Painted Tibetian Furniture

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Painted Tibetian Furniture

In essence there are six forms of Tibetan furniture, Gaam, Chhagam, Pegaam, Thorgam, Yangaam, and Chogtse . They were produced within monasteries or presented to Monasteries by devotees looking to attain merit.

The decoration of Tibetan furniture is a mixture of Tantric symbolism, bright floral design, and the use of landscape and narrative painting as a means of conveying myths, folk tales and scenes from everyday life.

Early Tibetan furniture without extensive restoration or repainting is becoming harder to find.There is a lot of new tibetan furniture on the market being sold as old , so as a buyer ,beware . Some recent reproductions are of a very high quality

It is worth remembering that if you come across a piece that has a lot going for it , and seem inexpensive , then ,chances are it is not quite what it seems to be .

The first major museum exhibition of Tibetan painted furniture. "Wooden Wonders" at the Asia Pacific Museum,.Pasadena, brought a large number of exhibits together from private collections in the US|A.

Wooden Wonders was every thing the name suggests, the accompaning catalogue is a must have for collectors of Tibetan furniture.


1. Gaam (chest or box)

Specifically these were used to store things that were not in every day use .The earliest examples were made in thick leather, sometimes on a wooden frame. Later versions were made of Cedar or pine ,they were often lined in simple block printed trade cotton .They have arrow headed metal fittings on the corners and sides to strengthen the chest and were kept in storerooms to help preserve Thankas , brocades and ritual costume used in Cham dances on auspicious days .

Gaam are the earliest forms of Tibetan furniture, some dating from as early as the 14th century. Models from the 17th and 18th C have a similar theme in their design, that of a dragon emblem superimposed on a geometrically drawn background, not dissimilar in design to the fashionable Chinese brocades of the day.The design is known as Kati Remo
One early Gaam design that is being much copied in both Tibet and Nepal is the Dzong. With a simple lift top, and sloping sides, its design is said to have derived from the Potola palace in Lhasa, the seat of the Dalai Lama.

2. Chhagam (Cabinet)

Mostly rectangular and fairly narrow, very often divided by a shelf, and having 2 sets of cupboard doors. Hinging is invariably by means of two pegs top and bottom that fit in to holes in the frame of the cabinet. Almost always with a painted front, and usually with plain paneled sides. The frame and panels are usually held in place by a series of pegged joints ..
Cabinets date from the 18th C and later. They become more fashionable as a means of storage than the Gaam, and allowed for easier and more frequent access from the front. They are seen as a Chinese influence.

Chhagam were sometimes made in pairs to be butted up against each other, this explains why we sometimes see a cabinet with painting on one side panel and not the other. They were used to store anything from food, manuscripts and religious objects.
The decoration tends be a mixture of religious symbols, and bright bold floral designs.
Occasionally in very early cabinets , tantric symbols are used .
Cabinets from the Kham region of Eastern Tibet tend to be the brightest .This may reflect their remoteness from Lhasa, thus allowing them a little freedom from the constraints of religious iconography very evident in furniture from the capital.

Shrine cabinets, are open fronted cabinets arranged in a series of arched niches, normally in two of three rows, with the larger Niches being on the lower shelf. With no visible sign of wall fixing, it must be assumed that these shrines sat on another piece of furniture.

3. Pegam. From Pecha (a religious book) and Gaam (box)

A style of furniture peculiar to Tibet, the Pegam looks like a small cabinet with a painted front, usually with two cupboard doors. The top surface of the cabinet is enclosed by a small rim at the front, and by a painted backboard, loosely in the form of a niche. A pair of curved spandrels join the backboard to the rim at the front.

The Pegam was used for storing long loose leafed Tibetan manuscripts, which would have been placed on the enclosed upper surface to be read.

4. Thorgam

The most dramatic of any Tibetan furniture. The thorgam is a Tantric cabinet used for storing ritual implements and the “Torma”, flour and butter sculptures used in place of animal sacrifice when making offerings to Mahakala and other wrathful deities,

The standard form is a cupboard with a single pair of painted doors, usually depicting Mahakala,(The protector of the religion, a demon with Bulging eyes and green scaly skin) surrounded by horrific offerings of flayed skins, human skulls, and wild animals, along with Citipati the lord of the funeral pile, who is depicted as two dancing skeletons, and symbolizes ultimate enlightenment and renouncement of all thing worldly .Torgam are few in number , and would have been accessed by the highest of Lama only. Typically a Torgam was opened once a year.

5. Yangam. (From Yang (luck) Gaam (box) literally)

Lucky box In the same form as a Thorgam , a cupboard with a single pair of painted doors .Yangams have very much more peaceful decoration that the thorgam, and are used to store precious family items , wealth vases and other ritual items with which to evoke peaceful deities.
Tibetans believe that their good luck is contained in the Yangam and that if the doors are opened more than once a year, their good luck and prosperity will escape.

Thorgams and Yangams would have been found in Tibetan monasteries, and the shrine rooms of wealthy Tibetan households. All rituals concerning the use of both Thorgam and Yangam would have been preformed by a Lama.
On a rare occasion it is possible to see a combination cabinet where the Yangam and Thorgam sit one on top off each other; these are most likely to have come from private houses.

6. Chogtse (table or platform)

6. Chogtse (table or platform)

By far and a way the most varied form of Tibetan furniture. , covering a variety of household and ritual uses.
Typical of one type, is a 4sided box with no back or base. Usually four planks of wood joined by simple dovetailing, the sides and top were normally plainly painted, while the front is variously painted with Buddhist symbolism or simple geometric design.
.Very often the painted front has a skirt in the form of a stylized lotus leaf. In the earlier 16th and 17th Century pieces, this lotus design is often carved in to the wooden surface, and then painted. In later 18th and 19th C models the front and sides of the Chogtse are made up of a series of smaller painted panels, with a painted lotus skirt. The use of paneling in later pieces may be the result of a growing shortage of large planks of wood, or simply a development in style.
These Chogtse were small altar fronts used in ritual .They are often seen in small groups surrounding a seated Lama.
On other occasions they seem to serve no more purpose than that of a simple table behind which monks are seated while taking an audience with the Lama. The open back, allowing closer access to the table from the person sat behind it .

Another type of Chogtse , this time lower longer and again backless, is perhaps more shelf than table , and was used in storage rooms to keep leather and wooden Gaam off the ground. This type of Chogtse very often has no side paneling. Its open design will have helped to ensure a flow of air around precious goods that were stored above. .

Then there are a series of folding 3 sided tables . They were a useful piece of furniture for a monk or lama, and any one else making a journey. Multi functional, they were worship, work, and meal time rolled in to one. Typically the painted front depicts a lotus design.

There are a series of Chogtse that are highly carved , depicting animals such as , deer and snow leopards .The Dalai Lama’s throne in the Norbulingka is of this type,.a fabulous piece of carving depicting a pair of deer either side of the Wheel of the law. It is common for these very ornate Chogtse to be gilded. Harder woods are used for these tables, such as Walnut and imported mahogany.