Eastern Art Online, Yousef Jameel Centre for Islamic and Asian Art

Ashmolean − Eastern Art Online, Yousef Jameel Centre for Islamic and Asian Art

Early Himalayan Art

A full catalogue of the Ashmolean's collection of diverse works from the formative periods of Himalayan art, c. AD 700-1400 by Amy Heller (published Oxford, 2008).

Early Himalayan Art by Amy Heller


Tracing the development of early Himalayan sculpture

The Himalayas, or ‘Abode of snows', have long captured the imagination of those aspiring to the ideals of peace and purity, whether foreign mountaineers attempting virgin summits or pilgrims seeking peace of mind in remote temples far from the tumult of modern life. The rich heritage of religious paintings and sculptures created in those Himalayan sanctuaries can also offer the potential for sublime discoveries. The artefacts of secular life, moreover, provide tantalizing links to ancient cultures and traditions which have survived intact in distant mountain villages to the present day.

The Ashmolean Museum's collection of early Himalayan art comprises some sixty sculptures and artefacts from Nepal, Tibet, and the western Himalayas, ranging from the seventh to the fourteenth century. They include a number of secular objects as well as images of deities of the Hindu and Buddhist pantheons. To trace their aesthetic and historical development, and their materials and techniques of manufacture, we will here explore three perspectives. First, we examine the geography of trade within the Himalayan and neighbouring regions, since trade and the nomadic movement of populations did much to foster the spread of the religious movements and cultural exchanges which led to the creation of these sculptures. Next, we review their antecedents in India and the surrounding regions, since many Tibetan, Nepalese, and western Himalayan sculptures follow aesthetic, iconographic, and metallurgical traditions established in India in the earliest centuries of Buddhism.

Finally, we focus on developments in the arts - aesthetic, iconographic, and technological - from the seventh to the fourteenth century. The arts of Nepal, both Hindu and Buddhist, were largely influenced by the art of northern India. For Tibet, which politically then comprised much of Ladakh and the western Himalayas, the situation is far more complex. Inspired by the arts of Central Asia and China, as well as India and the Kashmiri and Nepalese schools, Tibetan work reflects the interaction of these various external influences, which the indigenous artists progressively fused into expressive and distinctive styles of their own. These were moreover complemented by the many works executed in Tibet by itinerant Indian, Nepalese, and Kashmiri artists. The requirements of iconographic accuracy and consistency, rather than aesthetic innovation, were reinforced by Tibetan religious conservatism. Moreover, certain special icons - as well as the prevailing styles of the earlier schools per se - were held in such esteem that in some cases replicas of them were made centuries later. The portable nature of these sculptures, combined with a tendency to offer images as gifts to visiting dignitaries, ensured that icons travelled far and wide from their place of origin. These factors, as well as the anonymity preferred by the artists and the relative paucity of dated images, all tend to hamper the accurate assessment of date and geographic provenance. In view of this, we will refer where possible to dated monuments in situ which elucidate the major trends in the development of the arts of Nepal and Tibet.

The trade routes

The Himalayas stretch in a majestic arc from north-west India to Nepal and Tibet, forming a formidable spectacle of sublime height and beauty. For three months of the year, winter transforms the mountains into an impenetrable barrier of snowbound passes which separate the indigenous populations from their neighbours. At other times of year, ancient caravan routes through the mountain passes have long connected these diverse regions. Thus religious teachers and pilgrims, as well as merchants and shepherds, were able to cross the mountain passes and to roam southwards, eventually bringing back with them the religious and cultural values of the Buddhist and Hindu religions, which soon took root in this new terrain far from their origins in India.

The Himalayan region. © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford The Himalayan region.

The pattern of these trade routes depended originally both on topography and economic incentives (see Map). In general, the Himalayan region has many north-south passes, linking with the Indian subcontinent to the south, and with Central Asia and Tibet to the north. Most of Tibet lies north of the Himalayas, in what is called the plateau of the Transhimalaya. This term can be misleading, because rather than a high flat zone (as implied by ‘plateau'), the Transhimalaya is a region of many small mountain ranges of around 5000-6000 metres, punctuated by saline lakes and river valleys situated at about 3700 metres. In the ages before refrigeration, trade in Tibetan salt was essential to those areas of the Himalayas and northern India that were too far from the sea. Tibetan horses also were renowned throughout northern Asia. Ancient inscriptions describe Nepalese exports to India of wool, musk, yak tails (for fly-whisks), iron, and copper [1]. Except for the metals, which have long been mined in Nepal, these were all goods imported to Nepal from Tibet and conveyed further south by Nepalese merchants. From Kathmandu, their route lay southwest to the lowlands of Lumbini, where the Buddha was born, and due south to the Gangetic plain, with Benares, Bodhgaya, and the great monastic complexes of Sarnath and Nalanda. Heading north from Kathmandu, following the Sunkosi and Bhotekosi rivers, there is a low pass leading towards central Tibet. West of Kathmandu lies Pokara and the valleys of the Kali Gandaki river, which flows from Mustang and again allows entry to Tibet by an easy pass north of Mustang. Further west, the Karnali river network flows from Mount Kailash, the traditional juncture of India, Tibet, and Nepal. The east-west river valleys in central Nepal were a major axis, as were the east-west land-routes beyond the Himalayas leading to Kailash. Mount Kailash was the focal meeting point of several trade routes linking many lands. The Kailash region is also the watershed and source of the Sutlej and Indus rivers leading to north-west India and the vale of Kashmir and nearby Gilgit, nestled between the Hindu Kush, Pamir, and Karakorum ranges, which prolong the arc of the Himalayas to the west and northwest respectively [2]. Further north, the arc of the Kunlun mountains leads towards the vast deserts of the Takla Makan, and beyond to the Silk Routes crossing from the Mediterranean to the Pacific.

