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The Murals of Baiya Monastery

April 1998 Expedition
Art Report

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Buddha detail

Jonathan S. Bell
121, avenue d’Ivry
75013 Paris

March 8, 1999

The murals of Dege County’s Pewar (Ch. Baiya) Monastery are truly exquisite works of art that embrace their subject matters with a mixture of vivid color and painstaking detail. From ghastly esoteric scenes of demons wearing human skins to the serenity of buddhas seated in meditation, the depictions on the walls of the temple and upper prayer room comprise a mixture of stylistic influences from within and outside Tibet. Placid Nepalese-style bodhisattvas adorned with gold and flowing scarves face characteristic Tibetan esoteric figures with multiple arms and heads, standing on lifeless bodies. Just next to this unlikely couple lies a secular scene of workers so Chinese in style that they could almost have been transplanted from a Song or Jin Dynasty Shanxi temple wall. This blend of style, coupled with the seamless transition from iconography to storytelling, results in a unique and highly syncretic body of religious art.

The purpose of this essay is to expose and identify some of the iconography and religious stories depicted on the walls of the temple. I have tried to choose some of the more exemplary large figures and commonplace narratives as an introduction to Buddhist representation within a Tibetan context. A brief description of the physical setting, that is, the temple itself, will precede the discussion of the murals.

The Temple (click for Temple Plan)

The temple, or lha-khang, (1) as it is termed in Tibetan, makes up the northernmost part of the monastery, and, as is to be expected, constitutes the largest single room in the complex, boasting over 300 square meters of space. The size, it should be remembered, reflects its historical function not only as a monument to Buddhism, which it indubitably is, but as an assembly hall for monks and lay believers alike. The structure was built and decorated in the time of the great Dege King Tenpa Tsering (1678-1738), who greatly lavished on the this monastery because it was among his last religious projects.(2) This, then, dates the murals to somewhere in the first forty years of the 18th century.

A small enclosed anteroom with irreparable murals of its own provides a buffer between the hall and the courtyard of the monastery. Entrance into the large room is achieved only after climbing a few steps and passing through this vestibule at the north end of the monastery’s inner courtyard. Two large wooden doors mark the only way in and out of the chilly home of the masterpieces to be discussed below.

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Remaining section of murals in anteroom to temple

The interior of the temple boasts a collection of six rows of large, impressive columns, some of which reach to the third floor of the monastery. These recently replaced supports are the first structures to greet the visitor, delineating a straight path to the altar ahead. On the outskirts of this visible expanse lie the walls, enshrouded in darkness. The eastern and western walls measure, according to my own findings, 19.6 meters in length. The walls on either side of the door stretch 8.1 m from the entrance to the respective corner. The opposing northern walls measure 8.19 m on either side of the portal leading to the back room, which boasts three large buddhas. The entire length of these walls combined, measuring 71.78 m, is adorned with rich depictions 3.37 m in height.

According to Buddhist custom, circumambulation occurs in a clockwise direction. This tradition is readily observed at any holy site in Tibet, where pilgrims and locals alike walk, prayer wheel or beads in hand, around and around a structure of some perceived religious import. Therefore, the logical progression of the subjects on the interior walls is clockwise, turning west from the entrance, north to the back of the temple, east, south, and west again back to the door. However, it is worth noting that the abbot of the monastery, Tenzeng Nyima, told me that the actual direction one follows for the reading of the murals is of little import since the tales and scenes painted on these walls are not particularly interconnected.(3)  In any case, for the sake of custom and following my own findings, this paper will address the content of the murals as an interconnected temporal and physical progressive narrative.(4)

