Navin Kumar Gallery

The Sakyapa Style

Fourteenth to Sixteenth Centuries

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 great monastery of Sakya was founded in 1073, but not until the thirteenth century did the order emerge as the leading religious and secular authority in Tibet. In 1244, to be precise, the Mongol prince Godan, who was in charge of the Tibetan borderlands, invited Sakya Pandita (1182-1251) to visit him and so began the order’s close relationship with the Mongol imperial family of China which lasted until the fall of the Yuan dynasty in 1361. The alliance between the Sakyapas and the Mongol ruling clan was cemented further when Sakya Pandita’s nephew, whose honorific name was Phagpa (Reverend), became the preceptor of Kublai Khan and the chief of all Buddhist affairs in the empire. Although the political hegemony of the Sakyapas lasted less than a century, the cultural impact of their rise to power was felt more widely both in space and in time.

Whatever the ultimate political consequences were for either Tibet or China of this new alliance between religious authority and secular power, culturally it proved to be beneficial for both. Imperial patronage of Buddhism was especially lucrative for the Tibetans, and the Sakyapas entered into an unprecedented state of affluence. Although no detailed accounts of the imperial gifts are available, as we have in the case of the later Ming emperors, there is no question of the imperial largesse bestowed upon the Sakyapas. And since much of the gifts received by the Tibetan monasteries were used to raise new buildings, repair old ones, redecorate temple walls with fresh murals and commission thankas and statues, the religious establishments in Tsang became particularly active. An account of this activity during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries may be found in Tucci’s admirable review of the monasteries of Tsang in his monumental opus on Tibetan painting.

In the year 1260, a young artist from Nepal had just finished constructing a stupa for the Sakyapas, presumably in Tsang, when he was summoned by Phagpa to visit Beijing to work for Kublai Khan. With twenty-four artists in his retinue, this youthful master - he was only about eighteen at the time - not only excelled himself at casting bronzes for the imperial court, but became the founder of an important Buddhist school of art in China. His name was Aniko or Anige, and, although the most celebrated, he was not the only Newar artist to distinguish himself in the service of the Sakyapas. As Tucci has stated,

He is the first of a long series of artists whose names have been lost, but the eulogies of monasteries and the lamas’ biographies abound in general allusions to makers of statues (lha bzo pa) and to painters (lha bris pa) from Nepal; there was no convent which, at the moment of its foundation or of its greatest prosperity, was not embellished by them with statues or frescoes. From the Sa skya pa chronicles to the eulogy of gNas rnin, from the Myan c’un to the abbot’s lives, various confirmations can be drawn of the uninterrupted flow into Tibet of Nepalese artists and craftsmen. Tucci 1949, p. 277

In fact, Aniko was not the only Newari artist to work in Tibet, and we do have names of others, such as Vanguli and Akhe ra dsa (Akharāja?) who worked at Nor. But they remain mere names, although some of the Sakyapa thankas we admire today may have been created by these masters.

The Newars of Balpo (the Tibetan name for the Kathmandu valley) were not the only foreign artists who worked in the central Tibetan monasteries during this period. As will be discussed at greater length in a following chapter, they worked side by side with the Chinese. Indeed, the style that developed at Sakyu, Shalu, Gyang, Gyantse or Nor at this time, does show an assimilation of both the Nepali and the Chinese traditions, which were combined to produce what is being designated as the Sakyapa style here. However, there can be little doubt that the Newar influence was far more direct and pronounced than that of China. And although certain Chinese mannerisms and motifs were integrated into this new style, which did not sever all connections with the earlier Kadampa style, by and large the Sakyapa style was predominantly figurative, where nature remained subordinated to man. Modified Chinese elements are more perceptible, at least as far as published murals indicate, in the representations of what may be termed mortal rather than divine subjects, in narrative rather than hieratic themes.

