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Hats of the Himalayas Main Page - Updated

June 06, 2017 ·

The Hats of the Himalayas Main Page has been updated and re-formatted.

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Black Hats & Blue Hats - Updated

August 30, 2016 ·

The Black Hats & Blue Hats Page has been updated with additional images and links.

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Black Hats & Blue Hats - Added

August 26, 2014 ·

A gallery for Black Hats & Blue Hats has been added.

There are three famous Tibetan & Mongolian teachers known for wearing a characteristic black hat. Two of the hats were gifts from the Chinese Yongle Emperor. The three teachers are the incarnation line of the Gyalwa Karmapas, Jamchen Choje Shakya Yeshe, founder of Sera Monastery, and Zanabazar (Yeshe Dorje). The black hat of the Karmapas has two different styles, simple and ornate. The simple black hat is made of cloth and considered a type of utility hat intended to be worn daily. The ornate and heavily jewelled hat is reserved for important religious gatherings and rituals. The hat of Shakya Yeshe is designed like a Five Buddha initiation crown, a hat commonly used in Vajrayana Buddhist rituals. The black colour on the hat of Zanabazar is from the thick trim and upturned flaps made of dark animal fur lining the inside and surrounding brim.

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The Black Hats of Tai Situpa - Added

June 18, 2014 ·

A gallery page describing the black hats of the Tai Situpa has been added with text and images.

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The White Hat of the Karma Kagyu Tradition

June 09, 2011 ·

Many have heard of the famous black hat of the Karmapa and the red hat of the Shamarpa, maybe the lotus hat of Padmasambhava and the yellow hat of the Gelugpa Tradition. What about a white hat that is identical to the black hat of Gyalwa Karmapa?

In East Tibet there is a Kagyu Lama named Tsatsa Drubgon Rinpoche. He wears a white hat identical to the Karmapa black hat. This white hat according to the Tibetan biography of Tsatsa Rinpoche is said to have come about as a gift of the 8th Karmapa Mikyo Dorje. In his vision Karmapa saw that Tsatsa Rinpoche had four great characteristics: outer, inner, secret and very secret. The outer characteristic is that Karmapa saw Tsatsa as being very white, of a pure white colour - like the appearance of the goddess of wisdom and learning, Sarasvati. Another of the characteristics was that he embodied the Mahamudra - the highest philosophical view found in the new Tantras from India in the 11th century.

It would seem that it was the outer characteristic that led to the gift of the white hat given by the 8th Karmapa, of the Karma Kagyu Tradition, along with a seal that that has two different styles of lettering. The first with the letters in Tibetan script found in the four corners of the square seal reads Karma pa'i Tsatsa Lama. The central area of the seal in the shape of a cartoche atop a lotus with five visible petals is written in Pagpa'i Script and reads Tsatsa Lama.

Actually it is said that this Tsatasa was one of the principal students of the 7th Karmapa. Prior to that time the earliest documented pre-incarnation was a student of Pagmodrupa and Tstsa followed Pagdru Kagyu Tradition. After the time of the 8th Karmapa the Tsatsa Lamas became more closely assoiciated with the Karma Kagyu Tradition. The name tsatsa of Tsatsa Rinpoche occurred because at one time he spent time making many tsatsa offering molds of all types. When he made water tsatsa they would turn into crystal. After that he was known as Tsatsa Rinpoche.

Tsatsa Monastery is the principal temple in the Lingtsang region of Kham, Tibet (Dege, Sichuan, China). Very close to this location is the birth place of Ling Gesar - within walking distance. Although the region of Lingtsang is now included within the greater Dege region, in the past Lingtsang was the principal kingdom with the Lingtsang Gyalpo as the King of the entire region. At that time the area of Dege was included as Lingtsang territory. In the later history a small portion of Lingtsang land was given to a deserving subject of the Lintsang Kingdom. That portion of land, not considered very good, but considered quite auspicious and imbued with blessing, became known as Dege and again later, as the Dege kingdom with its own King.

In the past there have been eight Tsatsa incarnate Lamas. Recently the 9th was recognized as a small child in the area of Lingtsang, Kham. The 7th Tsata Drubgon lived during the exciting time of Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo and Jamgon Kongtrul in the 19th century. From the time of Kongtrul the 7th and 8th Drubgon have maintained the history, teachings, initiations and special precepts of the Shangpa Kagyu Tradition of Tibetan Buddhism according to the teachings of Jamgon Kongtrul. During tha last half of the 20th century, in India Kalu Rinpoche maintained the Shangpa Tradition and in Tibet Tsatsa Drubgon maintained the Shangpa Kagyu. Today in the region of Lingtsang and Kangdze there are both monasteries and retreat centers following the Shangpa Tradition albeit under the overall supervision of the Karma Kamtsang Tradition to which Jamgon Kongtrul belonged.

