Figure of Yamantaka dancing on a buffalo

On display

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  • Catalogue text

    This diminutive statue represents a strong and lively Yamantaka, 'the conqueror of Yama, lord of death'. Yamantaka acrobatically strides above his mount, the water buffalo, with his legs in alidha, the stance used by an archer, the right leg stretched and the left leg slightly bent at the knee. As a reminder of the vanquished Yama, a small humanoid figure lies prostrate on the saddle of this very docile buffalo, whose legs are in an incongruous position [1]. Yamantaka is represented here with Akshobhya Buddha seated in his crown. He has three heads, six arms, and two legs. This aspect stems from an iconography popular in north-east India around the tenth century, in which he had six heads, six arms, and six legs [2]. The distinctive attributes of these two iconographies are the sword in the uppermost right hand, as well as a vajra, seen here in the lower right hand. The sword to cut through the clouds of ignorance is a reminder of Yamantaka's status as a wrathful aspect of Manjusri, Bodhisattva of wisdom, while the vajra represents the dynamic energy of the Buddha. In addition, he carries a flower in bloom, a lotus bud, a small skull cup in the palm of his left hand, and a chopper with vajra handle.

    This small sculpture follows the aesthetic models prevalent in Pala India. The flat petals of the double lotus with large beading on the upper and lower rims is typical of Pala India, as is the use of silver inlay to enhance the eyes, the short trimmed beard and thin moustache, and the summary treatment of the thin scarf and its folds [3]. The face and arms are dynamic, while the legs are not naturalistically modelled and their position is somewhat rigid. The red and black pigments in the hair indicate that this sculpture was worshipped in Tibet. Quite possibly it was imported to Tibet shortly after its creation. Small sculptures such as this are eminently portable, and would have made good didactic tools for itinerant Buddhist masters from India or Nepal teaching in Tibet. It is also known that Indian sculptors travelled to Tibet [4]. In this way, the sculptures from Eastern India exercised a profound influence on the aesthetics and the techniques esteemed by Tibetan artists and their patrons. A sculpture of Yamantaka, of the same height and similar iconographic aspect, with raised sword in the uppermost of six arms, and with three heads and two legs, has been analysed as leaded brass, the characteristic alloy of Western Tibet [5]. No Tibetan ritual has been identified for this specific aspect of Yamantaka in Indian or Tibetan iconographic compendia of the thirteenth to fourteenth century, which further suggests the attribution of this Yamantaka to the religious milieu of eastern India and Tibet in the late eleventh to twelfth century, a period of abundant translations and new ritual formulations, as well as short-lived iconographic treatises [6].

    [Footnotes:]

    1 In other sculptures of Yamantaka, the deity literally crushes an anthropormorphic demon and the water buffalo (see Pal, The Art and Architecture of ancient Kashmir, pl. 15, p. 126); a similar prostrate figure on the saddle of a playful buffalo is found on a Yamantaka image attributed to eastern India, 12th-13th century, in von Schroeder, Buddhist Sculptures in Tibet, pl. 102B.

    2 Linrothe, Ruthless Compassion, pp. 164-9, pl. 145: stone sculpture from the Mahants compound, Bodh Gaya. Linrothe cites a Chinese Buddhist translation of an Indian commentary to explain the symbolism of six in this context: Yamantaka's six heads correspond to his purification of the six realms of existence, his six feet to his accomplishing the six perfections, and his six arms to his realizing the six powers of meditation.

    3 It is interesting to note that the two tiers of the lotus petals are aligned at the front and unaligned at the back. The Kadampa chorten (see cat. 54, 60) are inspired by Pala models and both have unaligned petals. See von Schroeder, op. cit., ch. 3: North-eastern India, Pala, and related styles, for numerous examples of the Pala beaded lotus pedestals, inlay techniques, and scarves. For the thin moustache and trimmed beard in a c. tenth-century sculpture of Yamantaka from Nalanda, see Linrothe, op. cit., pl. 148, p. 167 (h. 20 cm).

    4 See Introduction above for discussion of artists from Magadha working in Tibet during the eleventh century.

    5 Reedy, Himalayan Bronzes, W117, p. 182, discusses this sculpture in leaded brass, h. 10.2 cm, iconographically differentiated by the mudras of the two principal arms at the centre of the chest. This sculpture, formerly in the Pan-Asian collection, was cited by Pal as a primary example of a western Tibetan sculpture with very close affinities to Kashmiri aesthetics, yet technically demonstrated to be western Tibetan by its alloy (Pal, loc. cit.).

    6 According to de Mallmann, Introduction a l'iconographie du tantrisme bouddhique, pp. 465-6, there are several forms of Yamantaka described with six arms, three heads, and two legs in the ritual anthology of the Nispannayogavali; however it is stipulated that all these aspects of Yamantaka have a female partner. Her absence here indicates that a different ritual composition was the basis of this representation, a composition which was not included in later anthologies. Moreover, the attributes as described in the Nispannayogavali texts differ from those held by Yamantaka here.

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

Further reading

Heller, Amy, Early Himalayan Art (Oxford: Ashmolean Museum, 2008), no. 46 on p. 136, illus. p. 137

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