacred relics of the historical Buddha (563-478 BC) or on spots consecrated as the scenes of his acts); a relics shrine or relics casket.”  It goes on to say that ‘stupa’ was originally a topknot of hair, designating the upper part of the head, but subsequently became used as an architectural term, indicating a monument of a dome-shaped form over the sacred relics of the Buddha or other saints or venerable persons. The connection between Shakyamuni and a topknot is apparent since he is often depicted as having such a topknot symbolizing his attainment of Enlightenment.
As Buddhism continued to grow over the course of time, the early structural model of the stupa gradually transformed architecturally in India, and eventually Tibet and Nepal.  As Buddhism penetrated Sri Lanka, Central Asia, South-East Asia and East Asian countries, the cultural traditions and concepts slowly changed the shape and construction of the stupa according to the local requirements, beliefs and tastes.
The Buddha's Burial stupa
The ancient burial stupa of the historical Buddha.

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Vladimir Putin’s Greek urns claim earns ridicule


Vladimir Putin carries his archaelogical trophies from a dive in the Black Sea

Vladimir Putin carries his archaelogical trophies which – despite their cleanliness – were purported to have languished at the bottom of the Black Sea for centuries. Photograph: Alexei Druzhinin/AP

When a scuba-diving Vladimir Putin found two ancient Greek urns on the floor of the Black Sea this week, it seemed a startling discovery. In his latest spurt of televised heroics, the Russian prime minister raised a triumphant thumb as he circled the pair of amphorae in shallow waters off the Taman peninsula near Ukraine.

The find came to “everyone’s utter surprise”, claimed the slavishly devotional Russia Today and other state-controlled TV channels. Once on dry land, Putin posed in his wetsuit with a jug in each hand.

But independent media and Russia’s lively blogosphere are now ridiculing the incident, in a sign of increasing weariness of Putin’s macho photo ops – such as bare-chested fishing, piloting a “water bomber” over forest fires and diving to the bottom of lake Baikal in a mini-submarine.

Critics said Putin’s pots were suspiciously unmossy and were probably planted specially for him to discover.

“Diving in the Taman gulf, the Russian prime minister immediately found two amphorae that had been waiting for him since the 6th century AD at a depth of two metres,” wrote the Novaya Gazeta newspaper in an editorial dripping with sarcasm. “He was lucky: in the same place, over the last two years archaeologists and divers of the Russian Academy of Sciences managed to find only a few pottery shards.”

Putin’s visit was meant to highlight the work of Russian scientists exploring the remains of an ancient Greek city, Phanagoria, sometimes called “Russia’s Atlantis”. The site is not far from Sochi, the Black Sea resort that will host the 2014 Winter Olympic Games, and authorities hope to develop its tourism potential.

Yet critics saw the dive as another farcical stunt designed to boost Putin’s image before elections in December and March.

“We have become witnesses of a remake of The Diamond Hand and the famous fishing scene at the white cliff,” said radio host Anton Orekh, referring to a scene from a Soviet film in which a diver attaches fish to an angler’s hook in order to simulate a plentiful catch.

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Urns are almost as old as man – and more varied in their materials and crafting than most other objects.

”All people did the urn -it’s the one object that goes through all art history,” Edward H. Merrin said, explaining why he is presenting ”The Eternal Urn,” at his gallery, 724 Fifth Avenue (at 57th Street), through Feb. 8. This is a small, esoteric show of vessels made for cooking or for storing foods, oil, ointments or the ashes of the dead. The exhibition focuses on beautiful shapes and surfaces of what most people think of as quite ordinary objects.

”Most of the pots ever made are utilitarian – only a few are wonderful,” Mr. Merrin said. ”Some things never change. In ancient times and today, very few people have succeeded in making exceptional vessels.”

Most of the 18 containers chosen are more memorable for their shapes than their surface decoration. The majority are, in fact, undecorated works. They vary considerably in size, from an Olmec cosmetic jar, less than two inches tall, to a fourth century B.C. Greek presentation urn on a pedestal base, almost three feet in height. Some vases are equipped with feet, pedestal or handles – most are not. Eight are terra cotta, five are stone (alabaster and granite), four are metal (bronze and silver) and one is wood.

Mr. Merrin uses the term urn to describe these works, partly because it sounds poetic, he said, but mostly because it connotes an important pot, ewer, pitcher, mortar, vase or jar -the sort of vessels ancient man would use in burial rites. Indeed, many of these objects, which date from about 3200 B.C. to the 18th century, were funerary works. There are 17 antiquities – Egyptian, Greek, Roman, Egypto-Roman, Achaemenid, Olmec, Mayan, Incan and Colima – and one antique wood bowl made in Hawaii 200 years ago.

A 5,000-year-old Egyptian pre-dynastic vase – a granite ovoid – is the oldest and most arresting in form of the vessels on view. Mr. Merrin discussed the exquisite refinement of its elliptical shaping and the satiny smoothness of its speckled surface, adding: ”I don’t think they gave a bad craftsman a piece of granite to work on in antiquity. The people who worked in marble had to be the king’s finest artisans. I am sure these vessels would have been destroyed if they were not beautiful. Do you know what work is entailed in cutting that stone? It’s an impossibly hard material, especially worked with hand tools. It must have taken months to hollow it out and sand it.”