These river valleys and mountain passes allowed the passage of traders, Buddhist teachers, and pilgrims, as well as Tibetan armies who progressively extended their empire from its core in central Tibet. They eventually occupied Gilgit, northeast of Kashmir, as well as the Silk Route garrisons of Khotan and, far further north and east, Dunhuang, the major commercial oasis of the Silk Route which long constituted China's door to the Western world and Central Asia. Just as Mount Kailash at the south-west corner of Tibet formed the juncture of India, Nepal, and Tibet, so Qinghai, the great blue lake of the Kokonor, constituted the traditional border between Tibet, the Turkic-Mongol populations, and China. Trade routes connected Qinghai with Xian, the capital of Tang China, and with Lhasa, as well as a network of routes leading to the Mekong river valley and the riches of Sichuan and Yunnan.

Artistic developments prior to the seventh century

Ancient settlement in Tibet and Nepal has been documented by archaeological investigations. Habitations in Tibet have revealed distinctive pottery and architectural modules in East Tibet from 4000-5000 years ago, and fieldwork in northeast Tibet, near Qinghai, indicates there were other ancient inhabited zones of these populations [3]. Most recently, there have been investigations in Western Tibet, dating from c.AD 100 [4]. Surface finds in central Tibet have yielded small gold horses and jewellery items with granulation which archaeologists attribute to the seventh to ninth century by comparison with excavated findings from Tibetan tombs of that period [5]. Yet despite nearly thirty years of excavations, knowledge of the prehistoric period in Tibet is still relatively limited. There have been archaeological investigations in the Mustang district of northern Nepal, following surface finds of bones and utensils [6]. The artefacts found in these excavations, whether pottery or tools, bear little relation to the Buddhist and Hindu art and artefacts attributed to the historical period of Nepalese and Tibetan relations which commences in the seventh century. Therefore we review here the antecedents of the art of Tibet and Nepal in India and neighbouring regions.

The earliest extant Indian Buddhist art dates from the first centuries AD, with the development of the earliest figural representations in stone of the historic Buddha Sakyamuni (c.563-483 BC). Prior to this, there is very scant literary evidence of Buddhist art during the lifetime of the Buddha. Subsequent doctrinal developments led to the making and use of images in perishable materials such as clay, and symbolic representations such as the wheel to represent the Wheel of Dharma (the Buddhist teachings), whose transmission in the world is likened to a ‘wheel' set into motion by Sakyamuni [7]. Rather than the full figure of the Buddha, it was for the most part his footprints or handprints which were first represented in art [8]. The sculptural remains of the first to third century in the Ganges-Jumna plain, with its main artistic centre at Mathura, provide a corpus not only of anthropomorphic male and female nature spirits (yakshas) but of historical kings and deified superhuman figures, representing the Buddha, the Jina Mahavira for the Jains, or Siva and Vishnu for the Hindus.

Sakyamuni's life story became the focus point to differentiate the Buddha from the deities of Hinduism and Jainism. His birth as an Indian prince is recalled by the elongated lower ear-lobes, lengthened by the weight of his royal earrings, and the ushnisha, the ‘mark of wisdom' or protuberance above the head which recalls the cutting and knotting of his long hair when he renounced his princely life. Henceforth Sakyamuni is represented with the shaven head of a monk and draped in religious robes. The urna, or tuft of hair between the brows, and the wheel of Dharma placed on the palms of the hands or the soles of the feet are also counted among the thirty-two sacred marks which distinguish the Buddha.

Roughly contemporary with the evolution of Mathura sculpture, a further stylistic development took place in the north-western region of Gandhara (northern Pakistan and eastern Afghanistan) which had formerly been part of the conquest of Alexander the Great. Here, the standing Sakyamuni Buddha, with his right hand extended and his left hand holding his robe, would be widely differentiated from the Mathura type in his body proportions, hand positions, hair and facial features, and the folds of his monastic garments. In a Gandhara standing Buddha of c.200 AD in the Ashmolean's collection (fig. 1), we immediately apprehend the strong impact of Hellenistic and Roman sculpture in this image of a handsome man, his perfect oval face framed by thick wavy hair and the total harmony of the folds of the garment hiding the athletic body, as if clad in a Roman toga. Yet for contemporary Buddhists and their later followers, the more essential aspects of this image are the sacred marks of the urna, the ushnisha, the elongated earlobes, and the monastic robe (samghati), all elements signifying the profound spirituality of this figure.

Standing figure of the Buddha Sakyamuni (EAOS.26) Standing figure of the Buddha Sakyamuni (EAOS.26)

The maturity of the Mathura and Gandhara styles coincided with the expansion of Buddhism as it spread beyond India's north-west borders, through the Silk Route oases and eventually reaching China. As Buddhist teachers travelled spreading the sacred doctrines of liberation from suffering propounded by Sakyamuni, a fusion of these two major Buddhist styles developed which was complemented by an aesthetic integration of the physiognomy and costumes of the local populations among whom Buddhism had spread (cat. 24, 26). Moreover, Buddhist teachers were able to adapt certain local cults and beliefs to correspond with Buddhist concepts, thus ensuring the successful transplantation of the religion throughout most of Asia.

Soon after this northward diffusion of Buddhism had started in the third century, the Gupta dynasty became established in the Gangetic plain, the heartland of Buddhism, and gradually extended both its territory and artistic influence far beyond the main sculptural centre of Sarnath (fig. 2). Conceptually, the evolution of Buddhist doctrine had led to the ideal of the historic Sakyamuni as one member of a long periodic succession of Buddhas, assisted by their attendants, the male Bodhisattvas and female goddesses, who are conceived as resident both in our phenomenal world and in infinite space, and are committed to the collective salvation of humanity and all sentient beings. The importance attributed to these doctrines gave rise to the aesthetic expression of these metaphysical concepts, thus evoking in plastic form the bliss and compassion of the Buddha and Bodhisattvas, and their heroic devotion to the liberation of sentient beings from the sufferings of existence. The sculpture of the Gupta dynasty - and the paintings commissioned in the fifth century at Ajanta and Bagh by the Vakataka dynasty who were their feudatories - reveal the calm and refined beauty of the transcendent state exemplified by these saviour figures, whose appearance is codified in prescriptive canons detailing the harmonious proportions of their gracefully modelled, slender bodies, revealed through thin garments.

Fig. 2. Seated Buddha: The First Sermon. Sandstone. Sarnath, late fifth century AD. Sarnath Museum. © Robert Skelton Fig. 2. Seated Buddha: The First Sermon. Sandstone. Sarnath, late fifth century AD. Sarnath Museum.

