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Wall Paintings of Pang gra phug : Augusto Gansser's Cave

by Helmut F. Neumann and Heidi A. Neumann

(click on the small image for full screen image with captions)
All photography by Helmut F. Neumann except otherwise mentioned.

This history of wall painting in West Tibet starts in the 10th century with the Gtsug lag khang of Tabo (Fig. 1) so well described by Giuseppe Tucci (1989 [1935]). Slightly later are 11th century murals at Tholing (Namgyal 2001, Heller 2010) and nearby Mangnang (Tucci 1937) which did not survive the vicissitudes of the 20th century.

Chronologically, they are followed by the cave temples of Dungkar (Fig. 2), a locality north of Tholing which was chosen as residence by several kings of Guge in the second half of the 11th century (Vitali 1996: 126-27) and the nearby caves of Pedongpo and Phyiwang (Fig. 3). In this period of about 200 years a particular West Tibetan painting style arose, largely based on the art of Kashmir. Its prominent characteristics are very regular, almost schematic features, with the face’s upper eyelid drawn as a straight line, and an athletic body with a very slim waist (Neumann 1999).

Fig. 1

Fig. 2

Fig. 3

Fig. 4
In the beginning of the 12th century, the artistic activities came to a sudden halt due to the Garlog invasion, which broke the strong independent political and religious activities in West Tibet (Petech 1999:4). Following the rise of a powerful ruler of the kingdom of Guge in the beginning of the 15th century (Petech 1999: 5) major temples were erected in Tholing (Fig. 4) and Tsaparang. Artists followed the fashion of their time but incorporated many of the special West Tibetan traits of the early period into their stylistic repertoire, thus creating again a particular West Tibetan painting style. This artistic activity was very intense and productive, with hundreds of square meters of wall paintings surviving to the present day.

Hardly any West Tibetan wall paintings of the intervening three centuries were known until a few years ago. In this respect West Tibet differs greatly from Southern Central Tibet, where major religious artistic activities were undertaken, e.g. in Zhalu (Fig. 5) where the Gser khang was expanded and richly decorated with wall paintings in the first half of the 14th century under patronage of the Yuan court. After the publication of the 13th century wall paintings of the cave of Par by David Pritzker (Pritzker 2000) the first art historical studies on specific West Tibetan painting programs of this period were reported in 2006 at the 11th Seminar of the International Association for Tibetan Studies in Königswinter: The splendid wall paintings (Fig. 6) in the cave of Wachen (unpublished lecture of Tsering Gyalpo) and the wall painting of a Bhaiṣajyaguru maṇḍala (Neumann & Neumann 2010) (Fig.7) in the temple of Khojar which was already admired by Giuseppe Tucci because of its magnificent portal, which as he remarked (Tucci 1937:44), seems to originate from the time of its foundation by Rinchen Zangpo in the 10th century (Neumann & Neumann 2008).

Fig. 5

Fig. 6

Fig. 7

Probably the first photo of a West Tibetan wall painting of the intervening period (Fig. 8) is found in the report of a Swiss geological expedition to the Western Himalaya, published in 1938 (Heim & Gansser 1938). The photograph was taken on August 13, 1936 - just one year after Giuseppe Tucci’s well documented travels in West Tibet - by the Swiss geologist Augusto Gansser (Fig. 9), who discovered this cave on his way over the Himalayas from India to Kailash. Unfortunately, but understandably, Gansser - who celebrated his 100th birthday in October 2010 (and sadly passed away in January 2012) - did not remember the location of this cave, when we inquired with him in 2003. The more we were pleased to find it during field work in fall 2007 in West Tibet.

