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A kapala (Sanskrit for “skull”) or skullcup is a cup made from a human skull used as a ritual implement (bowl) in both Hindu Tantra and Buddhist Tantra (Vajrayana). Especially in Tibet, they were often carved or elaborately mounted with precious metals and jewels.
Nomenclature, orthography & etymology
'Kapala' (Tibetan: ཀ་པ་ལ; Wylie: kapala) is a loan word into Tibetan from Sanskrit 'kapāla' (Devanagari: कपाल) and it denotes the 'skull' or 'forehead' (most often of the human) and by implication the ritual item, the skullcup, crafted from the human cranium.
Many of the deities of Tibetan Buddhism, including Mahasiddhas, Dakinis and Dharmapalas are depicted as carrying the kapala, usually in their left hand. Some deities such as the Hindu Chinnamasta and the related Buddhist Vajrayogini are depicted as drinking blood from the Kapala.
Hindu deities that may be depicted with the kapala include Durga, Kālī and Shiva, especially in the form of Bhairava. Even, Ganesha, the Hindu deity adopted in Tibetan Buddhism, as Maharakta Ganapati, is shown with a kapala filled with blood.
Some of the Hindu deities pictured here are:
a) Kālī, pictured in the most common four armed iconographic image shows each hand carrying variously a sword, a trishula (trident), a severed head and a bowl or skullcup (kapala) catching the blood of the severed head.
b) The Chamunda, a form of Durga, seen in Halebidu temple of Hoysala architecture, in black or red colour, is described as wearing a garland of severed heads or skulls (Mundamala). She is described as having four, eight, ten or twelve arms, holding a Damaru (drum), trishula (trident), sword, a snake (nāga), skull-mace (khatvanga), thunderbolt (vajra), a severed head and panapatra (drinking vessel, wine cup) or skullcup (kapala), filled with blood.
Kapalik or Kapalika
A famous novel called the Kapala Kundala written by Bankim Chandra Chatterji of Bengal is about the story of the mystery surrounding the kapalik who used to visit the author. The narration in the novel is about a girl brought up by a kapalik in complete isolation from the civilized world. The original Sanskrit play Malati-Madhava provided the title for the novel Kapala Kundala, in which Aghora Ghanta was an evil person and Kapala was his associate. Kapala was also projected as heinous as her mentor. In the novel by Chatterrji, even though Kapala was also brought up by an evil Kapalik, but is shown as personification of human affection and kindness.
A popular adaptation of the novel is the children’s story book titled Kapala Kundala which omits certain events and characters from the original text of the novel but presents the fascinating romance.
Etomolgy of Erode, a town in Tamil Nadu, is derived from the two Tamil words ‘Eera‘ and ‘Odu’, whose literal translation in the English language means wet skull. According to the legends of the Bhairava Purana, Shiva’s father-in-law Dakshaprajapathi is stated to have performed a Yagya for which Shiva was not invited. When Dakshayini, Shiva’s wife, arrived to attend the Yajna, against the wishes of Shiva, her parents did not welcome her. Frustrated Dakshayini is said to have jumped into Yaga kundam fire and turned to ashes. Infuriated by this incident, Shiva severed the fifth head of Brahma which resulted in the skull getting stuck to his palm and Shiva getting Brahmahatyadosham (an outcast for killing a Brahmin). Shiva then wandered throughout India to get rid of the Dosham (curse) and finally when he reached Erode, the skull which was stuck to his palm fell to the ground, shattered and formed the Kapala Tirtham (Skull with Holy Water). To this day, the holy water of Kapala Tirtham is found in the form of a well adjoining the Arudra Kapaleeswara temple to its left. As a further attestation of the legend, the presence of the other bits of the shattered skull are claimed to be the Vellodu (little white skull), Perodu (little big skull) and Chittodu (little small skull), located around Erode.
According to a Tibetan legend, Achi Chokyi Drolma arrived at a place of her choice seeking marriage and met the great saint Ame Tsultrim Gyatso and proposed to marry him. She counseled that their union in marriage would result in her bearing many enlightened children who would propagate the teachings of the Buddha. Since Ame Tsultrim Gyatso did not have any possessions to arrange for the ceremony, Drolma proposed to help, and miraculously a damaru from her right pocket and a kapala from her left materialized. She performed a mystic dance beating the damaru (small hand drum), holding the kapala (skull cup) in her hand and gazing into the sky and magically materializing finest food, drink and rich garments in the house. The marriage ceremony was thereafter solemnized. The couple raised a family and she had children and grand children who brought name and fame to the family.
The kapala is considered a legacy of ancient traditions of human sacrifice. In Tibetan monasteries it is used symbolically to hold bread or dough cakes, torma, and wine instead of blood and flesh as offerings to wrathful deities, such as the ferocious Dharmapāla (“defender of the faith”). The dough cakes are shaped to resemble human eyes, ears and tongues. The kapala is made in the from of a skull specially collected and prepared. It is elaborately anointed and consecrated before use. The cup is also elaborately decorated and kept in a triangular pedestal. The heavily embossed cup is usually made of silver-gilt bronze with lid shaped like a skull and with a handle made in the form of a thunderbolt.
