Figure of Samvara and VajravarahiOn display
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Figure of Samvara and Vajravarahi
Date12th century (1101 - 1200)
Material and technique
stone, possibly kaolinite
Dimensions11.5 x 6.9 x 3.7 cm max. (height x width x depth)
No. of items
Bequeathed by Douglas and Mary Barrett, 2013.
Museum locationFirst floor | Gallery 32 | India from AD 600
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Despite the damage to the multiple hands over the centuries, due to the fragile nature of the medium, it is possible to identify this embracing couple as Samvara and Vajravarahi, from the freshly flayed elephant skin suspended behind their backs. The head and trunk of the elephant are just visible in the prabha, above the chain of vajras and flames at the level of the uppermost right hands. This aspect, called Sri Cakrasamvara, has four faces and twelve hands. It is the most frequently represented form of the deity. The four faces were originally coloured: the face at the back was black, the left face yellow, the right face red, and the front face, now white, would have been painted green. Gold pigment is visible on the lateral faces and blue pigment on the hair.
Samvara's hands are all now missing their attributes, except his central hands which hold the vajra and the bell and enfold Vajravarahi. He is adorned with beaded bracelets and armbands, and similar beading adorns Vajravarahi, nude save for her bone beads and apron. Samvara's hair is piled into a high chignon with elaborate coils of hair (jatamukuta), behind a crown with small skulls, from whose mouths emerge chains of pearls, which continue for all four heads. His ringlets of hair are just visible at the top of his forehead, while Vajravarahi's long locks stretch over his hands as she bends her neck backwards in amorous abandon. He looks at her with a gentle expression, though his grin is a little macabre. His cusped eyebrows are two incised lines of interlocking curves.
The prostrate demons are represented in great detail: one is a skeleton-like figure, and the other resembles a nude baby Krishna, with a high chignon, even holding a flute and seeming to smile, although the face has much surface wear. The crushed skeleton figure holds a dagger or thin chopper and a skull cup.
Vajravarahi's bone apron is sensually draped at the level of the thighs and extended behind to Samvara's hips . The bone apron terminates in a narrow fabric sash, and the controlled pleats are elegantly positioned to emphasize the hips, falling in precise alignment with the vertical axis of the couple's bodies. The rear head has a demonic expression. The rear of the torso is concealed behind the elephant skin, with Vajravarahi's plump foot pressing against Samvara's thigh, the toes splayed and taut.
Several similar stone sculptures are documented in the collection of the Potala Palace at Lhasa . From a comparison with a sculpture of Samvara and Vajravarahi in the Nyingjei Lam collection, also of kaolinite and 7 cm high, it is clear that the aesthetic features of this sculpture are inspired directly by Pala India: the lotus pedestal and flaming prabha, the simple skulls of the crown, the single strand of large beads for anklets, the double-strand bracelets, the necklaces, incised cusp eyebrows, pointed noses, jatamukuta coiffure, and the slender body proportions of the couple . One must note that the scale is slightly larger in the present sculpture, and it is generally more ornate, as in the treatment of the ring of vajras inside the flames of the prabha, the diamond beading inside the double strands of the bracelets, the draped beads of the bone apron, and the facial expressions in Samvara's garland of severed heads. This tends to suggest a slightly later dating, but the Indian provenance remains clear.
1 See the twelfth-century Hevajra from Bengal, with similar drapery on Vajravarahi, in Linrothe, Ruthless Compassion pl. 192, while in pl. 214, the Samvara and Vajravarahi, attributed to Tibet or eastern India, 13th-14th century, cover the hips with bone aprons.
2 von Schroeder, Buddhist Sculptures in Tibet, vol. 1, pls. 123-4.
3 Weldon and Casey Singer, The Sculptural Heritage of Tibet, pl. 8, kaolinite Samvara and Vajravarahi, eastern India, c. 11th-12th century
In: Heller, Amy, Early Himalayan Art (Oxford: Ashmolean Museum, 2008)
Heller, Amy, Early Himalayan Art (Oxford: Ashmolean Museum, 2008), no. 48 on pp. 140-141, pp. 28 & 154, illus. p. 141