Himalayan Art Resources

Item: Teacher (Lama) - Tendzin Rabgye

བླ་མ། 喇嘛
(item no. 69917)
Origin Location Bhutan
Date Range 1700 - 1799
Lineages Drukpa (Kagyu, Bhutan) and Buddhist
Material Ground Mineral Pigment on Cotton
Collection Private
Notes about the Central Figure

Classification: Person

Appearance: Monastic

Gender: Male

TBRC: bdr:P512

Interpretation / Description

Tendzin Rabgye (1638-1696): the fourth patriarch of the Drugpa Kagyu School of Buddhism in Bhutan, accompanied by two attendants, lineage figures above and three worldly protector deities below. The painting is likely dated to the early 18th century and commissioned shortly after the death of Tendzin Rabgye.

Tendzin Rabgye is depicted in a formal posture, with a slight mustache and goatee, facing forward with the hands in the teaching gesture (Dharma mudra). He wears the garb of a fully ordained monk with the patchwork orange and red robes. Atop the head is the typical hat of the Drugpa Kagyu school patterned after the famous hat of Gampopa the principal student of Milarepa. The Sanskrit letter 'hum' written in the decorative Ranjana script of Nepal adorns the front of the hat. The legs are folded in a cross-legged posture and covered with a meditation cloak. Seated on a multi-coloured flower blossom atop an ornate throne, he is attended upon by two monks, also wearing the patch-work robes, standing at the right and left. The monk on the viewer's left holds a wheel signifying temporal power and the monk on the right holds a white conch signifying the sound of the Buddha's teachings.

Above and behind the throne and framing the large central figure of the painting is an elaborate throne-back called a 'torana.' The word 'torana' is from the Sanskrit language and is used commonly as the term to describe the stylized decorative framework surrounding sculptural and painted figures in Indian art specifically and Asian art in general. A torana can be described as a gate, gateway, arch, throne-back, backrest, or decorative niche surrounding a deity, god, buddha, bodhisattva or religious hierarch, teacher or saint. A decorative torana can also be employed above a temple doorway or decorating temple windows as found in the Kathmandu Valley of Nepal.

The torana depicted in this composition has the typical arrangement of two elephants standing atop the throne, on the right and left, with the figures of a snow lion above, sharabha (deer-like in this depiction), boy riding the sharabha, makara water creature, naga serpent creature and a garuda - king of birds - at the top center, further crowned by a parasol above. The artistic style of depicting the torana in this particular design follows an earlier Tibetan and Himalayan model more common to the early 15th and 16th century. This style was continued quite late in the isolated areas of the southern Himalayas especially where dominated by the Drugpa Kagyu Tradition - from Ladakh in the West to Bhutan in the East and many regions between such as Dolpo and Mustang.

At the top center is the Buddha Amitayus/Amitabha, red in colour, wearing fine garments and jewelery. On the viewer's left is the Tibetan saint and poet Milarepa wearing the typical garb of a thin cotton robe and a red meditation belt. Slightly below is the blue figure of Akshobhya Buddha holding in the proper left hand an upright vajra scepter, seated in vajra posture. Accompanying the figures at the top are ten monastic figures representing the lineage teachers of the Drugpa Kagyu Tradition. Four of the figures wear the red hat in the style of Gampopa. Three wear the blue hat of the Gyalwang Drugchen - the hereditary leaders of the Drugpa Kagyu school. This blue hat is unique to the Drugpas and relates to an episode in the life of Tsangpa Gyare - one of the earliest teachers of the tradition. Of the remaining two monastic figures, one figure is without a hat and despite wearing monastic attire has the hair grown out and tied on the crown of the head in the manner of a 'togden' - a yogi that spends most of the time in secluded retreat. The last figure wears a red pandita (scholar) hat lying flat atop the head.

At the bottom center is the Tibetan mountain goddess Tseringma, white in colour, beautiful, holding a vajra scepter aloft with the right hand and a long-life vase to the heart with the left, riding a snow lion. She is often accompanied by her four sisters, each in a different colour and riding a different animal mount. Tseringma was made famous in the Tibetan text called the 'Hundred Thousand Songs' of Milarepa where she occurs in numerous chapters - at first as an obstacle to Milarepa's practice in remote mountain caves and then slowly the five sisters becoming his students. Finally, Milarepa even teaches Tseringma and the other four sisters the secret practices of Karma Yoga according to the system of the Hevajra Tantra.

Again at the bottom, on the viewer's left side is the Nyingma protector deity Damchen Dorje Legpa, maroon in colour, wearing elaborate multi-coloured robes, holding in the upraised right hand a vajra scepter and a heart held to the mouth with the left hand, riding a snow lion. Dorje Legpa was originally a protector deity of the Nyingma Tradition specializing in over-seeing the safety of the 'Revealed Treasure' teachings (terma) - later to be adopted by the Drugpa Kagyu followers as they slowly adopted Nyingma teachings into the Drugpa Kagyu curriculum.

On the viewer's right of the two more important protectors is a mounted figure atop a white horse. This figure wears the clothes of a layman similar to a Tibetan king of old, or a mountain deity of the Bon Religion. In the right hand is a spear with a banner and in the left hand a blue wishful-filling jewel, slightly flaming, held to the heart. This type of deity often represents a mountain god and functions as a wealth bestowing/protecting deity. Currently the precise identification and name of this figure is not known but likely to be easily remedied by consulting with an educated Bhutanese religious teacher.

The artistic style of the painting in general (aside from the iconographic identifications) indicates that it is of Bhutanese commission and origin. By comparison to Tibet and Mongolia, there are very few Bhutanese paintings in Western art collections due to both the small population of Bhutan and the fact that Bhutan never had the same degree of cultural upheaval as their neighbour Tibet to the North or far away Mongolia bordering on Russia. The two earliest and most significant figures in the creation of the state of Bhutan in the 17th century were Shabdrung Ngagwang Namgyal followed by Tendzin Rabgye. Their depictions should be the most common to find in the various Himalayan art collections.

This particular painting of Tendzin Rabgye is only one of four currently known outside of Bhutan making it both rare and worthy of further study. Art objects such as this are an invaluable resource for helping understanding the people, traditions and religions of endangered cultures like Bhutan and so many others in the Himalayas, Tibet and Central Asia.

Jeff Watt 6-2011

(See the life story of Tendzin Rabgye by Ariana Maki, 2010).

See other paintings on the HAR website:

Secondary Images
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Thematic Sets
Collection: Private 5
Teacher: Tendzin Rabgye (Lama, Bhutan)