Fig. 8

Fig. 9

Fig. 10

The cave (Fig. 10) is an almost square room, hewn into the conglomerate rock, high up on a steep mountainside (Fig. 11), 3.92 m wide, 3.97m deep on the right side (SE) and 4.10m on the left side (NW). The wall facing the entrance (NE) is the central and most important wall of this cave temple (Fig. 12, 13. We thank Gerald Kosciz for having drawn the map of this wall for us). On top of this wall, just below the valances, a row of Buddhas has been painted. They represent the thirty-two Buddhas of Confession. The number thirty-two is reached by the spatial diagram of the four cardinal directions, the four secondary directions and twenty-four intermediate points. Thirty-two Buddhas have also been placed on the highest terrace of Borobudur, the 9th century Mahayana Buddhist monument in Central Java, Indonesia. In Pang gra phug the Buddhas of Confession vary in body colour and mudra. Their individual names are inscribed in black letters in Tibetan script on a fine brown band above their mandorlas (see appendix for the transliteration of these names). It might originally have been of yellow colour which has been oxidised as is the case with the yellow body colour of the Buddhas. The group starts on the left side, above the medicine Buddha Sunāman with Śakyamuni (tib. shag kya thub pa). The beginning of this line is not totally clear, but (as Kurt Tropper suggested) it probably reads de bzhin gshegs pa, which would refer to each one of the group. All names end with la phyag ’tshal lo, the expression of salutation and respect ‘I pay homage to...’. The inscribed names largely correspond to the list written by Tsong kha pa (Chandra 1999-2005: 841).

Fig. 11

Fig. 12

Fig. 13

There are three additional Buddhas of the same size, two (nos. 33 and 34) under the last two Buddhas of Confession of the upper row (nos. 31 and 32), one (no. 35) under the first of the row. The addition of these three Buddhas, whose names are also inscribed, brings the total number to thirty-five und thus include the centre, zenith and nadir. They are altogether a synthesis of the space (Tucci 1949: 2, 357).

Fig. 14
The oldest textual source of the thirty-five Buddhas is the sutra on the meditation of Akāśagarbha Bodhisattva, which was translated into Chinese in the 2nd quarter of the 5th century by Dharmamitra from Kabul. In Tibet, the thirty-five Buddhas of Confession play an important role in a number of liturgical texts (Tucci 1949: 2, 357). They are frequently represented in temples, mostly in the upper registers if the wall. A good example is the temple of Thig phyi in South Tibet (Fig. 14) where they have been placed above the door (Neumann 2008).

Below the row with the thirty-five Buddhas of Confession follows a row of nine deities: Prajñāpāramitā (Fig. 15) in the centre is surrounded by the seven Medicine Buddhas and Śākyamuni, symmetrically arranged on her two sides (Fig.13). To her left they are: Sunāman, Svaraghoșarāja, Suvarṇabhadra and Aśokottama (Fig. 16); to her right are pictured Dharmakīrtisāgara, Abhijñārājan and the blue Bhaișajyaguru (Fig. 17), the main Buddha of Medicine, holding the healing myrobalam fruit between thumb and index finger of his right hand, the bowl in his left (Fig. 18), as well as Śākyamuni, his right hand inbhūmiśparśa mudrā. The Seven Buddhas of Medicine and Śākyamuni are each accompanied by two standing bodhisattvas, altogether the sixteen bodhisattvas of the Bhaiṣajyaguru maṇḍala. Prajñāpāramitā is the personification of the Prajñāpāramitā Sutra which constitutes the Mahāyāna Buddhist philosophy. Pictured as a female bodhisattva, she carries a manuscript of the Prajñāpāramitā text and instead of her usual gesture of dharmacakramudrā she holds her hands in dhyanamudrā. On both sides of her mandorla are vertical rows of five Buddhas. They are the Buddhas of the Ten Directions (Chandra 1999-2005: 2671) by whom she is also surrounded in her own 59-deity maṇḍala, the 38th maṇḍala of the Mi tra brgya rtsa. Like in Khojar, where she is in the centre of the Bhaiṣajyaguru maṇḍala, she also forms the centre of the group of the seven Medicine Buddhas and Śākyamuni.

Fig. 15

Fig. 16

Fig. 17

Fig. 18

They are seated on a lotus throne supported by crouched lions in front of throne backs of the type well-known from 13th and 14th century thangkas. White vyālas support the throne back on the sides, makaras and haṃsas surround the halo of the deity with their ornate tails. Hardly visible is the kīrttimukha on the top of the halo. The corners above the throne backs have been used to picture monks in various mudrās, some hold a bowl in their left hand thus resembling Bhaiṣajyaguru. They possibly represent religious persons important for the history of the monastery to which this cave temple once belonged.