The Gupta aesthetic was recognized in India as the supreme expression of the Buddhist ideals of spirituality and beauty, and was rapidly diffused far and wide in Gandhara, the Himalayas, Central Asia, and China. Simultaneously, the influences of western Asia reached Buddhist art. Traces of the pativa ribbons of the royal crowns of the Sasanian empire (fourth-fifth century) would reappear, as a vestige of western Asiatic influence, in the crowns of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas in Gandhara art of the later period, as for example at Bamiyan in Afghanistan. Whether represented on silver bowls or coins, these royal portraits were highly portable and some have been recovered in Tibetan areas (fig. 3).

Fig. 3. Sasanian silver coin with royal portrait showing a horned helmet. Recovered in Dulan, Qingha. © Qinghai Archaeological Institute Fig. 3. Sasanian silver coin with royal portrait showing a horned helmet. Recovered in Dulan, Qingha.

The Himalayan valley kingdom of Nepal received the new Gupta stylistic influences directly, by way of the major trade route linking Kathmandu and the Gangetic plain. In Nepal, Hinduism and Buddhism existed side by side, much as they had done in the later Gupta kingdom. Due to the Nepalese Licchavi kings' dependence on the Brahman class, the court gave less support to Buddhist institutions, although Newar society in general was very sympathetic to Buddhism [9]. Among the first traces of Buddhism in Nepal is a stone inscription of c.350 AD which indicates the establishment of a system for feeding members of the Buddhist community of monks at Chabahil stupa [10]. There were also other stupa foundations such as Bodhnath and Swayambunath, and carved royal edicts in stone. Early Licchavi sculptures of the Buddha strongly reflect the influence of the Gupta aesthetic, with their spherical ushnisha and coiffure of juxtaposed spiral curls, the gentle face with half-closed eyes and full lips, the smoothly modelled body in clinging robes, standing inside a flame and bead border (fig. 4).

Fig. 4. Stone standing Buddha at Pashupatinath. Kathmandu, Nepal. 6-7th century. H. 82 cm approx.. © Amy Heller Fig. 4. Stone standing Buddha at Pashupatinath. Kathmandu, Nepal. 6-7th century. H. 82 cm approx..

To the west of Nepal, the relative proximity of Kashmir and Gilgit to the former Gandhara region facilitated a fusion of the Gupta style with local Gandhara traditions. Further north along the Silk Route, the pearl roundel designs of Sasanian and Sogdian fabrics and coins traded from Persia and Samarkand influenced the textiles worn by the painted and sculpted Buddhas and Bodhisattvas of Khotan and Dunhuang. Sogdian colonies in Dunhuang first introduced these designs, which came to be emulated in textiles and metalwork, especially silver, by Chinese craftsmen. The Indian models of deities of tall stature, wearing light robes suitable for a hot climate, were largely retained in the clay sculptures of the Buddhist grottoes in Central Asia and the western Chinese garrisons of the Silk Route. Further east, these canons were gradually infused with the Chinese aesthetic, resulting in the voluminous, heavy robes and draperies hiding the human body which characterize much of Chinese Buddhist art.

Artistic developments in Tibet, Nepal, and the western Himalayas, 600-900

The Licchavi dynasty took over the Kathmandu valley in the fourth century AD and ruled until 879. A change in the succession occurred in the mid-seventh century, which corresponds to the period when historic records of Tibet and Nepal commence [11]. Although we have a famous description by a seventh-century Chinese pilgrim of the Nepalese king on official visits ‘wearing a Buddhist emblem in his belt', it is known that the kings were themselves Hindus who showed reverence to Buddhism [12]. This eclectic attitude became characteristic of Nepal, where the integration of Hindu deities and ritual practices into the Buddhist pantheon has prevailed to the present day. The worship of Avalokitesvara is documented by inscriptions from the mid-sixth century. There is much evidence, both sculptural and epigraphic, of an evolved form of Mahayana Buddhism, verging on the Vajrayana, during the seventh century. Still, the only firmly dated seventh-century sculptures are portraits of Vishnu: in the round, in high relief, sometimes on a colossal scale. The earliest dated sculpture in Nepal is a monumental grey schist image of Vishnu, recumbent on the serpent Ananta, carved from a boulder almost 7 metres long, which lies in a tank north of Kathmandu (fig. 5). Vishnu, revered as lord of the Kathmandu valley, was represented in this form as a commission by the Licchavi king in 641 AD [13]. The sculpture is a prime example of the late Gupta aesthetic in Nepal. The stone has a smooth polish. The elegant body has massive shoulders, a slender waist, and elongated legs lying prone over the curving tail of the serpent, which intertwines almost as if rising and falling in the water of the pond. Two distinctive facial features are emphasized: the protruding lower lip and the nose with strong aquiline profile and a pronounced point [14].

Fig. 5. Recumbent stone Vishnu at Budhanilakanta, Kathmandu valley, 641 AD. L. 6.45 m. . © Mary Slusser Fig. 5. Recumbent stone Vishnu at Budhanilakanta, Kathmandu valley, 641 AD. L. 6.45 m. .

Isolated standing figures of Sakyamuni and Avalokitesvara were popular in the Kathmandu Valley during the eighth and ninth centuries. However, the most commonly found Licchavi remains are stone caityas supporting stupas, the lower level consisting of four standing figures around a centre. Typically, these four figures are Sakyamuni Buddha, Vajrapani, Avalokitesvara, and Maitreya or a second Buddha. Above them, one finds a seated meditating Buddha, surmounted by the anda and harmika of the stupa [15]. While the earliest sculptures of Licchavi Nepal are carved in stone, Newar craftsmen were also known for their copper coins [16], and their gilt repoussé work is documented by a royal commission of 607 AD for a sheath made in this technique at Changu Narayan [17]. Already in the sixth to the eighth century they were apparently casting almost pure copper sculptures in the lost-wax technique which became their trademark. These copper sculptures were then subjected to fire-gilding, traditional in the Nepal valley [18]. Silver was used in vases and jewellery but rarely in sculpture [19].

