by Peter Della Santina

The seventh century A. D. is considered as a landmark in the history of Buddhism in Tibet. Through the introduction of Buddhism into the land it witnessed a social and cultural advance. From the seventh century onwards while extensive literary activity in terms of translation from Sanskrit to Tibetan and composition of Tibetan literature was in progress, a corresponding development in art also took place. Many beautiful monasteries and temples decorated with frescos and paintings, cast images and ritual objects, were set up.

Tibet in those days was open to foreign influences. It had continuous contact with India, Nepal, China and the countries of Central Asia, and hence was well disposed to receive all forms of art and culture.

Hence, there can be no doubt that the first artists who painted frescos and modelled the figures of gods and goddesses of the Tibetan Buddhist pantheon, were not Tibetan, but Indians, Nepalese and Chinese. This is indicated by the account given of the construction of the monastery bSam-yas according to which the lower part was done in the Tibetan manner, the middle with a Chinese roof and the upper part with an Indian roof. The same tradition also claims that a castle built south-east of bSam-yas had nine turrets and three floors: the ground floor, Tibetan; the two-roofed first floor was built in the style of Khotan, the second in Chinese style and the third in the Indian style.1

Foremost among this influx of artistic culture from abroad was the importation of art forms and styles from India. From the seventh century onwards for several hundred years, cultural relations between India and Tibet were at their peak. It was during these centuries that countless Buddhist monks and their associates, including artists and craftsmen, must have gone to Tibet and Nepal carrying manuscripts, paintings and small portable icons in metal and stone. These images and paintings probably served to illustrate the preaching of the Dharma and they constituted the most important examples of Buddhist iconography. Moreover, the images and the illustrative materials served as models and inspiration for the artistic development in the country. On the other hand, many enthusiastic Tibetan monks undertook strenuous journeys to India in search of knowledge in the field of religion as well as in other secular subjects like medicine, logic, grammar, astrology, and art. In the course of time, they mastered Buddhist art, went back to their homeland to apply their newly acquired knowledge in the field of art.

The Indian styles which had a profound influence upon the early development of Tibetan Buddhist art, were notably those of Gandhara, Kashmir and Bengal. The styles of Gandhara and Kashmir distinguished by Hellenistic motifs such as the Corinthian type of pillar capital, the frequent occurrence of the Midas theme and the use of elaborate floral and other motifs for filling up empty spaces in murals and frescos found ready acceptance in the school of Gu-ge centred in the west of Tibet. Concrete evidence of the movement of these stylistic elements from Kashmir to Tibet is provided by the murals at Alchi in Ladakh which are said to have been executed by artists who accompanied the translator Rin-chen-bzan-po on his return to Tibet from Kashmir.2

The Pala style of Bengal characterised by the lightness of figures and delicacy of treatment found its way to Tibet via Nepal. These stylistic elements along with the richly ornamented thrones and halos characteristic of Nepalese art are common in the Beri school which became prominent in southern Tibet.

In the development of Tibetan art, Nepal played a significant role. Nepal acted as a meeting place between India on the one hand and Tibet and China on the other. Nepal, by accepting the art and iconography of Indian Buddhism together with its theory and technique, rendered a great service to the growth of Tibetan Buddhist art. The matrimonial alliance between Tibet and Nepal concluded in the seventh century brought these two countries into close contact. The Nepalese princess is said to have brought to Tibet the images of Aksobhya, Maitreya and Tara.3 The images and paintings of Nepal definitely served as a source of inspiration which developed the conception of aesthetic beauty in the minds of the Tibetans.

The art of Nepal continued to play a role in Tibet even much later through the activities of skilled Nepalese artists. At the instance of Kublai Khan, a wonderful artist from Nepal skilled in both stone and metallic executions, named Aniko, with his eighty companions, were invited by the abbot of Sakya, Chos-gyal Phags-pa, to erect a golden stupa in Tibet.4 It is said that Aniko with his assistants decorated the monasteries of Tibet and China. The style of Aniko became the guideline for the Imperial Chinese art. The Nepalese influence can be traced in those Tibetan Buddhist icons and paintings in which we notice an increasing hieratic stylization of forms. The figures become more and more loaded with a profusion of jewellery and ornamentation. The Pala art of Bengal continued to develop in Nepal which in its turn contributed its stylized version to the development of Tibetan Buddhist art.

Beside this Indo-Nepalese influence from the South, Tibet was also in touch with the countries of Central Asia including Chinese Turkistan. The destruction of Buddhist communities in Central Asia by the Muslims forced Buddhist monks to take shelter in the monasteries of Tibet. The various protectors of the Dharma with their warlike following all clad in armour and typical Central Asian attire in Tibetan Buddhist art can be considered an importation from the North.

