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A Preliminary Survey of the Art & Iconography of Ling Gesar – A Tibetan Culture Hero

Jeff J. Watt (2012)

Ling Gesar (gling ge sar) is the most popular and well known culture hero of Eastern Tibet. He is believed to have been a king, a warrior, and a hero of numerous battles and adventures in both Tibet and in foreign lands. The stories of Gesar are learned from childhood by most Tibetans. It is this Oral history along with family and community storytelling that play a significant role in keeping the Gesar stories alive and giving birth to new interpretations and variations. Aside from the family tradition of oral stories there is also a tradition of professional singers and storytellers called Gesar Drung Pap (sgrung babs) who are believed to spontaneously narrate old and new stories of Gesar. This is accomplished by the blessing or spirit associated with Gesar descending directly into the storyteller. The Drung Pap are also known for wearing elaborate hats, or crowns, modeled after the many oral and literary descriptions of Gesar and his warrior garb and helmet. Each Drung Pap performer wears a unique and distinguishable hat. Some hats are more elaborate in design and others simpler in design.

There is an extensive body of epic literature relating in detail to the life of Gesar from the events prior to his birth to the events after his death. As to the dates of Gesar, when he lived and died, well, this is a much debated topic. Some Tibetan scholars place Gesar in the early centuries of the first millennium C.E. while other scholars date Gesar as late as the 13th century and almost every century in between. It is fair to say that there is no agreement amongst scholars on the dates for Gesar. There are also some writers and scholars from both the East and West that doubt that Ling Gesar was ever a real figure in history but rather a composite character created over time from the combination of many different historical narratives.

The geography associated with Ling Gesar is also a much debated topic in the field of study. The region of Lingtsang in the upper Dege area of Sichuan Province in China claims to be the birthplace of Gesar. Gesar is said to have been born and spent his youth in Lingtsang where many sites even today are known and associated with specific childhood stories and events. After leaving Lingtsang it is said that he never returned. The mountains surrounding Lingstang are even believed to have physically turned to witness the departure of Gesar and remain to this day facing away from the place of birth. In the epic literature Gesar has one elder brother Gyatsa Shalkar (rgya tsha zhal dkar) and it was his son Lhatse Gyal (sras dgra lha rtse rgyal) who later returned to Lingtsang and became the first in the line of Lingtsang Kings (rgyal po) which continue down to the present day. The current Lingtsang Gyalpo, Jigme Wangdu, is the 65th in the line and lives in Chengdu, Sichuan Province, China. There is a son, the next in line for the throne, named Ngawang Phuntsog Tobden Wangyal and a daughter named Ishu Drolma.

The stories of Gesar, voluminous in size, are brought to life through the telling of stories, dramatic dance performances, songs and public readings of his many adventures. It is claimed by some scholars that the literature of Gesar forms the longest single epic story in the world. Yet, despite this popularity and fondness for Ling Gesar that permeates Tibetan life and folk culture there is relatively little found in the way of iconographic representations and art. So far, all paintings and murals identified to date appear to be from the 19th and 20th centuries. The metal sculpture identified to date, of which there are only two examples so far, are products of the early 20th century. However, it is possible that with a comprehensive survey of the old establishments and sites associated with Ling Gesar then earlier artifacts and iconographic depictions of Gesar may still be found.

At this point in any study or investigation of Ling Gesar it is important to make clear that there are two major divisions in the field of Gesar studies. The first division is the study of [1] Gesar Epic Literature and the second division is the field of [2] Religious Gesar. The first division works with the stories, narratives and oral traditions of the Gesar epic literature. The second division works with the independent body of literature relating to Gesar as a religious figure, as an emanation of Padmasambhava and the Three Great Bodhisattva Lords – Manjushri, Avalokiteshvara and Vajrapani. The emergence of Religious Gesar appears to be relatively late in the development of Gesar literature and popularity. The dates primarily fall within the 18th and 19th centuries. Some early texts describing Gesar as a deity figure with accompanying meditations and rituals were written in the 17th century however the majority of the popular religious literature was a product of the 18th through 20th centuries.

