Indian and Himalayan Art, including Masterpieces from the Nyingjei Lam Collection

Indian and Himalayan Art, including Masterpieces from the Nyingjei Lam Collection

View full screen - View 1 of Lot 112. A thangka depicting episodes from the life of Milarepa, Eastern Tibet, 18th century.

Masterpieces of Tibetan art from the Nyingjei Lam Collection

A thangka depicting episodes from the life of Milarepa, Eastern Tibet, 18th century

Auction Closed

March 21, 04:25 PM GMT


200,000 - 300,000 USD

Lot Details


A thangka depicting episodes from the life of Milarepa

Eastern Tibet, 18th century

藏東 十八世紀 密勒日巴唐卡

Himalayan Art Resources item no. 68329.


Height 42¼ in., 107.5 cm; Width 25 in., 63.5 cm

Betty Seid, 'Himalayas: An Aesthetic Adventure', Arts of Asia, March-April 2003, pl. 19.

This extraordinarily detailed painting is a masterpiece of the Kham region of Eastern Tibet, depicting Milarepa, Tibet’s great yogi, surrounded by life story vignettes. It is in a Chamdo painting style, incorporating influences of Chinese landscape paintings, but retaining a distinct Tibetan identity, its spacious compositions embued with abundant negative space and brilliant depictions of the azure blue sky and verdant-green landscapes. It is a painting of superlative quality, the only thangka depicting Milarepa, who was said to have lived to over the age of 80, as an elderly man. The detailed depiction of his cremation at the top of the painting is unique.

The influence of the Chinese landscape tradition on Chamdo paintings such as the current example is seen in the greater degree of spatial depth, realistic portraiture and delicate compositions, with more subtlety of form and softer colour tones. In contrast to the traditional strongly modeled figures depicted in dense compositions characterized by Central Tibetan paintings, these paintings of East Tibet were softer in their treatment of motifs and forms, but the suffusion of the paintings with strong tones of green and blue, with meticulously detailed rendering of the mountains and grottoes, reflect distinct Tibetan mannerisms.

This dreaminess, in distinct contrast to the more rigid austere Chinese style, lends itself perfectly to the subject matter on the current painting, where Milarepa in old age is depicted in a timeless posture of contemplation, cupping his right hand behind his ear while surrounded by a highly complex diverse series of stories displayed in multiple vignettes. Pratapaditya Pal captures the essence of this exceptional thangka in his description in Himalayas: An Aesthetic Adventure, Chicago, 2003, p. 248:

‘This thangka of episodes from Milarepa’s journey is a remarkably complex but lyrical orchestration of animated forms and multiple miniature vignettes in a harmonious composition’.

The scenes depicted here are probably derived from the principal biography of Milarepa, the ‘Life of Milarepa’, compiled by Tsangnyon Heruka (1452-1507). Three of the stories are identifiable by golden inscriptions. Others are clearly recognizable by the antics of the characters. At the bottom left side, Story 28 (The Goddess Tseringma's Attack) depicts Milarepa surrounded by flames and under attack from demons of the mind. Slightly above, Story 38 (The Story of the Yak Horn) shows Milarepa talking to a bowing Rechungpa, who is identified by an inscription. The top left side depicts Story 61, the death and cremation of Milarepa, the final story from the Hundred Thousand Songs. In the center Milarepa is depicted seated in adamantine focus, depicted listening with his entire body. His head is cocked, leaning into his cupped right hand, fingers curled gently, suggesting that he hears even the slightest sound. His smiling lips gently part, suggesting that he is simultaneously singing and listening to his own voice, vividly embodying the idea that one may gain wisdom through listening.

The story of Milarepa’s life recounts dramatic events and demonstrates the transformation that one who has committed negative acts can make, while achieving liberation from rebirth in a single lifetime. After murdering thirty-five enemies from his village through black magic, Milarepa’s remorse compelled him to seek out Marpa as his guru. He successfully instructed him to commit to a life of devotion, isolation, and meditation. During those years of meditation he realized fundamental Buddhist truths and spontaneously composed scores of great songs of awakening (gur) that extol the Buddha’s teachings. These songs describe meditation experiences, dreams, and realizations, and they were Milarepa’s primary means of teaching his disciples. This extraordinary thangka vividly captures his life experiences and songs.

Another thangka from the same set, depicting sixteen scenes from earlier in the life of Milarepa, centred around a youthful depiction of Milarepa, illustrated on the cover of Andrew Quintman (trans.), Tsangnyon Heruka, The Life of Milarepa, London, 2011, was sold at Christie’s New York, 11th September 2018, lot 325.

A set of nineteen paintings from Eastern Tibet, similarly depicting Milarepa surrounded by life story vignettes is preserved in the Folkens Museum Etnografiska, Stockholm, one of which was illustrated in Marylin M. Rhie, and Robert A. F. Thurman, Wisdom and Compassion: The Sacred Art of Tibet, New York, 1996, pl. 152.