Kapalas are used mainly for esoteric purposes such as rituals. Among the rituals using kampalas are: higher tantric meditation to achieve a transcendental state of thought and mind within the shortest possible time; libation to gods and deities to win their favor; by Tibetan Lamas as an offering bowl on the altar, filled with wine or blood as a gift to the Yidam Deity or all the Deities; and the Vajrayana empowerment ceremony.
Charnel ground or Sky burial
The kapala is one of several charnel ground implements made from human bone found by tantrics at sky burial sites.
Charnel ground, an ancient Tibetan burial custom, is distinctly different from the customs of graveyards and cremation, but all three of them have been a part of the home ground of tantric practitioners’ such as the yogis and yoginis, Shaiva Kapalika's and Aghoris, shamans and sadhus. The Charnel ground, interpreted as the Sky burial by the Western society, is an area demarcated specifically in Tibet, defined by the Tibetan word Jhator (literal meaning is ’giving alms to the birds’), a way of exposing the corpse to nature, where human bodies are disposed as it were or in a chopped (chopped after the rituals) condition in the open ground as a ritual that has great religious meaning of the ascent of the soul to be reincarnated into another circle of life. Such a practice results in finding human bones, half or whole skeletons, more or less putrefying corpses and disattached limbs lying scattered around. Items made from human skulls or bones are found in the sky burial grounds by the Sadhus and Yogins of the tantric cult. The charnel grounds are also known by the epithets the “field of death” or the “valley of corpses”. In Tibet, a class distinction in the burial practices is also noted. The dead High Lamas are buried in Stupas or cremated but the dead commoners are disposed of in the Charnel ground or in a Sky burial.
The products from the charnel ground are the charnel ground ornaments such as the i) Crown of five skulls, ii) Bone necklace, iii) Bone armlets, iv) Bone bracelets, v) Bone skirt and vi) Bone anklets which decorate many images of dakinis, yoginis, dharmapalas and a few other deities (as may be seen in some of the pictures and stone images depicted in the gallery here), and other products such as the Bone trumpet, the Skull cup and Skull drum used by the tantric practitioners. Kapala or the skull cup is thus a produce from the Charnel ground.
In the tantric or kundalini forms of yoga the energy is aroused and caused to rise back up through the increasingly subtler Chakras, until union with God is achieved in the Sahasrara chakra at the crown of the head. This sahasrara has been explained in Q&A form by Brahmachari Uddhav Chaitanya Brahmachari of the Chinmaya mission which is quoted below:
In Aitareya Upanishad, there is a reference to the jiva entering the body through the tenth hole—the top of the skull, which is known as kapala. This tenth hole is also known as Sahasrara and Brahmarandra. All jivas enter the body through the kapala, but their exit can technically be from any one of the other nine holes, or golakas—orifices of the sense organs (two eyes, two ears, two nostrils, genital organ, and anus).Generally, if a jiva leaves the body from the lower orifices, then the gati, or path, of the jiva is bound for the lower worlds (below Earth, as given in the Puranas). If the jiva leaves from the orifices in the head (eyes, nose, ears, mouth), then he is bound for the higher worlds (above Earth). The jiva thus goes to its destined field of experience, undergoes various experiences, and comes back to Earth. When the point of exit from the body is the same as the point of entry—through the kapala—it is deemed as ‘a perfect exit’. When the final exit is from the skull, it is called kapala-moksha, which is how highly evolved beings leave the body. From the absolute standpoint, for a realized master (liberated while living), there is no death of, or final departure from, the physical body, but if we have to verbalize his attaining mahasamadhi, it could also be called kapala moksha. 
Brahmarandhra also known as Dasamadvara, referred in the above quote, is stated to be the hole of Brahman, which is said to be the dwelling house of the human soul and is the tenth opening or the tenth door. It is said that when a Yogi detaches him self from his physical body at the time of death, this Brahmarandhra bursts open and Prana comes out through this opening, which is called the Kapala Moksha.
- ↑ Benard, Elisabeth Anne (1994). Chinnamasta: The Aweful Buddhist and Hindu Tantric Goddess. Delhi: Motilal Barnarsidass. ISBN 81-208-1065-1
- ↑ Kapala Kundala (amar Chitra Katha) ISBN 8175083026
- ↑ Encyclopedia Brittanica. kapala
- ↑ Of Charnel Grounds, Graveyards and Cremation Grounds
- ↑ Sky burial
- ↑ Charnel Ground Ornaments and Implements
- ↑ Things My Mother Never Told Me Q&A with Brahmachari Uddhav Chaitanya Brahmachari Uddhav Chaitanya
- The Yoniverse. Skull Cup