The early authors of the ritual literature describing the iconographic forms of Gesar were scholars such as Lelung Jedrung Zhepa'i Dorje (1697-1740), Do Khyentse Yeshe Dorje (1800-1866), Nyala Pema Dudul (1816-1872), Jamgon Kongtrul Lodro Taye (1813-1899), Mipam Jamyang Namgyal Gyatso (1846-1912), Dasal Wangmo (circa early 20th), Tubten Tsondru (1920-1979), and others wrote ritual texts and smoke offering prayers (sang chod). Dasal Wangmo, a female author and religious teacher, of the early to mid 20th century wrote many Gesar related texts on ritual, history and biography. The 20th century Terton, Kunzang Nyima of Serta (passed away in the late 1970s or early 1980s), also wrote many texts including methods of accomplishment (sadhana) for the peaceful and wrathful forms, repulsion rituals, protection rituals and more.

Regardless of the different authors and ritual texts, a majority of the art objects that are currently known appear to be related or inspired by the writings of Do Khyentse Yeshe Dorje or Mipham Jamyang Namgyal Gyatso. Another late 19th century scholar from Dzogchen Monastery, Kyabje Pema Kalsang Rinpoche (1943-1979), wrote the elaborate explanation on how to perform the Gesar dance performance ('cham). In the colophon of the text it states that he relied on the great writings of the previous scholars. The most important of the previous scholars not mentioned in the colophon was undoubtedly Thubten Chokyi Dorje (1872-1935) the 5th Dzogchen Rinpoche of the famous Dzogchen Monastery. It was Thubten Chokyi Dorje that is credited with establishing the yearly Gesar dances at Dzogchen held during the summer Horse Racing Festival between July and August each year.

Iconographic Descriptions of Ling Gesar:
The most common and by far the most general depiction of Ling Gesar is that of a Tibetan warrior, with the face either in a peaceful gaze or with the gaze of a Tibetan king. He wears a battle helmet with elaborate flag pennants and streamers, body armor and a bow and quiver of arrows tied to the belt at the waist. Held upraised in the right hand is a horse whip (riding crop) made of bamboo with the growth rings visible. The left hand generally holds the horse reins along with an upright spear adorned with flags. His mount is a light brown horse with the long mane of hair braided with multi-coloured ribbons. In this appearance, Gesar follows the general Dralha Appearance (dgra lha or dgra bla), one of the eleven principal iconographic figurative forms in Tibetan art. The Buddhists interpret the meaning of the word dralha (spelled dgra lha) to mean Enemy God. The Bon Religion both spells the word differently (spelled dgra bla or an even earlier spelling skra bla) and has a slightly different interpretation which relates more to personal gods that are connected to the human personality from birth such as with the Five Gods of the
Head (go wa'i bla lnga) another Bon deity system.

Dralha Appearance, especially in the terminology of Tibetan artists, refers to a figure having the general appearance of a Tibetan warrior - typically male, wearing body armor or layered clothing and riding a horse (or other mount). The Dralha can have a peaceful, semi-peaceful or wrathful facial expression and corresponding characteristics. Many of the Tibetan & Himalayan Mountain Gods have Dralha appearance, however not all of them are defined or referred to as Dralha by Tibetan Buddhist deity category or function; however, regardless of their religious classification according to terminology of artists they have Dralha Appearance.

For the various Tibetan regional and mountain gods classified as Dralha in Tibetan art and iconography, when they appear in a painted composition then the Buddhist deity Vajrapani in wrathful form will typically be placed above - at the top center of the painting. This indicates that the Dralha are worldly gods under the watchful gaze of the powerful deity Vajrapani. Some paintings will alternately have Padmasambhava at the top center – performing the same function as Vajrapani – especially when Padmasambhava is credited with the subjugation of many of the indigenous Tibetan mountain gods.

It is very easy to confuse the general Dralha Appearance of an ordinary protector deity or mountain god (included in the various protector deity sub-sets) with the figure of Ling Gesar who is most often depicted in the same general Dralha Appearance. Many commonly known Tibetan gods and deities have Dralha Appearance such as: Tsiu Marpo and most other 'Tsen' deities, along with Dorje Setrab, Amnye Machen Pomra, Draglha Gonpo, and many others. The basic and most common form of Gesar follows this Dralha Appearance and looks much like any other indigenous Tibetan mountain god.

Of the few painted examples of Gesar in Dralha Appearance several compositions include the Thirteen Werma (wer ma bcu gsum) – a group of thirteen animals along with a pair of fish counted as one, a snake, eight four legged creatures and numerous and varied birds. These animals are the special and personal retinue of Gesar and are important in the identification of Gesar to distinguish his general appearance from other unrelated dralha forms. Gesar can also be depicted accompanied by eight or more horsemen, up to thirty in number. The group of thirty horsemen represents the Thirty Generals (phu nu sum cu) that accompany Ling Gesar into battle. These generals along with their names and exploits are discussed at length in the Epic Literature. (See the Appendix for a list of the names of the Thirty Generals).