The most distinctive features of the Sakyapa style may be enumerated as follows: (i) the ubiquitous use of red as the predominant colour; (ii) strictly linear definition of form; (iii) employment of elaborate shrines with ornate columns from which spring foliate arches consisting of swirling masses of scrolls and volutes carrying mythical creatures such as makara, garuḍa, nāga and other hybrid forms combining animal and avian shapes; (iv) registers of figures both at the top and the bottom, generally clearly separated by miniature shrines of arches and columns ;(v) and a profusion of subtle, densely packed stylized scrollwork in the background that animates the otherwise formal and somewhat rigid symmetry of the composition. Most of these elements are recognizable in thankas rendered for Sakyapa monasteries between the fourteenth and the seventeenth centuries, though the variations in individual thankas are inexhaustible.

The composition in Sakyapa style paintings, whether they represent divine beings and mystics, or monks and mandalas, is invariably dominated by strictly geometrical arrangement of figures. Nevertheless, one is constantly delighted by the variety of their iconographic forms and the richness of their decorative details. These unknown artists, whether Newari or Tibetan, well understood the principle that ‘design is rooted in movement.’ Thus, by filling their surfaces with whorling scrolls, flying scarves and undulating, multi-hued rock formations, they have created remarkably animated compositions.

Apart from the monastery of Sakya, which was destroyed and renovated in the sixteenth century, the most important centers for the study of Sakyapa art are Shalu, Gyantse, Gyang and Nor. However, Sakyapa style murals, or what Tucci refers to as the ‘Nepalese’ style, may also be seen in the fifteenth century chapels at Narthang, Ganden and Densatil, among others. Indeed, the murals in the Narthang Kumbum reflect vestiges of the Kadampa style, as well as the Chinese and Nepali manners.

When Buton Rinpoche (1290-1364) undertook the reconstruction of Shalu, he imported artists from both Nepal and China. Although no thanka from Shalu has yet come to light, a few illuminated pages of a manuscript, now in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, provide some idea of the Sakyapa style at Shalu. One illustration (Pl. 19), portraying Nāgārjuna, is reproduced here. Since the page contains the name of one of Buton Rinpoche’s disciples, very likely the manuscript was written and illustrated in the second half of the fourteenth century. The figural style is derived directly from the Nepali tradition but a few details reflect Chinese mannerisms. The free and naturalistic manner of drawing the garment and the peony-like design of the lotus are clearly of Chinese inspiration.

Similar coexistence and synthesis of the Nepali and Chinese manners characterize the murals of the Kumbum of Gyantse, which is a landmark in the history of Tibetan painting. See Tucci 1932 and 1949 and Karmay 1975 It was completed and consecrated in 1427, only five years before Jīvarāma prepared his pattern book in 1435. As will be apparent from the two murals illustrated here (Pls. 20-21), the Gyantse paintings are among the finest examples of Tibetan art. It is not our intention to discuss the Gyantse murals in this book but the specimens included here are helpful in determining dates of thankas which are often undated. Gyantse style thankas are extremely rare but a comparison of an example in Boston (Pl. 22) with one of the murals (Pl. 21) will clearly reveal their stylistic kinship. Another thanka that also may have been painted in Gyantse (Pl. 45) will be discussed later.

Pl. 20
A Mahasiddha
Central Tibet (Gyantse Kumbum). Early 15th century
Pl. 21
A Goddess
Central Tibet (Gyantse, Tsug Lakhang)
Early 15th century Mural
Pl. 22
Vajradhara in yab-yum
Central Tibet, Sakyapa style at Gyantse,
15th century
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Cosmic Avalokitesvara Pl. 45
Cosmic Form of Avalokitesvara
Central Tibet (Gyantse style), 15th century
50x40.5 cm.
Professor M. Driesch Collection, Cologne

A key document for the study of fifteenth century Tibetan painting in general and of the Sakyapa style in particular is the 1435 pattern book of Jīvarāma already mentioned (Figs. 4-5). The importance of the pattern book for dating both Tibetan and Nepali paintings can hardly be overemphasized. The colophon also demonstrates that Newari artists worked closely with their Tibetan colleagues. The subjects included in the sketchbook were selected carefully by Jīvarāma for his Tibetan rather than Nepali clients. However, what does make the art historian’s task more difficult is that he returned to Nepal with his pattern book. Obviously he and his family members or disciples intended to use the sketchbook to paint thankas for Tibetan patrons. Either these patrons picked up such thankas while visiting Nepal on trade or pilgrimage, or Jīvarāma and his colleagues painted thankas in Nepal and then took them to Tibet for their customers.

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

There can be little doubt that three thankas included here (Pls. 23, 25-26) were rendered by Newari artists. Whether they were painted in Nepal or in Tibet is more difficult to establish. As a matter of fact there is nothing in the thanka representing Hevajra, who is the tutelary deity of the Sakyapas (Pl. 23), to determine its Tibetan provenance. The figural forms, the physiognomical features as well as the colouring, with the deep, almost magenta red predominating, clearly indicate its strongly Nepali character. The dense but subtle scrollwork with its stylized border of flames that appear like delicate lacework is typical of Nepali paintings and remained a prominent motif in Sakyapa thankas as well.

Pl. 23
Hevajra in yab-yum
Central Tibet (Sakyapa monastery)
14th century
61 x48 cm.
Private Collection
Pl. 24
Central Tibet (Kagyupa monastery?)
14th century
51.5x46 cm.
Private Collection
Pl. 25
The Goddess Tara
Central Tibet, Sakyapa style, ca.1400
57.2x50 cm.
Zimmerman Family Collection
Pl. 26
Dancing Ganesa.
Central Tibet, Sakyapa style, Early 15th century
68 x 59 cm.
Private Collection

As is the case with the Hevajra, so also two sparkling thankas representing the goddess Tārā (Pl. 25) and a dancing Ganeśa (Pl. 26) could hardly have been recognized as Tibetan but for the inclusion of Sakyapa monks in the top register of the former and the figure of the Tibetan donor at the bottom of the latter. Both thankas reflect the Newari penchant for exquisite detailing with fine, careful drawing and the highly elaborate arches with their swirling forms, both animal and vegetative. The ornamental stylization of the rocks both at the bottom and along the sides of the shrine in the Dancing Ganׂeśa is typically Nepali. As usual the primary colour is red which is highlighted with a bright yellow, blue, green and white. It is interesting to note that almost an identical dancing Ganׂeśa is included as the middle figure on the right of the seated Tārā (Pl. 25). There the rat below his feet looks up at his master in admiration. In the other thanka (Pl. 26), however, the rat has grown almost into a feline. If the painter was unfamiliar with the rat, he was highly proficient in representing apes. Although we do not quite know the relevance of their presence in this thanka, the monkeys are not only rendered with remarkable accuracy, but also with humour. Indeed, the astonishing naturalism of the monkeys offers a curious contrast with the generally formalized character of the style.

It has already been mentioned that during the earlier period the Sakyapas too must have adopted the Kadampa style. Very likely the Kadampa style lingered on vestigially in the fourteenth century, as is evident from a Mahākāla (Pl. 24). The thanka reflects a synthesis of both the Kadampa and Sakyapa styles. The differences between the two styles become clear if we compare it with an earlier Kadampa style thanka depicting the same subject (Pl. 13). The figural types in the later thanka reveal a stronger Nepali than Indian influence. The schematic arrangement of the deities and monks in small vignettes around the central composition is a common feature of the Sakyapa style, as is also the design of the flame behind Mahākāla, which is quite different in the earlier thanka (Pl. 13). The stylization of the hair on the head and the face is distinctive of the Sakyapa style as well. The inclusion of a greater number of scavenging animals and birds against the flame is yet another feature that is characteristic of Sakyapa Mahākāla thankas (Pl. 27-28) which introduce us to one of the most distinctive type of Sakyapa paintings.

Mahakala c.1200 Pl. 13
Central Tibet (Kagyupa monastery?). ca.1200
19 x 15 cm.
Private Collation
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

As the protector of the faith and of the tent (Gurgyi mGon po), Mahākāla is an especially favourite deity of the Sakyapas. His cult is supposed to have been brought to Tibet from Bodhgaya in India by Rinchensangpo of Guge. Although Mahākāla is venerated by all the different religious orders of Tibet, the Sakyapas developed a type of painting that is peculiar to them.

In all such representations the god is always portrayed with two arms and standing with his legs bent, as if he does not quite know whether he should stand or sit. This peculiarity seems to follow a particular description of an image described in the Sādhanamālā. We are told specifically that Mahākāla should be represented as if rising from the corpse (pretāsanastham utthitam); Bhattacharya 1968 Vol. 2 p. 586 presumably he was seated on it when his anger was aroused and he decided to rise. However, the introduction of the four companions, including Lhamo, is purely Tibetan and they occur only in Sakyapa representations.

Of the two examples, Pl. 27 is clearly the earlier and is a fine specimen of what may be regarded as the conventional Sakyapa thanka depicting this form of Mahākāla. A late fourteenth century date for this thanka can be suggested by comparison with the sketch in the 1435 pattern book and with a Nepali painting of 1367. The small figures of bodhisattvas and ndgas in the cemeteries around the central fiery region are very similar to those that occur in the 1367 Nepali painting. Pal 1975, p.59. The second example (Pl. 28), which may have been painted towards the end of the fifteenth century, is in many ways a unique thanka for it introduces deviations not generally encountered in others of the same style. In no other Mahākāla thanka is the god’s lotus placed on a base formed of stylized rocks which are variations of the typically Nepali formula for rocks. Although Mahākāla and his acolytes are still represented on a red background, the design of the fiery field does not conform to the Nepali mode, as seen in Pl. 27, but is reminiscent of the Kadampa style thankas (Pl. 13). This aureole takes up less room than the fiery region in the other and consequently the cemeteries seem less crowded. Moreover, the red is made less conspicuous by a greater emphasis on blue, which is also a characteristic of the earlier Kadampa style Samvara mandala (Pl. 11), though the shades Samvara Mandala 12th century Pl. 11
Mandala of Samvara
Central Tibet. 12th century
J.P. Goenka Collection, India.
of the blues differ. Another detail that occurs in both paintings is the little shrine festooned with pennants placed about the height of Mahākāla’s shoulders. This together with the fact that the five dancing Kālīs included in the bottom are mentioned only in certain Indian texts, leads us to conclude that this unusual thanka probably is a copy of a Kadampa prototype. However, the figurative forms of the five goddesses as well as the guardian deities with their consorts, of the nagas and of the saints and mahāsiddhas above have the slim elegance and svelte grace one finds in the figures of mahasiddhas in the Gyantse Kumbum (Pl. 20). Thus, it seems that the artist responsible for this thanka was aware of several manners, some contemporary and some older, from which he borrowed confidently to create a delightfully refreshing style of his own.

While the Mahākāla thankas are among the most distinctive of the Sakyapa style, the most admired are the mandalas created for Sakyapa monasteries, especially at Nor. For some reason, in recent years it has become fashionable for both scholars and dealers of Tibetan art to attribute all Sakyapa style mandalas to the Nor monastery. For one thing, it immediately defines the upper limit of the date of such thankas since the monastery itself was founded in 1427. However, there are several other earlier Sakyapa establishments, such as Shalu, Gyang and Sakya itself, where mandalas were also painted basically in the same style as that of Nor. Several mandalas in private collections contain inscriptions stating that they were done for one of Tsongkhapa's teachers. But for the inscriptions these would undoubtedly be regarded as Nor mandalas. But since Tsongkhapa was born in 1357, presumably his teacher lived in the second half of the fourteenth century. Another mandala in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art bears an inscription that suggests it too was painted towards the end of the fourteenth century. (See Pal 1983B.)

In fact, Nor did not make any noteworthy contribution to the Sakyapa style which was formulated by Newari artists in Sakya and Shalu, in the fourteenth century. Thus, unless an inscription on a thanka specifically mentions that it was rendered at the Nor monastery, it may be worthwhile to restrain ourselves from making indiscriminate attributions to that particular monastery.

What is curious is the fact that most surviving mandalas from Tibet that can be attributed to the period (14th through the 16th century) appear to be of Sakyapa origin. It has already been discussed that the only earlier mandala rendered in the Kadampa style may also have been rendered for a Sakyapa monastery. And yet, several other religious orders, such as the various Kagyupa sects, the Nyingmapas, the Phagmotrupas, were prominent at the time, and it is difficult to believe that they were not interested in using mandalas. But to my knowledge no early mandala has yet been attributed to any other order but that of the Sakyapas.

The significance of a mandala has been frequently discussed by eminent Tibetologists as well as psychologists, and need not detain us here. A glance at the several mandalas illustrated here (Pls. 29-34) demonstrates that no matter how varied the iconography, the basic configuration or structure of the mandala is severely limited. It combines two elementary geometrical forms, the square and the circle, and the four basic colours: red, yellow, blue and white. Usually a mandala is enclosed by three circles. The innermost is invariably formed with lotus petals, but the other two - the ring of fire and that containing the eight cemeteries - appear to be interchangeable. It also seems that the cemeteries, symbolizing the phenomenal world, are not always included (Pl. 33). Within the space circumscribed by these three circles is represented a celestial Pālace with four elaborate gateways. Indeed, notwithstanding these gateways, the Pālace itself is a purely geometrical abstraction of squares and circles whose number and combination may differ from mandala to mandala. Generally, the central circle is also represented as a fully open lotus, but not always. What does seem invariable, however, is the division of the square into four equilateral triangles of blue, red, white and yellow whose common tip seems to dissolve into the central figure of the mandala. It must be remembered that although rendered as a flat, two dimensional drawing, in reality, each of the squares and circles is superimposed on the other in receding proportions, in a pyramidal arrangement.

Pl. 29
Nairatmya Mandala
Central Tibet (Sakyapa monastery), 15th century (?)
83 x 72 cm.
Private Collection
Pl. 30
Mandala of a Goddess
Central Tibet (Sakyapa monastery), 15th century (?)
83 x 72 cm.
Private Collection
Pl. 31
Samvara Mandala
Central Tibet (Sakyapa monastery), 15th century (?)
85 x 73 cm.
Private Collection
Pl. 32
Vajrabhairava Mandala
Central Tibet (Sakyapa monastery), 15th century
52x41.9 cm.
Private Collection
Pl. 33
Bhataclamara Mandala
Central Tibet (Sakyapa monastery), 15th century
54.5 x 44 cm
Private Collection
Pl. 34
Samvara Mandala
Central Tibet (Sakyapa monastery), 15th century
46 x 39 cm.
Private Collection

The number of figures in the mandala varies according to liturgical needs and sometimes more than one mandala may be accommodated in a thanka. The cemeteries, as we have already noted, are indicated by a conventional formula consisting of the presiding guardian deity, a mahasiddha (sometimes with his female partners), stūpas, corpses, nāgas, ghouls and goblins and scavenging animals and birds. The gateway too follows the same basic design, the foliate arch being surmounted by a tiered superstructure which is elegantly enclosed by two curved tongues of the makara which look more like elephant tusks. As a matter of fact these two tongues represent the prongs of the thunderbolt. In some mandalas a very narrow row of thunderbolts is inserted between the circles of the lotus petals and the ring of fire in order to enhance the stability of the entire edifice.

Symmetry and ‘a sense of order’ are of course the sine qua non of the visual design of a mandala, while extraordinary craftsmanship and infinite patience are the twin virtues that are absolutely necessary to make the design so attractive. Notwithstanding their basic similarities, it is astonishing how different one design is from another. Considering how laborious and time consuming the task of painting such complex mandalas was, one can only appreciate it as an act of unmitigated devotion. We are surprised not only by the intricacy of design, but by the consistently high quality of the execution. Each mandala seems a paradigm of visual harmony and rhythmic arrangement of abstract shapes and lively forms that interact with one another with precision and cohesiveness. Although the mandala is a cornucopia of ornamentation, the rich embellishments are never permitted to violate the underlying sense of order. No matter how active and animated the figures are, the ultimate visual effect is one of repose for as the texts tell us ‘Calm is the Innate.’

A glance at the mandalas illustrated here will make it clear how diverse the final results are despite the similarity of the basic elements. Even though the performer could not alter the basic structure of the melody, each is a virtuoso performance. Notwithstanding the fact that the two fifteenth century mandalas belong to the same series (Pls. 29-30), their differences are palpable both in their colouring as well as their details. Some of the variations are no doubt due to iconographic differences, but others are purely visual. For instance, note how divergently the nine figures are disposed in the central circle of each painting. In one, they are placed in nine squares surrounded by two rings of thunderbolts and flames; in the other, the figures are placed on the pericarp and petals of the lotus surrounded only by the ring of thunderbolts. Or again, there are noteworthy variations in the representations of the cemeteries. Indeed, much of this book could easily be devoted to simply enumerating the substantial differences, both in the overall design and in the minutiae, that can be observed from one mandala to another, but that is beyond our scope.

Whether rendered at the Nor monastery or at some other Sakyapa establishment, mandalas in the Sakyapa style are remarkable documents of human skill and ingenuity. It is also noteworthy that few Chinese elements are allowed to intrude into these mandalas. Whether the artists were Tibetan or Newars, the style is related predominantly to the Nepali style of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. However, it must be admitted that few Buddhist mandalas of the period have been recovered from Nepal that can match the exquisite finesse and formal rectitude of these sparkling and luminous Sakyapa mandalas. The detailing seems even more refined than one encounters in Nepali paintings and the colours applied with greater subtlety.

Pl. 82
Mandala of Hevajra
Central Tibet (Nor monastery), Early 17th century
41.7 x 34.3 cm.
Private Collection
The finest Sakyapa mandalas were produced during the fourteenth and the fifteenth centuries, most known examples belonging to the fifteenth. By the following century, the style began to show signs of exhaustion, and although talented artists still continued to paint mandalas with precision and fastidiousness, the works lacked the finesse and fluency of those of the earlier centuries. By the late sixteenth, and certainly by the early seventeenth century, the strongly Nepali style appears to have been abandoned for a new mode of expression that was strongly influenced by aesthetic elements from the east. In a beautiful Hevajra mandala (Pl. 82) of the early seventeenth century, the earlier Sakyapa style has undergone strong modifications. The composition is not as densely packed with figures, and, instead of the red, a strong blue dominates the palette. The most noteworthy difference, however, may be observed in the delineation of the cemeteries, where the Nepali formula is eschewed and greater emphasis is placed on landscapes with undulating mountains and fluffy clouds. After the seventeenth century, as we will discuss in a subsequent chapter, these elements are introduced in other areas of the mandala as well. The Sakyapas were not responsible for such stylistic changes, but they were not averse to adopting newer modes of expression.

Another type of thanka that seems to have been particularly popular with Sakyapa establishments is that known generally as a ‘lineage’ thanka. We have already discussed some early examples of such thankas rendered in the Kadampa style but probably portraying Sakyapa hierarchs. In the Sakyapa style lineage thankas, usually two lamas are prominently seated in the centre, nimbate and enthroned like deities. They are surrounded by smaller representations of others of the lineage who mingle with divinities and mahāsiddhas (Pls. 35, 37-40). Generally the gods and the mahasiddhas are placed along the top row, the supreme deity always occupying the centre, while the protective deities are represented in the bottom register. In a variation of the theme a group of four monks occupy much of the surface (Pl. 36). Usually when four figures are portrayed prominently, rows of other members of the lineage are omitted.

Pl. 35
Sakyapa Lineage
Central Tibet (Sakyapa monastery), 15th century
132.1 x 115.8 cm.
Los Angeles County Museum of Art
The Nash and Alice Heeramaneck Collection
Pl. 36
Four Sakyapa Monks
Central Tibet (Sakyapa monastery), 16th century
Private Collection
Pl. 37
Sakyapa Lineage
Central Tibet (Sakyapa monastery), 16th century
65 x 42 cm.
Private Collection
Pl. 38
Sakyapa Lineage
Central Tibet (Sakyapa monastery), 16th century
Private Collection
Pl. 39
Goddess Nairatmya and Sakyapa Lineage
Central Tibet (Nor monastery), ca.1600
74.5 x 62.8 cm.
Private Collection
Pl. 40
Mahasiddha Damarupa and Sakyapa Lineage
Central Tibet (Nor monastery), ca.1600
74.5 x 62.8 cm.
Michael Henss Collection, Zurich

The concept of lineage may have derived from the Indian idea of guruparamparā, whereby spiritual authority was handed down through gurus and the disciples from one generation to the next. A second possible source may have been the idea of patriarchs in Ch’an Buddhism of China. Whatever the origin, the concept was nurtured and reared so assiduously by the Tibetans that the final product must be regarded as Tibetan. The idea of ‘reincarnation,’ whereby it is believed that the ‘consciousness’ of a highly religious person can be transmitted to another, though is a variation of the general theory of rebirth, was developed in a very special way by the Tibetans.

