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GUARDIAN DEITIES IN TIBET (author to be ascertained - Jampa Namgyal 2009 12 20)
Table of Contents Acknowledgements 2 Illustrations 3 Introduction 5 First Kora:
A Brief Orientation 9 At the Threshold 14 Second Kora: The Demoness Subduing
Temple 28 The Origin of Tibetan Guardians 35 Third Kora: The Ambition of
Guardians 52 The Guardian Image 61 Conclusion 70 Notes 73 Glossary 78 Works
Referenced 82 Credits 85 Map of Tibet 86 Acknowledgements The production of the
following essay was a defining experience for me and I would like
to thank the people and organizations that made it possible. First, I am
indebted to my
advisors Bernard Faure and Mark Mancall, as well as to Hilton Obenzinger, all of
were patient with me and my ignorance. Thanks to the Undergraduate Research
and the Institute for International Education for their generous funding,
especially to
Richard Goldie who directly sponsored my project. I would also like to thank
Russell and Liu Zhijun, who traveled with me and shared in my experiences. I am
grateful to Sha Wu-tian, an archeologist who gave me free access to the
caves at Dunhuang, and to Pema Chodring, a monk at the Jokhang. I also owe much
my roommates, Ben Cain, Scott Loarie, and Tom Soule, who tolerated me while
this thesis. Most of all, I would like to thank the multitude of people in Tibet
and in
China who shared with me their kindness, and facilitated my journey and
Finally, I would like to thank my family both for extensive help with Indian
and for worrying about me while in Tibet.
Illustrations XXXVII.Mahakala - Chakdrupa. Mahakala , 'the great black one', is
a major dharmapala in Tibet. This Thangka is an 18th century Thangka from the
Collection of Shelley & Donald Rubin Foundation, at
XXXVIII.Wrathful face of a Guardian. The furious face of a typical guardian,
taken from a frescoe on the roof of the Jokhang. Photograph by Kumar Narayanan
XXXIX.Front Gates of the Jokhang. The Jokhang is the 'Cathedral of Lhasa',
located in the Barkhor area. Photograph by James Russell. XL.Vajrapani.The
thunderbolt protector, called Channan Dorje in Tibetan, also from the third
floor of the Jokhang. Photograph by Kumar Narayanan XLI.Dvarapala.A gate
guardian dating from 6th century from South India, Chalukya Dynasty. These
guardians of the gate typically appear in
flanking position of major doorways. Taken from:
XLII.Narasimhan.Line image of Narasimhan, Fifth Avatar of Vishnu. Notice how he
is in between two pillars. XLIII.The Dalai Lama's camp. A beautiful picture of
the Dalai Lama's traveling camp, taken in 1939 just outside of Lhasa. Notice the
circles, and the striking resemblance to a mandala. Taken from Rolf
Stein's Tibetan Civilization, p39
XLIV.Bhavachakra. Wheel of Life from the 16th century. Yama, (or Samsara) is in
the background, holding up the wheel. From XLV.Avalokitesvara
Mandala. Mandala depictingBar do, with 100 wrathful deities on the periphery,
and 100 peaceful deities in the next inner layer. Avalokitesvara is the main
deity. From XLVI.Gyantse Kumbum: The Kumbum at Gyantse,
looking up from below. Photograph by Kumar Narayanan. XLVII.Mandala on a
Doorway. A mandala scroll on a household doorway in Gyantse. Photograph by Kumar
Narayanan. XLVIII.Household Doorway. A doorway to a Tibetan household in the
town of Tsetang. Notice the ornate scrollwork and fierce imagery that adorns
the doorway. There are wrathful images on the doorframe. Photograph by
Kumar Narayanan.
XLIX. Han Guardians. Two common figures on Han Chinese doorways. These two
Taoist kings are clearly guardians of some sort. Photo taken in Dunhuang, Gansu,
by Kumar Narayanan. L.Dunhuang Guardians.Two guardians from the magnificent
caves of Dunhuang. The right guardian is a dvarapala from cave X, and the left
guardian is a lokpala from cave X. Guardians are representative of late Tang,
and Sung dynasties. Photographs courtesy of Sha Wu-tian. LI.Jokhang Roofline.
The roofline of the Jokhang, bronze spires in glistening in midday. Photograph
by Kumar Narayanan. LII.Cairn. A cairn with prayer flags at Nam Tso lake, Tashi
Dor area. Notice the size of the cairn (I am seated to the right). Photograph by
James Russell. LIII.Summit Cairn. A cairn above Ganden Monastery. This cairn
sits at the highest point on a ridge above Ganden at some 15,000
feet. From it, you can see the entire Kyichu (Lhasa) river valley.
Photograph by Kumar Narayanan.
LIV.Drukpa Kunley. A picture of the divine madman. Illustration taken from The
Divine Madman, by Keith Dowman. LV.Terracotta Warrior. An member of the
terracotta army of Qin Shi Huang, standing watch over his grave.
LVI.Yumbulungang. Rumored to Tibets first castle, the Yumbulungang dominates
the barley fields of the Yarlung Valley, the cradle of Tibetan
Civilization. Notice its key placement. Photography by Kumar
LVII.Guardian of a Field. A curious image from Kong-Po, taken by Sir G.Taylor,
of a guardian in the middle of a field around 1930. Image taken from David
Snellgrove and Hugh Richardson s The Cultural History of Tibet. LVIII.Masks of
Trandruk Monastery s Gonkhang.A host of wrathful masks that line the threshold
at Trandruk Monastery, in the Yarlung
Valley. These masks have little to do with Buddhism. Photograph by
Kumar Narayanan.
