Qinxuan collection, U.S.A., since early 1990s
Thochag is one of the most prized talismanic objects treasured by Tibetan people. Along with Dzi stones and semi-precious stones, Thogchas are frequently found worn around the necks of Tibetans of all social groupings, sometimes together with silk threads blessed by Lamas and even sometimes items of unusual and curious design such as old ‘foreign’ (non-Tibetan) keys...
The exhibition that inspired this collection was “Beauty, Wealth and Power: Jewels and Ornament of Asia,” held at the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco from April 1992 to February 1993. Among the beautiful and unusual objects in the exhibit were over 100 togchas in the exhibit’s Himalayan section, borrowed from San Francisco Bay Area collectors. Among them were Buddhist and Bon figurines of gods, goddesses, guardians, and the mystical bird Khyung. There were miniature ritual objects of dorje (thunderbolts), phurba (triangular daggers), dorje rings, stupas, conches, plaques with mantras, and strap buckles for fastening Tibetan sutras. Among the animals were lions, horses with or without riders, bovines, raptors and different kinds of birds. There were various metal components dislodged from chatelaines, horse trappings, chariot fittings, charm boxes, and tinder boxes.
Tibetans call these found objects gtog lchags pronounced ‘togcha,’ spelled in various ways in the West such as thogcha, thogchags and tokches. They are valued by Tibetans as highly as gzi beads, the agate trade beads with enhanced lines and circles. The word gtog means thunder and lightning and lchags stands for iron, indicate that these are metal objects associated with specific atmospheric phenomena. Thogchas are not all Tibetan in origin nor are they all from one period; some of them belonged to people of different ethnic origins who once transversed the Tibetan plateau. While some togchas are made from iron, the majority are of copper alloys. Togchas represent any and all small metal objects that have been used for one purpose or another by various people over the century on the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau, and in many cases it is only a guess as to what was their original purpose. Dating from the Bronze Age up to the 19th or 20th centuries, these small metal pieces are considered by Tibetans as amulets against evil and for good luck and are usually worn around their neck. Tibetans like to fondle their togchas and as a result, many of them (such as sculptures of animals) have their features rubbed off and given a shiny patina. The fact that these objects are found by chance by Tibetan peasants working in the fields or picked up by nomadic herders out in the highlands has led to the belief that they were not created by human hands but had “fallen from the sky.” As a result, Tibetans are loath to part with them, especially if they are lucky enough to find nine examples, nine being a sacred number in Bonpo beliefs.
After seeing the exhibition at the Asian Art Museum, I had a number of opportunities in the 1990s and early 2000s to visit both Tibet itself as well as the larger areas of China which are part of the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau and are culturally largely Tibetan, particularly away from the major towns and cities. Some of these visits were as a tourist, but most were as part of my job as a biologist in which I traveled extensively through parts of Qinghai, western Sichuan, and eastern Tibet into what at the time were very out of the way areas.
Because I was aware of togchas from the Asian Art Museum exhibit, I thought this would be a fascinating subject to try to collect when I was on my trips into Tibetan areas. The first togcha that I collected was a simple but rather archaic buckle which I started to wear around my neck so that I could ask any Tibetan I happened to meet on the Plateau if he had anything like this. At the time I did not know how to ask in Tibetan if they had any togchas, so unless the Tibetans spoke some Chinese, I needed to just point to what I had around my neck and hope they would understand my question about it in Chinese. I later found a Tibetan teacher in the U.S. from whom I took a few lessons. Although I have now forgotten almost all I learned from him, the one phrase that I made sure to remember was “Do you have any togchas” and then I would point to the one around my neck and hope that the rest of the interaction could continue in Chinese. I soon found out that bargaining with Tibetans has its own characteristics. When I would ask in Chinese how much a particular item might cost, almost invariably the answer was “how much will you give me” (你会给我多少) and it was then for me to come up with the first offer. Another characteristic is that unlike negotiating with Han Chinese where the offered price from the owner first started going down and my offer up so that we got closer and closer to a mutually agreed price, with Tibetans their counter offers first started going down but often as they thought more about the object’s value, their price would start going up again. But, eventually we could come to a mutually agreed price. My experience was also that a Tibetan would often be glad to show me a prized togcha that he had but had no interest in selling. Certainly I found that in all these negotiations the interactions were conducted amicably. It is always easy to get a smile out of a Tibetan by oneself just having a smile.
Over the many months total that I have spent in Tibetan areas, I was able to pick up a fairly sizable collection of different togchas. Occasionally I also found some by checking flea markets such as in Beijing where Tibetans, particularly from Qinghai and western Sichuan, would bring items to sell in places such as the weekend Panjiayuan market, but most of the togchas acquired were during my travels on the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau.