AN IMPORTANT THANGKA OF THE VAJRADHATU MANDALA Tibet, 11th Century
- 49 ½ by 49 ½ in. (125 by 125 cm)
J.C. Singer, ‘A Tibetan Painting of Che mchog Heruka’s Mandala in the McCormick Collection’, in The Tibet Journal, Vol. XXVII, Dharamsala, 2002, illus. p. 102, fig 17.
P. Pal, Himalayas: An Aesthetic Adventure, Chicago, 2003, pp. 76—7, cat. no. 115.
E. Lo Bue, in Classical Selection 2014, Rossi & Rossi exh. cat., Maastricht, 2014, pp. 30-31.
The thangka represents a clear link between the well-established eleventh century eastern Indian painting tradition and formative Tibetan art of the era. Spontaneity and freehand expression are the hallmarks of eleventh century Indian painting of the Pala period (ca 750-1200), as seen in illuminations from a ca 1015 Prajnaparamita manuscript in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, see Pal and Meech-Pekarik, Buddhist Book Illuminations, New York, 1988, pp. 52-3, pls. 4-5. The movement, charm and spirit of such early Indian paintings must have had profound influence on the artist of this groundbreaking Tibetan mandala. The posture of the Buddhas and the lyrical movement of the bodhisattvas in the mandala are virtually indistinguishable in style from those in a 1057 Pala manuscript now in the Cambridge University Library, see Zwalf, ed, Buddhism: Art and Faith, London, 1985, p. 70, cat. no. 83, illus. p. 117. But unlike the Indian miniatures the work is done on a massive scale, almost like a mural.
Indeed eleventh century Vajradhatu mandalas were designed for the walls at Tabo Main Temple (constructed ca. 996-1042), Lokesh Chandra noting that the Vajradhatu was one of the earliest mandala cycles to be introduced into Tibet during the Chidar (the Later Diffusion), see Kossak and Casey Singer, Sacred Visions: Early Paintings from Central Tibet, p. 162. Kossak suggests that the present Vajradhatu mandala, together with an Amitayus in the Metropolitan Museum of Art are the most significant surviving Tibetan thangkas from the eleventh century done in the Pala style, ibid, p. 27. Another notable and related eleventh century painting on cloth has recently been discovered, and is now in the Yarlung Museum, Tsethang, Tibet, see Jeong-hee Lee-Kalisch, ed., Tibet-Klöster öffen ihre Schatzkammern, Munich, 2006, p. 244, cat. no. 31. The thangka depicts a standing Manjushri painted in the eastern Indian manner. Two lay devotees kneeling below are depicted in much the same fashion as figures in the lower left of the Vajradhatu mandala, and the space around the bodhisattva is strewn with almost identical jewelled streamers as seen on the mandala.
Notwithstanding the mandala’s Indian inspiration it is a breathtaking work in its originality. The vastness of cosmic space is transposed onto canvas in a way not seen in any other mandala thangka from Tibet. The effect is obtained in no small way by the ring of flames extending beyond the painting’s square lotus petal border, so one has the sense of seeing a framed detail of something too vast to contain within a mere painted representation. Immense streamers flutter on the palace roofs, and trees above bend as if blown in the cosmic wind with their jewelled hangings borne upwards on the current. Large areas of the painting are left open to enhance the dramatic effect of unbounded space. Unlike the majority of Tibetan mandala paintings the deities are arranged in a linear plane rather than aligned with their individual cardinal points within the palace grounds, allowing simple access to the viewer.
Vairochana presides at the centre with Ratnasambhava of the South and Amoghasiddhi of the North to his right and left, and Amitabha of the West and Akshobya of the East above and below him. Together they form the essence of the Vajradhatu mandala, the Diamond Realm of Mahavairochana. Each Cosmic Buddha except the white Vairocana at the centre is surrounded by four of the Sixteen Vajra Bodhisattvas. Dharmapala guard the palace gates while Dakinis dance and fly within the outer walls. The accompanying deities sparsely fill the geometric palace grounds.
Outside the mandala a scene from the temporal world in the lower left of the painting depicts kneeling and seated devotees with one, perhaps an officiant, holding a large vajra, compare this scene with the style of a mural depicting a group of donors photographed by Fosco Maraini in 1937 at the eleventh century temple of Yemar, see Lo Bue, Tibet: Templi scomparsi fotografati da Fosco Maraini, Torino, 1998, p. 108, Fig. 92.
The ring of fire encroaches upon the upper right corner of their square red space as it passes over, creating a sense of dimension and depth and separating the earthly and spiritual worlds. The seven symbols of the Universal Ruler, chakravartin, appear in the lower right corner of the painting. No teaching lineage is depicted, in marked contrast to the majority of later Tibetan paintings where the role of lamas in the transmission of religious instruction is emphasised by the inclusion of portraits of Tibetan hierarchs. Perhaps this emulates Indian tradition, evidence of which is lost with few mediaeval cloth paintings having survived; Nepalese paubha however often portray an officiant with devotees rather than a teaching lineage. The very essence of Indian spiritual and artistic heritage is thus contained within this highly important mandala, which may be regarded as one of the foundation stones in the history of early Tibetan art.
Himalayan Art Resources item no. 88570