LIX.Our Lady of Guadoulope.A picture of the dark skinned Latin American
rendition of the Virgin Mary. This major religious figure is a typical example
of syncretism in Latin American Catholicism. LX.A Wrathful Dancer. Ritualistic
dance during a festival, wearing the mask of a wrathful deity. This image
suggests another element of the guardian deities outside of Buddhism. From
Guiseppi Tucci sT ibet. LXI.Ganesa.An ivory statue of Ganesa from the
Metropolitan Art Museum. LXII.Hayagriva. A picture of Hayagriva as appears in
early Indian art. From Robert Linrothe s Ruthless Compassion. LXIII.Yaksa.Image
of a yaksa, the curious tutelary deities. From LXIV.Dorje
Shugden.A picture of Dorje Shugden, an ascendant protector of the Gelugpa
tradition, and the center of an ongoing controversy in the Tibetan government.
Picture from: LXV.Pehar.Originally a minor protector,
Pehar has rapidly ascended to position of a Yidam. Taken from Shelley and Donald
Rubin Collection. Picture from: LXVI.Palden Lhamo. Palden
Lhamo appearing as a guardian in the protector s alcove of the Jokhang. Notice
every one of her three sets of eyes is directed at the temple viewer. Photograph
by Kumar Narayanan LXVII.Lokpala s Eyes. The gaze of a lokpala at the threshold
is fixed on the temple pilgrim, establishing a transformative connection.
LXVIII.Skull.A haunting skull on the third floor of the Jokhang. Photograph by
Kumar Narayanan LXIX.Fire Scrollwork Detail.Section of ornate scrollwork that
appears behind most guardians. Photograph by Kumar Narayanan LXX.Head of a
Chinese Guardian.This is a Ming Dynasty Buddhist dvarapala cast in bronze,
dating from about1600 BCE. From the collection of Sigmund Freud. Available at: LXXI.Javanese Dvarapala
Torso.Terracotta gate guardian dating from around the 14th Century BCE, Kingdom
of Majapahit. On display at the Utah Museum of Fine Art, available at: LXXII.Mahakala,Life size statue of
guardian Mahakala in all his glory, at the gonkhang of Ganden Monastery.
Photograph by Kumar Narayanan A Brief Orientation The classification of guardian
deities in Tibet is characterized by complexity.
Both in India and in China, there are a few classes of guardians who fit neatly
categories, such as guardian of the gate , or guardian of direction . On the
other hand, in
Tibet, there are not only several classes of guardians, but also numerous
between diverse representations of Tibetan guardians and protective deities
In my view, the definition is simple: deities that are classified as guardians
those who protect something, whether it is a person, place, idea, or doctrine.
such a definition might seem straightforward, there are guardians who have other
beyond protection, as well as gods who are not guardians who confer protection.
classification of a deity as guardian includes many rough edges. Still, I
believe that there
are defining features that identify as a deity as a guardian.
Guardian deities can easily be recognized by a combination of stereotypical
location and wrathful features. Typically, their facial features are wrathful ,
and it is
possible to organize Tibetan deities strictly according to their demeanor. In
his beautiful
book, Ruthless Compassion, Robert Linrothe introduces the category of krodha -
vighnantaka (in Sanskrit wrathful destroyer of obstacles), or wrathful
deities. Guardians are often wrathful, and share specific iconographical
elements. InO r acles and Demons of Tibet, the classic compendium on the topic,
Rene de Nebesky Wojkowitz describes: The wrathful protective deities are
mostly described as figures possessing stout
bodies, short, thick and strong limbs and many of them have several heads and a
great number of hands and feet. The color of their bodies and faces is
compared with the characteristic hue of clouds, precious stones, etcthe mouth
contorted into an angry smile, from its corners protrude long fangsthe
protruding, bloodshot eyes have an angry and staring expression and usually a
third eye is visible in the middle of the forehead
These are some of the features that typify guardian deities of Tibet(see IV).
Many others,
such as their bright color, the furious dance on the back of a pathetic
creature, and the fire
that rages behind them, are consistent with their ferocity and fierceness.
However, defining guardianship based strictly on wrathful iconography is
problematic. Wrathfulness has a wide scope in Tibetan religion. All deities that

wrathfulness are not necessarily guardian deities; in fact, there is an entire
group of
deities who display wrathfulness but who are not guardians. These deities, such
as the
isthadeva(tib. yidam), are important deities but they are not protectors, though
they sometimes appear as guardians. Wrathfulness is a difficult concept,
particularly for Westerners. In Tibet, wrathfulness is merely another side of
compassion. For example,Avaloki tes var a or Manjushri might have a wrathful
form just as they have a compassionate form. Though wrathfulness is not wholly
unconnected from guardianship, it is perhaps a different
subject entirely. The guardian image invokes the wrathful motif in particular
ways, and
the intersection between wrathfulness and guardians is a dimension of their
Linrothe organizes the relationship between wrathful deities into a single
figure (see
Figure 1). Relative status is the key dependent variable that differentiates
between the
wrathful deities. Guardians are considered to be of lower status than other
deities. The profane status of guardian deities is related to another
feature: their placement. Typically, guardians appear on the periphery, at
outer walls, flanking major deities, or ingonkhangs, special protector chapels.
There are several classes of guardian deities, such as lokpalas, dvarapalas, and
dharmapalas. Many of them have deep roots in India (see V), which we shall see
has great relevance in thinking about guardian deities of Tibet. The Indian
originated from the form of ayaks a, a curious tutelary deity that predated
Vedic culture.
Guardian deities followed the trajectory of Buddhism as it spread to the Kushans
present-day Afghanistan), across the expansive Silk Road and into China during
the first
millenium. Though a developed conception of sacred space existed in China before
arrival Buddhism, there is little question that guardians arrived in their
current form along
with Buddhism via the Silk Road. Whether Tibetans first encountered Buddhism and
guardians upon their early ravages of central Asia, through intermittent
official channels
with China and India, or through a slow diffusion of ideas over the Himalayas
unknown. However, there can be no mistake regarding the transformation that
effected upon Tibet. Buddhist protective deities were central players in this
societal change. As in China, the guardians of Tibet arrived with Buddhism
However, I
hope to demonstrate that the source of the current guardian image originates in
dialogue between Buddhism and indigenous Tibetan tradition.