Licchavi stone sculptures could be monumental in scale, or else consist of architectural elements in the form of bas-reliefs (fig. 6), or much smaller votive sculptures, or combinations with bas-relief in a base panel for a Buddha image (cat. 1). Lion bas-reliefs of a relatively large scale are an important feature in the seventh-to eighth-century stupas of Kathmandu such as Tukan bahal (fig. 7). The majority of Licchavi cast copper sculptures are between 20 to 40 cm in height and retain the tendency to broad shoulders, a slender waist and slightly elongated legs, and a single-layer lotus pedestal with broad petals bearing a central striation. The facial features consistently repeat the Licchavi tendency to a pronounced aquiline nose.

Fig. 6. Bas-relief of a kneeling devotee. Kathesimbu, Kathmandu Valley, late seventh century. Nation. © Suzanne Held Fig. 6. Bas-relief of a kneeling devotee. Kathesimbu, Kathmandu Valley, late seventh century. Nation.   Fig. 7.  Stone lions in bas-relief. Tukan bahal, Kathmandu, eighth century. H. <em>c.</em>40 cm. © Amy Heller Fig. 7. Stone lions in bas-relief. Tukan bahal, Kathmandu, eighth century. H. c.40 cm.

Nepalese artists appear to have been active in Tibet since the earliest firmly dated political relations in the mid-seventh century, when the exiled ruler of Nepal, the Licchavi King Narendradeva and his entourage, temporarily settled at the Lhasa court of Song tsen gampo (r.640-50 AD). Tibetan tradition recounts that Song tsen married the daughter of the Nepalese king, as well as the daughter of the Chinese emperor, and credits the two wives for the introduction of Buddhism to Tibet during Song tsen's reign. The Nepalese princess is said to have been responsible for the construction of the Jokhang, the Chinese princess for that of the Ramoche, the two principal temples of Lhasa. Although there is no historical evidence in the most ancient Nepalese or Tibetan sources for the existence of the Nepalese princess, the carvings of the lintels and capitals of the Jokhang do indeed strongly reflect the late Gupta aesthetic (fig. 8), as known from sculptures of the Kathmandu valley of the sixth to eighth century (fig. 9; also cat. 1-2). The Tibetan penchant for the successful fusion of the best elements drawn from foreign influences may be seen in the silver jug of the Lhasa Jokhang, which is cast in Nepalese techniques but combines Central Asian, Chinese, and Tibetan design motifs (fig. 10). Likewise, the Ashmolean's silver vase (cat. 15) is decorated with peonies and flying phoenixes, both typical Chinese decorative motifs, as well as vine scrolls inspired by Indian models, yet the vase is cast and finished in the Nepalese manner as then practised by the Tibetans.

Fig. 8. Sculpted figures on wooden lintel (the female figure with pendant earrings), beneath a prote. © Amy Heller Fig. 8. Sculpted figures on wooden lintel (the female figure with pendant earrings), beneath a prote.   Fig. 9.  Female devotee with pendant earrings. Stone relief. Chabahil stupa, Kathmandu, 7th-8th cent. © Amy Heller Fig. 9. Female devotee with pendant earrings. Stone relief. Chabahil stupa, Kathmandu, 7th-8th cent.   Fig. 10.  Jug. Cast and hammered silver. Tibet, eighth century. Jokhang temple, Lhasa. H. 78 cm. © Ulrich von Schroëder Fig. 10. Jug. Cast and hammered silver. Tibet, eighth century. Jokhang temple, Lhasa. H. 78 cm.

It is quite plausible that the presence of Narendradeva at the Lhasa court may have influenced the early Tibetan sovereigns to encourage Buddhism, but the introduction of Buddhism to Tibet resulted from a multifaceted interaction - economic, cultural, and political - between Tibet's royal government and the cultures of India, Nepal, Central Asia, and China between the seventh and ninth centuries. Tibetan historical records from the early seventh century identify Song tsen as responsible for the gradual political unification of central Tibet and the rapid extension of Tibetan territory by military conquests and matrimonial alliances. His conquests east of Qinghai threatened China to such an extent that a Chinese princess was indeed sent to Tibet by 641 AD. After the subjugation of the Tuyuhun (near Qinghai) and Zhang zhung (now western Tibet and Ladakh), matrimonial alliances were used to seal diplomatic relations with each kingdom by sending a Tibetan princess to marry their ruler [20]. His descendants also pursued this policy of military conquest and matrimonial alliance: from the mid-seventh century until 850 AD, Tibetan armies intermittently conquered and occupied portions of the Silk Route and pressed constantly against the Chinese frontiers from Gansu in the north to Yunnan in the south, vying with the Chinese in western Central Asia near Ferghana, and so bringing Tibet into contact with the Indo-Hellenic cultures prevalent in Central Asia and the Confucian, Taoist, and Buddhist traditions of China. During the same period, and with fluctuating success, Tibet controlled or exacted tribute from Nepal and portions of north-eastern India and the Pamirs: notably, from 720-40 AD, the kingdom of Bolor (now Gilgit), during which time a Tibetan princess was sent to consolidate the alliance with the Gilgit royal family.

Trade in all directions was facilitated by this political expansion, resulting in the importation of Chinese and Central Asian silks to the Lhasa court, as well as Sogdian silver and Buddhist sculptures, whether from Gilgit (occupied in the early eighth century), Dunhuang (occupied as of 680, then reoccupied 750-850), or Nepal and India. Khotan was occupied from the late seventh century: in Domoko (Khotan), where Tibetan documents were found, so were small clay votive plaques (tsa tsa) and a cast Kashmiri sculpture of a seated Buddha, probably datable to the late seventh or early eighth century [21] (fig. 11). There are in the collection of the Potala at Lhasa several very similar seated Buddha sculptures which can be attributed to Kashmir or Gilgit in the seventh to eighth century [22]. They may have come into Tibet directly from Gilgit during the Tibetan occupation between 720 to 745 AD [23]. These seated Buddhas emphasize the qualities of physical strength and fortitude through their athletic, muscular torsos combined with voluminous oval faces, while the bodies are draped in the lavish or gently rippling folds of their garments. The translation of Buddhist texts into Tibetan was commenced at this time by Buddhist masters principally from India and Nepal, but also from Kashmir. In Dunhuang the Tibetans had encountered Chinese translations of Buddhist texts from India and Central Asia, as well as their commentaries in Chinese. Some of these were then translated into Tibetan and introduced to the Tibetan monasteries of Qinghai and central Tibet. There were also Korean and Chinese teachers from monasteries in Sichuan who taught in central Tibet [24]. This led to the introduction of Chinese-monastic-robe models to the monasteries of central Tibet, and of sculptures of the Buddha with the voluminous robes so popular in China (cat. 26, 27). Near the first Buddhist monastery in central Tibet, at the Keru temple founded c.820 AD, there are clay sculptures of Bodhisattvas which display the elongated body proportions and rigidity of garments and bodily form which characterize the sculptures at Dunhuang and other Buddhist oasis sites in Central Asia (fig. 12). This temple was commissioned by a general as he returned from campaigns in the Silk Road garrisons, thus importing the local stylistic canons to central Tibet (cat. 41) [25].

