Previous Image | Sacred Visions | Next Image

49. Dancing Ganapati

 Dancing Ganapati

49. Dancing Ganapati
Central Tibet, ca. mid-15th century
Distemper on linen
68 x 59 cm (263/4 x 231/4 in.)
Private collection

Ganapati, the central figure in this superb painting, is associated with good fortune, auspicious beginnings, and the successful overcoming of obstacles. "Ganapati" is the Buddhist name for the Hindu elephant-god, Ganesha. Here, he dwells in a mountain jungle, suggested by the presence of multicolored cubes and other geometric shapes (typically Nepalese motifs for rendering mountains) behind the arch, interspersed with trees and monkeys, tigers, birds, and lions. Indeed, the entire structure - Ganapati, the arch, and the mountains behind - rests on multicolored cubes, also clearly intended to suggest a mountain setting.

The twelve-armed deity dances on top of a lotus platform in front of a supine animal spitting jewels - probably Ganapati's vehicle, the rat. In his primary hands he holds a thunderbolt scepter (vajra) and a skull cup (kapala); his other hands hold (clockwise from his upper left): pestle, shield and ceremonial staff (khatvanga) with banner, skull cup, ceremonial staff, bow, arrow, goad, sword, dagger with peacock-feather hilt, and ax. He is lavishly bejeweled with crown, upper armlets, bracelets, finger rings and toe rings, anklets, many strands of necklaces, and the jewels on his trunk. He also wears a scarf, arranged in lappets on his shoulders; and a beautifully patterned skirt (dhoti), secured below his ponderous belly, covers his thighs.

Ganapati appears within a five-lobe arch supported by two elaborate pillars. The arch itself is surmounted by rich golden foliage that is emerging from the tails of two flanking makaras (mythological crocodilian creatures). Within this foliage, other animals also appear, including geese (hamsas) and snake gods (nagas). Garuda, half-man, half-bird, appears at the summit of the arch. The elephantine god is offered a bowl of sweets by a golden monkey, who poses beseechingly just below Ganapati's right knee. Above, two other monkeys crouch near the elephant god; the largest bears two flower buds. A four-armed monkey at Ganapati's left proffers an offering cup in his central pair of hands; he holds two rather curious additional offerings in his other hands: a vegetal stem surmounted by an erect phallus and a bowl of sweets surmounted by a vulva.1 Two deities on multicolored clouds bearing garlands (vidyadharas) flank Ganapati's crown. In the upper left corner the Indian Yogic adept (mahasiddha) Virupa is offered a skullcup beverage by a green- complexioned goddess (see cat. no. 35), and in the upper right corne, a form of Mahakala appears.

Of considerable interest is the man seated adjacent to the lotus platform at the lower right. He is dressed as a wealthy layman; his dark hair is gathered in long tresses, and he wears boots and a dark green cloak over an orange robe that is cinched at the waist with a dark sash. He is adorned with earrings of gold and turquoise, a ring, and a large turquoise-studded amulet case; a sheathed sword is tucked inside his belt. He holds a skull cup in his right hand and offers a variation of the gesture associated with religious discourse (vitarka mudra) with his left. Behind him, visible just above his right shoulder, is a table set with ritual implements, normally associated with the painting's consecrating monk. Although not specifically identified, an inscription on the back of the painting does shed light on the identity of this wealthy layman.

In one of the most elaborate thanka inscriptions known, the entire reverse of the painting is covered with writing. Thirty-two lines of black ornamental Sanskrit script (ranjana) record mantras associated with Ganapati. Beneath each line is a Tibetan phonetic transliteration of the Sanskrit mantras, written in Tibetan cursive (umey) script. The mantra om ah hum is written in red ranjana script, marking the forehead, throat, and heart centers of each deity portrayed on the obverse. Many major deities have longer mantras arranged in the form of portable shrines, inset into the thirty-two lines of black ranjana script mentioned above. 