Perhaps the simplest guardian in temple architecture in Asia is the dvarapala,
which means gate guardian in Sanskrit. These guardians, who appear in pairs,
are often
related in mythical origin. They stand watch over important thresholds of major
At the Jokhang, there are several sets of dvarapalas at many thresholds, in
front of a few
chapels, as well as the Jowo Lhokhang, the chapel which housesJowo, the major
Most importantly, other Tibetan protectors can act in a similar capacity as the
by simply appearing at the correct places.
A second class of guardian deities that hails from India are the lokpalas, who
maintain vigil over the cardinal directions. In Sanskrit, the names of lokpalas
are: Vaisravana(North), Virupaksha(Wes t), Dhrirastra (East), and
Virudhuka(South). They demarcate the edges of mandala, and sometimes appear in
temples watching over
their respective directions. Each of the guardians of north, west, east, and
south have
independent, beautiful mythologies. For instance, Vaisravana, also called
Kubera, is the
god of the north, and the god of wealth, and also fabled to be the king of the
However, the classification of lokpalas is not as neat as it is with the
dvarapalas. For
instance, in addition to their post at the cardinal directions at the Jokhang,
lokpalas appear
at the main gate. The place of lokpalas at the front gates is common throughout
Mahayana temples in China, where they are called the Guardian Kings . Also, the
lokapala image in Tibet is not always wrathful. At the outermost gate of the
they lack the hallmark crown of five skulls, the third eye, or the distinctive
halo of fire.
However, in other renderings of lokpalas around Tibet and particularly in
mandala, it is
possible to observe wrathful renditions of lokpalas.
A more general classification of guardians is the dharmapala (tib chos skyong),
or guardian of the Buddhistdhar m a (law). This type of guardian includes some
of the most prominent protectors in Tibet, such as Mahakala (tib. Gon po) Sri
Devi (tib.Palden Lhamo), Yama(tib Shinhe), Hayagriva(tib. Tagrin), and
Yamantaka(tib. Shinje Shed). The Tibetan dharmapalas are most divergent from
other cultures, and perhaps the most
original renditions of imported ideas of guardianship. These deities are oath
bound, and
though they are protectors in the fullest sense of the term, they are not
explicitly by position, as the lokpalas and dvarapalas are. Though they are not
subject to
a rigid pattern, their positioning follows some dominant themes. A key property
dharmapalas is their capacity to play the role of guardians of the gate or of
direction. For
instance, in the passageway that connects the inner Jokhang to the outer kora,
Lhamo (san. Sri Devi) is a dvarapala, flanking a major threshold between the
inner and
outer koras. Another example is the four-foot statue of Mahakala in the Sera
chapel at the rear of the Jokhang, who stands looking fiercely out over the rear

wall of the
temple, posing as a guardian of space as well as of Buddhist doctrine.
Both also demonstrate the complexity associated in thinking about Tibetan
guardians, and it is precisely this complexity that sustains this essay. The
multiple roles
played by dharmapalas alludes to an underlying relationship between all
guardians that
will doggedly follow our account of Tibetan protective deities. I referred
earlier to the
guardian of Tibetan Buddhism as a palimpsest, a document which has been written
many times, each message being written on top of others. The difficulty in the
classification of Tibetan guardians signals the existence of these multiple
Guardian deities seldom succumb to a single paradigm; as we shall see shortly,
they are
perpetually in between.
At the Threshold The house where my mother grew up, in the heart of South India,
was built nearly
a century ago. Its doorframes are made from heavy, solid timbers from forests
that have
long since disappeared in India. As a five year old, the threshold often was as
high as my
knees. I particularly remember tripping almost every time that I entered the
house. I
became convinced that threshold was a strange place, a trial to be overcome in
order to
get inside.
In the Indian view, the threshold is a singular location, in suspension between
inside and outside, as illustrated by the myth of Narasimhan (see VI), the fifth
avatar of
Vishnu. According to the myth, the king Hryanakasyipu meditated for several
years in
order to win the gods favor, and thereby everlasting life. The gods refused to
grant him
immortality; instead, they restricted the conditions on his death. He could not
be killed
inside or outside, during day or night, by man or beast, by weapon or natural
causes, and
so on. On the strength of these boons, Hryanakasyipu became arrogant and
terrorized his subjects. At the intense prayer of a young devotee, Vishnu
returns to earth
in the form of a man-lion, Narasimhan in order to kill the tyrannical king.
cleverly takes Hryanakasyipu to the threshold at twilight, and kills him with
his nails.
The crux of the story is that Narasimhan is only able evade all the restrictions
on the
circumstances on Hryanakasyipu s death by looking in between the conventions of
and day, man and animal, weapon and hand, as well as inside and outside. The
the site at which Narasihman kills Hryanakasyipu, is an interstitial place.
The point is that I was right when I was five years old; thereis something
important going on at the threshold. Though this story is Indian, it reflects a
about the threshold that is consistent in temples across Asia. Any threshold, no
whether in the Jokhang or my grandmother s house, is liminal because it lies in
diverse conception of space. As Bernard Faure observes, from a Chinese viewpoint
space and place, The threshold in many local traditions, is a dangerous place,
a focal
point where space invertsand Turner, among others, has stressed that liminal
states and
individuals are both ambiguous and dangerous. In Tibet, whose temples and
monasteries are, in part, inspired by both their Indian and Chinese
counterparts, the
threshold is a definitively liminal place. The placement of guardian deities at
threshold, then, is indicative of their peripheral status as well as their
This idea is prevalent throughout the Jokhang. At the front entrance, there is a
of sinicized lokpalas painted upon the outer walls, as well as another full set
of four
wooden lokpalas set back in the alcove on either side of the passageway just
inside the
front gate (See Figure 3). Such a redundancy underscores the importance of the
Other guardians stand watch over essentially every major threshold in the
including the previously mentioned Mahakala and Palden Lhamo. The presence of a
ferocious guardian image at the threshold is indicative of a special
consciousness of the
spatial inversions that occur there.
