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Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara
Western Tibet; dated 1543
Copper alloy
H. 7 1/2 in. (16.5 cm)
Gift from The Blanchette Hooker Rockefeller Fund
1994.004
Inscription along base: //Om sva sti/ kun mkhyen lhaíi lha mchog spyan ras gzigs// padma dbang rgyal dgongs pa rdzogs phyir tu// bzang po lha sbyin rab gus dad pa yis// cho mo lug gi cho 'phrul dus chen la// ne bal mkhas pa a pha jayatis bsgrubs// dge bas 'gro kun sangs rgyas myur thob shog// mamgalam//

Translation of inscription: To honor the memory of Padma dbang rgyal [who is one with] the omniscient Avalokiteshvara, best god of gods, [the donor] bZang po lha sbyin had this [image] completed with deep reverence and faith by the skilled Newar Apha Jyoti [or Apha Jayati] on the 15th day of the first month of the water-female-sheep year. By virtue [of making this image] may all beings rapidly attain Buddhahood. Blessings.

Avalokiteshvara is the Bodhisattva of Compassion. Here he is clasping the stem of the lotus which blooms above his left shoulder. His right hand is extended in the gesture of bestowing a gift, because this is the special aspect of Avalokiteshvara who bestows the boon of ensuring release from Buddhist hells. He is named "Avalokitesvara (who sets) the Mind at Ease" (sems nyid nyal so). This aspect is associated with a group of texts that teach how to eliminate suffering by ensuring release from Buddhist hells. The Buddhist doctrine teaches that if a person has been evil, he or she may be reborn in the hells, which is one of the six realms of existence: heavenly beings, demigods, human beings, animals, hungry ghosts, and hell beings. The choice of this form of Avalokiteshvara thus links this artistic representation to the after-death period. In fact, according to the inscription carved in Tibetan letters along the base of the image, this statue is a representation of the rNying ma pa teacher mNga' ris pan chen Padma dbang rgyal (1487-1542) as Avalokiteshvara, due to mNga ris panchen’s great spirituality. The inscription furthermore states that this is a funerary image, made in homage to the lama afer his death for the spiritual benefit of all sentient beings, and cast by a Nepalese artist who is named in the inscription. The teachings of mNga' ris pan chen were deemed to be so efficient for those who heard them that release from suffering was similar to that obtained by veneration of Avalokiteshvara. Thus, upon his death, the teacher was represented in the ideal body of the bodhisattva. This image illlustrates the hypostasis of the lama as a bodhisattva.

It is typical for an image to be made for the special ceremony marking the one-year death anniversary of a high lama. As there are very few teachers named Padma dbang rgyal, it is quite likely that this image was made in 1543, one year after Padma dbang rgyal’s death. Although 1543 is a water-female-hare year in the Tibetan calendar, the scribe has written "a water-female-sheep year." This is likely to be an error in copying, as such scribal errors are not infrequent.

mNga' ris pan chen was born in Mustang, in what is now northwestern Nepal. As a child, he studied religion locally under the guidance of his father, an accomplished teacher. He then traveled widely in central Tibet and visited Kathmandu. It is not surprising to find that the artist named in the inscription was a Newar sculptor, i.e. a person who was a member of the principal Nepalese ethnic group in the Kathmandu valley. In fact, during the period of m Nga' ris pan chen’s lifetime, many Newar artists were working in Tibet regularly. Newar artists had been working in Tibet since the Tibetan dynastic period (7th-9th centuries). They were renowned for fine skills in woodcarving and metal casting as well as painting. Nepal at the time comprised several principalities, and many Nepalese rulers sponsored embellishment of temples in central Tibet. They often mandated Newar artists to accomplish these commissions, whether for portable works of art, for gilt rooftop ornaments for the Lhasa Jokhang, the most important Buddhist temple in Tibet, or for giant stupas created in repousse, which served as funerary reliquaries for high lamas.

The casting skills of the Newar are particularly famous for the suave modeling of the proportions, skillful inlay work, and attention to intricate fabric patterns and jewelry design. This statue shows such finely detailed work in the fabrics. The dhoti (garment around the waist) and chest sash have chased carved floral and leaf patterns in stripes, while the meditation band holding the knee is decorated with round geometric motifs. The face and body are realistic in proportion. There is a smile of joyous calm, the eyes are gently open with lowered gaze. The body position is the lalitasana, the sitting posture of ease, the right leg rests gracefully on a lotus pedestal. The lack of muscular exertion conveys a sense of relaxation. The smooth and even surface of the body contrasts with the elaborate detail of the coiffure. Inspired by the hairstyles particularly popular in northeast India during the Pala-Sena period in the 10th to the 12th century, the hair is coiled and piled in a broad chignon. A small image of Amitabha Buddha, Avalokiteshvara’s spiritual father, is placed in front of the chignon.

This statue was first published in 1975, but the historical significance was misunderstood. In 1981, von Schroeder attributed a 15th-century date but the inscription remained enigmatic. In 1986, when studying von Schroeder's publication, Dr. Yoshiro Imaeda suggested that the statue might indeed represent the Nying ma pa teacher Padma dbang rgyal, but Dr. Imaeda was unable to see the statue and read the inscription. Research could resume once the Asia Society acquired and published the image. The complete translation of the inscription was finally accomplished in 2000, allowing certainty for the historic identification and the precise chronology of the image. The difficulty in attribution of the date is understandable. There are several features which emulate earlier periods. For example, the style of the coiffure consciously copies ancient Indian models, which is also the case of the pearl beading in gold which forms the edges of the lotus base. Large pearl beading at the edge of the lower lotus base was also typical of Pala-Sena images of the same period, but the master Newar sculptors of the 13th and 14th centuries developed a style of small beading along the edge of the upper lotus base. Here, the upper base has the minute pearls and the lower base is defined by the larger scale design.

The identification of the artist Apha Jyoti (or Apha Jayati) still remains elusive. His nationality is clear, but whether he was working in Kathmandu or in Mustang or in Central Tibet remains uncertain. His virtuosity is remarkable, thus it is to be hoped that future research will bring to light other images from the hands of this artist.

Amy Heller

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