Portraits of the Dalai Lama | aziatische schilderijen | Ming Gallery

Portraits of the Dalai Lama


The Thirteen- Thangka Type and Its Variations

The lama portrait is one of the most important genres in Tibetan Buddhist art. In Tibetan Buddhism, the spiritual leader is deemed the personification of the Three Jewels (Skt triratna; Tib. dkon-mchog gsum) consisting of the Buddha, the teaching and the community of practitioners, and should therefore be highly revered. Consequently, portraits oflamas were also worshipped like, and sometimes even more reverently than, deities. After the system of incarnation (Tib. sprul-sku) - the most distinctive feature of Tibetan Buddhism - came into existence, religious devotion to the lamas was taken to extremes.

The lama portrait has become the most popular subject in Tibetan Buddhist painting. Among Tibetans, portrayals of incarnates are most favoured, in particular those of the Dalai Lama, the most influential incarnation in Tibetan Buddhism.

With the establishment of each incarnation lineage, sets of thangkas depicting its members were produced. In some cases, legendary lamas or those who predated the head of the lineage and were posthumously recognized as incarnates were also included.

Portraits of the Dalai Lama in the possession of the Ethnographic Museum of the University of Zurich will be part of the exhibition The 14 Dalai Lamas: Tibetan Reincarnations of Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara', on view at the museum until 30 April 2006. The show presents a good opportunity for introducing several thangka-sets depicting the Dalai Lamas - hitherto unknown even to the experts in Tibetan painting - mostly based on the popular thirteen thangka type.

In 1642, Ngag-dbang blo-bzang rgya-mtsho (1617-82), the 5th Dalai Lama, overthrew the hostile regime of Karma bstan-skyong dbang-po and established a government of Tibetcalled the dGa'-ldan pho-brang phyogs-Ias-rnam-parrgyal-ba (the Government of the Dalai Lama Conquering All Directions). Up until then, the Dalai Lama had only been the leader of the dGe-Iugs-pa, one of the major Buddhist sects, but thereafter he became both the religious and secular ruler of Tibet. As the newly established regime needed legitimacy and authority, the 5th Dalai Lama ordered the construction of the famous Potala  Palace.

The site of the Potala, dMar-po-ri ( Red  Mountain), was said to be the former palaceof King Srong-btsansgam-po (581-649), the founder in fact of the ancient kingdomof Tibet. When the 5th Dalai Lama made plans to construct his new residence, only the small shrine of an Avalokiteshvara named the Jo-bo Lokeshvara remained on the top of the mountain. Tibetans believe that King Srong-btsan sgam-po himself had worhy;shipped there. By constructing his castle on the site of Srong-btsan sgam-po's former palace, Ngag-dbang blo-bzang rgya-mtsho was demonstrating that the Dalai Lama was the legitimate heir to the ancient kingdomof Tibet.

Moreover, the Dalai Lama's spiritual lineage was also extended to cover several eminent rulers of the ancient kingdom: King gNya'-khri-btsan-po, the legendary founder of Tibet; King lHatho-tho-ri-gnyan-btsan, under whose reign Buddhism first reached the Land of Snows; Srong-btsan sgam-po and others. These historical events provide a basis for sets of thangkas depicting a lineage that includes incarnates who predate the 1st Dalai Lama like the famous group of Panchen Lama thangkas which are based on the sNar-thang (Narthang) wood­ cuts, there is no uniform set of thangkas depicting the Dalai Lamas. Instead there appear to be several identifiable groups rendered in different styles. On view at the exhibition are five thangkas depicting the 2nd to 6th Dalai Lamas which appear to be part of a set. It is evident that the skills of the artist were of a high level and the thangkas can be counted as outstanding examples of Dalai Lama portraits. Among the variegated sets of Dalai Lama portraits, a type comprising a series of thirteen thangkas appears to be the most popular: examples which are found in Sweden, Tibet, Koreaand Japanare very similar, and appear to have been produced after the same prototype. A comparatively large number of portraits from these thirteen-thangka series have survived. However, as iconographic analysis will show, it is unclear whether the Zurichset is of the thirteen-thangka type as the main or central image (Tib. gtso-thang) and the previous incarnations before the 1st Dalai Lama are missing. Nevertheless, this essay will introduce Dalai Lama portraits from the popular thirteen-thangka sets, and compare them with the Zurich portraits.

There is a complete set of thirteen now in the Ethnological Museum of Stockholm (as described by Toni Schmid in Saviors of Mankind, Stockholm, 1961). The set consists of depictions of Khasarpana Lokeshvara, a form of Avalokiteshvara of whom the Dalai Lamas are believed to be manifestations; the first seven Dalai Lamas; and five incarnates predating the 1st Dalai Lama. According to Schmid, the Ethnological  Museum's set originally belonged to Baron A. von Stael;Holstein and is thought to have come from the Chinese imperial summer palace at Chengde, which was built during the Qing dynasty (1644-1911).

