This covered bowl is a very rare porcelain example imitating the kapala (gabala) bowls or skull cups used in Tibetan Buddhist ritual. Such kapala bowls were tantric ritual offering vessels made from human skulls. They represented the impermanence of all worldly things and Dharmapala is often shown holding such a bowl in sculptures and paintings. The skull, its cover and base symbolize the cooking of offerings in a vessel over flames, which is why the metal bases of the skull bowls, and the integral stand of the current porcelain bowl are decorated with flames.
The shape of the integral stand of this bowl is of the same shape as the gilt-bronze stand of a skull bowl from the Qing Summer Palace at Chengde. See Hung Shih Chang and Jessica P.P. Hsu (eds.), Buddhist Art from Rehol, Taipei, 1999, p. 151, no. 64. The human heads which rise from the stand to support the bowl are also part of the traditional stand for kapala bowls. Similar heads can be seen on the gilt-bronze stands for kapala bowls in the Qing court collections in the Palace Museum, Beijing and at the Qing Summer Palace at Chengde. See Cultural Relics of Tibetan Buddhism Collected in the Qing Palace, Beijing/Hong Kong, 1992, p. 184, no. 140, and Buddhist Art from Rehol, op. cit., pp. 166-7, no. 72.
The decoration on the cover of the porcelain vessel also encompasses aspects of the usual decoration seen on the gilt-bronze covers made for the skull bowls. However, the latter usually have a vajra as a finial, while this porcelain vessel has a Buddhist flaming jewel as its finial. Such flaming jewels, while not being the usual finial form for the skull bowls, nevertheless frequently decorate the lower portion of their gilt-bronze stands - as seen on all the examples mentioned above. The main decorative band on the cover of the current vessel bears a delicate rendering of a vegetal scroll encompassing the Eight Buddhist Emblems, as can also be seen on the gilt-bronze cover of the skull bowl from the Palace Museum, Beijing and one of the skull bowls from the Chengde Summer Palace (no. 64) mentioned above. The ceramic decorator has adopted a delicate famille verte style for the cover decoration, which has much in common with the fine Kangxi doucai dish in the Shanghai Museum, illustrated by Wang Qingzheng (ed.), Kangxi Porcelain Wares from the Shanghai Museum Collection, Hong Kong, 1998, pp. 244-5, no. 158. In both cases the main motifs of the design appear against a background of well-drawn, small-scale, leaves.
While other vessels associated with Tibetan Buddhism are known to have been made in porcelain in the Kangxi and Qianlong reigns, such as the tall duomuhu ewers, kapala bowls made in porcelain are extremely rare.