Either side of the southern and only entrance into the temple begins with six large central figures, 12 total, measuring about 1.7m in height. These figures range from guardian figures to Tārās (important female Buddhist deities in Tibetan and Nepalese illustration), and include bodhisattvas (buddhas-to-be). After these six large figures, seven buddhas of similar measurements continue around the temple to the entrance of the back room, making a total of 26 large figures in the temple, 13 on either side. The symmetry of the temple is a common attribute in such religious structures.(5)  Around the 14 large Buddhas and some of the other figures are illustrative narratives, often incredibly detailed, of jataka tales, the historical Buddha’s previous lives, and avadana stories. Some scenes from his historical life, including the infamous first steps and the taking of the tonsure, are also included in these pictorial representations. In the upper register of the murals (excepting the first portions on either side of the main entrance) reign depictions of small golden buddhas in meditation, probably meant to suggest the ten thousand or thousand buddha motif common in such early mural work as that of Dunhuang.(6)

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Section of multiple buddha motif

Upon entering the temple, the first painting immediately to the left (west) is devoted to mGon-po (Mahākāla, Skt.), a dharmapāla (drag-shed or chos-skyong, Tib.), or protector of the Buddhist law. The images are covered by brightly colored silk, presumably as a testimony to the sacred importance of mGon-po and also to hide the fierce esoteric representation of the figure from the eyes of those who may misunderstand the symbolism in depictions of trampled corpses and skull cups (thod-phor, Tib.; kapāla, Skt.) filled with blood. I myself was prevented from photographing this section of the wall by one of the monks, thus attesting to the perceived sensibility of mGon-po.

This section boasts a large central figure of mGon-po in one of his most common Tibetan aspects, Gur-gyi mgon-po. In this form, also known more simply as Gur-mgon-po, he is considered to be “protector of the tent” and the patron protector of the Sa-skya-pa (or Sakya-pa) sect, thus the particular reverence paid him in Baiya Monastery, a Sakya stronghold. Though there is a dark cloud around the origins of this truly Tibeto-Mongolian form, some claim that they are to be found in nomadic traditions.(7)  Regardless of the historical background of this omnipresent figure, Gur-gyi mgon-po boasts certain unalterable attributes that act as identification tags. In his left hand he holds a kapāla filled with blood and in his right, a ritual chopper (karttrka, Skt.; gri-gug, Tib.). Resting horizontally on his forearms is a magic staff (‘phrul-gyi, Tib.). As a dharmapāla, he wears the customary crown of five skulls, suggesting his fearlessness and determination to protect Buddhist law. He also bears a garland of human heads and tramples corpses, attributes inherited from his equally popular Hindu precursor, Mahākāla.(8) Dark blue in color, he has three eyes, a forked tongue shown sticking out between two menacing fangs, and is surrounded by an aura of flames.

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Gurgyi Gonpo as portrayed in the shrine room above the temple

A host of other figures surrounds the central mGon-po, some of them other aspects of the same deity. His most prominent companions are commonplace in such devotional works and are clearly mentioned in sutra, providing a textual reference for these illustrative representations(9). It should be noted here that an enclosed shrine room dedicated to Gur-gyi mgon-po sits above the temple on the roof and also boasts murals of its own. The central figure here mirrors the one painted on the walls upstairs and the large statue held in the same room. The treatment of both is so similar that all were probably commissioned at the same time and the paintings most likely were done by the same hand or at least by the same atelier of artists. The mirrored iconography and inclusion of many of the same figures attests to the strict rules followed in the realization of such work.

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Companion of Gur-gyi mGon-po. SW wall of main temple.

This first portion of the temple wall dedicated to mGon-po is inherently Tibetan in both subject and style. The figures don their traditional representations, boasting attributes that can be seen repeated in such scenes in Tibetan thangkas and murals in collections around the world. As the central figure, Gur-gyi mGon-po dominates the composition of the wall, surrounded symmetrically by fierce esoteric figures boasting ghastly expressions and wearing an array of human, tiger, and elephant skins. This gruesome and highly unapproachable representation of certain Buddhist figures is a typical Tibetan model, though clearly inherited from earlier Indian religious art. As protectors of the Buddhist faith and the sworn enemies of ignorance, dharmapālas like mGon-po are almost always depicted with a crown of skulls and fierce demeanor. Imbedded within their morbid and ferocious character is a symbolism that relates to the false nature of the world around us and the search for illumination of the truth.(10)  Despite the inherent meaning, the monstrous design of these figures and their horrific attributes are not easily understood by the non-initiate. Thus, the colorful silk that hides the depiction, reserving it for the meditation of monks.