As to the type of lineage thanka, no forebear can be traced either in the paintings of India or China. Significantly, no such compositions of successive hierarchs are found in the early Kashmiri style murals of western Tibet, or for that matter in the numerous banners from Central Asia. Portraits of monks are not infrequent in the earlier murals of western Tibet, but no representation of a lineage is known. However, the compositional device with a central personage surrounded by a hieratic arrangement of other figures is quite common in these murals, especially those rendered in the Kadampa style at Alchi, though always in a divine context.

The earliest examples of lineage representations may go back as early as the eleventh-twelfth century and appear to have been rendered in the Kadampa style. The three murals in the Ladong or Landang monastery, mentioned in the previous chapter, are remarkably accomplished in their style and execution. The type may also be seen in the murals of Lhakhang Soma at Alchi and among the thankas of Kharakhoto, but the central figure sits alone. The earliest and finest lineage thanka is certainly that illustrated in Pl. 6. Thus, although the type of painting may have been created by Tibetan artists in the eleventh century, it must be pointed out that the idea of portraying two confronting teachers engaged in conversation goes back to the fifth century both in India and China. In India the sages Nara and Nārāyaṇa were shown seated in a similar fashion in framed compositions, while in Chinese sculpture Śākyamuni and PrabhuTārātna are similarly seated and engrossed in a dialogue. However, immediate precursors of such compositions with two conversing monks may be seen in the Jisha woodcuts of 1302 where the Buddha and a Sakyapa hierarch are seen similarly enthroned and engaged in conversation. Karmay 1975, p.50.

Most early Tibetan portraits, at least through the fifteenth century, appear to be of Sakyapa lineage, although the concept of lineage was not exclusive to that order alone. By contrast, portraits of monks of the other orders, such as the Nyingmapas, Kagyupas, the Phagmotrupas, the Taglungpas or the Gelukpas are mostly of the later period and rarely do they depict lineages of the respective order. This is true of thankas rather than murals. For thirteenth century murals of Kagyupa lineage see Pal 1982B, Pls. L519-20. These individual portraits will be discussed in a later chapter, but one cannot but wonder why one so rarely encounters early lineage thankas of the other orders. It is difficult to believe that they did not have such lineage thankas painted or that only those of the Sakyapa order have emerged from Tibet. The Gelukpas, however, developed a type of lineage thankas in which an assemblage of monks, mahasiddhas and divinities is depicted on the branches and foliage of a tree with Tsongkhapa as the central figure. But these ‘family tree’ thankas are invariably of the eighteenth or the nineteenth century and quite different from those of the Sakyapas.

The portraiture in such lineage thankas is always idealized and most were rendered long after the death of the personages. This is why the facial features may differ in two portraits of the same personage. Some portraits may have been drawn from life, as is known from the biography of the Fifth Dalai Lama, or immediately after a person’s death, as was the case with Phagpa (1235-80). Apparently, ‘in 1324 eleven painted portraits of the late Imperial Preceptor . . . were distributed in the various provinces so that clay statues could be modelled after these paintings for worship in the memorial halls.’ Franke pp. 310-11. One assumes that such portraits were somewhat lifelike, but repeated copies through the centuries would have doubtless reduced their value as realistic portraiture. Moreover, invariably the monks are shown seated in an identical fashion with their voluminous red and orange (or yellow) robes enclosing their bodies like cocoons. In most instances only the head and the hands are visible. The hands perform the same ritualized gestures and hold the same attributes as the deities. The emphasis is always placed on depicting the hierarchs as teachers of the dharma and the attributes they carry are the sword, the book, the bell or the thunderbolt, which are common emblems. The attributes, therefore, are seldom useful in identifying the figures, which can only be done through inscriptions.

Yet, despite their idealization, the physiognomies differ from one person to another. When the figures do not wear the red caps, they are given different hairstyles and rarely are the heads clean shaven. Both the shapes of the faces and the features vary considerably and some are clearly older than others. We have no way of determining, however, whether the faces do indeed reflect even a semblance of the persons they are meant to represent, or whether the variations are due entirely to the artist’s imagination. Nevertheless, great care is taken to delineate the facial features and expression, and it is possible that some of the portraits of the principal personages are reasonable likenesses.

