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Buddhist Art and Architecture: The Hill of Sanchi

The Hill of Sanchi is situated about 9 kilometres south-

west of Vidisha in Madhaya Pradesh, India. Crowning the
hilltop of Sanchi nearly 91 metres in height, a group of
Buddhist monuments commands a grand view even from
a distance. It is unique not only in its having the most
perfect and well-preserved stupas but also in its offering a
wide and educative field for the study of the genesis,
efflorescence and decay of Buddhist art and architecture
for a period of about thirteen hundred years, from the
third century B.C. to the twelfth century, A.D., almost
covering the whole range of Indian Buddhism. This is
rather surprising, for Sanchi was not hallowed by any
incident in Buddha's life; not is it known to have been the
focus of any significant event in the history of Buddhist
monachism. Hiuen Tsang, who so meticulously recorded
the details connected with Buddhist monuments, is silent
about it. The only possible reference to it is contained in
the chronicles of Sri. Lanka, according to which
Mahendra, son of Asoka and his queen Devi, daughter of
a merchant of Vidisa, (modern Besnagar near Bhilsa or
Vidisha) whom Asoka had married during his halt there
on his way to Ujjayani as a viceroy, is said to have visited
his mother at Vidisa, and the latter took him up to the
beautiful monastery of Vedisagiri built by herself.
Mahendra had stayed there for a month before he set out
for Sri Lanka.

The foundation of the great religious establishment at Sanchi destined to have a glorious career as an
important centre of Buddhism for many centuries to come, was probably laid by the great Maurya
emperor Asoka (circa 273-236 B.C.), when he built a stupa and erected a monolithic pillar here. In
addition to his marriage with a lady of Vidisa, the reason for his selection of this particular spot may be
due to the fact that the hilltop served as an ideal place for giving a concrete shape to the newly
aroused zeal for Buddhism in the emperor, who is said to have opened up seven out of the eight
original stupas erected over the body relics of Buddha and to have distributed the relics among
innumerable stupas built by himself all over his empire. By its quietude and seclusion ensuring a proper
atmosphere for meditation, combined with its proximity to the rich and populous city of Vidisa, Sanchi
fulfilled all the conditions required for an ideal Buddhist monastic life. The dedicatory inscriptions at
Sanchi unmistakably show that the prosperity of the Buddhist establishment here was, to a great
extent, due to the piety of the rich mercantile community of Vidisa. The nearness of the city, the (1 of 4)5/17/2008 3:11:21 PM

Buddhist Art and Architecture: The Hill of Sanchi

strategic situation of which - at the confluence of two rivers, the Betwa and the Bes, as well as on two
important trade routes resulted in a great overflow of wealth, was in no small measure responsible for
the flourishing condition of Sanchi even when the empire of the Mauryas was a thing of the past.

After a temporary setback following the break-up of the Maurya empire, when the stupa of Asoka was
damaged, the cause of the Buddhist establishment of Kakanaya was taken up with a feverish zeal by
the monks and the laity alike, not a negligible percentage of the latter being formed by visitors of Vidisa
for trade and other purposes. The religious fervour found its expression in vigorous building activity
about the middle of the second century B.C., during which the Sungas were ruling and which saw the
stone encasing and enlargement of the stupa of Asoka, the erection of balustrades round its ground,
berm, stairway and harmika, the reconstruction of Temple 40 and the building of Stupas 2 and 3. The
same intense religious aspiration and creative forces continued unabated in the next century as well,
when, during the supremacy of the Satavahanas, new embellishments, in the form of elaborately-
carved gateways, were added to Stapas 1 and 3. See below gateways pillar relief.

The political vicissitude which northern India went through

immediately before and after the Christian era, when the
Scytho-Parthians and Kushans invaded and annexed a
large part of the land, had perhaps its repercussions at
Sanchi as well, resulting in a slackening of structural
activities. The establishment of a foreign power in the
Malwa region under the Kshatrapas, engaged in chronic
warfare, hardly provided any incentive for the dormant
workshop. However, like the contemporary Buddhist
centres of north and south-east India, Sanchi freed itself,
during the period, from the earlier aniconic tradition, but its
contribution to the evolution of the image of Buddha was
nil, and it depended for such images on imports from

After a prolonged period of stagnation and lassitude under

the Kashtrapas, there was a revival of sculptural activity at
Sanchi during the reign of the Guptas who, after
conquering the Kshatrapas (circa A.D. 400), provided
peace and prosperity essential for the growth of artistic
pursuits. The discovery a few images in Mathura,
sandstone executed in the early Gupta tradition, proves
that Mathura continued, even in the fourth century A.D., to
meet the demand of the clientele of Sanchi. But soon
afterwards the local art of Sanchi once more came to the
fore, and to this period belong the four images of Buddha
seated under canopies against the berm of Stupa 1 facing the four entrances. But even in the best
days of the Guptas the figures of Buddha from the ateliers of Sanchi fell short, in standard and number
of their counterparts at such Buddhist centres as Sarnath.

The Gupta period, which ushered in a new epoch in the history of Indian temple-architecture, saw at (2 of 4)5/17/2008 3:11:21 PM

Buddhist Art and Architecture: The Hill of Sanchi

Sanchi as well as resuscitation of structural activity. In Temple 17 which has withstood the ravages of
time, we find one of the earliest Gupta temples noted for their well-balanced proportion, restraint in
ornamentation and elegance.

After the glorious days of the Guptas centrifugal forces became once more rampant. And then came
the shock of the Hana invasions, which resulted in the seizure of a large part of western and central
India by that tribe. But that occupation was short lived, to be shattered by Yasodharman's victory over
their chief Mihirakula in the first half of the sixth century.