How do we account for the curious juxtaposition of lokpalas, who were originally
guardians of cardinal direction, at the threshold? At the entry to the Jowo
Lhokhang four
lokpalas stand guard over the threshold to the sanctum sanctorum, backed up by
dvarapalas (See Figure 3). The lokpalas appearance in tandem with the dvarapalas
suggests that they are of similar status. It also indicates that both guardians
guardian and applies to guardians as a class. Lokpalas often appear in mandala
in their official capacity, keeping watch over
the cardinal directions. Typically, they appear at the outer rings of the
concentric circles
of a mandala. Only in specific wrathful mandalas would one ever see wrathful
deities in
the inner ranks. Four, eight guardians, and in some cases an entire legion of
deities circumscribe mandala (see IX). The placement of lokpalas and protective
around mandalas is once again reflective of their liminality in Tibetan
conception. Even
mandalas with no visible guardians retain the idea of a protected space. For
example, the
symbolic mandalas composed of concentric geometry, a design element is often
to guardians. Common representations include changes in color, or renderings of
charnel ground.
The relationship between guardians and mandala goes much further. At their
heart, mandalas are protective structures. They makes utter sense as a
fortification; they
are the essence of a layered defense. The traveling camps and the war camps of
Tibet are
arranged in mandalaic patterns. For instance, in Stein s Tibetan Civilization,
it is possible
to glimpse the Dalai Lama s traveling camp (See VII), strikingly reminiscent of
The similarity is no coincidence, judging from Stein s account, early Tibetan
camps are:
clearly comprised of concentric enclosures, for we are told of three successive
gateways at a hundred paces distance from on another, guarded by soldiers and
sorcerers or priestswho escorted the visitor. In the center was a great standard
with a high platform.the hierarchies lived at the centerwith a throne and a
statue of a protective deity
This description of a ninth century camp, recorded by the Chinese at the
historic signing
of a treaty with the Tibetans, is shot through with mandala. Like all mandala,
we see
concentric circles revolving around a clear axis. This description suggests that
were practical protective enclosures. They also featured thresholds , gateways
successive enclosures, with guardians mediating each gateway. The date (around
CE) puts the mandala - camp on the cusp of Buddhism encroachment on Tibet and
speculation about how deeply rooted mandalaic thinking is in Tibet. Regardless
of the
origins of mandalas, there is a direct connection between a military protective
space, and
the spiritual one of mandala.
"A mandala delineates a consecrated superficies and protects it from invasion by
disintegrating forces," wrote the 11th century sage Abhayakaragupta, an Indian
revered by Tibetans. A demarcation between sacred and profane space, order and
is clear throughout mandala iconography. Even the most simplistic renditions of
manifest this concept (see IX). In line drawings of mandala from Tibet and even
China, there often are circular patterns of lines embedded in more intricate,
patterns. Beyond the outermost rings of this mandala is a jumble of disordered,
undulating lines, in sharp contrast to the mandala itself, which is comprised of
geometry. A mandala can be a systematic representation of other elements of
values, including as deities, talismans, animals, symbols, and buildings. A
integrates these diverse elements into an ordered matrix.
In some representations, the entire spectrum of life can be captured in mandala,
it is in thebhavachakr a (see VIII), or the wheel of life . In typical
mandalas, Yama, the lord of death, is depicted as holding the mandala. Yamas
is symbolic of the inexorablity of time and process, the inescapability of
cause and
effect. Upon closer examination, it seems to me that it is equally likely that
the mandala
is pinning him down. At any rate, Yama, who moonlights as dharmapala, is clearly
the outside, in profane space, while the six phases of life are on the inside of
the mandala. In the center, the axis of the mandala is nirvana, liberation from
the wheel of life. The best example of the break between order and disorder that
I saw was in the
three dimensional mandala on display at the museum in the Potala Palace (see
Figure 2,
bottom right). In reality, all mandalas are three dimensional. Given enough
an adept practitioner can visualize their true nature. The Potala mandalas,
cast in bronze, were extruded into three dimensions for the benefit of common
Although there were no guardians in sight, one of the mandalas depicted hordes
wraiths, ghosts, demons, and other unpleasant creatures dancing on the periphery
of the
mandala. They could not enter; their dark revelry ceased at the boundary of
The disc of the mandala marked a disjunction between two distinct conceptions of
Mandalas create a polarity between protected and unprotected space (see Figure
bottom left), between sacred and profane, divine and demonic, order and chaos,
and wild. It is possible to extend this polarity in several other dimensions,
such as
between heaven and earth, stillness and motion, passive and active, or masculine
feminine. The polarity that is set up between mandala and non-mandala space is
to understanding the nature of the worlds that guardians stand in between. With
one foot
in mandala space, and one foot outside of mandala, they are truly between
worlds. It is
these worlds that one crosses between when stepping over the threshold.
In most cases, the polarity of mandala is not discrete (see Figure 2). A mandala
is a set of nested concentric layers, and each layer is a progression towards
the center,
which represents one extreme of the polarity. As one moves inward in a mandala,
progresses in discrete increments towards sanctity, order, passivity, divinity,
or heaven,
rather like ascending a stepladder. The concept of incremental progression is
the where
guardians become paramount in mandala. Guardian deities stand watch over the
points, the thresholds , between the different levels of mandala. As Ray
comments the
integration and hierarchical arrangement of [the mandalas] terrible deities
[indicates] not
only their fundamental importance to the Tantric process of transformation, but
also to
the different stages of awareness bound up within this process." The guardian
directly catalyze the transition between different levels. You must pass through
guarded by them in order to pass to the next level. This is our first glimpse,
then, of the
transformative capacity of guardianship in Tibet. By fiercely attending to
points, the guardian not only denotes the junction between different levels of
sanctity, but
also facilitates the transition. Guardians change the untamed, disordered world
to the
consecrated space of mandala.
