Tibetans began bringing Buddhist books into their country as early as the seventh century when they officially imported the religion from India. Among the most enduring legacies of the great conqueror and unifier of the country, King Songtsen Gampo (r. c. 609-49), was the adoption of the late-Gupta Brahmi script prevalent at the time in Kashmir as the official script of his newly formed nation. Along with the script came the sacred books, and perhaps in no other country have books played so important a role in religious life as in Tibet.
India was not the only source from which books arrived in Tibet during the country’s early history. Songtsen Gampo had two wives, a Nepali and a Chinese princess. Both were said to have been Buddhists and brought images, and presumably manuscripts, when they came to their new home in Lhasa. Certainly, Chinese monks, known as hoshang, were also present at the court, and they, too, must have brought with them copies of their sacred books. In fact, by the year 792 the question of which form of Buddhism, the Chinese or Indian, was superior was debated by monks in the great monastery at Samye. Although Indian Buddhism held the day, Chinese Buddhism did not disappear in Tibet. On the contrary, Chan, or Zen, Buddhism had its adherents in Tibet, but by and large the Tibetans preferred translating the Sanskrit sutras directly.
Another region where the Tibetans encountered a flourishing tradition of writing books was Central Asia, where Buddhism had already been prospering for centuries in the various desert kingdoms such as Khotan and Kucha. The Tibetans occupied much of Central Asia, including Chinese Turkestan, for almost two centuries [c. 632-822). Not only has the region produced a number of books written in the Tibetan script, as well as paintings with Tibetan inscriptions and labels, but one can assume that, although the Tibetan presence in the region was largely military, they did bring back to their country large quantities of texts written in the monasteries of Central Asia. Furthermore, after the region was overrun by adherents of Islam, monks from the region must have sought refuge in Tibet and brought with them more manuscripts. A thorough search of the Tibetan monasteries may yet lead to the discovery of Central Asian books. Some books, however, may have been deposited in chotens (stupas), while vast quantities must have been destroyed during the persecution of Buddhism in Tibet during the reign of King Langdarma (803-42?), who was virulently anti-Buddhist. The ancient monastic establishments also suffered from time to time from fire and warfare and, more recently, from the “cultural revolution” imposed after the country came under Chinese occupation. Most Indian manuscripts found in Tibetan monasteries in the last century by modern scholars are from eastern India or Nepal, and none is earlier than the eleventh century. Considering that Tibet borrowed its script from Kashmir and, until at least the thirteenth century, maintained very close relations with the Kashmiri monasteries, it is indeed surprising that not a single Kashmiri manuscript has so far been discovered—either in central or western Tibet.
Libraries are a very important component of a Tibetan monastery, and pictures of rows of shelves and pigeonholes containing the sacred books wrapped in red or yellow cotton or brocade may be seen in most modern publications about Tibet. Apart from open-stack libraries, many monasteries also have secret rooms or vaults containing all sorts of sacred objects, including manuscripts. Indeed, the significance of the role of books in Tibetan religious life is evident from the peculiarly Tibetan custom known as the “transmission of concealed teachings,” concerned mostly with esoteric knowledge and practices. In the Tibetan language the expression gter-ma denotes a religious text that was concealed by an eminent teacher during the early transmission of the religion in the country and later recovered by a worthy person fulfilling earlier prognostication. The place where such hidden treasures were found is called gter-gnas.
The Tibetans claim that the great eighth-century mystic Padmasambhava himself concealed the treasures and prophesied their future discovery:
The Acarya Padmasambhava and a few other persons who were full of the holy truth concealed for the benefit of future disciples many instructions concerning the most excellent spiritual potency (mchog-yi-dngos-grub) and the common spiritual potency (thun-mong-gi dngos-grub) in the hiding places. They blessed these books that no harm would come to them and entrusted them to the Protectors of Concealed Treasures (gter-srung) for safekeeping. They said a prayer so that only capable persons might find the books.1
It may be recalled that the Hevajratantra specifically states that the book must not be allowed to fall into the hands of nonbelievers. Indeed, how stringent were the rules of secrecy regarding the transmission of the texts of tantric Buddhism has been discussed in Chapter 2. The importance of the religious texts in Tibet is also evident from the great veneration displayed by the Tibetans to the translators, known as lotsawa. Like the reincarnated lamas, they, too, have been included into the Tibetan Buddhist pantheon and are venerated like the gods.
The earliest surviving books written in Tibet are made of handmade paper, a technique borrowed from China. The format of the books, however, remained faithful to India, and the model was the birch-bark or palm-leaf manuscript, but their size was much larger than the Indian material. Pages are generally stacked one on top of the other, and although they were not bound, circles were drawn in the early books, in imitation of the string holes in palm-leaf manuscripts; such, indeed, was their zeal in literally maintaining the sacrosanct character of the imported books containing the sacred wisdom and knowledge. As in India and Nepal books in Tibet are protected by two heavy boards but are usually much thicker and heavier. More often, also, the Tibetans preferred carving the outside and edges of these covers with gilded or painted images and symbols. The insides were generally painted with images or abstract designs but not as often as were the Nepali or Indian covers. Wood remained the principal material for Tibetan book covers, although occasionally the wood was enriched with semiprecious stone inlay. The paper was generally left beige or dyed a pale yellow or blue and black. Black and red ink were used on the beige or yellow paper, while gold, silver, yellow, or white were employed on black paper.
Although they adopted the format of the Indo-Nepali manuscripts, the Tibetans did not follow either the Indian, Nepali, or, for that matter, Chinese conventions for illuminating their manuscripts. For instance, no Prajnaparamita manuscript is illustrated with the eight great miracles, as in most Indian manuscripts of the text. The covers are illuminated with images of Buddhas and divinities of the Mahayana-Vajrayana pantheons. The repertoire further includes images of saints, monks, and mahasiddhas, who are not encountered in the Indo-Nepali tradition. The Pancharaksha text did not have the same significance for Tibetan Buddhists as it did in eastern India and Nepal. Unlike the Indians and the Nepalis, the Tibetans often lavishly illuminated the title pages of their books not only with pictures but also with beautiful, large letters in different colors. Sometimes the lettering is raised with gesso or thick layers of paint, so that it stands out in bold relief to produce a three-dimensional effect. Thus, the Tibetans reveal their ingenuity both with the iconographic schemes and technique of illuminating their manuscripts. In fact, the manner in which they beautified the title page with ornamental lettering is distinctly their own.