On the ashes of the Gupta empire rose a number of small kingdoms, none of which was powerful
enough to bring any large part of India under its aegis, till Harshavardhana (A.D. 606-647) achieved
some sort of political unity in northern India. His espousal of the cause of Buddhism brought a fresh
lease of life to that religion. The vestiges of the seventh and eighth centuries, which saw at Sanchi the
building of several monasteries and temples, reveal a prosperous condition of the Buddhist community
at the place. The number of the images of Buddha made during the period was fairly considerable;
executed in late Gupta tradition, they, however, lack the charm and grace of their prototypes and are
almost lifeless and mechanical.

After the death of Harsha, northern India once, more became a prey to the ambitions of different
dynasties. The Pratiharas, who had established themselves in the Malwa region by the eighth century,
were followed by the Paramaras in the next century. But Sanchi seems to have been hardly affected by
these political changes, as the existence of a number of medieval monasteries and temples testifies to
a period of continued prosperity. Temple 45, for example, which is now a mere shell bereft of its
original splendour, has the same architectural pompousness and exuberance of decoration as would
characterise the contemporaneous north Indian architecture. From the find of such images like
Vajrasattva and Marichi, it is abundantly clear that Vajrayana did extend its roots here as well.

It is not known how end came to the Buddhist establishment at Sanchi. No Buddhist monument can be
assigned to the thirteenth century A.D. on the other hand, to this period belong a number of
Brahmanical plaques containing representations of Vishnu, Ganega, Mahishasuramardini, etc. We do
not know if the Buddhists deserted the place or gradually lost their vital forces to maintain their
individuality thus succumbing to the all absorbing force of Brahmanism, which was one of the potent
causes of the extinction of Buddhism in the land of its birth.

Exploration and Preservation

View of Stupa 3 with carved gateway 1st Century A.D.

The relics of Sariputra and Maha Moggalana, the two
foremost disciples of the Buddha, were found by Colonel
Cunningham in 1851 in this stupa, enshrined at the centre
of at the centre of the dome on the level of the terrace. (3 of 4)5/17/2008 3:11:21 PM

Buddhist Art and Architecture: The Hill of Sanchi

From the fourteenth century onwards, Sanchi was left deserted and unnoticed, till in the year 1818
General Taylor brought it to public attention by discovering its ruins, of which he found Supas 1, 2 and
3 intact. The great interest which this discovery created accounts to a large extent for the immense
damages suffered by the monuments at the hands of amateur archaeologists and treasure-hunters. In
1822, Captain Johnson, Assistant Political Agent in Bhopal, opened up Stupa 1 from top to bottom on
one side, thus leaving a great breach which resulted in the collapse of the. West Gateway and a part of
the enclosing balustrade. Stupa 2 was also partially destroyed. Alexander Cunningham, together with
Captain F. C. Maisey, excavated Stupas 2 and 3 in 1851 and found relic caskets within. They also sank
a shaft at the centre of Stupa 1, which, however, failed to yield any relies. These operations coupled
with the depredations of villagers and the growth of vegetation, wrought havoc to the stupas. The pillar
of Asoka was broken into pieces by a local zemindar to be utilized as a sugarcane press.

The question of repairs and preservation was not, at all considered till 1881, when Major Cole took up
the work in right earnest and succeeded, in the course of the next three years, in clearing off
vegetation, filling in the breach in the dome of Stupa 1, setting up its fallen West and South Gateways
and a part of its railing and restoring the gateway in front of Stupa V. The other monuments, however,
were left uncared for and no attempt was made to expose the structures lying buried under debris. This
work was later on undertaken creditably by Sir John Marshall, Director General of Archaeology in India,
who, between the years 1912 and 1919, brought the monuments to their present condition. His work
entailed a large-scale clearance of jungle, excavation and thorough conservation of the edifices, which
included the complete dismantling and rebuilding of the south-west quadrant of Stupa 1, setting up of
its balustrades and erection of the crowning members, reconstruction of the dome, balustrade and
crowning members of Stupa 3, resetting of the out-of-plumb pillars of Temple 18 repairs to the
perilously decayed Temple 45, rebuilding of the retaining wall between the Main Terrace and Eastern
Area, re-roofing and repairs of Temples 17, 31 and 32 and provision of an effective drainage. The site
was next turfed and Planted with trees and flowering creepers. A small museum was also built to house
the loose antiquities found in the course of these operations. (4 of 4)5/17/2008 3:11:21 PM

Buddhist Art and Architecture: The Buddha Image

Canon of the Physical Proportions of a Great Being

The image of Buddha, who was called The Greatest Yogin of all Times, expresses serene quiescence.
The harmony of his physical proportions is the expression of great beauty. The required measurements
are laid down in the canon (or standard pattern) of Buddhist art, which corresponds to ideal physical
proportions. The span is the basic measure, i.e. the distance from the tip of the middle finger to the tip of
the thumb of the outspread hand. This distance corresponds to the space between the dimple in the
chin and the hair-line. Each span has twelve finger-breadths. The whole figure measures 108 finger-
breadths or 9 spans corresponding to the macro-micro-cosmic harmony measurements.

The perfect proportions of a Buddha, the graciousness of his physical form, represent one of the ten
qualities or powers of a Buddha. They are the characteristics of the physical harmony and beauty of a
Great Being, and are described in Story of the Life of Buddha Shakyamuni. There are thirty-two major
and eighty minor characteristics. The lines of the eight-spoked on the soles and palms of a Buddha are
among them. The appearance and the measurements of a Buddha are perishable and a worldly
conception: they describe the ideal picture of a Heavenly Body. They are not subject to change like
growth, sickness and death, which can only affect the earthly incarnation of a Buddha.