It is not presently known if the white hat shown in the image above is believed to be the original white hat or a replacement hat to symbolize the original. Only one painting so far is known to depict a figure wearing a white hat identical to that of Karmapa.

Tibetan Source Text: sgrub sprul brgyad pa'i mdzad rnam dang gsung gces bsdus.

Tags: hats · iconography

The Red Hat of the Shamar Lama

February 07, 2010 ·

The red hat (sha marpo) of the Shamar Lamas, of the Karma Kagyu Tradition of Tibetan Buddhism, is patterned after the famous black hat of the Gyalwa Karmapas. The 2nd Shamar,  Kacho Wangpo (1350-1405), was the first to have a red copy of the black hat, said to be a gift from his teacher the 4th Karmapa, Rolpai Dorje (1340-1383). Later, the Tsurpu Gyaltsab incarnations and the Tai Situ incarnations, also of the Karma Kagyu, would follow form and adopt the same basic design of the red hat, patterned on the black hat, although with slight stylistic modifications.

The 2nd Gyaltsab, Tashi Namgyal (1490-1518) recieved an orange hat from the 7th Karmapa, Chodrag Gyatso (1454-1506). The 1st Situ, Chokyi Gyaltsen (1377-1448), recieved his title of 'Kenting Tai Situ' from the Chinese emperor Yungle but didn't recieve his red hat until the 5th incarnation of Tai Situ, Chokyi Gyaltsen Palzang (1586-1657). That hat was given by the 9th Karmapa Wangchug Dorje (1556-1602/03).

According to the history of the Karma Kagyu tradition the fifth Karmapa Dezhin Shegpa (1384-1415) was presented a gift of a black hat by the Chinese emperor Yungle. However, according to Mongolian history the first black hat was a gift of Mongke Khan to the 2nd Karmapa, Karma Pakshi. Despite its true origins, this black hat has become the principal identifying characteristic and iconographic attribute in the depictions of the Karmapa incarnation lineage and likewise for the Shamarpa incarnation lineage.

Characteristics of the Shamar Hat
1. Red in colour
2. Round with upturned flaps
3. Front marked with a three or five jewel emblem
4. Sides decorated with cloud pattern trailing to the back
5. Peaked with a gold finial and a large jewel

The shape of the hat itself is more like a cap and similar to a Mongolian or Chinese court minister's head gear. Aside from the colour, black versus red, the cloud pattern on the side of both the Karmapa and Shamarpa hats differs slightly with the pattern of the Shamar hat placed opposite to that of the black hat. The cloud pattern of the Shamar hat, on the right and left side, almost always trails to the back, which means that the cloud pattern appears to be floating forward of the cap. The black hat pattern has the trail, or tail, of the cloud at the front of the cap.

The ornament on the front of the red Shamar hat is tyically either a three jewel emblem/motif, or a five jewel emblem (the latter reminiscent of a stylized double vajra possibly imitating the double vajra of the black hat). In one instance on the HAR website there is a Shamar hat with a double vajra emblem in a painted depiction of the 7th Shamar, Yeshe Nyingpo.

For sculptural representations of the Shamar Lamas, and the red hat, often a simple flat four sided diamond shape is used as the front emblem of the cap. This is also common for sculptural depictions of the Gyalwa Karmapa, Tai Situ and Gyaltsab Lamas.

Observing 20 Shamarpa images on the HAR site, both painting and sculpture, 3 have a simple diamond shaped emblem, 6 have a three jewel emblem, 10 have a five jewel emblem, and only 1 has a double vajra emblem (vishva vajra).

Typically it is the black hat of the Karmapa that has the double vajra symbol. It is important to know that there is an official black with gold and jewel decorations and then there is a simple black cap made of cloth with a diamond front emblem, also of cloth. The simple cloth cap is worn by the Karmapas for less formal occasions. These two types of hats can be confused when rendered as sculptural objects. In paintings it is readily clear by the brightly painted gold and jewel ornaments which hat is being depicted.

Characteristics of the Karmapa Hat
1. Black in colour
2. Round with upturned flaps
3. Front marked with double vajra emblem & a sun and moon above
4. Sides decorated with cloud pattern trailing to the front
5. Sometimes, no cloud pattern, or no clouds for the first four Karmapas
6. Peaked with a gold finial and a large red ruby

Later, the Karmapa's regeant at Tsurpu Monastery, the Tsurpu Gyaltsab incarnation, would also adopt the red cap and generally maintain the same identical ornamentation as the black hat of the Karmapas: double vajra, sun and moon, cloud pattern at the sides and trailing to the front. However, in some depictions of the Gyaltsab Lamas they wear an orange hat with jewels on the front.

