Himalayan Art Resources

Item: Avalokiteshvara (Bodhisattva & Buddhist Deity) - Namka Gyalpo (Gaganaraja)

སྤྱན་རས་གཟིགས། 观音菩萨
(item no. 58543)
Origin Location Tibet
Date Range 1400 - 1499
Lineages Buddhist
Size 130cm (51.18in) high
Material Metal, Copper Inlay, Painted Face/Hair, Precious Stone, Stone Inset: Turquoise
Collection Private
Notes about the Central Figure

Classification: Deity

Appearance: Peaceful

Gender: Male

Interpretation / Description

Eleven Faced Avalokiteshvara with Eight Hands.

Impressive because of its size and presence, this sculpture is also noteworthy because of the unique iconography. The body proportions, thin waist and full hips are all in keeping with the date of the piece and can also be seen in the paintings from the same general time period. The expressions of the eleven faces are really what is unusual as they do not follow any standardized textual tradition. However, this may not be so unusual because works prior to this period also do not conform iconographically.

What does this really mean? It means that the art and the literature don’t appear to correspond. One explanation for this is because the original source literature was vague about many of the iconographic details and this allowed for variations in interpretation and artistic expression. This however was not to last. After the 15th century representations of the Eleven Faced Lokeshvara became doctrinally set according to specific traditions of practice. Luckily this magnificent example of the Eleven Faced form fits in perfectly with all of the great early Eleven Faced masterworks which did not suffer the rigid iconographic orthodoxy of the later centuries.

To compare with the work shown here the very best early examples of Lokeshvara with eleven faces are the Cleveland Museum of Art sculpture from West Tibet, HAR #59218. This work has three peaceful faces and seven stacked wrathful or combined laughing and wrathful faces. The Los Angeles County Museum sculpture from Kashmir, HAR #85865, has a similar yet different arrangement of the heads. Another two examples can be seen with the late 12th century Tibetan painting from the publication Sacred Visions, HAR #101329, and a 13th century Tangut (Xia Kingdom) painting from the Hermitage Museum, HAR #31341, where the colours and moods of the faces do not conform to the later literature. As a final example, the mural of the Eleven Faced Lokeshvara at Alchi, HAR #99603, follows a standard configuration but has both a unique colour scheme and a unique number of arms.


Avalokiteshvara as a deity figure was first made famous in the Buddhist Sutra literature as a bodhisattva - an aspirant to enlightenment. Later, in the Vajrayana system of Northern Buddhism, from the Tantra literature of India, he was acknowledged as a fully enlightened Buddha manifesting in a vast number of meditational forms for the benefit of all living beings.

The most common Sanskrit names for the deity are Avalokiteshvara, Lokeshvara, Avalokita, Lokanata and Mahakarunika. All of the names relate to meanings such as universal, lord, great lord, lord of the world, great compassion, and all-seeing. In the Tibetan language he is Pagpa Chenrezig ('phags pa spyan ras g.zigs). The Sanskrit word 'arya' meaning 'noble' or 'noble one' is often placed at the beginning of the name. Following those names, there are scores of others that are used for more specific forms of Lokeshvara - peaceful, wrathful and in-between.

There are a great many different sacred Buddhist traditions that depict Lokeshvara and employ him as a special meditational deity and as a subject for ritual worship. Most of these traditions only use a simple initiation ritual and at best a short daily ritual practice. However, in Tibet, Lokeshvara is considered the patron bodhisattva, or patron deity, of the Land of Snow and can be found worshipped in all of the Tibetan Buddhist religious traditions. Preserved in these Tibetan traditions are eight principal lines that contain extensive teachings on the practice of Lokeshvara. Although claimed to be very early in date by Tibetan authors, Lokeshvara doesn’t really appear as a serious cult movement until after the 12th century.

From among these eight principal lines of practice there are only three that describe an eleven faced form of Lokeshvara (Sanskrit: Ekadashamukha. Tibetan: chen re zi, shal chu jig. English: the Eleven Faced Lord Gazing on the World). The three are the [1] King’s Tradition, [2] Bhikshuni Shri and [3] Jowo Atisha. The other traditions either describe a four armed form (chaturbhuja) or leave the choice of Lokeshvara up to the practitioner and whatever form that person is most familiar with. In general, after the Eleven Faced Lokeshvara became popular in approximately the middle of the first millennium, 5th and 6th century C.E., he could be found in Indian art, along with art from Kashmir, Central Asia, Dunhuang, Japan, Korea and China. The source literature for this form of the deity is the Arya Avalokiteshvara Ekadashamukha Nama Dharani. The source text for the 1000 armed Lokeshvara is the Mahakaruna Dharani Sutra written in Sanskrit (Tripitaka #1060). Both were written in the first half of the 1st millennium. The first text above only talks about having eleven heads. It does not mention the configuration, colour or disposition of the eleven heads. It also does not mention anything about arms, number of arms or hand attributes. The latter text which mentions the one thousand arms likewise does not mention anything about the head, or a number of heads.

