Navin Kumar Gallery

Thankas from Western Tibet

Fifteenth 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 brilliant phase of artistic activity that began with Yeshe Ö and Rinchensangpo was also the most creative in the history of western Tibetan painting. The only distinctive and original style of painting that prevailed in western Tibet was that which has been designated here as Khache-Tibetan style and which has been discussed briefly in the introductory chapter. As was also mentioned in that chapter, there have not yet been any thankas found in the Khache-Tibetan style. The second style, which seems to have reached western Tibet in the thirteenth century from the central region, was the Kadampa style. Although the principal examples of this style too are to be found in wall paintings, some thankas painted in this style have emerged, but none can be dated earlier than the fourteenth century (Pl. 17). As has already been mentioned, a few thankas in this style were recovered some years ago from a sunken cave monastery near the Sibchu River in the Kailash region. Olschak and Wangyal, pp. 50-52. Another group acquired from monasteries in Ladakh and the Indian Himalayas is now in the University of Michigan Museum. Copeland. Most of these thankas may be dated no earlier than the fifteenth century, and they are all characterized by a nervously energetic linear rhythm, crudely placed colours and by quaint archaisms. Vajrasattva 13th century Pl. 17
Vajrasattva and Prajna
Western Tibet. late 13th century
36.6 x 32.5 cm.
Zimmerman Family Collection
Moreover, after the fifteenth century, because of constant synthesizing tendencies of western Tibetan artists, not only do we find a divergent array of modes prevalent in the region but very little information is available about the origin of the thankas.

Not until the fifteenth century does one encounter the emergence of a new style in western Tibet. As with thankas, few of the murals surviving in western Tibetan monasteries and the cave temples in Ladakh can be dated with any certainty to the fourteenth century. However, despite recent interest in the Buddhist monasteries of Ladakh, Zanskar and the Indian Himalayas, which include the famous monastery of Tabo, much work remains to be done in sorting out the various styles and dates of these establishments. Moreover, not since Tucci, has there been any new study done of the monuments of the ancient kingdoms of Guge or Purang, which are of fundamental importance for the understanding of the artistic tradition of western Tibet.

It has already been noted that the Drigungpas, a branch of the Kagyupas, had made a foray into western Tibet in the early part of the thirteenth century and were patronized by members of the Ladakh royal family. They appear to have established themselves around the Kailash region. For the most part, the early monasteries of both the Tibetan provinces of Nari Khorsum and Ladakh were affiliated with the Kadampa order. Apart from Rinchensangpo, the most well- known religious person from the west appears to have been Zanskar Lotsava (eleventh-twelfth century) who is regarded as the founder of the great Karsha monastery in Zanskar. But he did distinguish himself in central Tibet as well. Except for the Drigungpas and the Drukpas (both subsects of the Kagyupas), no other religious order appears to have exerted much influence in western Tibet until the arrival of the Gelukpas in the fifteenth century. Indeed, it is somewhat surprising that during their heyday, the Sakyapas made little attempt to exercise their power and authority in the west. Nevertheless, the well-known Sakyapa monasteries of Tsang must have attracted both monks and traders from the western regions - Gyantse was an important trading centre - and Sakyapa style thankas must have found their way into western Tibetan monasteries. Certainly the artistic evidence from western Tibetan monasteries does support this surmise.

Boddhisattva Western Tibet Pl. 42
A Bodhisattva worshipped by monks
Western Tibet, 14th century
17.3 x 15.2 cm.
Private Collection
Western Tibetan artists in particular seem to have been fond of archaizing tendencies, and of synthesizing various manners, of drawing in a rather free and spontaneous style, and of distorting the figural forms. Some of these characteristics have already been noted in our discussion of the Kadampa style. They may also be frequently observed in metal sculptures of western Tibet. However, such unconventional tastes did not result in unattractive works. On the contrary, they reveal a spontaneity of execution and express an unexpected vitality that one misses in more carefully delineated paintings. This is clearly evident from the Kadampa style Vajrasattva (Pl. 17) and also two charming illustrations on a manuscript page, one of which is reproduced here (Pl. 42).

