Introduced to Tibetan Buddhism in the 7th century A.D., Buddhist goddesses, in the beginning, were represented by only two forms of Tara. Over some time, Tibetan Buddhism saw Tara develop 21 forms, and was also graced by several female deities divided into a) benevolent and b) malevolent. Some of these Buddhist goddesses such as Vajradhatvisvari, Lochna, Mamaki, Pandra, and Tara (the feminine counterparts of Five Tathagatas) are seen with their consorts in the Yab-Yum (father-mother) images. Buddhist female divinities are evoked independently as well- Tara, Vasudhara, Saraswati, Prajnaparamita, Sri Devi, and Ushnishasitapattra are a few of the most potent Tibetan Buddhist goddesses who are seen on evocative Thangka paintings.
In the Tantric Buddhist tradition, also known as Mahayana, to balance and complement the powers of the male Buddhas and Bodhisattvas their female Shakti became highly popular. Transcending the boundaries of gender and rigid human rules, the Thangkas of Buddhist goddesses are a powerful medium to achieve Enlightenment. From the benevolent, motherly Green Tara, ever-ready to descend from her abode to help her followers to Hindu-Tibetan goddesses like Saraswati, Lakshmi, and Parvati, the divine feminine finds some of its most powerful and exquisite presentations in the art of Tibet.
Buddha, “the Enlightened One” (one who has achieved Bodhi) is an epithet popularly associated with Shakyamuni Buddha, also known as Tathagata and Siddhartha Gautama. He was born around 560 B.C. in the Shakya clan of Lumbini, Nepal, from where the virtuous prince went on to attain Sambodhi at Bodh Gaya and founded the Buddhist fold. Upon his birth, a prophecy was made that the child of Shakya ruler Shuddhodana and queen Maya would either become a world conqueror or a world renouncer. Worried about the prospect of his crown prince turning to asceticism, the Shakya king ensured that Siddhartha never came face-to-face with the realities of the world. Be as it may, a young Siddhartha witnessed the legendary Four Great Sights that changed the course of his life. Taking a departure from his luxurious life, Siddhartha set out on the quest for the true meaning of life, which he realized sitting under a Bodhi Tree. At Sarnath, Buddha gave the first of many sermons which went on to form the cornerstones of Buddhism. Thangkas of Shakyamuni Buddha show him surrounded by his disciples, followers, Five or Eight Buddhas, Buddhist protective deities, and scenes from his exemplary life.
Bodhisattvas in Buddhism are divine individuals, both male and female, who deny themselves the perfect Enlightenment to salvage human souls from worldly sufferings. Bodhisattva means the “hero” (sattva) of “enlightenment” and is seen as the pinnacle of the Buddhist ideal of selflessness. Avalokiteshvara, “the compassionate one” is the most popular Bodhisattva, who along with Manjushri, Maitreya and Tara, is worshipped among the followers of Tibetan-Nepalese Buddhism. Avalokiteshvara, “one who observes the Loka or world” is the Buddhist embodiment of divine benevolence. Manjushri is another prominent Bodhisattva in Mahayana Buddhism who holds the virtues of Prajna (wisdom) and courage (Pratibhaana) and carries a flaming sword. Maitreya or “the friendly one” is the future Buddha who is yet to descend on the earth to protect the souls. Tara, “one who carries the being across the ocean of existence”, with her marvelous 21 forms is worshipped in Tibetan Buddhism as the mother of Buddhas.
A mandala in Tibetan Buddhist traditions is a potent ring or circle, representing the cosmos itself. Inside detailed imagery of circles, squares, and Tantric symbolism, a Mandala Thangka is a Buddhist initiate’s way of ordering the chaos of the universe by using the symmetry of the Mandala. Kalachakra Mandala (Wheel of Life) is the most popular and esoteric Mandala image in Tibetan Buddhism, followed by Mandalas of individual deities and groups of divinities. The Kalachakra Mandala is visualized as a celestial palace with 722 deities at the center of which is the Kalachakra, a Buddha. The Mandala connects human consciousness with the outside world with different colors signifying the four directions- east (black), south (red), west (yellow), and, north (white). The fifth shade, green, brings additional rhythm to the Thangka and helps the artist create a three-dimensional image on the canvas. The center of the Mandala has Kalachakra in Yab-Yum (father-mother) with his consort Vishvamata, a union that stands for the coming together of perfect wisdom and compassion. Drawing a Kalachakra Mandala in Tibetan tradition is believed to bring peace to the life of every being.
