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A Brief History of Japanese Daruma Dolls

Daruma dolls are representations of the historical Indian priest Bodhidharma, a sage who traveled throughout Japan and China in the 5th or 6th century AD. Bodhidharma is credited with establishing Chan Buddhism in China and Zen Buddhism in Japan. Legend has it that Bodhidharma achieved enlightenment, or satori, following seven years of meditation either in a cave or as he was facing the wall of a room at the Shorinji Temple in China. During this time he moved neither his eyes nor his limbs. Legend has it that as a result of his inactivity Bodhidharma's limbs shriveled and fell off. Another legend relates that angry with the fact that he had fallen asleep during his meditation, Bodhidharma cut off his eyelids in a fit of anger. It is believed that the severed eyelids fell to the ground and sprouted into China's first green tea plants!

Daruma dolls (Daruma is short for Bodai Daruma, the Japanese rendering of the name) are red roly-poly papier-mâché depictions of Bodhidharma. Like the Bodhidharma they have no arms or legs and sit in a meditative pose with large, staring eyes and no eyelids. When knocked on its side, the doll pops back to the upright position (hence "tumbler" doll, or "okiagari koboshi") so it has become a symbol of optimism, good fortune and strong determination. The doll comes in many sizes - the standard size is larger than a basketball. While most Daruma dolls are male, some Japanese localities have female Daruma ("ehime daruma" or "princess daruma").

At New Year time, many Japanese individuals and corporations buy a Daruma doll, make a resolution, and then paint in one of the eyes. If, during the year, they are able to achieve their goal, they paint in the second eye. Many politicians, at the beginning of an election period, will buy a Daruma doll, paint in one eye, and then, if they win the election, paint in the other eye. At year end, it is customary to take the Daruma doll to a temple, where it is burned in a big bonfire.

Daruma-making is strongest in the Takasaki region of South West Japan. It began in earnest here in the late 17th century as a relief measure for farmers who were suffering from famine. The story is that the Daruma Temple instructed farm households to make dolls from papier-mâché as a way of earning extra income. These days nearly 100 households annually make about 1.6 million darumas, accounting for about 80% of all darumas made in Japan. Every year on the 6th and 7th of January, a Daruma market is held in the precincts of the Daruma Temple, and hundreds of thousands of people visit it.

There are many different styles of Daruma Dolls, but there is one philosophy that all Daruma dolls share and that is the pursuit of beauty and artistry through simplicity. This philosophy is extolled at the website;

Ivor Conway has traveled extensively throughout Japan and was enchanted by the beauty of Daruma dolls. The website is a resource maintained by Ivor Conway and dedicated to this simple but bold art form.

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