There seems no doubt that the style of this manuscript illumination is related to the Sakyapa paintings but how refreshingly different this painting is. Noteworthy are the strong distortion of the bodhisattva’s figure, the unnaturalness of his posture, the awkwardness of his hands and the indications of the knees as two little bumps that look more like bunions than kneecaps. Nevertheless, the figure is visually attractive against the bold and unusual design of the aureole behind him. Even more charming are the little smiling monks, each seated on a lotus and enclosed by interconnecting vines. Similar intertwining tendrils also enclose the monks in the Sakyapa lineage thanka (Pl. 35), but here the monks have been rendered with greater spontaneity and are more playful than the somber and dignified figures in the thanka.

The two thankas illustrated in Pls.43-44 were probably painted in western Tibet but they reflect distinctly different mannerisms. The early fifteenth century thanka of Mañjuśrī (Pl. 43) is stylistically related to the western Tibetan version of the Kadampa style (Pl. 17), but seems also to have been modified by the Sakya-pa style. Both the style and iconography of this painting closely resemble the illustrations of the 1410 Kanjur (see Karmay 1975, p.57, no.36). Thus an early fifteenth century date for this thanka seems certain. The drawing is not quite as spontaneous and cursive as we see in the Kadampa style murals or in the earlier Zimmerman thanka, nor is it quite as refined as the firm draughtsmanship characteristic of Sakyapa thankas. The lightly delineated flame or floral decoration behind the figures and the treatment of the lotus continue the Kadampa tradition, but the figural forms, the finely delineated garments of the principal embracing couple, the design of the crown and the colouring are more akin to the Nepali-Sakyapa style.

Pl. 35
Sakyapa Lineage
Central Tibet (Sakyapa monastery), 15th century
132.1X 115.8 cm.
Los Angeles County Museum of Art
The Nash and Alice Heeramaneck Collection
Gaya Matijuvajra Pl. 43
Gaya Matijuvajra in yab-yum
Western Tibet, Early 15th century
40.7x 36.8 cm.
Doris Wiener Gallery, New York
Bhaishajyaguru Pl. 44
Bhaishajyaguru and his Divine Realm
Western Tibet, 15th century
52.6 x 44 cm.
Edwin Binney 3rd Collection

The colouring is even bolder in the Bhaishajyaguru thanka (Pl. 44) which shows a stronger tendency to formal organization of the composition characteristic of the Sakyapa style. The elaborate throne, as we have already noted, is a very distinctive characteristic of the Sakyapa style, derived ultimately from Nepal. However, rarely in Nepali paintings does one encounter such stiff and columnar figures as the two bodhisattvas standing on either side of Bhaishajyaguru. There is no doubt that this thanka was painted for a Tibetan patron, for it includes a large group of Tibetan monks who would not have been portrayed in a Nepali painting. The worshipping monk and the presence of both Gurgyi Gonpo and Lhamo indicate that the patron may have been a Sakyapa monk. But whether it was rendered in western or southern Tibet is more difficult to determine. What may betray its western Tibetan origin is the treatment of the standing bodhisattvas and of the elephant and rampant griffin on the throne. The masked kīrttimukha head at the apex of the throne is also seen more often in thankas from western Tibet. The Nepali artists, as a rule, preferred to place a complete figure of a garuḍa at this spot.

One of the key monuments for the history of painting in this period in western Tibet is the Red Temple at Tsaparang which, as Tucci has convincingly demonstrated, was built in the mid-fifteenth century. For the latest discussion and references to Tucci see Huntington. By a comparison with the murals in this temple and others in a similar style in the Serkhang in Tabo, it is now generally admitted that a distinctive style developed in the mid-fifteenth century in Guge which is designated as the ‘Guge’ style. Variations of this style can be traced as far west as Karsha in Zanskar (the Labrang temple), but, by and large, the style remained confined to Tsaparang and Tabo and was quite shortlived. Murals in the fifteenth century Guge style (with local variations) can also be seen in some of the caves at Saspol (Caves 2 and 3), Basgo gonpa and Shey in Ladakh.

