The Age of the Dalai Lamas
Seventeenth through Nineteenth Centuries
Table of Contents:
2 Visions and Visualizations
3 Kadampa Style
4 Sakyapa Style
5 Thankas from Western Tibet
6 Landscape Tradition
7 Age of the Dalai Lama
The title of ta le or dalai (meaning ocean) was conferred upon Sonam Gyatsho by the Mongol ruler Altan Khan in 1578 and thereafter began the rule of the Dalai Lamas which lasted until the annexation of Tibet by the Chinese in the fifties of this century. The most powerful of all Dalai Lamas was the great fifth (1617-1682) whose life dominates the seventeenth century. Under the autocratic rule of the Fifth Dalai Lama, Tibet once more gained a measure of central authority which the country had not known since the fall of the Yarlung dynasty in the ninth century. The Dalai Lama was now the unquestionable spiritual and temporal authority in Tibet and since he was a Gelukpa, this order now became the predominant monastic order in the country.
The establishment of a stable central government did not mean that political troubles ceased. The growing power of the Mongols, whose chief, Ghusri Khan, was behind the success of the Fifth Dalai Lama, compelled the Chinese to intervene again and in 1728 they established an imperial agency in Lhasa that effectively made Tibet a vassal state of China. However, the dominance of the Gelukpa religious order from Kham in the east to Ladakh in the west did have important cultural consequences for Tibet. Not only were monasteries of the other orders converted to Gelukpa establishments, but the important Gelukpa monasteries now became the principal patrons of art as well as the major pilgrimage centres. For instance, although the Newars were traditionally associated with the Sakyapas in Tsang, from about the mid-seventeenth century most Newar traders made it a point to visit the Tashilhunpo monastery (the seat of the Panchen Lamas) which became the most important religious power spot for the Newari Buddhists. Another significant monastery was Drepung, which was the most popular seminary for the Mongols whose religious life now came to be dominated entirely by the Tibetan monks, especially the Gelukpas.
While Gyantse, Shigatse and other ancient centres of trade retained their commercial importance, Lhasa assumed a new prominence as the premier city of the country, perhaps symbolized best by the commanding fort-like Potala Pālace that dominates its landscape. Indisputably, it was now the political and religious capital of the country, and consequently also the leading commercial and cultural centre. Hierarchs of all monasteries of all orders not only acknowledged the supremacy of the Dalai Lama, but had to maintain close contacts with the Potala. Although professional artists were attached to every major monastery, it was the taste of Lhasa that achieved a pan-Tibetan status, just as the dialect of Lhasa came to be recognized as the formal language of the country in the same way as the queen’s English is in England. This is also clear from the fact that the nineteenth century source, mentioned earlier, speaks of a confluence of styles in the eighteenth century that came to be known as the Ü ri which could just as well be designated as the Lhasa style. It is noteworthy that a mixed style must already have emerged in Lhasa by the mid-seventeenth century when the Newari artist Śrīmantadeva sketched his patterns (Figs. 6-7).
In general the period of the Dalai Lamas was one of consolidation rather than innovation. As in other traditional cultures, continuity was deemed a virtue rather than a failing. As also we have already noted, archaizing tendencies have always remained a strong factor in the history of the visual arts in Tibet. However, neither the Kadampa nor the Sakyapa styles appear to have survived into the seventeenth century. As a matter of fact, by the seventeenth century (Pls. 41, 81-82), the Sakyapas themselves had definitely adapted elements of the landscape styles. Once the Tibetans had developed a taste for landscape elements, there was no turning back. Moreover, no new stylistic trends arrived either from Nepal or from China and the various landscape styles developed in the preceding centuries continued to flourish during this period. In fact, it was during the seventeenth century that the Tibetan artists made some contribution to Nepali painting from which they had borrowed so much for so long. Just as the Tibetan artists had become conscious of nature through Chinese paintings in the fourteenth century, so also in the seventeenth century, Newari artists became inspired enough through thankas to introduce skies, clouds and snow-peaked mountains to variegate the backgrounds of their images and narrative scenes. This was achieved not only through such sketches as those brought back by Śrīmantadeva but also through thankas acquired in the Tashilhunpo monastery by returning Newar traders.
