Portable Shrine Gau

Artist: Artist Once Known
Culture/People: Tibetan
Place: Tibet
Media: Cloth, pigment, metal
Dims: 7 x 5.5 x 2.25 in. (17.8 x 14 x 5.7 cm)
Date: n.d.
RTC No.: AS0032
Gift of Ralph T. Coe, 2011


Considered the “roof of the world,” the region of Tibet exhibits a profound connection with spirituality and everyday life. Despite its isolative environment, travelers worldwide are drawn to Tibet to immerse themselves in its unique cultural practices. Separating spirituality from secularism in Tibet is difficult since Tibetan Buddhism has a prominent influence on the culture and lifestyle. 

 A gau or “portable shrine” encapsulates the devotion followers have in their everyday lives. The gau is not merely an object, but a protective talisman that imparts spiritual and physical well-being. These protective elements represent a fusion of Buddhist beliefs and the Indigenous religion Bon. Thus, the gau is indispensable to travelers for its ability to defend against malignant entities and invoke auspiciousness. 

Each gau is designed to serve the spiritual and physical needs of the individual and can range from various shapes and sizes. This particular gau tapers towards the top to symbolize lotus petals. In Tibetan Buddhism, lotus petals signify purity. The gau can also be made into a square, rectangle, trapezoid, circle, and mandala.

Materials of gold, silver, brass, copper, bronze, and iron are used to create the gau. The ornamental designs are created using repoussé and chasing techniques. Artisans decorate the surface of a gau with precious gemstones, auspicious symbols, deity imagery, and notable motifs of Tibetan culture. 

Turquoise and coral are some of the most significant gemstones seen throughout Tibetan art. They often adorn gaus because of their beauty and spiritual influences. Turquoise is said to bring good fortune, and coral emits healing energy. Other precious gemstones such as lapis lazuli, rubies, tourmaline, amber, pearls, and sapphires can also adorn the gau.  

Straps made of yak rope, leather, or cloth hold the gau in a protective case. The portable design allows larger gaus to be strapped around the waist or over the shoulder so travelers such as nomads, traders, laymen, and pilgrims could be protected without inconvenience. When the gau isn’t worn, it is placed upon personal shrines found in homes, tents, monasteries, and temples. The straps holding this gau feature golden dragons and red scrolling lotus blossoms, auspicious symbols that hold significant value in Tibetan Buddhism.

Gaus are worn regardless of social class or gender and can range from a simple woven pouch to large ornamental reliquaries. Women can be seen wearing the smaller amulet-type gaus over traditional clothing. Akin to ornamental jewelry, they are worn over the chest close to the heart. 

A gau with precious stones and intricate detailing may reflect one’s social status, but the contents inside the gau are considered the most valuable. 

Some gau, such as this one, contain a small window in the middle, ensuring the safe and portable viewing of the user’s sacred figure. Typically, a Buddha important to the wearer is shown within the window. In this gau, the historical Buddha Shakyamuni can be seen inside. 

Surrounding the window is a set of embossed ashtamangala (eight auspicious symbols of Buddhism). These symbols represent the precious parasol, pair of golden fish, treasure vase, lotus flower, white conch shell, endless knot, victory banner, and dharma wheel. Towards the bottom of the gau is the face of Kirtimukha, also known as the face of glory. This deity is often depicted throughout South Asian art. 

Gaus contain sacred objects such as thangka (spiritual scroll paintings), mantras (sacred chants), tsha tsha (clay votive statues), and tsakli (miniature paintings). They also include medicinal pills, photographs, or personal objects once owned by important lamas, Buddhas, and deities. These objects protect the body from physical and spiritual afflictions. 

Tibetan soldiers wore gaus during acts of war against both British and Chinese enemies. The gau was an indispensable form of defense in combat. Tibetans firmly believed in the gau’s power to deflect bullets and arrows, but many tragically discovered otherwise. Despite the gau’s inability to protect the individual from physical harm, it is still considered an essential safeguard. 

The gau embodies the unwavering conviction and spiritual heritage of the Tibetan people. Its portable and ornamental design is skillfully crafted to fulfill the functional and sacred needs of the user. This remarkable relationship illustrates how the gau extends beyond its physical form to provide protection and spiritual guidance. Furthermore, the gau offers profound insights into the cultural practices of Tibetan Buddhism, fostering a deep understanding of personal identity.

—Francesca Galván, 2024

“Amulets & Gau Boxes.” Art, Buddhism & Thangka Painting Courses by Carmen Mensink, December 4, 2019.

“Ashtamangala.” Singbowl. Accessed April 4, 2024.,or%20coronation%20of%20a%20king 

Britannica, T. Editors of Encyclopaedia. “Bon.” Encyclopedia Britannica, April 25, 2017.

Britannica, T. Editors of Encyclopaedia. “Tibetan Buddhism.” Encyclopedia Britannica, March 15, 2024.

Elliott, Mark, Hildegard Diemberger, and Michela Clemente. Buddha’s Word: The Life of Books in Tibet and Beyond. Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, University of Cambridge, 2014

Foley, Briana Isabelle. “Armor, Heirloom, Bauble: Three Case Studies on Tibetan Jewelry.” Vanderbilt University Institutional Repository, June 13, 2019. 

Foreman, BJ. “Exhibition Review: Vanishing Beauty: Asian Jewelry and Ritual Objects from the Barbara and David Kipper Collection.” Gemological Institute of America, 2016.

Gentry, James. “Amulet Box (Gau) with Its Contents: Portable Sacred Items for Pragmatic and Transcendent Goals.” Project Himalayan Art, 2023.

“Glossary.” Project Himalayan Art. Accessed April 1, 2024.

“Initiation Card (Tsakalis): Tibet.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Accessed April 4, 2024. 

“On the Gau: A Look at Tibet’s Portable Shrines.” Bowers Museum, June 29, 2023. 

“One of a Pair of Votive Plaques.” Online Collection of the Walters Art Museum, August 1, 2022.

“A Practitioner’s Guide To Mantra: An Interview with Bardor Tulku Rinpoche.” Shambhala Publications, March 6, 2017.,and%20offer%20protection%20and%20blessings

Richardson, H. E. , Falkenheim, . Victor C. , Wylie, . Turrell V. and Shakabpa, . Tsepon W.D.. “Tibet.” Encyclopedia Britannica, March 29, 2024.

Sangeeta. “Story of Kirtimukha: A Mythical Journey.” The Stone Studio, September 28, 2023.

“Shakyamuni.” Soka Gakkai, September 26, 2022. 

Do you have information about this artwork?

We'd love to hear about it.

Email Us

Please include the RTC No. in your email. Thank you!