Fig. 19

Fig. 20

Fig. 21

The row below Prajñāpāramitā with the seven Medicine Buddhas and Śākyamuni starts by a painting of a standing eleven-headed Avalokiteśvara (Fig. 19), a form of this bodhisattva very popular in West Tibet already in earlier periods as evident by his prominent representation in the cave with the lantern ceiling in Dungkar (Fig. 20). The large figures of the lower row start at the left side with a four-armed Mañjuśrī (Fig. 21) carrying sword and arrow in his right hands, bow and sutra in his left hands. Seated in vajraparyaṅka on a lunar orb over a lotus, he fits to the description of Nāma-saṅgīti Mañjuśrī in Sādhanamālā 82. Four seated goddesses are grouped around him. They are Sattvavatī, Ratnavajrī, Padmāvajrī and Karmavajrī (Chandra 1999-2005: 2219).

Fig. 22
Next in the row is Uṣṇīṣavijayā (Fig. 22) in her most usual eight-armed form displaying a small Buddha seated on a lotus with her upper right hand. Her further attributes comprise bow and arrow, a vase of nectar in her lap, and a viśvavajra, which she holds with two hands in front of her breast. Uṣṇīṣavijayā's central white face is joined by a yellow serene face and a blue fierce face on the sides. Invariably described as in the prime of her youth, she is clad in divine garments, a patterned blouse and a striped dhoti. Uṣṇīṣavijayā is pictured residing in the sanctum of a caitya recognizable by its brown spire. She is accompanied by the deities of her maṇḍala: the bodhisattvas Avalokiteśvara on the left, Vajrapāṇi on the right and below her lotus the four krodhas, wrathful aspects of the dharmapālas who protect the Uṣṇīṣavijayā maṇḍala. Like in other contemporary representations of Uṣṇīṣavijayā, this painting is completed by gandharvas in white clouds above her, spraying her with liquid from a vase.

Fig. 23
The centre of this row is occupied by the five tathāgatas (Fig. 23), a group of Buddhas who have attained the highest state of perfection, starting on the left with Ratnasambhava whose originally yellow body colour has been oxidized to brown. He is recognizable by vāradamudrā and horses as vāhana. Blue Akṣobya follows with two elephants on the throne base. Each of the tathāgatas is joined by two bodhisattvas standing on the sides of the lotus throne and is surrounded by the four seated deities which are his companions in the Vajradhātu maṇḍala. In the case of Vairocana (Fig. 24) who occupies the centre of the Vajradhātu maṇḍala and is also the central deities of the five tathāgatas, the four seated deities are replaced by symbols: vajra, viśvavajra, padmā and ratna, the symbols of families of the other four tathāgatas.

Vairocana is followed by red Amitābha (Fig. 25) with peacocks on the base of his throne and green Amoghasiddhi with garuḍas. The last two deities in this row are Ṣaḍakṣarī Lokeśvara (Fig. 26) and Vajrapāṇi. Ṣaḍakṣarī Lokeśvara, the four-armed form of Avalokiteśvara with his main hands in namaskāramudrā, the gesture of admiration and salutation, the rosary and the jewel in the lotus as attributes, is the patron of Tibet. He is attended by Maṇidhara on his right and Ṣaḍakṣarī Mahāvidyā, symbol of the mystical six-syllable formula Oṁ mani padme hūm. On the right side the main row of deities is concluded and protected by Vajrapāṇi in his wrathful aspect standing in pratyālīḍa posture holding a vajra in his right hand, his left is in the threatening tarjanīmudrā.

Fig. 24

Fig. 25

Fig. 26

Fig. 27
On the bottom of this wall runs a painted band (Fig. 27) with various scenes of the life of the Buddha in chronological order. Queen Maya, grasping a branch of the Sal tree while giving birth to the Buddha is prominently depicted (Tropper 2012, inscription A). Another important scene is the Great Departure, showing prince Siddharta leaving the paternal palace riding on his horse (Fig. 28) (Tropper 2012, inscription F). Particularly charming is the scene further to the right where the Buddha is receiving honey from the monkey (Fig. 29) (Tropper 2012, caption 17). The parinirvāṇa, the death of the physical body of the Buddha (Fig. 30) was painted just above the last scene of the row of the life-scenes of the Buddha. Directly above the parinirvāṇa are two rows in which a seated dignitary wearing a heavy overcoat is accompanied by a monk on one side and a Buddha on the other. It can be presumed that these two figures are historic persons who were important for the religious life in this cave temple. Most of these scenes bear inscriptions or captions in Tibetan script and have been read, transliterated and translated by Kurt Tropper. (See his article “Inscriptions and Captions of the Buddha-vita in Pang gra phug” also published in this volume).

