Seated figure of Avalokitesvara


  • Catalogue text

    This small sculpture of a male Bodhisattva may be identified as an aspect of Avalokitesvara by the seated Amitabha Buddha in the central panel of his crown, the open lotus held in the principal left hand, and the antelope hide draped over his shoulders. His other main distinctive marks - the third eye and attributes of the vajra, noose, and elephant goad - are all associated with the Trailokyavasamkara aspect of Avalokitesvara, 'he who subjugates the three worlds' [1]. This iconographic aspect is said have originated in Uddiyana, a region now identified with the Swat valley in Pakistan. The lotus pedestal of this sculpture follows the models from ancient Swat, with two tiers of differing widths for the broad flat petals. This pedestal is one of several models later associated with the circular prabha with tapering apex popular in Kashmir and the western Himalaya [2]. The three triangular panels of the crown, the broad forehead and long narrow arcs of the eyebrows, the almond eyes with their silver inlay, and the receding chin also reflect earlier Kashmiri aesthetic influences, as seen for example in the Museum's silver Manjusri (cat. 37) [3]. Avalokitesvara's third eye also has silver inlay. He has two different earrings, at left a double disc with beaded edge and at right, a suspended pendant of cabochon gems arranged in cruciform.

    An attribution to the western Himalaya or western Tibet is suggested in view of the prominent Kashmiri aesthetic influences, which combine here with stylistic features associated with either Nepal or India. The two different earrings are found in Gupta India, and often appear in Nepal from the Licchavi period [4]. It is known that Kashmiri, Nepalese, and Indian artists were working in western Tibet and the western Himalaya during the revival of Buddhism in the eleventh to twelfth century. Yet if this were the work of a Kashmiri artist in Tibet, one would probably find the dhoti with fabric patterns and contrasting colour inlays. This sculpture, however, has perfectly smooth legs and no fabric is indicated, only plain rounded bands at mid-calf and above the ankle, which perhaps designate hems in the fabric.

    The hands are elongated and hold the attributes very gracefully. The toes are also elongated but their articulations are not delineated. The chest and abdominal muscles are developed but not exaggerated. The back of the image is finished for the outline silhouette but not for the garments or coiffure.

    The face was formerly painted with matt gold, as is typical of Tibetan consecration rituals. Also, apparently, the statue was entirely gilded at one time, although this may not have been original. No gilding is now visible on the front of the image but it can be seen at the nape of the neck, beneath the prabha, at the shoulders, and behind the attributes. The iconography of Trailokyavasamkara, as recorded in later compendia, stipulates that the asana should be the lotus position instead of the lalitasana posture of the Ashmolean sculpture [5]. This is characteristic of the period of the eleventh century revival of Buddhism in Western Tibet, during which numerous translations were made and transient iconographic aspects developed which were not retained in later compendia [6].


    1 de Mallmann, Introduction a l'iconographie du tantrisme bouddhique, p. 108; Trailokyavasamkara is described with only two hands, however both the elephant goad and the noose would have the vajra finial. Here the artist has chosen to show the vajra as a separate element, as well as the characteristic form of lotus.

    2 See e.g. Introduction above, fig. 16, from Kashmir, tenth century.

    3 von Schroeder, Buddhist Sculpture in Tibet, ch. 2, pl. 49 et passim, for Kashmiri works in western Tibet with this characteristic form of prabha combined with the two differentiated tiers of broad lotus petals for pedestal; and pls. 50D-E and 62, for the triangular panels of the crown.

    4 See Postel, The Ear Ornaments of India, for several Gupta examples; and discussion in the Introduction above of bas-reliefs from the Licchavi Chabahil stupa in Kathmandu. See Reynolds et al., The Catalogue of the Newark Museum Tibetan Collection, S7, 11th-12th-century Maitreya, for mismatched earrings, also S15: Devi, Nepal, 10th-12th century.

    5 de Mallmann, loc. cit.

    6 See e.g. the Kalachakra statue seated in yab-yum, attributed to Kashmir, 10th-11th century, while all later iconographic treatises stipulate the standing yab-yum position for Kalachakra (Reynolds et al., op. cit., pl. S5).

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

Further reading

Heller, Amy, Early Himalayan Art (Oxford: Ashmolean Museum, 2008), no. 49 on pp. 142-143, illus. p. 143

Reference URL

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