The first influence of Chinese art from the Tang period became evident as the result of the friendly - relations with China sealed by the wedding of Sron-btsan-sgam-po with the Chinese princess.

When the foundations of Tibetan Buddhist art were being created, certain influences were left by the temporary Tibetan rule in the ninth century over Chinese Turkistan and the oasis of Tunhuang in Kansu province famous for its rock temples. Again, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Chinese art exercised a considerable influence over Tibetan art causing sudden changes in the old traditions mainly in painting and architecture. New monasteries were founded and old ones renovated.5

The Chinese element in Tibetan art can be seen in the openness of backgrounds, the use of
landscapes and the figures of animals and the diagonal action of the figures as well as in the use of delicate pastels.

The primary symbols which are to be found in Tibetan Buddhist Tantric iconography range from those of universal and archetypal character to those which may be referred to a limited cultural context. Among the former we may count such symbols as the union of male and female so prevalent in Tantric iconography and the image of the tree of enlightenment. These symbols are clearly not restricted to any particular culture and have appeared many times in a variety of religious and literary contexts.

In addition, there are numerous symbols which are drawn from the Indian mythological heritage and which are adopted and modified to express Tantric concepts. Among these, perhaps the most notable are the Vajra and the Padma.

The Vajra, initially well-known as the sceptre of Indra, expressed his mastery over the world. It came to assume tremendous importance in Tantric philosophy and symbolism. While the original symbolic significance remained relevant, because the Vajra wielded by Buddhist Tantric dieties may be taken as expressing their mastery over the world of existence, the Vajra came to symbolize a great deal more in Buddhist iconography. It seems the primary significance of the Vajra in Buddhist Tantric thought is as a symbol of the indestructible nature of the ultimate truth. In this sense, the term Vajra is often explained as synonymous with emptiness (sunyata) which is indestructible.6 The Vajra is said to be superior to all things in that while it is capable of destroying anything with which it comes into contact, it, like a diamond, remains unaffected. It may well be that this explanation of the significance of the term Vajra led to the employment of the term Vajrayana as designation of Tantric Buddhism in general. The connection may become clearer if it is recalled that through Tantric methodology situations and emotions normally injurious to spiritual progress can be appropriated and turned to a religious purpose without in any way adversely affecting the Tantric practitioner. Again, in other contexts such as when it is found in association with the Vajraghanta as in the case of Vajra-sattva, the Vajra represents skilful means, the active component of the ultimate attainment of Buddhahood, while the Vajra-ghanta or bell represents wisdom.

While the significance of the Vajra underwent extensive development and modification within the Buddhist Tantric tradition, the significance of the Padma or lotus seems to have remained largely unaltered. The symbol of the Padma commonly found in Indian spiritual iconography as representing the transformation from an impure condition to a pure one which is the goal of spiritual discipline, retained by and large the same significance in Buddhist Tantric iconography. The Padma which is born in the mud nonetheless rises above it and unfolds the flower of spiritual excellence. The fact that nearly all Buddhist Tantric deities of any consequence are pictured seated upon lotus thrones indicates the purified condition of their being.

Another symbol which is often met with in both Mahayana and Tantric iconography is that of the sword or Vajra knife. The sword is best known in Mahayana iconography as the weapon of the Bodhisattva Manjusri. This Bodhisattva is usually pictured holding the sword in the right hand and a holy text in the left. The sword is a symbol of the wisdom of discrimination which cuts through the net of erroneous views and ignorance while the text of the Perfection of Wisdom represents the purified knowledge which replaces the mistaken notions of the ego and the like which are responsible for the presence of suffering.

The Vajra knife which is characteristic of Tantric iconography possesses essentially the same significance as the sword. Such curved knives are found wielded by large numbers of Tantric deities, both major and minor. Vajrayogini holds such a knife as does Mahakala in some representations.

Moreover, the many ornaments which adorn the figures of Tantric deities have a wide range of significance, both general and specific. Professor Tucci has discussed exhaustively the role played by the symbolism of royalty in Tantric iconography as represented by the conception of the celestial mansion and certain specific ornaments such as the crown which adorn the head of Ratnasambhava.7 The bone ornaments which are very striking features of Tantric iconography as well as the garments of animal skins and the like can be said to parallel the costumes of demons of Indian mythology. Their assumption by the deities of the Buddhist Tantric pantheon represents the defeat of the demonic forces by the Tantric deities. Further, the symbolism of demonic costumes serves to reinforce the Tantric conception that obstacles and passions may be transformed and so used for spiritual ends.