Of the three Tibetan traditions of the Eleven Faced Lokeshvara the Bhikshuni Shri and the Jowo Atisha have the same depiction of the eleven faced configuration due to both being derived from an earlier tradition originating, it is said, with the famous Nagarjuna, more likely to be a later Tantric Nagarjuna having the same name merely by coincidence. This means that for those two traditions the eleven faces and how they are arranged look the same in both. The origins of the King’s Tradition of Avalokiteshvara are said to begin with the Tibetan King Songtsen Gampo in the 7th century. However that origin claim is seen as doubtful by modern scholarship. It is highly doubtful also because the King’s Tradition itself is claimed within the Nyingma Tradition of Tibetan Buddhism to be a ‘revealed treasure’ (terma), akin to revelation, discovered in the 12th and 13th centuries and by three different individuals. From those texts making up the King’s Tradition there is described a different arrangement of the eleven faces, a different colour scheme and a different combination of wrathful and peaceful faces.

For the Bhikshuni Shri and Jowo Atisha traditions Lokeshvara is peaceful in appearance, with eleven faces rising upward in groups of three, the tenth is wrathful and the face at the very top is that of Amitabha Buddha. Each face has two eyes and a dot between the eyebrows; long black hair flows across the shoulders. With eight hands the first pair at the heart hold a precious jewel. The three right hands extended to the side are in the gesture of generosity, holding a Dharma wheel and crystal prayer beads. The three on the left hold a water flask, a bow and arrow and a lotus blossom. Each face is adorned with a gold crown, ribbons and earrings. Necklaces, bracelets and precious jewels adorn the body and a scarf is wrapped about the neck. A deerskin is worn across the left shoulder and the lower body is covered in various silk fabrics. With the two legs together he stands atop a lotus flower.

In contrast, the King’s Tradition describes the first three main faces as peaceful and white in colour. Above that are three yellow smiling faces. Above that are two dark blue wrathful faces. Above that are two dark red faces with bared fangs. Above that is the red face of Amitabha Buddha. Along with those differences the Bhikshuni Shri tradition further describes eight main hands with one thousand in total. The King’s Tradition describes ten main hands, followed by an additional thirty-eight secondary hands, followed by one thousand and twenty-two minor hands for a total of one thousand and seventy. It is explained that the first group of hands represent the Dharmakaya, the second the Sambhogakaya and the third the Nirmanakaya.

The actual texts of the Arya Avalokiteshvara Ekadashamukha Nama Dharani and the Mahakaruna Dharani Sutra only describe the eleven heads in the first text and the one thousand arms in the second text. The various Buddhist traditions were left to imagine the number and placement of the faces from within their own cultural backgrounds. In the Buddhist traditions outside of Central Tibet, the eleven faces were also popular for depictions of the Thousand Armed Lokeshvara, however unlike Tibet, the number of faces in those regions could also be five, twenty-five or in some cases there could even be one thousand faces.

Tibetan Popular Narrative: The popular and almost universal narrative found in the apocryphal Tibetan text called the Mani Kabum a ‘revealed treasure’ of the 12th and 13th centuries states the origins of the Eleven Faced Lokeshvara as follows. At one time the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara made a promise that should he give rise to thoughts of self-benefit may the head break into ten pieces and the body into one thousand. After continuously witnessing the misery of beings in various states of existence, discouraged, he gave rise to thoughts of seeking only his own happiness. At that very instant the head and body shattered. Calling out to Amitabha, the Buddha came forth and spoke words of encouragement. Gathering up the ten pieces of the head Amitabha constructed ten faces - representing the ten perfections. Gathering the one thousand pieces of the body he constructed another with one thousand hands each with an eye on the palm - representing the one thousand buddhas of the Golden Aeon. Finally he placed a duplicate of his own head at the crown - illuminating the entire threefold universe. This story is found in the apocryphal Tibetan text called the Mani Kabum a ‘revealed treasure’ of the 12th to 13th century.

Jeff Watt 10-2015


Arya Avalokiteshvara Ekadashamukha Nama Dharani. (Peking Kagyur, vol.8. brgyud 18, #373).

Arya Mahakaruna Dharani Sutra. (Peking Kagyur, vol.8. brgyud 18, #368).

“The Tibetan Avalokitesvara Cult in the Tenth Century: Evidence from the Dunhuang Manuscripts,” in Tibetan Buddhist Literature and Praxis. Sam van Schaik (Proceedings of the Tenth Seminar of the IATS, 2003, Volume 4), ed. Ronald M. Davidson and Christian Wedemeyer (Leiden: Brill, 2006): 55-72.

“Remarks on the Mani bKa'-'bum and the Cult of Avalokiteshvara in Tibet” by Matthew Kapstein, pages 79-93.Tibetan Buddhism, Reason and Revelation edited by Steven D. Goodman and Ronald M. Davidson. SUNY, 1992. #5.

The Thousand-armed Avalokiteshvara by Lokesh Chandra. Abhinav Publications, 1988. ISBN 81-7017-247-0.

The Tibetan Avalokitesvara Cult in the Tenth Century: Evidence From the Dunhuang Manuscripts. Sam Van Schaik.

"The Origin of Avalokitesvara" (PDF). Lokesh Chandra. Indologica Taurinenaia (International Association of Sanskrit Studies). XIII (1985-1986): 189–190.

The Clear Mirror: A traditional account of Tibet's Golden Age. Sakyapa Sonam Gyaltsen (1996). Snow Lion Publications. pp. 64–65.

The Blue Annals by George N. Roerich. Motilal Banarsidass, 1976. (First edition 1949). Page 1043.

Secondary Images
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