22. Thangtong Gyalpo
(cat. pl. 45)
c. second half 15th century
Copper alloy and pigment
h. 13.1 cm

 Thangtong Gyalpo

The subject of this portrait is the Tibetan mahasiddha Thangtong Gyalpo, renowned engineer and bridge builder. He is reputed to have enjoyed a long life and although his exact dates are uncertain, two sets are generally attributed to him: 1361-1485 and 1385-1481.360 Thangtong Gyalpo inadvertently began a career in engineering when he was refused a ferry passage on the grounds of his eccentric appearance. This experience served as a catalyst and he consequently embarked on a campaign to build bridges and ferry crossings. His first endeavour was in 1430 at the Chusul River where, with the assistance of two blacksmiths, he forged iron - said to be 'the thickness of an eightyear-old boy's arm'- into chain links, with which he attempted to span the river. The project was beset with problems, and more funding was required. Drawing upon the traditions of the itinerant religious storytellers of his time, Thangtong Gyalpo formed the first operatic troupe in Tibet. The troupe performed and raised the necessary funds to complete the project. Thangtong Gyalpo and his troupe of seven beautiful sisters then toured Tibet, raising money to construct a reputed fifty-eight iron chain bridges and a hundred and eight ferrycrossing stations.361 Between 1449 and 1456, he built the Riwoche stupa in a breathtaking setting on the banks of the Tsangpo river, about 400 kilometres west of Lhasa towards the Nepalese border.

The eccentric appearance that led to the inception of Thangtong Gyalpo's engineering career is evident in this portrait: hair disarranged in a thick pile on top of his head, a wide flat nose, a goatee and a full walrus moustache. His body is said to have been of a dark brown colour, described in some sources as having the hue of 'wet liver'.362 This observed characteristic of Thangtong Gyalpo's appearance may have influenced the choice of metal used to make this image. His exotic robe suggests a sumptuous Chinese embroidered fabric or cut velvet, and consists of lobed cartouches of rabbits and phoenix against a flower-filled ground. Another portrait of the mahasiddha, in Tibet House in New Delhi, depicts Thangtong Gyalpo much as he appears here, although with different attributes. The Nyingjei Lam portrait holds the tsebum and what appears to be a pill, objects traditionally associated with long-life ceremonies.363 Thangtong Gyalpo appears as an old man, and it may be that this work was associated with such a ceremony. An inscription along the back of the lotus base states that Thangtong Gyalpo was himself involved in the making of this image.364 It may be noted that the baseplate of this statue is secured in a most unusual and successful manner: the sturdy plate is bolted to the base by four substantial rivets, perhaps evidence of the involvement of the ingenious engineer.365 (cat. pl. 45)

360. See Dudjom Rinpoche (1991) vol. 2, n. 1078, p. 76; see also Vitali (1990), pp. 123-6.
361. Dudjom Rinpoche (1991) vol. 2, n. 1076, p. 76.
362. Ross (1995), p. 14.
363. See above, p. 141. It may be interesting to note that Thangtong Gyalpo was also known to have devised numerous medicines.
364. grub thob thang stong rgyal po'I sku rje rang nyid kyi phyag nas bzhugs so / 'This is the image of the siddha Thangtong Gyalpo, from his own hand. '
365. Sonam Topgay Kazi notes that Thangtong Gyalpo 'took special interest in the casting of images'. See Kazi (1965), p. 26. It may be noted that in the New Delhi portrait of Thangtong Gyalpo, he is shown holding a cylindrical vessel and wearing a similar cloak, even wilder hair and sporting a full Bigelow moustache - in place of the walrus moustache with which he is depicted in the Nyingjei Lam portrait.

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