Shakyamuni Buddha (Tibetan: sang gye sha kya tu pa. English: the Enlightened One, Sage of the Shakya Clan) with the Two Principal Attendants, Sixteen Arhats & the Life Story. (See other paintings with the same Shakyamuni Buddha subject and composition format).
Sanskrit: Buddha Shakyamuni Tibetan: Sang gye sha kya tu pa
Shakyamuni Buddha is a common subject in Tibetan art. He is depicted either as a single figure in a composition or together with the two principle disciples, Shariputra and Maudgalyayana. A slightly more elaborate painting might include the Sixteen Arhats, the Thirty-five Confession Buddhas and finally the Life story of the Buddha. Paintings such as these are very specific representations of the two Lower Vehicles of Buddhism according to the Tibetan Buddhist system. They depict the most important iconic figures and narratives that represent the Hinayana and Mahayana Traditions of Buddhism.
In Vajrayana Buddhism, more elaborate subject compositions will have Shakyamuni at the center surrounded by bodhisattva figures, worldly gods, meditational deities and protectors, leaving out the Two Disciples, Sixteen Arhats, Confession Buddhas and Life Story.
The particular type of composition represented here has Shakyamuni Buddha at the center accompanied by the two principal disciples, the Sixteen Arhats and then the life story of Buddha in surrounding registers taking up nearly half the space of the total composition. (The Thirty-five Confession Buddhas are not included).
Shakyamuni Buddha (Tibetan: sha kya tu pa, sang gye. English: the Enlightened One, Sage of the Shakya Clan) is the historical founder of the Buddhist religion. Formal in appearance, the Buddha gazes forward with partially closed eyes, the blue-black hair on the head is piled in a tuft on top with a single gold ornament adorning the crown. Between the eyebrows is a dot (urna), typically white, and adorning the neck are three curved horizontal lines. The earlobes are long and pierced. With the right arm bare the right hand is extended across the knee in the earth touching gesture (mudra). The left hand performs the gesture of meditation - palm upward in the lap. Placed in the palm of the hand is a black begging bowl holding a large jewel. Across the left shoulder is a saffron coloured patchwork robe. A similar lower garment is tied at the waist with a cloth belt. The legs are folded in vajra posture with the right placed over the left.
"Born in the Shakya race through skillful means and compassion, destroying the army of Mara who was unable to be destroyed by others, with a body radiant like a mountain of gold; homage to you, King of Shakya." (Tibetan liturgical verse).
A Buddha is known for having thirty-two major and eighty minor distinguishing physical characteristics (marks) based on the Indian cultural description of a Universal Monarch (Chakravartin) - the highest and most developed male form. Only a few of these 112 marks are ever depicted in art, examples of such marks are the ushnisha on the top of the head, the urnakesha between the eyes, the three curved horizontal lines on the neck, and a Dharma Wheel impression on the palms of the hands and soles of the feet.
The Buddha is seated on a multi- couloured lotus atop a lion supported throne decorated with two eight-spoked wheels and a very small image of the long-life deity Ushnishavijaya at the center. She has three faces, eight arms, and in a seated cross legged posture. Behind the throne and framing the form of the Buddha is an elaborate throne-back with various decorations. Standing to the left and right of the Buddha are the two principal disciples, Shariputra and Maudgalyayana, both wearing the attire of a monk and each holding the kakkara staff in the right hand and a black begging bowl in the left.
In two vertical rows, on the immediate left and right sides of the Buddha and two disciples, are the Sixteen Great Arhats; eight on the left side and eight on the right. Below the arhats on the left side is the figure of Dhamatala - the attendant to the arhats. Below the arhats on the rights side is Hvashang - the patron of the arhats. In early Tibetan paintings the figure of Hvashang does not appear. In later Tibetan paintings Hvashang is given a more prominent position and placed ahead of Dharmatala in placement hierarchy. This means that Hvashang would appear on the viewer's left side and Dharmatala placed on the right side.
At the top right corner of the composition the life story of the Buddha begins and is read moving down the right register through each of the square register boxes to the bottom of the composition. Along the bottom are two horizontal registers. The lower register continues the story of the Buddha reading from right to left along the bottom. The upper register of the two visually narrates the armies of Mara and the three daughters attempting to distract the Buddha prior to his achieving complete enlightenment. At the bottom left corner the story continues and moves upward through the vertical register to the top left corner and then along the top, left to right, to the center of the composition where the Buddha is seen lying on his side, atop a throne, just prior to death.
The subject of the painting and the composition follow a standard format and iconographic model which is common to paintings of the 13th, 14th and 15th centuries. The principal subject is  Shakyamuni Buddha. The secondary subjects are  the Two Principal Disciples,  the Sixteen Arhats,  the Thirty-five Confession Buddhas, and finally  the Life Story of the Buddha. In some compositions the Confession Buddhas are omitted and in other compositions the Life Story is omitted. Again, in some later paintings the Two Disciples are replaced by two standing bodhisattva figures. Regardless of which of the secondary elements are omitted, the paintings still follow the same composition one to another and clearly appear to be modeled after a common iconographic and compositional form - likely much early in origin.
When comparing the known paintings of similar compositions, then even the depictions of the Buddha's various Life Story vignettes in the surrounding registers appear to be copied one from another. Some vignettes are almost identical in narrative arrangement and iconographic depiction, even in the register sequence. The earliest paintings have no figure of Dharmatala or Hvashang, the attendant and patron of the Sixteen Arhats. Some later works only have the single figure of Dharmatala as an attendant. The latest paintings of this composition type add Hvashang to the group of Arhats (and Dharmatala). Again, even later compositions reverse the position of the two, Dharmatala and Hvashang, and place Hvashang as the more important of the two. This observation is a useful method for dating works of art that depict the Buddha and the Arhats. Most paintings created after the 16th and 17th centuries will consistently place the figure of Hvashang in the superior location on the left side of the composition.
(Written for the publication and exhibition catalogue: Exhibition of Quintessence of Returning Tibetan Cultural Relics from Oversea. Beijing, China, July 2012).
Jeff Watt, 3-2001 [updated June 30th, 2012]
Numbered & Coloured List: 1. Shakyamuni Buddha 2. Shariputra 3. Maudgalyayana 4. Ushnishavijaya A Blue. Shakyamuni Life Story B Green. Sixteen Arhats with Dharmatala & Hvashang