Himalayan Art Resources

Subject: Confused Visual Subjects (Explanation)

Confused Visual Subjects (Explanation) | Confused Visual Subjects (List)

Many iconographic forms look very similar to each other. Because of this similarity in appearance there is often confusion over identifications of both deities and human figures. The list below is a general survey of the most commonly confused figurative subjects in Himalayan and Tibetan art. (Also see Iconography Main Page and Figurative Art Outline Page).

Confused Visual Subjects:

Amitayus, Avalokiteshvara, Vajradharma
In this case there is both a confusion over appearance and a confusion over a name. Amitayus is a Buddha and generally appears identical to Amitabha except for the addition of jewels and multi-coloured silk robes. Avalokiteshvara, as he appears in the Vajradharma form, is almost identical with Amitayus except for the lack of a long-life vase in the lap. With regard to the Chakrasamvara Tantras then there are two forms of the primordial Buddha Vajradharma - Vira Vajradharma and Dharmakaya Vajradharma. The Vira form holds a damaru double-sided drum and a skullcup. The Dharmakaya form holds a vajra and bell with the the two hands crossed at the heart. This form is identical in appearance to the primordial Buddha Vajradhara except for having a red body colour. Neither of these two forms of Vajradharma are related to the Avalokiteshvara Vajradharma.

Avalokiteshvara with 11 Faces, Kunzang Gyalwa Gyatso, Kunzang Gyalwa Dupa
It is easy to confuse the Buddhist Eleven-faced Avalokiteshvara with the two Bon deities Kunzang Gyalwa Gyatso and Kunzang Gyalwa Dupa

The Eleven-faced Avalokiteshvara, Ekadashamukha, a very early Indian Buddhist deity, has several different forms but the two most recognizable are the standing and the sitting figures. In the Bon Religion there are also two forms that are very similar to the Ekadashamukha: Kunzang Gyalwa Gyatso (standing) and Kunzang Gyalwa Dupa (sitting). The number of faces and arms is not exactly equal between the Buddhist and Bon forms but the general appearance is more than enough to cause confusion. Both of the Bon deities hold a svastika scepter making it especially easy to recognize sculptural figures. For paintings, the svastika, over-all context and numerous retinue figures in the composition should help to determine either a Buddhist or Bon iconographic program.

Brahmarupa Mahakala, Mahasiddhas
Brahmanarupa Mahakala is none other than Chaturmukha Mahakala the special protector of the Guhyasamaja Tantra. In his wrathful appearance he is black in colour with four faces and four hands, surrounded by four dakinis. In the Sakya School it is inappropriate to show the wrathful four-faced form to anyone who has not received the initiation. For this reason the iconographic tradition arose for painting Chaturmukha Mahakala in the form of the Brahman servant.

It is easy to understand why Brahmanarupa has been mistaken for an Indian mahasiddha appearing as he does in a siddha-like depiction. The unique features that he has that are not found with other mahasiddhas are the circle of flame surrounding the body - this is a key feature, followed by the [1] human shinbone horn, [2] sword, [3] golden vase, [4] skull prayer-beads and [5] a skullcup. This combination of attributes is only found with Brahmanarupa.

- Chakrasamvara, Shri Hevajra, Mahamaya, Buddhakapala, etc.

Dorje Shugden, Dorje, Legpa, Dorje Ta'og
The three Tibetan protector deities, Dorje Shugden, Dorje Legpa and Dorje Ta'og, are commonly depicted wearing large riding hats and flowing garments of various colours. They also ride atop a snow lion (or other mounts such as a horse). They each have a wrathful appearance, maroon in colour, with one face and two hands, holding either a vajra scepter (Legpa & Ta'og) or a curved knife (Shugden). The main confusion in identification arises from the (1) large riding hat, (2) snow lion mount and (3) the maroon body colour.

Gesar, Dralha and Mountain Gods
The general depiction of both Gesar and Dralha follow that of a Tibetan warrior, atop a horse, clad in armor and a helmet with elaborate flag pennants and streamers. And again, both Gesar and Dralha can be accompanied by eight horseman. Aside from these two, numerous characters from the Gesar Epic have the same appearance as do a number of Tibetan mountain gods. It is very easy to confuse most of these figures.

