Previous Image | Sacred Visions | Next Image

12. Eleven-Headed, One-Thousand-Armed Avalokiteshvara

 Eleven-Headed, One-Thousand-Armed Avalokiteshvara

12. Eleven-Headed, One-Thousand-Armed Avalokiteshvara
Central Tibet (a Kagyu monastery). mid-12th century
Distemper on cloth
38.1 x 29.5 cm (15 x 115/8 in.)
Private collection

In this compelling iconographic form, the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, who embodies compassion, sees and reaches out in all directions to assist those in need. In Tibet, he is called Chenresi. His eleven heads, which can be interpreted as corresponding to the eleven points of a mandala (its center, four cardinal points, four intermediate points, nadir, and zenith), are arranged in five registers. The lowest, displaying peaceful countenances, is surmounted by three levels of wrathful forms; the peaceful Buddha Amitabha is at the top. Each head represents an aspect of the compassionate deity, even the wrathful forms, which reflect Avalokiteshvara's ability to meet
ferocious powers with comparable strength, although his heart remains full of compassion.1 His arms, intended to represent the auspicious number one thousand, stretch around him like a wide halo, each bearing an eye to symbolize his unhindered capacity to see. The outstretched hands poignantly suggest an immediate association between the deity's perception of his devotees' needs and his willingness to extend himself to relieve their suffering.

Avalokiteshvara stands on a lotus platform that he shares with two diminutive six-armed protective deities. A scrolling vine emerges from the lotus base and forms a backdrop for the six bodhisattvas, three on either side, who attend to the deity's teachings.2 This flowering vine rises from behind them and climbs up both sides of the painting, scrolling behind Avalokiteshvara. Vidyadharas borne by clouds surround his heads and upper halo; they carry parasols (symbols of royalty or dignitaries) and cymbals (proclaiming his teachings). In the top corners of the thanka two groups, each with three figures, are set within lotus-petal borders. On the left is the historical Buddha flanked by two monks dressed in Tibetan-style robes. They are identified by fragmentary inscriptions. One can be read as Phakmo Drupa (1110-1170). On the right, probably, is Songtsen Gampo (d. ca. 649), the first Tibetan ruler of the historical period, flanked by his Chinese and Nepalese wives. From an early period, Songtsen Gampo, who was instrumental in introducing Buddhism to Tibet, was identified as an incarnation of the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara. His Chinese and Nepalese wives, who also played important roles in bringing Buddhism from their native lands, were thought to be the White and Green Taras.3 Two other forms of Avalokiteshvara appear beneath these groupings: Shadakshari Lokeshvara to the left and Mahakaruna. to the right.

The style and iconography of the painting seem to derive mainly from Indian models. This includes the basic approach to drawing and color as well as such minor elements as the shapes of the faces and the jewelry types. However, exact Indian pictorial prototypes have not survived. Although Central Asian images of the deity from Dunhuang exist, the earliest painting of a thousand-armed
Lokeshvara in the Indic world is on a Nepalese palm-leaf manuscript page dated 1015 (in the Asiatic Society of Calcutta [no. vii]).4

The style and dress of the main deities derive from eastern Indian prototypes, but the costumes of the figures in the top vignettes hark back to styles seen in late-eleventh-century Tibetan murals. The Buddha's saffron shawl is arranged in a distinctive manner; his right shoulder is covered by a small piece of the cloth, while a wide area of the fabric spills over his left side and is hiked up by a clasp so that its inner red-lined face is exposed and falls in symmetric pleats across his chest. Underneath
he is wearing a black robe with long tubular sleeves and a round neck. The monks wear red shawls that also cover the right shoulder and then are drawn around and over the left side to allow a diagonal slit of chest to be seen. They wear yellow vests with V-shaped openings. Similarly, the
dress of Songtsen Gampo and his queens is archaic and compares with garments seen in the Drathang murals. The king wears a green jacket with flaring sleeves, pushed back to reveal his forearms. His long inner robe, whose hem is gathered up around him, has tubular sleeves. The
inner robe, like those of his companions, is patterned with gold devices (perhaps a Chinese brocade) and is secured around his waist by a wide pleated cummerbund. He wears a turban, and his ears are distended by the weight of his large earplugs. His wives wear similar robes, and their wide headbands are open on top. The closest parallel for all these modes of dress seems to be the Drathang murals, which Vitali dates to 1081-93.5

The dating of this painting to the mid-twelfth century is suggested by the figure of the Kagyu master Phakmo Drupa in the top register. His presence clarifies a somewhat eclectic mélange that combines figures with stylistic proximity to works from eastern India and others in archaic costumes of the late eleventh century. These elements, and the absence of a lineage, would otherwise point to a somewhat earlier date. The quality of the drawing of the central figure, where iconometric rules
undoubtedly governed proportions, is quite fine, but the subordinate figures, especially those in the lower register, are not as accomplished and show exaggerated postures. Overall, the drawing is not so fine as that in some of the other early Bengali-style thankas we have discussed. A Tibetan provenance is likely.    SMK

1. Mallmann 1986, p. 112; see also Chandra 1988. [back]

2. The artist seems to be depicting--going by the various hair and cranial formations--bodhisattvas of different spiritual levels. See as well cat. no. 4, note 1. [back]

3. Note that the woman on the right has a green complexion. Other early portraits of this king show him wearing a cloth turban, often with a head of the Buddha Amitabha at its zenith (an iconographic feature frequently borne by Avalokiteshvara, as in this painting), and flanked by two women. See a portrait statue of Songtsen Gampo in the Potala, published in New York, Wisdom, 1991, p. 41. [back]

4. See Saraswati 1977, no. 244; see also Mallmann 1948, pp. 154-56. [back]

5. Vitali 1990, pls. 29, 34. Elements of the clothing's style originate ultimately in Central Asia, some going as far back as the early ninth century (Khocho). These include features such as the V-necked undergarment, the small lappet of shawl covering the right shoulder, the monk's shawl swung across the body, the long-sleeved robe worn by the Buddha, and even the pleated fabric falling from his shoulder. However, the costumes in our thanka, perhaps because of the painting's small scale and later date, miss many of the subtleties of the Drathang murals. None of the costumes has the patterned bands at the hems or the hooks that suspend the pleated fabric falling over the chests of the figures in the murals. [back]

all text & images © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Previous Image | Sacred Visions | Next Image