Wrathful Buddhist deities on Tibetan Thangkas are arguably the most awe-inspiring presence on the scroll painting. They are protector deities, who have “Vikurvanabala”- the power to alter their form at will. Wrathful deities take an enthralling and terrifying form that mirrors the evil they have the power to destroy. The ferocious appearances of these Buddhist divinities are to terrify the forces that trouble their devotee who meditates on the wrathful divine to protect them on the path to true wisdom. Bhairava (a ferocious form of Shiva) is a popular wrathful divinity, seen on Thangka scrolls in a deep blue-hued or red-colored form, wide-eyed, holding weapons, and sometimes alongside his female Shakti. The ferocious form of Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, Mahakala in Tibet is the protector of Dharma and a tutelary god. Yamantaka (destroyer of death) is a striking Tibetan wrathful deity, an aspect of Bodhisattva Manjushri who like Mahakala is also a Dharmapala (protector of Dharma). Hevajra, the eight-face, 16-armed, and 4-leged Tantric deity of the Shakya order is stunningly presented in Tibetan Thangkas where he is seen embracing his consort, Nairamata.
Guru (Sanskrit), Garu (Pali), means “heavy”. In Tibetan Buddhism, a guru (bla ma) is a religious teacher who plays the role of a spiritual guide for the initiates and teaches the doctrine of Buddhism and the practices which lead one to true wisdom. A Guru is someone who has achieved the state of awakening. Tibetan Buddhist rituals include “Guru Yoga” where the devotee visualizes their Guru as a Buddha personifying the virtues of the Enlightened One. Using a Thangka of Guru Padmasambhava, his follower achieves spiritual unity with the spiritual master, which is crucial to the attainment of pure wisdom.
Padmasambhava, (lotus-born), Guru Rimpoche is revered in Tibetan Buddhism as a “Precious Master”, presented in a Thangka in the lotus posture, with a Dorje and cup. He is a great master for the Nyingmapa School, which followed the footsteps of their Guru to discover the spiritual treasure texts, “terma”, hidden all over the places Padmasambhava traveled. Guru Choksey, a great master of Chinese Chan tradition is another teacher, who is painted by the Thangka artists for his disciples to meditate upon his teachings. Milarepa, (man from Mar) a benevolent Guru with his hand on his ear in the Thangkas, was a human being before he attained the greatness of wisdom despite his difficult life.
The Hindu god Kubera is a Yaksha (demigod) worshipped with deities who bestow royal wealth such as Lakshmi and Ganesha. He is the keeper of riches and guards the treasures of the world unknown to mankind. In the Tibetan culture, Kubera is known as Jambhala, revered as the god of wealth and abundance. He is accompanied by his pet mongoose, which is believed to be a jewel-spitting animal. As the resident of burrows and underground channels where treasures are hidden, the association of the mongoose with the guardian deity of wealth is natural. In the Tibetan Thangkas, the ancient imagery of Kubera as a pot-bellied male deity has remained intact, with the addition of a Simha (lion) as his mount in some paintings. Holding a staff, Kubera, Jambhala, or Dzambhala is presented in rich Thangkas surrounded by various Buddhist protector deities.
After the demise of the great king Songtsen Gampo who introduced Buddhism to Tibet, the tradition still needed efforts to be strongly established in the Himalayan kingdom. King Trisong Detsen invited the great philosopher and Tantric master Padmasambhava (lotus born), who incorporated the local traditions into the Vajrayana fold, making Buddhism the main religious stream in Tibet. He is believed to be at the base of the Nyingmapa order (the Order of Elders) that commands strict celibacy for its members. According to the members of this order, Padmasambhava is equal to the Buddha, thus he is also known as the Second Buddha.
The followers of Padmasambhava in Tibetan Buddhism honored him with the title “Rinpoche” or the Precious Teacher. In the Thangka paintings, Padmasambhava is seen wearing monastic robes with a cap with ear flaps (to protect a person from Himalayan cold), which is also seen as his receptiveness to the calls of his followers. He has attributes such as a vajra, skull cup, jar of nectar, and a khatvanga (staff). In certain Thangkas, Guru Padmasambhava, Rinpoche is accompanied by his wives Mandarava and Yeshe Tsogyal, both of whom are endowed with mystical powers of Tantra and also with the Eight manifestations of himself.
