Look Inside

Eleven Headed Avalokitesvara (Avalokiteshvara) Chenresigs, Kuan-yin, or Kannon Bodhisattva: Its Origin and Iconography.

FREE Delivery
Express Shipping
(15% off)
Express Shipping: Guaranteed Dispatch in 24 hours
Delivery Ships in 1-3 days
Item Code: IAB25
Publisher: Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers Pvt. Ltd.
Author: Tove E. Neville
Language: English
Edition: 1999
ISBN: 8121504570
Pages: 144 (67 bw ills.)
Cover: Hardcover
Other Details 8.5" x 11.0"
Weight 830 gm
Fully insured
Fully insured
Shipped to 153 countries
Shipped to 153 countries
More than 1M+ customers worldwide
More than 1M+ customers worldwide
100% Made in India
100% Made in India
23 years in business
23 years in business
Book Description
From the Jacket

The Eleven-Headed Avalokitevara is a study of the many origins that may have played a part in arriving at this number of heads, based on forms and powers: male and female forms; origins based on name; in scriptural evidence and images, as well as Hindu deities, and finally origin seen in Rock-cut litanies in caves of India.

Manifold as the sources are, they led to consideration of this Bodhisattva as the highest form of compassion in the widest sense of the word, the savior for humanity of eight to ten dreads, which assail and defeat humankind, especially for exposed travelers, be they pilgrims going to visit and pray at Buddhist shrines, or monks seeking new temples or to find new masters to teach them.

This essay weaves together a panorama in South Asia, moving up to Central Asian and Chinese cultures who contributed their own examples from caves in China (Tun Huang) that also held depositories of paintings brought back to modern cultures for study in Paris and London; long scrolls such as the Yunan Tali Kingdom’s treasure from the late Sung period, all told tales of Buddhist iconography and styles that most often harked back to earlier Indian models.

Korea found influence from China and Japan had the Eleven-Headed in metal and also of lacquer and wood in splendid examples from seventh and eighth centuries on. Still, most astounding is a theory weaving the thread back to the Indian cave litanies, showing how the Bodhisattva as savior caused in practice of art to furnish the model for how the ten scenes of dreads plus the great Avalokitevara’s own face led to an eleven-headed” giants” seen in Indian Gupta styles.

Tove E. Neville is a Buddhist scholar who has spent nine years in research of Eleven-Headed Avalokitevara in Asia. After traveling in more than 30 countries, visiting important sites of both occidental and oriental art, she settled for fifteen years in Japan. While living in the Orient, she examined especially Chinese and Japanese examples of Buddhist art but also made repeated study trips to India and Southeast Asia, and to special oriental art collections and sites in Taiwan, Korea, France, England and Switzerland Intermittently she pursued her graduate studies in oriental art history at the University of Hawaii.

Ms Neville has received initiation in Theravada Buddhism in Thailand, in Tibetan Buddhism in India and in Shingon (Esoteric) Buddhism in Japan, and has practiced these and Zen meditation over a period of twenty-five years.



BODHISATFVAS are beings with rainbow bodies—so it is said. They may inhabit normal human bodies but may on occasion exhibit a kind of radiance coming from within, originating from their extra-human qualities apparent in their faces, voices and actions. This rainbow radiance, which has nothing to do with flesh and blood as these are merely the carriers of an extraordinary spirit, is also the reason why artists portray Bodhisattvas with rainbow colored haloes and aureoles.

The human rainbow-beings can come and go without fears or hindrances in their own minds and always, naturally, and without prompting will try to help any being, plant, animal or human that seems to have need. When called upon, the Bodhisattva being will always try to help without thoughts of consequence to “self’ which is actually a non-existent entity, as the Bodhisattva knows. This spirit can inhabit either a male or female human, or an animal, as it is not dependent on sex, or related to ordinary human body-mind phenomena. Bodhisattva hood can he achieved by all beings by many different means; it is unattached to anything particular but only to the all-being. When human it has all the normal human feelings but will drop any urges, or desires, when these are seen inappropriate. Such a being is called a saint in some other religions than Buddhism.

My own earliest knowledge and interest in the Bodhisattva Avalokitevara stemmed from discussions with the poet Lew Welch when I lived in the San Francisco Bay area in 964. He described this great Bodhisattva of compassion with glowing enthusiasm and imagination and saw it as the highest ideal to give up one’s own salvation until one has helped save all other beings to become enlightened, which is the Bodhisattva vow.