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Offering Scene

Continuing along the southwestern wall, the first large seated figure stands out next to the yellow and red silk covering the mGon-po just before it. Cross-legged with feet on the floor, the white female figure plays the vina, an Indian lute. She is Sarasvatī (dByangs-chan-ma, Tib.), the Hindu goddess of music, poetry, and wisdom, later adopted into Buddhism and worshipped particularly in Tibet and Japan.(11) She sits with her feet flat, yet crossed, and her knees up in the air. Draped in flowing material and heavily bejeweled, Sarasvatī boasts a Nepalese pose, head slightly tilted to her right. Despite this Nepalese influence, the treatment of the figure is most definitely Chinese. Her fingers and face are drawn according to Chinese aesthetics and the flowing scarf on either side of her head follows a common stylized representation of fabric in motion used in painting and statuary.(12)

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Section with Sarasvatī SW wall of main temple

Her seat is in the form of an open lotus, whose petals are turned down and rimmed with gold. Multi-colored and extremely refined, this flowery throne serves not only as her pedestal and representation of understanding, but as a spatial separation between her and the host of deities and buddhas that surround her. Adorning her aureole is a layer of leafy greenery, with a lotus surmounting the halo about her head, serving the same purpose as the elaborate lotus on which she sits.

This method of expressing separation between scenes or figures of one plane from those of another is very often found in Chinese Buddhist work from much earlier times. The use of greenery and nature to separate scenes spatially and add a three-dimensional aspect to a two-dimensional medium was prominent in work at Dunhuang.(13)  This stylistic tool serves as a symbol to the admirer for a planar, spatial, and or temporal division between one figure or scene and that which surrounds.

The example of Sarasvatī’s leafy adornment is in contrast to the unbroken mountainous background below and the stylized cloud motif above. In both cases, an homogeneous background is used to represent the planarexistence of the figures and their contemporaneity with each other. For example, the fierce figures beneath the representation of Sarasvatī are all set in a mountainous, forested area that presents an unbroken background for all the foreground characters. This is in contrast to the plane defined by the leafy adornment. The interpretation, then, follows that these figures exist simultaneously on the same plane.

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Detail of Sarasvatī section

In addition, the use of natural settings for these divine figures has a purpose in the religious teaching of the masses. Linking these ethereal beings to a very mundane and readily visible world makes the worshipper’s task of understanding their existence less of a challenge. Herein lies one of the cornerstones of Buddhist teaching: the person on the path to enlightenment rests apart from the world while remaining firmly rooted in it, just as does the omnipresent symbol in pan-Buddhist representation, the lotus.(14) Reminiscent of Tang dynasty blue-green paintings, these background mountains serve, then, both as a stylistic dimensional tool as well as a teaching aid.

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Section with Sarasvatī.
SW wall of main temple

Another interesting aspect of this background is the movement inherent within it, an upward progression. There is a general concentration of figures and/or architectural depictions in the lower register of these paintings that gives way to much more ethereal, airy representations in the upper portions. As has already been noted, the motif of floating meditating buddhas occurs in the upper registers, but their placid, meditative demeanor and uniformity present an empyreal contrast to the seeming unorganized mass of people, man-made structures, and greenery that colors the lower portions. One moves upward away from the earth towards truth and enlightenment, for this knowledge is not of the earth but beyond.(15)

Let us turn to the pictorial narrative present in the temple by considering the depiction of Sākyamuni’s life on the northern portion of the east wall, halfway around the temple from the mGon-po and Sarasvatī depictions discussed above. This pictorial representation of one of the most prevalent and well-known Buddhist legends offers the material with which to consider questions of style and progression.

