Seated figure of Manjushri

On display


  • Catalogue text

    Manjusri is represented here as Manjughosha, the young prince, his body of saffron hue rendered by the yellowish brass alloy. The ritual treatise for this aspect of Manjusri stipulates his position as vamardhaparyanka asana, the left leg pendant on a small lotus, as he clasps a lotus stem with his left hand and presents his right hand in a 'gracious attitude' [1]. Here Manjusri holds the thick lotus stem, to which the sculptor has chosen to add a book above the blossom, as a reminder of his role as the Bodhisattva of wisdom, and his right hand is raised in abhaya mudra, the gesture of protection. This aspect of Manjusri was described in Indian treatises, though without the book. When the Great Pandit of Kashmir travelled in Tibet during the early thirteenth century, he taught this liturgy and so modified the iconography [2]. Subsequent Tibetan treatises stipulate his body colour as white rather than golden, and his position as vajrasana, rather than vamardhaparyanka asana [3].

    This small sculpture of Manjusri is masterfully modelled and cast in the mode of Pala India. The posture of his body is both graceful and subtle; no exertion of muscles is apparent. The body is perfectly aligned: the head tilted slightly downwards and to the right, the chin jutting over the right hip, the angle of the head echoed by that of the pendant left leg. A virtually identical treatment of the body and pose is seen in a circa twelfth-century Padmapani in the Nyingjei Lam collection, which also has the fleshy feet with splayed toes, and wears the beaded sacred thread clinging to the chest and following the bend of Manjusri's slender body [4]. This Padmapani is rendered in a dark copper alloy with an elaborate piled coiffure, yet both have the slightly plump face with broad forehead and square jaw, the mouth closed, the full lips forming a very gentle smile, and the hairline with curled twists of hair under the edge of the crown. Although it was characteristic of Pala sculpture to emphasize copper or silver inlay, here it is only the pupils of the eyes which have pitch. The eyes have a pure almond shape with thick upper and lower eyelids. The urna is high in the forehead. The naturalistic ears are extended by the weight of the floret earrings. A single triangle is used as decorative motif in the diadem in front of the tiered crown, the largest triangle is at the centre with two smaller lateral staves at the temples and as finial for each tier [5].

    Manjusri's relatively slender body proportions are also similar to sculptures attributed by von Schroeder to Indian artists working in Tibet during the eleventh to twelfth century. Although his body is less elongated and less languorous than earlier Pala models, this sculpture retains specific Pala stylistic elements, such as the short fabric ties at the belt, folded just at the hip [6]. The massive legs have no calf muscle, and the feet are rather small with a pronounced splay of the toes and plump pads of feet, again characteristics often seen in Pala images [7].

    The lotus pedestal also follows the style of Pala India, with two tiers of nonaligned petals and beading. Although Manjusri himself is fully modelled in the round, with the distinctive cross band behind the head to retain the two lateral fans of the crown [8], here the pedestal does not have petals all across the back of the sculpture although the tiers are differentiated. Lacking any inscriptional evidence, the provenance of this sculpture cannot be determined precisely, but it was clearly produced within the Buddhist milieu of the late Pala dynasty in Eastern India. Its small size, light weight, and pristine condition suggest that it was long ago imported to Tibet, where it was preserved until the mid-twentieth century.


    1 de Mallmann, Introduction a l'iconographie du tantrisme bouddhique, p. 252, cites the Sadhanamala, 50, 69, and 70, for a description of this aspect of Manjusri and the name Manjughosha; also p.10, with explanation of this asana as pertinent to forms of Manjusri.

    2 Shakya Shri Bhadra, the Great Pandit of Kashmir, taught in Tibet from 1204 to 1213, according to The Blue Annals, tr. Roerich, pp. 82, 103, et passim.

    3 See this iconographic example in Willson and Brauen, Deities of Tibetan Buddhism, no. 185: White Manjughosha in the tradition of the Great Pandita of Kashmir. See Huntington and Huntington, Leaves of the Bodhi Tree, pls. 146-7, for two 13th-14th-century Tibetan sculptures of Manjusri in this iconography, both strongly influenced by Pala aesthetic models.

    4 Weldon and Casey Singer, The Sculptural Heritage of Tibet, pl. 6: Padmapani, h. 10.8 cm, rendered in a copper alloy with gold, copper, silver, and semi-precious gems, attributed to Eastern India, c. twelfth century. I thank David Weldon and Ulrich von Schroeder for discussion of the differentiation between Pala images made in India and those made in Tibet following the Pala aesthetic.

    5 This model of tiered crown inspired by Pala India is frequently found in Tibetan paintings attributed to the late eleventh to thirteenth century, see Kossak and Casey Singer, Sacred Visions, plates 4, 5, 8, etc.

    6 See the stone sculpture of Manjusri in von Schroeder, Buddhist Sculptures in Tibet, vol. 1, pl. 120B-C, attributed to an Indian artist working in Tibet.

    7 This proportion of legs and feet is also seen in the Padmapani of the Nyingjei Lam collection cited earlier; compare also von Schroeder, op. cit., vol. 1, pl. 110C, for a brass Tara described as Indian work in Tibet in the late Pala style, c. twelfth century. For very similar legs and feet in twelfth century Pala stone sculptures see Huntington, The 'Pala-Sena' Schools of Sculpture, pls. 80, 84.

    8 According to von Schroeder, this band is characteristic of late Pala sculpture (personal communication); see e.g von Schroeder, op. cit., vol. 1, pl. 97 B-C, for a late Pala Manjusri whose crown is retained precisely in this manner.

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

Further reading

Heller, Amy, Early Himalayan Art (Oxford: Ashmolean Museum, 2008), no. 45 on pp. 134-135, illus. p. 135

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