Tibetan Wall Paintings of Mahasiddhas at Gyantse
Ulrich von Schroeder.
Some of the most important Tibetan Buddhist monuments to have survived the Cultural Revolution between 1966 and 1976 are located at Gyantse (rGyal rtse) in Tsang province of Central Tibet. For the study of Tibetan art, the temples of dPal ’khor chos sde, namely the dPal ’khor gTsug lag khang and dPal ’khor mchod rten, are for various reasons of great importance. The detailed information gained from the inscriptions with regard to the sculptors and painters summoned for the work testifies to the regional distribution of workshops in 15th-century Tsang. The sculptures and murals also document the extent to which a general consensus among the various traditions or schools had been achieved by the middle of that century. Of particular interest is the painted cycle of eighty-four mahåsiddhas, each with a name inscribed in Tibetan script. These paintings of mahasiddhas, or “great perfected ones endowed with supernatural faculties” (Tib. Grub chen), are located in the Lamdre chapel (Lam ’bras lha khang) on the second floor of the dPal ’khor gTsug lag khang. Bearing in mind that these murals are the most splendid extant painted Tibetan representations of mahasiddhas, one wonders why they have never been published as a whole cycle. Several scholars have at times intended to study these paintings, but it seems that difficulties of identification were the primary obstacle to publication. Although the life-stories of many of the eighty-four mahasiddhas still remain unidentified, the quality of the works nevertheless warrants a publication of these great murals.
A siddha is a tantric adept who, through practice, has attained perfection and is endowed with special powers. Most renowned among these Indian tantric adepts, who lived mostly during the 9th and 10th centuries, are the mahasiddhas, who were often listed as a group of eighty-four. The siddhas were a class of ascetics who practiced outside the institutional
discipline of the monasteries. Instead of metaphysical speculation, they practiced an existential and unorthodox way of life. Coming from diverse social backgrounds, the mahasiddhas included the entire variety of human experience. In addition to brahmin priests, monks and nuns, there were also lay practitioners, kings, ministers, merchants, farmers, servants,
beggars, thieves and people from every walk of life. Each had a teacher who initiated and instructed him into the practice of meditation of a particular tantric lineage. Whereas scholastic tantric Buddhism was especially practiced in the monastic centres of North-Eastern India, the siddha movement touched all parts of India. The metaphysical content of the siddhas’ practice was based on texts known as tantras. About the origin of the tantras one can only speculate, but they seem to have their roots in very ancient ritual magic associated with fertility cults. After being transmitted orally, sometimes for hundreds of years, the tantras were only written down later. The life-stories of the siddhas at Gyantse provide fascinating insight into a wide range of tantric practice. The purpose of this publication is not to present a general study of mahåsiddhas, but rather to make these wonderful wall paintings of Gyantse known to a wider public. Of the eighty-four mahasiddhas only fifty-seven could be identified with reasonable certainty. The identification of the individual siddhas should be regarded as preliminary, as further studies will certainly reveal more about their often still-obscure identities.
MAHĀSIDDHA WALL PAINTINGS AT GYANTSE
The small, picturesque town of Gyantse in the Nyang valley of Tsang, once the capital of a local kingdom, is the location of the dPal ’khor chos sde monastic complex, constructed in the 15th century. A high wall separates it from the nearby residential area of Gyantse. The expansive site (Fig. 1) originally included sixteen monasteries, most of which were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution. Four of the monasteries belonged to the Sa skya tradition, three to the Bu lugs tradition, and nine to the dGe lugs tradition. [Note 4: The Sa skya tradition, founded by Sa chen Kun dga’ snying po (1092–1158); the Bu lugs tradition, based on the teachings of Bu ston Rin chengrub (1290–1364); the dGe lugs tradition, founded by Tsong kha pa (1357–1419).] The main architectural structures to have survived are the dPal ’khor gTsug lag khang (Fig. 3) and the nearby dPal ’khor mchod rten, or sKu ’bum (“great st°pa”) known as bKra shis sgo mang mchod rten or sKu ’bum bkra shis sgo mang (Fig. 2). The foundation of the large and massive structure of the dPal ’khor gTsug lag khang was laid in 1418 by Rab brtan kun bzang ’phags (1389–1442), the third prince of Gyantse, son of Kun dga’ ’phags pa (1357–1412); construction was finished in 1425. Two years later, in 1427, the dPal ’khor mchod rten was consecrated, and the decoration finished in 1439. All the temples contain painted clay statues, and the walls are extensively decorated with murals. [Note 5: E. F. Lo Bue and F. Ricca published an excellent account of this monument. 1993. The Great Stupa of Gyantse.]
