A SPECTACULAR GILT-BRONZE GROUP OF CHAKRASAMVARA AND VAJRAVARAHI CENTRAL TIBET, DENSATIL, 14TH – 15TH CENTURY
- gilt bronze with inset gems
Himalayan Art Resources item no. 13434
A New York private collection.
Sotheby's New York, 21st September 2007, lot 39.
The distinctive characteristics of this spectacular sculpture clearly point to its origin at the celebrated monastery of Densatil, where a magnificent repository of sculptures made in the Newari style was commissioned by Tibetan patrons from the 13th century onwards. Sensuously and expressively modelled, it is decorated with rich mercury gilding and inset with multi-coloured gems. The tang protruding from the middle of the back of the Chakrasamvara would indicate a placement in a larger setting, such as that seen in photographs taken of a tashi gomang stupa at Densatil in 1948 by the Italian photographer Pietro Mele, who accompanied Giuseppe Tucci on his expedition to Tibet, as illustrated in Pietro Francesco Mele, Tibet, Calcutta, 1975, and reproduced in Olaf Czaja and Adriana Proser, Golden Visions of Densatil: A Tibetan Buddhist Monastery, New York, 2014, pp. 20-21.
Key stylistic elements on the current figure can also be seen in the 1948 photograph of similarly conceived sculptures in situ, including the precise articulation of the garlands of dripping human heads, clearly visible in images of Vajravarahi, the skulls on the crown band, the naturalistic rendering of the bodies, with the athletic movement on their multi-arms and legs, and the long flowing jewellery with distinctive treatment of the earrings, bracelets and armlets.
Chakrasamvara and Vajravarahi are depicted engaging in the perfect union of wisdom and compassion in this dramatic and powerful sculpture. The statue serves as a device for the visualisation of the Chakrasamvara tantra, a secret treatise with its origin in medieval eastern India, used by practitioners to increase their ability to attain the ultimate goal of Enlightenment; for a succinct discussion on the content of the tantra, see John C. Huntington & Dina Bangdel, The Circle of Bliss: Buddhist Meditational Art, Columbus, 2003, pp. 264-268, where Robert A. F. Thurman notes in the foreword, p. 11:
"The arts and sciences of this Tantra are amongst the most extraordinary things in world culture, products of a tradition of accomplished adepts, spiritual artists of universal liberation who have emanated waves of beauty through the millennia".
The importance of Chakrasamvara in the Kagyu school, to which Densatil belonged, is fundamental. Jigten Gonpo (1143-1217), considered the second abbot of Densatil after Phagmo Drupa (1100-1170), is recorded as having had a vision of the Pure Crystal Mountain, situated in the Tibetan district of Tsari, in which its peak was with Chakrasamvara standing in a heavenly palace surrounded by a retinue of 2,800 deities. An inscribed thangka in the Rubin Museum of Art, dated ca. 1200, depicts Chakrasamvara and Vajrayogini standing on a lotus throne, encircled by the footprints of Jigten Gonpo, is illustrated in Olaf Czaja and Adriana Proser, Golden Visions of Densatil: A Tibetan Buddhist Monastery, New York, 2014, pp. 176-177, cat. no. 46.
Compare the rich gilding, the colored stone insets and the full volumes of fragments probably from the Densatil monastery, see Amy Heller, Tibetan Art: Tracing the Development of Spiritual Ideals and Art in Tibet, 600-2000 A.D., Milan, 1999, pp. 158-159, pls 83-84. Compare also a circa fourteenth century Tibetan gilt copper group depicting Vajradhara and prajna, see Ulrich von Schroeder, Indo-Tibetan Bronzes, Hong Kong, 1981, p. 330, pl. XII and p. 365, fig 98E. For another gilt-bronze figure of Chakrasamvara of comparable quality and stature, see the example in the Capital Museum, Beijing, designated as from Densatil Monastery, illustrated on Himalayan Art Resources, item no. 59818. Compare also the subtle variations in crown design, bone ornaments, stone and glass inlay, beaded pearls on the lotus pedestal, and supine figures underfoot with another gilt-bronze figure of Chakrasamvara and Vajravarahi, dated to the fifteenth century, sold in our New York rooms, 15th March 2015, lot 1029, and now in an important American collection.
Chakramsavara and Vajravarahi wear the tantric adornments of the six bone ornaments representing the six paramitas or perfections. These textural bone ornaments appear in beaded rows in the present work, and also represent the Five Dhyani Buddhas: (1) the crown of the head, symbolising dhyana or concentration and Buddha Akshobhya; (2) the earrings that symbolise kshanti or patience and the Buddha Amitabha; (3) the necklace that symbolises dana or generosity and Buddha Ratnasambhava; (4) the armlets and anklets that symbolise shila or discipline and the Buddha Vairocana; (5) the girdle and apron that symbolises virya or exertion and Buddha Amoghasiddhi; and (6) the crisscrossed torso ornament that symbolises prajña or wisdom and Buddha Vajradhara. From Chakrasamvara’s neck hangs a garland of fifty-one severed heads strung on a length of human intestine and the hair of a corpse, signifying both the purification of speech and the purification of the fifty-one mental factors according to the Cittamatra or Mind-Only School as described by Asanga.
As outlined in Olaf Czaja and Adriana Proser, Golden Visions of Densatil: A Tibetan Buddhist Monastery, New York, 2014, pp. 55-62, the surviving accounts of visitors to the monastery of Densatil, destroyed in the Cultural Revolution, reveal their admiration of the stunning treasures on the towering tashi gomang stupas. Their words resonate through the ages and place the current magnificent sculpture in its original context.
Tsongkhapa (1357-1419), founder of the Gelug school, visited Densatil at the occasion of a stupa being erected to commemorate his tutor Dragpa Jangchub (1356-1386), and proclaimed:
“Being surrounded by statues which are beautiful in all ways
On all tiers of the sides filling all directions,
Which are of sparkling lustre of a clear brilliance”.
Giuseppe Tucci, visiting in 1948, wrote:
“The architectural lines of those buildings were smothered with a wealth of carvings and reliefs that knew no limits. The whole Olympus of Mahayana seemed to have assembled on those monuments. As I cast the light of my torch on the chortens, the several figures sprang into life, glittering with gold outlines and set off by darker hues and deep shadows”.