Fig. 28

Fig. 29

Fig. 30

The Northwest (Fig. 31), Southwest and Southeast walls of the cave are covered with small paintings of the Thousand Buddhas. In the centre of the Northwest wall (Fig. 32) is a large representation of red Amitāyus holding the vase of ambrosia with his hands in dhyānamudrā. As the absolute symbol of Infinite Life (Chandra 1999-2005: 224) he was invoked to cure a person in ill-health, just as Green Tārā (Fig. 33) who is pictured in the centre of the opposite wall. She was venerated because of her compassionate nature and asked for liberation from pain and sorrow. As usual, Green Tārā is accompanied by the deities Mārīcī on her right and Ekajatā on her left.

Fig. 31

Fig. 32

Fig. 33

Fig. 34
The entrance to the cave (Fig. 34) is guarded by red dharmapāla Hayagrīva and a white form of Acalā (Fig. 35) trampling on Gaṇeśa brandishing a sword with his right arm, holding a red noose in his left hand in front of his breast. Acalā is particularly venerated as protector of the maṇḍala.

In the lowest row on the Southwest wall below Acalā the scenes of the Thousand Buddhas come to an end and are continued by other deities seated on cushions (Fig. 36). Despite the very problematic state of preservation of these figures the first twelve can be identified as the twelve Yakșa Generals of the Bhaiṣajyaguru maṇḍala, since most of them can be recognized holding a jewel-spitting mongoose in their left hand. Among the adjoining deities the last in the row, brandishing a sword and riding on a dark-skinned man can be discerned as Nairṛti (Fig. 37), one of the guardians of the ten directions. The guardians of the ten directions occur on the outer circle of a number of maṇḍalas, also in the maṇḍala of Bhaiṣajyaguru, the major 25 deities of which are represented on the central wall of this cave: Prajñāpāramitā, the seven Medicine Buddhas with Śakyamuni, and the sixteen bodhisattvas.

Fig. 35

Fig. 36

Fig. 37

To complete the maṇḍala of Bhaiṣajyaguru we have to look out for the Guardian Kings of the Four Directions. The heavily damaged paintings on the bottom of southwest wall (left side of the entrance looking from inside, Fig. 28) show four persons wearing armour, indicating their function as guardians and the most common iconographic form of the Guardian Kings of the Four Directions. The presence of this group completes the Bhaiṣajyaguru maṇḍala. These altogether 28 deities are usually found in the outer circle of the Bhaiṣajyaguru maṇḍala. Their position in the lowest register near the entrance is analogous and therefore quite appropriate. The worship of Bhaiṣajyaguru must have been prevalent in West Tibet in this period, since his maṇḍala is found not only in Pang gra phug, but also in the Par cave (Pritzker 2000) and in the temple of Khojar (Neumann & Neumann 2010).

Fig. 38

Fig. 39

Fig. 40

In order to place these wall paintings into an art historical context, we have to shed some light on iconographic and stylistic parallels and to derive a proposal for their date. In this context it is remarkable that the stupa (Fig. 39) in the cave of Luri in Mustang, 400 km east of Pang gra phug, has an iconographic program which is similar in many respects. Not only does it date from the same period, end of the 13th century, which we are proposing for Pang gra phug, but its painting program reveals many iconographic parallels. The interior of the umbrella of the Luri stupa (Fig. 40) depicts the seven Medicine Buddhas and Śākyamuni framed within lotus petals (Neumann 1994: 85).

