Himalayan Art Resources

Subject: Yongle Textile Workshop Discussion

Yongle Textile Workshop Discussion |Yongle Textile Workshop Discussion (Chinese Translation | Textiles Main Page | Publication: A Highly Important Imperial Embroidered Silk Thangka

A number of textile works are known to have been created in the workshops of the Yongle emperor and designed following a Himalayan style of art. The four works discussed here are all from the same workshop, approximately the same time period, and all the same large format size.

The Panjaranata Mahakala and Rakta Yamari are both in private collections while the Vajrabhairava and a Chakrasamvara belong to the Jokhang temple in Lhasa.

The Mahakala textile follows a uniquely Sakya Tradition iconographic program. The Vajrabhairava follows a uniquely Gelug Tradition iconographic program because of the nine heads depicted in a circular configuration (see discussion). The Rakta Yamari and Chakrasamvara works follow a Sakya/Gelug iconographic program since first of all the Rakta Yamari was not incorporated in the Karma Kagyu tradition until the 6th Karmapa, Tongwa Donden (1416-1453). Tongwa Donden would not have received the Rakta Yamari initiation before 1425 at which time he met the Shalu Monastery teacher from whom he received it. As for the Chakrasamvara, it follows the mahasiddha Krishnacharin iconographic style rather than the mahasiddhas Luipa and Maitripa traditions popularly followed in the Karma Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism.

Because the Vajrabhairava is so close in workmanship, quality and dimension to both the Rakta Yamari and Chakrasamvara, of the same set, it is most probable that they are informed in their creation by the influence of the Gelug tradition, namely the teacher Jamchen Choje Shakya Yeshe (1354-1435).

Shakya Yeshe, one of the principal students of Je Tsongkapa, was invited to Nanjing by the Yongle emperor of China. Shakya Yeshe arrived in Nanjing in 1408 (according to some accounts) and remained there for ten years until 1418. He founded the Sera Monastery in Lhasa in 1419. Shakya Yeshe again returned to China in 1424 and remained at the court (now moved since 1410 to Beijing) until 1435.

Three of the textiles are most probably created as gifts under the influence of Shakya Yeshe or created as gifts for Shakya Yeshe or another Gelug teacher. The Panjarnata Mahakala, because of its unique Sakya iconography, was most probably created as a gift for one of the Sakya tradition Khon family members, the descendants of Chogyal Pagpa. Several Khon family members visited the imperial court in Nanjing and Beijing during this period of time. The Mahakala is also slightly different from the other works because it is a woven textile rather than embroidered.

It has been suggested that these types of textiles were gifts to Deshin Shegpa (1384-1415), the 5th Karmapa, who was also invited to Nanjing by the emperor some years earlier. The 24 year old Deshin Shegpa arrived April 10th 1407, a year before Shakya Yeshe, and remained until May 17th of that same year, 38 days in total. During the visit he met with the Yongle emperor, engaged in gift exchanges, as well as performed rituals and initiations before leaving after approximately five weeks.

Since the Gelug influence at the court did not begin until after the arrival of Shakya Yeshe in 1708 it is not likely that the Vajrabhairava textile was commissioned until some time after that. This would also be long after Deshin Shegpa had departed from Nanjing. Furthermore, since the Vajrabhairava, Chakrasamvara and Rakta Yamari embroidered textile works were undoubtedly created in the same workshop and at roughly the same period of time it is most likely that they were not gifts for Deshin Shegpa but rather for Shakya Yeshe.

Another important line of reasoning related to Deshin Shegpa and the practice and iconography of Rakta Yamari is that it was not found in Karma Kagyu lineages of Tantric teachings until the 6th Karmapa, Tongwa Donden (1416-1453). The lineage runs as follows: (early Indian siddhas, Tibetan translators), Buton Rinchen Drub (1290-1364), Rinchen Namgyal the 1st Shalu Abbot (1318-1388), Chandrapa (Shalu Abbot 14th century), Tongwa Donden the 6th Karmapa, etc. If the 5th Karmapa was in the lineage of Rakta Yamari he would most certainly be mentioned by the great 20th century polymath Jamgon Kongtrul (1813-1899) who was a devout Karma Kagyu practitioner and promoter of Karma Kagyu tradition. Kongtrul is quite clear in his writings (bka' brgyud sngags kyi mdzod, volume 5, folio 17) that the lineage of Rakta Yamari came into the Karma Kagyu from the Sakya lineage of Buton Rinchen Drub and descended to Rinchen Namgyal, followed by Chandrapa and then to the 6th Karmapa which would have taken place some time well after his birth in 1416. It is recorded in the Tongwa Donden biography that he received teachings from Chandrapa when he was eight years old (circa 1424).

Karma Kagyu Lineage of Rakta Yamari:
1) TBRC P155, bu ston thams cad mkhyen pa (1290-1364)

2) TBRC P154, rin chen rnam rgyal (zhwa lu 01) (1318-1388)

3) TBRC P3748, btsun pa zla ba (tsandra shri ratna) (14th century) (zhwa lu pa)

4) TBRC P1006, karma pa mthong ba don ldan (karma pa 06) (1416-1453)

5) TBRC P1380, dpal 'byor don grub (gyaltsab 01) (1427-1489)

The critical evidence is the Vajrabhairava, depicted in a Gelug iconographic style, along with the Rakta Yamari (not yet introduced into the Karma Kagyu) and Chakrasamvara in a Sakya/Gelug iconographic style all belonging to the same workshop and time period.

Deshin Shegpa (1384-1415):
- 1384: birth
- 1407, April 10th: arrives Nanjing (24 years of age)
- 1407, May 17th: departs Nanjing after 38 days
- 1412: arrives back at Tsurphu Monastery
- 1415: death (31/32 years of age)

Jamchen Shakya Yeshe (1354-1435):
- 1354: birth
- 1408: arrives Nanjing (54 years of age)
- 1418: leaves Nanjing and Beijing courts to return to Tibet
- 1419: founds Sera Monastery
- 1424: returns to the court in Beijing
- 1435: leaves China
- 1435: death (81 years of age)

Jeff Watt 9-2014 [updated 10-2014]


Henss, Michael. 'The Woven Image: Tibeto-Chinese Textile Thangkas of the Yuan and Early Ming Dynasties. Orientations, November 1997.

Reynolds, Valrae, 'Buddhist Silk Textiles: Evidence for Patronage and Ritual Practice in China and Tibet.' Orientations, April 1997.