- Guhyasamaja & Namasangiti Forms of Manjushri

Karmapa black hat & Jamchen Choje Shakya Yeshe black hat
Both the 5th Karmapa, Dezhin Shegpa (1384-1415), and the student and representative of Je Tsongkapa, Jamchen Shakya Yeshe (1355?1435), founder of Sera Monastery, received gifts of a black hat from the Yongle Emperor of China - Taming Gyallon. Although both black and somewhat different in design as seen in the examples below where both figures are the central subject. It is not always easy to distinguish the finer characteristics of the black hat when the subjects are depicted as minor figures in larger painted compositions. (See a more detailed discussion of the red and black hats of the Karma Kagyu Tradition).

Krishna Yamari, Yama Dharmaraja (outer)
There are a number of different forms of Krishna Yamari from a six faced six armed deity (with or without consort) to a one face two armed form. The confusions in identification primarily involve the simple [1] one faced form of Yamari, the [2] one faced Heruka form of Vajrabhairava and the depiction of [3] Yama Dharmaraja in his outer form. It is these last three which are most commonly confused, conflated and misidentified.

In the graphic reference the top row of figures are the four principal forms of Krishna Yamari from most complicated on the left to simplest on the right. The bottom row highlights the confusion. The first image on the left in the bottom row of the graphic is the buffalo faced Heruka. He is the simplified meditational form of Vajrabhairava with nine faces and thirty-four hands. This form of Heruka is often mistaken for Yama Dharmaraja. On the right hand side is Yama Dharmaraja, the special protector deity exclusive to the Vajrabhairava Tantra. He appears very much like Krishna Yamari in the simple form with one face and two, also holding the same attributes of a staff and lasso. Yama Dharmaraja is always accompanied by the consort Chamundi whereas the simple form of Krishna Yamari has no consort.

Magyu Sangchog Tartug, Shri Hevajra & Chakrasamvara
The appearance of the Bon deity Magyu Sangchog Tartug follows very closely with several popular Tantric Buddhist deities such as Shri Hevajra and Chakrasamvara. As a comparison, look at the similarities of the 1. standing posture of all three deity figures, 2. the colour of the body, 3. the number of heads, 4. the number of arms, 5. the form of the consort, 6. the posture of the consort, 7. the colour of the consort, 8. the sixteen skullcups in the hands.

- Mahakala Subjects: Gonpo Maning, Gonpo, Legden, Gonpo Chesum

Manjushri (white) and Tara (white)
White Manjushri and White Tara are identical in body posture but not in what they hold. Manjushri has the two attributes of a book on top of an utpala flower held in the left hand. White Tara simply holds a white lotus in the left hand. Of the two common forms of White Tara, with one face and two hands, the more famous of the two has seven eyes on the body: three on the face, two on the palms of the hands, two on the soles of the feet. The Atisha form of White Tara only has the standard two eyes (not on the hands and feet). Note how the face of the male Manjushri figure has a more square face with a flat horizontal hairline. The female figure of Tara has an oval face almost egg-shaped. In Himalayan art, observing the shape of the face is the quickest way to identify male and female figures especially for art created after the 16th century.

Milarepa, Ngagwang Tanpa'i Gyaltsen & Shabkar Tsogdrug Rangdrol
Milarepa has a very distinctive look and posture. He can easily be confused with a number of other Tibetan figures that are considered to be his later incarnations, such as Ngagwang Lobzang Tanpa'i Gyaltsen and Shabkar (both from Amdo). In Tibetan Buddhist religious history there are dozens of incarnation lines that claim to be descended from the famous yogi and singer Milarepa.

Nagarjuna, Nagaraja Buddha, Shakyamuni Buddha
The two iconographic figures of Acharya Nagarjuna and Nagaraja Buddha both have a hood of seven snakes. Nagarjuna is also one of only three human figures to have an ushnisha, a buddha crown protuberance, on the top of the head. This makes it very difficult to differentiated between Nagarjuna and Nagaraja. In painted compositions Nagaraja typically has a white face and a blue body. Nagaraja can also perform either the teaching gesture with the two hands or his own unique gesture with the two index fingers held together at the heart and pointing upwards. Shakyamuni Buddha in a life-story episode is also protected from the weather by a snake (naga) with either a single or multiple heads. Those depictions of Shakyamuni are found in the sets of life-story paintings.