Fig. 11. Seated Buddha, found at Domoko, Khotan. Cast brass. Kashmir, <em>c.</em>725 AD. H. 42 cm. K. © Christoph Baumer Fig. 11. Seated Buddha, found at Domoko, Khotan. Cast brass. Kashmir, c.725 AD. H. 42 cm. K.   Fig. 12. Standing Bodhisattva images. Painted clay, with wooden armature. Keru temple, Tibet, c.820 . © John Clarke Fig. 12. Standing Bodhisattva images. Painted clay, with wooden armature. Keru temple, Tibet, c.820 .

The religion of Song tsen and his descendants was a cult centred on the precept of the kings as divine warriors, whose conquests ensured the prosperity of the realm and the well-being of its inhabitants, human and animal, both in earthly life and in an afterlife that was conceived as a terrestrial paradise. Elaborate burial rites, performed by priests called Bonpo, were part of the worship of the sovereign. Very little is documented of the Bonpo practices of this period [26]. In the mythology of the ancient Tibetan kings, there is a description of the ancestors as hybrid creatures, part human, part sacred bird, and part bovid. The bird is a fantastic creature with horns, related to the khyung, the horned eagle, and to the horned crown of the ancient Sasanian rulers of Persia, for a similar crown is said to have been worn by the forefathers of the Tibetan sovereigns. These mythological accounts are preserved in oral tradition but documentation of the Bonpo between the seventh and ninth centuries is lacking, apart from accounts of royal funerary rituals. These accounts describe the activities of the officiating priests, including the sacrifice of horses, sheep, goats, and dogs [27]. Hybrid animals (cat. 19), such as sheep with wings of turquoise, are described in these rituals [28]. Other funerary rituals also mention the horned bird, the khyung [29] (cat. 43). Certain tombs had two stone lions as guardian sculptures and a stone stele which recorded the major events of the life of the deceased sovereign or provincial authority (fig. 13). The lion thus played a major symbolic role in the cult of the Tibetan sovereign, being further reinforced by its Buddhist association as an emblem of Sakyamuni (cat. 16, 35).

Fig. 13. Stone lion. Lhatse tombs, Tibet, <em>c.</em>eighth century. H. 80 cm. © Amy Heller Fig. 13. Stone lion. Lhatse tombs, Tibet, c.eighth century. H. 80 cm.

As Buddhism gradually gained in popularity, the impetus for conquest diminished and the Buddhist clergy began to erode the power of the sovereign and his landed aristocracy. By 779, Buddhism had achieved a sufficient power base for the sovereign to organize the construction of the first Buddhist monastery and to declare that the country would be governed henceforth according to Buddhist principles. The impact on Tibetan society was such that the first quarter of the ninth century saw exceptional activity in promoting Buddhism and the work of translation, both in central and eastern Tibet, where in 804 a remarkable rock sculpture was carved to commemorate peace negotiations between Tibet and China (fig. 14). Situated south of Qinghai on the route to Sichuan, this sculpture of the seated Vairocana surrounded by the eight Bodhisattvas shows the smooth carving of the elongated, slender arms and legs which reflects the strong Gupta aesthetic that had permeated Lhasa by this time (cat. 24 ).

Fig. 14.  Stone relief of Vairocana on lion throne with attendant figures. Denma drag, East Tibet, 8. © Elisabeth Benard and Nyima Dorjee Fig. 14. Stone relief of Vairocana on lion throne with attendant figures. Denma drag, East Tibet, 8.

This period was followed by a major political upheaval and religious realignment, culminating in the disintegration of the Tibetan empire by the mid-ninth century. The royal tombs and the main Buddhist temples and monasteries established by the Lhasa court were plundered, while control of the frontiers with Central Asia and China was lost. Yet the Tibetan language persisted as a lingua franca along the Silk Route, and as Tang China was also in decline, the Tibetan populations retained their economic interests all along the upper loops of the Hwang Ho river. Buddhist monasteries in the area south of Qinghai remained active when the Lhasa sanctuaries were silenced [30]. For close to a century, there are scant historic records. Yet by then Buddhism was too firmly entrenched in Tibet to disappear. Small groups of disciples were able to cluster around individual masters in their hermitages and so continue the transmission of Buddhist teachings. Deprived of the protection of a central government which could ensure their doctrinal cohesion, these groups integrated non-Buddhist deities and practices into their teachings, which came to the forefront in the mid-tenth century, when Buddhism again flourished in Tibet.