Unlike the earlier periods, that of the Dalai Lamas offers us an abundance of riches. Not only have more thankas survived from this period, but it is also likely that the age was especially productive because of the general stability assured by a central government. Both trade and religion flourished, and money was as necessary an ingredient as piety for the commissioning of a religious image. The aesthetic taste of the period was highly eclectic, as is evident from the stylistic diversity of the thankas reproduced here. Even though no radical stylistic departure is perceptible, the incredible variety of the thankas produced during the period of the Dalai Lamas reflects both the creative vitality as well as the rich imagination of the unknown Tibetan artists.
The landscape styles developed in the previous century continued to be exploited with varying degrees of expressiveness by the Tibetan artist during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The two beautiful thankas depicting the Buddha’s life and jātakas (Pls. 69-70) differ from the earlier representations of similar subjects made for Wanli (Pl. 61) not in their style but in their expressiveness. Remarkably animated, both paintings are a riot of glowing and vivacious colours. There are strong juxtapositions of rhythmic forms - the flames, the clouds, the water - that impart a sense of frenzied activity to these crowded compositions. The style of these two thankas also reflects a rather curious mixture of stylization and naturalism. Certain passages seem clearly to have been lifted from Chinese paintings, such as the scene at the lower right hand corner in Pl. 69, or the presentation of the infant Buddha to the sage Atīśa immediately below the central composition depicting Mara’s attack in Pl. 70. The attire of the guards and warriors is clearly Chinese, as is also the naturalistic rendering of some trees and animals. For instance, the fish and the birds, the lotuses and the pines in Pl. 69, are either the result of direct observation or are adopted from realistic representations in Chinese paintings. On the other hand, most of the trees and the elephants in the other thanka are conceptually rendered. The clouds too are treated differently in the two thankas. Indeed, it is quite possible that the two thankas, although belonging to the same series, were painted by two different artists.
The two monumental mahasiddha thankas (Pls. 71-72) continue the earlier style of arhat painting in which a single figure dominates the landscape composition. Although based on the same style, the two thankas are examples of two different types of mahasiddha representations. In one (Pl. 71), even though one mahasiddha is made pre-eminent, several others are included in a lively but crowded composition. In spite of the fact that the central figure dominates the composition with his larger size, the viewer’s attention is easily captured by the other vignettes. In the other thanka (Pl. 72), however, the attendants and the four other mahasiddhas are not allowed to distract our attention from the main personage.
Although there are some lively representations of mahasiddhas among the early murals, generally in early thankas, a few of them are included in lineage paintings both of the Sakyapas and Kagyupas. Even at the early stages their iconographic features make them distinct figures (Pls. 11, 15-16). While the arhats were generally portrayed as monks, the mahasiddhas are always depicted as Indian yogis, as semi-naked figures with matted hair engaged in all sorts of bizarre activities, as is evident from the two splendid examples included here. Their unusual forms and unconventional postures and gestures provided the artists with much greater freedom than they had in depicting gods or monks. As a result, the representations of mahasiddhas, whether in early thankas, or in individual series, are always highly imaginative and animated, as indeed they are in these two thankas.
Some of the outstanding portrayals of mahasiddhas may be seen in the Gyantse murals, one especially expressive example of which we have already witnessed (Pl. 20). However, no thankas representing the mahāsiddhas as a group or individually can yet be dated earlier than the fifteenth century. The two examples included here seem to continue the expressive figurative tradition of Gyantse, enlivened further by the Sino-Tibetan landscape style. It must be pointed out, though, that neither the Indo-Nepali nor the Chinese tradition has yet yielded any mahasiddha paintings. Thus, the mahasiddha representations of Tibet probably represent an original contribution of the Tibetans to the history of Buddhist painting.
