What all of the images below have in common is that they all depict some sort of round travel bag placed to the right or left side of the central figure. The bags can be a solid colour, multi-coloured and decorated, or ornamented with a finial at the top. An excellent example of an open bag, with a vajra, bell and damaru inside, can bee seen in the top right corner of HAR #173.
Video: Travel Bag of the Mahasiddhas
The bags are generally only found with monastic figures of some importance or with lay and siddha figures from the various sets of the Eighty-four Mahasiddha paintings. The bags are typically seen with the figures of Jowo Atisha, Arya Nagarjuna and Yogeshvara Virupa.
There are a few very clear sculpture where the bag is intended as a feature of the work. This is most commonly found with Jowo Atisha and with a particularly good example of the mahasiddha Tilopa.
The bag is not mentioned in iconographic literature and is also not seen in early painting and sculpture. It is most likely the bag developed as an artistic convention in the late 15th or 16th century. After these dates the bag is quite common in art with some Khyenri style examples dated to the 16th century and many New Menri painting examples after the 17th century.
The earliest examples in painting of the round travel bag are of the mahasiddha Virupa who typically leans backwards to the right or left with either the right or left arm raised to the sky. The bag could easily be interpreted as a cushion to support his rotund torso as his arm stretches upward.
Aside from Atisha and Nagarjuna, the bag does appear to be used as an artistic convention to help frame a figure that is sitting or leaning on an angle. Is it possible that the original intention of the round bag was actually a cushion to support a body with the torso leaning or in a relaxed casual sitting posture?
Jeff Watt 12-2021
(The images below are only a selection of examples from the links above).