At that point I began studying Zen Buddhism as I met other poets with Lew, who were doing Zen meditation and reading Suzuki Daisetz’s books. Soon after studying these I also read about Tibetan Buddhism and became acquainted with the Tibetan form of Avalokitevara, called Chenresigs, the patron saint of Tibet, and considered compassion incarnate. Then I began meditation practice, and after a prolonged solitary period of meditation under ideal conditions in a quiet house near Carmel Beach, I was able to concentrate my one-pointedness of mind until my consciousness became immersed in what the Tibetans call the Great White Light (Skt. sunyata). After this my basic psychic makeup was fundamentally changed. Notably, an all- belonging, no-fear attitude, totally non-attached, had developed.

After that experience, I was determined to see the Buddhist places in India and elsewhere as I now felt self-converted to Buddhism. I also wished to learn more from masters, and to see many Buddhist images, chiefly the Buddha and Avalokitevara whom I had used as a meditation object. Late in 1966, this wish materialized as I set out on a journey lasting one and a half years, visiting many museums, palaces, temples and tombs in more than thirty countries. After seeing most of Europe and North Africa, I traveled with a helpful friend, Jack L. Yohay, through the Middle East on to Pakistan and India where I was greatly impressed by the Gandhara and Gupta art. Finally I saw the serene Buddhist places of Bodh Gaya where the Buddha meditated, and Sarnath, where he preached the first time in the Deer Park. The caves of Ajanta and Ellora were seen on public bus tours where we became part of huge families on pilgrimages, and Buddhist, Jam and Hindu arts were seen all over. However, the sense of timelessness was greatest by the pristine stupas at Sanchi.

Deeply appealing to the heart was the living Buddhism at the shining Shwe Dagon (cetiya) gold pagoda in Rangoon, surrounded by small temples on a yellow pavement, where tiny bells rang as if the air was full of silver birds, while sarong-clad people bore fragrant flowers on their open palms to offer to the Buddha. The same fervent devotion and flower offerings, especially the jasmine, were ever present in the gorgeous Thai temples, where the Emerald Buddha’s dark green face seemed the epitome of Buddha hood, and where at the king’s ancestral temple door I found my own face on a kinnara statue. However, it was not until by the middle of 1968 when I arrived in Japan that I was able to study Mahayana images, especially Avalokitdvara, as it was revered here, even in the eleven-headed form since the seventh century.

For this reason, I took up residence in Japan, living intermittently in the U.S., mostly in Hawaii to carry on graduate studies in Buddhist art. Japan is today like a living museum of treasures, both Chinese and Japanese, and in looking at images I learned that the highest form of compassion in Avalokitevara, in Japan called Kannon, with the greatest number of skilful means to save beings, is the eleven- headed, 1,000-armed form, the 1,000 being equated with infinite means, but why the eleven heads?

This question intrigued me so much that after repeated study trips to India, Southeast Asia, besides to special collections and sites in Afghanistan, Korea, Taiwan, and in Europe, France, England and Switzerland, I decided to investigate the eleven-headed form, as my chief study. I chose to include the background matrix of early scholarship bearing on Avalokitevara’s origin and development of its eleven-headed form so as to present in a complete tapestry of historical overview the iconographic features in a variety of selected images from many localities.

Thus in the following study, more than fifty images are examined and many compared and illustrated in 67 figures. Some of these are prototypes, whereas others may illustrate styles with bearing on later Eleven-Headed Kuan-yin (Chinese name) or Kannon images, or the Tibetan Chenresigs. Many theories for the origin of the eleven-headed Bodhisattva have been advanced, but here a new theory for its origin, based on Avalokitdvara in the litany, as a savior from dangers, seen in Indian cave art, is my special contribution to such theories.

Two basic head styles can be discerned clearly in Eleven-Headed Avalokiteavara, a vertical one, found in India in the earliest known, sixth century example still seen in Kanheri caves, and later similar ones in Cambodia, Nepal and Tibet (the Tibetan with one demonic, or wrathful head among benign ones); and a pyramid style with a complex iconography of both beatific and wrathful, and also fanged heads, found in Central Asia, China, Korea and Japan. Sutras from the earliest centuries of this era explain the heads and other iconography, which are included here, but there are some differences in translations made at different times, and often iconographic scrolls did not follow sutra specifications, and consequently image-makers did not either.