A set currently on display in the 'Khrung-rabs lHa-khang at 'Brasspungs (Drepung) monastery, where the 2nd to 5th Dalai Lamas resided until the completion of the Potala, is also of similar composition. According to the temple priest, however, these thangkas are not originals but copies imported from China, probably Beijing or Chengde, and displayed after the Cultural Revolution. In 1989, I found thirteen thangkas from the same set on display there. Athough I could not confirm the existence of the main thangka depicting the 7th Dalai Lama, I noticed that there were instead two portraits of the 5th Dalai Lama rendered with the same iconography.

Meanwhile, a set in the 14th Dalai Lama's collection also consists of fourteen thangkas, but it does not include the five earlier incarnates; instead the 8th to 13th Dalai Lamas have been added (Fujita et aI., pp. 130-35). Compared with a Panchen Lama set published in the same volume (ibid., pp. 103-15), the skills of the artist were poor and the portraits in the 14th Dalai Lama's collection appear to have been made after he went into exile in 1959.

Finally, the set preserved at dPe-thub (Spituk) monastery in Ladakh, to which several earlier incarnates have been added, has the largest number of incarnates depicted in any Dalai Lama series. In this set, the representation of each incarnate tallies with the Stockholm and 'Bras-spungs sets, but all the deities depicted in the upper and lower parts of the thangka have been omitted.

According to Schmid, this type of thirteen-thangha set had evolved at the time of the 5th Dalai Lama, with the thanghas of the 6th and 7th Dalai Lamas being added later (Schmid, 1961). However, I believe that the entire set of thirteen thanghas first appeared during the time ofBlo-bzang skal-bzang rgya-mtsho, the 7th Dalai Lama (1708-58).

In the case of the sNar-thang version of the Panchen Lama group, there is a strong possibility that the subject of the main thangha had changed over time: from Blo-bzang ye­shes (1663-1737), the 2nd Panchen, to Blo-bzang dpal-ldan ye-shes (1738-80), the 3rd Panchen, and later on to Blo­bzang bstan-pa'i nyi-ma (1781-1854), the 4th Panchen. Two portraits of Blo-bzang ye-shes, one facing the front and the other, "racing right appear in Tucci's Tibetan Painted Scrolls (see Tucci, vol. 2, figs 101 and 102). Another two portraits of Blo-bzang dpal-ldan ye-shes, one facing the front and the other, facing left are also published in the same book (ibid., figs 104 and 103). This suggests that originally the subject of the central thangha was to have been the 2nd Panchen, Blo-bzang ye-shes. However, the 3rd Panchen became the centrepiece probably due to the demise of his predecessor.

As DavidJackson has already pointed out, the sNar-thang version of the Avadanahalpalata which was produced under the patronage of the family ofpho-lha-nas (1689-1747), the de facto ruler of Tibet during the time of the 7th Dalai Lama, represents one of the earliest examples of Tibetan woodblock Buddhist art Qackson, p. 375). Taking into account the fact that Pho-lha-nas was an ardent supporter of the 2nd Panchen, there is a strong possibility that the publication of the Panchen Lama set was also sponsored by him or his  family. Moreover, when Pho-lha-nas passed away, the 3rd Panchen was only ten years old. In my view, this is probably why the Panchen Lama set was originally centred on the 2nd Panchen Lama, Blo-bzang ye-shes.

In his analysis of the Dalai Lama set in Stockholm, Toni Schmid had probably been influenced by the Panchen Lama set as he considered the Khasarpana Lokeshvara image to have been the central thangha, with the 6th and 7th Dalai Lamas added later (Schmid, 1961). However, as is evident from the facing of the Khasarpana, it was probably meant to be placed to the left of a central thangha depicting the 7th Dalai Lama. Moreover, there are no depictions of the 7th Dalai Lama facing towards the right or left from examples of the thirteen-thangha type. We can therefore conclude that the Dalai Lama thirteen-thangha series was originally centred on the 7th Dalai Lama and this arrangement has never been changed.

Typical examples of portraits from a thirteen thangha set are kept in the Tamashige Tibet Collection in Japan - the only set of thanghas in the entire collection. The five thanghas depict 'Phagspa (regarded as a former incarnation of the Dalai Lamas) and the 1st, 5th, 6th and 7th Dalai Lamas. In terms of both iconographical features and landscape details, they closely resemble the previously discussed thirteen-thangha sets (Tanaka, 2004). Although dating only to the 19th or 20th century; they are valuable works as the original mounting has survived and they are well executed and in good condition.