The Guge style is illustrated here by a thanka representing the cosmic form Fig. 12 of Avalokiteśvara (Pl. 46), and a paradise thanka which is especially characteristic of the style (Fig. 11). The style has been studied at length by John Huntington who characterizes it as an ‘amalgam’ of retardaire Kashmiri tendencies and features from Nepali and Chinese traditions. If indeed Kashmiri elements are discernible in the style, then they must be survivals of the Khache-Tibetan style of the eleventh century rather than deriving directly from Kashmir. Parenthetically, it may be pointed out that Kashmir had only recently been converted to Islam and the first attempt to conquer Ladakh was made during the reign of Sikander (1394-1416), and yet there is no evidence of any exodus of Kashmiri monks or artists around 1400. However, a glance at the Khache-Tibetan style murals (Pls. 1-2) will also reveal that almost nothing of that style has survived in the Guge style thankas of the fifteenth century. As Huntington has demonstrated, in some of the Tabo murals one can discern some archaisms, only in the figurative form, from the earlier style, but by and large, the primary inspiration of the Guge style appears to have been the Sakyapa tradition.

Cosmic Avalokitesvara Pl. 45
Cosmic Form of Avalokitesvara
Central Tibet (Gyantse style), 15th century
50x40.5 cm.
Professor M. Driesch Collection, Cologne
Cosmic Avalokitesvara Pl. 46
Cosmic Form of Avalokitesvara
Western Tibet (Guge style), 15th century
91.5 x 66 cm.
The Cleveland Museum of Art, Purchase, Andrew R. and Martha Holden Jennings Fund
Fig. 11
Amitabha and his Western Paradise
Western Tibet (Guge)
1450-1500 112.4x 86.3 cm.
Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
From the Nash and Alice Heeramaneck Collection. Museum Associates Purchase
Fig. 12
Scenes from the Early Life of the Buddha
Eastern Tibet, dated 1686 81.3 x53.3 cm.
Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Even a cursory comparison of the Eleven-headed Lokesvara (Pl. 46) with the earlier representation of the same subject at Alchi (Pl. 2) at once shows how distinctly different the later painting is. On the other hand, it offers a closer comparison with a near contemporary representation of the same subject reflecting the Gyantse style (Pl. 45). At the same time, however, there are significant differences between these two thankas. The Guge figures are covered with a greater profusion of clothing. Moreover, the folds and design of the attire and the scarves are totally different from those that occur in the Khache-Tibetan style and are adapted from the sinified mode encountered in the Sakyapa style. Similarly the ‘Chinese’ cloud formations must have been borrowed from Sakyapa paintings rather than from Chinese paintings directly. The petals of the lotus on which Avalokiteśvara stands imitated the Sakyapa version of the Chinese lotus, while the grey mountain forms reflect a naturalism that is not generally encountered in Nepali paintings. The assembly of monks and other deities around the figure are not constrained by rigid registers in the Nepali manner but float more freely over the surface and in between the cloud patterns. Indeed, the blue background along with the cloud motif makes it clear that while Avalokiteśvara stands on a lotus emerging from the cosmic ocean, all the other figures are floating in the sky and witnessing the divine revelation. Such clouds, the shapes of the mountains, the lotus rising from the waters, the floating figures against red aureoles as well as the treatment of the garments are all encountered in the Gyantse murals (Pls. 20-21) though in a different expression and with expected variations.

Pl. 20
A Mahasiddha
Central Tibet (Gyantse Kumbum). Early 15th century
Pl. 21
A Goddess
Central Tibet (Gyantse, Tsug Lakhang)
Early 15th century Mural
Fig. 9
Dancing Vajravarahi
China (Kharakhoto), Before 1227
Watercolours on hemp cloth; 111 x67 cm.
The Hermitage Museum, Leningrad
Fig. 10
The Life of Sakyagri (1127-1225)
Central Tibet (Sakyapa monastery)
ca.1300 85.8 x 66.4 cm. R. H. Ellsworth, Ltd.

The most distinctive of the Guge style thankas depicts paradises based on texts that are rich in descriptions of nature (Fig. 11). Interestingly, however, the natural forms employed in these paradise thankas seem not to reflect any influence of the Chinese landscape tradition. Moreover, they retain no memories of the well-known paradise paintings of Central Asia, either in terms of style or iconography. They also bear no relation to the paradise painted at Alchi and, to date, no prototype in Nepal has come to light. The bejewelled trees and flowers in the Guge paradises in general follow the decorative conceptualization of such forms seen in the Indo-Nepali tradition (Fig. 10), while the architectural forms used for the celestial pavilions are based generally on the wooden architectural style prevalent in the Himalayas. Although numerous figures densely pack the composition, they are not rigidly compartmentalized in the Nepali manner. Nor do they sit impassively in a strictly symmetrical arrangement, but walk, bend, sit and fly in a wide variety of postures. True, the posture and gestures are ritualized and the density of the figures makes concentration difficult; nevertheless the compositions, on the whole, are lively and interesting. The only Nepali painting which shows a similarly animated composition of countless figures is a sixteenth century paubha depicting the restoration of the Svayambhunath stuūpa. Pal 1975, p.69.