Unlike the Indians and Nepalis, the Tibetans also adopted woodblock printing to meet the growing demand for the sacred texts. The exact date for the adoption of the practice from China is not known, but by the thirteenth century the tradition of woodblock printing involving Tibetan religious texts, as well as woodcut illustrations in a Sino-Tibetan style, was flourishing in China. Thereafter, Tibetan monasteries, such as Narthang and others, became important centers of woodblock printing. Woodblock printing was also employed in Mongolia, which was heavily influenced by the Tibetans both in matters of religion and art. The subject of Sino-Tibetan woodblock printing and illustrations is vast, and only passing reference will be made here to the tradition of woodblock illustrations.2 Rather, the emphasis will be placed on books written, as well as illuminated, by hand.
Early West Tibetan Style
The earliest surviving examples of an illuminated Tibetan book, twelve folios of an Ashtasahasrika Prajnaparamita manuscript, were recovered from Toling in Guge by Tucci. Tucci found them in the ruins “of upper Toling, among a heap of canonical works, indiscriminately flung into a store-room.”3 The temple of Toling was founded by the pious Yeshe O (active c. 1000), the king of Guge, and Rinchen Sangpo (958- 1055), the eminent Tibetan translator. Both were largely responsible for reviving Buddhism in tenth-century Tibet, and it was at the invitation of Yeshe O that the famous Indian pundit Atisa Dipankara Srijnana (982-1054) visited western Tibet in 1042.
When he was seventeen years old Rinchen Sangpo was staying with a Buddhist teacher who had come from Uddiyana (Swat in present-day Pakistan). According to his biography, in the place where the food had been served, an attractive Indian book had been left, and looking at its exterior, the translator thought to himself: “Inside this Indian book there reposes such extraordinary learning, but I do not know the Indian lauguage.”4 Then he had a vision of a goddess who advised him to go to Kashmir and learn the language. So he went off to Kashmir and spent several years with Sraddhakaravarman, a Kashmiri pundit. He copied and translated many books and after a trip to Bodhgaya returned home. Despite the fact that he brought back books numbering in the thousands in an oxcart, he had to leave some behind with his Kashmiri guru. The biography also tells us that these books were written on birch bark. Many years later, he was again sent back to India, this time by King Yeshe O, to bring back the books he had left behind and some Kashmiri artists. Rinchen Sangpo stayed six more years in Kashmir and returned with the books and thirty-two artists. Before his death Yeshe O bestowed many gifts upon Rinchen Sangpo, which included “twenty-one sites and these are the twenty-one places dedicated'to worship, and he made limitless offerings, three general tea-ceremonies for readings of the sutras every year to the communities in the twenty-one places, seven readings of the Perfection of Wisdom in 100,000 verses, and so on, as well as images, books, and chotens.”5
The twelve pages of the Prajnaparamita recovered by Tucci in Toling may have been part of a book belonging to Rinchen Sangpo. The quality of writing and illuminations indicate that it once belonged to a person of eminence. The style of the brilliant illuminations is comparable to the contemporary murals in some of the chapels at Alchi and at sites definitely associated with Rinchen Sangpo. Indeed, these murals could well have been executed by some of the thirty-two Kashmiri artists brought to Tibet by Rinchen Sangpo. Other artists from Kashmir may also have traveled to western Tibet to seek their fortunes when the enlightened rulers, nobles, and monks of the region began building temples and monasteries by the scores. Whether or not this manuscript was prepared for Rinchen Sangpo and illuminated by Kashmiri artists, the illuminations were rendered in a strongly Kashmiri stvle. If the artist was a Tibetan, then he was no less talented with the brush than the scribe was with the pen.
Because the folios are larger than the average palm-leaf or birch-bark folio, the miniatures, placed in the middle of the pages, are considerably larger than Indian manuscript illuminations. Compositions with single deities average between nine and ten centimeters high and seven to eight centimeters wide. Eleven illuminations appear to be in one style, while one was probably added much later. Loosely and coarsely painted with totally different colors than the earlier illuminations, it is closely related to sixteenth-century Nepali paintings. Iconographically, too, its inclusion seems arbitrary when compared with the other illuminations that reflect a coherent monographic program.
The most elaborate composition shows the multiarmed goddess Prajnaparamita seated in the lotus posture on a lotus in the center of the page (pis. 36-37 and fig. 53). The picture area is extended on either side along the bottom of the page to accommodate various offerings, and the goddess is flanked by a monk and a Tibetan on one side and two lay personages on the other. Appropriate for the climate, the monk wears boots like the other three individuals. He holds a plate in his left hand, and his features are Indian rather than Tibetan. More interesting, however, are the two figures on the other side. Their hairstyle is quite different from that of the Tibetan behind the monk, and they wear what looks like a costume worn by present-day sailors. Moreover, two sombrerolike hats rest behind each. The costume is worn by several figures in the wall paintings in the tenth-eleventh century temple at Tabo in Himachal Pradesh.6 The offerings include a large plate containing perhaps items of food, three different kinds of dishes, a lamp, and two conchshells placed on metal tripods. The two circles with dots on either side of the composition indicate the string holes.
That the goddess Prajnaparamita should be given such prominence in a Prajnaparamita manuscript is not surprising. What is fascinating is that six of the other figures are identified by labels as personified deities of the abstract philosophical concepts discussed in the text. Four of these, Nothingness of Nothingness, Power of Faith, Unpurified Nothingness, and Absolute Nothingness, are represented as male, and two, Perfection of Insight and Perfection of Charity, as female. While the six Perfections, or Paramitas, are sometimes represented in Nepali book covers as goddesses like Prajnaparamita herself, it is rare indeed to find depictions of the concept of Nothingness (sunyata). Curiously also, Power of Faith has been visualized as an angry god surrounded by a flame aureole. Among the Buddhas are Vairochana, Ratnasambhava, who is shown crowned and bejeweled like a bodhisattva, and Amoghasiddhi. A bodhisattva is portrayed in an unfinished miniature.
The iconography of these illuminations must be regarded as unusual. While some Nepali illuminators attempted to illustrate the text of the Prajnaparamita, in no other tradition was the central metaphysical concept of nothingness given such concrete embodiment as in this unique Tibetan manuscript.