As this study intends to move across political and cultural boundaries, and follow time factors from the fifth to the twelfth century, it shows an extended view across large parts of Asia where the Bodhisattva in many forms, among them the eleven- headed, gave succor to believers and inspired faith wherever the litany was produced, in rock inscriptions, sculpture or painting, with hope to save men from disasters.

The litanies I studied to work out my theory of the origin of Eleven-Headed Avalokitevara are all from the sixth-seventh centuries, i.e. contemporary with the earliest known eleven-headed in Kanheri caves, which is near a sculpted litany showing en “dreads” or dangers from which the Bodhisattva saves. This image, litany, and others in Ajanta, and Aurangabad caves, having only eight dreads, are all in a noble Gupta style. In Nepal, a vertical head style similar to that of the eleven- headed in Kanheri caves is found in a fifth-sixth century’s form of Visnu Viavarupa in classical Gupta style. No such early images are found in Tibet where Avalokitevara later on became the country’s patron saint, often in the eleven- headed form with 1,000 symbolic arms, an iconography that has been carried up to the present time.

Then jumping across the Himalayas into Central Asia, we find a seventh century wood sculpture of an Eleven-Headed Kuan-yin rescued from oblivion at Toyuk, near Turfan, robbed of its jewels in the meantime, but still showing the beatific Bodhisattva smile. Its style of drapery and jeweled chains can be traced back to one- head Kuan-yins from Hsiang-T’ang-Shan caves of the sixth century Northern Ch’i dynasty, also in the same columnar style. It is possible to follow their style of jewelry to many T’arig dynasty stone sculptures from Ch’ang-an, and again both of these types show influence from the Gupta style, in the way the figures are delineated under the garments. In Japan, the earliest known, seventh century bronze image of Eleven-Headed Kannon also shows many points of similarity with these images.

Influence from paintings of lantern ceilings in Ajanta caves are found in ceilings of the 1,000 Buddha caves at Tun-huang oasis near the “Jade Gate,” last point of no return into the Taklamakan desert. Here also we find perhaps the earliest Chinese wall painting of a seventh century, Eleven-Headed Kuan-yin with a mixed head style, combining the T’ang painting of red-iron-wire line with the sturdy, pneumatic and powerful body style of Kuana and Gupta style Buddhas. Later banners from Tunhuang of the eleven-headed form of Kuan-yin, from ninth-tenth centuries, show a developed pyramid head style, with some demonic or wrathful heads, perhaps guardian farms, on the sides of the benign main head of the Bodhisattva.

In Japan, the pyramid style of Kannon with eleven heads, Sometimes twelve, mostly has three calm heads, three fanged, three angry and a Buddha head on top. Besides there is a laughing head with open mouth in the back, often with the tongue sticking out, as in some Chinese images. The seventh-eighth centuries paintings in Horyu-ji temple, executed in the fine iron-wire line and delicate colors, derived from T’ang painting, show an eleven-headed image with a three-tiered head style and only a calm expression in all the faces. Still here, we find echoes of painting in the Ajanta caves.

In China there are also remnants of the Indian yaksi’s jeweled corset in T’ang images, and her tribhanga pose is seen as sensuously in a Japanese, ninth century huge wood sculpture with a perfect pyramid triple-main-head style with a demonic and an angry head on each side of the beautiful main head, in a way very reminiscent of the Mahesvara in Elephanta caves near Bombay.

It is hoped this short, though wide-ranging study will be of use to scholars in many fields of Asian and Buddhist studies, as well as in Asian art and culture touched by the influence of the Great Bodhisattva of the Silk Road. May the Brightness of the rainbow radiance shine forth in every quarter for the good of all humanity.



This study aims both to trace the origin and to study in detail the development of one particular form of Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara, the Eleven-Headed Avalokitesvara, also called Aryavalokitdvara or Ekadasamukha. In this manifestation, the Bodhisattva is also known as Samantamukha, the "all-sided one", meaning the one who looks in all directions to save every sentient being.

The fully developed form of the Eleven-Headed Avalokitesvara is found to have existed almost simultaneously from the sixth to the eighth century in such diverse locations as India, Central Asia, China, Korea and Japan. Earlier eleven-headed figures of this Bodhisattva are not known at the present time, but later examples occur in Southeast Asia as well as in China and Japan.

The eleven-headed, two-armed Avalokitesvara developed into Tantra forms with four, six, eight, ten, sixteen, twenty-four, forty-six, one hundred and eight, or as many as 1,000 arms" and is in the latter form known as Sahasrabhuja." The multiple heads and arms are considered as the "ultimate pictorial multiplication of the Mahayana ideal of great compassion at work in all six worlds” (of sentient beings).

