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Shadakshari Triad and Other Deities
Central Tibet, early 12th century
Pigments on cotton, 34 x 29 3/8 in (86.4 x 74.6 cm)
Catalogue #132

The central deities in this fine early Tibetan thanka represent the classic Buddhist triad of the deities of the six-syllabled (shadakshari) mantra om mani padme hum. Because of the universal popularity of this mantra among Tibetan Buddhists, one can understand why its personified forms are so frequently represented in art. Even though the thanka's only inscriptions are the mantras on the back (see appendix), even a cursory comparison with the Tara (no. 131) and other early thankas rendered in a Pala-inspired style make it clear that it is a work of the early twelfth century.

The central figure is Shadakshari Lokeshvara, two of whose hands display the reverential gesture of greeting (namaskara umbra), while the other two hold the rosary and the white lotus. The two companions, clearly of lesser status, are the male (here yellow-complexioned) Manidhara (holder of the gem) and the female Shadakshari Mahavidya, who symbolizes the mystic knowledge of the mantra. While Mahavidya is a female clone of Lokeshvara, Manidhara is distinguished not only lay his complexion but also by two variant attributes. Instead of the rosary and the lotus, he holds a jewel and a blue lotus. The jewel and a regular lotus are prescribed emblems of the deity in at least one text (B. Bhattacharya 1958, p. 127), the earliest known copy of which dates to 1165, possibly a few decades after this thanka was created. Although all three deities are portrayed within caves, Shadakshari Lokeshvara is distinguished by a throne.

Four Indian ascetic figures are accommodated in smaller caves nestling among the stave-like rock formations in the second tier above the two side figures. The two at the ends, placed against a red background, appear to be identical except for their complexions, and both are oriented to the next two, who are portrayed against a blue background. The bow-bearing figure is almost certainly the mahasiddha Shavaripa. Another mahasiddha, perhaps Virupa, leads the flve transcendental Buddhas with Amitabha, the spiritual father of Lokeshvara, in the middle. The monk wearing a pundit's cap at the other end may well be Atisha.

A second Indian monk, without cap, is seated directly below Atisha in the bottom register of the thanka. Across from him at the other end is an officiant wearing Tibetan monk's attire. The seven jewels are also included within his panel, with Kubera representing the king. Between them are two guardian deities, one red and one blue, flanking Vajrapani, Avalokiteshvara, and a goddess who may be a heirophany of Tara.

There are several features that are worthy of note, especially because of the early dating suggested here. Except for the officiant on the lower left, there is little in this thanka that is specifically Tibetan. Even more so than in the Tara painting, there is no suggestion of a lineage, so favored by the Tibetans; and, if the capped monk in the top register is Atisha, then not only can this be regarded as a "Kadampa" work, but one can postulate that it was painted around the same time as the Tara.
The passage with the pool of avatar-filled with lotuses, elephants, a tiger, a pair of rabbits, a red bull, humans as well as a naga, and celestial adorants in a cloud cartouche, all of whom float miraculously, and the luxuriant lotus with its swirling vines-is very close to the composition below Tara, even though some of the motifs vary. It is difficult not to conclude that the same artist, or at the least the same workshop, produced the two paintings. Noteworthy also is the variety of birds, generally depicted in pairs, among the characteristic rock formations above the three central figures.
Therefore, if an Indian artist such as the master Manu was responsible for the Tara, then it is possible that either he or an eminent colleague painted this thanka. It is significant that during his last days, Atisha had three paintings prepared for him in the Vikramashila monastery in Bihar. The subject of one of the three was Shadakshari Lokeshvara (see Kossak and Singer 1998, p. 12, and Pal 1999). If this painting in the Ford collection is not the original, then it is likely a close copy rendered soon after Atisha's demise, as a precious memento for a close disciple.

Detail: close-up #1
Detail: close-up #2

all text and images © The Trustees of the Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore


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