The notion of mandala-space has broad application in Tibet, particularly with
respect to temples. The famous temple of Samye was explicitly erected as a
fashioned after Odinpuri temple in Bihar (in Northern India). Samye was built by
first major king of Tibet, Trisong Detsen, and has many of the features and axes
mandala. In the Tibetan view, Samye had the symbolic significance of the sacred
(mandala) enclosing the temple palace and the supreme divinity at the core of
universe. The central axis of the mandala, the Utse, contains yet another set
of nested,
concentric layers and is a further extension of the principles of mandala to the
heart of
temple. The construction of the mandala-temple at Samye was a precedent for
subsequent construction of temples throughout Tibet.
All temples are to some extent a mandala: The buddhas and their divine
attendants with their stylized symbolic names were
conceived as coherent units in a kind of divine pattern or mystic circle
This pattern, usually drawn on the ground for the purpose of the rite, served as
means toward psychological reintegration of a suitably instructed pupil, who
received consecration from his master in the actual center of the diagram. In
some cases, temples were built asmandalas, thus serving as permanent places of
The organization of the Jokhang is very similar to the rendering of a cosmos as
appropriated by a mandala. In both structures, there are layers, and a central
figure or
axis. In the case of the Jokhang, the central axis is the deity Jowo, around
whom the
entire temple revolves. Pilgrims in their circumambulation around the periphery
during a
kora are quite literally in orbit around the center of the world.
An examination of the floorplans of temples all over Tibet makes it apparent
there is a close connection between mandala and temple. Both entail ordered,
layers of consecrated space, both are sacred demarcations from the world around
This symmetry between temple and mandala is clearly derived from a unified
concept of
cosmos appropriated both in the construction of temples and in the crafting of
Most important to our discussion is the presence of guardians at transitional
points of
both mandalas and temples.
I experienced these ideas first hand at the magnificent Gyantse Kumbum (see X),
located a day s journey south of Lhasa. This structure is at oncechor ten,
temple, and
mandala. From the nearby Gyantze Dzong (fort), from where you can look down on
temple and the entire valley, the Kumbum looks much like a squat chorten. At the
time, the roofline of the Kumbum has the nested geometric architecture of
mandala: if it
were somehow flattened, a mandalesque pattern would result. It is also clearly
temple, chock full of deities and altars. A visit to the Kumbum is in every
sense a
journey that engages mandalaic polarities. As you moveinwar d, or closer to
central axis,
you moveupwar d as well. There are drastic changes in the demeanor of the
deities as
you ascend. Guardians stand watch over the lower levels in hordes, while other
are enshrined at the higher levels. As in mandala, the guardians are peripheral,
watch over the levels closest to the profane, disordered worlds outside. As you
wind up
through the stairways of the Kumbum, in transit between discrete layers,
guardians again
make their ferocious appearance. Such stairways are transitional points between
levels of sanctity. The stairways are as interstitial as the threshold of
temples, and require
guardians to facilitate the transformation from one level to another.
Protective deities commonly appear at a few other special locations, such as on
the outer walls of a temple or monastery, or in the gonkhang. Typically, the
chapels are small dark, and otherworldly, tucked in one corner of an outer kora.
Set back
from the rest of the monastery, the atmosphere of the gonkhang is distinct from
the rest of
the temple. They are filled with a different lighting, a different paint scheme
(I noticed
walls of red or black), and a distinctly wrathful subset of deities. There are
also special
restrictions on who can enter. The gonkhang is in a world of its own. There is a
between the threshold and the gonkhang, both are set apart from the rest of
temple, both
are liminal, and both are the realm of guardian deities. Though the gonkhang is
located at an explicit spatial transition, it is located in the periphery. As we
shall see in
our later discussion, it has its own transformative function.
The positioning of guardian deities reflects the greater polarity of mandala
profane to sacred, from active to passive, wrathful to compassionate. Guardians
undoubtedly profane. They have demonic roots, and come equipped with unsavory
features such as freshly severed heads, corpses, and a horde of attendant
Furthermore, a defining feature of the guardian image is motion. The long, bold
that cross guardian images and sculptures facilitates the impression of motion.
guardian deities are captured in mid-stride, as if the guardian is in the
process of dancing.
Several other cues connote motion. The grain of a guardian s hair is swept back
away, almost as if thrown back by the fury of their dance. The ornate flames
that rage
behind the guardian seem to be reacting to the energy of the dancing deity,
flaring in
opposition to step of the dance. The fiery scrollwork and inlays that surround
them are
perhaps a reference to their wild and chaotic origins. Though the fire or cloud
behind them is highly ordered, I suggest that it is meant to leave the viewer
with a feeling
of disorder. Another feature that has a disorienting effect is the long,
undulating sash that
appears (typically in green) around many guardians. Its flowing line, while
constant between guardians, also alludes to chaos. If a temple is a mandala, it
sense that guardians who are active, demonic, wrathful, and profane creatures,
remain on
the periphery.
In contrast, towards the center of a temple, one is more likely to find calm,
peaceful imagery, figures that are passive, ordered, subdued, and divine. The
significance of motion can only be seen in contrast to other members of the
pantheon, most of them sitting peacefully, hands resting in comfortable mudras.
may be standing, or have a cocked head. Major deities, such as Padmasabhava,
or Tsongkhapa are subdued when compared to the guardian image, which is alive
consummate energy. Even the Dunhuang guardians are at best posturing; they
have the motion that characterizes Tibetan guardians.