In another interpretation, "gods" both Hindu and Buddhist with several heads are seen as a symbolic representation of omniscience and many arms as one of omnipotence. According to one iconographic description Aryavalokitdvara can have six to 1,000 arms, with an eye in each hand. However, the scriptural source the Shi-i-mien Kuantzu-tsai P'u-sa Hsin-mi-yen Nien-sung I-kuei-ching mentions only four arms for the eleven-headed, but in the Amitayurdhyana the form has eleven heads and a hundred thousand arms, while a hundred thousand times ten million eyes are attributed to it.


In this study, when considering both early and later art examples, whether from South Asia, Southeast Asia, Central or East Asia, it will at all times be the head style of the eleven heads, or its variant of twelve heads, that will be considered as the basic form, without regard to the number of arms. Thus some figures will be studied with eleven, or twelve, or more, heads and from two to 1,000 arms and eyes because they have some bearing on this Eleven-Headed Bodhisattva form's origin or special development.

Others will be chosen to illustrate a type or special features or because they are the only available known specimens from a particular locality. Such examples may be of an early, late or undetermined date. The main criterion will be the relevance of any example to the basic form, its symbology, iconology and iconography.


Two basic head styles can be recognized, a vertical, five-tier style and a pyramidal three or four-tier style. Each of these styles can again be categorized into two distinctive styles, viz., vertical and pyramidal.

Vertical Style

The five-tier style consisting of the main head, with three tiers of smaller heads on top and a Buddha head above those, will be called the vertical style no. 1, or the single-main-head vertical style.

The vertical style no. 1 is seen in an example from South Asia, i.e. central India, namely the Kanheri cave example, as the only true Indian example now known (Figs. 8, 9). A Southeast Asian example of four tiers in approximately the same design is a variant example from Cambodia (Fig. 10).

Another five-tiered head style has three tiers of three heads each, including the main head, with two heads on top of the three tiers, a wrathful or other Bodhisattva head and above it a Buddha head. This will be called the vertical style no. 2, or the triple-main-head vertical style.

The vertical style no. 2 is found mainly in northern India and other Himalayan regions, such as Nepal and Tibet. One such example (Fig. 13) is a disputed T'ang dynasty votive tablet with Tibetan writing and characteristics, which may have been the result of many generations of copies of an original Tibetan T'ang dynasty image. Chinese examples representing this style, or a variant of it, are also found in an early Tun-huang wall painting (Fig. 30), which seems to show no angry heads. The vertical styles are not found in images from Korea or Japan.

Pyramidal Style

The pyramidal head style is often arranged in a two-tier to four-tier, crown shape or modified pyramid shape, of smaller heads usually all piled up on top of the main head. This style will be called the pyramid style no. 1, or the single-main-head pyramid style. This style will also here be termed the pyramid crown style as all the extra heads, added to the Bodhisattva's main head, are much smaller than the main head and appear to be a crown decoration of symbolic heads rather than actual heads belonging to the main figure, as in Fig. 32.

The pyramid style no. 1, or pyramid crown style, is found in one example from Central Asia, a small wood sculpture found at Toyuk, dated from the seventh to eighth centuries (Fig. 31). This style is also found all over East Asia. In China it is represented in T'ang dynasty sculpture from Ch'ang-an (Figs. 32-35) of the eighth century, as well as in small metal sculptures, and in painting from the Tun-huang caves of late T'ang or early Sung dates.

In Korea this style is seen in T'ang era stone sculpture (Figs. 43 and 44), and in later Surra manuscripts. In Japan this style has many more variations in sculpture than are found in Chinese examples, and the iconography is often very complex and regularized according to Sutras as developed on already existing models, probably imported from China and Korea. Excellent examples in lacquer from the Nara period show this head style, as do both Nara and Heian period wood sculpture (Figs. 48-61). Japanese paintings with this head style also compare with Chinese models (Figs. 66, 67).

A second pyramidal style has two additional heads at the same level as the main head, one on each side, often of wrathful or demonic mien, with the rest of the heads usually smaller and piled on top in a pyramidal or crown style. This will be called the pyramid style no. 2, or the triple-main-head pyramid style, or the triple- main-head crown style.