The story unfolds beneath the large central representation of a buddha in meditation, gilded and bearing a placid expression, one of the fourteen such central buddhas that adorn the northern half of the main temple. The thousand buddha motif continues to form a background around the central figure and a blur of architectural structures, people, and landscape narrates the life of the Buddha in the lower register. There is a hectic harmony created between all the various elements of the mural: the large recognizable central figure; the esoteric, ethereal figures and buddhas floating in space; and the pictorial narrative that anchors the rest. Here again, the discussion of upward progression is applicable and perhaps even clearer than in the example of the Sarasvatī section of the southern wall.

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Section with story of historical Buddha, Sākyamuni. Northern end of the east wall of the main temple

The tale begins in the lower left-hand corner of this section of the wall. A cloud floating above an architectural complex boasts a gilded figure and his entourage. This represents the Tusita Heaven, where the Buddha awaited his rebirth as Sākyamuni and his life of meditation and teaching. In the Tusita heaven, he chose himself the family to which he would be born for the last time and held an audience with the gods to convince them of his decision. Parasols are held above the central Buddha as symbols of his immense spiritual power.(16)

Just beneath unfolds the conception, birth, and first years of the Buddha’s life. A wavy golden emanation to the left of the Tusita scene carries a white elephant into the side of the sleeping Māyā, Sākyamuni’s mother. The legend holds that the Queen Māyā dreamt one night of a white elephant that entered her side. This dream, to soothsayers, represented her impregnation with a son who would become a cakravartin (lit. "one who turns the wheel", a righteous and all powerful ruler) or a Buddha, should he renounce the world.

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Buddha's birth

Ten lunar months later, Māyā decides to leave her home of Kapilavastu to visit her parents. She parts with her sister and stops on the way in the park of Lumbini, where she grabs the branch of a tree and gives birth to the Buddha painlessly from her side. Immediately upon his birth, two nāga (serpent) kings bathe him in water poured from on high (here, only one is shown, though another nāga is nearby, seemingly part of another scene). Then, the Buddha takes seven steps in each of the cardinal directions and points to the sky, stating, "In the Heavens and on Earth, only I am the Venerable One." (17)  This important event is depicted by a small golden figure with extremely long arms (one of the physical characteristics of the Buddha), the right one pointing towards the sky. It is probable that a path of lotus flowers were painted on the ground behind him, but are no longer visible, as each step of the Buddha was said to bring forth a full-blossomed lotus.

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Depiction of the Buddha’s life within the palace

The birth scene and the more important events of his years in the palace are depicted within the enclosure of the compound walls. Although most of his early life is confined to the palace and the gardens, the scene of his birth, for example, takes place away from his kingdom of Kapilavastu. Nevertheless, this event, like all the others, is placed within the royal walls. Localizing all events of the first years of the Buddha’s life within the confines of the palace and its gardens serves both functional and symbolic purposes, a point which will be discussed further.

A number of scenes within the compound are readily recognizable, although they may not be depicted in any particular order. For example, in the upper left of this palatial portion of the mural, Māyā is impregnated with a white elephant. Far across to the right, she gives birth to Siddhārtha and he takes his famous first steps. Just below, the two representations of the prince at different ages almost touching, he levitates an elephant. In the central portion of the architectural structure, open windows reveal the future Buddha leading a life of utter luxury and leisure, surrounded by a harem of women. One of them plays a vīnā, others lay on cushions and the like.

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The Buddha renounces his old life

This life of leisure and material wealth is carefully separated from the rest of the Buddha’s life by the palace walls. The events that lead to his discovery and realization of the pains of aging, dying, and being reborn are portrayed just outside the walls, symbolic of his passage into his life of meditation and teaching. The Buddha encounters four factors that eventually drive him to leave the life he knew within the kingdom of Kapilavastu. Old age, portrayed here by the bent over man just outside the palace, sickness, death, and a monk. The image here shows the monk prominently in the lower center, holding an alms bowl. The serenity and poise of the monk contrasted with the pains of life, death, and rebirth, appeal to Sākyamuni and cause him to consider the plight of humanity and the method by which to address and finally resolve it.