Significant as these illuminations are for students of Buddhist iconography, stylistically and aesthetically as well they are among the most engaging of all Tibetan miniatures. Nine miniatures, including the larger panel representing the worship of Prajnaparamita, are rendered in a uniform style akin to the murals in several contemporary monasteries spread over a wide region of western Tibet, Ladakh, and the western Himalayas of India. Except for Power of Faith, the Buddhas and deities are represented seated on lotuses with multicolored petals whose distintive shapes are seen commonly in contemporary Kashmiri bronzes. Each is also surrounded by a multicolored circular aureole, several of which are filled with gold. Each figure wears beautifully rendered garments, and a brightly colored scarf drapes the shoulders and forms elegant loops that considerably enliven the representation. In general, the colors are much more luminous than those employed in contemporary Pala or Nepali illuminations and have a richer texture. Rich blues and deep magenta reds with an almost enamel finish make the miniatures remarkably vibrant. The outlines are drawn confidently, and subtle shading is employed to impart a sense of volume to the elegant figures with swelling breasts, pinched waistlines, and well-articulated bellies. Most figures are shown en face but not in a rigid stance as are the Buddhas. Altogether, these nine miniatures, reflecting a homogenous style, are among the most vivacious of early Buddhist manuscript illuminations.
Two miniatures are stylistically related to the group of nine but are less sumptuous in their coloring and quite different in their composition. The figures are surrounded by circular aureoles and are placed against an architectural background that seems to serve primarily as a background design. The Buddha is simply superimposed on a multistoried building with curtained eaves. In the other miniature the bodhisattva is placed more naturalistically within a shrine. Unlike the other representation, however, it appears to be unfinished with very pale washes of colors. While the building behind the Buddha reflects the Himalayan architectural style, the bodhisattva’s shrine has parallels in Pala-period miniatures, especially from Bengal. Indeed, the furniture legs represented in both miniatures are similar to those seen in east Indian miniatures. The naturalistic modeling, physical proportions, and facial features of both figures are clearly akin to the figural types in the other group. Whether these two compositions were done at the same time as the others by a different artist or were added somewhat later is not known, although the very distinct use of Color seems to Confirm the latter supposition.
While one scholar has suggested that the group of nine may have been painted in the second half of the tenth century,7 they are unlikely to have been painted after the mideleventh century. Whatever their exact date, along with the west Tibetan murals, they provide evidence for reconstructing the lost style of Kashmiri painting about which later Tibetan tradition makes some perfunctory comments. Certainly, the figures in these miniatures relate closely to contemporary Kashmiri or Kashmir-inspired bronzes. The distinctive modeling of the stomach and other physiognomical features, kind of blouse worn by Prajnaparamita, emphasis on swirling scarves, designs of the crowns, textile patterns, and elongated swelling shapes of the lotuses can all be paralleled in innumerable Kashmiri-style bronzes. Similar sculptural styles also flourished in Himachal Pradesh, especially in Chamba, and artists as well as artworks from these areas could also have penetrated western Tibet. The close stylistic relationship between these miniatures and some eleventh-century murals at Alchi, however, point to Kashmir as the likely stylistic source. These illuminations also clearly demonstrate that the Kashmiri style must have been quite distinct from that encountered in the Gilgit manuscripts. Neither in the figural forms nor brilliance of colors do the paintings on the Gilgit covers come remotely near these sumptuous west Tibetan illuminations. If those covers were, indeed, painted in Gilgit, then one must assume that a local style had developed in the region, which was vaguely related to the Kashmiri style but lacked its aesthetic vivacity and technical finesse. Because of their close kinship with the region’s strongly Kashmiri-style murals, this exhilarating painting style may well be characterized as the Khache- Tibetan style, Khache being the Tibetan expression for Kashmir. No other books illuminated in this distinct style. however, have So far Come to light.
A second style of painting introduced into Tibet during the eleventh century may be designated as the Kadampa style. Kadam was the name of the new religious order founded by the Tibetan disciples of Atisa Dipankara. After three years in Guge, Atisa moved on to central Tibet where he died in 1054 after having firmly reestablished Buddhism in the country. His principal disciple, Dromton. founded the Kadam order as well as the Reting monastery in the north of Lhasa in 1056-57. Other Buddhists, who had survived the persecution of the apostate Langdarma in the ninth century, banded together to form the Nyingma (ancient) order. The Nyingn\a order was also heavily influenced by tantrism as well as the older indigenous religious systems. Two other important religious orders, the Sakya and Kagyu, were also established at this time, and by the end of the twelfth century most important Tibetan monasteries, such as Thel, Drigung, Tshel, and Tshurphu, were founded. Until the reforms carried out by Tsongkhapa (1357-1419) and the establishment of the order that came to be known as Geluk, the Kadam, the Nyingma, the Sakya, and the Kagyu orders remained predominant. The suffix pa added to these names denotes a follower of that order.
Although these four orders were equally active during the early revival of Buddhism in Tibet, the name Kadam pa, to designate the style of painting derived largely from the Pala tradition of eastern India, seems particularly appropriate. One could, of course, refer to it as the Pala-Tibetan style, for the style was not confined only to Kadampa establishments but was also adopted by other orders. Nevertheless, the style must have been introduced by the Kadampas, who naturally enjoyed a somewhat greater eminence than the others because of their direct association with Atisa. Moreover, Atisa must have brought to Tibet books copied and illuminated in the Vikramasila monastery, where he was a distinguished teacher, and may have even brought with him some artists. Certainly, the Pala style was introduced into Tibet in the eleventh century largely due to Atisa’s efforts and thereafter a close relationship developed between the Tibetans and the monastic establishments in eastern India until the latters’ destruction. Because of their leader’s association with the east Indian monasteries, it is not difficult or farfetched to imagine that Kadampa monks would maintain a close relationship with Nalanda, Vikramasila and other monasteries in Bihar and Bengal. This is in fact what they seem to have done according to the Tibetan religious tradition. Thus, although the Pala-Tibetan style of the eleventh and twelfth centuries was adopted by other orders as well, it seems perfectly appropriate to refer to it as the Kadampa style, just as the strongly Nepali style developed between the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries in the major Sakyapa monasteries, although employed by other orders, has come to be known as the Sakyapa style.