The Thirteen Werma (wer ma bcu gsum):
1. White Lion (seng ge dkar po)
2. Light Blue Jackal (spyang ki sngo skya)
3. White Rabbit (ri bong dkar po)
4. Yellow Tea-[coloured] Deer (gla ba ja ser)
5. Tea-coloured Poisonous Snake (dug sbrul ja mdog)
6. Black Eagle (glag ja nag)
7. Multi-[coloured] Sparrow (khra skya bo)
8. Naturally White Vulture (bya rgod ngang dkar)
9. Smoke-coloured Owl ('ug pa du mdog)
10. Striped Tiger (stag 'dzum drug)
11. Black Wild Bear (dred mong nag po)
12. White Mouth Wild Donkey (rkyang kha dkar)
13. Golden Fish (gser nya gser po)

In the various texts discussing Religious Gesar there are two principal iconographic forms. The first is [1] Gesar Norbu Dradul and the second is [2] Gesar Dorje Tsegyal. The first, Gesar Norbu Dradul (ge sar nor bu dgra ‘dul) follows the typical Dralha Appearance as described above. Gesar Norbu Dradul in Dralha Appearance is the most common form of Gesar found in painted depictions. The second form, Gesar Dorje Tsegyal, does not follow the Dralha Appearance but rather the King Appearance, another of the principal eleven figurative forms in Tibetan art. The Dorje Tsegyal form although popularized by Mipham Gyatso is said to have originated with Lelung Jedrung Zhepa'i Dorje (1697-1740). This however needs to be confirmed by a close reading of the various written works of Zhepa'i Dorje and documented with the name of the specific text and page references. Unfortunately at this time not all of the texts of Zhepa'i Dorje are accounted for based on the known catalogues listing his written works. King Appearance in Tibetan art is a specific type of figurative form. The principal characteristics are the face often appearing with the eyes more open than for that of a peaceful figure, or deity, a stern look achieved by upturned eyebrows accompanied by a mustache and goatee. The clothing is heavy and layered with multiple colours, long sleeves, wearing a cloth head covering or hat sometimes with a small jeweled crown, and boots on the feet. Kings are generally seated on thrones with the legs in a relaxed posture with one extended and one retracted.

Gesar Dorje Tsegyal (rdo rje tse rgyal), Gesar Vajra King of Life, appears as a king with a peaceful appearance, topped with a tall white hat, heavy layered clothes of multi-colours, wearing boots. The right hand holds to the heart a wish-fulfilling jewel and the left extended to the side holds a bow and arrow. He is seated in a relaxed posture on a throne decorated with flayed human skins. Dorje Tsegyal can be depicted in this single form or accompanied by seven other figures. The other figures are the youth Dorje Legpa standing at the proper right side of Gesar and in a similar appearance. On the left side stands the female figure Dorje Yudronma. In front is the army general Migmar Chenpo along with the Four Great Secret Mothers appearing as beautiful young girls. In total there are eight figures described in the full group of the Gesar Dorje Tsegyal retinue. These two, Norbu Dradul and Dorje Tsegyal, are the most commonly depicted forms of Gesar – as a mounted Dralha warrior and as a seated king.

In the general study of iconography in Tibetan art it is important to [1] know how a figurative subject appears and to which of the Eleven Figurative Categories it might belong. It is important to [2] identify the name of the figurative subject and know the general function and role of the figure. It is also important to [3] know in what context the figure is most commonly depicted and what other figures or retinue figures are likely to be included in a depiction.

Aside from all of those important and necessary points to follow, it is also important to [4] know where and in what contexts a figure is not likely to appear. For the figurative subject of Ling Gesar, he generally only appears as the central figure of a painted composition. With some rare paintings Padmasambhava will be depicted larger with the figure of Gesar slightly smaller. Gesar will commonly be depicted either alone or with the Thirteen Werma. Gesar can also be depicted accompanied by either the six generals, eight or more, up to thirty generals, depicted as mounted horsemen. In the Gesar Epic Literature there are additional number groups of eighty and one thousand generals but these have not as yet appeared in any known, or identified, painting compositions. Now, concerning the form known as Gesar Dorje Tsegyal, he can appear alone or with seven additional retinue figures. The forms of Gesar described so far relate primarily to the subject of Religious Gesar. In the two known sets of narrative paintings Gesar can appear
as a child, a youth, or adult. He can be depicted in any appearance or posture suitable for the specific story being portrayed.