The motion that is present in the guardian image suggests that they are active
deities; indeed, they create sacred space. Without the presence of guardians, a
consecrated space either in mandala or in temple cannot exist. Their very
converts an ordinary space into a sacred one. As in mandala, they need not be
present. Upon the many doorways and thresholds of Tibet, I saw myriad charms,
decorations, and ornamentation that invoked guardians. The presence of such
deities at
the threshold indicated a cognizance of the liminality of the threshold, and the
that occurred there. These protective designs included a mandala upon the
doorway, a
yak skull, or simply wrathful faces on the doorways (see XI, XII). Each home is
protected, sacred space, distinct from the profane world outside. Without
deities or markings that refer to them, there would be no difference between the
worlds. These ideas are intimately related both to the Indian conception of
threshold, as
well as to the Taoist kings (see XIII) who appear in tandem upon posters
throughout Han
Excepting the gonkhang, the placement of guardian deities is consistent with
of space in India and China. Consequently, we are left with a mystery: though
guardians appear in roughly the same marginal places as their counterparts at
and throughout India and China, they are iconographically distinct. How do we
for the divergent guardian image in Tibet?
One approach to this question is from a materialist viewpoint. In Tibet, perched
at 10,000 feet, life is difficult, particularly if you are a nomad, at the mercy
of the weather
and the seasons. On the vast high plains, unfurling above 15,000 feet, resources
which to live are scarce, to say nothing of desolation of western Tibet or high
Though Tibetan culture has beautifully evolved to thrive in its surroundings, a
might put together a story about how the perils of the Tibetan environment
engendered a
protective impulse. This impulse, perhaps tucked deep in human psyche, is
codified in Tibetan religion. To understand guardians, we might take a page from
early field anthropologist, Bronislaw Malinowski, who accounted for the
ritualistic magic
of the Trobriand Islanders by looking to the unexplained:
There is first the well known set of conditions....On the other hand, there is
domain of the unaccountable and adverse influences , as well as the great
unlearned increment of fortunate coincidence. The first conditions are coped
by knowledge and work, the second by magic.
According to Malinowski, the islanders dealt with forces over which they had no
such as the weather, by magic. Applying this logic, the Tibetans might confront
the harsh
reality of the landscape, the severe winters, roving bandits, and the
uncertainties of living
at high altitude by inventing guardian deities as protectors to tame the
landscape. In
such a model, the mythical weaponry, the wrathful countenance, and other aspects
of the
guardians are responses to Malinowski s unaccountable and adverse influences .
As a
kind of control, one might look to the caves of Dunhuang in Chinas Gansu
which contain many guardians that are explicit likenesses of military figures
(see XIV),
complete with armor, real weapons, and militaristic expressions. Though set in
desert, Dunhaung is a fertile oasis with trade routes that have flourished for
thousands of
years, and its landscape poses few threats. On other hand, its position at a
crossroads made it a ripe target for millennia of marauding barbarians, bandits,
and a
strategic prize for imperial armies. The military is the entity that the
citizens of Dunhuang
turned to for protection; consequently, it is not surprising that guardians of
lokpalas and dvarapalas look like soldiers and generals. The differences in
physical and
historical context may in part account for diverse manifestations of the same
office of guardian in Tibet and in Dunhuang. Nonetheless, I believe that
applying materialistic thinking to the guardians of Tibet only accesses a small
part of their story, the first layer upon our palimpsest of guardianship. The
Tibetan rendition of guardian deities goes farther than a simple response to
factors beyond Tibetan control. To visualize these underlying layers of
guardianship, we must look deeper at the Jokhang, not in space, but in time.
Throughout this essay, I have alluded to many iconographic elements that are
of the iconography of transformation. These include the activity and motion that
are part
of the guardian image as well as the wrathful visage of guardians. Many of these
features, help establish the link between guardians and temple patrons by
drawing the
viewer in. The long diagonals, brilliant color, and nested scrollwork are
examples of this
telescoping effect that captures the attention of the temple patron.
The eyes of guardian deities and protectors who are not located at the threshold
often are not directed at temple patrons. Instead, they are looking down and
away, fixed
on the task at hand, which is most often their impassioned dance on the back of
hapless victim. This image is still directed at the temple patron. We as temple
goers are
witnesses to the transformative, or subjugative, power of the guardian image.
connection between the guardian image can be modulated in the gonkhang, where a
sheet can veil the guardian statues, shielding the eyes of the pilgrims. In this
the horror of the guardian deities is only magnified by the imagination of the
The veil that hides guardians at the gonkhang suggests that the mechanism of
transformation that is operative on the temple patron is fear. Though many
Tibetans do
not directly admit that they are scared of the protectors that proliferate
Tibet, it is difficult
to imagine these images, which contain dead creatures torn limb from limb,
teeth and mystical weapons, as placid. Imagine the reaction of children,
uninitiated in
culture and the society of religion, to Tibetan guardians -- their reaction
cannot be
anything but fear. The guardians send almost universal messages of ferocity and
despite the philosophical protestations of the monks that I have talked to.
However, those
who are sacred and pure have nothing to fear, and therefore need not be scared
of the
wrathful deities. To those who follow Buddhist dharma, the guardians are welcome
friends. It is as if the guardians, with their penetrating eyes, are asking each
viewer a
difficult question: "What are you hiding that you should be afraid of me?" The
gaze of the guardian then, is the analog of yaksa s riddle. It is the guardian s
way of
testing the temple patron.
This interface between human and deity is at the crux of understanding the
wrathfulness that manifests itself in Tibetan guardians. I believe that the
faculty of the guardian image stands apart from most of Tibetan religious art.
mentioned before, central deities are often larger than life, and look off into
space. Their
attention is not directed at the temple patron. Their purpose is to establish a
sense of awe.
