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Exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art highlights the Vajracharya priest's crowns of Nepal
Vajracarya's ritual crown, 13th century. Nepal, Early Malla period. Gilt-copper alloy inlaid with semiprecious stones, 12 x 9 x 8 1/4 in. (30.5 x 22.9 x 21 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of Barbara and David Kipper, 2016 (2016.408).

NEW YORK, NY.- The Metropolitan Museum of Art's exhibition in its South Asian exhibition gallery highlights the Vajracharya priest's crowns of Nepal. Crowns of the Vajra Masters: Ritual Art of Nepal includes five crowns—the largest group ever displayed, evoking the five Transcendent Buddhas. This is the first-ever exhibition to celebrate this unique tradition in Nepalese Buddhism.

One of the most spectacular symbols of Buddhist ritual in Nepal, the crowns date from the 13th to the 18th century. The exhibition examines their devotional use, iconography, and stylistic evolution. It also considers how the crowns preserve the memory of early Indian Buddhist practices that otherwise would be lost to us; these practices can be traced back to the fifth century and the great mural paintings of Ajanta. The crowns on view are drawn from The Met collection—including an important gift from Barbara and David Kipper—and from the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. They have been augmented by Nepalese paintings and ritual objects that were used to perform Vajrayana rituals.

Ritual is at the heart of esoteric Vajrayana Buddhism, and central to its enactment in Nepal was the wearing of these elaborate crowns, which transformed the wearer into a perfected being. Made of gilt copper with applied repoussé medallions inset with semiprecious stones, rock crystal, turquoise, and coral, the crowns on view—the ultimate emblems of ritual authority—were worn exclusively by the hereditary caste of Vajracharyas, who occupied the highest rank in the Nepalese Buddhist Newar community of the Kathmandu Valley. Many of the Nepalese paintings, sculptures, and ritual utensils that also are on view bear inscriptions indicating that they were commissioned to commemorate a religious service performed by a Vajracharya priest.

Both a caste name and priestly title, Vajracharya translates as "thunderbolt scepter [vajra] master," the vajra being the quintessential symbol of the Vajrayana system of esoteric Buddhism.

The Newar community is unique in the Buddhist world for having a hereditary priesthood: males are entitled to be ordained for priestly service by virtue of their birth, their role more analogous to Brahman priests who serve Hindu devotees than to conventional monks and nuns who elect to follow the Buddha path. The donning of the ritual crown is the climax of the ordination ceremony of Vajracharya priests. At that moment, the initiate assumes the wisdom of a Transcendent Buddha and is entitled to perform pujas (worship) for the benefit of his community.

The exhibition is curated by John Guy, Florence and Herbert Irving Curator of South and Southeast Asian Art at The Met.

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