It is important to recognize that Gesar does not typically appear as an accompanying figure in other more traditional compositions such as with a central figure of a Buddha, religious teacher, meditational deity or protector deity. Gesar also does not appear as a protector deity in any Field of Accumulation (Refuge Field) paintings. Gesar does not appear in any lineage paintings or lineages of the Tibetan Kings. To reinforce the point, depictions of Ling Gesar in painting generally stand alone as a single and dominant subject unrelated to other subjects save for the usual image of Padmasambhava located at the top center of the composition. This is an important distinguishing characteristic in the presentation of the iconography of Ling Gesar. This understanding of the painted depictions shows how Gesar stands apart as a true Tibetan culture hero - not related or associated with the Buddhist traditions originating in India and the extensive pantheon of Tantric Buddhist deities.

For the study of Gesar in art and iconography which belongs primarily to the division of Religious Gesar Studies there are two excellent examples important for research and study. The first is a painting from the early 20th century that depicts all of the forms of Gesar that are described by Mipham Gyatso in his compilation text for the various spiritual practices of Gesar. The second example is a complete set of Gesar life story paintings from the mid to late 19th century, eleven in number. This first single painting resides in a private collection in Chengdu, Sichuan Province, China. The second example belongs to the Sichuan Provincial Museum, again located in Chengdu, Sichuan Province.

(The section below was edited out of the original Sichuan Museum publication --- J.W.)

A Single Painting Depicting the Forms of Gesar According to Mipham Gyatso

The example of a single painting with many forms of Gesar is important because it follows exactly the textual descriptions as written by Mipam Jamyang Namgyal Gyatso (1846-1912). The forms of Gesar depicted in this composition are some of the best known and most popular in the modern cult of Gesar religious practice and in artistic representations – painting and sculpture.

The single painting is of a standard medium size and is filled with figures. The central figure is Gesar Norbu Dradul in his Dralha (dgra lha) warrior appearance, the eyes are wide and the eyebrows raised, a moustache and goatee accent the face in the fashion of a Tibetan king, wearing body armor with elaborate decorations, a mirror and auspicious symbols. On the crown of the head is a battle helmet, gold in colour, decorated with jewels, a half vajra and adorned with flags and streamers. In the upraised right hand is a horse whip (riding crop) made of bamboo, adorned with coloured ribbons. The left hand holds to the side the reins of the horse, a lasso with the ends flying to the side and an upright flaming spear adorned with a white and orange flag unfurled. Tied to the belt are a sword, battle axe, bow and quiver of arrows. He sits
astride a light brown horse with a blue mane and tail, elaborately decorated and adorned, riding at full gallop. In front of Gesar is a table with numerous precious offerings and ritual objects. Surrounding the central figure is an elaborate canopy of flowers and clouds of various colours, along with four animals, a garuda, tiger, dragon and snow lion. Accompanying Gesar on the right and left side are five mounted warriors each similar in appearance to the central form of Gesar. On the viewer’s left are the three Great Generals known as the Tra Lag Jang Sum (khra lhag spyang gsum). On the right side are two further Great Generals. One of the original generals from this group (of two) died during a famous battle story in the epic literature and was replaced by another general. The names of all five generals including the one who died are: Damma Jangtra ('dam ma byang khra), Pala Sengtag Adom (dpa' la seng stag a sdom), Gade'i Chogyang Bernag (dga' bde'i chos skyong ber nag), Tagrong Zigpen (stag rong gzig 'phen), Onbu Anu Paseng ('on bu a nu dpa' seng) and Rongtsa Marleb (rong tsha dmar leb). (From the Appendix List
naming each of the Thirty Generals these five figures discussed above [plus one] are numbered as: 5, 6, 7, 10, 18 and 20).

The second most important figure in the composition of the single painting is Gesar Dorje Tsegyal (ge sar rdo rje rtse rgyal) located below the large central Gesar Norbu Dradul. Dorje Tsegyal is in the appearance of a Tibetan King with pronounced eyebrows, moustache and goatee. He wears a white hat adorned with ribbons, a half vajra and peacock feathers. The right hand holds to the heart a wish-fulfilling jewel and the left hand held to the side holds a bow and arrow. Wearing layered clothing of multiple colours, a long sleeved coat and boots, he sits with the right leg extended and the left drawn up atop an elaborate throne seat against the backdrop of an elaborate palace.