Examining the canon of the body of a Buddha, one realises that every detail represents harmonious
proportions. Everything, the spot between the eyebrows, marking the eye of wisdom, as well as the tip
of the nose, has its own special place. The nose has its specific length, just as the ears have their own
characteristically exaggerated length. The symbol of a Buddha's greatest enlightenment is the so-called
enlightenment-elevation on the top of the head, described in old texts as that which emerges out of the
head of an enlightened saint. It is the visible symbol of the spiritual generative power that strives (1 of 2)5/17/2008 3:12:52 PM

Buddhist Art and Architecture: The Buddha Image

towards heaven and passes into the immaterial sphere.

The ideal proportions of any image of the Buddha are described in books on iconography. The canonic
prototype shows the seated Buddha with his legs crossed and the soles of his feet visible. This yoga-
posture has a pre-Buddhist tradition in India, appearing for the first time on the seals of Mohenjodaro in
the third millennium BC. This yoga-posture hides the lower part of the body. The broad shoulders are
emphasised in early Buddhist sculptures of Mathura. These characteristics, and the slightly almond eye
of Buddha Sakyamuni, hint at his descent from the Licchavi clan, related to the Proto-Tibetans by
kinship and blood. Before the final domination of the Indo-Europeans, these Licchavis ruled in northern
India and the Himalayan regions. Their principalities had democratic constitutions with equal rights and
no discrimination of sex or race. Buddhism and its founder must be considered on the basis of this
social structure which is confirmed in the oldest texts as well as in the modern Oxford History of India.

Physical Marks

Ushnisha, the Enlightenment Elevation above the fontanelle; is the flame-topped elevation on the head
of the Buddha, defined as that which emerges from the head of a Fully Enlightened One.

Urna, the mark in the centre of the forehead, called the Eye of Wisdom, also depicted as a Bundle of
Rays or fine hairs between the eyebrows.

The lower part of the body is covered by the Diamond-Seat (Vajrasana). This is the meditation pose
(Dhayanasana) of utmost concentration with the legs crossed so that the soles are visible.

The Subtle Energy-Spheres of the Body

The Enlightenment-Centre, the Top of the Head or fontanelle above the upper cerebrum, called Sphere
of the Thousand-petalled Lotus (SAHASHRARA-CAKRA).

The cerebral centre of thinking and conscious-power, called Command-Centre (AJNA-CAKRA), the
forehead between the eyebrows; ascribed to lotus-centre.

The guttural centre or subtle Sphere of Speech (VISHUDDHA-CAKRA) at the base of the throat.

The cardiac plexus, the emotional Sphere of the Inner Voice (ANAHATA-CAKRA), called the Source of the
Heart, situated in the central region of the thorax or chest.

The solar plexus with the gastric plexus, called `the brain of the belly', Fiery-lustrous or Navel-Centre
(MANIPURA- CAKRA) in the region of the loins and connected with the lumbar plexus.

The sacral plexus, called Root-Centre (MULADHARA-CAKRA) or Secret Place, being the root of all streams
of vital energy (NADIS) in the region of the rump-bone or sacrum.

The human body is the receptacle of the power of thinking described as a bundle of energy and
pervaded by the so-called breath of life flowing in subtle streams throughout the body. (2 of 2)5/17/2008 3:12:52 PM

Buddhist Art and Architecture: Borobodur Temple

Buddhist marvel of stone standing in the garden of Java, Indonesia

The Borobodur Temple complex is one of the greatest monuments in the world. It is of uncertain age,
but thought to have been built between the end of the seventh and beginning of the eighth century A.D.
For about a century and a half it was the spiritual centre of Buddhism in Java, then it was lost until its
rediscovery in the eighteenth century.

The structure, composed of 55,000 square meters of lava-rock is erected on a hill in the form of a
stepped-pyramid of six rectangular storeys, three circular terraces and a central stupa forming the
summit. The whole structure is in the form of a lotus, the sacred flower of Buddha. (1 of 3)5/17/2008 3:12:08 PM

Buddhist Art and Architecture: Borobodur Temple

One of the ninety-two Dhyani Buddha statues enclosed in stupas

For each direction there are ninety-two Dhyani Buddha statues and 1,460 relief scenes. The lowest
level has 160 reliefs depicting cause and effect; the middle level contains various stories of the
Buddha's life from the Jataka Tales; the highest level has no reliefs or decorations whatsoever but has
a balcony, square in shape with round walls: a circle without beginning or end. Here is the place of the
ninety-two Vajrasattvas or Dhyani Buddhas tucked into small stupas. Each of these statues has a
mudra (hand gesture) indicating one of the five directions: east, with the mudra of calling the earth to
witness; south, with the hand position of blessing; west, with the gesture of meditation; north, the
mudra of fearlessness; and the centre with the gesture of teaching.

Devotional practice of circumambulate around the galleries and terraces.

Besides being the highest symbol of Buddhism, the Borobodur stupa is also a replica of the universe. It (2 of 3)5/17/2008 3:12:08 PM

Buddhist Art and Architecture: Borobodur Temple

symbolises the micro-cosmos, which is divided into three levels, in which man's world of desire is
influenced by negative impulses; the middle level, the world in which man has control of his negative
impulses and uses his positive impulses; the highest level, in which the world of man is no longer
bounded by physical and worldly ancient desire.