Newari or Nepami are local terms used to denote the historically indigenous population of Nepal, and it also signifies the language of the Newari people. In the context of Buddhist Thangkas, Newari people constitute a substantial number of artists who have inherited the art of Buddhist Thangka paintings from their ancestors. Newari Thangkas are aesthetically rich in the use of material and technique and are appreciated as an artistic and spiritual amalgamation of Buddhist-Tantric-Hindu culture. Owing to this amalgamation of different beliefs, Newari Thangkas often have mesmeric images of Buddhist Tantric deities and Hindu gods and goddesses, in the Nepalese idiom.
The three royal cities- Kathmandu, Bhaktapur, and Patan in Nepal became the earliest centers for the Newari painters, who drew from Hinduism sumptuously to create a tradition of paintings that were later introduced in Tibet and appeared in the form of Early Tibetan Art- a sensuous union of Newari, Pala, Kashmir, Central Asiatic and Chinese impressions. A classic Newari Thangka can be identified by its realistic and fleshy presentation of Buddhist-Hindu divinities with visually effective calm or ferocious attitude conveyed through their expressions, weapons, the color of their bodies, and the mystical realm in which the Thangka image is based.
Vajrasattva- the spiritual hero of the diamond or thunderbolt (vajra) is a Bodhisattva revered in the Tantric Buddhist tradition of Tibet, associated with Vajradhara, a female Buddhist Tantric divinity. He is also attached to the vajra Buddha clan of Akshobhya and with the perfection of wisdom. Numerous hymns and verses are dedicated to Vajrasattva, worshipped in his calm and wrathful forms and also with his Shakti Ghantapani in the Yab-Yum (mother-father) Thangkas. He is blue and holds a vajra and a bell in his hands, attributes which symbolize compassion and wisdom, masculine and feminine aspects in Vajrayana Buddhism. Bodhisattva Vajrasattva is associated with the refining of mental faculties. Initiates of Buddhist Tantric traditions recite the 100-syllable mantra of Vajrasattva 100,000 times when they begin their initiation rites and practices.
The Newars, a major part of Nepal’s population and the artists behind the outstanding Buddhist Thangkas from the time of the ancient state of the Licchavis were in a system of cultural exchange with the Hindu community of northern India. This relationship is reflected best in the Hindu Thangka paintings of Nepal and Tibet which are an arresting amalgamation of Hindu-Buddhist and Tantric ideas. Several popular Hindu deities such as Ganesha, Devi, and Shiva in lively forms can be seen in the paintings of Tibet. Ganesha, the elephant-headed son of Shiva and Parvati because of the interesting tale of his birth, death, and rebirth signifies a Tantric balance of life and death and is considered the first Shaman in Tibetan Tantric traditions. Ganesha is the protector of the root “Muladhara” chakra and is revered by Tibetan Buddhists and Hindus for achieving supreme consciousness. The active Shamanic potency of Ganesha appears best in Tibetan Thangkas, where a red-hued Ganesha dancing or sitting inside a fiery halo or a multi-armed Ganesha instills action in the heart of the viewer. Devi, the Hindu mother goddess, especially in her form as Parvati, Saraswati and Lakshmi is another prominent Hindu deity to have gained a huge following in the Himalayas, which is also her legendary dwelling. The Hindu mother goddess can be seen on effervescent Thangkas in a benevolent mood, or with their male counterparts in a Tantric tone. Ardhanarishwara and Chinnamasta or Rakta Kali are two of the most visually gripping forms of the Hindu goddess on Thangkas. Shiva, the counterpart of the goddess or Shakti is also quite popular in Tibet, and so is the Hindu guardian of wealth Kubera.
Yogini or a female Tantric divinity is the worldly aspect of the Buddhist Dakini, the embodiment of the active female energies in Vajrayana Buddhism. A Yogini or Dakini is the counterpart of the Tantric yogi and acts as their spiritual guide by giving them the occult wisdom of Buddhism. As an active principle, a Yogini is always visualized as either jumping or lunging or flying in the sky. They are adorned with bewildering jewelry of human bones, painted in vibrant red, stomping on the bodies of non-believers. According to the Buddhist tradition a Mahasiddha named Naropa was taught by Dakini Vajrayogini, because of which his disciples named the Dakini Naro Kha Chod or Naro Sky Goer, based on the visualization of the Yogini by Naropa. The secret knowledge of Naro Kha Chod was brought to Tibet by Nepalese brothers Pom Ting in the 11th century.