The earliest examples of Kadampa-style illuminations occur on two different book covers, probably of the twelfth century. Both are unfortunately rather badly damaged. On one (Pl.38), five deities are represented in a panel with two borders above and below decorated with a concentric circle motif. The central figure is a four-armed pale-yellow goddess whose attributes are not clear but who must represent Prajnaparamita. She is flanked immediately by two Buddhas. The Buddha on her right holds a book in his right hand and represents an unusual monographic form. Only rarely are Buddhas seen holding a book, and in this context the book must represent the Prajnaparamita text itself. The dark figure on the extreme right is the Bodhisattva Vajrapani and that on the extreme left is almost completely effaced. Vajrapani raises the thunderbolt with his right hand as if he is about to hurl it. Between each figure hangs a pendant, which appears to be part of an efflugent thunderbolt. Each figure is seated against a blue-black aureole, outlined with a red inner border and filled with roughly rendered red scrollwork.
The second cover is richly carved on the outside and sumptuously painted on the inside (Pl. 39). The central outside panel, fringed with a row of pearls or beads, contains five seated, crowned, and ornamented Buddhas symbolizing the body of enjoyment (sambhogakaya). Each is surrounded by luxuriantly flamboyant vegetative scroll designs, which emerge from the mouths of three faces of glory (kirttimukha) placed below the Buddhas in the center and to extremities. The same motif also decorates the border between the two rows of pearls. The motif above constitutes the tails of two birds with intertwined necks, while below it appears as the extended and floriated tongue and tails of a stylized lion. On the sides the scrollwork rises as the flourishing tails of two ganders.
The composition and design of the painted inside is identical to the outside, but the details and iconography differ considerably. Five deities (the central figure is completely obliterated) are seated in the posture of grace on cushions and are enclosed by beautifully rendered lotus rhizomes with buds and flowers. Instead of faces of glory, snarling lions are placed below the central and lateral figures. The border is filled with a continuous scroll, which is even more ornate and densely rendered than the motif on the other side. The exact identification of the five figures is difficult to determine, but they all are rather plump, like the figures of Jambhala or Kubera, the god of wealth. A third cover that must be included as an early example is now in the British Museum (fig. 54).8 While the inside is not illuminated, the outside is elaborately carved and painted. Three bodhisattvas are carved on the central panel, the central figure distinguished by being inset in a deeply carved niche. The aureoles of the other two figures are hollowed out somewhat so that the progressive recession between the figure, cushion, and aureole creates a distinct impression of depth. Indeed, this cover is among the most sculptural known so far from Tibet. The design of the shrine of the central deity, who is very likely Maitreya, with the gajasardula motif, makaras with flourishing tails, and face of glory at the apex is very characteristic of Pala stelae. The design of the flamboyant scroll with animals, as well as the workmanship, is remarkably similar to that on the cover with five Buddhas discussed earlier. Two lions, instead of one, confront each other in the bottom border; the ganders remain on the sides; and the intertwining birds are replaced by a face of glory along the top. Interestingly also, the eight auspicious symbols of Buddhism are added among the meandering scroll. Later, these symbols are often carved along the sides of the covers. All the carved figures, scrollwork, animals, and symbols are painted in gold against a red background.
That all three covers are carved and painted in a style derived from the east Indian tradition of the Pala period, especially of Bihar, is incontrovertible. The figural forms, especially of Vajrapani on the first cover with his sickle-shaped body, directly reflect the proportions and angularity characteristic of Pala miniatures. At the same time, the stronger linear definition of the contours is a Nepali trait. In the British Museum cover the design of the shrine around Maitreya (encountered frequently in the margins of Pala manuscripts), ornaments, tiaras, and rather oval faces clearly echo Pala mannerisms. The flamboyant scroll design, however, is derived no doubt from Nepali metal covers (Pl. 26). This is not surprising since Nepali artists have always been retained by Tibetan monasteries and were very likely responsible for carving and painting these extraordinary early Tibetan book covers.
Many examples of Kadampa-style manuscript illuminations have survived. While some manuscripts include several isolated figures on various pages, by and large illustrations are limited to either side of the first two facing pages, as in a complete book in Zurich (Pl. 40), or on the last page. The larger and bolder writing on these two title pages is prominently displayed, unlike the Indo-Nepali tradition, and the miniatures at either end usually portray Buddhas and monks. Indeed, the introduction of portraits of deified teachers — both Indian and Tibetan — is a distinctly Tibetan trait not encountered in any other tradition of manuscript illumination. While most figures are idealized, and their divinity emphasized by halos, some appear to be portraits. Also noteworthy is the fact that while most Buddhas are represented frontally in their hieratically prescribed postures, the monks, without the cranial bumps typical of a Buddha, are shown seated informally and usually turned in three-quarter profile toward the figure of the Buddha. Their postures are clearly derived from earlier Indian or Nepali miniatures representing scenes of discourse (fig. 38).
Among the finest, although enigmatic, examples of Kadampa-style miniatures are those now in the Virtue Collection in Australia (Pl. 41). The exact function of these pictures, executed on small pieces of paper, remains uncertain. John Guy has suggested that they may have “served as independent folios, perhaps as images for household shrines.”9 Certainly, their highly finished condition makes it unlikely, although not improbable, that they were inserted in images or stupas. Some smaller figures, cursively drawn in the Kadampa style, were almost certainly inserted in an image or stupa and are now in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.10 Painted fragments with writing on both sides may have been mounted on textile frames as a string of images or sewn onto a manuscript page. Pages of at least one manuscript have survived where the illustrations seem to have been drawn on individual pieces of paper and then sewn onto the book, like tipped-in color plates in modern publications (fig. 57 and Pl. 45].
Of the four pictures, the two illustrated here are the more interesting as they depict two teachers, one representing a religious personage wearing a broad-brimmed yellow hat generally worn by Tibetan monks while traveling and a yellow cloak, while the other is identified by the accompanying label simply as a siddha (a perfected being] apparently discoursing before a disciple. A fifth miniature, not published by Guy, depicts two tantric deities in a vigorous sexual embrace (yab-yum].
