Himalayan Art Resources

Ritual Object: Vajra & Bell - Shapes, Design & Decoration

Vajra & Bell Main Page

Subjects, Topics & Types:
- Description (below)
- Early Examples
- Five & Nine Prong (below)
- Animal Faces
- Multi-prong Examples
- Others...

Videos:
- Vajra & Bell: Part 1
- Vajra & Bell: Part 2

Early vajra scepters represented in Indian, Swat and Kashmiri art prior to the 10th and 11th centuries are relatively plain and unadorned. They do not all have the pronounced five prong structure, embellishments and design work. Often they resemble more of a pestle or short club such as was carried by Heracles/Vajrapani in the earlier Gandharan art. (See examples of early vajra scepters).

By the 11th century, in Northern India and the Himalayan regions, the five pronged vajra design had become the standard shape which has continued down to the present time. The nine pronged has also followed this model. Although the shape has remained basically the same the amount of design and decorative embellishment has changed over time and regionally. The source literature for the five prong vajra is likely to be the Indian tantric literature that describes the laying out and creation of a two or three dimensional mandala. The decorative embellishments such as the sea creature heads at the base of the prongs and repeated vajra circles and kirtimukha motifs on the bell are very likely to be of Newar and Shakya, Nepali, artistic influence.

Vajra:
The central prong extends to a point at each end of the vajra scepter. It is the longest and central of the five prongs. It is sometimes decorated with incising, or very small attached rings, fixed or loose. The nine pronged vajra follows the same basic pattern. The four side prongs are thinner at the top and physically attached to the central prong. The central prong is the longest and extends above the four encircling prongs. It is occasionally decorated with incising, or very small attached rings, fixed or loose. The nine pronged handle follows the same basic pattern. The four side prongs are thinner at the top and physically attached to the central prong at the tip. The prongs are often depicted as issuing from the mouths of four makara (water creatures).

There are examples of vajras that are without the makara and other examples where a decorative element is added in place of the sea creature. Generally, below that is an eight petalled lotus. Sometimes one or more rings of small cast beads will separate the flat base of the four makara heads and the eight lotus petals.

Vajra Elements Listed in Descending Order:

- Five/Nine Prongs
- Makara Heads
- Ring of Beads
- Eight Petalled Lotus
- Ring of Beads
- Central Sphere
- Ring of Beads
- Eight Petalled Lotus
- Ring of Beads
- Makara Heads
- Five/Nine Prongs

Bell:
The bell has three parts, the handle above in the shape of a half vajra and the lower round bottom bell. Inside the round bell shape is the clapper. The half vajra can have different slightly different shapes and decoration depending on the region and time period. Early handles are more simple in design with the later handles more detailed. The central prong is the longest and extends above the four encircling prongs. It is occasionally decorated with incising, or very small attached rings, fixed or loose. The nine pronged handle follows the same basic pattern. The four side prongs are thinner at the top and physically attached to the central prong.

The four side prongs typically are depicted as issuing from the mouths of four makara (water creatures). There are some examples without the makara and other examples where a decorative element is used instead. Generally below that is an eight petalled lotus. Sometimes one or more rings of beads will separate the flat base of the four makara heads and the lotus petals. Below the lotus is a crown above the head of the female deity, the personification of wisdom, Prajnaparamita. Below that is a vase, an initiation vase. Again, with some examples one or more small rings of beads, or a square base, can be placed to separate the more important decorative and symbolic elements. There are many variations of design that can separate and frame the the upper lotus, face of Prajnaparamita, and lower lotus.

The neck of the bell is typically unadorned with a round lotus design below and a large eight petalled shape containing eight syllables written in Tibetan script. Below that is a thin circle of beads followed by a circle of horizontal vajras and another circle of beads. The middle portion of the bell can be adorned with Kirtimukha faces, the emblem of the right auspicious symbols or individual symbols. The lower bell is adorned with two rows of beads and a circle of vajra scepters standing vertical. Inside of the bell there is the clapper tied with a short string. Next to that, on the inside, are the three syllables OM, AH, HUM. The letters are cast with the bell and appear raised. They can be written in Tibetan, Nagari or Chinese depending on the wishes of the artist or donor.

Bell Elements Listed in Descending Order:

Vajra Handle:
- Point of the Central Prong
- Five Prongs
- Makara heads (four)
- Eight Petalled Lotus
- Five Petalled Crown
- Prajnaparamita Face
- Initiation Vase

Bell Elements:
- Neck of the Bell
- Eight Petalled Lotus
- Eight Syllables
- Ring of Vajras (horizontal)
- Kirtimukha, Eight Auspicious Emblems, etc.
- Ring of Vajras (vertical)
- Om Ah Hum (inside of bell)
- Clapper & String

Jeff Watt 7-2021

(The images below are only a selection of examples from the links above).