Beginning in the 11th century, northeastern India was occupied by Muslim forces. As temples, statues and scriptures were constantly threatened by destruction, many sacred objects were brought to temples in Nepal and Tibet. In this way, Pala objects became prototypes for local Tibetan artisans. Influenced by Pala art, the central Tibetan style gradually developed enormous halos, bulky lotus thrones, thick lotus petals, sturdy physiques and sombre expressions. Tibetan artisans also attempted local variations as they produced numerous realistic statues of the founding masters of local Buddhist schools.
Monkey Incense Holder
Tibet, 16th century
Brass alloy, H. 14 cm
Cissy and Robert Tang Collection
The incense holder is rendered in the form of a monkey with hands in the Gesture of Offering (Anjali mudra). Hunched atop a lotus platform, he exposes his swollen belly, while his neck, ears and arms are adorned with a finial inlaid with turquoise and jewels. Within the scope of Tibetan Buddhist art, monkeys typically serve as attendant figures, providing offerings to worldly protectors such as Ganapati, Mahakala or Tsiu Marpo.
Figure of Akshobya
Central Tibet, 13th century
Bronze alloy, H. 58 cm
The Akshobya is represented in the subtle form of Bliss (Sambhogakaya)—distinguished by his outstretched right hand in the Gesture of Earth-touching (Bhumisparsha mudra)—demonstrating his perseverance over egocentric forces, with his left hand in the Gesture of Meditation (Dhyana mudra).
The late Pala style is seen in the tall chignon and benevolent expression conveyed through his downcast eyes and upturned lips. The well-proportioned treatment of his face, the patinated surface and elaborate crown with interwoven tendrils exhibit Tibetan craftsmanship from the 13th century.
Figure of Chanda Vajrapani
Tibet, 12th–13th century
Copper alloy with a white metal inlay and pigment, H. 19 cm
Nyingjei Lam Collection
This wrathful form of Vajrapani assumes the Gesture of Warning (Tarjani mudra), formed by pointing index fingers on his left hand, and stands in a dramatic pose (pratyalidha) that signifies the hurling of projectile weapons, as he is certainly about to release the vajra brandished in his top right hand. With elephants and lions underfoot, a tiger skin around his waist and snakes for jewellery, Vajrapani is depicted as a terrific guardian able to subdue the most dangerous of creatures. This is all the more heightened by his biting a snake and imbibing its poison. Two severed heads representing the devotee’s ego are attached to a flaming prabhamandala, as are motifs of the sun and moon, symbolising wisdom and compassion.
Stylistically, the influence of the Pala sculptural tradition is evident in the treatment of the sculpture's necklace, sashes and lotus petals. Decorated by an eight-point star, symbols representing the dharma wheel, the rectangular throne with a projecting central section, as well as the halo’s flames, are also clearly inspired by earlier examples from Northeastern India.
Figure of Mahachakra Vajrapani
Tibet, 16th century
Gilt copper alloy, turquoise and polychrome, H. 27 cm
Collection of Zhiguan Museum
The dynamic sculpture of Mahachakra Vajrapani in the tantric position yab-yum is distinguished by rich gilding and the vivid use of colour for both the flaming red hair and the intense expressions of the deities’ faces. Vajrapani is depicted with three faces and six arms, holding a vajra high in his upper right hand, assuming the Gesture of Warning (Tarjani mudra) in his left hand. He is engaged in sexual union with his consort, who offers a blood-filled skull cup in her left hand and wields a kartika in the right. Snakes writhe in and out of his mouth as he tramples the hostile nagas (serpent-spirits) underfoot. Key to Vajrapani’s wrathful emanation, snakes or nagas convey his role of subduing harmful forces and converting ‘poisonous’ emotions into virtue.
Figure of an Eleven-headed Avalokiteshvara
Tibet, 14th century
Silver and copper inlaid bronze, H. 121 cm
This figure is one of the largest known representations of the cosmic form of the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, with a proportionally constructed tower of heads and fan of arms. The topmost head of the statue represents Buddha Amitabha. The ten heads, with placid, fierce and laughing faces, are all the emanations of Avalokiteshvara when enlightening different beings.
The principal arms are rendering the Gesture of Offering (Anjali mudra), while the two others hang down in the Gesture of Charity (Varada mudra, the granting of a wish) and the rest in the Gesture of Fearlessness (Abhaya mudra). The circles made with the fingers symbolise the taking of refuge as the union of method and wisdom, and the three extending fingers represent the Three Jewels of the Buddha, dharma (the law), and sangha (the monastic order) as the objects of refuge. All of the emblems, which include prayer beads, a book, a bow and arrow, a wheel and a water pot are now missing.
The Tibetan use of silver and copper to enhance the details of non-gilded bronzes is carried over from the Indian Pala period styles imported in the early days of contact. Inlaid silver draws dramatic focus on the whites of the statue’s piercing eyes and the teeth on angry faces, while red copper lends realism to the lips and fingernails.