Artistic developments in Tibet, Nepal, and the western Himalayas 900-1400

When historical records of Tibet resume in the mid-tenth century, a resurgence of Buddhism is evident in both eastern and western Tibet. From central Tibet, the scions of the Tibetan empire had migrated to the Guge region of western Tibet in the aftermath of the political strife and civil turmoil, while many monks had moved east, towards Qinghai and Kham where certain sanctuaries provided a haven for them. The sovereigns of Guge actively engaged in a multifaceted support of Buddhism, by sending missions to India for doctrinal clarification, and supporting massive translation efforts and the foundation of monasteries. The kingdom of Guge, drawing on the Buddhist heritage of India, made a tremendous impact on the religious and artistic milieu of western Tibet as a result of these missions sent to the monastic universities of eastern India and Kashmir. The missions returned laden with texts for translation, whose illuminations, as well as other portable works of Buddhist art, served as didactic tools for teaching and gave new aesthetic inspiration to the Tibetans. In these caravans, Indian artists would also accompany the Buddhist masters to decorate their newly founded sanctuaries. The presence of artists from Kashmir, Nepal, and eastern India working in the Guge kingdom in the late tenth to the late eleventh century has been historically documented [31]. Atisha was a Buddhist master of Vikramasila in Bihar. His invitation by the kings of Guge had an immense impact in Tibet, as he translated hundreds of texts and rituals for the worship of certain Buddhist deities then popular in the monastic universities of northern India. Atisha himself modelled clay votive sculptures, and undoubtedly travelled with small sculptures or paintings made in the style of Pala India [32]. The Pala artists were prolific in stone and cast sculptures in brass, sometimes with elaborate silver or copper inlay; they eschewed gilding. In a small image of a male Tantric deity attributable to eleventh century Bihar (fig. 15), the characteristic features of the Pala facial type - the fine, pointed nose, wide-open eyes, and fuller lower lip - are quite visible, as is the extreme agility of the deity in his dance.

Figure of a Buddhist deity (EA1997.253) Figure of a Buddhist deity (EA1997.253)

Such animated postures are also typical of Pala sculptures of the eleventh to twelfth century, exemplified by an image of Samvara and consort carved in stone (cat. 48). The typical Pala lotus pedestal is distinguished by very big beading on the upper and lower edges of the two-tiered lotus petals, which are often non-aligned. This style of lotus pedestal is consistently apparent on reliquary stupas, which are said to be modelled on those introduced to Tibet by Atisha (cat. 54, 60). Atisha remained three years in Guge, then travelled to central Tibet where his teachings attracted a strong following. Many monks from that region were inspired to travel to India to study in the monastic universities, and they too returned with new translations and images to adorn the sanctuaries of central Tibet.

Under the encouragement of the kings of Guge, however, it was the work of Kashmiri artists that influenced most profoundly by far the art of western Tibet, and which has left the largest number of images to posterity. Aesthetically the Kashmiri images of this period had progressively developed from the seventh- to eighth-century cast brass sculptures of the seated Buddha with a robust chest and body (fig. 11), to more elaborate models with an exaggerated abdominal musculature and costume which had evolved by the tenth century, as may be seen in the seated Avalokitesvara flanked by two female attendants (fig. 16). Notable among the creations either imported to Tibet from Kashmir or made in western Tibet by Kashmiri artists are many Buddha and Bodhisattva images, characterized by triangular or crescent crowns, long almond-shaped eyes in an oval face, an athletic chest, and lobed lower abdomen (cat. 37, and fig. 17). While eighth-century Kashmiri artists had made monumental images of gold, silver, and copper, the use of such metals persisted to embellish the brass alloys [33]. The use of silver and copper inlay in facial features and fabric designs was also frequent, as well as pitch for the eyes and copper for the mouth. These features were sufficiently distinctive for Tibetans to adapt them in the clay sculptures made for Tabo and nearby sanctuaries (fig. 18). The Tibetans thus developed the art of clay sculpture to new levels, as is evidenced in the elaborate scrolls seen in throne-backs, as well as sculptures of deities, in western and central Tibet (fig. 19) [34].

[obj]LI181.29[/obj]   Fig. 17.  Standing Avalokitesvara. Brass with silver and copper inlay. H. 100 cm. Pritzker Collectio. © Hughes Dubois Fig. 17. Standing Avalokitesvara. Brass with silver and copper inlay. H. 100 cm. Pritzker Collectio.   Fig. 18. Painted clay Bodhisattva figure at Tabo temple, Tibet, c.1042. H. 110 cm approx. [online ed. © Thomas J. Pritzker Fig. 18. Painted clay Bodhisattva figure at Tabo temple, Tibet, c.1042. H. 110 cm approx. [online ed.   Fig. 19. Clay Bodhisattva images in a chapel at Shalu monastery, Tibet, mid-eleventh century, Archive photo, pre-1960s[first published in Archeological Studies on Monasteries of the Tibetan Buddhism, Cultural Relics publishing house, Beijing 1996, pl. 32]. Fig. 19. Clay Bodhisattva images in a chapel at Shalu monastery, Tibet, mid-eleventh century.

During the period of Buddhist revival in western Tibet, the Kathmandu valley was in a state of political transition (879-1200 AD), until the Malla dynasty took power in the thirteenth century. While the technical and aesthetic preferences of the Licchavi period still persisted, there was an evolution towards larger images and more decorative rather than naturalistic forms. The Nepalese type of facial expression became more stylized, often glancing downwards with gently smiling, thin lips, as seen in a portrait of the Buddhist goddess Vasudhara who was very popular in Nepal (fig. 20). Here the gilt copper image has a tiered crown studded with lapis lazuli, turquoise, and other semi-precious stones, and very simple foliate disc earrings. Her body has a relaxed and pure silhouette, and all six arms are effortlessly positioned and perfectly balanced. Yet the sash which falls from her belt and drapes artistically between the legs clearly reveals the sculptor's joy and mastery of modelling.

Fig. 20. Vasudhara. Gilt copper. Nepal, twelfth century. H. 16.5 cm. <em>Formerly Heeramaneck Collec. © Heeramaneck Collection Fig. 20. Vasudhara. Gilt copper. Nepal, twelfth century. H. 16.5 cm. Formerly Heeramaneck Collec.

In Nepal, Vasudhara was worshipped either singly or with Vajrapani and Padmapani as her attendants. The Ashmolean's cast gilt copper seated Padmapani (cat. 9) originally formed part of such a group. The central Vasudhara image, now in the Rietberg Museum, shares the same fine features of the full face, with long almond eyes, a thin nose, and thin lips (fig. 21). The other attendant figure of Vajrapani is in a private collection (fig. 22) [35]. In each case, the torso is narrow, the waist slender with the typical two sash knots visible at the lower back. The casting is quite smoothly polished, and the sculptures are modelled as deftly at the back as in front. The lotus pedestal is separately made, in each case using repoussé rather than cast copper.