- Padmasambhava, Yungdrung Tongdrol, Misc. Nyingma Teachers

Sage of Long Life, Arhats
The Sage of Long-life is a figure borrowed from Chinese mythology. He is generally depicted as elderly, often holding a string of prayer beads. The composition of such a painting should contain six elements: 1. rock of long life, 2. water of long life, 3. tree of long life, 4. man with long life, 5. birds of long life and 6. antelope of long life. The Sage of Long-life paintings represent health, well-being and a safe clean environment. The arhats are always depicted as a group of sixteen with Shakyamuni Buddha and the two close disciples as the central image of the composition. The depictions of both the Sage of Long-life and the Arhats are based on the Chinese model of Taoist Immortals and therefore have a similar appearance - although otherwise unrelated. It is also possible to confuse the Sage of Long-life with the Tibetan teacher Tangtong Gyalpo. These two need to be differentiated based on composition and context in a painting.

- Sakya Pandita, Buton, Tsongkapa, Ngorchen, Bodongpa, Gongkar Dorjeden

Sarasvati, Indra Playing the Lute (wheel of Life paintings)
Sarasvati in her most basic Buddhist form appears as a beautiful goddess playing the lute. The Abhidharmakosha commentaries describe the world of existence and the heavens in some detail which is depicted in the Wheel of Life paintings. Indra (Shakra) is described as seated in the highest heavens and playing a lute - stringed instrument. A confusion has arisen as to the identity of the figure (Indra) placed at the top center (heaven realm) in these paintings because of the similarity to the iconography of Vina Sarasvati. It is an understandable confusion because the only real difference between the two forms is the artistic convention of drawing a horizontal hairline for male figures creating a more square face and an oval form for the face of female figures. Although this convention arises quite late in Tibetan art and is certainly not universal, it is often reliable when used in conjunction with other iconographic and contextual indicators. In the case of the Wheel of Life paintings the figure depicted at the center of the heavens is intended to be Indra however the skill and knowledge of the artist might create an Indra that looks a lot like Vina Sarasvati.

Shakyamuni Buddha & Akshobhya Buddha
The figures of Shakyamuni Buddha and Akshobhya Buddha are commonly mistaken for each other because of the placement of a vajra scepter. Shakyamuni often has a vajra placed on the seat slightly in front of the folded legs, but never holds a vajra. The vajra represents the location - Vajrasana (Bodhgaya, India). Akshobhya Buddha often holds an upright standing vajra in the palm of the left hand. This is the principal attribute of Akshobhya symbolizing the Vajra Family of Tantric Buddhism. Represented in a Tantric context, Akshobhya is often shown wearing an elaborate crown and jeweled ornaments - which Shakyamuni generally does not.

Shamar, Gyaltsab & Situ Red Hats
The red hat (sha marpo) of the Shamar Lamas, of the Karma Kagyu Tradition of Tibetan Buddhism, is patterned after the famous black hat of the Gyalwa Karmapas. The 2nd Shamar, Kacho Wangpo (1350-1405), was the first to have a red (copy) of the black hat, said to be a gift from his teacher the 4th Karmapa, Rolpai Dorje (1340-1383).

Later, the Tsurpu Gyaltsab incarnations and the Tai Situ incarnations, both of the Karma Kagyu Tradition, would follow form and adopt the same basic design of the red hat, although with slight stylistic modifications.

The 2nd Gyaltsab, Tashi Namgyal (1490-1518) recieved an orange hat from the 7th Karmapa, Chodrag Gyatso (1454-1506). The 1st Situ, Chokyi Gyaltsen (1377-1448), received his title of 'Kenting Tai Situ' from the Chinese emperor Yungle but didn't receive his red hat until the 5th incarnation of Tai Situ, Chokyi Gyaltsen Palzang (1586-1657). That hat was given by the 9th Karmapa Wangchug Dorje (1556-1602/03). (See a more detailed discussion of the red and black hats of the Karma Kagyu Tradition).