The pyramid style no. 2 is only found in China and Japan so far. In China it is most often found in painting both of the T'ang and early Sung periods in images from Tun-huang (Figs. 36-38, 40-41) and in later Sung scrolls, such as the Yiinan (Ta-li) scroll of the twelfth-century (Fig. 42). In Japan the examples in this style are few. One is the Nara period painting in the Horyu-ji Golden Hall (Fig. 47) of the early eighth century; the other is the Heian period sculputre of Togan-ji Kanon-do, Kogen-ji, mid-ninth century (Figs. 62-65).

The earliest example to be examined in detail in this study will be the sixth century Indian Avalokitesvara and the latest the twelfth century Chinese Kuan-yin from Yiinan and the Japanese Yamato Kannon. Thus the development of the vertical and the pyramid styles dealt with here spans about six hundred years. In addition, an iconographic scroll (twelfth-fourteenth century) is used for comparison. Moreover, as early Nepalese and Tibetan examples are not extant, later images are presented in order to show iconographically important features. Still, both in the case of head configuration and colors, most late examples hark back to the seventh century text (refer, ch. III, fn. 74). For convenience, AD will be omitted throughout, except for specific dates, and is understood for all centuries unless otherwise stated.



  List of Illustrations ix
  Photographic Credits xi
  Preface xiii
  Acknowledgments xvii
  Chapter One:
  General Description 1
  Criterion for this Study of the Eleven-Headed Avalokitesvara 1
  Two Head Styles: Vertical and Pyramidal 2
  Chapter Two:
The Origins of Eleven-Headed Avalokitesvara
  Some Suggested Origins 4
  Origins and Development Based on Forms and Powers 6
  Origin Based on Name 10
  Origin Implied in Scriptural Evidence and Images 13
  Origin Based on Hindu Deities and Their Iconography 15
  Origin Based on the Development of Avalokitesvara Images 16
  Origin Seen in Rock-cut Litanies in India 18
  Emanation Theory from Litany as Origin for Eleven-Headed Avalokitesvara 22
  Chapter Three:
Iconography of Eleven-Headed Avalokitesvara – Examples from India, Cambodia, Nepal and Tibet
  Eleven-Headed Avalokitesvara of India 28
  Eleven-Headed Avalokitesvara of Cambodia 31
  Eleven-Headed Avalokitesvara of Nepal 32
  Eleven-Headed Avalokitesvara of Tibet 34
  Chapter Four:
Background for the Eleven-Headed Kuan-Yin in China
  Early Buddhist Images in China: Historical and Literary Evidence 42
  Buddhism in North China and the Interchange of Buddhist Art Styles in North and South, as Pertaining to the Eleven-Headed Kuan-yin 44
  Chinese Cave Temples: Some Precursors and Stylistic Elements including Early Many-Headed Images, Seen as Influences on the Eleven-Headed Kuan-yin 46
  Cave Sculpture: Yun-Kang and Lung-Men 52
  Chapter Five:
Iconography of Eleven-Headed Avalokitesvara as Kuan-Yin in China, Kuan Eum in Korea and Kannon in Japan
  Eleven-Headed Kuan-yin of China 65
  Eleven-Headed Kwan Eum of Korea 81
  Eleven-Headed Kannon of Japan 83
  Chapter Six:
Ten Powers of the Litany as Origin for Eleven-Headed Avalokitesvara
  Bibliography 110
  Index 113

Sample Pages

Frequently Asked Questions
  • Q. What locations do you deliver to ?
    A. Exotic India delivers orders to all countries having diplomatic relations with India.
  • Q. Do you offer free shipping ?
    A. Exotic India offers free shipping on all orders of value of $30 USD or more.
  • Q. Can I return the book?
    A. All returns must be postmarked within seven (7) days of the delivery date. All returned items must be in new and unused condition, with all original tags and labels attached. To know more please view our return policy
  • Q. Do you offer express shipping ?
    A. Yes, we do have a chargeable express shipping facility available. You can select express shipping while checking out on the website.
  • Q. I accidentally entered wrong delivery address, can I change the address ?
    A. Delivery addresses can only be changed only incase the order has not been shipped yet. Incase of an address change, you can reach us at [email protected]
  • Q. How do I track my order ?
    A. You can track your orders simply entering your order number through here or through your past orders if you are signed in on the website.
  • Q. How can I cancel an order ?
    A. An order can only be cancelled if it has not been shipped. To cancel an order, kindly reach out to us through [email protected].
Add a review
Have A Question

For privacy concerns, please view our Privacy Policy

Book Categories