The glowing thanka showing two rather youngish looking monks seated on an elaborate throne is among the earliest of such thankas (Pl. 35). It is also unusual in that the side figures are all enclosed in medallions formed by interconnected vines. The elaborate throne with columns supporting intricately rendered flaming arches is a characteristic feature of these early lineage thankas. In a second type, probably of the sixteenth century (Pl. 36), the composition is less densely packed with fewer figures, and four, instead of two, monks occupy much of the surface. The principal hierarchs are still enshrined within flaming arches but each has more elbow room, so to speak. Yet in a third type (Pls. 37-38), the elaborate shrines are dispensed with altogether and the two principal hierarchs are seated on the same lotus placed on a pedestal enlivened with animals or yakshas that are borrowed from the Chinese tradition. Typical Chinese clouds are also included both at the top and the bottom to enclose various divine figures and sometimes lightly drawn golden rays are added to the aureoles of the two principal personages to make them more effulgent. The dense scrollwork, characteristic of earlier lineage thankas, is dispensed with altogether. Thus, even within the Sakyapa tradition a good deal of variation was introduced in these lineage thankas which remain among the most interesting and original contributions of the Tibetans to Buddhist art.

This brief review of the Sakyapa pictorial tradition may be brought to a close by a discussion of two other Lineage thankas from a large series that was painted in the Nor monastery and which are now well-known (Pls. 39-40). Usually when such a series is painted the first thanka is devoted to the tutelary deity of the sect or order. In this series the first two thankas depict the goddess Nairatma, the female partner of Hevajra, the tutelary deity of the Sakyapas, while the second portrays Damarupā, one of the mahasiddhas. Very likely the series was painted around 1600 A.D. under the supervision of a great master. There is no break with the past in this series and the principal figure is still depicted on an elaborate throne with an arch; the scrollwork in the background is still executed with finesse; and the other figures are arranged with the same regularity around the central figure, following the fifteenth century formula. Nevertheless, the style is still full of life and vigour and the technical virtuosity admirable. The two central figures are made especially animated with their expressive faces and flowing scarves and garments. The artists have also used a rich palette of scintillating colours, while the details are rendered with extraordinary restraint and sensitivity. Both paintings reveal the subtlety of drawing and the effortless delineation of intricate patterns that were the hallmarks of the Sakyapa style and of its source - the Newari aesthetic.

Pl. 41
Sakyapa Lineage
Central Tibet (Nor monastery), Early 17th century
168 x 123 cm.
Private Collection
By the seventeenth century, as was the case with the mandalas, the lineage thankas too reflect a distinct stylistic change, as is evident from an impressive example included here (Pl. 41). Although the basic composition has not altered, the design of the throne and the colours have. Red is not quite predominant and the palette is more varied. The designs of both the throne and the aureoles are different. Instead of the invariable blue and red, pink and green diversify the colours of the aureoles which are also adorned with fine golden rays. The animals on the throne are clearly derived from Chinese art, as are also the cloud patterns in the upper layer. These are obviously borrowed from the synthetic style that had already developed in such monasteries as Tashilunpo and other Gelukpa establishments.

In conclusion, during its long history from the thirteenth through the seventeenth centuries, the Sakyapa style, as far as thankas are concerned, remained largely faithful to the Nepali tradition, though the surviving murals reflect a synthesis of both Nepali and Chinese elements. It was this synthetic style that seems to have moved west in the second half of the fifteenth century and contributed towards the formation of the Guge style, as we will discuss in the next chapter. The Sakyapa style, however, does not seem to have had much currency in eastern Tibet, where the Chinese tradition was predominant. But through Aniko and his followers the Sakyapa style exerted considerable influence on the religious art of Yuan and early Ming China. Although few Chinese Buddhist paintings in the Sakyapa style are known, a considerably high number of woodblock prints, bronzes and embroidered pictures have survived that clearly demonstrate the strong influence of the Sakyapa artistic tradition on the Buddhist art of China. See Kidd 1975.