It is devotional practice to circumambulate around the galleries and terraces always turning to the left
and keeping the edifice to the right while either chanting or meditating. In total, Borobodur represents
the ten levels of a Bodhisattva's life which he or she must develop to become a Buddha or an
awakened one. (3 of 3)5/17/2008 3:12:08 PM

Buddhist Art and Architecture: Symbolism of the Stupa / Chorten

The perfect proportions of the Buddha’s body corresponds to the design of religious monuments. Its
architecture developed from the pre-Buddhist Indian grave-mound. Under these mounds the saintly
ascetic were buried; their bodies were seated on the ground and covered with earth. These dome-
shaped graves, or tumuli, of the saints were regarded as holy places. And were destinations for
pilgrimage for the devotional and places of practice for meditators. (1 of 3)5/17/2008 3:13:25 PM

Buddhist Art and Architecture: Symbolism of the Stupa / Chorten

Ruwanweliseya, or the "Great Stupa", above, is regarded as the most important of the stupas at
Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka. Standing at 300 feet, it is the oldest but smallest of the three giant edifices in
brick in the world. The stupa, decorated by coral brought from the Mediterranean by an envoy of the Sri
Lankan king who had an audience with the Roman Emporer Caesar Augustus, was restored by
successive rulers. The stupa built by King Duttugamunu, is surrounded by an elephant wall, a restored
design of an earlier expression. This design has been repeated in Thailand, Burma, and other countries
where Buddhism was taught by monks from Sri Lanka.

Tibetan Style Chortens

The basic structure of a Chorten consist of a square foundation symbolizing the earth, a dome
symbolizing water, and thirteen tapering steps of enlightenment symbolizing the element of fire. These
steps lead to a stylized parasol, the symbol of wind, which is topped in the ethereal sphere by the well-
known ‘twin-symbol’ uniting sun and moon, which is the shimmering crown of the Chorten.

The Analogy with the Symbolism of the Stupa

The Seed of Highest Enlightenment, also depicted as a Tongue of Flame (Bindu) to be realized above
the double symbol crowning Chorten.

The double symbol (Surya Chandra) of Sun and Rising Moon is an emblem of the Twin-unity of the
Absolute Truth (of the sphere beyond normal comprehension) and the Relative Truth (of the worldly

The stylized Parasol (Chattra) symbolically giving protection from all evil.

The thirteen Steps of Enlightenment, i.e. the first ten Steps of Enlightenment (Dasha-Bhumi) and the
three higher levels of supraconsciousness (Avenika-smrityupashthana). (2 of 3)5/17/2008 3:13:25 PM

Buddhist Art and Architecture: Symbolism of the Stupa / Chorten

The dome, corresponding to the primeval mound, as Receptacle of Relics or offerings (Dhatu-Garbha);
the dome-line edifices of Old Indian Stupas were also called egg or water-bubble (Budbuda).

The base (Parishada) is square and four-stepped, its sides facing the four directions. Analogous to the
underworld. (3 of 3)5/17/2008 3:13:25 PM

Buddhist Art and Architecture: Symbolism of the Mandala

There are various forms of mandalas with distinct concepts and different purposes. The individual
representations range from the so-called Cosmic Mandalas, which transmit the ancient knowledge of the
development of the universe and the world-systems which represents a high point among Mandalas
dedicated to meditation; to the Mandalas of the Medicine Buddha which demonstrates how the Buddha-
power radiates in all directions, portraying the healing power of the Buddha.

The symbolism of meditation Mandalas has a rich tradition. The outer form of these so-called holy
circles is a geometrical diagram, a Yantra, and each detail of its construction has symbolic meaning.
The essence or purpose of the Mandala is concerned with the process of invocation, the calling in and
realization of the spiritual force within the contemplator himself. All these different picture-tools have
essentially the same inner meaning and purpose, but there are mandalas to suit all levels of
consciousness: for the spiritually highly developed, for average people and for people not yet
developed. (1 of 3)5/17/2008 3:14:34 PM

Buddhist Art and Architecture: Symbolism of the Mandala

The Cosmic Mandala

The Cosmic Mandala is encompassed by a flaming circle. At the Centre is a three-footed spiral
symbolizing a first movement, surrounded by rotating wind which condenses into so-called basic
elements, representing the states of aggregation: Wind or Air stands for the gaseous state; Fire is
usually depicted as a red triangle and stands for transformation; Water for liquid, represented by a half-
circle or circle; Earth for solid matter, symbolized by a yellow square or cube. The emerging forms of the
elements are painted in the blue ring surrounding the Centre, in the lower sphere intimating the world-
continents to be. The blue Ether represents the all pervading condition, the source of all elements filling
the space of the Mandala. On it circles are drawn; looking like ellipses in their dynamic intersection, they
portray the orbits of celestial bodies, painted in all the colours of the rainbow plus black and white and
indicating the directions. These twelve astrological circles of the upper sphere demonstrate the
movements of sun, moon and stars in the seasons.

Tibetan monks constructing a festival mandala with sand and the

dust of precious stones. After the festival the mandala will be
destroyed, thus expressing the insubstantiality of visible forms.

See The Kalachakra Mandala - the Wheel of Time Sand Mandala and His Holiness the Dalai Lama's
explanation of the practice in the Kalachakra Initiation. (2 of 3)5/17/2008 3:14:34 PM

Buddhist Art and Architecture: Symbolism of the Mandala

Traditionally the Kalachakra Initiation has been a closely guarded secret and the viewing of the mandala
forms the culmination of a twelve day initiation ritual for Tibetan Buddhist practitioners. However, the
Dalai Lama, recognizing the many misconceptions surrounding Tibetan Buddhist practice, began
presentations of the Kalachakra Sand Mandala to the general public as a cultural offering. (3 of 3)5/17/2008 3:14:34 PM

Buddhist Art and Architecture: Hand Mudras

Hand Mudras - Symbols of Deeper Meaning

The symbolic gestures of the hands of Buddha images, called mudras, are picture tools of
identification of deeper meaning:

The Gesture of Teaching (Dharmacakra Mudra) with both hands in front of the breast,
tips of the index finger and the thumps touching. (1 of 5)5/17/2008 3:13:59 PM

Buddhist Art and Architecture: Hand Mudras

The Gift bestowing Gesture of Compassion (Varada Mudra) the right hand pendant
with the palm turned outwards.