By the seventeenth century, it became increasingly popular with the Tibetans to use landscape settings for both their deities and lamas. Once again, as was the case with the Kadampa and the Sakyapa styles, all the religious orders adopted the same style. For instance, while the mahasiddha thankas may have been for one of the Kagyupa orders, the thanka depicting the dancing Ganesa (Pl. 75) was certainly for a Sakyapa monastery. We do not know the order for which the thanka portraying the dancing animal-headed goddess (Pl. 76) was done, but among the seven monks portrayed at the top is Sakya Bio Gros (third from the top on the right) who was a member of the Khon family and a disciple of Atīśa. In both thankas the blue-green mountains are added, but they are used in quite different ways and with different degrees of expressiveness. The Ganesa painting still clings to the earlier Sakyapa style with rocks jutting out from behind the red aureole like a second aureole. Birds and trees are added to the rocks to create a pleasing visual effect, and symmetry certainly is still the keynote of the composition. In the other painting, however, the artist has created a more surrealistic and expressive design where multi-coloured rocks outlined in gold float like icebergs against a sea of blood whose waves dance with the same rhythm as the leaping tongues of fire against which the two deities perform their own dance macabre.
In terms of its almost psychedelic use of strong, bold blues, this thanka is related to another group portraying arhats and regents of the quarters (Pls. 73-74, 77-78). Both these series were probably painted in eastern Tibet and have a strongly Chinese flavour in the drawing of the forms as well as the garments, though not in colouring. Because of their bright, intense colours, there is a general tendency to consider all such thankas to be late, just as all ornate Tibetan bronzes with a profusion of garments were once considered to be late. While Chinese parallels for such thankas are not easy to come by, they do reflect the same sort of baroque exuberance that one encounters in Chinese Buddhist bronzes of the Ming period.
It is true that the forms in such paintings have now hardened considerably. The landscaping is more laboured and stylized and the stress on blue and green rocks reflects the Tibetan’s love for archaizing. Nevertheless, one can still admire the precision of the drawing and the expressiveness achieved both by the realistic rendering of the faces and animals and the vivacious colouring. Note how intent the facial expressions of the arhat and his companion are in Pl. 73 as the former releases rays from his vase, while another companion continues to peel his fruit, unruffled by the miracle. The arhat is very likely Nagasena who normally holds a vase, though rays are not seen to emerge from it generally. However, it is interesting to note that Daoist immortals are often seen to hold a similar vase from which rays emerge (see Lee and Ho, no. 306). Or again, in the other thanka (Pl. 74), the animals are rendered with remarkable naturalism. Especially lively are the monkeys who offer fruits to the arhat Ajita who is absorbed in his meditation. Such charming representations of monkeys, often encountered in Chinese and Japanese paintings, are comparable in their perspicacity to the wonderful study of simian behaviour in the beautiful Sakyapa style thanka of Dancing Gaṇeśa (Pl. 26).
The stylistic diversity of the period as well as the archaizing tendency of the Tibetans may best be illustrated by two thankas portraying Mahākāla (Pls. 79-80) and mandalas (Pls. 81-82). The central figure in Pl. 79 clearly continues a Sakyapa prototype (Pl. 24) and the bold design of his ornaments across his chest remind us of those encountered in some early Kadampa style thankas (Pls. 8-9). The orange and white flame design is reminiscent of the earlier Sakyapa style thankas. Yet the dancing ḍākinīs and the conceptually rendered black animals and birds surrounding the central figure belong to eastern Tibet. It is difficult to determine, however, whether the thanka was rendered for a Sakyapa monastery in Tsang or in eastern Tibet, but clearly the artist was aware of the earlier Sakyapa style. The other Mahākāla (Pl. 80) reveals no such archaic elements but is painted in a radically different style. Although the flames are equally expressive, they are not allowed to overwhelm the silhouette of the figures. The light background, empty spaces and the muted tones of the colours make the imagery visually more comprehensible though not necessarily more compelling.
The earlier Sakyapa style is also continued in two beautiful mandalas (Pls. 81-82), just as it was in the Dancing Ganesa (Pl. 75), but with modifications. Even a glance at the two thankas reveals how different they are from one another, not only in their configurations but also in their basic colouring, while a comparison with earlier Sakyapa mandalas (Pls. 29-30) will easily demonstrate the broader stylistic differences between the two periods. Apart from details of garments and ornaments, the figurative forms themselves are quite different from the earlier style. Note the emphasis on angularity in the forms of the principal figures as they dance in the centre of the thanka or in the mandalas in Pl. 49 and on the petals of the lotus in the other. We have encountered this angular construction of the body in an earlier painting (Pl. 64) of the landscape style but not in Sakyapa style thankas. Other noteworthy differences may be seen in the introduction of cloud designs and other landscape elements in the cemeteries in both paintings, which deviate considerably from earlier Sakyapa mandalas. Moreover, neither mandala has the rows of hierarchs that were such a persistent feature of fifteenth-sixteenth century Sakyapa mandalas. This of course makes it difficult to determine whether these mandalas were rendered for Sakyapa patrons or for some other order.
