Himalayan Art Resources

Item: Vajrapani (Bodhisattva & Buddhist Deity)

ཕྱག་ན་རྡོ་རྗེ། 金刚手菩萨
(item no. 10005)
Origin Location Tibet
Lineages Buddhist
Material Metal
Collection Private
Notes about the Central Figure

Classification: Deity

Interpretation / Description

Buddhist Figure, possibly Vajrapani. Three mysteries surround this sculptural figure (1) the artist’s identity, (2) the identity of the figure, and (3) the date and region of creation.

Sometimes in the analysis of an art object, a painting or a sculpture, it just defies any kind of identification, region of origin, and sometimes dating. Such an object is this small figure with one face and two hands, the hair in very pronounced dreadlocks and two mismatched earrings. The face is slightly wrathful with wide open eyes. Other facial features have been worn away by time. The right hand holds a vajra scepter and the left grasps either a bag or a mongoose. The waist is wrapped with a tiger skin. The figure is standing with the legs bent as if squatting above a lotus seat atop a rocky outcropping. Two naga serpents are in a position of submission or devotion at the base of the rock with their tails entwined together. A large metal loop at the lower back of the sculpture would indicate that it was likely attached or fastened to a larger shrine possibly with other like figures made as a set or series of objects.

An inscription on the front base reads: “Made by the hand of the revered Choying Dorje.” The name refers to the famous incarnate teacher of the Karma Kagyu tradition of Tibetan Buddhism - the 10th Karmapa Choying Dorje (1604-1674). Choying Dorje was renowned as an artist but most works attributed to him have not been authenticated as his work. Many copies of his sculpture and painting are said to be created over the past three hundred years by later devotees and admirers. Also, for this sculpture Choying Dorje himself would not have signed the work using the epithet of ‘revered.’ So, the inscription was placed on the work at a later time than the manufacture but it is not known when it was inscribed or by who. The artist’s identity remains a mystery.

The identification of the figure, presumed to be a deity within the Buddhist pantheon based on the vajra scepter held in the right hand is also not known. Previously suggested by some scholars to be a form of Vajrapani, Kubera, or a combination of both, the identity remains a mystery. The deity Kubera is rarely found in Himalayan art, or in Tibetan Buddhism. Images of Vajrapani are relatively common in both painting and sculpture. Other deities could hold the vajra aside from just Vajrapani. The bag or mongoose in the left hand is generally an attribute of Jambhala, Vaishravana or the Twelve Yaksha Generals of the Medicine Buddha Mandala. Holding a bag or a mongoose is not a known or identified form of iconography for Vajrapani. The identity of the deity remains a mystery.

If it is accepted that the inscription applied by a faithful servant or student of Choying Dorje is accurate then the dating mystery is solved. Choying Dorje lived during the 17th century and it follows that the work was created sometime by him at that time. If the inscription is not considered reliable then other considerations come into play such as the art style of the object, patina, metal composition, wear, analysis of the break in the legs and subsequent repair with zinc, or zinc alloy. Considering all of these factors then the object appears to be much older and much earlier in date. Typically objects with this type of patina and extensive wear, following an archaic art style, would be dated to the second half of the first millennium C.E. and not to the 17th century or later. The dating remains a mystery.

Until most of these questions are answered the sculpture remains a much talked about and discussed mystery in the Himalayan Art field, particularly in the study of the artistic legacy of the 17th century artist Choying Dorje.

"Made by the hand of the revered Choying Dorje." "rje btsun chos dbyings rdo rje'i phyag bzo."

Jeff Watt 9-2016 [updated 6-2018]

It is a challenge to describe the art style of the Choying Dorje sculpture. As a figurative object it has one face, two arms and slightly bowed squat legs. The torso is full and round reminiscent of a dwarf-like figure. The hair is matted and twisted into locks, the face round with large oval eyes. The mouth appears closed. Snake entwined earrings hang heavy over the shoulders. The right hand holds a vajra scepter, neither aggressive nor passive. The left hand holds against the waist what appears to be a mongoose. In place of a necklace, bracelets and anklets there are single snakes wrapped about the neck and limbs. The stomach is large and swelling with the torso adorned only by the single choker necklace. A lower garment, short and small, like a loin cloth is tied around the lower body. He stands atop a flower blossom and a rocky outcropping.

To the right and left of the flower base are two seated birds of unrecognized species. Below the flower and rock, circling the base, are two entwined naga figures. The head and upper bodies are human and the lower body is that of a snake. The head is adorned by a hood of snakes. Directly below the twisted knot of their bodies is the inscription claiming that the sculpture is the work of the hand of Choying Dorje.

The characteristics of the supposed Vajrapani sculpture do not appear to be readily identifiable as Swat or Kashmir in style. There are some rudimentary elements such as the rocky base, hair tresses, earring and the naga ornaments about the neck and limbs that have some vague similarities with Swat and Kashmir. The lower back of the sculpture has a large loop likely intended to fasten in place on a shrine or with other figures in a row. Below that, the legs of the figure have been broken and repaired with zinc. The proper left side of the fastening loop may also have been repaired based on the evidence of a sizable amount of zinc fill used to enclose the circular loop. The figure is in no way fine or well finished. The sculpture is rough, almost impressionist, with closer characteristics and relationships to other claimed Choying Dorje sculpture rather than to a pedigree of the distant past.

Jeff Watt 12-2019

Sotheby's. June, 1993; New York.

Secondary Images
Related Items
Exhibition Appearances
Exhibition: RMA Masterworks, January 28th, 2021

Thematic Sets
Buddhist Deity: Vajrapani, Peaceful, Main Page
Artist: Choying Dorje & Atelier (Sculpture)
Subject: Name Inscription - Misidentified or Name Added
Sculpture: Choying Dorje Debate
Collection of Zhiguan (Sculpture)
Collection of Zhiguan (Choying Dorje Atelier)
Buddhist Deity: Vajrapani Masterworks (Wrathful Sculpture)
Collection of Zhiguan Museum of Fine Art
Sculpture: Inscriptions (Choying Dorje Atelier)
Collection: Bonhams on HAR (Painting & Sculpture. Hong Kong Fall 2016)
Collection of Zhiguan Museum of Fine Art (RMA 2019)