In discussing the date and style of these engaging miniatures, Guy writes:
The archaic style of these paintings, particularly the rath er schematized tonal modelling, suggests a Ladakhi provenance as does the lingering convention for the three- quarter profile with slightly protruding eye. This feature, and the angularity of the jaw, bear close comparison to a mural at Lakhang Soma temple at Alchi, Ladakh, dated to the thirteenth century.... The workmanship, chromatic m quality, and paleography all however suggest a late date, 18th or more probably 19th century, thus confirming the conservative nature of Ladakhi Buddhist art.11
It is difficult to see why Guy considers the style to be archaic, even though he correctly suggests that the pictures are close to the thirteenth-century murals in the Lakhang Soma shrine at Alchi. Indeed, compared with the provincial quality of those murals, these miniatures are rendered in the sophisticated Kadampa style encountered in the twelfth-thirteenth century illuminations on the covers discussed. Perhaps Guy was influenced by his identification of the yellow-robed and hatted figure as a monk of the Gelukpa sect founded by Tsongkhapa.
This is, however, by no means certain, and the person may not, in fact, be a monk, but a married Sakyapa hierarch. Moreover, the figurative forms of the Buddha, bodhisattva Prajnaparamita, seated devotee, and deities in yab-yum cannot be paralleled in Tibetan paintings of the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries, either in Ladakh or Central Tibet. On the contrary, these figures are remarkably related to those encountered in Kadampa-style paintings. The paleography, quality of workmanship, and color tonality, too, point to an earlier date. The rendering of the flame behind the yab-yum deities strongly echoes the Pala mode of delineating this motif. The extension of the further eye beyond the outline of the face is also an early rather than late feature. Thus, a date in the thirteenth or fourteenth century for these lively miniatures seems more appropriate than the eighteenth or nineteenth century.
Also from about the same date is a remarkably well- preserved book cover painted with forty-four Buddhas, indentical except for their gestures (Pl. 42). They possibly symbolize the concept of one-thousand Buddhas. Whatever their exact monographic significance, the group presents a striking composition. Although not quite as sophisticated as the miniatures discussed earlier, the drawing is vigorous and colors bright and vibrant. Despite the repetition of the Buddha image, the total effect of the pale yellow figures with their black hair, red robes, alternately blue and red lotuses, and green cushions enlivened with a scroll design is both harmonious and pleasing.
The earliest and finest example of a book cover painted in the Sakyapa style is now preserved in the British Museum (fig. 55).12 The fact that the central figure on the inside is the goddess Prajnaparamita indicates that the cover belonged to a text of the same name. The outside is carved with images of the Buddha, and the painted illuminations on the inside are not only well preserved but are rendered with great delicacy and finesse. From their very beginning, the Sakyapa establishments were partial to Nepali artists, and, hence, the early works of this school through the sixteenth century reveal the unusually strong influence of the Nepali aesthetic. As a matter of fact, except for the size of this cover and inclusion of the Tibetan monks, one could hardly distinguished between the divine figures represented here and those encountered in contemporary Nepali paintings. Both in workmanship and style these miniatures are remarkably similar to the paubhas as well as several illuminated manuscripts of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.
Against a background speckled with tiny flowers, the goddess is regally seated on a throne, the elaborate design of which is derived ultimately from Pala images. Nevertheless, a comparison with the throne on a Kadampa-style cover reveals the subtle differences between the Pala and Nepali modes of expression. The curtain above is also more characteristic of the Nepali tradition, as are the garments and ornaments worn by the various deities. The stances of the standing bodhisattvas, as well as the shapes and features of the faces, are also typically Nepali. The carefully drawn outlines of the soft and rounded figures and greater dependence on linear modeling are other features reflecting Nepali rather than Pala influences. Even more characteristically Nepali is the attempt to model the darker figures, such as the two bodhisattvas seated in the inner panels of the bottom row, by modulating the tonality of their complexion. This perfunctory attempt at suggesting volume of the darker figures remained a hallmark of Sakyapa-style thankas and murals through the fifteenth century. The almost invariable inclusion of monks and teachers in such paintings clearly demonstrates why a fifteenth- century Nepali artist had to go to Tibet and fill his sketchbook with models of such figures.
Two more covers, now in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (fig. 56 and Pl. 43) are somewhat later in date but are painted in the same basic style with richly figural compositions. Since the Goddess Prajnaparamita is the dominant figure on one of the covers, very likely, it belonged to a Prajnaparamita manuscript. Here, too, she is similarly enthroned but flanked by two elaborate shrines crowned with stupas imitating the style of temple architecture popular in Pala eastern India and Pagan in Burma. Within one shrine is a Buddha and in the other a bodhisattva, both with subsidiary figures. Two Tibetan monks, wearing red hats, and angels hover in the sky above the shrines. On either side are three rows of monks—in the bottom register—and bodhisattvas, each separated by detailed columns crowned with stupas. On the second cover the central figure is a bodhisattva, very likely Manjusri, flanked by two more bodhisattvas. Here the elaborate shrine imitates the typically Nepali temples with slightly curved eaves. The enshrined Manjusri is flanked by six standing goddesses holding flowers and adoring the bodhisattva. Of the four figures above, three are certainly mortals, although deified, and the fourth wearing a tiara is perhaps a bodhisattva. Noteworthy is the turban on one of the seated figures. Such turbans were usually worn in western Tibet (cf. Pl. 45). The two panels at the far ends of the bottom register are filled with three protective deities on the left and a scene of worship with a lay devotee, presumably the donor, on the right. The area above on both sides is enlivened with dancing goddesses and celestial beings adorning Manjusri as they float down in rather curiously designed clouds. These cloud formations are encountered in other Nepali paintings of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries before the Chinese cloud motif was accepted.
Because of the monks, it can be reasonably assumed that the manuscript belonged to a Sakyapa monastery. The painting style is strongly Nepali, as expected in a Sakyapa establishment. The neat, formal organization of the figures in registers was characteristic of early Nepali paintings as is the penchant for employing various shades of red as the primary color. The outside of the cover with Manjusri was left unadorned, but the other cover is richly embellished with a border of lotus petals enclosing a wide panel of deeply carved, stylized Lantsa lettering spelling out the conventional Mahayana creed beginning with the words ye dharma.
