11. Vajrasphota
(cat. pl. 14)
Western Tibet
c, 11th-12th centuries
Silver with copper and traces of pigment(figure); copper alloy (base and halo)
h. 21.2 cm


Vajrasphota (Diamond Chain) grasps the ends of a chain (sphota) as he adopts a vigorous yoga posture (pratyalidha asana): his upright torso and head face forward as he distributes his weight equally between the right leg, which is bent at the knee, and the extended left leg. Snakes encircle his neck and wind around his torso, and a long garland of skulls drapes over his shoulders and falls to his ankle. Vajrasphota's hair stands on end behind a crown of intertwined snakes that secure five large skulls.191 Vajrasphota guards the western gate in esoteric Buddhist mandalas, including those introduced to western Tibet by Rinchen Sangpo and his contemporaries.192 David Snellgrove has described the crucial parts played in mandala rites by Vajrasphota and other guardians. Vajrankusa (Diamond Hook) summons the divinities who will 'inhabit' the mandala, Vajrapasa (Diamond Noose) draws them in with a noose, Vajrasphota (Diamond Chain) binds them with his chain and Vajravesa (Diamond Penetration) or Vajraghanta (Diamond Bell) ensure that the wisdom of the summoned deities pervades the mandala.193

This sculpture exhibits characteristics of western Tibetan artistic traditions, which incorporate traditions brought by Kashmiri artists beginning about the end of the tenth century, Vajrasphota's emphatically lobed abdomen, typical of western Tibetan figural norms and seen throughout the murals at Tabo and Alchi,194 has roots in Kashmiri art.195 The exuberant athleticism with which Vajrasphota strikes his pose is characteristic of Kashmiri and western Tibetan art.196 The scallop-edged base with engraved cuboid marks is a somewhat cursory interpretation of the rock formations seen in such classical Kashmiri sculptures as the c. eighth-century Buddha in the Norton Simon Museum.197 Although no Kashmiri silver images are known to have survived, they are mentioned in literary accounts198 and the genre may well have inspired this image.

Vajrasphota has copper inlaid nipples, as do other western Tibetan works, for example, a c. eleventh-century silver image of Manjusri in the Ashmolean Museum and another of Vajrasattva in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.199 The practice of using two metals-in this instance, silver for the body and copper alloy for the base and halo-can be seen in two other Tibetan works in this collection: Avalokitesvara (pl. 15) and Milarepa (pl. 43). The bases of the latter two works are in gilt copper, following artistic conventions rooted in eastern India and Nepal. The base and halo of this Nyingjei Lam Vajrasphota are of the copper alloy preferred by Kashmiri and western Tibetan craftsmen. With the close relationship of this sculpture to Kashmiri prototypes and related works in western Tibet, Vajrasphota can confidently be ascribed an eleventh-to twelfth-century date and a western Tibetan provenance. (cat. pl. 14)

191. Vajrasphota's hairstyle is an iconographic feature often exhibited by deities in their wrathful manifestations. See a Kashmiri image of Vajrapani with similarly arranged wing-like protrusions of hair in the Cleveland Museum of Art, published in Pal (1975), fig. 60. For another western Tibetan interpretation of this coiffure, See the Mahakala image at Alchi noted above and published in Goepper and Poncar (1996), p. 30.
192. Snellgrove (1987), pp. 209-10, 222-3; Mallmann (1975), p. 422.
193. The Durgatiparis'odhana Tantra describes a similar rite by which a disciple is introduced to the mandala: 'Taking a garland of flowers with his two thumbs, he … should be led to the eastern door with Vajra-Hook [Vajrankus'a], made to approach on the southern side by means of the Noose [Vajrapas'a]; he should be bound on the western side with the Fetter [Vajraphota] and made to enter at the north by means of Vajra-Penetration [Vajraves'a]. Leading him in once more by the eastern door, he should say this: "Follow through! Now you have followed through with the Vajra Family of all the Tathagatas, I will produce for you the Vajra-Wisdom. " Cited in Snellgrove (1987), p. 223. 194. See Goepper and Poncar (1996), pp. 108-9; Pritzker (1997), figs. 159 (note similar lotus petals as well), 163 and 166; and Klimburg-Salter (1997), fig. 26.
195. See Pal (1975), fig. 48, 50 and 51.
196. See an image of Mahakala in the Sumtsek Temple (c. 1200) at Alchi, published in Goepper and Poncar (1996), p. 30; See also a c. tenth-century Kashmiri image of Yama, formerly in the Pan-Asian Collection, published in Pal (1975), pp. 168-9.
197. Published in Pal (1975), pp. 92-3.
198. See Kalhana's description of an enormous silver image, cited above, p. 12.
199. Published in singer (1994), pp. 18-19 and Pal (1994), fig. 11 (where Pal identifies the figure as Vis'vapani), respectively. It is noteworthy that copper alloy images from Kashmir also exhibit the use of inlay, see Schroeder (1981), fig. 15C and 16A.

images © Nyingjei Lam
text © D. Weldon, Jane C. Singer