Another genre of Tibetan art depicts a process, a story, or an event. Other
images, such
as of Tsongkhapa or Padmasabhava, do establish connections with the viewer, but
on a
more serene level. Their gaze conveys peace and compassion. Still, I contend
guardian images are particularly designed to connect with the temple patron on
further counts. First, guardians are more mundane than most deities, and remain
accessible to the general Tibetan populace. Additionally, because they are more
mundane, they are placed on the periphery, and become the first deities the
temple goer
The logic of syncretism comes into focus. As I pointed out in the last section
guardian deities lend themselves to change because they are on the periphery,
and are
easily modified without affecting the core of a religion. However, if a religion
seeks to
remain connected with its people, it makes beautiful sense to put indigenous
elements on
the periphery because these are the deities who are familiar to the local
populace. With a
foot in both worlds of sacred and mundane (or profane), guardians are a bridge
to the local populace. Their position on the front lines of Buddhism is not to
be underestimated. The guardian deitys purpose is to remove obstacles to
Buddhism. The primary
traffic through the threshold is not the forces of nature, or hordes of local
gods. It is
simply a stream of temple goers. The enemies of the Buddha come packaged in the
hearts and minds of the temple pilgrims. These mundane, impure elements in
patrons constitute the primary threat to Buddhism, and it is against the profane
within each person that the guardians energy and ferocity are directed. If
these impure
elements are the vestiges of indigenous Tibetan tradition, guardians ease the
from this religion to Buddhism. The obstacles to Buddhism might also impious
and feelings, as well as ignorance. As pilgrims cross the threshold and survive
the gaze
of the guardians, they enter the temple changed for the better.
Thus nature of the transformation is symmetric with other transformations that
permeate guardianship in Tibet. In what has to be seen as a compassionate
gesture, the
pilgrims who enter the temple are not repelled, rather, they are allowed egress,
transformed. The many levels of transformations that are localized at the
guardian deity
all have one, common output via the connection with the temple patron. The
patrons are transformed along the exact axes of mandala: from profane to sacred,
to pure, passive to active, motion to stillness, feminine to masculine,
indigenous tradition
to Buddhist.
Transformation is the central thesis of Marilyn Rhies book, Worlds of
Transformation. She argues, through a series of beautiful images, that Tibetan
culture places great emphasis on personal evolution: during the last few
centuries, any Tibetan, even the unwashed, vicious bandit chief galloping around
in the mountains from victim to victim, could turn in his saddle and see a giant
buddha carved on a cliff...and be reminded of his own evolutionary potential and
the help everywhere available to him for achieving this.
The metaphors for evolution and journey have seeped through many aspects of
culture. Both mandala and temple are spatial representations of a reality that
progresses ,
and the pilgrimage as a journey and an evolution is an important motif in Tibet.
If we
accept Rhies argument, then guardian deities take on an entirely new
value. They stand watch over the difficult parts of the journey, over the
between stages, at transitional points. Thinking back to the Gyantse Kumbum, the
concept of a journey becomes a beautiful metaphor for enlightenment. If
is a driving force in Tibet, the prevalence of guardian deities makes sense.
It is eminently possible that my own Westernized viewpoint has led me astray.
To think of the guardian as menacing is a categorical mistake, my Tibetan
friends might
say, in part because their wrathful energy is not directed against Tibetan
people, but the
enemies to Buddhism. In this sense, they are friendly spirits who manifest
energy. Once again, perhaps the Tibetans view guardian deities like the owner of
dangerous Doberman might view his dog; a powerful, but essentially faithful
Still, I consider the problem of the perspective of their guardian images rather
It is a problem that has persisted in generations of scholars, and one that I
cannot avoid. I
can only see the guardians from my own context and go from there.
Even in Tibet, the opinion that one has of the guardian image is, like anything
else, contingent on history, perspective and position. In my discussions with
contemporary Tibetan monks, some of Western origin, I found that many of them
the wrathful energy of dharmapalas and dvarapalas as philosophical devices,
compassion through their wrathful energy. While such an interpretation might be
valid in
from a monastic standpoint, it is probably divergent from a nomad s view of the
image, or even a westerner that writes about them. Still, from each of these
points, I believe that the guardian image manifests transformation, whether it
is from
ignorance to enlightenment, from profane to sacred, or from demonic to divine.
Pehar:Major Gelug protector and Yidam. Originally was the guardian of Samye.
Princess Wencheng: The second wife of Songsten Gampo, and one of the major
players in the demoness subduing temple myth. Also known as Kong Jo in Tibetan.
Samye: A monastery built in the shape of mandala, after Odinpuri temple in
Bihar. Siva:Major Indian god is the destroyer, or transformer. The iconography
of Siva is important for thinking about guardian deities. Songtsen Gampo: Major
ninth century king of Tibet. His rule saw the maximum extent of Tibetan
influence in Central Asia. He presided over the Great Debate, and was
responsible for building the Jokhang Srin Mo: The name of a demoness is fabled
to have inhabited Tibet. The features of the demoness are deeply symbolic,
including ties to chthonic / telluric roots. Stupas:A Buddhist funerary or
commemorative mound. The architectural precursor for many extant Buddhist
architectural motifs, such aschor tens and temples. Terma:One of the oldest
lineages of Tibetan Buddhism Thankgas:Embroidered paintings of religious value,
typically depicting deities or important personages. Trandruk Monastery: One of
the demoness subduing temples located in the Yarlung Valley, built at the same
time as the Jokhang. Tsongkhapa:Also known as Je Rinpoche, a seminal teacher in
Tibetan Buddhism.
Vaisravana: Guardian of the north, king of the yaksas, and the god of wealth.
Vaikuntha:Heavenly abode of Vishnu.
Vajrapani:Boddhisatva, known for his Powerful Thunderbolt". He also appears as
protector, appearing in a characteristic blue and holding a thunderbolt.
Tib:Channan Dorje Vishnu:Major Hindu god who has many incarnations on earth.
