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Sitasamvara With His Consort
Zanabazar (1635-1723)
Late 17th century
Gilt bronze with pigments
H:21 1/2 in. (54.5 cm) Diam:13 1/4 in.(33.8 cm)

Choijin-Lama Temple Museum

Samvara, whose name in Sanskrit means "obligation" or "vow," is one of the great tutelary or patron deities (yidam) of Tibeto-Mongolian Buddhism. He is usually depicted in his fierce (heruka) form, with twelve arms and four heads, together with his equally angry consort, Vajravarahi (Diamond Sow).(1) In this combination, Samvara is called Paramasukha Chakrasamvara--Supreme Bliss Samvara, joined to the Wheel of the Law. Yidam deities like Samvara have no physical form but are composed in the visions of tantric adepts of an amalgam of symbolic elements. Thus the union of Samvara with Vajravarahi is a metaphor for the desired result of tantric meditation, the bliss-inducing fusion of the two components of liberation--male means (active compassion), and female wisdom.

In tantric practice, the devotee takes his patron deity as a model of the Buddha he hopes to become. Samvara had this role for followers of several of Tibet's Buddhist orders, the Sakya, the Kagyu, and the Gelug, and descriptions of him appear especially in literature devoted to developing the clear-light, a way of perceiving the ground of being beyond words and ordinary experience. But in Samvara's most well-known sadhanas and texts, such as the eleventh-century Nishpannayogavali, which describes his mandala, he appears in a form very different from the benevolent version of the deity Zanabazar chooses here,(2) as a wild Hindu Shaivite yogin with matted hair, a crescent moon in his hair, wearing the elephant skin of ignorance and a garland of skulls, and carrying a trident. One form of Samvara's name, Shamba, like Shiva's, means "fortunate or blessed," translated into Tibetan and Chinese as Supreme Bliss.(3)

Sitasamvara, the White Samvara Zanabazar represents, may be a later, Tibetan creation, for he is included in many of the ichnographic works of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, if not in earlier texts. Both of the most comprehensive pantheons of eighteenth-century Beijing, the Jangjya Khutukhtu's Three Hundred Icons (fig. 1) and the Zhufo pusa shengxiang zan, (4) as well as the Baoxiang Lou bronze pantheon made for the Qianlong emperor's mother (fig. 2), include versions of White Samvara. He and his consort appear in these works in the same form Zanabazar gives them, if not with Zanabazar's sensitivity and insight.

Zanabazar's Sitasamvara is beyond comparison. The god sits on the single lotus pedestal the artist used for most of his large-scale works (here it has only a single tier of petals), with his legs locked in the vajra position. Samvara's tiny consort rests in his lap, embraced by the god's arms, which are crossed in the diamond HUM-sound gesture, right arm over left, a pose she gracefully mimics behind his neck. He holds two ambrosial jars, she holds a single skull cup (kapala) in her right hand and may have originally held another (or perhaps a chopper) in her left. Behind his back, meeting in perfect symmetry, her toes touch and curl in playful ecstasy and precisely frame the center of the chakra (wheel of the law) at his waist.

Both deities are beautifully crowned, coiffed, and bejeweled, and their surfaces are intricately detailed with patterns that are both cast in and etched. This sense of complex design is carried over into their tightly entwined, self-contained, and completely unified singular form, which, ironically, represents a miracle of multipart casting. (Samvara's lotus and his folded legs were cast separately, and his torso and consort either together or separately. All of their attributes were also cast separately). Without for a second sacrificing his characteristic precision, Zanabazar also pays homage to the nature of flesh as he shows the breasts of Samvara's consort flattened against the god's chest. Likewise, his treatment of the deity's upper robe conveys a wonderful sense of cloth, especially beautiful as it folds in a rich, formalized pattern over his middle back just above his consort's toes. This detail Zanabazar borrowed from the work of artists working in a Tibetan style at the late Ming and early Qing Chinese courts, while much of the rest of his inspiration must have come from the Nepalese tradition he learned in Tibet and brought back home.

The symmetry, formal restraint, and focused concentration of Zanabazar's composition powerfully, but quietly, express the abstract, mystical ideas of union and unsurpassed bliss that underlay Samvara's meaning. The artist has no need for the pyrotechnics that energize fierce representations of this god; he relies instead on his own capacity for subtlety to communicate insight into a most profound mystery.

One other extant work by Zanabazar represents a divine couple, an image identified as the supreme Adibuddha Vajradhara and his consort, which is still kept in worship at Gandan Monastery in Ulaanbaatar (fig. 3). Gilles Engrave guin has pointed out that this deity wears a diadem of human heads, which would be unusual, to say the least, for an Adhibuddha, and he suggests that it could possibly have been intended to be another, more typically fierce aspect of Samvara.(5) Yet another couple, this time definitely Vajradhara and consort, Prajnaparamita, is in the Ferenc Hopp Museum in Budapest.(6) They are much smaller in scale than Zanabazar's magnificent Sitasamvara and consort, but they repeat his most characteristic details. This could well be Zanabazar's own work, or the work of his immediate school. --P.B.

Published: Tsultem, The Eminent Mongolian Sculptor--G. Zanabazar, pls. 42-43; Gilles BÈguin, TrÈsors de Mongolie, cat. no. 11, pp. 140-143.

All images and text copyright The Asian Art Museum; not to be reproduced without permission.

1. See e.g. Robert Thurman and Marylin Rhie, Wisdom and Compassion, The Sacred Art of Tibet, cat. nos. 69, 70, and 102. Cat. no. 102 is a Tibeto-Chinese gilt bronze of the 17th century in the collection of the Asian Art Museum, San Francisco and it is shockingly different in tone from Zanabazar's vision. back

2. Kazi Dawa-Samdup, ed., Shrichakrasambhara Tantra, pp. 10-12. back

3. David Snellgrove, Indo-Tibetan Buddhism, pp. 153, 155,6. back

4. Walter Eugene Clark, Two Lamaistic Pantheons, p. 234. back

5. Gilles BÈguin, TrÈsors de Mongolie, p. 142. back

6. L⋅szlÛ Ferenczy, "Adi-Buddha Vajradhara," Orientations (February 1990), 43-5. back

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