A gilt copper cup made out of a real human skull is one of the rare and arcane objects included in "Celestial Realms: The Art of Nepal" at the Crocker Art Museum.
The skull cup is a common attribute of numerous Buddhist and Hindu gods, goddesses and protective deities and would have been used in Tantric Buddhist worship as a container for offerings in some cases, blood, meat or alcohol. Symbolizing the impermanence of life, skull cups demonstrate emptiness and are used for the purification of the ego.
Up through Feb. 10, "Celestial Realms" showcases the richness of Nepalese culture and includes paintings, ritual objects and stone, wood and bronze sculpture dating from the 8th to the 20th centuries, as well as tribal sculpture and masks.
Drawn from private collections in California and the Crocker's permanent collection, more than half of the objects in the show have never before been on public display.
According to Nancy Tingley, the exhibition curator, Nepalese art is both Buddhist and Hindu. Much of it is still seen in Nepal, a long narrow country between India and Tibet, where ancient objects are on view in the temples and squares of cities in the Kathmandu Valley.
From the 5th century, Tingley said, the rulers of Nepal were Hindu but also patronized Buddhist establishments. By the 14th century Tantric Buddhism, with its emphasis on the importance of the goddess, became a force in the art of Nepal. The exhibition is anchored on four sides by images of important goddesses, from Lakshmi or Parvati, the wife of the Hindu deity, Shiva, to Tara, a Buddhist goddess/bodhisattva or compassionate figure who has achieved enlightenment but stays on an earthly plane to help fellow beings.
One of the first goddesses in the installation is Siddhilakshmi, a many-armed figure who sits on the shoulders of Bhairava, a fierce incarnation of Vishnu, showing that she is more important than he. This elaborate sculpture of gilt copper alloy depicts the exultant goddess holding a severed head, an elephant goad, a trident and a sword.
Nearby is a gilt copper alloy plaque, depicting symbols of the elephant god Ganesha (a radish leaf and sweets) and Bhairava (a chopper and skull cup).
Such a plaque would have been a temple offering, or an object used to clad both Hindu and Buddhist monuments.
Bhairava pops up repeatedly in the show. Fearsome of visage with lion epaulets and a coarse featured face, he guards against evil. One of his eminences is in the form of a mask, with a hole opening at the mouth, where consecrated beer would spew forth for his worshippers.
One of the most remarkable objects in the show is a four-faced linga (phallus) made of stone. The linga, explains Tingley, is the symbol of the Hindu god Shiva and represents both fertility and the great yogi Shiva's ability to retain seminal fluid and deny sexual energy.
Also of note are a pair of tribal masks, made of wood, that are thought to have been used in performances by clownlike characters. They are coarse in comparison to the sculptures of Buddhist and Hindu deities in the show but have a strong spirit and presence.
While most of the objects in the show are three-dimensional, there are some magnificent paintings, including a Chandra mandala of the moon god and nine planets and a tankalike painting of a goddess in a stupa (a votive structure common in Asia) with the all-seeing eyes of Buddha over her head.
It is done in vibrant tones of red and blue, which is characteristic of Nepalese paintings.
Nepalese art draws upon Indian art for inspiration, but soon became its own thing. Its unique workmanship caused it to be sought out for inclusion in Tibetan monasteries and was prized by the emperors of China. A full-color catalog accompanies the exhibition with essays by Tingley and cultural historian Nutandhar Sharma.
Celestial Realms: The Art of Nepal
Where: Crocker Art Museum, 216 O St., Sacramento.
When: Through Feb. 10. 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Thursday. Closed Mondays, Christmas and New Year's Day.
Cost: $10 adults, $8 seniors, military and college students, $5 youths 7-17, free for children 6 and under and members.
More information: (916) 808-7000; www.crockerartmuseum.org