Two frogs, a thousand years apart

A while ago I wrote about a Tibetan spellbook, a grimoire if you like, dating back to the ninth or tenth century. This compendium of spells is written in a tiny hand on long leaves of paper that have been stitched in the middle, creating a makeshift booklet. Across the front, the owner has written his name in big letters. Clearly this was a compendium of rituals that was owned and used by this person, and from his name, we can tell that he was a Buddhist monk. Probably, he made some kind of a living from performing these rituals for local people. Some might be shocked that a Buddhist monk would stoop to such things  — and that was the subject of a discussion on one Buddhist forum that picked up on this post. But if you’ve read any anthropological or archeological studies of Buddhist communities, you probably wouldn’t be surprised.

I’ve been reading Charles Rambles’ recent book, The Navel of the Demoness, an anthropological study of a Himalayan village in Nepal where local rituals and Buddhism exist side by side. One passage in particular reminded me of that old grimoire from Dunhuang. It was this:

The last, and perhaps most interesting, of the rites performed by Tshognam for Te is the annual rain-making ceremony. Tantric techniques for controlling the weather are nothing unusual in the Tibetan tradition: weather-makers were even employed by the Lhasa government to ensure rain at appropriate times and to keep hail off vulnerable sites. The technique used by the senior lama of Tshognam, however, does not belong to the usual Tibetan repertoire but was assimilated by his grandfather, “Doctor Dandy,” from the “outsiders’ religion” (Tib. phyi pa’i chos) — specifically, from Hinduism: he learned it, it is said, from a mendicant Indian pilgrim. The ritual is performed in the summer, with the intention of ensuring that the pastures are well watered and that the snow-melt that irrigates the buckwheat crop is supplemented with rain. The procedure, briefly, is as follows. Two hollow wax models of frogs are made. Through a hole in the back, the frogs are filled with various ingredients, including the excrement of a black dog and magical formulae written on slips of paper, and the holes are sealed with a wax lid. One of the frogs is stuffed into the mouth of one of the springs to the east of Te, and the other is burned at a three-way crossroads. The principle of this method is apparently to pollute the subterranean serpent-spirits and the sky gods, and induce them to wash away the contagion by producing water from the earth and the heavens.

Now compare this ritual with one from the Dunhuang grimoire:

This is the ritual method for people under the influence of a powerful naga or in conflict with with nagas, who have aches and swellings, or are crippled:

Take one handful of the ground barley flour and make it into the shape of a frog. In a cavity made with a bamboo stick, mix up an ointment of various ingredients and apply it to wherever the ache is. Meditate on your own yidam. From the direction of the west, Hayagrīva-Varuna appears with his entourage. Led by black emanations, he sits on a throne. Holding a water lasso, he tames the nagas and plagues. Then all sicknesses are drawn forth and destroyed by frog emanations. Visualise this and augment it with: “om ba du na ‘dza/ ba ga bhan a tra/ sa man ti/ to ba bha ye sva’ ha’/ hri ha hum”

Lift up the frog, and if a golden liquid emerges from under it, you will definitely recover. If it is merely moist, then you will recover before too long. If there is only meat with gluey flour, you will be purified by the end of your illness. It is not necessary to do the ritual again. If there is only gluey flour, separate it and do the ritual again. Having picked up the frog, place it in front of a spring, and make offerings to it with incense.

These two rituals, separated by at least a thousand years, strike me as intriguingly similar. Of course, the purposes of the two rituals are different. The modern one is for controlling the weather, and the ancient one for curing aches and swellings. But both of those things, the weather and certain personal ailments, have traditionally been considered the domain of the nagas (the Indian subterranean water deities assimilated to the Tibetan klu). And both rituals are for subduing the nagas.

In Ramble’s account, the lama’s grandfather Doctor Dandy is thought to have borrowed the rite from the Hindus. This seems to be supported by an article written in 1893 by L.A. Waddell, who observed frog rituals being performed to bring the rain in Nepal. On the other hand, our Dunhuang grimoire shows that there was a Buddhist precedent for the frog ritual. Yet this precedent itself is clearly borrowed from Indian religion, as it centres on the god Varuna, lord of the water element and closely connected with the nagas in Indian mythology.

In any case, the continuity of ritual practice is quite striking. In some tradition, somewhere, this particular ritual of making a model of a frog, filling it with various ingredients, and placing it at the mouth of the spring (a relatively complex sequence of activities), continued without much change for over a thousand years.

