Navin Kumar Gallery

Visions and Visualizations


Tibetan paintings
Table of Contents:
Front matter
0 Preface
1 Introduction
2 Visions and Visualizations
3 Kadampa Style
4 Sakyapa Style
5 Thankas from Western Tibet
6 Landscape Tradition
7 Age of the Dalai Lama
8 Appendix
Color Plates
Monochrome Figures

The images now peaceful, now terrific, seem to jump up alive before your eyes to crowd on you like ghosts and to engrave themselves mercilessly into the bottom of your subconscious so as to haunt your dreams as well. . . On one side the smile of Lord Buddha suggesting unruffled peace and triumph over the conflicting opposites of life - on the other side, or rather side by side with it, the sneer of the demons reflected in the senseless turmoil of the human subconscious. Tucci 1956, p. 42

Giuseppe Tucci

Most thankas discussed and illustrated in this book depict Buddhist themes. Although thankas are also used by the Bonpos, who are followers of the principal non-Buddhist religion in Tibet, both their style and iconography are closely dependent on Buddhist thankas. The form of Buddhism that provided the rich world of imagery in the thanka is known as Vajrayāna. The religion was imported from India, as were its gods and goddesses. However, the vast Vajrayāna pantheon was further expanded in Tibet with the incorporation of native divinities, spirits and demons so that Tibetan Buddhist art reflects a much wider range of subjects than does, for instance, the art of Nepali Buddhism. In addition, the Tibetans loved to depict both historical and mythological personages, as well as legends and spiritual biographies of their saints and teachers, and these have considerably enriched the Tibetan artist’s repertoire. As a matter of fact, in no other country does Buddhist painting reflect such a wide variety of themes and styles as does that of Tibet. Images of Vajrayāna deities mingle with local gods and spirits in the arts of China, Japan and Nepal; mandalas are not uncommon in the arts of all three countries; and arhats (or lohans) and patriarchs are prominent in Chinese and Japanese art; but, to my knowledge, only in the thankas do we find exciting portraits of mahasiddhas, richly detailed biographical paintings of eminent saints, jātakas and avadānas depicted in delicately rendered landscape and mandalas of almost endless variety.

A thanka is the combined effort of the mystic and the artist. The gods and goddesses, the spirits and demons that populate the thanka reflect the mystical visions of the monks and theologians, while their visualizations reveal the imaginative powers and artistic skills of the painters. Known as dhyana or sadhana in Sanskrit, these visions were incorporated in Tibetan canonical texts and provided the artist with the skeleton or infrastructure for his images. Many of the dhyanas were composed by well-known mystics and doubtlessly represented their personal experiences. In other instances, the deities appeared before the mystic in a direct trance or vision, as did Christ before St. Paul. In still others, the mystics saw the divine figures in dreams, and undoubtedly composed the dhyanas upon waking up. One or two examples of such dreams and visions will help the reader to understand this religious phenomenon better.

One of the most important guardian deities of Tibet is Mahākāla, several of whose representations are included here (Pls. 13-14, 27-28). According to the Sakyapas, who are especially partial to this deity, his cult was brought to Tibet from India by the famous Rinchen Sangpo (954-1055), who played a large role in reviving Buddhism in the country. On instructions from his Kashmiri guru, Sraddhakaravarman, Rinchen Sangpo went to a cemetery near the temple of Bodhgaya in Bihar and performed certain rites. Thereafter, he heard a fearful sound as though two tigers had leapt on a large human corpse and were devouring it. Then he returned to the Guardian Temple at Bodhgaya, and taking as his model the sound of the tigers eating the corpse, he praised the Goddess of Hobgoblin Form (Sringzugs-ma) with the fierce intonation of a tigress. Thus at twilight on the third day he beheld the form of Mahākāla in the act of trampling upon a dwarf and holding a knife and a skull, one above the other, level with his heart and a ganti held control in his hands. He fell momentarily unconscious. Snellgrove and Skorupski 1980, pp. 99 - 100

Pl. 13
Central Tibet (Kagyupa monastery?)
ca 1200
19 x 15 cm
Private Collection
Pl. 14
Ladakh (Alchi, Lakhang Soma)
Early 13th century
Pl. 27
Mahakala and companions
Central Tibet (Sakyapa monastery)
15th century
53 x 45 cm.
Private Collection

Pl. 28
Mahakala and companions
Central Tibet (Sakyapa monastery)
15th century
55.9 x 44.5 cm.
Private Collection

Even a glance at the various representations of Mahākāla in his Gur-mgon aspect will make it clear how closely dependent they are on such mystical visions. One of the recurring themes in the hagiography of monks and mystics, both in India and Tibet, is the appearance of deities in dreams. For instance, once the great Tibetan yogi and mystical poet Milarepa (1040-1123) was given some advice by a dākinī in a dream. ‘She was blue as the sky, and beautiful in her brocade dress and bone ornaments, her eyebrows and lashes sparkling with light.’ Lhalungpa, 81 Or again, Tsongkhapa is supposed to have dictated instructions for the murals in a particular temple according to the visions he had seen in a dream. Tucci, 1949, p. 281