The Gesture of Meditation (Samadhi Mudra) with both hands resting on the lap, palms
upwards. (2 of 5)5/17/2008 3:13:59 PM

Buddhist Art and Architecture: Hand Mudras

The Gesture of Fearlessness (Abhaya Mudra) the right hand slightly elevated, the palm
turned outwards, also called the Gesture of Renunciation.

The Gesture of Debate explaining the Buddha’s teachings (Vitaka Mudra) with the hands
raised and the tips of the forefingers and the thumbs touch each other. (3 of 5)5/17/2008 3:13:59 PM

Buddhist Art and Architecture: Hand Mudras

The Gesture Warding off Evil (Tarjani Mudra) with forefinger and little finger

The Gesture of Prayer (Namaskara Mudra) with the palms folded together. (4 of 5)5/17/2008 3:13:59 PM

Buddhist Art and Architecture: Hand Mudras

The Gesture Beyond Misery (Buddha-Shramana Mudra) also called an ascetic’s

Gesture of Renunciation.

The Gesture of Warding off Evil (Bhutadamara Mudra) this is a protection gesture. (5 of 5)5/17/2008 3:13:59 PM

Buddhist Art and Architecture: Tibetan Buddhist Art

For a Buddhist, beginning the journey along the road to enlightenment commences with the first
understanding of the possibility of realising our Buddha nature. It is only when we fully understand this
possibility of evolution into a higher being and discover the need to visualise our inner potential that we
see the necessity for the development of an art form which matches our aspirations. In the religious arts
of the world’s many and diverse cultures, few have provided as wide a canvas as the Tibetan on which
to project visualisations of the vast range of possible aspects of the enlightened mind.


The Buddha’s task as a teacher could not even begin until works of art had opened the people’s
imagination to the revelation of new perceptions. So we find that in
the Buddhist scriptures almost every discourse is preceded by some
sort of miracle, some dramatic revelation of an extraordinary
perception to stimulate the people’s imaginations. After the Buddha’s
death those who knew him began to make icons of his liberating
presence, although at first it was considered that no human
representation could do justice to his memory, so that symbols such
as the wheel (of the Law), or the trees (of spiritual enlightenment)
were used.

By the time Buddhism came to Tibet in the seventh century AD,

however, the artistic expression of the Mahayana, or Universal
Vehicle, had reached considerable heights of inspiration. Sakyamuni
Buddha, various cosmic Buddhas, magnificent female and male
Bodhisattvas, all were portrayed in splendid paradise-like settings.
And with the development of Tantric Buddhism the archetypal
imagery went more deeply into the unconscious mind to uncover
other enlightening possibilities, both terrifying and benign.

The earliest surviving Tibetan images date from the ninth century AD, and from that time until the
present a wealth of magnificent painting and sculpture survives which has served both as the focus of
meditation visualisations for many generations of Buddhist adepts, as well as educational illustrations for
ordinary Tibetan people. Tragically, since the Chinese occupation began in 1949, many thousands of
temples with their splendid wall paintings and magnificent sculptures have been destroyed, so that today
there are probably many more beautiful Tibetan works of art in Western museums and private
collections than presently exist in Tibet.

Painting (1 of 5)5/17/2008 3:15:20 PM

Buddhist Art and Architecture: Tibetan Buddhist Art

Magnificent examples of Tibetan temple wall paintings still exist, however, both in Tibet itself
(Tsaparang, the Gyantse Kumbum), in the Tibetan cultural areas of Indian Ladakh Alchi), and Himachal
Pradesh (Tabo), in Nepal (Mustang) and in Bhutan (Paro Dzong).

However, the painting medium best known

outside Tibet is the thangka, or scroll painting.
Usually painted on cotton cloth, more rarely on
silk, colours are traditionally made from
minerals as well as vegetable dyes. Before
application they are de-saturated in varying
degrees in lime and mixed with boiled gum
Arabic. These ‘stone’ colours maintain their
intensity so well that many old thangkas still
retain striking colours. Today, Tibetan artists
also use modern synthetic dyes.

Thangkas are traditionally mounted in frames of

silk brocade with a pole or batten at the top and
bottom so that it can be easily hung. Since it is
also easily rolled up, the thangka can be stored
away or readily transported from once place to
another. Itinerant lamas used them as icons of
personal devotion and to sanctify tents in which they held teachings of Buddhist doctrine. They are also
used as effective teaching aids. In most Tibetan homes the thangka, together with small bronze images,
is an integral part of the family altar and a vehicle of visual dharma.

Manuscripts also are often adorned with miniature paintings, as are their wooden covers, and sets of
initiation cards, called tsakali, which are another medium of miniature painting.


Metal, clay, stucco, wood, stone, and butter are all used in the creation of sculptural images, yet by far
the best known of these is metal, since small, portable, bronze images of a great variety of meditation
deities are most frequently encountered. Nevertheless, clay and stucco have been used since ancient
times, particularly in the creation of very large images installed in monasteries and temples. Wood is
also widely used, intricately carved for entrances to temples and for interior pillars and in covers for
scriptures in monastery libraries.