Simhamukha: [1] ishtadevata, [2] attendant, [3] retinue figure
Simhamukha means 'lion-faced' and refers principally to three unrelated deities in Tantric Buddhism. The first appears most prominently as a central figure whereas the other two are always secondary in position. As a meditational deity Simhamukha is associated with the [1a] Chakrasamvara Tantra and [1b] as a 'Terma' discovery of the Nyingma Tradition. [2] Simhamukha is a retinue deity belonging to the One Hundred Peaceful and Wrathful Deities of the Guhyagarbha Tantra. [3] Simhamukha is the second attendant figure belonging to the retinue of Shri Devi Magzor Gyalmo. All three of these deities, although similar in appearance with the lion face, are unrelated as to origin, function and hierarchy.

- Ten Wrathful Ones & various other deities such as Hayagriva

Tsang Nyon Heruka, Mahasiddhas
Tsang Nyon Heruka (1452-1507) was a Tibetan teacher who took the Tantric literature quite literally and behaved and dressed as a Tantric deity wearing bone ornaments, cemetery ashes, and long unshorn hair. This type of radical behaviour is described as an advanced form of practice in the Hevajra and Chakrasamvara Tantras. It is rare for Tibetan teachers to appear in this way which has given rise to the constant mis-identification of Tsang Nyon Heruka as an Indian mahasiddha rather than as a Tibetan teacher. The unique characteristics of Tsang Nyon are the vajra scepter held in the right hand with a skullcup or long-life vase cradled in the left hand. These are unique attributes and not shared with any of the well known mahasiddhas, or siddhas within the systems of Eighty-four Mahasiddhas.

Tsiu Marpo, Dorje Setrab, Dragtsen
All three of these worldly Tibetan spirits/deities look quite similar in appearance. They are red in colour riding red horses, wearing armor, surrounded by smoke and flame. In the right hand they hold either a spear or a staff. In the left hand they hold either a heart or a lasso. They can be very difficult to recognize and require the assistance of surrounding contextual information in order to come to an accurate identification. The Bon deity, Dragtsen, the protector of the Kings of Mustang, was worshiped as a mountain god since ancient times. It is very likely that the relatively late Buddhist deity Tsi'u Marpo originated from the Bon Dragtsen.

Vajrabhairava, Mahottara, Vishvarupa
The very wrathful forms of Vajrabhairava, Mahottara Heruka, Vishnu Vishvarupa and Shiva Vishvarupa can all appear at first glance to be similar in appearance. They all share the characteristics of multiple heads, arms and legs, with flaming hair and halos. Depending on the individual form they will all in some manner or another embrace a consort.

Vajrakila, Purba Drugse Chempa, Guru Dragpur, Simhamukha
Vajrakila is one of the Eight Heruka Deities of the Nyingma Tradition of Tibetan Buddhism. His main attribute is a kila peg held in the first pair of six hands. In the mandala of Vajrakila some of the surrounding retinue figures have a lower torso of a three-sided peg (kila). The confusion in identification arises when anything with a kila shape is labelled as the deity Vajrakila. Four iconographic subjects have the lower torso of a kila [1] Vajrakila retinue figures, [2] the Bon deity Purba Drugse Chempa, [3] Guru Dragpur in various forms and [4] Simhamukha in various forms. (See meditational forms of Padmasambhava where Guru Dragpur and Simhamukha are both included).

Vajrapani (wrathful), Vajravidarana, Sengge Dradog, Kartaridhara, Yama Dharmaraja (inner)
It is very easy to confuse the deities Vajrapani, Vajravidarana, Sengge Dradog, Mahakala and Yama Dharmaraja. They are all wrathful in appearance, blue in colour, one face and two hands, holding either a vajra or curved knife in the upraised right hand. Great care must be taken to see the defining characteristics of each iconographic form as well as observing the over all context of a painting. Sculptural representations are more difficult to identify without the help of an inscription or the benefit of comparison with other sculptural figures from the same set. Many of the figures from the various sets of the Ten Great Wrathful Ones can also have the general appearance of Vajrapani. When an identification is still in doubt and the obvious forms have been ruled out then the Ten Wrathful Ones should be carefully looked at.

- Vajrasattva, Vajradhara, Vajradharma, Vajrapani (peaceful)

Jeff Watt 4-2011 [updated 10-2017]