Many of the dhyānas of the deities, which served as the verbal models for the artists, were very likely based on the forms that such saints and mystics experienced in their dreams. The descriptions are usually very precise and were followed meticulously by the artist. This becomes quite evident if we compare the following description of Mahākāla with his representation in a thanka (Pl. 27). The text tells us that Mahākāla should be as dark as the water-laden cloud; his raised hair should be adorned with a diadem of skulls. Fangs should be prominently displayed in his mouth and he should wear a tiger skin. His ornaments are to include serpents and a garland of skullcaps. He should be depicted as rising from a corpse, a detail that explains why in most such Tibetan depictions, the god is always portrayed with his knees bent, as if he is about to rise. His attributes are of course the chopper and the skull cup. The cemetery is his habitat, while along the bottom of the thanka should be shown the five dancing yoginis known as Kālī, Karālī, Varālī, Kanakālī and Mahākālī. Of course, we are further told that ‘One who is persistently a hater of the preceptor and is adversely disposed towards the three jewels (Buddha, Dharma and Samgha) and immolates many animals is eaten up raw by Mahākāla.’ Bhattacharya 1968, Vol. 2, p. 586

A comparison of the above description with the thanka makes it clear that the artist generally followed the dhyāna quite literally. He had no freedom to deviate significantly from the iconographic precepts of his religious traditions, but this does not imply that such detailed injunctions inhibited his style. How the artists deviated from instructions and followed different traditions is discussed by Peterson On the contrary, Tibetan painting offers us an astonishing variety of styles and manners which clearly demonstrate the fact that even the most stringent iconographic tradition cannot stifle the creative impulse of the artist as long as the source of his faith has not dried up.

It goes without saying that every detail of a painting has some symbolic significance. It will not be possible here to delve into the extraordinarily complex and potent realm of symbolism but a few observations may be useful. In general, images of deities, whether painted or sculpted, are meant only for the initiated and adept. They are intended to help him or her achieve that state of concentration in which such external symbols can be dispensed with altogether. That such objects were not to be seen by the eyes of the uninitiated is clear from the following passage of the Hevajratantra:

But if someone unworthy should see either book or painting, one will fail to gain perfection either in this world or the next. To one of our tradition it may be shown at any time. Snellgrove 1959 I: p. 115

The purpose of any ritual involving art, mantra and, at the higher stages, meditation, is to remove the film of ignorance that obscures the bodhicitta (mind of enlightenment) which is Clear Light. However, as Milarepa warns us one must not ‘mistake the psychic experience of illumination itself for Transcendental Wisdom.’ ‘The Awareness of Voidness,’ he continues, ‘is limpid and transparent, yet vivid.’ Chang: p. 128

Pl. 23
Hevajra in yab-yum
Central Tibet (Sakyapa monastery)
14th century
61 x48 cm.
Private Collection
It is clear therefore that where the supreme objective is to achieve the state of śūnyatā (voidness or nothingness), the forms of gods and goddesses cannot in themselves be real. Rather, when a god such as Hevajra is seen in an ecstatic sexual embrace with his spouse (Pl. 23), both figures symbolize two very basic concepts of Vajrayāna Buddhism. The female deity in such pair always symbolizes wisdom or knowledge (prajñā), intuitive rather than discursive, and the male signifies the means (upāya), which is compassion, whereby one attains enlightenment. It is through the union of these two categories that one achieves the calm and nonpolar state of śūnyatā. Two of the most important implements of Vajrayāna ritual, often held by deities as attributes, are the thunderbolt (vajra) and the bell (ghantā); the former symbolizes compassion and the latter wisdom. Similarly, other implements too are symbolical of metaphysical truths. Thus the Hevajratantra tells us that:

The knife is there to cut off the six defects of pride and so on, and the skull for bringing to an end discriminating thought which would regard existence and non-existence as essentially different. ... The khatṿānga, the skull-adorned staff, represents the void and the corpse is understood as Means. Snellgrove 1959 I: p. 75

Elsewhere, however, we are told that the corpse below the feet of the wrathful deities signifies the threefold world, which is further symbolized by the circle of eight cemeteries that often surround a mandala. The mandala itself is a cosmogram and represents the essence of bodhicitta as well as the celestial Palace of the divinities. Ultimately, of course, the body itself is the best mandala for Vajrayāna Buddhism believes that ‘all beings are potential buddhas.’ In general it may be emphasized that all deities are only aspects of śūnyatā and are given multiple arms and legs to symbolize their cosmic nature. This is one of the many characteristics that the Buddhist gods and goddesses share with their Hindu counterparts. Similarly, the angry manifestations, which are particularly predominant in Tibetan art, do not represent ‘demons,’ as they are often wrongly described, but portray what is commonly designated as the mysterium tremendum. They are the other side of the coin, so to speak, and represent the ‘wrath of god.’