Fig. 21. Vasudhara. Cast gilt copper on repoussé base. H. 16.2 cm. Museum Rietberg, Zurich. © Museum Rietberg, Zurich Fig. 21. Vasudhara. Cast gilt copper on repoussé base. H. 16.2 cm. Museum Rietberg, Zurich.   Fig. 22. Vajrapani (front). Cast gilt copper. H. 11.4 cm. Private collection, Caption, Photo courtesy of Tibet Museum, Fondation Alain Bordier [online edition]. © Tibet Museum, Fondation Alain Bordier Fig. 22. Vajrapani (front). Cast gilt copper. H. 11.4 cm. Private collection, Caption.

In western Nepal, the Khasa kingdom was consolidated in the basin of the Karnali river during the late twelfth century. The earliest Nepalese documents of the Khasa period date from 1223, during a phase of political expansion with westward forays into Kumaon. At this time the kingdom was ruled by a collateral branch of the Guge dynasty, who maintained an active patronage of Tibetan Buddhist lamas. Later rulers went as far south and east as Bodhgaya by 1255, and they invaded Kathmandu by 1288. Their presence at Bodhgaya gave them ample opportunity to appreciate the aesthetic qualities and iconography of the Buddhist art of Pala India. This is clearly reflected in their sculpture, which emulates certain conventions of Pala iconography, including jewellery and decorative beading, as well as faithfully echoing the modelling and proportions of Nepalese work of the same period [36]. Alsop has established a typology of Khasa sculptures, distinguished by their dedicatory inscriptions in Sanskrit and Tibetan, by unusual earring types and the systematic unfinished central section of the lotus pedestal. He has also identified a royal portrait and Bodhisattva sculptures, as well as silver Tantric sculptures. The seated crowned gilt copper Buddha (cat. 12) has no inscription but corresponds aesthetically to the criteria of Khasa sculptures. The very forward-looking glance and massive shoulders, the simple crown and raised urna, and the distinctive lotus pedestal are found on sculptures dedicated during the late thirteenth- to fourteenth-century period of Khasa rule. The combination of stylistic aspects of these kinds with the casting preference for gilt copper demonstrates the relationship of Khasa and Malla aesthetics which predominated in Nepal. The patronage of Tibetan lamas and monasteries by Khasa sovereigns is historically documented for various sanctuaries at Lhasa, in central Tibet at Brigung, and in Dolpo during the period of their greatest power in the thirteenth to the fourteenth century [37]. In addition to the Khasa sculptures, Tibetan appreciation of the work of the Newar sculptors led to the tribute of their sculptures to Tibetan monasteries, as well as to the migration of Newar sculptors to Tibet, where they remained influential in determining local aesthetic models. By the second half of the thirteenth century and until the mid-fourteenth century, when Tibetan lamas exercised spiritual authority at Beijing for the Mongol emperors of China's Yuan dynasty, they chose a Newar sculptor to accompany their entourage. His selection as chief of the imperial atelier of sculpture led to the diffusion of the Newar aesthetic and Tibetan Buddhist iconography in China as well as Tibet [38].

A further wave of Nepalese aesthetic influence was introduced into Tibet as a result of Tibetan pilgrims visiting the Buddhist sanctuaries of Kathmandu, where they commissioned works from Newar painters. Some of these artists were subsequently invited to work in monasteries in Tibet. There they collaborated with Tibetan painters, who emulated the Newar aesthetic in magnificent mural paintings and mandala compositions which accentuate the Newar tendency to elaborate detailed scrollwork, floral and vegetal motifs, notably at the Shalu monastery during the fourteenth century. The persistence of the Newar aesthetic in Tibet is demonstrated in several series of mandalas commissioned for the Ngor monastery in the fifteenth to sixteenth century which are probably the work of Newar artists, or else of Tibetans adopting the Newar aesthetic (cat. 61).

As we have seen, the hallmark of the greatest Tibetan art is the harmonious fusion of discrete elements reflecting different stylistic tendencies, which become both enhanced and imperceptibly blended. The seated Buddha Sakyamuni (cat. 52: fig. 23) represents in many respects the culmination of the technical, aesthetic and spiritual developments at work in Tibetan and Himalayan sculpture during the seventh to fourteenth centuries. This Buddha is cast in a leaded copper-zinc-tin alloy, which has been recognised as an alloy used in sculptures from western Tibet of the twelfth to thirteenth centuries. The elaborate shoulder folds of the robe recall Nepalese models, as do the jewel finial of the ushnisha and the shape of the head and ears. Yet the head is positioned straight, a distant echo of the stalwart seated Buddhas of Kashmir, as emulated in western Tibet. The aesthetic synthesis is so complete that, more than simply emulating the Nepalese folds, the sculptor goes beyond his stylistic antecedent: the robe has a copper inlay of diamond fabric motifs which elegantly enhance the shoulder pleats. Moreover, this Buddha was consecrated according to the prescribed ritual practices with the insertion of written prayers, clay votive tablets and a sculpture of Vairocana (cat. 40) within its core, showing the persistence of this Indian practice, which is known from about the seventh century at Bodhgaya, Sarnath and many sites of Pala India.[39] In Tibet, the clay used to make such votive tablets is mixed with funerary ashes: this sculpture is thus simultaneously a portrait of the historical Buddha Sakyamuni and a reliquary consecrated to preserve the memory of the deceased individual and to protect the Buddhist teachings. This unique sculpture therefore affords us an opportunity to glimpse the function of the image of the Buddha in Tibetan Buddhist ritual practice, as well as appreciating the way in which sculpture serves to embody the Buddha and his teachings, as a symbol of the highest spiritual and aesthetic aspiration.