Some stray pages of a dharani manuscript, now in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and in private collections, can with some degree be attributed to the Shalu monastery because of the inclusion of a portrait of Buton Rinpoche (1290- 1364), an eminent polymath and founder of a subschool of the Sakya order whose followers are known as Shalupa (Pl. 44). At the ends of each page are two illuminations depicting various Vajrayana deities and Nagarjuna. Although more than one Indian teacher of that name is known, very likely the idealized portrait is that of the great Madhyamika philosopher who lived in the second century. Because one component of his name includes the word nag a, meaning snake, and because he is said to have recovered the Prajnaparamita text from the world of the serpents, he is usually distinguished by a multihooded snake canopy.
That these well-executed and lively miniatures were rendered in the fifteenth century can be ascertained by a comparison with contemporary murals, both in the Gyantse (a Sakyapa establishment) and Shalu monasteries, and various other Tibetan and Nepali pictures of the same period. The woodblock prints of the 1410 Kanjur (“commentaries” of cannonical literature) in the Sino-Tibtan style also offer close stylistic parallels for these and other contemporary Sakyapa paintings.13
More difficult to ascribe geographically are two stray folios from a Prajnaparamita manuscript, also in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (fig. 57 and Pl. 45). Both are somewhat damaged, the title page being better preserved. Characteristic of Tibetan manuscripts, the title of the text is written in bold, beautiful letters in yellow and gold with red accents, which stand out strikingly against the black paper. A Buddha and a monk are represented on one page. On the other, more damaged page is a figure of a bodhisattva and a rectangular panel containing a monk preaching to an audience of nine figures seated in a row. The preacher and his audience are separated by various ritual implements. Curiously, except for the third figure, all wear striking red and white turbans. The monk wears a red inner robe, yellow outer garment, and wide- brimmed red hat. Moreover, the leader of the row of laymen is seated cross-legged like the monk and displays the gesture of discourse with his two hands. It would thus appear that he is engaged in a dialogue with the monk. The others hold their hands in the gesture of worship, with the second figure holding a red flower between his palms. All also wear large rings on both ears, except for the third bare-headed figure who wears a larger ring only in his right ear. A small canopy of a multicolored diamond pattern hangs above the ritual implements.
Although the smaller miniatures are rendered in the characteristically Nepali or Sakyapa manner of the fifteenth century, the panel represents an enigmatic style. The background is rendered green, thereby perhaps indicating an outdoor scene, rather than the ubiquitous blue favored by Nepali artists. While some ritual implements are of Nepali design, the supports are of the same form as in the much earlier Guge representation of Prajnaparamita (fig. 53). The facial features and hands are drawn in the Nepali manner, but the slightly bloated faces are quite distinct, reminiscent of facial types seen in contemporary or earlier Guge paintings. The monk’s hat is also seen more often in west Tibetan paintings as are the turbans. The design of the turbans, however, is quite unusual as are the large earrings. Somewhat similar turbans and earrings are worn by some figures in the eleventh-century murals at Alchi.14 Incidentally, five of the lay personages wear bright red garments, but the others are attired in yellow, blue, mauve, and green jackets with red cloaks. The artist has attempted to suggest the volume of the jackets by highlighting the folds. Thus, while the exact provenance of these two stray folios is not certain, a west Tibetan origin seems likely.
A stray manuscript page with two relatively large illuminated panels, now in a private collection, presents a curious style for which exact parallels have not yet been found either in Tibetan thankas or extant murals (Pl. 46 and fig. 58).15 In both a central panel containing an image of a Buddha and bodhisattva is surrounded by adoring Buddhas and monks. In the illumination with the Buddha appear at least three Buddhas, distinguished by the sacred bump on the heads, and six monks; one figure is badly damaged. All ten figures surrounding the bodhisattva are Buddhas. These Buddhas and monks sit on lotuses, the interconnecting stems of which form circles around them, and adore the central figure. The central figure stands in pronounced dehanchement against a dark background filled with a floral design in red and white. The borders of the aureole, halo, and panel in the two pictures are adorned with different designs.
While some details may be paralleled in other styles, there can be little doubt that here we are witnessing the work of a highly individual artist. The figures strike exaggerated postures seen in Pala illuminations, but their forms, proportions, and accoutrements are distinctly different. The attempt at modeling the bodhisattva’s figure with tonal variations is somewhat reminiscent of west Tibetan or Kashmiri styles, but the faces are Nepali. The arrangement of the bodhisattva’s hair in neat, clearly separated strands is also encountered in west Tibetan paintings. The manner of enclosing figures in intertwining tendrills was favored by Sakyapa school artists and is as well a prominent feature of early west Tibetan murals. The sectarian affiliation of the monks is not identified, which would indicate an early rather than late date. In any event, a west Tibetan provenance seems highly probable for this unusual, somewhat coarse, but vivacious style. Whatever the exact provenance, the illuminations cannot be dated later than the fourteenth century.
Among the finest examples of the Sakyapa-style miniatures are four panels decorating the first two pages of a beautifully written Prajnaparamita manuscript now in the Ellsworth collection, New York (fig. 59 and Pl. 47]. The outside of the covers are handsomely decorated with carved floral designs painted in gold. The cover with vase and lotuses is also painted in red and gold with half-circles around the central panel. The title page, as usual, includes images of the Buddha and Prajnaparamita. In the second page is a formal figure of a bodhisattva in one panel, but the other with two figures is the liveliest composition among the four. A male, presumably a bodhisattva, seated informally with his body slightly turned toward the center of the page, is engaged in offering a flower or jewel. An attractively modeled lady, also nimbate, bends over his shoulders in supplication. That both figures are happy is clear from their smiling countenances. Objects placed in the composition include a pot with three jewels, parasol, banner, two kinds of lotuses, and canopy. Although both figures are given halos and attired and ornamented exactly like the bodhisattva, neither the curtain nor the spray of flowers is included above the couple as they are in the three other compositions.
These illuminations were, without doubt, painted by a Nepali artist. Stylistically, they are extremely close to the Nepali miniatures of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries (Pl. 24, 26-27). The colors, especially the red, have the same tonality as seen in Nepali paintings, but the palette reflects a greater diversity than that encountered in early Nepali miniatures. Although the textiles and ornaments are rendered in great detail, their execution lacks the subtle finesse of the earlier illuminations. This becomes clear if one compares these illuminations with the sumptuous thanka of Tara, now in the Cleveland Museum of Art.16 There, too, are found garments and a multicolored lotus, where every detail has been articulately and meticulously rendered. Here, however, the rendering is neither as detailed nor careful. Noteworthy also are the two floral decorations above the Buddha’s ears, an unusual devise for early Nepali painting. Three similar floral decorations, however, are added to the hair of a Bhaishajyaguru in a thanka now in the Binney collection.17 The thanka was very likely painted toward the end of the fifteenth or beginning of the sixteenth century, although the exact location is not known. Indeed, the miniatures in the Ellsworth manuscript are stylistically very close to the Binney thanka, and hence a similar date seems acceptable.