It would be wrong to suppose that such symbolic meanings of the imagery were clear to the artists. Ideally of course the artist himself was expected to be an adept and a yogi. In the Hevajratantra, when the goddess asks Hevajra to explain who is qualified to make a painting, the god replies:

By a painter who belongs to our tradition, by a yogin of our tradition, this fearful painting should be done and it should be painted with five colours reposing in a human skull and with a brush made from the hair of a corpse. Snellgrove 1959 I: p. 114

In point of fact, apart from some monks who were accomplished artists, most painters in Tibet were ordinary mortals. As in other traditional societies, they learned their craft through diligent practice, and those that were especially gifted in turn became masters and taught others.

That the artist in Tibet practiced like their counterparts in other societies and used sketches and drawings as models is evident from a number of documents that have recently come to light. A small piece of cloth, recently acquired by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, has rapidly-sketched figures of mahāsiddhas on both sides (Figs. 2 and 3), with some notes in Tibetan for their identification. Clearly such sketches were kept in the artist’s families as visual models for the large sets of eighty-four mahasiddhas that were popular with the Tibetans. Two more important documents, belonging to the fifteenth and the seventeenth centuries, were prepared by Newari artists on their visits to Tibet.

Fig. 2
Mahasiddha Sengepa
Central or Eastern Tibet
ca. 1650
20 x 20.3 cm
Los Angeles County Museum of Art
Gift of Dr. and Mrs. Pal in memory of A. Quincy Jones

Fig. 3
Binapa and an unknown Mahasiddha
Reverse of Fig. 2

Fig. 4
Jivarama, Newari (active ca. 1435)
Mahakala, Lhamo and Mahasiddhas
Pages from a Folding Sketchbook
Central Tibet (Gyantse?), dated 1435
Ink on paper
ave. page: 13 x 23.2 cm
S. K. Neotia Collection, Calcutta

Fig. 5
From the same sketchbook as Fig. 4

One of these was executed by one Jīvarāma in 1435 A.D. on a visit to a place called Gayāchonabhota after consultation with Lalachunava. The place may well have been Gyantse in central Tibet, while Lālāchunava was probably a Tibetan monk. That Jīvarāma collaborated with an educated Tibetan, probably a monk, is evident from the fact that the figures are identified both in Tibetan and Newari.

The folios illustrated here (Figs. 4 and 5) clearly represent figures from Tibetan iconography who are not generally depicted in Nepali art. A comparison with Gyantse Kumbum murals (Pls. 20-21) also demonstrates their close stylistic relationship and Jīvarāma may well have been one of the Newari artists who were responsible for some of the murals in that temple. Compare, for instance, the manner in which the mahasiddhas and the Tibetan king are drawn in Fig. 4 with the beautiful representation of the mahasiddha in the Kumbum (Pl. 20). Or again the mode of drawing the hands, feet and lotuses of these figures is similar to that in the portrait of Nāgārjuna in a manuscript prepared in Shalu (Pl. 19). We will have occasion to refer to these remarkable sketches later on in this book.

Pl. 19
From the same sketchbook as Fig. 4

Pl. 20
A Mahasiddha
Central Tibet (Gyantse Kumbum)
Early 15th century
Pl. 21
A Goddess
Central Tibet (Gyantse, Tsug Lakhang)
Early 15th century

The second sketchbook, also of the folding kind and from which two compositions are reproduced here (Figs. 6, 7), was rendered by one Śrīmantadeva in the year 1653 in Lhasa. Here again the drawings were meant clearly to serve as visual models for the artist upon his return to Nepal. Apart from their importance for dating Tibetan thankas, both these sketchbooks clearly demonstrate that there was a lively export trade in thankas in Nepal itself, and many of the so-called Tibetan thankas in strongly Tibetan styles may in fact have been rendered by Newar artists in the Nepal Valley. Or perhaps, periodically, Newar artists visited Tibetan monasteries to paint thankas and murals and used such sketchbooks as their models. The pattern books would then be passed on to their successors, and thus the life of a style would be prolonged for generations. Even more significant is the final conclusion one may draw from these two pattern books. Many of the figurative forms, such as the arhats in Jīvarāma’s book, the landscape elements, compositions and the dragons in the other, are obviously derived from Chinese pictorial tradition, and yet the painters responsible for them were Newars. Thus, obviously, the Newar painters were perfectly at home in the Chinese manner of painting, and many of the so-called Chinese style thankas may well have been rendered by Newar rather than Chinese or Tibetan artists.

Fig. 6
Srimantadeva, Newari (active ca.1650)
An Arhat in Landscape and Two Deities
Central Tibet (Lhasa), dated 1653
Ink on paper; ay. page: 8.3x19.7 cm.
Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Indian Art Special Purposes Fund.

Fig. 7
Sketches of hills, clouds and dragons
From the same sketchbook as Fig.6

Such pattern books do conclusively demonstrate that Tibetan artists were no different from artists in other traditional societies, and used both verbal and visual models for their religious art.