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Arhat (Tibetan: ne tan): a Sanskrit term for Buddhist saints, more correctly meaning elder or 'sthavira' in Sanskrit. They represent what are believed to be, within the tradition, the earliest followers of the Buddha. The group of sixteen are based on an early text possibly dating to the 4th century titled the Arya Nanda Mitra Avadana Nama (Tibetan: 'phags pa dga' ba'i bshes gnyen gyi rtogs pa brjod pa [TBRC W1PD95844, pp.1407-1419]), always found in a group of sixteen, they are painted on cloth, wall murals, and fashioned of metal, stone, clay, or wood. An early iconographic source for the individual descriptions of the arhats is the verse text Praise to the Sixteen Arhats attributed to the Kashmiri teacher Shakyashri Bhadra of the 12th/13th century. The earliest known paintings in Tibet are found as wall murals in Dratang Monastery in Central Tibet. However, the Dratang arhat paintings do not appear to depict the group of sixteen which gained popularity some time later. Aside from Rahula, the son of Shakyamuni Buddha, there appears to be little evidence to support the existence of these sixteen arhats as a group.
There are several different explanations concerning the origins of the Sixteen Arhats. The most widely known narratives come from the following Tibetan teachers:
- Lume Tsultrim Sherab
- Dromton Gyalwai Jungne
- Lhatsun Ngagwang Rinchen
- bald or shaved head
- middle aged or elderly in facial appearance
- monastic in attire with multi-coloured robes in a Chinese style
- sometimes wearing Chinese style shoes
- seated with the legs either folded or extended down
- almost always a lack of any Vajrayana attributes, ornamentation or decoration
- Pindola Bharadvaja
Painting Sets, Compositions, Mediums & Subjects:
- Single Arhat Composition
- Two Arhat Composition
- Multiple Arhat Composition
- Arhats Traveling to China
Shakyamuni Buddha is the central figure, the first painting or sculpture, for all sets of the Sixteen Great Arhats. The full group of arhats always has twenty-five figures: the Buddha Shakyamuni, together with the two foremost disciples - Shariputra and Maudgalyayana, the sixteen Arhats, the attendant Dharmata, the patron Hvashang and the Four Guardians of the Directions; Vaishravana, Virupaksha, Dhritarashtra and Virudhaka. In all an extensive set of paintings would comprise twenty-three individual paintings. The two foremost disciples are almost always portrayed in the same painted composition with Buddha Shakyamuni. In sculpture sets the total number of pieces is twenty-five. In the Tibetan system there are only sixteen arhats.
- Shakyamuni & Sixteen Arhats (Single Composition)
- Shakyamuni Buddha Main Page
- Shakyamuni Buddha Outline Page
1. Shakyamuni Buddha
4-19. Sixteen Great Arhats
22-25. Four Guardian Kings
Other Arhats that do not belong to the Group of Sixteen:
- Arhats & Pratyekabuddhas appearing as minor figures in Charya & Yoga Tantra Mandalas
It is understandable that the figures of Dharmatala and Hvashang are commonly confused for arhats as they belong to the same group and set and do not generally appear independent of the depictions of the Sixteen Arhats.
- Sage of Long-life
The images below are single paintings not yet matched with sets:
The images below are paintings that currently remain as singles, the only known survivors of larger sets. As new art collections are catalogued into the HAR database it is hoped that many more of these paintings will be re-united with others from their original sets.
Jeff Watt 3-2000 [updated 6-2015]