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The Last Relic of Kublai Khan: The Iron Armor

The Sakya Dharma King’s iron armour, a testament to an extraordinary period in history, stands as a remarkable artefact of the Yuan Dynasty’s cultural and political legacy. Bestowed by Kublai Khan, the founder of the Yuan Dynasty, this iron armour, which dates back more than 700 years, is a singular relic of its kind. This article unveils the historical significance and intricate details of this priceless treasure.

The Sakya Dharma King and His Imperial Role

Phagpa, the fifth-generation founder of the Sakya sect of Tibetan Buddhism, played a pivotal role in Tibetan and Yuan Dynasty politics and religion. Kublai Khan personally appointed Phagpa as the national preceptor and imperial preceptor, a testament to his influence and standing. He held authority over both Tibetan and nationwide Buddhist affairs.

The Anatomy of the Armor

The Sakya Dharma King’s iron armour consists of two primary components: the helmet and body armour. The helmet, made of steel, boasts a diameter of 23.5 cm and a rear height of 40 cm. It’s crafted from six arc-shaped steel sheets, meticulously welded with mortise and tenon. A decorative tassel adorns the helmet’s peak. The lower part of the helmet features an iron armour piece strung with leather strips, a neck armour stitched with brocade and fur, and brocade ear protection.

sakya armour
Sakya armour

The body armour measures 80 cm in length with a chest circumference of 112 cm. It tapers from top to bottom, leaving the arms and collar exposed, giving it a vest-like appearance. The entire ensemble is comprised of interwoven iron armour pieces connected by leather strips. These pieces are ingeniously arranged, with horizontal left armour overlaying the right, and the lower row pressing the upper row vertically.

The distinctively shaped nail heads resemble willow leaves, earning them the moniker “willow leaf beetles.” Ten rows of armour plates interconnect these willow leaf armour pieces from top to bottom, symbolizing the armour’s ten attributes. The neck armour, ear protection, and skirt armour are sewn from brocade and fur, boasting vibrant colours and intricate patterns.

a helmet made of six petal steel sheets welded with mortises and tenons as well as helmet straps ear protection and brocade neck armor
A helmet made of six petal steel sheets welded with mortises and tenons as well as helmet straps ear protection and brocade neck armor
a helmet made of six petal steel sheets welded with mortises and tenons as well as helmet straps
A helmet made of six petal steel sheets welded with mortises and tenons as well as helmet straps

The Significance of the Sakya Dharma King’s Armor

Armor played a crucial role in military preparedness. The quality and quantity of armor were vital in determining combat effectiveness and the stability of a feudal dynasty. The iron armor of the Sakya Dharma King exemplifies the distinctive willow leaf armor of the Yuan Dynasty, characterized by its material, manufacturing techniques, and shape. Notably, it is rare for military protective gear to use brocade for neck armor, ear protection, and skirt armor, highlighting the high status of its owner.

brocade satin skirt armor
Brocade satin skirt armor

Historical and Cultural Significance

Beyond its exquisite craftsmanship, the Sakya Dharma King’s iron armour represents a historical and cultural crossroads. As a gift from the Yuan Dynasty’s emperor to a Tibetan leader, it symbolizes the intricate political, economic, and cultural exchanges between the Han, Mongolian, and Tibetan ethnic groups. This armour is also a testament to the unification of a multi-ethnic nation during the Yuan Dynasty.

Conclusion

The Sakya Dharma King’s iron armour encapsulates a unique moment in history, where political and religious forces converged to create a lasting legacy. This artefact stands as an enduring testament to the rich cultural tapestry of the Yuan Dynasty and its profound influence on Tibetan Buddhism and society.

About the author

The Tibetan Travel website's creator, hailing from Lhasa, is a cultural enthusiast. They promote responsible tourism, connecting the world to Tibet's beauty and heritage. Awards recognize their contribution.

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