The result is Siddhārtha’s flight from his home, accompanied by his horseman. In the same image, on the far right, the Buddha-to-be and his assistant busily build a bridge on the river Anomā, to facilitate their voyage. The ever-gilded Sākyamuni figure holds a tree in his hand as his assistant lays it across the river. In the upper center, the Buddha stops to take the tonsure, cutting his long hair with his own sword, an action laden with the symbolism of his determination to undertake a life of asceticism and renounce the existence he once knew. To the right, he changes his clothes with those of a hunter. Below, he takes leave of his horseman, giving him all his princely accessories to take back to Kapilasivatu, along with his horse, which, so faithful to his master, lets himself die from sadness. Just to the left, Chandaka, the horseman, and Kanthaka, Siddhārtha’s horse, leave him. The stūpa above might be a symbol of Kanthaka’s death, though that is only a suggestion.

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Descent from Heavean

The attractions and physical comforts of the palace are enclosed within the walls of the compound or kingdom. In contrast, the actions that lead to the mental and spiritual liberation of Siddhārtha have no boundary that encircles them. The wall here serves, as mentioned above, two very important purposes. First, it is a stylistic and functional tool that permits the visual separation of the two astoundingly different phases of the historic Buddha’s life. Second, this division serves a doctrinal and symbolic purpose of portraying the Buddha as imprisoned by the walls. Not only does he rest physically trapped, but also fettered by his own attachment to the material world and blindness to the truth that awaits him outside. To the far left of the palace structure, a dark demonic figure sits within the walls, just below the scene of Māyā’s impregnation. This is probably meant to represent Māra, the embodiment of evil and temptation, who hopes to keep Sākyamuni in Kapilasvatu so that he may never attain enlightenment.(18)

In both the palace and outside, as we have seen, there is no linear progression in time. The scenes are represented without any particular attachment to those around them, with the exception of the fact that the early part of his life is painted within the confines of the walls. There are also no other visual divisions between scenes, resulting in a pictorial narrative that requires intimate familiarity with its subject matter in order to interpret it. This indiscernible progression of events can be found in many early Buddhist works, such as the Ajanta caves in India, and comes from an early difficulty in representing literary or oral narrative in a two-dimensional depiction that is fixed in time.(19)

The story of the Buddha’s life continues to unfold all around the palace and fills the entirety of the lower register of this section of the wall. Though I have omitted many of the most important events of Sākyamuni’s life, I do not think it necessary here to continue, since the style and treatment of the story do not greatly vary from what has already been discussed. Rather I will take the opportunity to recall some of the more important ideas already considered.

The main temple of Pewar Monastery was decorated not only as a showplace, but as a living center of practice. The large central figures represent different deities and aspects of the individual, on which one is meant to meditate. Ascetics would use such depictions to put an image to their own obstacles and achievements, so as to more easily progress. The complex iconography created for this reason is omnipresent in the Buddhist world, and particularly in that of Tibetan Buddhism.

However, these beautiful pictorial representations were not reserved for the meditation of the monks, as lay people also had access to this main hall. For this reason, the walls serve as teachers to various levels of initiates and practitioners. The images employed must be accessible to all and yet allow every audience progress in their understanding of the universe and their path towards enlightenment. These murals, then, are visual text that tell the stories, as we have seen with the life of the Buddha, and record the iconography of a syncretic world of Indian, Nepalese, Tibetan, and Chinese Buddhism.

The difficulties that arise in the production of such an endeavor are many. Capturing multiple instants in time and contemporaneously existing levels of the universe on a 2-dimensional medium poses a number of problems. The artists adapted stylistic and symbolic methods of portraying various levels of consciousness and retelling stories. Consider the greenery about the throne of Sarasvatī or the palace wall in the life of the historical Buddha, not to mention the esoteric symbolism inherent in the section devoted to mGon-po.

All of these factors make the murals of Pewar a unique piece to a large puzzle of Tibetan and Pan-Buddhist art. There is a universality in many of the images and stories evoked on these walls that are recognizable to the eyes of anyone familiar with the stories and iconography of Buddhism. However, the detail, the amount of gold, and the history of this particular monastery are unique. For this reason, a great amount of study and research need to be devoted to the masterpieces within Pewar. The walls contain a pictorial text that is priceless just in the detail and artistry employed, but also in the subject matter and in the local and regional history contained therein.