The red hat of the Tai Situ incarnations appears to vary in colour between red and orange, most often having a three jewel emblem on the front and the cloud pattern trailing to the back. More importantly, the Tai Situ hat is also slightly different from all of the others in that it has two notches, or divits, along the top of the up-turned right and left flaps, directly above the cloud pattern on the sides. However, this notch is not consistent from one depiction to the next but common enough to be an important characteristic unique to the Tai Situs and their particular hat. Following that inconsitency, the cloud pattern of the Situ cap sometimes trails to the front, like the black hat, and not always to the back, as is standard for the Shamar hat. Although in an early 17th century painting of the 1st Tai Situ he is depicted with a red hat, not orange, and a five jewel emblem, not three, with the clouds trailing to the front, not back, and the two notches on the right and left sides of the cap clearly visible - the notches becoming more common on the Situ hats in later centuries.

Characteristics of the Tai Situ Hat
1. Red in colour
2. Round with upturned flaps
3. Front marked with a three or five jewel emblem
4. Sides decorated with cloud pattern trailing to the back
5. notch on the top of the right and left upturned flaps
6. Peaked with a gold finial and a jewel

It should now be quite clear that the most consitent and recognizable characteristics for all of these hats, especially for the Shamar, is that the Karmapa's hat is black, the Shamarpa's hat is red as is the Gyaltsab and sometimes the Tai Situ's hat. For the Shamarpa and his hat the most important characteristic to recognize is the red colour of the hat with the cloud pattern trailing towards the back followed by the second characteristic of the three or five jewel emblem on the front of the hat. Aside from these few characteristics, that are not necessarily followed religiously, the only way to tell the difference between a Shamar hat and a Situ hat is the hand gestures and attributes of the lama being depicted beneath the hat. The painting composition, inscriptions, facial expression of the figure, and the placement of secondary figures in a composition in relation to the central figure are all important in determining the true identification of a Shamar hat.

Shamarpa Main Page
Shamarpa Outline Page
Karma Kagyu Hats Page

Tags: hats · updates

Hats, More About Hats!

March 07, 2009 ·

Hats are fascinating, hats are costume, hats are religious insignia. If you can recognize the different types of Tibetan and Himalayan religious hats then you're way ahead of the game and ahead of the rest of the pack. And yes, when you start talking about hats then it is competitive. It can even be slightly sectarian. It wasn't until I traveled to Mongolia that I fully understood the truth about the valid use of the terms Yellow Hat and Red Hat. Terms I had generally been avoiding all my life. Anyway, to the point. Here is a link to a wonderful and informative article on Tibetan religious hats. The article in Pdf format is specifically about Pandita hats. Coiffe de Pandit by Etienne Bock.

Also see the HAR Hats Outline Pages. They have not been updated since posting in December 2007. Since then David Jackson has included a discussion about Karma Kagyu (Kamtsang) hats in his latest publication: Patron and Painter, Situ Panchen and the Revival of the Encampment Style. Rubin Museum of Art, 2009.

--- Jeff Watt

Google Alert: "Himalayan Art Resources"

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Hats: Who's who in the world of hats?

October 21, 2008 ·


Hats are actually a big deal in religion and art. In art they help us to identify particular people, hierarchy and religious traditions. They also help us track hats in different paintings and sculpture over time (art history) and help to determine the age of particular works of art, and why, because hats change over time. More importantly hats are fun, weird and sometimes strange. What about the black hat of the Karmapas supposedly made from the hair of one hundred thousand Dakinis? What's a Dakini?

There is also the raven topped crown of the king of Bhutan. This hat is based on a religious hat used in fearsome protection rituals. How did it end up on the head of a king in a kingdom that still exists? How many Himalayan kingdoms are left?

Hats are interesting and each has a story about how it came about, why it has a certain colour and shape, and who can and who can't wear the hat. It is very much a staus thing. The hat in the image on the left is the special hat of the Mindroling hierarchs and in this case worn by Terdag Lingpa Gyurme Dorje in a very rare Tibetan portrait painting.

Look to Hats of the Himalayas for an overview of the different hats and the traditions to which they belong. This is just a preliminary look and a lot more work needs to be done. What is very important to remember is that hats are one of the most important iconographic keys in the study, identification and recognition of Himalayan and Tibetan teachers. Hats, who knew!

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