All artists, however, did not indulge in bold, bright colours, and, in eastern Tibetan thankas, in particular, one notes a refreshing restraint in the use of colours. For instance, a beautiful and delicate thanka of Buddha along with his two disciples (Pl. 84) is rendered in a gentle mellow style in which the cool colours are employed almost with a pastel effect. Or again, in another thanka the figures retain their primacy and, with the exception of the clouds above, landscape elements are entirely dispensed with (Pl. 83). The figural forms of both the Buddha and the bodhisattvas reflect very distinctive types that are not frequently encountered in other thankas. The garments of the bodhisattvas are the only bright touches in the otherwise soft and pleasing totality of the colours.
While some artists continued to emphasize blues and greens (Pl. 86), others preferred to vary their palette and even to dispense with the blue-green rocks altogether. For instance, the painter responsible for the lively Dharmatāla thanka, where the arhat strides forcefully with his pet tiger (Pl. 88) used the blue-green rock formations sparingly, while in another thanka of the same subject (Pl. 87), as well as in several others (Pls. 89-92), this stock motif was totally discarded. Instead, in all these thankas, muted browns, greens and greys were deftly blended to create a landscape of gentler shapes and restrained texture. The emphasis on the oppressive solidity of the rocks was eschewed for more evocative landscapes which are open and airy. However, a significant difference between these and the earlier arhat thankas (Pls. 58-60) lies in the stronger role that fantasy plays in these pictures. Frequently now the landscape serves merely as a background, and, apart from the human teachers, divine figures are also introduced both at the top and the bottom in order to perhaps increase the spiritual character of such thankas. No longer do monks or arhats sit by themselves or with one or two attendants, but their divine nature and connections are invariably emphasized by the addition of smaller figures of other monks and divinities across the sky. Even in the rather naturalistic representation of the arhat Dharmatāla (Pl. 88), in which like a pet dog, the tiger turns around to snarl at the pair of charming deer seated in the foreground, a red Buddha is seen floating above the stream as if to assure the arhat that he will have no problem in negotiating the waters. In the other (Pl. 87) a Karmapa and a Shamarpa hierarch join the Buddha in the sky, and all three watch Dharmatāla approach yet another river which here is guarded by two regents of the quarters and a guardian deity.
Thus, although these thankas do have some charming naturalistic touches, especially in the delineation of animals such as the tigers and deer, by and large, they represent landscapes of evocation which are to be interpreted symbolically rather than literally. Tibetans were clearly not interested in depicting the nature around them but to use landscape elements, borrowed from the Chinese tradition, as both symbolic and ornamental elements. Thus, form remained subordinated to fantasy, and the painter was constrained only by the limitations of his imagination.
Portraits of monks and lineage thankas continued to enjoy popularity during the period of the Dalai Lamas and in these too landscape elements became prominent. While group portraits of particular lineages continued to be popular (Pls. 41, 85, 95), single portraits of monks following the models of the earlier arhat thankas were not uncommon (Pls. 90, 97). Some of the finest portrait thankas of the period were those produced for the Kagyupas in eastern Tibet. Two such thankas depicting Gyaltsap Goshir Paljor Thondrup I and the Karmapa Dezhin Shegpa are reproduced here (Pls. 91-92). Both were painted by the celebrated Karshu Gonpo Dorje who belonged to the Karmapa order and was also a meditation master. For drawings based on the series painted by Karshu Gonpo Dorje, see the illustrations in Thinley. I am in-debted to the reverend Phiintsok Dorje of Karma Triyana Dharmachakra (Woodstock) for identifying Gyaltsap Goshir Paljor Thondrup I, who was the first incarnate lama of the Gyaltsap lineage, a main disciple of His Holiness the Karmapas. (Private Communication dated April 19, 1983.) His exact dates are not known, but he lived towards the end of the seventeenth and the early years of the eighteenth century.
