Sacred Zee Stones – Believed By Some To Be The Discarded Jewelleries Of Demi-Gods
Due to the sacred powers which are attributed to the stone, zee is a much sought after item.
By Chencho Dema | Kuensel
The zee (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 dzi (གཟི་), which means esteem, prestige and brilliance when used in common words such as zijid (གཟི་བརྗིད་), aura and zidang (གཟི་མདངས་) or splendour, the zee stones are said to enhance the esteem, health, life and fortune of the person who wears it.
Due to the sacred powers which are attributed to the stone, zee is a much sought after item which is used as jewellery, cultural artefact for rituals and also in medicine.
Origin of the zee stones
Nothing can be said with certainty about the origin of zee stones. Some Tibetan scholars argue that the zee 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 zee making is said to have existed in Zhangzhung and other parts of Central Asia. However, it is now long lost and this makes the zee stones limited in supply, hence pushing their value up.
It is perhaps due to their great antiquity and also due to the loss of technical know-how in making them that, over the centuries, led to the common belief that zee stones are natural and not man-made.
While some believed that zee stones are discarded jewelleries of the demi-gods, others perpetuated the story that zee stones are originally mobile insects which became petrified when they came into contact with humans.
Source: Youtube/Kaven Lim
There are stories of how zee stones 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 zee stones are etched agate beads. Etched agate beads are found in the region from as early as the era of 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 zee beads most likely gradually declined and died out.
How the technique of zee making was lost
Tibetan scholars speculate that the technique of zee 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 zee beads were commissioned by the rulers and religious priests and only a few qualified artisans in the court had the right to collect the zee stones and also had exclusive knowledge on how to etch the designs.
Whatever the origins, it is not uncommon to find old zee beads today among rich families and religious establishments in Bhutan and the Himalayas.
Different forms of zee beads
Zee beads come in different shapes, sizes and designs. There are zee beads with white designs on a natural dark background and black designs on whitened background.
Photo: Naomi Lindstrom Collection
According to researchers, the white designs were created by firing an alkali on the agate stones. In the case of zee beads with 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, this is why we can find zee with a vase design (གཟི་བུམ་པ་ཅན་), zee with lotus design (གཟི་པདྨ་ཅན་), zee with tiger skin design (གཟི་སྟག་སློག་), zee with nine eyes (གཟི་མིག་དགུ་པ་), six eyes, five eyes, two eyes, zee with earth and sky door (གཟི་ས་སྒོ་གནམ་སྒོ་), zee with horse tooth design (གཟི་རྟ་སློ་མ་) etc.
A great deal can be said about the variety, quality and the ranking of the zee beads than the space of this essay would permit. Among them, some such as the zee bead with nine eyes are the most valued.
People also highly prize zee beads which are smooth and without any blemishes. Such faultless beads are believed to bring power, charisma and fortune to the person who wears it.
Some zee beads, especially those 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 zee is badly damaged, they are crushed and added to other substances to make medicinal pills.
The value of authentic zee beads
Due to their loss of techniques in making them and the belief of power, wealth and fortune associated with the beads, old zee beads have become highly valuable today.
Even an average zee bead sells for thousands of dollars, popular particularly among the rich Chinese. This has also resulted in a great number of new imitations produced in Taiwan and other places.
While it is easier to tell the type and antiquity of the zee beads if the bead is slightly chipped or broken, it takes a zee connoisseur to tell an old zee stone, considered authentic zee by the Bhutanese and Tibetans, from an imitation or a modern creation. Some Bhutanese elders also know the different ways to verify an old zee bead from a modern imitation.
As many of the modern imitation are produced with great finesse, perhaps also using similar techniques, they look very similar to the old ones.
This has helped people to buy the new ones and wear them. Today, it is common to find people across the Himalayas wearing chains of zee beads and almost all are actually modern creations.
While those who do not have old zee beads can now make do with very similar modern versions, having the modern versions has also helped ease tensions for those who own old zees.
With a big market in East Asia for them, there has been a widespread trade of old zee beads, often inciting thefts, vandalism and smuggling.
Most stupa monuments and temples in Bhutan have also been targeted, and a great number of them vandalized by smugglers who are in search of zee beads and other valuable antiques.
There are also instances of robbery and murder committed in order to obtain old zees. The near identical new zee beads have certainly made it difficult for the thieves and smugglers to distinguish them from the old zee beads.
However, with both old and new zee beads in widespread circulation today, the regard for and the use of zee beads are as vigorous as ever.
This article first appeared in Kuensel and has been edited for Daily Bhutan.