Himalayan Art Resources

Iconography: Buddhist Art & Tantric Iconography


The flat art examples, two dimensional, in Himalayan art has three principal types, figurative, narrative and diagrammatic. The Buddhist art of the Himalayan regions represents three stages or vehicles in the development of the religion, Shravakayana (Hinayana), Mahayana and Vajrayana. The art of the first two, Shravakayana and Mahayana, are primarily narrative and based on the Sutra literature. The only exception to this are the iconographic descriptions of Shakyamuni Buddha with the thirty-two major and eighty minor marks of a 'maha purusha' or Supreme Being. Further to that, the art is based on the conventional artistic styles of those local cultural and geographic regions. Painting styles will also typically change over the course of fifty to one hundred years.

Vajrayana Buddhism also follows along the same artistic lines as the the previous two vehicles with one large additional complexity based on the added Tantra literature and iconographic descriptions of meditational deities. The description of these deities while rudimentary is fixed and not very flexible to change. The basics characteristics of Tantric iconography are gender, age, appearance based on the Eleven Figurative Forms, number of faces, limbs, colour, hand attributes, adornments, jewelry, seat, halo colour, landscape, and attendant figures. The precise and technical appearance of Buddhist Tantric deities are based on Indian textual descriptions which are found in the tantra literature.

Tantric iconography can also be called text/textual and tradition/traditional. Tradition here refers to painting tradition, not to be confused with painting style. The descriptions can be further elaborated on in an explanatory tantra or a commentary written by historical Indian teachers. Later commentaries written by Himalayan and Tibetan authors might provide even further detail or document oral instructions passed down through an earlier tradition of lineage teachers.

Regional artistic preferences further influence the appearance of a deity with regard to the overall shape of the body, regionally available colour pallet, along with interpreted style for depicting the hand attributes and design of body ornaments. The style of specific deities generally changes over time with the development of new aesthetics, painting styles, and the preferences of individual artists. Influential artists with large painting ateliers gradually transform into painting traditions for a period of time until once again adapting to new aesthetics influenced by up and coming artists.

There are always some, but not many, exceptions to the orthodox description of a deity. A well known example is the figure of Hevajra with eight faces and sixteen hands. According to early textual descriptions he has four legs with the two right placed with one standing and one raised and with the left legs, again, one standing and one raised. According to the oral instructions of the mahasiddha Virupa the two right legs are standing and the two left legs are raised in a dancing posture.

Sakya Tradition descriptions of the deity Vajrabhairava have the faces turned slightly to the side. Gelug Tradition presents the faces directed forward. These small variations in appearance are based on religious school preference and not on textual sources.

Arapachana Manjushri is textually described as white in colour however when the practice migrated and reached Tibet in the 11th century the colour was changed to orange in the more popular of the forms and less well known in the original white form as described in the source text, Siddhaikavira Tantra.

Orthodoxy for deity figures is primarily based on the textual description. Variations in artistic design and style are influenced by region, time period, and painting tradition. In modern times, figures are accepted as more or less correct based on both textual description, religious tradition, and the painting tradition of the time.

Jeff Watt 6-2020 [updated 2-2024]