There are also several portraits of the Dalai Lamas in the collection of The Hahn Cultural Foundation in the Republicof Korea. The foundation was established in 1992 by Hahn Kwang-ho, a collector of Asian art. One of the largest collections of Tibetan material in the world, it includes several thousand thangkas, a number of which were once part of thirteen-thangka sets (Tanaka, 2001 and 2003). To date, three thangkas of this type have been included in the four-volume catalogue of The Hahn Cultural Foundation, namely Khasarpana, Srong-btsan sgam-po and Sa­chen Kun-dga' snying-po 0092-1158). The three paintings were purchased separately and do not belong to the same set.

Among them, the depictions of Khasarpana and Srongbtsan sgam-po resemble their counterparts in the Stockholm, 'Bras-spungs and Tamashige sets not only in their iconographical features but also in the landscape background. On the other hand, the Hahn Foundation's portrait of Sa-chen Kun-dga' snying-po has minor differences when it is compared with similar works in other collections (like Stockholm and 'Bras-spungs), such as the absence of the tutelary deity Hevajra above Sa-chen in the latter.

The Hahn Cultural Foundation also possesses a very interesting abridged version of the thirteen-thangka series (Tanaka, 2003). The diagram which accompanies these thangkas indicates the identity of the figures depicted, and the numbers in parentheses in the ensuing discussion correspond to the numbering on the diagram.

The 7th Dalai Lama is the main image of the central thangka; Tsong-kha-pa (centre), Khasarpana (l), King Srong-btsan Sgam-po (3), King gNya'-khri btsan-po or Khrisrong lde-btsan (2), and 'Brom-ston (4) appear in the upper register; and in the lower register, there are the three Dharma-protecting deities: Six-Armed Mahakala (centre), Bahyasadhana-Dharmaraja and dPal-ldan-lha-mo .

In the case of this three-thangka set, Khasarpana (l), Srong-btsan Sgam-po (3), King gNya' -khri btsan-po or Khrisrong lde-btsan (2), and 'Brom-ston (4) have all been de­picted in the upper register of the painting. However, in the Stockholm set, all four are represented in separate thangkas. Nevertheless, iconographically; the depictions in both sets closely resemble each other. It would therefore appear that the painting in Figure 7b is the central thangka in a set depicting the Dalai Lamas, only in a more compact form.

The thangka has the 5th Dalai Lama as its central image. In the upper register are the 1st Dalai Lama (7), Sa-chen Kun-dga' snying-po (5), the 3rd Dalai Lama (9), and possibly the 8th Dalai Lama (lower right). There are three Dharma-protecting deities in the bottom register: White Mahakala, flanked by Vaishravana and Beg-tse.

As the representation of the 5th Dalai Lama and the incarnates in the upper register of the thangka tally with the Stockholm set, this painting was probably placed on the left of a set with the 7th Dalai Lama as its central thangka. However, this representation of the 5th Dalai Lama does not have the large eyes and receding hairline regarded as characteristic of his appearance. It may therefore be surmised that the thangka was produced quite some time after his death.

Tshangs-dbyangs rgya-mtsho (1683-1705), the 6th Dalai Lama, is at the centre of the thangka in Figure 7 c. In the upper register are the 2nd Dalai Lama (8), the 4th Dalai Lama (l0), 'Phags-pa (6), and possibly the 9th Dalai Lama (lower left). Another three Dharma-protecting deities are depicted in the lower register: Phrin-las rgyal-po (centre), Dam-can dGarba-nag-po (left) and Tshangs-pa-dkar-po (right). As the representations of the 6th Dalai Lama and the other incarnates in the upper register correspond with the Stockholm set, this thangka was probably placed to the right of the central image of the 7th Dalai Lama.

Moreover, the figures positioned to the left and right of the central image in the thirteen-thangka set are likewise depicted in the three-thangka set. In view of the fact that this set adds the 8th and the 9th Dalai Lamas to the thirteen incarnates constituting the Stockholm set, it may be assumed that this three-thangka set came into existence during the reign of Lung-rtogs rgya-mtsho (1805-15), the 9th Dalai Lama.

There are many portrait thangkas of Dalai Lamas in collections around the world, but it is rare to find a complete set of successive Dalai Lamas. This three-thangka set ­despite being an abridged version - is important since it still reflects the arrangement of the original thirteen-thangka type. Although this set dates from the early 19th century; it is valuable as the thangkas are well-executed and in good condition.

Comprising representations of the 2nd to the 6th Dalai Lamas, the five thangkas from Zurichare also depictions of successive Dalai Lamas. When I first began to write this article, I had assumed that these paintings were part of a thirteen-thangkaset. Upon closer examination, I noticed that the Zurich set is exceptional.