  • Berger, Patricia. "Preserving the Nation: The Political Uses of Tantric Art in China," Latter Days of the Law, (Lawrence, Kansas) Spencer Museum of Art, 1994, pp. 89-123.
  • Béguin, Gilles. Art ésotérique de l'Himālaya. La donation Lionel Fournier, Réunion des musées nationaux, Paris, 1990.
  • Blofeld, John. The Way of Power, a Practical Guide to the Tantric Mysticism of Tibet. London: George Allen and Unwin, Ltd., 1976.
  • Blondeau, Anne-Marie. Les religions du Tibet. Histoire des religions III, (Encyclopédie de la Pléiade). Paris: Gallimard, 1970, p. 233-329.
  • Conze, Edward (trans.). Buddhist Scriptures. London: Penguin Books, 1959.
  • Dagyab Rinpoche. Buddhist Symbols in Tibetan Culture. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 1995.
  • Dorje, Gyurme. Tibet Handbook. Bath: Footprint Handbooks, 1996.
  • Frédéric, Louis. Buddhism. Paris: Flammarion, 1995.
  • Karmay, Heather. Early Sino-Tibetan Art. Warminster: Aris and Philips, Ltd., 1975.
  • Khosla, Romi. Buddhist Monasteries in the Western Himalaya. Kātmāndu: Ratna Pustak Bhandar, 1979.
  • Ma Ching-ch'ih, (Traducteurs), Tun-huang pi-hua chung ti fo-ching ku-shih (Buddhist sutras from the murals of Tunhuang). Lanchou: Kansu jen-min ch'u-ban-she, 1981.
  • Mookerjee, Ajit. Kali: The Feminine Force. London: Thames & Hudson, Ltd., 1995.
  • Nebesky-Wojkowitz, René de, Oracles and Demons of Tibet. London: Oxford University, 1956.
  • Pal, Pratapaditya. Art of the Himalayas. New York: Hudson Hills Press, 1991.
  • Pal, Pratapaditya. "The Lord of the Tent in Tibetan Paintings", Pantheon II, April-May-June 1977, pp. 97-102
  • Rahula, Walpola. What the Buddha Taught. New York: Grove Weidenfield, 1959.
  • Schlingloff, Dieter. Studies in the Ajanta Paintings. Delhi: Ajanta Publications, 1988.
  • Snellgrove, David, Indo-Tibetan Buddhism. London: Serindia Publications, 1987.
  • Tucci, Giuseppe - Heissig, Walter, Les Religions du Tibet et de la Mongolie, Paris: Payot, 1973.