Three lines composed in Tibetan and written in black printed (uchen) script appear at the bottom of the painting. They may be translated as follows:

Homage to the resplendent body, azure blue in color,
Blazing forth from the emanations of the minds of the  Conquerors of the Three Times!
Homage to the Vajra-holding Lord of Secrets [Vajrapani],
Whose loud voice, "Hum Phat!" subdues the hosts of demons!
I bow to the feet of Ganapati,
The elephant-faced one, radiant as a ruby,
In whom all enlightened activities are subsumed without exception,
Lord of the Gana Host, holding the treasure of inexhaustible wealth!

This Ganapati, precious meditational deity, was commissioned
Out of respect for the Buddhist teaching by Peljor Sangpo,
Who has the most fervent faith, endowed with "glorious attributes" (dpal 'byor)
And an "excellent" (bzang po) intelligence.

Thus [may it be] a treasure, containing all that is desired in this existence!
May all [beings] traverse the series of ten [bodhisattva] levels,
And manifest the indestructible reality, The mastery of the four Buddha bodies!

The identity of Peljor Sangpo is not entirely certain. However, a likely candidate is Peljor Sangpo of the Chongye ('phyong rgyas) clan, who was named master of ceremonies (gsol dpon) and then general (dmag dpon) under the ruler Sonam Drakpa (1359-1408) and later was appointed district magistrate and revenue officer (rdzong dpon) at Shigatse (formerly known as bsam 'grub rtse) under Sonam Drakpa's successor, Drakpa Gyeltsen (1374-1432).3 The post of magistrate in Shigatse was a lucrative one, since it was an important stronghold along the trade route between south central Tibet and the Kathmandu Valley. Drakpa Gyeltsen also later appointed Peljor Sangpo commander-in-chief.4

Drakpa Gyeltsen was a member of the powerful Phakmo Drupa family (not to be confused with the Kagyu hierarch of this name), descendant of Changchub Gyeltsen, who had wrested power from the Sakyapas and ruled over the Mongol-created thirteen districts of Tibet (see p. 22). Drakpa Gyeltsen was an extremely popular ruler who had copies of the Kanjur in gold letters deposited in the thirteen main fortresses of his kingdom.5 He was both an ordained monk and a prince (chos rgyal), and he fully exercised his political powers. He was admired for his able civil administration, under which Tibetans enjoyed much peace and prosperity, and he managed good relations with China. Although a monk, he resided in the capital at Neudong (sneu gdong), while his younger brothers resided at Tsethang (rtse thang) and Thel ('thel) monasteries.6

Drakpa Gyeltsen appointed members of other clans to important posts, Peljor Sangpo of the Chongye clan being just one example. The Fifth Dalai Lama's Chronicles described court life under Drakpa Gyeltsen, which Peljor Sangpo would have enjoyed: "The circle of his retinue was extremely numerous and consisted in men [versed] in civil and religious affairs, well-born, having virtue and power. He established the order of ornaments and dresses corresponding to the office they occupied and above all he distributed the special ornaments, after having founded the festival of the first day of the new year, called 'time of precious ornaments,' and ordered, to give lustre to men's ears, the use of earrings wrought with gems, to be worn always...."7

Peljor Sangpo remained active in Tibetan political and religious life after the death of Drakpa Gyeltsen. The Chronicles of the Fifth Dalai Lama state that Peljor Sangpo of the Chongye clan was the chief patron of Gedun Drup (1391-1474, posthumously named the First Dalai Lama), at the time that the latter was founding Tashilungpo monastery in 1447.8 Tucci writes: "... the [Chongye] family had shown at an early date its sympathies with Tsong Khapa's reform.... [Peljor Sangpol was a pupil of Gedun Drup and so completely conquered by the new doctrine, that he began to protect it to the point of becoming one of the main contributors to the construction of Tashilungpo."9

Gedun Drup was a leading disciple of the famous reformer-theologian Tsong Khapa (1357-1419) and became a renowned Buddhist scholar in his own right. Having founded Tashilungpo monastery in Shigatse, Gedun Drup became its first abbot. The Fifth Dalai Lama chronicles Peljor Sangpo's role as chief patron of Gedun Drup, raising the question of whether this painting of Ganapati might have been commissioned by Peljor Sangpo for Gedun Drup. As a portrayal of Ganapati, destroyer of obstacles, it would have been an appropriate image with which to begin a building project such as the founding of Tashilungpo monastery, although this assertion must be regarded as speculative until substantiated by additional evidence. 

