One of the distinctively Tibetan pieces in the exhibition is the eighteenth–nineteenth-century Armored Cavalryman, equipped with a bow and arrow and a musket (both of which could be expertly fired from horseback) and wearing a helmet and a coat of mail for protection. The figure is modeled after the armored cavalry that took part in the Great Prayer Festival, a famous event held annually in the Tibetan capital of Lhasa as part of the New Year celebrations from the seventeenth century onward.
Several rare and complete lamellar armors and helmets dating from the fifteenth to the seventeenth century are included as well. Superb examples made of hundreds of small plates laced together with leather have been brought together here for the first time.
Many different types of helmets are also featured in the exhibition, including multiplate helmets made of up to forty-nine narrow iron plates and a helmet decorated with a popular Buddhist symbol known as the Three Jewels. Possibly the most elaborately decorated helmet from Tibet is a Mongol example with a stepped bowl made up of conical segments, lavishly adorned in gold with a complex arrangements of deities and mantras. What became the classic Ming helmet style is represented by an early example from Tibet, which may be late Qing or early Ming, that is engraved with an elegant image of Buddha Shakyamuni. A few of the helmets in the exhibition, however, are so unusual as to have almost no stylistic parallels.
The exhibition features unprecedented displays of stunning Tibetan horse armor, a type that did not exist outside of Tibet. On view is a complete figure of a Tibetan heavy cavalryman from the fifteenth to the sixteenth century. Several shaffrons (armor for a horse's head) are also included, one of which is the fourteenth–fifteenth-century piece reinforced with iron plates and densely embellished in gold and silver, the most highly decorated piece of armor of this type known.
The saddles found in Tibet are a mixture of Mongol, Chinese, and Tibetan types and styles. Elaborate and highly decorated saddles were used by Tibetan noblemen and high-ranking monastic officials on important ceremonial occasions from at least the fourteenth century until the twentieth century. This exhibition includes the most important selection of decorated saddles from Tibet ever assembled in one display. The stirrups in the exhibition represent the wide variety of forms, decorative styles, and quality of stirrups found in Tibet. Two of the best examples of Tibetan bridles to exist are included here, and match the saddles with very delicately pierced fittings and chiseled ironwork of incomparable excellence.
Made from hundreds or even thousands of small, interlocking iron rings, mail armor was used in Tibet from a very early date as described in texts from the period of the Yarlung Dynasty (the seventh to the ninth century), during which Tibet's empire extended through much of Central Asia. A classic example of a complete mail shirt of the seventeenth or the eighteenth century from the Himalayas is included in the exhibition along with the accoutrements and other types of armor that would have been worn with it.
Swords were the primary handheld weapon in Tibet from at least the seventh century through the early twentieth century. In addition to their utilitarian function, they could also be clear indicators of social status, based on their quality or amount of decoration. Some of the swords included in this exhibition rank among the most elaborate and artistically accomplished examples of decorated ironwork from Tibet, such as the fourteenth–fifteenth-century sword with a hilt entirely constructed of intricately chiseled iron decorated with gold and silver. The sword also has rich symbolic significance within Tibetan Buddhism, particularly as the Sword of Wisdom, which represents the ability to cut through spiritual ignorance and is an important attribute of many deities, such as Manjushri.
Tibetan spears fall into two basic categories: those made for fighting and those designed for ceremonial use, both of which are well represented by excellent examples in the exhibition. A rare complete set of archery equipment is also on view, in addition to two of the earliest-surviving examples of arrow quivers used in the region. Evocative examples of archery equipment as it was worn and used in Tibet can be seen on the lifesize reconstructed figure of an armored cavalryman of the eighteenth to the nineteenth century displayed in the exhibition and in the various photographs of the armored cavalry participating in the Great Prayer Festival in Lhasa, which are included in the catalogue.
Firearms were probably introduced into Tibet gradually during the sixteenth century from several sources, including China, India, and West Asia, as part of the general spread of the use of firearms throughout Asia. A variety of firearms is represented in the exhibition along with some particularly rare gun barrels that are decorated in gold and silver damascening.