All the paintings bear an inscription in gold script and there are no doubts about their identification. With the exception ofYon-tan rgya-mtsho (1589-1616), the 4th Dalai Lama, the iconographical features of the other portraits resemble those in the three-thangka set. In the Zurich set, the right hand of the 4th Dalai Lama is formed in the preaching gesture (Tib. chos 'chad phyag rgya); in the three-thangka set, the 4th Dalai Lama (la) holds a skull cup in his right hand.

However, the arrangement of the teachers and tutelary deities (Tib. yi dam) in the upper part and the depiction of the attendants and protective deities (Tib. chos skyong) in the lower part differ greatly from the three-thangka set. Consequently, it cannot be determined whether the Zurich set is part of a thirteen-thangka series. Further investigation will also be required to ascertain the date and origin of this set.

The comparative study of the thirteen-thangka type like the Stockholmset and the three-thangka set in the Hahn Foundation made it clear that the arrangement of the thangkas which Schmid had thought was a later change was in fact original. But a problem arises in the identification of the figure whom Schmid had labelled as Khri-srong-ldebtsan, the king who ushered in the golden age of the king­domof Tibet. In his arrangement, Schmid had placed him between King Srong-btsan sgam-po and 'Brom-ston.

However, the arrangement of the three-thangha set in the Hahn collection suggests that this king (3) should be put between Khasarpana (1) and Srong-btsan sgam-po (2). If the king in question is Khri-srong lde-btsan as Schmid suggested, then the bSam-yas (Samye) monastery which he constructed should be depicted behind him. In this instance, there is no building depicted behind the king. He must therefore be a king that preceded Srong-btsan sgam-po instead - possibly gNya'-khri btsan-po or IHa Tho-tho-ri gnyan-btsan. These two kings are frequently mentioned as former incarnations of the Dalai Lamas in historical documents written during the rule of the Dalai Lamas. Between them, the possibility of gNya'-khri btsan-po is strong as he has no palace associated with him. If he is IHa Tho-tho-ri gnyan-btsan, then the Yum-bu bla-sgang, his former palace, should be depicted behind him. It is somewhat difficult to establish a date of origin for the thirteen-thangha sets. At present, we cannot confirm the existence of original woodblocks for this type - as far as I know, there are no historical records. However, we may arrive at a provisional date through an analysis of its iconographical features.

In the thirteen-thangha sets, the 7th Dalai Lama, the main figure, holds in his right hand a lotus which contains the sword and the manuscript of the Prajnaparamitasutra, an emblem of Manjushri, and in his left, the holy scripture. Similar iconography is common in other portraits of the 7th Dalai Lama, but in some cases he holds the wheel in his left hand instead. A typical example of this portrayal may be seen on the wall painting in front of the shrine of Jo-bo Lokeshvara ('Phags-pa lha-khang) on the fourth floor of the Red  Palace of the Potala. Based on its location near the mausoleum of the 7th Dalai Lama, the mural was probably painted to commemorate the restorer of the Dalai Lama regime after his demise.

Furthermore, we can find the same iconography in the Ashtasahasriha Prajnaparamita pantheon. According to David Jackson, this woodblock was sponsored by Chos-kyi rgyal-mtshan of Dingri (1897-1956?) Qackson, p. 46). In this pantheon, the 13th and the 14th (and current) Dalai Lamas are also holding the wheel in their left hands. As the wheel is the symbol of the universal monarch (Skt cah ravartin), one can easily assume that the wheels in their left hands meant that they took the helm in state affairs.

During the Pho-Iha-nas regime, the 7th Dalai Lama was not permitted to participate in political affairs. After 'Gyurmed-rnam-rgyal, Pho-Iha-nas's successor, was murdered by the minister resident of the Qing dynasty in 1750, political power was restored to the Dalai Lama. Consequently, when the 7th Dalai Lama is shown holding the holy scripture in his left hand, it means that his regime has not been restored. This suggests that the thirteen-thangha type was already in use before the re-establishment of the dGa'-ldan Pho-brang government in 1750. Thus, the terminus post quem for the origin of the thirteen-thangha type may be put at 1735, when the 7th Dalai Lama returned to the Potala  Palacefrom his banishment to eastern Tibet.

By then, the Panchen Lama set (sNar-thang version) had already come into existence, and there was some political rivalry between the Dalai Lama and the 2nd Panchen whom Pho-Iha-nas supported. We can therefore conclude that the original thirteen-thangha set of the Dalai Lamas was produced between 1735 and 1750, and was influenced by the Panchen Lama set which Pho-Iha-nas or his family sponsored.



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