Sarvabuddha Dakini- a Yogini who has the mystical abilities to reach all the Buddhas is presented in Tibetan Thangka drinking from a skull cup, clad in gold and bone ornaments, with a third-eye, in an awe-inspiring red color. A sky-going Akash Yogini is drawn as flying in the sky, surrounded by flames of consciousness and Dhyani Buddhas, a most dynamic aspect of the Buddhist Yogini. Vajravarahi (Dorje Phamo, the Diamond Sow) is another powerful Yogini who appears in independent images or Yab-Yum Thangkas with another Buddhist Tantric deity Heruka. Glistening with a red hue, Kurukulla shoots arrows from her divine bow and makes the enemies of Dharma fall at her feet. She is associated with Red Tara and has a stronghold over magical Tantric rites. All these aspects of the active female can be witnessed in hypnotizing Thangkas that recreate the awe inspired by Yoginis in the minds of Buddhist disciples.
A Refugee Tree or a Lineage Tree in Tibetan Buddhist tradition is the signifier of “Guruparampara” (tradition of teachers). Drawn in the style of a family tree, a refugee tree depicts a line of descent, acting as a refuge for a disciple. A humongous number of divinities and teachers form the structure of a refugee tree which emerges from a water body that indicates the life-affirming primeval waters and reaches the heights of the sky. A Tree in metaphysics is interchangeable with a mountain, more specifically Mount Meru, the divine residence of gods and goddesses which is also believed to have spurted from the primordial ocean.
In the center of a Lineage, a Tree is placed the guru or teacher of a particular school, who carries the image of the Adi Buddha on his chest within another image- signifying the transformation of the Nirmanakaya, to Sambhogakaya and ultimately reaching the supreme Dharmakaya. All the Thangkas of different Tibetan schools of Buddhism represent the Refugee Tree going back to the Buddha Shakyamuni, from whom the earliest teachers learned the wisdom of Buddhism and disseminated it to their disciples who went on to become masters of initiates in the future. This long series of masters and disciples are intriguingly represented in the Refugee Tree Thangkas.
WHEEL OF LIFE
In the artistic expression of a Tibetan Buddhist, a Wheel of Life or Kalachakra Mandala represents the entirety of the cosmos, the human and the metaphysical realm, and the cyclical motion of time- past, present, and future. At the center of a Mandala, Kalachakra is denoted by a blue Vajra (thunderbolt), a symbol of Tibetan Buddhism. The Mandala of Kalachakra Thangka is a two-dimensional drawing of a celestial palace with four cardinal directions as the points of entry. It comprises five levels- a) the Body Mandala, b) the Speech Mandala, c) the Mind Mandala, d) The Pristine Consciousness Mandala, and, e) the Great Bliss Mandala. The initiation to Kalachakra Tantra is an esoteric practice, done on a full moon night, with the image of Kalachakra Mandala in front of the disciple, who moves from the east clockwise to enter the divine palace. Drawn by monks with devotion and detailing, a Kalachakra Mandala is believed to propagate mental growth in the viewer, who while meditating with a Kalachakra Thangka can experience an otherworldly delight.
Father-Mother Thangkas, also known as Yab-Yum (a revered Tibetan title for father and mother) are the presentations of the powerful imagery of the male and female aspects in a blissful togetherness, underlining the perfection of all things. Yab-Yum Thangkas show male and female deities either sitting or standing in a loving embrace, where the male deity faces the devotee, and the female deity gazes at her consort affectionately. In Vajrayana, Buddhism Yab-Yum signifies the highest truth- “Yuganaddha” (two-in-oneness). The state of supreme wisdom requires experiencing the different and contrasting aspects of the universe at once, of which a Yab-Yum image in Thangka is the perfect visualization.
The female Shakti in a Yab-Yum or Father-Mother Thangka signifies the wisdom of Enlightenment and is evoked as Buddha’s Prajna (wisdom). The male deity represents the methods through which the female aspect, the wisdom of the Buddha materializes in the world with compassion. In the coming together of the feminine and the masculine aspects, a Tantric Buddhist follower meditates upon two of the most basic yet vital virtues of the Buddha- wisdom and compassion, and the fact that one is incomplete without the other. A person who has achieved supreme wisdom must have a pure, compassionate heart so that his Prajna (wisdom) becomes nurturing for his fellow humans.
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