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Marcel Nies

12. Avalokitesvara
Nepal; Malla
17th century
Gilt-Copper alloy, cast in the lost wax method, (base repousse), sealed, inlaid with turquoise, traces of cold gilding and paint on the faces
height 32 cm.


This bronze sculpture has a seal at the bottom and traces of cold gilding on the faces, indicating the piece was once used in a Tibetan monastery. The stylistic characteristics of this image however are typical Nepalese, revealing a casting in a copper alloy, created by a Newari craftsman. The interpretation of the complex icon is in addition pure Nepalese and differs from Tibetan examples; the piece has ten arms instead of eight, and the heads are differently arranged and are reminiscent of some early Tibetan Kashmir style examples. A stylistically similar piece is published in Ulrich von Schroeder's 'Indo Tibetan bronzes', page 382, nr. 103a and is dated 1658 A.D.

The popular god Avalokitesvara is an emanation of Amithaba, the oldest of the five cosmic Buddhas who symbolises the stream of life and represents the summer season. Avalokitesvara is 'the lord of compassion' in Mahayana Buddhism; in this particular image with ten arms and eleven heads, he is manifested in one of his most powerful and important forms. Avalokitesvara is belonging to one of the Buddhist Bodhisattvas, the actual creators of the universe; 'Bodhi' means knowledge and 'Sattva' means essence. After his attainment of enlightenment, he wanted to guide beings to the path of Buddha, leading to perfection. In the Buddhist literature Avalokitesvara is worshipped in more than 108 forms- saints, lamas, including the Dalai Lama were believed to he the mortal emanations of Avalokitesvara.

Avalokitesvara is standing on a circular single lotus throne depicted on a large circular double lotus throne His primary hands are depicted in front of his chest, holding the magic wish granting gem, which stands for the spirit of enlightenment that consists of love and wisdom. His other right hands hold a rosary for reciting 'om mani padme hum', a wheel of combined spiritual teaching and benevolent governance, an image of the Buddha Amithaba, and one is in varada mudra, the gesture of charity. His left hands hold a padma, the white lotus in full bloom, symbolising purity and spiritual elevation, a bow and arrow, symbolising meditation and wisdom, a kalasa, the vase containing the elixir of immortality, and a cintamani, the flaming pearl. The faces of Avalokitesvara symbolise the god mastery of all the Bodhisattva stages, each of them representing an attitude dominant in a particular stage. He is depicted with eleven heads, arranged in five levels, three with peaceful expressions and seven are having a fierce expression; a head turning to the front, left and right on two levels, an additional two levels of two faces turning to the sides, and on top the head of Amithaba. The skin of an antelope is draped around the god's chest, referring to his ascetic experience. Avalokitesvara is adorned with a typical finely engraved garment of a celestial Bodhisattva, showing five-leafed crowns, earrings, necklaces, bracelets, anklets, strands of pearls, and ornaments.

The magnificent heads of Avalokitesvara express the multidimensionality of the Bodhisattva's compassionate awareness. His ten arms symholise his extensive power to help beings to free themselves from the suffering of samsara, the egocentric existence. The imposing image is portrayed with individuality, vigour and fine articulated details; the beautiful movements of his arms and ornaments contrasting to the fine symmetrical construction and his upright posture. The piece exhibits an overall serene impression, revealing Avalokitesvara as a great lord of compassion.


all text, images © Marcel Nies
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