Himalayan Art Resources

Subject: Monkey

Subject: Monkey | Animals Mythical & Real | Animal Relationships Glossary

The most famous monkey image in Himalayan art of the greater Indian sub-continent is the god Hanuman, however this figure is rarely found in Tibetan style art or in depictions of Buddhist subjects. For the art of the Himalayas, predominantly Buddhist, the monkey is associated with a number of different Buddha life stories and can be found in the Jataka and the Avadana stories. In the Jatakas they are stories number #24, #27 and #33.

Monkeys in various forms have also been used to decorate the foreground and backgrounds of arhat/sthavira paintings. Sometimes the monkeys are simply engaged in offering a fruit or a bowl of food. At other times the monkey might be depicted as if human and portrayed as an attendant.

In Tantric Buddhist art the monkey is most closely related to the elephant headed deity Ganapati, the protector Mahakala, and various Tibetan worldly deities such as Pehar, Dorje Setrab and Tsiu Marpo. With Ganapati the female monkey often plays the role of a consort. For the various forms of Mahakala the monkey is primarily associated with Chaturbhuja and Bernagchen appearing as two monkeys both walking on their hands and supporting 'balimta' offerings (torma) with their legs.

Only in one instance is a monkey presented as a principal or central deity. This depiction can be found at the Kumbum temple in Gyantse, Tibet. The monkey deity is brown in colour, with one face and two hands, seated in a crouching posture. He holds what appears to be a treasure bowl upraised in front with both hands. Surrounding him are eight Jambhala/Yaksha King-like figures.

Jeff Watt 12-2013

(The sample selection of images below each have depictions of monkeys in a variety of compositions and functions. For other animals see the Animal Relationships Glossary).