This is not to say, however, that the complicated adornments which decorate the figures of Tantric deities have only a general and amorphous significance. They also admit of specific interpretations, as expressing elements of Buddhist and Tantric philosophy. While skull cups and ornaments of bone obviously express the consciousness of impermanence which is so fundamental to Buddhist thought, they have more specific references as well. For instance, the crowns of five skulls which adorn the heads of a large number of Tantric deities are explained in commentaries as representing the five transcendent wisdoms 8 associated with the five Dhyani Buddhas. Again, the six ornaments of bone, i.e.the skull-tiara, the armlets, the bracelets, the anklets, the bone-bead apron and waist-band combined with the double line of bone beads extending over the shoulders onto the breast which adorn important Tantric deities are explained as representations of the six perfections: generosity, morality, patience, energy, concentration, and wisdom.

In a survey of the symbols of Tantric iconography, one cannot overlook the significance of the colours employed in thankas and murals. Five primary colours are associated with the five Buddhas of the basic mandala. Thus, they represent symbolically the quality associated with each of the five Buddhas.

For example, the Ratna family of Ratnasambhava is associated with the element of earth and the defilement of pride. The defilement of pride in its purified aspect takes the form of transcendental wisdom of equality. The colour of this family is yellow, the colour of earth. Yellow functions as a symbol of putrescent pride while alternatively it symbolizes the richness of gold which expresses the all-embracing equanimity of transcendental wisdom.

The Padma family of Amitabha is associated with the defilement of passion and the element of fire. In its impure state passion seeks to consume like fire everything with which it comes into contact. In its purified state, it is the transcendental wisdom of discrimination which appreciates and apprehends precisely all situations with compassion. The colour associated with this family is red. The brillance and heat of red symbolizes passion which excludes everything in its fascination with the object of desire. Alternatively, the vividness and the brilliance of red symbolizes the all-embracing compassion of the transcendental wisdom of discrimination.

In addition, we find that many of the Tantric deities are black in colour. Black symbolizes immutability, i.e. the quality of remaining unaffected and impervious to any external influences. Thus black symbolizes the inconquerable and secure nature of the accomplished state.

The mounts or asanas upon which the Tantric deities are pictured also have important philosophical significance. Thus it is that the corpse upon which Mahakala stands in some representations is said to symbolize the ego and the triumph of the deity over it. Yamantaka, the wrathful emanation of Manjusri tramples upon the head of Yama which expresses his triumph over death. Again, Vajrakila is depicted trampling upon Siva and Uma who in this case symbolizes his triumph over the extremes of eternalism and nihilism.

The objects which the various Tantric deities hold in their hands also have specific significance. Vajrayogini, for instance, holds in her right hand a vajra knife which symbolizes the cutting off of naive ignorance. In her left hand, she holds a skull cup filled with blood from which she drinks. This symbolizes her consumption of the defilements which give rise to suffering.

Thus the detailed description of the Tantric deities including colour, ornaments, hand objects and mount found in the appropriate texts and represented in paintings and images is capable of individual and specific interpretation of all its elements. Therefore, it is evident that the intricate symbolism of Buddhist Tantric iconography includes a wide variety of symbols drawn from a number of sources. The interpretations of the significance of Tantric symbolism is all the more difficult, because the symbols may be interpreted on a variety of levels which makes it impossible to fix upon any one interpretation as exclusively correct. Nonetheless, far from being a haphazard conglomeration of horrific forms and macabre paraphernalia, Tantric iconography is a carefully constructed system of psychological symbolism calculated to express succinctly and pictorially the whole of Buddhist religion and Tantric philosophy. It functions as skilful means by which the Tantric adept is assisted in his appropriation and realization of the divine vision. Thus, Tantric iconography is an integral part of the process of liberation and enlightenment.


1. Steine, R. A., Tibetan Civilization, London, 1972, p. 283. [back]

2. Gu-ge-Khri-tan ye-ses-dpal, Collected Biographical Material About Lo-chen-Rin-chen-bzari-po and his Subsequent Reembodiments, pp. 51 - 128. [back]

3. Obermiller, E., History of Buddhism, Heidelberg 1931, p. 184 and Chattopadhyaya, A., Atisa and Tibet, Calcutta, India, 1967, p. 186. [back]

4. Ray, A., Art of Nepal, New Delhi, India, 1973. p.9. [back]

5. Jisl, Lumir, Tibetan Art, p. 12. [back]

6. Bhattacharyya, B., An Introduction -to Indian Buddhist Iconography, Calcutta, India, 1968, Introduction. [back]

7. Tucci, G., Theory and Practice of the Mandala, Roma, 1949, pp. 44 - 45. [back]

8. Ibid., p. 70. [back]

-----by the Same Author

1) The Vajrayana: Myth and Symbolism

2) The Tree of Enlightenment: An Introduction to the Major Traditions of Buddhism

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Essay © Peter Della Santina
Copyright © Shelley and Donald Rubin Foundation