Prabha with a Tibetan lama

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  • Catalogue text

    This prabha recalls the elaborate back-plates of tenth-century Kashmir, in which stylized flames and chains of small beading border miniature sculpted figures within roundels formed by leaf tendrils [1], but the central figure here is unmistakably identifiable as a Tibetan lama. This is indicative of a Tibetan provenance and a dating at least two centuries later than the Kashmiri prototypes. The apex of the flame has three inset turquoises, which form the symbol of the three jewels of Buddhism: the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha or community of monks. Immediately beneath the three jewels, the Tibetan lama is seated in meditation inside a round halo. The lama is distinguished by the drapery of his characteristic monastic robes and outer cloak [2]. He is seated in vajrasana and his hands form the samadhi mudra of meditation. His facial features cannot be distinguished, and there is no identifying inscription. This prabha would have been the upper segment of the back-plate for a sculpture, and probably the head of the image was positioned inside the trilobate opening at the feet of the lama. The lower portion has been cut away. There is an old fracture and repair beneath the lower cusps of the trilobe.

    At the centre of prabhas one finds more usually a Garuda, as guardian of the Buddha's teachings, or a stupa, as a reminder of Sakyamuni, whose relics were enshrined in a stupa [3]. Here the representation of the lama indicates that he is regarded as equivalent to the Buddha, because in Tibet, in addition to the traditional three jewels of Buddhist doctrine, there are also the three jewels of the Vajrayana teachings: the lama, the meditation deity, and the dakini. The elevation of the lama to the rank of the Buddha was gradual and was fully conceptualized by the thirteenth century. At this time, a few very eminent lamas were already portrayed in prabhas, surrounded by Bodhisattva attendants indicative of their status [4].

    The other surrounding figures make an intriguing study, and appear to include several mahasiddhas. At lower proper right of the now-missing image, there is a male figure with nude torso, seated with legs wide apart and heels joined; over his shoulders he wears a cape, and at his thighs can be seen the hem of short trousers, cut very wide in a thick fabric. He holds his arms extended, with both hands on his knees. He appears to have a flat hat and disc earrings; the face cannot be distinguished due to surface wear. Above him appears a mahasiddha, seated in profile which emphasizes the prominent chignon at the back of his head. He has a skull cup in his raised left hand, and his right hand is behind his body at the right. His right knee is raised, the left leg is bent, and the heel is hidden behind the right foot. Further above, to the proper right of the central lama, there appears a seated male figure who has a voluminous coiffure with a central sun or moon ornament(?) and two large lateral elements. He wears a dhoti, armbands, and a short blouse. For jewellery, he has a one-strand necklace, a mid-chest necklace, and two round disc earrings. Seated in vajrasana, he holds a vajra in his right hand; the attribute in his left hand is indistinct.

    At upper left of the central lama, there appears a seated male figure, his hair pulled into a topknot. He wears disc earrings and two necklaces, one round his neck and one at mid-chest. He appears to have a bare torso; the hem of a garment is draped around his right ankle as he is seated in vajrasana. His hands are crossed over his chest, reminiscent of Vajradhara Buddha who holds the vajra and bell in front of his heart, but no attributes are visible in his hands. This person may be a lama or possibly another mahasiddha [5]. Beneath him is a mahasiddha seated in three-quarter view, which emphasizes his chignon and corpulence. He faces towards the central deity, his right hand on his knee, legs bent with the heels meeting, the left hand behind his raised left knee. He is seated with a club with vajra finial behind him. At lower left is a seated lama, dressed in thick Tibetan robes with a V-necked collar and wrist-length, wide-cut sleeves. His hair is straight and thick, cut just below the earlobes and straight all around the head. This figure recalls representations of Marpa, a Tibetan lama of the eleventh century, renowned for his teachings and revered as a spiritual forefather of the Kargyu monastic school. Several portraits of Marpa represent him with similar hair and garments [6].

    However, Tibetans who had taken vows of Buddhist practice but did not take monastic ordination had no tonsure and wore similar robes [7], so his identification is therefore not certain. Although the identification of these individual lamas remains elusive, this elegant prabha is a striking document of the Tibetan synthesis of the veneration of lamas with the adoration of the divine or transcendent.

    [Footnotes:]

    1 Compare the Avatar frame from Devsar, illus. in Pal, Art and Architecture of Ancient Kashmir, p. 87, fig. 14; also a similar frame at Narthang monastery in Tibet, dated by inscription to 1093, illus. in detail in Tucci, Transhimalaya, pl. 140; and Rhie and Thurman, Wisdom and Compassion, fig. 7, p. 45. The primary study of the Avatar frame of Devsar appears in Goetz, The History and Art of Kashmir and the Indian Himalayas.

    2 See Introduction above, for photograph and discussion of the portraiture of Tibetan lamas and monks.

    3 See Pal, Himalayas: An Aesthetic Adventure, pl. 79, for a prabha with similar flames, beading and stupa finial, attributed to western Himalayas or west Tibet, tenth century.

    4 Ibid., pl. 132, for discussion of this concept in regard to a portrait of Jigten gonpo (1143-1217).

    5 For a lama represented with bare chest, see Dinwiddie, Portraits of the Masters, pl. 58, The Recluse of Shang.

    6 See Weldon and Casey Singer, The Sculptural Heritage of Tibet, pl. 38, and Pal, Himalayas, pl. 128, where Marpa has similar short hair, and pl. 127, where, in contrast, he is represented with shoulder-length hair.

    7 See e.g. portraits of Kunga Nyingpo, a Tibetan lama of the Sakya school, who also did not take monastic vows: Weldon and Casey Singer, op. cit., fig. 47.

    In: Heller, Amy, Early Himalayan Art (Oxford: Ashmolean Museum, 2008)

Further reading

Heller, Amy, Early Himalayan Art (Oxford: Ashmolean Museum, 2008), no. 51 on pp. 147-148, p. 160, illus. p. 149

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