In general the consistency and homogeneity of the Guge style indicates that it may have been created by a single group or family of artists who were well aware of the Sakyapa tradition in south-central Tibet. The most creative period of the style was the second half of the fifteenth century when the artists were involved in painting the murals of the Red Temple in Tsaparang. However, as already noted, the style was short-lived for in the next century it became considerably modified with other visual elements which must have arrived in the train of the Gelukpas who had begun making their presence felt by the second half of the fifteenth century.

The Sakyapa style with its admixture of Nepali and Chinese elements seems to have been the dominant influence in western Tibet in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, as is evident from several other examples illustrated here Strong Sakyapa influences may also be seen in murals at Phugtal (Snellgrove and Skorupski 1980, pl. V) in Zanskar and in Saspol near Alchi. In fact some of the Phugtal murals are extremely close to those of the Gyantse Kumbum. (Pls.47-49). It is not always easy to determinevthe orders for which such thankas were done. For instance, the thanka of Amitāyus (Pl. 47) may have been rendered for a Kagyupa monastery because of the inclusion of the figure of Padmasambhava in the top row. Some of the others (Pls. 52-54) are Bonpo thankas but the forms of the deities are basically not different from those of the Buddhist gods. Although some of the religious ideas of the Bonpos go back to the pre-Buddhist days, both in the conceptualization and the iconography of their deities, they were heavily influenced by the Buddhists.

Amitayus Western Tibet Pl. 47
Buddha Amitayus
Western Tibet (Kagyupa monastery), 15th century
50.8 x 47.7 cm.
Private Collection
Angry Kubera Pl. 48
Angry form of Kubera
Western Tibet (?), 15th century
117x95.3 cm.
Private Collection
Buddhist Godess Pl. 49
A Buddhist Goddess
Western Tibet (?), ca.1500
29x25 cm
Private Collection

Most of these thankas are strongly influenced by the Sakyapa style, but at the same time they are characterized by touches of provinciality and whimsy and generally more cursive draughtsmanship, features that lead us to suggest a western Tibetan origin for them. The clothes and scarves as well as the rendering of the lotus, the compositional arrangement of the four principal figures (Pl. 51) are undoubtedly borrowed from the Sakyapa tradition, but the drawing in these paintings is not quite as accomplished as one finds in Sakyapa thankas. The Sakyapa artist’s concern with meticulous detailing, firm, steady drawing and smooth, even colouring is here eschewed for more summary though spontaneous execution. For instance, neither the background design nor the flaming aureoles are delineated as carefully as in Sakyapa paintings.

Shakyamuni 15th Century Pl. 50
Buddha Sakyamuni
Western or Central Tibet, Late 15th century
161.29x99 cm.
Private Collection
Angrey Deities 16th Century Pl. 51
Four Angry Deities
Western Tibet, 16th century
50.8 x 36 cm.
Ravi Kumar Collection

However, some thankas such as the Buddha Śākyamuni (Pl. 50) and the unusual Angry Kubera (Pl. 48) are just as refined as any Sakyapa paintings known. The source of both thankas is difficult to determine. The Śākyamuni thanka is said to have emerged from the monastery of Lamayuru, although it also shows similarities with paintings in Central Tibet and Bhutan. Klimburg-Salter, p.200 for the Lamayuru attribution and Olschak and Wangyal, p.68 for central or eastern Tibetan thanka now decorating the Temple of the Swans near Bumthang in eastern Bhutan. If indeed this thanka emerged from Lamayuru, it may have been brought there from central Tibet. Whatever its origin, it is an attractive thanka that is not only beautifully drawn but also reveals a delicate and sensitive use of colours. The red and orange robes have totally different tonal values than one normally encounters in western Tibetan or Sakyapa paintings, while the blue has the luminosity of lapis lazuli rather than the dense indigo blue more favoured by Nepali artists.