Gyaltsap Goshir (Pl. 91) has a very distinctive face which is distinguished by a peculiar hair style that looks like a cap. Curiously also, while his hair is pitch black, all his facial hair is red. Notwithstanding this incongruity, his face seems to be highly individualistic and may well have been taken from life. A monk kneels in reverence below him in one corner while the other is occupied by Mahākāla and a ḍākinī. At the top right corner a blue Yamari, presumably the tutelary deity of the lama, is shown in yab-yum.
In the other thanka (Pl. 92), we see the famous Fifth Karmapa Dezhin Shegpa seated on an elaborate throne with the Emperor Yongle seated on a smaller chair in front of him. In between them a monk performs a ritual ceremony - probably the life prolonging ceremony - by pouring water from a vase on a mirror reflecting the emperor’s head. The biography of the Karmapas Thinley, pp. 73-74. recounts how the Karmapa performed several empowerments for the emperor for fourteen weeks when he visited the imperial capital in 1406. We are also informed that Yongle gave his guru a higher throne than his own, and that when on the first day the emperor offered robes and silks to the Karmapa, ‘a magical temple seemed to be present in space.’ Not only do we see attendants bringing rolls of silks and heaps of jewels at the lower right hand corner of the thanka, but the magical temple too floats in space immediately above the emperor’s head.
Thus apart from commemorating the Karmapa’s visit to the imperial court, this thanka faithfully follows the literary tradition. It is possible that the composition for this thanka was based on a segment of the Tshurphu scroll, which has been previously mentioned and which was painted by the emperor’s court artists. It depicts the events that occurred in the imperial capital during Dezhin Shegpa’s visit. The earliest known portrait of the Fifth Karmapa Karmay 1975, p.64, Fig.46. occurs in a woodblock print produced in Beijing in 1431. Although the image is perfunctorily rendered, the general shape of the face and its features are similar to those seen in the portrait here. Since the Karmapa died at the age of thirty-one, he must have been only twenty-two when he visited Yongle in 1406. Indeed, both portraits emphasize his youthfulness. It may also be noted that the representation of the emperor too is quite faithful to the official portraits that were prepared during his lifetime. Thus, it is possible that Karshu Gonpo Dorje based his thanka on earlier models. Be that as it may, there is no doubt that he was an excellent painter. Although he did not deviate from the accepted convention, his technique was flawless. Both thankas are elegantly radiant and unlaboured in their harmonious combination of naturalism and fantasy.
Two other thankas by unknown artists, one portraying a Karmapa hierarch (Pl. 90) and another, from a series depicting the kings of mythical Sambhala (Pl. 89), are just as elegantly painted as the portraits by Karshu Gonpo Dorje. The draughtsmanship is equally accomplished and the landscapes are just as reposeful. We are not sure who the Karmapa was but very likely he was Wangchuk Dorje (1555-1603), one of whose principal disciples was the famous Tārānātha. Sambhala is a mythical kingdom that has always had a peculiar fascination for the Tibetans. It is the hidden kingdom where the powerful but esoteric Kālachakra (Wheel of Time) teachings are said to have originated. While the mountains behind the king are entirely imaginary and follow the conventional forms, the landscape passages with the river, the boat and monasteries behind the Karmapa are much more realistic and may well have topographical veracity.
The creative vitality and rich imagination of the artists of eastern Tibet are nowhere more apparent than in a beautiful thanka depicting the arhats in an unusual manner (Pl. 96). In this busy, lively thanka, the arhats are seated on various aquatic creatures in an ocean whose turbulent waters are indicated by luxuriant waves, their curling and dancing crests emphasized by white highlights. A companion thanka, also representing the arhats in the high seas, is in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. See Pal 1983B.
The painting vividly depicts a legend about Hva Shang, the seventeenth arhat in the Tibetan tradition. When Hva Shang lived as a monk in China, he once offended the emperor and fled to escape punishment. Years later he returned in a boat, and all the other arhats emerged from the sea to protect both their colleague and the merits of the emperor. Apparently the subject was popular in China and was often painted in temples. Tucci 1949, p.557 ; De Visser 1923, p.138.