The four Olmec alabaster vessels are the smallest, possibly the most beautiful and certainly the only potentially lethal wares in the show. The cinnabar surface on these cosmetic jars is mercury-based – which represents a health hazard when it comes in contact with the skin, one reason they are under a plastic cover in the show. ”We wash our hands after handling them,” Mr. Merrin said.

Another treasure is a Roman bronze pot, made in Syria in the first or second century A.D., with fluted decoration, beaded rim and carrying handle. The design is so impressive that in a photograph it appears to be huge – a great caldron that one might see steaming on the hearth in an ancient hall. In fact, this pot is tiny – less than four inches tall.

The more complex sixth century B.C. Achaemenid silver vessel with bull handles carries the highest price tag – $195,000. And for good reason. This ancient Persian pot is a superbly crafted specimen, as robust as it is rare. Its shapely handles are miniature sculptures, the body is aswirl with rich classical detailing, and the condition is excellent.

”I also wanted to show mass-produced vessels,” Mr. Merrin said, pointing out two examples – the Greek-style wine jug and cup produced in the fourth century B.C. in Apulia, in southern Italy. ”The potter did 40 or 50 examples a day – and someone else decorated them.” The assembly-line production was more successful in the forms of these vessels than the painted decoration of stylized leaves and snakes, embellishing the black glazed surfaces. ”When you do a lot of anything, it loses its spontaneity,” Mr. Merrin commented. They sold well anyway and were used as burial vessels, he added.

Not all the decorations on the painted urns in this show are as uninspired. On a polychrome terra cotta Mayan pot, for example, we are drawn back to a palace of the 7th to 10th century A.D. in which attendants are shown bearing a mask and mirror to their ruler. Significantly, the vessel on which this miniature mural appears is one of the least interesting in its shape, which is a conventional cylindrical tub about six inches in height.

Collectors who specialize in one or more of the historical areas represented in this show may be quite at home with the variety of expressions shown. Actually, nothing is required of the viewer except to admire the great shapes, Mr. Merrin insists. He has, for that reason, included as many classical pieces as his inventory allowed. A Colima bowl from the west coast of Mexico is a case in point – its bulbous gadrooned body on three parrot feet, crafted of burnished terra cotta a century or two before or after Christ’s birth – must be the first shape we think of when recalling this culture.

Collectors who become interested in such vessels soon discover that most command lower prices than sculptural works, especially animal or human figures. The selections in this show range from $700 for the Greek wine jug or a two-handled cup crafted in southern Italy in the fourth century B.C., to $195,000, for the Persian silver vessel with bull handles.

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Megalithic urn burial site found in NE India

A group of amateur photographers who had climbed up a hillock near Maski in Lingsugur taluk of Raichur district last week were in for a big surprise. They came across about 20 ancient urns with skeletal remains on the slopes of the hillock.

They learnt later that it was one of the ancient historic sites of Karnataka, many of which have been found in the past in Raichur, Gulbarga and Koppal belt. What the photographers had come upon was an urn burial site dating back to the Megalithic or Iron Age, which had got exposed following continuous rain that had washed off the top soil.

Other sites 

Maski is also famous for the Ashokan rock edict which was discovered by a British mining engineer in 1915, which dates back to the 3rd Century B.C. Another important location is Hirebenakal in Koppal district, which has a massive dolmen burial site.

“Ancient burial sites of this kind have been mapped in Maski and in this belt in pre-independence period,” says K.R. Ramakrishna, Commissioner, Department of Archaeology and Museums. One of the early colonial archaeologists to study this region was Robert Bruce Foote.

‘Excavate to find more’ 

Channabasayya Hiremath, Associate Professor, L.V.D. College at Raichur, says research related to these sites was later carried out by archaeologist B.K. Thapar in 1954.

“What needs to be done now is further excavation because there must have been human habitation close to the burial site,” says Prof. Hiremath.

Prof. Channabasayya Hiremath says that the time period of the burial site at Maski may have been about 100 years later than the time of the Ashokan edict, which is on another hill about a kilometre away.

Dolmen site 

The Hirebenakal site in the neighbouring Raichur is one of the largest clusters of Megalithic burial monuments in India with 400 port-holed dolmens, dated between 800 to 200 B.C. “The site presents quarry stones from which rock sheets were removed for erection of the monuments,” says Mr. Ramakrishna, adding that it points to sophistication in use of implements.

Neolithic implements, pottery, iron slag and cave paintings have been found around this area, pointing to continued and regular habitation in this region over a period of time. “As many as 10 rock shelters containing paintings ranging in date from Mesolithic period to early historic period have been found,” says Mr. Ramakrishna.

Variety in burial 

Historians have talked about how the variety in these burial sites point to society which already had division of classes, with different kind of burials – such as pit, cist, urn and dolmen burials – indicating different social status.