A similar blue is also used strikingly in the thanka of the Angry Kubera (Pl. 48) which is a superb painting, no matter where it was created. For several reasons, this remains an unusual thanka, even though its ultimate source of inspiration was the Sakyapa style. Clearly here we are encountering a work by an original artist who has left a strong impress of his individuality. His images are bold and his colours reveal a range and tonality that are quite different from the Sakyapa thankas. Subtle and delicate, some of the shades, such as the mauve behind the figure or the shocking pink of the decorative flames, are rarely encountered in other thankas. Unusual also are the rows of offerings on either side of the stem and foliage of the lotus at the bottom of the thanka. But perhaps the most interesting feature in this thanka is the rich cloak of peacock feathers worn by Kubera. This provides a tenuous link with the past for in one of the finest compositions among the Alchi murals, a queen is seen approaching Mahākāla, riding a horse and wearing a similar cape of peacock feathers. Pal 1982B, P1.544. It is not known whether Tibetan royalty used such sumptuous capes, but that they were much sought after by Chinese royalty is known from textual evidence. E. H. Schafer, The Golden Peaches of Samarkand (Berkeley and Los Angeles, u.c.p., 1963), p.114.

Although some information about the religion of the Bonpos is known, very little work has been done on their art. Just as they organized their religion following Buddhist models, so also in their artistic creations, they adopted Buddhist ideas and forms with some modifications and variations. Once found all over Tibet, today the Bonpos are confined mostly to eastern Tibet and along the northwestern border of Nepal. However, they do have an important monastery in Tsang and once the Bon religion was greatly popular in the western regions. As a matter of fact their tradition claims the land of Shangshung (Zhang zhung) was their original habitat and the region is generally identified with western Tibet. Mount Kailash is considered by the Bons to be their most sacred mountain and is called Zhang zhung hon ri.

The presence of the large Bon monastery in Tsang may explain the strong Sakyapa influence evident in a thanka representing Lha chen po dBal ge khod. One of the most important Bon deities, he may be recognized, by his eighteen arms of yellow colour and the garuḍa-like khyung bird flying over his head (Pl. 52). As can also be seen his companions include a greater number of animal- and bird-headed deities than is usual in Buddhist thankas. Note further the inclusion of a large number of mahasiddhas, (who are common to Buddhist iconography as well), in the two top registers. Also noteworthy are the distinctive hats of some of the Bonpo hierarchs and of the figures in the dedication panel at the lower left. Indeed, except for such minor differences in costumes and iconographic features, the only other motif that seems to be different from Buddhist thankas is the shape of the flames behind the central figure.

Lhachenpo Balge Khod Pl. 52
Lhachenpo Balge Khod
Western Tibet, 16th century,
80x68 cm.
Mr. and Mrs. John Gilmore Ford Collection, Baltimore
Bon Dolpo 16th century Pl. 53
Bonpo Deity Dolpo
(Nepal?), Late 16th century
77x66 cm.
Private Collection
Bon Dolpo 16th century Pl. 54
Bonpo Deity Dolpo
(Nepal?), Late 16th century
79x 62 cm.
Private Collection

Similar flames are used with even greater expressiveness behind the prancing and militant figures in two other Bonpo thankas that form a pair (Pls. 53-54). Apart from this and some iconographic elements, however, these two thankas have very little in common with the one just discussed. The principal deities in both thankas are placed within shrines with Chinese style roofs but the columns are formed with bizarre imagery. In one, the columns consist of piled up corpses and multi-hued animal heads projecting outwardly. In the other, three rows of skulls and severed heads are employed. The macabre nature of the imagery is further emphasized by the row of heads that adorn the base of the shrine and the sea of blood along the bottom. On either side of the shrine are the charnel fields of the cremation ground with scavenging birds and animals, severed limbs and dancing skeletons - all represented against a black background adorned with golden scrolls in the manner of a special type of painting we will study later in this book. Various emblems and gruesome offerings are also presented against a similar background along the bottom, while above the shrine gods and hierarchs sit in contemplative tranquility.

Although the architectural design as well as the use of gold scrolls on black have been adapted from eastern Tibetan paintings, the figural forms and the colouring are more akin to the Sakyapa style paintings of western Tibet. The thankas could also have been painted for the Bonpo monastery in Tsang, and thus, the western Tibetan attribution is by no means certain. These examples, once again, reiterate the difficulty in suggesting definite origins for thankas.