One further historical association will be drawn here, although links with this painting are as yet purely speculative. The Tibetan artist Menla Dondrub (fl.1450s-1470s), revered as a great painter in his own day and founder of a school of painting known as the Menri, was closely associated with the First Dalai Lama, who offered him patronage and commissioned him to paint murals at Tashilungpo in 1458 and 1464.10 David Jackson cites Menla Dondrub's description of himself as "the painter (ri mo mkhan) ... who had mastered all the painting styles ... from such countries as India, China, Nepal and Tibet, and who had also mastered [Sanskrit?] grammar, poetics, two Indian scripts and all Tibetan scripts. ..."11

Although the identity of the artist is unknown, this magnificent work was clearly produced by a great master. And while its style resembles that of paintings either known to have been commissioned from Newari artists for Tibetans (see cat. no. 47) or thought to have been painted by Newari artists (cat. nos. 35, 36), one must remember that by the turn of the fifteenth century, Tibetan artists such as Menla Dondrup had mastered the foreign traditions of Nepal, India, and China. One need only look at the murals of the Gyantse Kumbum and Tsuklak Khang (both, ca. 1427-42), largely the work of Tibetan artists (as identified by inscriptions; see p. 24), to know that Tibetans were themselves capable of producing works of this quality and in a style similar to that in this work.12 Whether painted by a Newari or a Tibetan, this Ganapati with its imaginative composition, combining spiritual power and subtle aesthetic sensitivity - is one of the finest Tibetan paintings of any period.     JCS

1. On the Tantric associations of Ganapati, see Bühnemann 1994 and Brown 1991. [back]

2. dus gsum rgyal ba'i thugs kyi rnam 'phul [la]s//
    rab 'bar nam [m]kha'i mdog can brjid pa'i sku//
    hum phat drag pa'i nga ros bdud p[h]ung 'gems//
    gsang bdag rdo rje 'dzin la phyag 'tshal lo//

    gang gi phrin las ma lus gcig bsdus pa//
    pa dma ra' ga ltar gsal glang po'i gdong//
    mi zad nor gyi gter 'dzin tshogs kyi bdag//
    ga na pa ti'i zhabs la phyag 'tshal lo//l

    DPAL Idan 'BYOR pa'i dad pa rab rgyas shing//
    blo gros BZANG PO bstan la gus pa yis//
    yi dam rin chen tshogs bdag 'di bshengs pas//

    srid 'dir phun tshogs 'dod dgu 'byor ba'i gter//
    kun la dbang 'byor sa bcu rim bsgrod nas//
    sku bzhi'i dbang phyug rdo rje mngon gyur Shog/  

These verses are followed by the ye dharma creed; they end with mangalam bhavantu shubham (may all things be auspicious!). in the actual inscription, the Tibetan syllables dpal 'byor bzang po (indicated in capital letters above) are written in red, distinguishing them from the rest of the inscription, which is written in black. This deliberate isolation of four syllables points to the likelihood that the scribe meant to highlight the donor's name, Peljor Sangpo. [back]

3. Tucci 1949, vol. I, p. 58; vol. 2, pp. 639-44, 696 n. 361. See also Tucci 1949, Table VII, on the Chongye ('phyong rgyas) family lineage in the appendix entitled "Genealogical Tables." [back]

4. Tucci 1949, vol. 2, p. 639. [back]

5. lbid., vol. I, p. 26. [back]

6. Ibid., vol. I, p. 26ff. [back]

7. Ibid., vol. 2, p. 639.  It is noteworthy that the historical figure on the front of the painting, here postulated to be the donor Peljor Sangpo, wears gold and turquoise earrings. [back]

8. Tucci 1949, vol 2, pp. 642, 696 n. 361. [back]

9. Ibid., vol. I, p. 58. The bracketed Tibetan names in this quotation have been rendered in phonetic transliteration. [back]

10. Jackson 1996, pp. 104, 114-15. [back]

11. Ibid., p. 104. [back]

12. See, for example, very similar scrollwork at Gyantse; Lo Bue and Ricca 1990, pl. 97. [back]

all text & images © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Previous Image | Sacred Visions | Next Image