We tend to think we see everything about an object when we look at it with our naked eyes. This gem-encrusted shrine from Nepal is a great example. Above, you see the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara in a miniature shrine, with two attendants on either side. From amidst a sea of swirling filigree elements, they emerge from two dimensions into three as bodhisattvas literally made from gems.
At first you might think that the large colored stones might be rubies or sapphires. But the color of many of these stones is an illusion—they are simply transparent quartz crystals with colored foil placed behind them. And if you look at the shrine from the side, you can see how the illusion works.
However, the redness of the many small ruby-like stones on the plaque is no illusion. But are they really rubies? Ultraviolet photography reveals the truth: many of them glow yellow instead of red, which shows that they are foil-backed crystal. The real rubies glow red under UV light, and as you can see these gemstones have been strategically placed in the crowns of the two side figures. There are also real rubies in the parasol at the center of the shrine, and in the eyes of the makara, or mystic crocodile, who occupies the summit of the shrine. The rest are just rock crystal.
UV image of the shrine of the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara.
Exactly why the artist chose rubies in certain locations and crystal in others remains a mystery. Were these side figures more ‘sacred’ than the others? Or was the artist concerned with symmetry rather than any specific meaning?
While we can’t be sure about the rubies, we do know something about some of the other stones here. Red coral, for example, symbolizes the sun, and it turns lavender under UV light. Turquoise, for its part, turns pale blue under the UV light; in Tibetan medicine, this stone is thought to purify the blood and remove toxins from the liver. It is also seen as an index of health: the bluer and clearer a piece of turquoise, the better the health of its wearer. From this perspective, the shrine incorporates medical powers into its structure. And why not? After all, the central figure is Avalokiteshvara, the Buddhist figure who protects believers from all fears.
As museum researchers continue to examine this shrine and others like it in the collection, we’ll share our findings with you. But in the meantime, stop by the museum and examine this shrine in person. Who knows what details you’ll discover.