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See also:
A Tibetan Book of Spells

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Cathy Cantwell and Robert Mayer. 2008. Early Tibetan Documents on Phur pa from Dunhuang. Vienna: OAW. (See p.201–2 for a description of IOL Tib J 401.)

Charles Ramble. 2008. The Navel of the Demoness: Tibetan Buddhism and Civil Religion in Highland Nepal. New York: Oxford University Press. (The passage above is on p.174.)

L.A. Waddell. 1893. “Frog Worship Amongst the Newars.” Indian Antiquary 22.

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Tibetan Text
IOL Tib J 401, 3r-2v:
[3r] myi la klu gnyan gdon te klu rdzings te na ba dang/ skrangs pa dang/ ‘jas ‘grum dang/ phye bo la cho ga bgyi ba’i thabs nI/ bag phye las phul thag pa gcig byas te/ sbal pa’i gzugs gcig byas te/ steng smyug ma khor stong mtshon sna tshogs kyis kha bsku zhing/ thug btod de/ nad pa gar na ba’i steng du des klan la/ bdag yi dam gi lhar bsgom mo/ nub phyogs kyi ngos nas lha ha ya ‘gri ba/ ba ru na ‘khor dang bcas pa/ sbrul nag pos bskris pa’I khri la bzhugs te// [2v] chu’i zhags pa thogs pas/ klu dang gnyan ‘dul nas/ sprul pa’i sbal pas/ -na- nas thams cad phyung zhing bzhi ba+s par dmyigs pa cher btang nas/ /oM ba du na ‘dza/ ba ga bhan a tra/ sa man tI/ to ba bha ye sva’ ha’/ hri ha huM zhes byas nas/ sbal pa bteg ste/ ‘og nas chu ser byung na mod la ‘tsho/ gzher tsam mchis na/ rIng por myi thogs par ‘tsho// sha dang bag phye pa yod na/ du ‘byar pa bzhin cho ga bskyar dogs pa yin no// sbal pa ni blangs nas/ chu myig gi dngor bzhag nas/ spos dang pog dkar pos mchod do//

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PS: If you look at media sites online, you’ll find a number of stories about “frog wedding” rituals performed in India to bring rain in times of drought. Here’s one from the LA Times, for example.

7 thoughts on “Two frogs, a thousand years apart

  1. Dear S,

    Didn’t one of the founders of the Royal Society, Elias Ashmole (d. 1692), make planetary talismans to keep the rats out of his garden? Tell me if I’m wrong. Actually, I think they were lead-cast rats.

    “…during a conjunction of Saturn and Mars, Ashmole cast two further series of images of rats, all of which were duly ‘suffumigated’ on the second morning.”

    — Elias Ashmole (1617-1692): His Autobiographical and Historical Notes, His Correspondence, and Other Contemporary Sources Relating to His Life and Work, p. 235.

    That’s not the Christian thing to do, is it? Shame on the Christians.

    Nice to see you blogging things up again. These particularly memorable blogs ought to go down in history as the frog blogs.


  2. Dear D.
    Thanks for introducing me to the word ‘suffumigated’ — always a pleasure to learn a new word, especially when one can put it to use (not that I’m about to suffumigate anything, but it might be applicable to Tibetan rituals, don’t you think?).

  3. Hmm. It’s got the Latin sub- hidden in there, unless it’s a subterfuge.

    I think you’ve got to smoke *under* the said object. If the rats were cast from lead, that would have been heavy doing.

  4. I was wondering whether sbrul nag pos would not translate better as `black snakes’, the way the scribe spells sbrul and sprul are markedly different. Also, in the mantra perhaps we should read oṃ ba ru na ‘dza (for varuṇarāja?).

  5. Dear PDSz,
    Commendations for not trusting my transcription and going to the manuscript (well, the images). I’m totally convinced of both readings, and I like the black snakes. I suppose that line should be “He sits on a throne conducted by black snakes”, as if the snakes were carrying the throne by writhing along underneath it. Perhaps.
    Thanks for your thoughts,

  6. Dear Sam,

    I can assure you that it is not an inherent distrust (which I cultivate only towards myself), but sprul/sbrul struck me as a bit out of context. As for the mantra, it was bound to contain the name of a deity, and since we had Varuṇa-Hayagrīva, I would have proposed this reading even without looking at the ms. Further to the mantra: that’s surely bhagavān atra … but I cannot make anything out of the rest (perhaps samantāt “from all around”?).

    Thanks for the post(s)!

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