Tomb Raider 2: The Dagger of Xian is – and might always will be – my favourite Tomb Raider game. And if you’ve known me for some time, you’ll probably also know that my interest in archaeology and ancient civilisations predates the Tomb Raider franchise. But did you know that Tomb Raider 2 sparked my interest in Tibetan culture?

Before TR2 was released, all I knew about Tibet was the romanticised version found in children’s books, that of a semi-mythical land of snowy mountains and meditating monks, little more than a real-life Shangri-La. I knew very little about Tibet’s history, its cultural traditions, or the Tibetan people’s lives under Chinese occupation.

But all that changed after playing TR2 and spending many hours wandering around the fictional Barkhang Monastery. I scoured my local library for books on Tibet. I read and re-read Heinrich Harrer’s autobiographical travel book Seven Years in Tibet, and watched the film adaptation starring Brad Pitt.

But enough about my personal history. Let’s examine some of the Buddhist symbols that can be seen throughout Barkhang Monastery.

The Buddha Eyes:

When you play this level, you may get the feeling that you’re being watched. Wherever you go, you’ll come across the same set of eyes staring at you from the monastery’s walls. Sometimes, they may even seem to move. The eyes keeping track of Lara’s antics are, in fact, those of the Buddha himself.

Buddha eyes
There’s no escaping the Buddha’s watchful eye. Image credit: Kelly M.

Buddha eyes are normally painted on the four sides of the main tower of a Buddhist stupa. Stupas are called chorten in Tibet and are semi-hemispherical, mound-like structures that often contain Buddhist relics and portray the Buddhist cosmos. This practice is commonly seen in Nepal – most notably on the Swayambhuanth stupa west of Kathmandu – but Buddha eyes can also be seen on the exterior of the Kumbum stupa in Gyantse, Tibet. The eyes face the four cardinal directions, symbolising the all-seeing nature of the Buddha. Even Lara can’t escape his watchful eye.

The curly symbol where the Buddha’s nose would be is thought to be a stylised version of the Nepalese numeral 1. This represents the unity of all things  – a recurring theme in Buddhism – and reminds the faithful that there is only one way to reach enlightenment: through the teachings of the Buddha. The dot between the Buddha’s eyebrows represents the Buddha’s third eye, a symbol which is common to Buddhist, Hindus, and Taoists and evokes a sense of spiritual awakening and wisdom.

As I guided Lara through the monastery, I regularly questioned the wisdom of my actions and my failure to save the game every time the opportunity presented itself. I guess we can’t all be omniscient.

Buddha eyes of Kumbum
The Buddha Eyes painted on the Kumbum stupa in Gyantse, Tibet. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons.

The Endless Knot

Eagle-eyed gamers may have noticed a recurring motif found on the banners inside the monastery’s corridors. This diamond-shaped motif resembles the Endless Knot, one of the Eight Auspicious Symbols of Tibetan Buddhism.

In Tibetan Buddhism, the Endless Knot represents the infinite wisdom, knowledge, and compassion of the Buddha. Its right-angled, intertwined lines remind Buddhists of the core concept of cause and effect (karma) and how all phenomena are interconnected. Just think back to the game. If Lara leaves the monks alone, they will help her deal with Bartoli’s thugs. But if she shoots at a monk, even unintentionally, the monks will turn on her and make her life a little harder. How’s that for cause and effect?

Endless knot banners seen in Barkhang Monastery
Endless knots adorn the Barkhang Monastery’s banners. Image credit: Wikiraider.

Endless Knots decorated with ceremonial silk scarves (khata) can occasionally be seen in Buddhist art. You can find one such symbol on the gold disc near the entrance to the Catacombs of the Talion. It’s thought that this image of a knot and threaded scarves may derive from an ancient Indian symbol depicting two intertwined stylised snakes (naga), symbolising harmony and the duality of the universe. Snakes were once revered throughout the Indian subcontinent and were thought to embody the concept of rebirth and renewal due to their ability to shed their skin. It doesn’t take a great stretch of the imagination to see why the ancient cultures of the Indus Valley and India would associate snakes with immortality.

The Endless Knots of modern-day Tibet are far removed from their serpentine origins but they continue to be associated with eternity and immortality, much like the Solomon’s knot of ancient Rome and the Middle East. As for Lara, she would come face to face with naga lizards in a later adventure and luckily for her, they were very much mortal.

Tibetan endless knot
The Tibetan Endless Knot, decorated with silk scarves, or khata. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons.

That’s all for this edition of Arte-Factual. We will continue our examination of Barkhang Monastery in part 2 of “Buddhist Symbols of Barkhang Monastery”. Don’t miss it!


Sources & Further Reading:

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If you enjoyed this article and want to learn more about the art and artefacts seen in the Tomb Raider games, feel free to check out the other articles listed in the “Arte-Factual” archive.

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