Although there are only seventeen arhats in this painting and they are floating in the ocean, the thanka does seem to resemble, however faintly, the compositional complexity and often amusing maneuvers of over five hundred arhats in a delightful painting by the Chinese painter Wu Pln (active 1591-1626). Wai-kam, Ho et al, no.205. There too, in one of the segments, the arhats are seen riding fantastic animals, as they do here on aquatic monsters. The stylization of the water too is borrowed from late Ming conventions. However, the application of bright, glowing colours with the red and orange predominating is characteristically Tibetan, as may also be seen in a contemporary lineage thanka (Pl. 95). Indeed, although the subject matter of the two thankas, as well as their compositions, are different, they could well have been rendered in the same atelier and in the same period.
The eighteenth century central Tibetan style may best be exemplified by two fine thankas from a well-known series (Pls. 93-94). Both thankas are based on woodblock prints which, as Tucci has shown, Tucci 1949, pp.412-417. were prepared sometime after 1737 in the Narthang monastery near Tashilhunpo. The series depicts the successive incarnations of the Tashilhunpo hierarchs and include both Indians and Tibetans. For instance Pl. 94 portrays the Indian scholar/translator Abhayākaragupta, who was probably a contemporary of Rama Pāla (ca. 1084-1130) of the Pāla dynasty. The other (Pl. 93) is a representation of Yuntonpa (gYung ston rdorje dpal) who lived between 1284-1288 and 1365. A disciple of Buton Rinpoche, he was much revered by the Chinese imperial family. A snake is coiled around Abhayākaragupta who had miraculously produced the beast in order to impress a visitor, while Yuntonpa brandishes a phurbu in order to bind Mahākāla whose head he conjures up in fiery clouds like a genie in a lamp.
Stylistically, these paintings offer nothing that is novel, but they do demonstrate that landscape elements were an integral part of the central Tibetan painters’ repertoire as well. Tucci was of the opinion that these thankas reflected renewed contacts with Chinese painting. But Srimantadeva’s pattern book (Figs. 6-7) clearly shows that the style had already been formulated in Lhasa by mid-seventeenth century.
With one exception, which we will discuss presently, no new style of painting was developed in the eighteenth or the nineteenth century. As we have previously noted, natural forms continued to be employed ubiquitously, no matter what the subject, just as they were almost non-existent in thankas of the earlier ages and schools. Monks and mandalas (Pls. 97-102) float miraculously against hills decorated with trees and foliage that are rendered either naturalistically, or with refreshing capriciousness, or against deep indigo blue skies enriched with swirls of stylized clouds. Nevertheless, the sustained vitality of the tradition may be gleaned from the great variety of compositions, as is evident from the mandalas (Pls. 99-102) and paradises (Pls. 103-104) illustrated here. Neither the need to adhere to established convention nor the penchant for archaism proved to be debilitating, and individual artists continued to produce thankas with imagination and ingenuity. For example, in the paradises of Padmasambhava and Amitabha, the artists have employed the delicate and lyrical Karma Gadri style of the sixteenth-seventeenth century, but with interesting nuances and deviations. Even though the style has hardened considerably, the strong emphasis on architecture, the subtle colouring and the highly imaginative landscaping make both examples refreshingly charming. While Amitabha’s paradise (Pl. 104) is strictly formal and symmetrical like a well laid-out garden of receding terraces, the painter responsible for Padmasambhava’s celestial abode (Pl. 103) was far more imaginative. Even though his emphasis, too, was on symmetry and orderliness, he imparted a greater sense of depth and volume to his space and his buildings by making his enclosing walls follow a zigzag pattern. Unusual also is his treatment of multi-coloured rocks in the middle foreground, which obviously do not follow the Chinese convention.
This general survey of thankas may be brought to a close with a brief discussion of a type of Buddhist painting that appears to be peculiar to Tibet. Known in Tibetan as gser thang, these thankas (Pls. 105-115) rely entirely on a linear technique to achieve their dramatic effect. The primary outlines are drawn in gold on a red or a black background. Only one gold on red thanka is reproduced here, while most of the others are of the gold on black kind. Although gold outlines for the forms are predominant, other colours too, mostly red but some blue and occasionally other shades are employed with telling effect to create images and compositions of awesome forcefulness.
Most of these thankas were used in special chapels for protective deities known as the gonkhang. There these thankas would join powerful representations of Mahākāla and other protective gods to create a bizarre realm all their own. These are the images that inspired Tucci to write that ‘they seem to jump up alive before your eyes to crowd on you like ghosts and to engrave themselves mercilessly into the bottom of your subconsciousness so as to haunt your dreams as well.’ Rarely has religious painting explored the suggestive power of the line with such extraordinary expressiveness.