Yaksas:A curious tutelary deity with ties to fertility and trees. These spirits
also were the iconographic basis for later Buddhist and Hindu art, including the
guardian image. Yarlung Valley: The cradle of Tibetan civilization, and the
location of some of her oldest structures. It is located about three hundred
kilometers to the southwest of Lhasa. Yumbulungang: The first castle of Tibet,
located in the Yarlung Valley. Yama:The Hindu god of death, who has been ported
to Tibet as a demon and guardian. Tib:Shinhe Yidam: Major tutelary deities in
Tibetan Buddhism, such as Pehar. Often have a wrathful iconography. Works
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Chicago Press. May 27, 1987. Getty, Alice.The Gods of Northern Buddhism; their
History, Iconography and Progressive Evolution through the Northern Buddhist
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Gyatso, Janet. "Down With the Demoness: Reflections on a Feminine Ground in
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Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion Publications, 1989. Hallade, Madeleine.Gandharan Art of
North India and the Graeco-Buddhist tradition in India, Persia, and Central
Asia.New York, NY: H.N.Abrams, 1968. Harvey, B. Peter.An Introduction to
Buddhism : Teachings, History, and Practices. New York, NY: Cambridge University
Press, 1990 Heidegger, Martin. Poetry, Language, Thought. Trans. Albert
Hofstadter New York, NY: Harper Row, 1975. Lansing, Stephen. Priests and
Programmers: Technologies of Power in the Engineered Landscape of
Bali.Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1991. Linrothe, Robert. Ruthless
Compassion: Wrathful Deities in early Indo-Tibetan Esoteric Buddhist Art.London
: Serindia Publications, 1999. Lopez, Donald.Buddhism in Practice. Princeton,
N.J. : Princeton University Press, 1995. Lopez, Donald.Religions of Tibet in
Practice. Princeton, N.J. : Princeton University Press, c1997. Madsen, William.
"Religious Syncretism". In Handbook of Middle American Indians, vol. 6 Austin,
TX: University of Texas Press, 1987. Marshall, John Hubert, Sir,The Buddhist Art
of Gandhara : The Story of the Early School, its Birth, Growth, and Decline. New

Delhi, India : Oriental Books Reprint Corp., 1980. Murthy, Krishna.Iconography

of Buddhist Deity Heruka. New Delhi, India: Sundeep Prakashan, 1988. de
Nebesky-Wojkowitz, ReneOracles and Demons of Tibet: The Cult and Iconography of
Tibetan Protective Deities. Gravenhange: Mouton, 1956. Pal, Pratapaditya.On the
Path To Void : Buddhist Art of the Tibetan Realm. Mumbai, India: Marg
Publications, 1996. Ray, Reginald A.Mandala Symbolism in Tantric Buddhism. PhD
Dissertation, University of Chicago, 1973. Rhies, Marylin M.Wisdom and
compassion : the sacred art of Tibet New York, NY: Abrams, 1991. Rhies, Marilyn.
Worlds in Transformation: Tibetan Art of Wisdom and Compassion. New York : Tibet
House in association with the Shelley and Donald Rubin Foundation : Distributed
by Harry N. Abrams, 1999. Ricard, Robert.The Spiritual Conquest of Mexico.
Trans. by Lesley Simpson. Berkeley, CA:University of California Press, 1966.
Snellgrove, David and Richardson, Hugh.A Cultural History of Tibet. New York, F.
A. Praeger, 1968. Stein, Rolf. "The Guardians of the Gate." FromMythologies, ed.
Yves Bonnefoy. Chicago, Il: University of Chicago Press, 1991. Pg 896-910.
Taylor, Chris. The Lonely Planet Guide to Tibet. Hawthorn, Australia: Lonely
Planet Publications 1995. Tucci, Giuseppe.The Theory and Practice of the
Mandala. trans. Alan Houghton Brodrick. London: Rider, & Co, 1961. Whitfield
Roderick.Dunhuang, Caves of the Singing Sands : Buddhist art from the Silk Road.
London, England: Textile & Art Pubs., 1995 Walshe, Maurice O C.Pathways of
Buddhist Thought: Essays from The Wheel. New York NY: Barnes & Noble, 1971. Van
Bemmel, Helena.Dvarapalas in Indonesia : Temple Guardians and Acculturation.
Rotterdam Brookfield, VT : Balkema, 1994. Van Oort, H. A..The Iconography of
Chinese Buddhism in Traditional China. London, England: E.J. Brill, 1986
Volkmann, Rosemarie. "The Genetrix/Progentress as the Exponent of the
Underworld." in .Female Stereotypes in Religious Traditions. ed. By Ria
Kloppenborg and Wouter J. Hanegraaff. Leiden, NY: E.J. Brill, 1995. Credits This
essay would not have happened without the kindness and help of many people.
Below are a few of the people who have major contributions to this project.
Advisors: Bernard Faure, Professor, Religious Studies Mark Mancall, Professor,
History Essay Feedback and Project Development: Hilton Obenzinger, Writing and
Critical Thinking Ardel Thomas, Writing and Critical Thinking Program Director:
Monica Moore, Interdisciplinary Program in the Humanities Paul Robinson,
Director, Interdisciplinary Program in the Humanities Traveling Partners: James
Russell, sophomore in Civil and Environmental Engineering
Liu Zhijun, doctoral student, South-Central Institute of Nationalities,
(Wuhan, China).
Translation and Lhasa Support: Qiong Da, postgraduate student, Central Institute
of Nationalities
(Beijing, China)
Tse Don, student, South-Central Institute of Nationalities,
(Wuhan, China)
Pema Chodring, Monk, Jokhang
(Lhasa, Tibet)
Tenzing, Innkeeper, Mandala Hotel.
(Lhasa, Tibet)
Dunhaung Support: Sha Wu-Tian, Staff Archeologist, (Dunhuang, China) Funding:
Richard Goldie
Laura Selznick, Director, Undergraduate Research Office
Institute for International Education
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