  1. In the original survey done of the monastery, the assembly hall was referred to as lasa. I have taken the spelling above from Romi Khosla’s Buddhist Monasteries in the Western Himalaya, Kathmandu, 1979, p. 40. I think this transliteration is a more correct one and reflects the written, and therefore, classical form of the word. I have not personally seen the Tibetan for the word in question and can only conjecture as to the proper term. click here to return to text
  2. See Gyurme Dorje, Tibet Handbook, 1996 for a brief history of Dege county and mention of the Tenpa Tseriing’s reign. The history of the monastery comes from a variety of sources, among them the first report done by a joint Getty and CERS (China Exploration and Research Society) expedition in 1991. click here to return to text
  3. In a discussion with Tenzeng Nyima, April 15, 1998, regarding the content of the murals and their spatial and temporal progression on the walls. His help in deciphering the Tibetan names of important figures and identifying certain stories depicted in the temple should be noted here. click here to return to text
  4. It is important to remember that the paintings were commissioned and achieved with the circumambulation of followers in mind. Though there are obvious asynchronous elements within the content of the murals, thematic progression is identifiable on both physical and temporal planes. click here to return to text
  5. See Khosla, 1979 for more information and diagrams of monasteries of Western Tibet. More general works on Buddhist structures throughout Asia are easily found and speak of the importance of symmetry. click here to return to text
  6. For more information on the Dunhuang grottos, see the Paul Pelliot collection; Tonko Bakkokatsu, 1982. For Chinese language versions of Buddhist tales illustrated in Dunhuang, see Ma Ching-ch’ih, et. al. Tun-huang pi-hua chung ti fo-ching ku-shih (Buddhist sutras from the murals of Tunhuang). Lanchou, 1981. A number of catalogs of exhibits on the Dunhuang collections have been written. Some of the best collections, pictorial and textual, may be found at the Musée Guimet, Paris and at the Bibliothèque Nationale Française, Paris. click here to return to text
  7. Mahakala is considered to be a form of the Hindu god Shiva, converted to Buddhism. The Tibetan version, mGon-po is said to have at least 72 different aspects according to René de Nebesky Wojkowitz (Oracles and Demons of Tibet, 1956). See Pratapaditya Pal, "The Lord of the Tent in Tibetan Paintings", Pantheon II, April-May-June 1977, pp. 97-102 for a more detailed discussion on the origins of Gur-gyi mgon-po. There is question as to whether the adoption of mGon-po by the Sakya sect as a patron protector is linked to the political role the religious group played in the empire of Genghis Khan, given the Mongols’ great reverence for the "Protector of the Tent". An interesting discussion of the political use of tantric forms may be found in Patricia Berger, "Preserving the Nation: The Political Uses of Tantric Art in China," Latter Days of the Law, (Lawrence, Kansas) Spencer Museum of Art, 1994, pp. 89-123. In Louis Frédéric’s Buddhism, 1995, p. 237 Gur-gyi mgon-po is labeled as a strictly Mongolian form. click here to return to text
  8. For a visual introduction to the representations and sect of Mahakālā, or Kali, in India, see Mookerjee, Ajit, Kali. La force au féminin, 1995.  click here to return to text
  9. For example, consider the thangka portraying Gur-gyi mGon-po that dates from around 1500 included in the Zimmerman Collection (Pratapaditya Pal, Art of the Himalayas, 1991, p. 161, no. 93) or the one dating from the end of the 16th c. housed in the Musée Guimet in Paris and acquired as part of the Lionel Fournier donation to the museum (accession no. MA 5184, cf. Gilles Béguin, Art Esotérique de L’Himālaya, 1990, p. 77, no. 36).  click here to return to text
  10. A number of basic texts on Tibetan Buddhism are available for further reading on the importance and use of such esoteric figures. Among the classics are: Anne-Marie Blondeau, “Les Religions du Tibet”, Histoire des religions III, 1970; David Snellgrove, Indo-Tibetan Buddhism, 1987; Giuseppe Tucci, The Religions of Tibet and Mongolia, 1973. John Blofeld, The Way of Power, a Practical Guide to the Tantric Mysticism of Tibet, 1970 gives an in depth view into the tantric way of much of Tibet’s religious world. An academic introduction to Tibetan art is available in Heather Karmay, Early Sino-Tibetan Art, 1975. Other works by such Tibetologists as Heather Stoddard, Pratapaditya Pal, and Giuseppe Tucci offer more detailed information on the numerous forms and symbolism of Tibetan religious expression.   click here to return to text
  11. Sarasvatī was worshipped in Vedic tradition as the personification of the word and the goddess of knowledge, as well as the companion of Brahma. In Tantric Buddhism she is commonly associated with Amitābha, one of the five jina or tathāgata. See Louis Frédéric, Buddhism, 1995, pp. 221-223. click here to return to text