The dPal ’khor gTsug lag khang consists of two stories with a number of temples. On the ground floor, at the back of the large assembly hall, is the inner sanctuary, the gTsang khang (Skt.: gandhakuti), known as Jo bo’i lha khang, dedicated to the “Buddhas of the three times”, namely Dipankara (Mar me mdzad) (past), Sakyamuni (Sakya thub pa) (present), and Maitreya (Byams pa) (future). The western wing of the ground floor contains the rDo rje dbyings lha khang, dedicated to the cycle of Vajradhatu (Tib.: rDo rje dbyings). The eastern wing, the Chos rgyal lha khang, is named after the three great Tibetan “kings of the doctrine” (dharmaraja) (chos rgyal): Srong btsan sgam po (reigned c. 618–649), Khri srong lde brtsan (reigned c. 755–797), and Ral pa can (reigned c. 815–838). This temple is now named rGyal ba Byams pa’i lha khang after the large image of Maitreya, constructed later in the centre of the room by the dGe lugs pa. Near the entrance is the mGon khang, dedicated to the wrathful deities. Three temples, or chapels, stand on the upper floor of the dPal ’khor gTsug lag khang, namely the gNas brtan lha khang, the Lam ’bras lha khang , and the gZhal yas khang. These chapels were finished in the female wood-snake year, 1425. The gNas brtan lha khang contains large painted clay images of Sakyamuni surrounded by the sixteen arhats (Ch.: lohans), as well as Hva shang and Dharmatåla – executed in Sino-Tibetan style. [Note 6: Lo Bue, E. F. and Ricca, F. 1990. Gyantse Revisited, pp. 377–411, pls. 132–45]. The names of the artists who made the sculptures were not recorded. Beside the gNas brtan lha khang is the Byams pa mchod pa lha khang housing a large number of metal statues. [Note 7: Cf. von Schroeder, U. 2001. Buddhist Sculptures in Tibet. Vol. Two: Tibet & China, pls. 37C, 169C, 224D, 231C, 234C, 271C, 277C, 280B, 280C, 280E, 304C, 314C, 317C, 317E, 319C, 322E–F, 327D].
The Lam ’bras lha khang, built by Rab ’byor bzang po contains at its centre a three-dimensional Mandala of Samvara based on the tradition founded by Luipa (Plate 1). The chapel is named after the lam ’bras tradition (“path with the result”), especially popular with the Sa skya order. The lam ’bras teachings were formulated by Virupa according to instructions received from ﬂåkin¡ Nairåtmyå. The most famous practitioners of this tantric tradition survive as statues lined up along the walls. At the centre of the western wall sits Vajradhara (Tib.: rDo rje ’chang) on a throne, flanked by two attendant deities. On each side of this central group are nine large painted clay statues, representing the eighteen masters of the lineage. The almost life-size images, modelled with straw and clay on a wooden armature, are of a striking appeal. They are placed against the walls below the paintings of the Mahasiddhas. [Note 8: Lo Bue, E. F. and Ricca, F. 1990. Gyantse Revisited, pp. 432–60, pls. 161–79; von Schroeder, U. 2001. Buddhist Sculptures in Tibet. Vol. Two: Tibet & China, pp. 870–81, pls. 201–204. In Central Tibet, at sMin grolgling monastery, there survives an intact series of large gilt copper repoussé sculptures also commemorating lam ’bras masters. Cf. von Schroeder, U. 2001. Buddhist Sculptures in Tibet. Vol. Two: Tibet & China, pp. 972–85; pls. 236–41.]
Above the statues of the lam ’bras masters is a painted cycle composed of two registers of eighty-four mahasiddhas and two additional personages. According to the inscription, which runs along the walls, the paintings were executed by dPal ’byor Rin chen from gNas rnying, south of Gyantse. [Note 9: A painter of the name dPal ’byor rin chen was one of the teachers of sManbla don grub (born 1409?), founder of the sMan ris school of painting. Jackson, D. P. 1997. “Chronological Notes on the Founding Masters of Tibetan Painting Traditions”, Tibetan Art, pp. 254–61. Jackson, D. P. 1996. A History of Tibetan Painting: The Great Tibetan Painters and Their Traditions.] There seems to be some confusion about the number of mahåsiddhas painted on the walls of the Lam ’bras lha khang. This is due to the fact that the inscription below the paintings mentions eighty siddhas, whereas actually eighty-four were originally represented. [Note 10: According to the Myang chos ’byung, eighty-eight siddhas are represented. G. Tucci mentions eighty-four, whereas Erberto Lo Bue assumed that only eighty siddhas were shown, as stated in the inscription. Cf. Lo Bue, E. F. andRicca, F. 1990. Gyantse Revisited, pp. 411–32, pls. 147–60]. Of these eighty-four siddhas painted on the walls, two are entirely destroyed (G55, G63) and another retains only the lower section; the name has survived (G56). Thus, the inscribed Tibetan names of eighty-two mahasiddhas are known. Of the original eighty-six paintings, eighty-four represent a cycle of mahasiddhas (G1–G84).