Most portable images, however, are made from metal, usually bronze, but occasionally silver or gold.
Bronzes are usually made by the ‘lost wax process’, where a wax image is created, then coated with a
clay based mould which is subsequently baked allowing the wax to melt and drain away, replacing it
with molten metal. The finished image is often then gilded and adorned with precious and semi precious
stones. Metal images are also sometimes made by the repousse method, where copper, or less
commonly silver or gold, is hammered out into the required shape from `the reverse side.

Works of art are usually commissioned, either by monasteries or lay patrons, and their execution (2 of 5)5/17/2008 3:15:20 PM

Buddhist Art and Architecture: Tibetan Buddhist Art

generally follows strict canonical rules as to proportions, symbols and colours, in accordance with artistic

Tibetan art is largely anonymous, and this custom of artistic anonymity is grounded in the Buddhist
belief in working toward the elimination of the individual ego. The Tibetan attitude to a work of art is that
when it is successfully completed it has an existence of its own and an inherent power to help the viewer
come to spiritual realisation. It ceases to be the property of the artist when it leaves his studio.

Form and Function

The form given to a painted or sculpted image follows a clear and well defined iconography set out in
the appropriate texts, whilst artists’ manuals illustrate the strict measures to be observed in achieving
correct proportion and balance. The Tibetan artist, like his Indian counterpart, is not free to improvise on
his personal concepts of the appearance of an individual deity but is required to work within a well
defined structure. In the tantric art of Tibetan Buddhism, benign, wrathful, serene or terrifying deities all
illustrate an aspect of the Buddha mind, or the potential to be found in each of us, so that the artist
projects for us archetypal images from deep within our subconscious, inviting us to contemplate those
aspects of our being which usually remain hidden. For the meditation practitioner, such images are
models for the process of visualisation, where the adept develops the ability, through stabilised
concentration and cultivated inner vision, to visualise the deity in all its phenomenal detail and then
absorb this vision into him/herself and so absorb the spiritual qualities particular to that deity.

Butter Sculptures

These are a complex and uniquely Tibetan concept and are usually constructed by teams of monks for a
festival or religious event.

They are not entirely made from butter, however, being constructed on frames of wood and leather, to
which are applied barley flour and butter dough. They are then painted. Some were truly gigantic being
as high as a three storey building. After the ceremony they are destroyed. In this they are like sand
mandalas such as the well known Kalachakra Sand Mandala, painstakingly constructed over many days
from different coloured grains of sand before being swept away at the end of the ceremony. The
symbolism behind the destruction of such works is based on the illusory nature of things, even those we
cherish most.

Decorative Arts and Crafts

Although Tibet had no political ties with China after the end of the Yuan Dynasty (mid 14th century),
there were nevertheless frequent visits of monks and lamas to China from the great Tibetan
monasteries. This enhanced trade between the two countries and added greatly to the monasteries’
wealth, at the same time providing a channel through which cultural and artistic influences enriched
Tibetan life. (3 of 5)5/17/2008 3:15:20 PM

Buddhist Art and Architecture: Tibetan Buddhist Art

Silk brocades and richly worked robes, pearls and precious

stones, ritual vessels and incense burners, gilt images and
lacquered goods, all found their way into the homes of the
aristocracy and into the monasteries. Tibetans produced
earthenware, often of fine quality, but porcelain from China,
especially since the Ming period, was also highly prized.

The Tibetan love of exuberant decoration resulted in everyday

items being produced with wonderful embellishments. Nearly
every item used by Tibetans was fashioned in this highly
decorative way. Ink pots, tinder pouches, knives, teapots,
storage vessels, all were decorated lavishly in characteristic

Tibetan artisans are skillful people, and they have long

produced large quantities of ornate and intricate silver and gold
jewellery, often set with coral, turquoise and other precious
stones. Carpet weaving for domestic and monastic use is
another ancient craft, and carpets are popular products from
refugee communities even today.

Carved and painted wooden tables and cabinets are still in high demand as are silver lined wooden
bowls for butter tea. Crafts and decorative arts enormously enriched Tibetan life and penetrated all
levels of society.

The Arts in Exile

In Dharamsala, the Centre for Tibetan Art and Crafts was established in 1977 under the auspices of His
Holiness the Dalai Lama’s Charitable Trust. Its primary purpose is not only to preserve essential areas
of the endangered Tibetan culture but to inspire fresh enthusiasm and creativity in Tibetan artistic

Selection of students is made on the basis of both aptitude and economic background with priority given
to those applicants who are particularly needy. Most of the crafts produced are exported through the
offices of the Charitable Trust.

The Library of Tibetan Works and Archives (LTWA) was established in Dharamsala in 1971 as a
repository for ancient cultural objects, books and manuscripts from Tibet. LTWA now has eight
departments: Research and Translation, Publications, Oral History and Film Documentation, Reference
(reading room), Tibetan Studies, Tibetan manuscripts, Museum, School for Thangka Painting and Wood
Carving. LTWA has a team of Tibetan scholars engaged in research, translation, instruction and the
publication of books.

Since its founding the Library has acquired a reputation as an international centre for Tibetan Studies.
To date, more than five thousand scholars and research students from all over the world have benefited (4 of 5)5/17/2008 3:15:20 PM

Buddhist Art and Architecture: Tibetan Buddhist Art

from this unique educational institution. LTWA also offers regular classes in Buddhist philosophy.

