October 2017 | Collection of Nyingjei Lam
Subjects, Topics & Types:
- Buddha & Bodhisattva
A Selection of Nyingjei Lam Sculpture
(Sothebys Catalogue, Hong Kong, October 2017)
Himalayan sculptural objects are open to a wide range of approaches and interpretations. Everybody has their own special or favourite approach. Often the objects are looked at from the perspective of their region of origin, age, rarity or aesthetic merits. That is an art history approach. Ascertaining the general identity of a figure, religious tradition and monastic establishment or temple is a religious studies approach. A detailed analysis of the figure and close scrutiny of every characteristic and attribute of a figure, especially deities, belongs to the study of Buddhist iconography. These are the three principal disciplines required for the study of Himalayan art. There is however another very important aspect of the field which has only become apparent in the past few decades and that is viewing the collection and the collector together. This is a late 20th century phenomena.
The modern collection can be either institutional such as with a museum or university or it can be private,
in a private museum or in a collector's home. This type of collection is often studied as a whole, often
judged, sometimes unfairly, as a single collection with an emphasis placed on the weakest pieces
sometimes at the expense of the finer or more rare objects. The collector plays a big role in the building
of a collection and projecting the identity and character of that collection, purposefully, or randomly.
Shaped by the objects themselves, sculpture, painting, textiles, and the collector, of modest means or
wealthy, the collection takes form and often organically creates its own special identity, and niche identity
within the field of Himalayan art.
This group of Nyingjei Lam objects, a private collection built up over several decades, can be divided into
three general subjects based on the identity of the figures:  buddhas and one bodhisattva,  teachers
and  deities. For the buddhas and bodhisattva section there are four objects. Three are classic
buddhas in appearance and the fourth is a Lokeshvara bodhisattva . There are six teachers
which portray historical figures. Lastly, there are seven deity figures of various types.
The terms used for the three general subjects are abstract in meaning, buddha, bodhisattva, teacher,
and deity. They refer primarily to function or role from the point of view of religious studies. In this case all
the figures are Buddhist. These terms are generally not helpful, and often confusing, in the study of art
history and in identifying the figures themselves.
Himalayan figurative art has only eleven different types of form, or appearance. The eleven different
terms that are used are borrowed partially from traditional religious studies terminology and partially from
those terms used by the actual artists that create the works, and from artist culture, which is not always
the same as that which is studied in formal art history programs. For example the Tibetan artist’s
terminology to describe the physical shape and appearance of a generic religious teacher or monk is
called a ‘bag of tsampa flour.’ This description applies directly to the two monk figures Choje Sengge
Gyaltsen  and the unidentified Kagyu monk . Their appearance with the heavily cloaked
robes is reminiscent of a bag of flour thrown onto a table or to the ground. Although a very descriptive
term for the artist, for religious studies it is not a very respectful term.
The eleven categories are based on appearance, not function, nor status or hierarchy. The first of the
eleven are drawn from the most common figurative forms found in Himalayan art:  Buddha
Appearance,  Arhat/Sthavira appearance , and  King appearance. This grouping of three subjects
are seen in images and paintings of Shakyamuni Buddha, his two close disciples, the Sixteen Great
Elders (sthavira/lohan), two attendants and the Four Direction Kings. All three buddhas in this Nyingjei
Lam group of seventeen objects depict the historical Shakyamuni Buddha in his most famous
appearance wearing the very sparse robes of a monk, displaying a prominent ushnisha (crown
protuberance) on the crown of the head and seated in vajra posture. The right arm and hand is extended
across the right knee. Sometimes a vajra scepter is placed in front symbolizing the location of Vajrasana
, modern day Bodhgaya, the location where the Buddha achieved enlightenment. In all there are
twenty-five figures that make up this early iconographic group known as Shakyamuni Buddha and the
Sixteen Great Elders. It is commonly found as a theme for both sculpture and painting. Every monastery
will have a set of sculpture, paintings or murals for this subject which also represents Foundational
Buddhism (Hinayana, Thervada).