To the viewer’s left is the standing figure of the youthful male Dorje Legpa (rdo rje legs pa) also in the appearance of Tibetan King. It is possible that this figure of a youth is the peaceful form of the wrathful protector deity of the Nyingma Tradition – Dorje Legpa. He holds the right hand up in an open gesture and the left held at the waist grasps a single die with six black dots exposed. Another painting of the same iconographic subject depicts a single die held in the upraised right hand of Dorje Legpa. On the right side stands Dorje Yudronma (rdo rje g.yu sgron ma), originally a female Tibetan mountain goddess, beautiful in appearance, wearing similar clothing to the previous two figures. In her upraised right hand she holds an arrow and in the left a skull cup filled with nectar. In front and slightly below Dorje Tsegyal is the standing figure of Migmar Chenpo (mig dmar chen po), a wrathful male figure dressed as a warrior, holding the right hand upraised and the left placed at the side; surrounded by orange and red flames. To the right and left are four beautiful female figures known as the Four Great Secret Mothers (sang wa’i
yum chen shi).

Directly below Migmar Chenpo is another wrathful figure with the name Magyal Dorje Dragtsal (rma rgyal rdo rje drag rtsal) similar in appearance to Migmar Chenpo. He holds upraised in the right hand a spear and the left hand is held to the side. There are four additional figures in the larger composition that are closely related to the form of Dorje Tsegyal just described. These four related forms are located to the right and left of the central figure of Norbu Dradul, located above. Each has a special function, or activity, which according to Buddhist Tantra are known as the Four Activities and relate to [1] peaceful activities and in this case specifically referring to divination techniques, [2] increasing activities which relate to the increase of wealth, [3] powerful activities and [4] wrathful activities. The detailed description for each of these is found in the ritual literature.

At the top center of the composition is Padmasambhava in his typical appearance with a lotus hat and elaborate layered robes. He holds a vajra in the right hand and a white skullcup in the left with a katvanga staff cradled against the left shoulder. The right leg is pendant and the left leg drawn up in the posture of royal ease. To the proper right of Padmasambhava is the Indian abbot Shantirakshita and on the left side is the Tibetan King Trisong Detsen.

To the viewer's left is the deity Manjushri holding a sword and Prajnaparamita text. Next to him is a wrathful Heruka deity, a meditational deity of the Nyingma Tradition, with three faces and six hands, embracing a female consort. This Heruka figure is currently unidentified and not recognized as one of the Guhyagarbha Tantra wrathful deity figures or one of the Eight Heruka deities. It is likely to be a Heruka meditational deity from a Revealed Treasure tradition (ter ma). On the viewer's right side is the form of wrathful Vajrapani along with the four armed Chaturbhuja Avalokiteshvara, peaceful in appearance. According to the system of Religious Gesar, Ling Gesar is an emanation of the Three Great Bodhisattva Lords – Manjushri, Avalokiteshvara and Vajrapani. Gesar is also considered an emanation of Padmasambhava. Slightly below the row of figures at the top of the composition are two Tibetan monastic figures. The teacher on the viewer's left is in the iconographic appearance of Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo (1820-1892) and the teacher on the right is in the appearance of Patrul Chokyi Wangpo (1808-1887). Mipham Gyatso was a student of both Khyentse and Patrul. Although there are no inscriptions
identifying the figures, or any other inscriptions anywhere on the painting, it is most probable that these identifications are accurate.

At the bottom right and left of the composition are four additional figures. There are three dralha warrior figures riding horses and in addition the female figure of the protector deity Shri Devi Magzor Gyalmo, wrathful, holding a staff and surrounded by flames. The four are located one above the other at the bottom right and left sides of the painted composition. Magzor Gyalmo can sometimes be found as a special protector of the Khyentse Labrang of Dzongsar Monastery. A number of the Gesar ritual texts composed by Mipham Gyatso were completed during a time when he stayed at Dzongsar Monastery – the home of his principal teacher Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo.

(See the publication ge sar rgyal po'i gsol mchod skor. Publisher: si khron mi rigs dpe skrun khang, 1996. The specific text within this publication that describes all of the figures in the painting is called the gsol mchod phrin las myur ‘grub ces bya ba bzhugs so, pages 95-110).

(From the Treasury of Tibetan Pictorial Art: Painted Scrolls of the Life of Gesar. Editor-in-Chief, Zhang Changhong. Forward by Leonard van der Kuijp. Article by Jeff Watt. Sichuan Museum, 2012. ISBN: 978-7-101-08513-6).