As had already been made clear, the Tibetans were particularly fond of carved book covers, a practice that was virtually unknown in either India or Nepal. The carved images and decorations were often embellished further with gilding and pigments, so that the total effect was quite sumptuous. One of the most elaborately ornate of such covers is that at the British Museum (fig. 60), where the carver obviously suffered from horror vacuii. Hardly an inch of space is left empty, and the entire surface is filled with luxuriant vegetal motifs meandering along the surface and enclosing images of gods and monks as well as lively representations of animals. Only because the five major figures are placed within recessed niches do their forms attain clear relief. The monks and mahasiddhas along the top and side are almost obscured by the dense foliage.
One of the most unusual wood covers, probably of the sixteenth century, depicts scenes from the life of the Buddha (fig. 61). This cover is unique in many ways. Unlike most other such covers, the figures have been carved through completely and thereby acquire a stronger relief when the cover is held up and viewed. Some Tibetan covers are so adorned with Brahmi letters, but this is the only instance of such depiction of figural forms. A detailed discussion of this fascinating cover must be postponed for another occasion since the life scenes themselves offer unusual iconographic features requiring further study. The scenes are represented in clearly separated panels and include the Buddha’s encounter with the four sights, departure from the palace, enlightenment, and mahaparinirvana.
Frequently, the Tibetans enriched their covers by a delightful combination of carved and painted designs. While generally the outside of a cover is carved and the inside painted, often the outside is carved, painted, and gilded to create a dazzling effect. The example illustrated here (Pl. 48) has a carved central panel with a luxuriantly flowering auspicious vase. The articulated forms highlighted with gold gain added prominence with the painted segments of concentric circles of red and black with gold cones and floral designs. Apart from carved and painted covers, the Tibetans also enclosed the cover in repousse metal panels, as did the Nepalis. Although the craftsmen often were Newars, the metal covers clearly show that the Tibetans had very different taste—as may be seen from an eighteenth-century example in Leiden (fig. 62). On the whole, Tibetans seem to have given more attention to their book covers than most other Buddhists.
Sixteenth through Nineteenth Centuries
While many different painting styles can be recognized in the murals and countless thankas created in the country during this period, the tradition of manuscript illumination on the whole remained conservative. For example, the most significant feature of the Tibetan painting of this period was the introduction of landscape elements, which may have been borrowed from the Chinese tradition but which were recombined and reinterpreted in a characteristically Tibetan style. Little influence of this style is visible in manuscript illuminations simply because subjects that employ landscape components in thankas were not included in the illuminators’ repertoire. Narrative themes, such as the avadanas and jatakas, or various hagiographies, appear to have been more popular with thanka painters, and books containing these themes were not illustrated, although there are a few exceptions. Generally, the Tibetans continued to illuminate the title pages of their manuscripts, such as the Prajnaparamita, some dharani texts,, as well as sections of the Kanjur or Tanjur, consisting of compilations of the scriptures, with hieratic representations of the Buddha and other deities. Indeed, throughout their history the Tibetans seem not to have been influenced at all by Chinese book illustrations. For example, the Lotus Sutra, so popular in China, seems not to have had the same appeal for the Tibetans. While the Tibetans continued to zealously copy books well into the twentieth century, during this period woodblock printing gained popularity, and even the outlines of thankas of popular subjects were produced by this method and then filled in with colors. Woodblocks were also used to print books in Mongolia during the period [fig. 63).
Two pages of a manuscript of the Kanjur clearly demonstrate that, while the illuminations were rendered in different styles, which are now more easily distinguishable from the Nepali-dominated Sakyapa style, the aesthetic intent and compositional formulae did not change (fig. 64). The figures are still placed at the extremeties of the page, although some books, like that in Brussels (fig. 65), have more illustrations than others. The first two pages of the Kanjur mansucript not only include hieratic representations, but the surrounding areas have been enriched with floral borders and mazelike geometrical forms. The pages of the Brussels manuscript are further beautified with borders wrapped in Chinese brocade (see Chapter 6).
The Brussels manuscript remains one of the finest examples of later Tibetan illuminated books (fig. 65a-b). Each Buddha and deity is placed against a background filled with clouds derived from the Chinese tradition. In two illustrations the artist has placed two Buddhas among trees and mountain peaks in a sketchy landscape setting, a mode that became characteristic of Tibetan painting from the seventeenth century. Indeed, in the meticulous rendering of details and carefully drawn outlines, these illuminations may well be regarded as miniature thankas.
One of the most luxuriant title pages is that now preserved in Tibet House Museum, New Delhi (fig. 66). All letters and much of the illuminations are rendered in high relief in gesso, and gold paint has been liberally used. In the central panel the raised letters adorned with pearl garlands along the top and the various auspicious symbols, including a choten, are superimposed on a gold-trimmed cloud pattern. Above, separated from the central panel by a narrow border filled with lotus motifs, is a face of glory pulling from his mouth vegetal scrolls. Below are large lotus petals richly embroidered along the edges. On either side are enthroned images of the Buddha Sakyamuni on the left and Tsongkhapa, founder of the Gelukpa sect on the right. Bowls of gems are placed below each throne. Thus, although we do not know the exact title of this Mahayana sutra, the manuscript once belonged to a monastery of the Gelukpa order.
A firmly datable document of seventeenth-century illuminations is a mansucript prepared around 1630 probably for the last ruler of Guge, Chogyal Chenpo Tashi Dagpa lde (died 1630).18 The prominently lettered title pages contain a eulogy of this monarch who became unpopular with the monks for welcoming the Portuguese Jesuits in 1625 and was deposed in 1630 (fig. 67). Various deities and two red-capped monks are portrayed in the first six leaves, while in the last an audience, including probably the king, listens to a preaching monk on the right. The text is written in gold letters on black pages, while the figures are delicately rendered in gold with the garments and appurtenances painted in red. The style, essentially linear and graphic, was also popular during this period in central Tibet.