In the system of the eleven figurative forms, the next grouping is that of people, historical figures often
referred to as teachers. There are three categories:  lay person,  monastic and  siddha
appearance. These three apply to both male and female figures. In this collection there are six teachers,
all male, half are lay persons and half are monastic. The monastic figures are identified as such primarily
by their short-cropped hair, an upper and lower robe leaving their right arm bare and a lack of any type of
jewelry. Only one of the monastic figures, Choje Sengge Gyaltsen [HAR 68474], is identified by
inscription or iconography. In this case there is both an identifiable figure emblazoned across the chest along with a name inscription incised along the back of the base allowing for a clear identification. The
other two monastic figures have no special or unique characteristics to inform of their identity. Although
the figure seated on a throne seat  most likely belongs to the Kagyu tradition of Tibetan
Buddhism based on comparisons with other inscribed identifiable figures, along with the style of robes he
is wearing. The gilt monastic figure  is much harder to identify and to place within a region or
tradition. However, he does not appear to be Nyingma or Kagyu which by process of elimination would
place him more in the sphere of a Sakya branch tradition, Shalu or early Gelug tradition.
The three lay figures are all identifiable by iconography or inscription: Padampa Sanggye ,
Sharka Rechen  and Lhatsun Kunga Chokyi Gyatso . They all have hair of varying
lengths, or in the case of Padmapa, an Indian teacher, he has a beard and dreadlocks flowing down the
back. He wears only a short cloth around the waste with the upper body bare. This is characteristic of a
yogi. Sharka Rechen has earrings, a necklace and bracelets along with the lay attire of a householder.
Lhatsun wears conch earrings popular with yogis and tantrikas, a meditation belt across his chest and
holds an upright vajra scepter in the left hand. This attire, similar to Padampa, distinguishes him as a
yogi. The third type of person, siddha appearance, is not represented in this group of sculpture. Siddhas
generally have a slightly angry expression with furrowed brows and chest hair imitating the look of Indian
tantric practitioners. Very few Himalayan or Tibetan teachers are depicted with the siddha appearance
which is generally reserved for Indian tantric masters belonging to the set of Eighty-four Great Indian
The third group from the Eleven Figurative Forms are the deities. Deities traditionally come in three types
known in Sanskrit as deva, rishi and raksha. Two more forms have been added to make five types of
deity appearance. The first is  Peaceful appearance (deva/devi),  semi-peaceful semi-wrathful
(rishi),  wrathful (raksha),  Animal Featured and finally  Warrior. Lokeshvara  is an
example of peaceful appearance based on descriptions of the youthful gods of the Indian pantheon
according to early literature. They are understood to be perpetually in the form of sixteen year old males
and females, in the bloom of youth. There demeanor, gaze, clothing, jewelry and postures are all relaxed
and pleasing to the eye. The figure of Kurukulla  is also in a peaceful appearance. There are
many different forms of this goddess who represents power and subjugation. In this example, she is
peaceful with a gentle expression, four arms, and seated. This seated form of the deity is also very rare
and fell out of favour with practitioners over half a millennia ago.
The semi-peaceful semi-wrathful appearance is similar to peaceful but with the eyes more open, with a
frown, the mouth partially open, with slightly elongated canine teeth, some bone ornaments and wrathful
attire. There are no examples in this group of Nyingjei Lam sculpture.
Wrathful appearance is described as short and squat in body, with a gaping mouth, three round bulging
eyes, bared fangs, flaming hair, adorned with all types of gruesome and wrathful attire and weapons.