[ Text with kind permission from the Australian Tibetan Society Inc. ] (5 of 5)5/17/2008 3:15:20 PM

Buddhist Art: Tibetan Thangka Paintings

Traditional Hand Painted Thangka of Shakyamuni Buddha (1 of 6)5/17/2008 3:16:08 PM

Buddhist Art: Tibetan Thangka Paintings

Buddha Shakyamuni - click on images to enlarge - Vajrapani - Wrathful Deity

Intent, In Tents and Intense, by Ann Shaftel


The concept of Original Artistic Intent is difficult to apply to Tibetan thangkas. Thangkas are composite
objects produced by painters and tailors with differing intents, skills and training. Iconographic
specifications, regional and doctrinal differences in style, changes in form from harsh treatment and
altered mountings all complicate the issue.


A thangka is a complicated, composite three-dimensional object consisting of: a picture panel which is
painted or embroidered, a textile mounting; and one or more of the following: a silk cover, leather
corners, wooden dowels at the top and bottom and metal or wooden decorative knobs on the bottom

Can you say that there was an artist who had a prevailing artistic vision over the entire composition?
Rarely. Is the thangka which you are examining in your laboratory today in its original form? Probably


What is the purpose of a thangka, what use was it originally intended for? Thangkas are intended to
serve as a record of, and guide for contemplative experience. For example, you might be instructed by
your teacher to imagine yourself as a specific figure in a specific setting. You could use a thangka as a
reference for the details of posture, attitude, colour, clothing. etc., of a figure located in a field, or in a
palace, possibly surrounded by many other figures of meditation teachers, your family, etc..

In this way, thangkas are intended to convey iconographic information in a pictorial manner. A text of the
same meditation would supply similar details in written descriptive form.

Does the concept of artistic intent apply to thangkas? Only rarely do thangkas express the personal
vision or creativity of the painter, and for that reason thangka painters have generally remained
anonymous as have the tailors who made their mountings. This anonymity can be found in many other
cultures. (2 of 6)5/17/2008 3:16:08 PM

Buddhist Art: Tibetan Thangka Paintings

There are, however, exceptions to this anonymity. Rarely, eminent teachers will create a thangka to
express their own insight and experience. This type of thangka comes from a traditionally trained
meditation master and artist who creates a new arrangement of forms to convey his insight so that his
students may benefit from it. Other exceptions exist where master painters have signed their work
somewhere in the composition.

The vast majority of anonymously created thangkas, however, have taken shape as a scientific
arrangement of content, colour and proportion, all of which follow a prescribed set of rules. These rules,
however, differ by denomination, geographical region and style. The Conservator is left with the
responsibility of caring for religious objects that usually carry neither the names of the artists, nor
information about their technique, date or provenance. But we do know that the intent of the artist was to
convey iconographic information.

There is a vast amount of iconographic information provided in thangkas, some of it literally spelled out
for you. If you look closely, many thangkas spell identification of figures and scenes in formal and
delicately rendered scripts. In damaged sections of thangkas where paint layers are missing, letters
which indicate the master painter's choice of colour are sometimes visible. These letters were not
intended to be part of the final composition and should not be confused with the former. But given the
breadth and variety of the iconography of Indian and Tibetan Buddhism, it is virtually impossible to
extrapolate the information that would be required to fill in figures that are missing or to complete the
sacred objects that the figures hold in their hands. Where inpainting is required, the definition and
clarification of artistic intent is a complex issue.

Since even indigenous Tibetan scholars trained in the iconographic details of Buddhist deities generally
would not presume to know the iconography associated with every deity, it is unlikely that most
Conservators could guess the identity and details of unfamiliar figures. In this case, speculation as to the
artist's intent tends to be a particularly unrewarding strategy.

In the twenty five years during which I have been working with thangkas, I have chosen never to guess,
calculate or presume to identify missing iconographic facts. To do so would, in my experience,
contravene both the ethics that are required of professional Conservators and the integrity of the objects
that have been entrusted to us. Even a subtle change in colour alters the message of an icon.

For example, a particular shade of the colour green indicates effective activity, while a white often
indicates peacefulness and unassailable compassion. It is significant therefore if the same form of a
feminine figure is rendered in green or white.

Is the colour you see before you the colour which the artist intended for you to see? Sometimes water
damage (yak-hide glue is susceptible to water damage) washes away several fine layers of pigment on
final paint layers or shading layers. This damage exposes either underdrawing or flat colours which the
artist never wanted you to see. Although some details may be present, unless the artist has also left a
notation as to the specific colour (sometimes revealed by paint loss), an error would be made if the
Conservator were to reconstruct something in an inappropriate colour.

Often, a combination of water-damage, greasy butter lamp soot and smoky incense grit permanently
alters the original colours. Evidence of this is often seen at the edges where a mounting has protected
the original colours. (3 of 6)5/17/2008 3:16:08 PM

Buddhist Art: Tibetan Thangka Paintings

In Tents - How Tradition Contributed To Damage

Damage was particularly likely given the tendency of Tibetans to travel long distances in harsh
conditions. Thangkas were important articles of the tent culture of nomadic monastic groups in medieval
Tibet. It was not unusual for a group of scholars, yogins and priests to travel by yak to distant regions,
set up tents, unroll the thangkas and serve the local people by teaching before moving on to another

This was good for the people but intense for the thangkas! Rolling and unrolling was, and still is,
unavoidably damaging for thangkas. Rough handling and damp walls damaged both the paintings and
their mountings, in medieval Tibet and today as well. I have studied the handling of thangkas today in
existing traditional monastic settings. I was invited by the Abbot of a major monastery on the Tibetan
border to work with the monks on proper care and handling of their thangkas. During the year, according
to religious holidays of the lunar cycle, specific thangkas are removed from storage, unrolled, hung up in
damp and smoky shrine halls, and then taken down, stacked for rerolling and placed back in storage.
Storage consisted of airless tin trunks designed to protect thangkas from rodents. The trunks smelled of
bacteriological activity.