Exactly when and where such thankas originated is unclear. Tucci seems to be generally correct in his opinion that none can be dated earlier than the eighteenth century. The type may have been invented in eastern Tibet deriving its inspiration from gold and black frontispieces of Chinese sūtras which must have been familiar to the Tibetans. In general the figurative forms and the natural motifs were employed commonly in most regions of Tibet at this time. As is usually the case with other styles, this too was not the monopoly of any particular order. But most of the examples illustrated here appear to have been used by the Gelukpas and the Kagyupas. It is possible that the style was derived from earlier thankas such as the one portraying Mahākāla (Pl. 105), which is unlikely to be later than the seventeenth century and could in fact be even earlier. Although gold is less effusively used in this thanka, it does outline all the black deities. The fine scrollwork that fills the background still continues a mode that was popular with the Sakyapas. The monks, mahasiddhas and gods, both at the top and the bottom, are drawn and coloured in the conventional way. Nevertheless, the gold outlining of the black and red thankas is anticipated in this powerful and finely executed thanka of Mahākāla, though not fully explored. It is very likely that thankas such as this may have inspired an unknown master to abandon solid forms altogether and create a linear style of painting in which colour is used minimally.
Although most serthang thankas depict protective deities and angry emanations, as do the examples illustrated here, others do portray benign gods and Buddhas. Indeed, a beautiful thanka in the Musée Guimet in Paris representing the Bodhisattvas Samantabhadra and Avalokiteśvara and another showing Kunga Sangpo (1382-1444), the founder of the Nor monastery, may well have been painted in the seventeenth century. Beguin 1977, p.55; Olschak and Wangyal, p.60. The principal deities represented in the thankas illustrated include the angry Vajrapāni (Pl. 106), the cosmic Vajrabhairava (Pl. 107), manifestations of Mahākāla (Pls. 108, 112) and Lhamo (Pls. 110, 114-115), a ferocious form of Garuda (Pl. 109) and Kubera, the god of riches (Pl. 111). The portrayal of this last deity is interesting in that he has the same iconographic features of a much earlier but enigmatic representation (Pl. 48). Here too the god wears the cloak of peacock feathers, but has a much more pleasant face.
The composition in a serthang depicting angry deities is always dominated by a central figure, invariably set off by whirling and leaping tongues of flame. Otherwise, no two compositions are identical. The disposition of the other subsidiary deities vary widely from thanka to thanka. Usually also, the summit of the thanka is occupied by a representation of the peaceful form of the angry deity and some monks of the order to which the painting belonged. For instance, in the red serthang (Pl. 106), the figure in the middle is of Vajrasattva, who is flanked by either two Dalai Lamas or two Panchen Lamas. In the Vajrabhairabha (Pl. 107), the central figure of Mañjuśrī (whose angry emanation Vajrabhairava is) is flanked on his right by Tsongkhapa and by an unidentified lama on the left. The figure above Lhamo (Pl. 108) is probably a Kagyupa lama, while on the upper left hand corner of Kubera (Pl. 111) is the Indian teacher Atīśa.
Apart from these iconographic differences, the thankas also reflect remarkable variations in their arrangement of forms and use of natural motifs. The most prominent features are of course the swirling lines of the flame motif, the clouds and the flying scarves and garments which are used with a conscious effort to enhance the dramatic expressiveness of the imagery. Colours are always employed to create a psychedelic effect, and, although, generally, they consist of light washes, sometimes they are more heavily applied to create interesting tonal variations and impart a stronger sense of volume. This is particularly true of Pl. 113 where the flames, the garments, the tiger, the prostrate figure and the lotus petals are rendered in a much more painterly rather than linear technique. Usually, however, the linear mode was preferred, and colours remained subordinate to the line which moves across the black or red surface with a restless exuberance that makes these serthang thankas among the most dynamic, though bizarre expressions of human faith and artistic ingenuity. In a final surge of their creative impulse, the Tibetans attained full expression of their fantasy in these serthang thankas which remain unexcelled as much for their compelling visual imagery as for their powers of evocation.