  12. Consider, for example, a handscroll painted after the work of Gu Kai-zhi (c. 344-406), The Fairy of the Lo River, currently in the Freer Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. For a more modern presentation of this same stylization of cloth, clouds, and water in motion, an ivory carving in the P.R.C. entitled Chang Ou Flies to the Moon is a good 20th c. model (cf. Michael Sullivan, The Arts of China, 1984, p. 249. The composition and treatment of face and fingers is clearly shown in a silk appliqué (Ch. kesi) of Mañjusri (Ch. wenshu) from around the same period during the Qing Dynasty. (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, John Stewart Kennedy collection; cf. Arts de l’Asie, Librairie Gründ, Paris, 1988, p. 115, no. 73).  click here to return to text
  13. See for example a manuscript at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Paris that presents the battle between Raudraksa and Sarīputra. The painted handscroll recounts the encounter, dividing scenes with simple drawings of a single tree or nondescript greenery. The scroll was presented as part of the exhibit, “La Sérinde: Terre du Bouddha” at the Grand Palais, Paris in 1995. Victor Mair has been working with this particular handscroll for a few years now and has written some articles on the uses and style of this piece and other manuscripts found at Dunhuang.  click here to return to text
  14. Panka-ja refers to the symbol of the lotus, the beautiful flawless flower that rises up above the muck and mess of the stagnant waters in which it finds its nourishment. Similarly, the enlightened individual must remain a part of this world, shedding light as an example and teacher to others, and yet stand separate and apart from mundane existence, relying on a truth that is clouded to others by the fetters of the physical world. A number of thorough and highly readable works discussing Buddhist doctrine and philosophy are readily available. One of the classics is Walpola Rahula’s What the Buddha Taught, 1959. Others include: Richard A. Gard, ed., Buddhism, 1962; Edward Conze, Buddhist Scriptures, 1959. For a thorough discussion of Tibetan Buddhist symbolism, therein included that of the lotus, see Loden Sherap Dagyab, Buddhist Symbols in Tibetan Culture, 1995.  click here to return to text
  15. For a discussion of upward progression in Buddhist murals, see Jonathan S. Bell, Kaihua si and Yanshan si: Buddhist Murals in Perspective, 1997, a Harvard University honors thesis, pp. 61-62. It is important to note that, in contrast to many of the murals of Yanshan si discussed therein, the murals of Pewar Monastery do not necessarily boast narratives whose events unfold in an upward progression. Nevertheless, this adherence to representation of the ethereal versus the mundane is present. It should also be remembered that the views of nature used as backdrops are a Chinese influence on Buddhist representation. Landscape scenes and expanse of sky were rarely if ever seen in traditional Indian works (consider, for example, the Ajanta caves), in Nepalese painting, or even in much of Tibetan painting. Rather, there is a focus on important historical and deified figures and the symbols that surround them. Here, again then, is there another strong influence from Chinese artistic tendencies, in this case arising from Daoist predilection.  click here to return to text
  16. The symbolism of the parasol, and other Buddhist symbols in Tibetan art, is discussed at length in Dagyab Rinpoche, Buddhist Symbols in Tibetan Culture, 1995. Taken from India as a symbol of spiritual power and social status, parasols are frequently used in representational works as well as in life for high-ranking abbots, etc. Consider the parasols present in ceremony and accompanying the Dalai Lama in official situations. click here to return to text
  17. Louis Frédéric, Buddhism, 1995, p. 88.  click here to return to text
  18. It is important to remember, especially in this example, that in Tibetan esoteric Buddhism, the many deities and demonic figures are used as symbols for different aspects of one’s own psyche and internal obstacles. This demonic figure I have identified as Māra also serves to represent this entire phase of the Buddha’s life as an obstacle, identifying his own inability to progress on the path he later takes. Read Robert A.F. Thurman, Essential Tibetan Buddhism, 1995 for an in depth look into Tibetan Buddhism.  click here to return to text
  19. For more information on the Ajanta caves, perhaps the richest collection of Indian Buddhist mural work still extant, see Dieter Schlingloff, Studies in the Ajanta Paintings, 1988. I have discussed in depth chronological progression in Buddhist mural painting in Jonathan S. Bell, Kaihua si and Yanshan si: Buddhist Murals in Perspective, 1997, a Harvard University honors thesis. It might be interesting to consider that, despite advances in pictorial work and knowledge of depth perception, etc., this unbroken narration with few temporal divisions became a standard in Buddhist pictorial narrative.   click here to return to text

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