The zi (གཟི་) stone is a well known and highly regarded ornamental stone in Bhutan, Tibet and other parts of the Himalayas. As indicated by the term zi (གཟི་), which means esteem, prestige and brilliance when used in common words such as zijid (གཟི་བརྗིད་) or aura and zidang (གཟི་མདངས་) or splendour, the zi stones are said to enhance the esteem, health, life and fortune of the person who wears it. Due to the sacred power which is attributed to the stone, zi is a sought after items and used as a jewelry, cultural artefact for rituals and also in medicine.
Nothing can be said with certainty about the origin of zi stones. Some Tibetan scholars argue that the zi beads were mostly transmitted from Zhangzhung, a kingdom in western Tibet, when it was taken over by Songtsen Gampo, the 32nd king of the Yarlung dynasty of Tibet in the 7th century. The technology of the zi making is said to have existed in Zhangzhung and other parts of Central Asia but long lost, thus making the zi stones limited and pushing their value up. It is perhaps due to their great antiquity and also due to the loss of the technical know-how to make them that, over the centuries, led to the story among folk people that zi stones are natural and not man-made. While some believed that the zi stones are discarded jewelries of the demi-gods, others spread the story that the zi stones are originally mobile insects which get petrified when they come into contact with humans. There are stories of how zi are also found in mountains and rocks, in animal horns and heads. It is generally believed to be found in the earth and not made by man.
Scholars and researchers, however, claim that zi stones are etched agate beads. Etched agate beads are found in the region from as early as the Indus valley civilization. Researchers provide an early (2700-1800BC), middle (550BC-200AD) and late (2nd to 7th century AD) periods when these etched beads were manufactured. While the technique of etching agate and carnelian did not fully die out, the techniques of etching the zi beads most likely gradually declined and died out. Tibetan scholars speculate that the technique of zi making, which was associated more strongly with the Bon religion, perhaps got neglected after Buddhism became the new faith of the Tibetan court in the 7th century. Moreover, the techniques were most probably passed down as a secretive family trade, known only to a limited number of people who pursued them, thus leading to its loss when the families or clans stopped practicing it. Some Tibetan scholars claim that zi beads were commissioned by the rulers and religious priests and only a few qualified artisans in the court had the right to collect the zi stones and also had exclusive knowledge on how to etch the designs.
Whatever the origins, it is not uncommon to find old zi beads today among rich families and religious establishments in Bhutan and the Himalayas. They come in different sizes and shapes, and with different designs. There are zi beads with white designs on a natural dark background and black designs on whitened background. According to researchers, the white designs were created by firing an alkali on the agate stones. In case of the white background, the stone is first whitened with an alkali and fired. Then, black designs are drawn before firing again. The designs were not merely created on the surface and a special technique was used to etch it deep into the stone.
Designs etched on the beads included vase, lotus, tiger stripes and eyes, thus resulting in zi with vase design (གཟི་བུམ་པ་ཅན་), zi with lotus design (གཟི་པདྨ་ཅན་), zi with tiger skin design (གཟི་སྟག་སློག་), zi with nine eyes (གཟི་མིག་དགུ་པ་), six eyes, five eyes, two eyes, zi with earth and sky door (གཟི་ས་སྒོ་གནམ་སྒོ་), zi with horse tooth design (གཟི་རྟ་སོ་མ་), etc. A great deal can be said about the variety, quality and the ranking of the zi beads than the space of this essay would permit. Among them, some such as the zi bead with nine eyes are the most valued. People also highly prize zi beads which are smooth and without any blemish. Such faultless beads are believed to bring power, charisma and fortune to the person who wears it. Some zi beads, especially with the vase designs, are used for rituals or stored in the wealth box (གཡང་སྒམ་/གཡང་སྒྲོམ་) to enhance fortune and wealth. If the zi is badly damaged, they are crushed and added to other substances to make medicinal pills.
Due to their loss of techniques to make them and the belief of power, wealth and fortune associated with the beads, old zi beads have become highly valuable today; even an average zi bead sells for thousands of dollars, particularly among rich Chinese. This has also resulted in great number of new imitations produced in Taiwan and other places. While it is easier to tell the type and antiquity of the zi beads if the bead is slightly chipped or broken, it takes a zi connoisseur to tell an old zi stone, considered authentic zi by Bhutanese and Tibetan, from an imitation or a modern creation. Thus, Bhutanese elders also talk about different ways to verify an old zi bead from a modern imitation.
As many of the modern imitation are produced with great finesse, perhaps also using similar techniques as the old one, they look very similar to the old ones. This has helped people to buy the new ones and wear them as part of the jewelry. Today, it is common to find people across the Himalayan wearing chains of zi beads almost all of which would be modern creations. While those who don’t have old zi beads can now make do with very similar modern versions, having the modern versions has also helped ease tensions for those who own old zis. With a big market in east Asia for them, there has been a widespread trade of old zi beads often inciting thefts, vandalism and smuggling. Most stupa monuments and temples in Bhutan have been targeted, and a great number of them vandalized, by smugglers who are in search of zi beads and other valuable antiques. There has been also instances of robbery and murder to obtain old zis. The near identical new zi beads have certainly made it difficult for the thieves and smugglers to distinguish the old zi beads. With both old and new zi beads in circulation, today, the regard for and use of zi beads are as vigorous as ever.
Karma Phuntsho is a social thinker and worker, the President of the Loden Foundation and the author of numerous books and articles including The History of Bhutan.
Ebbinghouse and Winsten (1988), ‘Tibetan dZi (gZi) Beads’, The Tibet Journal, Vol. 13, No. 1 (Spring 1988), Dharamsala: Library of Tibetan Works and Archives, pp. 38-56.
See also entry on Wikipedia, retrieved on 27.12.2017.