An Indian Mahasiddha, probably Guru Padampa Sangye, surrounded by Dakinis and Lineage, Tibet, 13th-14th Century
- Distemper on cloth
- 109 by 82cm. (42 7/8 by 32¼ in.)
A youthful dark-skinned Indian mahasiddha presides at the centre of this extraordinary Tibetan painting. Dark skin confirms the Indian origin of the siddha and the heavy cloak indicates his presence in the colder climes of Tibet. There is no inscription to firmly identify the sage but certain similarities with other portraits suggest it may represent Padampa Sangye (d.1117), a native of south India, known also as Nagpopa, the black one, who travelled to Tibet a number of times during the 11th century, and possibly as far as China; compare a bronze portrait of Padampa Sangye formerly in the Wesley and Carolyn Halpert collection with long hair in ringlets, wide-eyed expression and heavy cloak around the knees, see Rochell 2003, pl.25. Due to the lack of inscription and no known comparable work, the exact teachings referred to in the iconography, and the identity of the hierarchs, monks and laymen remain as yet unknown. However the quite exceptional quality of drawing places the work among the most important documents of Tibetan art from the 13th and 14th centuries. As with many Tibetan paintings of this period the sophisticated Nepalese aesthetic is evident throughout, in the poise of dancing dakini either side of the master and the languorous posture of siddhas and reclining maidens above. Delightful animation pervades the painting, from individual expression on the faces of monks and laymen to burgeoning vine and exotic blooms, all drawn with exquisite finesse. The formal vine motif that provides the structure of the painting has its origin in India, as in Pala works such as a Buddha stele in the Potala, see von Schroeder 2001, pl.129C: and seen in Tibet on early paintings done in the Pala style, such as a circa 1200 Achala thanka in a private collection, see Casey Singer and Kossak 1998, cat. no.22. Similar scrolling vine tendrils with alternating lotus and utpala flower heads on a blue/black background are seen on a Pala influenced Tangut Xia dynasty (1032-1227) kesi Vighnantaka thanka in The Cleveland Museum of Art, see Watt and Wardwell 1997, cat. no.24. Notwithstanding the Indian source of the structure of the painting, the overwhelming spirit of the piece lies in the sensuous Nepalese aesthetic that became prevalent in Tibetan art in the 13th and 14th centuries. The renowned skill of Nepalese artists was in demand in Tibet, while a team of Newar artists and craftsmen worked in China in the imperial studios of the Yuan court. And it is probably in this milieu that the painting was made, during the period of strong political, religious and artistic ties between Tibet and the Yuan dynasty (1279-1368).
The iconographic content is among the most unusual of any Tibetan painting of the period. Apart from the two guardian figures and the four offering goddesses in the lower register, the only primary deities portrayed are forms of Vajrayogini and entourage at either side of the master, Vajravarahi to his right and Varahi to his left. Identity of lineage or doctrinal affiliation of the Tibetan assembly is not immediately apparent, but the key to the teachings embodied in the painting must lie with these Vajrayogini goddesses. The vignettes in the fragmentary upper section appear to relate to the passing of teachings through Indian Buddhist masters, mahasiddhas and yogini, by way of the principal Indian teacher in the centre, to the Tibetan assembly below. Included in the group of monks and lay personages is the portrait of a female adept, the penultimate figure to the right in the top register. Dressed in much the same fashion as the Indian mahasiddha she is shown naked but for a loincloth and a heavy cloak that she wears off the shoulder and wrapping her legs, possibly a reference to the practise of tummo, generation of inner heat. This is the only figure in the assembly to wear the cloak in this manner, and the only female personage. If the subject of the painting is indeed Padampa Sangye then the female adept might be identified as Machig Labdron (1055-1149), the celebrated devotee of the master and his zhijay teaching. When depicted alone Machig Labdron is generally shown dancing naked as a yogini. If this figure does indeed portray Machig Labdron then her pacific appearance may be meant to indicate her lineal descent beside other masters, while still displaying the customary nakedness of a yogini. Machig Labdron and Padampa Sangye are both credited with the development of the Tibetan Chod practice, based on the Prajnaparamita teachings. It is recorded that during a Chod initiation Machig Labdron declared that she was the embodiment of both Varahi and Vajravarahi and the four Dakinis, see Huntington and Bangdel 2003, p.155. Teachings of Padampa Sangye were concerned with the female aspect of Sahajayoga, specifically of Vajrayogini, and the guhya sadhana, secret visualisation, of Vajravarahi (ibid, p.153). Although by no means certain, the depiction of Vajrayogini as Vajravarahi and Varahi in mandalas at either side of the master might relate the painting to such practices and teachings, and thus by association may help to identify the central figure as Padampa Sangye and the female adept as Machig Labdron. These practices are not confined to one particular Tibetan Buddhist order, which may explain the difficulty in assigning a specific doctrinal affiliation to the monks and laymen depicted in the painting..