Fig. 41
On the harmikā, the cube-shape part of the stupa, directly above the dome, the four tathāgatas were painted. The dome (Neumann 1994: 81) itself carries paintings of Uṣṇīṣavijayā (Neumann 1994: 83) Ṣaḍakṣarī (Neumann 1994: 84), and Vajrapāṇi (Neumann 1994: 85). With the exception of Prajñāpāramitā, the centre of the Bhaiṣajyaguru maṇḍala, and possibly Mañjuśrī, all main deities of Pang gra phug are represented at the Luri stupa. On the dome of the Luri stupa only the paintings of three deities remain. The fourth side was damaged, when the cave broke, exposing the stupa on one side. It could easily have been Mañjuśrī, seeing the identity of all the other deities. Both, in Pang gra phug and Luri only deities of the Kriyātantra and Yogatantra are represented, the lower tantra classes. No deities of the highest tantric classes can be found. Yet, the similarities between the painting programs in the two caves are wider and point to a common religious affiliation.

Fig. 42a
Not only are the iconographic parallels worth considering but also those of the style. A comparison of the blue Bhaiṣajyaguru from Pang gra phug with the Śākyamuni from Luri (Fig. 41) reveals striking similarities: the heart-shaped face, the elongated earlobes, the flowers in the hair above the ears, the spikes on the hair, and the vajra on top of the uṣṇīṣa. The depiction of the physiognomy is equally similar: the curved lines of the eyebrows, the half closed eyes with only the lower part of the pupil visible, the small mouth and even the three schematic lines of the neck.

Fig. 42
Also the pair of bodhisattvas shown in figure 42a in a style well known from 12th to 14th century thangkas (Fig. 42) shows that the artists working at Pang gra phug were familiar with the South Tibetan painting style which showed strong Pala and Nepalese influences. This is a departure from the style influenced by the style of Kashmir which was prevalent in West Tibet until the end of the 11th century. In other respects, however, the artists of Pang gra phug continued West Tibetan traditions, especially those which were influenced by the art of Central Asia. This is particularly the case for the ceilings and the valences on the top of the wall. In colouration and pattern the ceiling of Pang gra phug (Fig. 43) appears like a continuation of the style of 11th century West Tibetan caves like Pedongpo (Neumann 2002). Similarly the valances (Fig. 44) on top of the cave walls show a continuation of the West Tibetan tradition, exemplified by the ceiling in the cave of the offering goddesses in Phyiwang (Neumann 1998). We are not aware of similar valances in Central or South Tibetan temples. The probable source of this design element is Central Asia. It is known from most of the caves in Dunhuang (Whitfield 1995, plate 399) (Fig. 45). In Pang gra phug a row of ducks carrying pearl strings run above the valance. This is another typical Central Asian feature, first known from Sogdian textiles, but later particularly prominent on Chinese textiles.

Fig. 43

Fig. 44

Fig. 45

Altogether, the wall paintings of Pang gra phug created between the two great periods of West Tibetan art show how West Tibetan artists in this intervening period - while maintaining only a few traits of the typical West Tibetan painting tradition - combined various stylistic influences particularly from South Tibet, Nepal and Central Asia into a new style. This certainly also reflects how well connected the presently quite remote areas must have been at the time when this cave was conceived, excavated and endowed with a well planned religious cycle.


The names of the 35 Buddhas of Confession as inscribed above the paintings:

01: shag kya thub ba
02: rdo rje snjing po rab tu 'joms pa
03: rin chen ‘od ‘phro
04: klu dbang gi gyal po
05: dpa' bo'i sde
06: dpal dges
07: rin chen me
08: rin chen zla 'od
09: mthoì ba don yod
10: rin chen zla ba
11: dri ma med pa
12: too unclear to be read
13: dpal sbyin
14: tshangs pa
15: tshangs pa'i sbyin
16: chu lha
17: chu lha'i lha'i
18: dpal bzang
19: tsan da na dpal
20: gzi brjid mtha' yas
21: 'od dpal
22: mya ngan med pa'i dpal
23: sred med kyi bu
24: me tog dpal
25: tshangs pa'i 'od zer / pad ma'i 'od zer (one long line)
26: nor dpal
27: dran pa'i dpal
28: tshan dpal shin tu yongs grags
29: dbang po'i tog gi rgyal po tshan
30: shin tu rnam par ngon pa
31: gyul las shin tu rnam pa rgyal ba
32: rnjam par gnon pas gshegs
33 : kun nas snang ba bkod pa
34: rin chen pad mas rnam par gnon pa
35: ri dban gi rgyal po


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