Incense Burner with Handle, With lion-shaped weight at end of handle


Incense Burner with Handle, With lion-shaped weight at end of handle

metalwork / Nara

Nara period, 8th century

Cast bronze


In ancient India, the birthplace of Buddhism, it was customary to offer flowers, incense, and fire to venerated deities or people. This custom was incorporated into Buddhism, with flowers, incense, and fire regarded as the three fundamental offerings for Buddhist deities. People soon began to use incense burners, some of which were furnished with handles. Handled incense burners were considered an indispensable part of a Buddhist priest's accoutrements. These treasured items are among the earliest examples of Buddhist implements. Buddhism subsequently spread to China and the Korean peninsula before arriving on Japan's shores around the middle of the 6th century. It seems handled incense burners arrive in Japan soon after. The oldest extant example in Japan belongs to Tokyo National Museum's Horyuji Treasures and it dates back to the Asuka period in the 7th century.

The handled incense burner on display here arrived a century later. Its parts were cast in bronze and then assembled. The section with the wide mouth is the brazier. It sits on a flower-shaped stand. A copper plate with two round adornments sits where the burner's long handle attaches to the rim of the brazier. The tip of the handle bends 90 degrees and it features a lion-shaped object at the base. This is a weight, though it also plays a decorative role. With its front legs braced and tail standing straight, the lion exudes a sense of power. Handled incense burners with lion-shaped weights were produced in Japan and China in the 8th century, with many still with us today. This example features an engraved pattern commonly used in China, so it may have been made there. It speaks volumes about the way Japan enthusiastically absorbed Buddhist culture from abroad during this era.

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