To fill empty spaces on the wall, two additional Buddhist teachers were added, namely Gling ras pa Padma rdo rje (1128–1188) (G85), a ’Brug pa bKa’ brgyud master, and Mahapandita Sri Sariputra (Pan chen Shri sh’a ri putra) (G86), abbot of the monastery at Bodhgaya (Gaya district, Bihar, Northern India). In 1414, the latter visited Gyantse on his way to Beijing, following an invitation by the Chinese Yongle emperor (r. 1403–1424). [Note 11: Tucci, G. 1949. Tibetan Painted Scrolls, pp. 632, 665–66, 689, 703, nn. 154, 819, 833] It is still not clear why Gling ras pa Padma rdo rje was added to the cycle of the eighty-four mahasiddhas. [Note 12: according to a personal communication, Erberto Lo Bue suggests thatperhaps Gling ras pa formed part of the teaching lineage of the consecratingmonk of the Lam ’bras lha khang.] He was the spiritual father of the ’Brug pa bKa’ brgyud sub-order and had his residence at Rwa lung, located about 40 kilometres south-east of Gyantse on the road to Lhasa. It has been suggested that the particular mahasiddha cycle at Gyantse was adopted by the Sa skya order in connection with the lam ’bras tradition, perhaps as received through Gling ras pa (1128–1188), though this is unlikely [Note 13: Lo Bue, E. F. and Ricca, F. 1990. Gyantse Revisited, p. 431.]. Yet Gling ras pa was perhaps added to the painted cycle of mahasiddhas because of his affiliation with the lam ’bras tradition, received from Phag mo gru pa (1110–1170), one of his teachers.
A single-line inscription in dBu can script painted along the walls beneath the cycle of mahasiddhas contains information about the donors and painters:
Zhing khams ’di’i dgos kyi sbyin bdag gnyer chen rnam sras pa sku mched rnams kyis dpon drung rgya gar mgon sku gshegs pa (....) bzhengs/. dge bas sems can thams cad kyi// sgrib gnyis byang zhing tshogs rdzogs te// chos kyi rgyal po’i (…) zhabs drung du// rnam mkhyen sangs rgyas thob par shog/ ri mo mkhas pa gnas rnying pa dpon mo che dpal ’byor ba dpon slob kyis gzabs nas bris so//. Grub chen brgyad cu’i [80 mahåsiddhas] zhing khams ’di’i dgos kyi sbyin bdag gnas rnying[ pa] dpon btsun dpal ’byor rin chen gyis// drin can pha ma’i thugs dgongs rdzogs phyir du// dad can gus pa’i sgo na[s] sems can thams cad kyi// sgrib gnyis byang zhing tshogs gnyis myur rdzogs te// rdzogs pa’i sangs rgyas myur du thob/ nas kyang// sems can rnams la phan bde byed par shog/. Zhing khams phyed po ’di’i dgos kyisbyin bdag dbu mdzad dpal mchog pas mdzad [ri mo] mkhas pa gnas rnying pa dpon mo che dpal ’byor ba dpon slob kyis gzabs [nas bris... bzheng?] s/ dge bas sems can thams cad sangs rgyas myur thob shog/ [Note 14: Lo Bue, E. F. and Ricca, F. 1990. Gyantse Revisited, p. 412, n. 119.]
Translation: Southern wall: “The particular patrons of this mural section, the gNyer chen rNam sras pa and his brother, had it painted [in memory of ?] the deceased Lord rGya gar mgon. By this virtue may all sentient beings purify the obscurations, complete the preparatory accumulations and, in the presence of the King of Dharma, may they attain the perfect wisdom of Buddhahood!” Western wall: “The particular patron of the mural section of the eighty[-four] mahasiddhas, the dPon btsun dPal ’byor rin chen of gNas rnying, [prays through the merit of having them painted] as a memorial for his kind deceased parents, with faith and respect, that the two obscurations of all sentient beings will be purified and two accumulations rapidly completed, and that even after the attainment of perfect Buddhahood, each will bring benefit and happiness to sentient beings!” Northern wall: “The particular patron for this half of a mural section was dBu mdzad dPal mchog pa. It was carefully painted by the expert chief artist (dpon mo che) dPal ’byor ba of gNas rnying and his assistants. By this virtue may all sentient beings quickly attain Buddhahood!” (David P. Jackson)
From the inscriptions we can conclude that the sponsors of the southern wall were rNam sras pa and his brother. The western wall of the temple was sponsored by the noble master from gNas rnying, dPal ’byor Rin chen, presumably the painter himself. The northern wall of the temple was sponsored by a donor named dPal mchog pa. The inscriptions further records that the paintings were done by dPal ’byor ba of gNas rnying and his assistants.
Includes bibliographical references and index.