An extraordinary example of an illuminated Tibetan book has recently been acquired by a private collector. Not only is the book copiously illustrated with beautifully rendered miniatures (pis. 49-50), but it depicts themes that are unlikely to be
repeated in other manuscripts. The esoteric nature of such a book is clear from the warning provided in the colophon about the indiscriminate publication of this material.19 Several dates are mentioned in the text, the latest being 1673. Therefore, the manuscript was completed either in that year or shortly thereafter. The illustrations were apparently prepared by Guru rTa-grin of gZis-ka sar, but the identity of the author has not yet been ascertained.
The material contained in the book consists largely of Nyingmapa teachings and personal visions of the fifth Dalai Lama (1617-1682). Some of these visionary experiences occurred between the years 1622 and 1672/73, when the account was compiled, and others, between the years 1673 and 1680. Apart from illustrating these experiences, the illuminations are of various ritual implements and mandalas employed in several different rites connected with the deities Remati, Hayagriva, Vajrakila, and other tantric empowerments.
The conventional images of the Buddhas, deities, and teachers are, as is customary in Tibetan manuscripts, placed at either end, usually two to a page. These are rendered in the typical style of the period, with some figures seated against aureoles radiating golden rays in a landscape suggested by sloping bluish green mountains. The sky is a deep indigo blue, and generally the colors are bright and vivid as in central Tibetan paintings of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. While some teachers’ portraits are conventional images, one or two seem to be drawn from life (Pl. 49a-b). Far more interesting however, are the renderings of the ritual implements and mandalas (Pl. 50). Most are beautifully drawn and lightly colored. Placed against the black background, they create an unusually forceful and dramatic impact. In technique they are similar to the black thankas known as gser thang and used generally in the gonkhang, special chapels dedicated to protective deities. Rendered largely in red or gold outlines and highlighted with subtle touches of colors, they depend entirely on their effective contrast with the black background to create images of extraordinary expressiveness. Most such paintings in this book are accommodated in pages without any writing, which also enhances their visual impact. Many compositions straddle several consecutive pages and are, therefore, of impressive size. Highly imaginative and bizarre, these images and forms provide a wealth of material for the student of tantric rites and iconography. Although they are largely monographic, their great variety, incredibly rich details, astonishing fluency, subtle draftsmanship, and compellingly evocative powers place these illuminations among the most exciting examples of later Tibetan tradition.
By now it will be apparent that Tibetans do not seem to have paid much attention to narrative themes. Indeed, most books appear to have been illuminated with hieratic images of Buddhas, bodhisattvas, and eminent teachers and saints, whether real or legendary. Occasionally, however, a manuscript is illuminated with narrative themes. Three pages from a biography of the great Tibetan saint Milarepa (1040-1123), now in the Newark Museum, are almost casually illustrated with haphazardly distributed vignettes, as was done in earlier Central Asian manuscripts. Nevertheless, these unframed sketches are quite lively and graphically illustrate incidents of the saint’s life. Generally sparse and succinct, at least one composition is rather more elaborate and even includes a picturesque mountainscape. Similar landscapes are also used by another contemporary artist in battle scenes drawn on stray pages, now in a private collection (fig. 70). The armored cavalrymen are identified by inscription, and very likely these illuminated folios without texts once belonged to a manuscript of the popular Tibetan epic of the hero Gesar of Ling.20 Rather unusual is the fact that each battle scene occupies the entire page. This mode of representation and style were very likely adopted from Chinese narrative hand scrolls. Late as they are, these stray leaves may even preserve memories of a lost Central Asian painting style. In any event, the representations are remarkably spirited, and by restraining his use of colors the unknown artist has given us unusually realistic and expressive scenes of combat.
While the Tibetans were avid collectors, copyists, and translators of the sacred Buddhist texts and obviously possessed large collections of Indian and Nepali manuscripts, they developed an independent tradition of illumination that owed little to the Indo-Nepali or Chinese traditions. They also seem to have been more interested in lettering and rubrics, and paid much attention to the title pages of their manuscripts. While they did adorn their books with divine images, they were also partial to their deified monks, who were often included in the illuminations. The Prajnaparamita was certainly a popular book, but in illuminating the manuscripts of this text they followed neither the Indian nor Nepali traditions. At least one eleventh-century Prajnaparamita manuscript remains unique for the iconography and style of illumination, as does the remarkably rich late seventeenth-century illuminated book recording the fifth Dalai Lama’s vision.
In conclusion, a few words should be said about the Mongolian tradition of manuscript illumination. Although some Mongolians came into contact with Tibetan Buddhism as early as the midthirteenth century, the expansion of Lamaism into Mongolia did not really begin until the midsixteenth century. In 1576 Sonam Gyatsho (1543-1588), the head of the Geluk sect in Tibet, visited Mongolia and met with Altan Khan. It was this Mongolian ruler who conferred the title of Dalai Lama upon Sonam Gyatsho and built the first Lamaist monasteries at Kuei-hua (Koke Khota). Translations of Tibetan texts into Mongolian also began in earnest thereafter. Finally, between 1628 and 1629, all of the texts translated since 1580, as well as works surviving from the Yuan dynasty (1279-1368), were revised, edited, and compiled into a canon of 113 volumes in the Mongolian language.
Very little is known about Mongolian manuscript illumination. Most familiar examples are woodblock prints, and generally, the title page is adorned with two end pictures, as may be seen in a woodblock (fig. 63). Two beautifully painted pages now in the Brooklyn Museum (fig. 68) are among the finest examples of Mongolian manuscript illuminations. They are closely related in style to the eighteenth-century illuminated title page of a Prajnaparamita manuscript in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London,21 as well as to the Brussels manuscript (fig. 65). That manuscript, however, is written in Tibetan, and only the title page is Mongolian. In any event, a comparison of the woodblock with the Brooklyn pages clearly demonstrates that they are all executed in the same style, which is derived from that which was followed at the time in the Gelukpa monasteries of Central Tibet but particularly in Tashilunpo. Characteristic of Sino-Tibetan manuscripts of this period, the edges are wrapped in Chinese brocade, while yellow silk damask covers protect the pictures as in Tibetan thankas.