The monks in this monastery value their thangkas. But rolling and unrolling combined with rough
handling and poor storage constantly damages their treasured thangkas.


Now if you are feeling that the subtleties of colour and iconography are overwhelming, we can continue
on to style and technique! If you feel that the original artists were working by a set of rules to which you
have little access, let us reinforce that tense feeling by looking at the range of traditional styles and
painting techniques which the original artists were guided by. Then we will continue on to discuss the
mountings which were made by tailors who worked by a completely different set of guidelines.


Basic painting technique differs with regional style, training of the artist and the funding available to
purchase gold, expensive pigments and so on. Also with the number of students or assistants the
master painter employed.

Did the artist contour areas of iconographic and non-iconographic detail (such as sky or grass) with wet
shading, dry shading or a combination of the two techniques? The Conservator would have to study
thangka painting technique to understand. A good way to recognise these techniques is by learning to
paint thangkas or by studying incomplete thangka paintings.

Did the artist apply many fine layers of paint one upon the other, or one heavy layer? Regional styles
differ in the technique of paint application.

If the paint layers are lost and damaged, can the Conservator judge the artist's intent from the
surrounding areas? Should the Conservator tone in lost areas of non-iconographic detail? Private
collectors and dealers, for example, often request a Conservator to inpaint all damaged areas.

Although some of these questions are standard conservation issues, they are further complicated when (4 of 6)5/17/2008 3:16:08 PM

Buddhist Art: Tibetan Thangka Paintings

religious and iconographic message must be respected and maintained.


Thangkas are not only paintings. Their textile mountings are very important. When dealing with the
mountings, a new set of questions arises. Did the artist of the painting have any control over the style
and proportions of the mountings which surround the painting? Was the original choice of mountings
that of the patron or that of the tailor? Is the tailor to be considered in a discussion of artist's intent? Was
the painting created in one part of Tibet and framed in another part of Tibet, China or Northern India?
Did the silk come from China or the Middle East along active trade routes? Is the mounting done in a
different style, technique and aesthetic from those of the painting?

Is the silk brocade mounting currently part of this thangka in fact the original mounting for this picture
panel, or could it be the third or fourth replacement? The answer to this last question can often be found
on the edges of the support where several row of stitch holes can indicate that the mounting has been

Does the mounting obscure significant sections of the painting? Tailors have been known to sew
mountings with a window so small that it covers important iconographic and aesthetically relevant
sections of the painting composition. The form of the mounting therefore may alter the artist's intent by
obscuring details significant to the iconography and aesthetics of the painting.


The conservation treatment of a thangka is a complex process that reflects the complexity of the original
composite object. All of the issues raised above must be evaluated in deciding on the appropriate
treatment for a specific thangka.

For example, a Conservator must look carefully for any exposed colour notations and not confuse them
with iconographic lettering on the final paint layers. A Conservator must evaluate what regional and
stylistic techniques were used in producing the painting and mounting and also look for damage from
past handling. And finally, the Conservator must examine the current mounting to determine its relation
to the painting and document whether it covers significant sections of the painting.

In summary, thangkas are complicated composite objects which are designed to communicate
iconographic ideas in a beautiful and practical form. A thangka in your laboratory or collection may be
the production of many painters and tailors with differing intents, and differing skills and training. The
textile mounting may have a completely different style, date and region of origin from those of the

Pure, single artistic intent is lost through a combination of iconographic specifications, regional and
doctrinal differences in style, changes in form subsequent to the original creation and many years of
harsh treatment.

Ann Shaftel MSc, MA

Conservator of Thangkas
Tsondru Thangka Conservation
Email: (5 of 6)5/17/2008 3:16:08 PM

Buddhist Art: Tibetan Thangka Paintings

Ann Shaftel is an Elected Fellow of the American Institute for Conservation and the International
Institute for Conservation. She has published and lectured on thangkas and served as consultant and
conservator for monastic and museum collections for the past 25 years. She holds an MSc in
Conservation from Winterthur (1978), an MA in Oriental Art History from the University of Michigan, Ann
Arbor (1972), and a BA from Oberlin College (1969). She also studied at UNESCO-ICCROM. She
apprenticed to Tibetan master painters for 15 years.

The Author is indebted to the late Vajracarya, the Venerable Chögyam Trungpa, Rinpoche, the late H.E.
Jamgon Kongtrul, Rinpoche, and to Khenpo Tsültrim Gyamtso, Rinpoche.

With kind permission of the Dharmapala Centre - School of Thangkas Paintings.

(This website sells Tibetan art for the benefit of artists in Nepal and an orphan house in Katmandu).

• The Buddhist Art of Thangka - Nicolai Dudka's website

Nicolai N. Dudka was born on the first of May, 1962 in Dessau, Germany. He received a European art
education at college in Ulan-Ude, buryatia, Russia, and at the Academy of Art in Kiev, Ukraine. His first
exposure to the complex science of Buddhist religioun, philosophy and art occurred in 1986. buryatian
Lama Dharmadoddi and abbot Jimba-Jamso were his first spiritual teachers. Later, Nicolai met his main
spiritual master Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche. At the beginning of the 1990's he began an intensive study of
thangka painting with visits to Mongolia, Nepal and India. Following this was a year-long period of work
and education at the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives (LTWA) in Dharamsala, India under the
guidance of Ven. Sangei Yeshe, the personal artist of HH the Dalai Lama.

• Temple Art Studio Website

Terris and Leslie Nguyen Temple are Buddhist artists who worked on the giant thangkas in Tibet for His
Holiness the 17th Karmapa. email: (6 of 6)5/17/2008 3:16:08 PM