Seated figure of the Buddha (EA2000.1) Seated figure of the Buddha (EA2000.1)

1 Slusser, Nepal Mandala, vol. 1, p. 5, citing Licchavi inscriptions. 
2 Klimburg, ‘The Western Trans-Himalayan Crossroads', pp. 25-37, with detailed description of all these routes. 
3 Chayet, Art et Archéologie du Tibet, pp. 47-51, citing numerous Chinese publications on Tibetan archaeology as well as the Tibetan scholar Sonam Wangdu, ‘Le site néolithique de Karo dans le district de Chamdo au Tibet'. The Karo pottery was exhibited in Trésors du Tibet, Paris: Muséum National d'Histoire Naturelle, 1987. 
4 Aldenderfer and Moyes, ‘Excavations at Dindun, a Pre-Buddhist Village Site in Far Western Tibet', and Aldenderfer, ‘Defining Zhang zhung Ethnicity: An Archaeological Perspective from Far Western Tibet'. 
5 Xizang Zizhiqu Shannan Diqui Wenwuju, ‘Xizang Langkazi sian Chajiagou gumuzang de qingli', Kaogu, 2001:6, pp. 45-7. These horses and earrings are illustrated in Heller, ‘Archeological Artefacts from the Tibetan Empire in Central Asia', Orientations, April 2003. 
6 Simons et al., ‘Archeological Research in Mustang'. 
7 Snellgrove, The Image of the Buddha, pp. 13-24. 
8 Selig Brown, Eternal Presence: Handprints and Footprints in Buddhist Art
9 Snellgrove, ‘Shrines and Temples of Nepal', pp. 3-20, 93-120. 
10 See Locke, Karunamaya, for discussion of numerous Licchavi Buddhist inscriptions: at pp. 296-97 he describes the earliest dated inscription as 464 AD, at Changdu Narayan by Manadeva, and discusses the Buddhist inscription at Chabahil, believed to be a hundred years earlier. 
11 Slusser, Nepal Mandala, vol. 1, p. 31 et passim
12 Lévi, Le Népal, vol. 1, pp. 163-65. 
13 Slusser, ‘Some Nepalese Stone Sculptures: A Reappraisal within their Cultural and historical Context', pp. 79-138. 
14 Ibid., p. 93, and figs. 2 and 5, for a contemporary Vishnu sculpture. 
15 See Gutschow, The Nepalese Caitya, pp. 100-72, on Licchavi caityas. 
16 The Chinese pilgrim Hsuan Tsang (seventh century) reported their red copper coins (Slusser, Nepal Mandala, p. 39, citing S. Beal, Buddhist Records of the Western World, Translated from the Chinese of Hiuen Tsiang, repr. 1969, vol. 2, p. 80). 
17 Slusser, loc. cit., and vol. 2, pl. 448. For the metallurgical analysis see Reedy, Himalayan bronzes, pp. 100-01, 220-47. 
18 Lo Bue, ‘Statuary Metals in Tibet and the Himalayas: History, Tradition and Modern Use', p. 35. 
19 Weldon and Casey Singer, The Sculptural Heritage of Tibet, p. 90: ‘silver was not used in Kathmandu valley works of art.' 
20 For example, the sister of Song tsen gampo was sent to Zhang-zhung as a bride. In 671, another princess was sent as a bride to Zhang zhung, and in 689 the granddaughter of Song tsen was sent to the Tuyuhun (near modern Dulan, in Qinghai). In 734 a Tibetan princess was sent to the Khagan of the Türgesh (east of Samarkand), and in 740 a princess was sent as a bride for the ruler of Bru-zha (the modern Hunza valley in far northern Pakistan), who was aligned with Gilgit: see Uebach, ‘Eminent Ladies of the Tibetan Empire According to Old Tibetan texts'. 
21 See Siudmak, ‘The Development of the Classical Buddha Image from Kashmir', figs. 3, 4; and for the most thorough study, O. von Hinüber, Die Palola Sahis. 
22 See von Schroeder, Buddhist Sculpture in Tibet, vol. 1, for the Potala collection sculptures from Kashmir and Gilgit, in particular pls. 13, 15, and 19, for the seated Buddha images. 
23 Ibid., p. 7, on the Tibetan occupation of Gilgit. 
24 See Kapstein, The Tibetan Assimilation of Buddhism. 
25 See Vitali, Early Temples of Central Tibet, pp. 1-36, for the history of this temple, and pls. 5-11 for photographs of the standing Bodhisattva in the temple. Vitali has identified this temple as Kachu; however in the opinion of H. E. Richardson its name is Keru. 
26 The Tibetan Bon religion of today may stem from these ancient Bonpo priests, as claimed by its modern adherents, but their beliefs and ritual practices are totally distinct from what is known of the Tibetan royal funerary rites of the eighth to the ninth century. 
27 See Lalou, ‘Rituel Bonpo des funérailles royales' (1952), or more recently, Heller, ‘Archeology of funeral rituals as revealed by Tibetan tombs of the 8th to 9th century'. 
28 Stein, ‘Du récit au rituel', p. 485, n. 19. 
29 Ibid., p. 514. 
30 Kapstein, op. cit., pp. 10-11, for the migration of monks from Central Tibet and discussion of the importance of the Tibetan language and its development during this period. 
31 Vitali, The Kingdom of Gu.ge Pu.hrang, p. 263, for the sculpture made by Nepalese and Kashmiri artists in collaboration in 996, and p. 313, for artists from Magadha. 
32 The Tibetan text of Atisha's ritual for modelling of clay tsa tsa votive plaques is still practised to this day (see article by P. Skilling, in press). 
33 According to Kalhana, the twelfth-century Kashmir historian, as cited by Weldon and Casey Singer, op. cit., p. 14. 
34 See Luczanits, Buddhist Sculptures in Clay
35 Sotheby's New York sale, 30 November 1994, lot 95. I am grateful to David Weldon of Sotheby's for providing a photograph. 
36 See Alsop, ‘The Metal Sculpture of the Khasa Malla Kingdom', for discussion. Notable is a Khasa Malla sculpture of Prajnaparamita, conforming to the Pala preferred type of a two-armed, rather than the Tibetan Buddhist four-armed, aspect. 
37 See Heller, Hidden Treasures of the Himalaya: Tibetan Buddhist Manuscripts, Paintings and Sculptures of Dolpo (forthcoming). 
38 Vitali, op. cit., pp. 103-9, for discussion of the artistic exchanges between Sa skya, the Yuan court and the Kathmandu valley artists, and the artistic repercussions in Tibet. 
39 See Bentor, ‘The Content of Stupas and Images and the Indo-Tibetan Concept of Relics', p. 26.


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