Often the deity is standing or seated on a corpse or Hindu deities such as Bhairava or Vinayaka. There
are four examples of wrathful appearance in this group of sculpture: Chaturbhuja Mahakala  with
one face and four hands, in a seated posture, followed by two forms of Krishna Jambhala, the black
wrathful deity of wealth, standing naked and ithyphallic. The final wrathful deity is Nila Achala, in a
standing posture with one face and two hands holding upraised a sword in the right hand and a lasso in
the left. He is adorned with cobra snakes representing the Indian mythical serpent known as a naga. This
form of Achala bites down on his lower lip as stipulated in the textual literature. Like the seated form of
Kurukulla, this form a Achala also fell out of favour many centuries ago. When a particular subject falls
out of favour the art production for that figure also stops.
The next category of appearance is Animal Featured although few in number it is well represented in
Himalayan art. The example here is Simhamukha , the lion-faced dakini. The limbs and torso are
those of a typical human figure but the face and head is that of a lioness, with a gaping mouth,
accompanied with flaming hair, wrathful ornaments and standing on a prone figure under foot. Animal
featured deities can be male or female.
The last of the figurative appearance in Himalayan art is specifically of Tibetan making. It is the Warrior
form. Typically a male warrior, human in appearance but sometimes wrathful, a soldier, wearing leather
or metal armor plate, with a helmet and battle flags, holding a spear or sword, riding a horse. These
deities represent the mountain gods and local deities and spirits of the Himalayan regions and Tibet that
have slowly been converted and transformed into Buddhist protector deities.
There are four gender specific types of figures. They are the first category, discussed earlier, which
described the Buddha, the Elder (Sthavira/arhat) and the King appearances, and also include the last,
Warrior Appearance. Female buddhas are depicted as peaceful in appearance. Queens are also
depicted as lay women, or as well attired and jeweled peaceful deities.
The only remaining sculptural figure not yet discussed is Pita Jambhala , peaceful in appearance,
holding a bijapuraka fruit in the right hand and a mongoose in the left hand cradled to the waist. He is
seated in a relaxed posture with the right foot resting on a wealth vase, atop a single lotus seat
supported by a series of pillar-like wealth vases. This type of figure does not fall under the category of
peaceful appearance but rather under the category of king appearance. King appearance, from the first
category of appearance, is described as having one face and two arms, a stern expression with a
furrowed brow and wide-open eyes, moustache and goatee, portly and rotund in girth, heavy set like a
king who is fabulously wealthy, and not short of luxury, and having an abundance of fine delicacies.
Figures with King Appearance can be wearing heavy layers of clothing typical of Tibetan royalty or
sometimes with very little clothing representing the warmer climate and kings of southern India.
Most of the sculptural pieces in this Nyingjei Lam group were created between the 13th to 15th century.
There are a number of different artistic styles represented, along with different regions, and different
religious traditions within Himalayan and Tibetan Buddhism. So, there does not appear to be any
consistency or uniformity among the pieces based on style, region, or iconography. The pieces are
clearly a mix of different regional taste and in some cases technique. Rarity can play a big part in
collecting art. Value is often tied to rarity and quality. Although rarity can generally be easily determined
with identifiable and known subject types. Quality is another matter which becomes very subjective with
little study, academic or otherwise, in the field of modern Himalayan art studies. Then again, ‘best of
type’ is becoming easier when so many comparable examples are available to study and compare. Still,
what is the main characteristic of the Nyingjei Lam sculpture? What can be said about the pieces as a
whole? What is really special?
There are probably two outstanding characteristics when considering this collection. The first is more
academic and takes into consideration the number and breadth of pieces representing a broad range of
artistic styles, regions and time periods. The second is more nuanced and recognizes an aesthetic
continuity between the pieces which specifically relates to the portrait-like faces of the figures. The faces
are all in good general physical condition with few abrasions, scratches or deformities due to casting
flaws or the travails of time. But more importantly, the faces are consistently beautiful with expression
and character. Both collection characteristics reflect on the collector and give some indication as to the
interest in the art and the collecting style. In conclusion the Nyingjei Lam collection should be regarded
as one of the finest 20th century collections of portrait-like bronze sculpture, some rare, some early, and always beautiful to see.
Jeff Watt 8-2017 (Published: Sothebys Catalogue, Hong Kong, October 2017).