Himalayan Art Resources

Arhat/Sthavira: Main Page & Arhat/Sthavira Appearance (Elder)

Arhat/Sthavira Main Page (Elder) | Eleven Figurative Appearances

Database Search: All Images | Painting | Sculpture

Subjects, Topics & Types:
- Elder Description & Name Confusions (below)
- List of Elders & Related Figures
- Praise to the Sixteen Elders
- Arhat/Sthavira Outline
- Arhat/Sthavira Resource Page Outline
- Arhat/Sthavira Art Topics Outline
- Mandala Paintings
- Sets, Composition, Medium & Subjects
- Yongle Style
- Tibetan Iconography
- Chinese Iconography
- Patriarchs
- Related Teachers
- Sculpture Examples
- Textile Examples
- Bibliography
- Masterworks
- Confusions
- Others...

Sanskrit: Arhat

Arhat (Tibetan: ne tan) versus Sthavira: a Sanskrit term for Buddhist saints popularized in the late 19th century by Western scholars with reference to figurative art painting and sculpture. The correct Sanskrit term for these sixteen Buddhist figures is 'sthavira', meaning 'elder.' The sixteen represent what are believed to be, within the tradition, followers of the historical 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 elders is the verse text Praise to the Sixteen Elders 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 elders individually or as a group.

There are several different explanations concerning the origins of the Sixteen Elders. The most widely known narratives come from the following Tibetan teachers:
- Lume Tsultrim Sherab
- Dromton Gyalwai Jungne
- Lhatsun Ngagwang Rinchen
- Others...

Principle Characteristics:
- 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

Shakyamuni Buddha is the central figure, the first painting or sculpture, for all sets of the Sixteen Great Elders. The full group of elders always has twenty-five figures: the Buddha Shakyamuni, together with the two foremost disciples - Shariputra and Maudgalyayana, the sixteen Elders, 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 elders.

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, 4-2017]