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Buddhist book cover


    • First floor | Room 32 | India from 600

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  • Early Himalayan Art by Amy Heller

    Early Himalayan Art

    This book cover presents a central image of an enthroned Buddha making the abhaya mudra of protection, surrounded by eight standing Bodhisattvas. The group of deities is sculpted inside a pearled rectangular surround, while the outer border of the cover is carved with vegetal scrolling and flowers emerging from a stem beneath the Buddha's throne, and from the mouth of a mythical feline creature centred above the throne. Above its lion pedestal, the entire throne is surrounded by a circle of large, flat lotus petals. The Buddha's head is enclosed by a simple ovoid halo and his body by a circular nimbus. Their stark lines contrast strongly with the thick vegetation around him. The Buddha is seated on a deep bolster, resting on a shelf supported by two lions as well as vajras, which provides the key to his identification as Sakyamuni Buddha [1].

    The Buddha is carved in high relief; his body conveys a sense of massive strength with harmonious proportions, except for the exaggeratedly large hands and feet. The face has much surface wear but the point of the ushnisha, apparently a jewel finial, is still evident, which is a departure from the spherical ushnisha typically found in paintings and sculptures of the Buddha made during the eighth- to ninth-century Tibetan occupation of Dunhuang [2]. The Buddha wears a very heavy robe; his right shoulder is bare but the folds of the garment over his left arm are very thick and the sleeve very wide, extending to his knee. The Bodhisattvas stand between columns with a capital decorated by a single flower. They are all distinguished by different positions of the hands, although none holds any attributes to differentiate them further. Their crowns comprise three panels, a large triangle flanked by two smaller triangles, and a small flower above the ears. They are nude to the waist, save for a small necklace and bracelets at the wrist, and they wear an ankle-length dhoti. This dhoti does not cling to the legs; instead it is cut very wide, the extra fabric falling in folds at the side of each figure.

    The voluminous robe of the Buddha, particularly the extremely wide and long sleeve, recall the robes of the Buddha and Bodhisattvas in an early ninth-century sculpture in eastern Tibet [3]. In this book cover, the Bodhisattvas wear instead a loose dhoti which falls in stiff folds parallel to the legs. This style of dhoti is found in Tibetan clay sculptures in the Kachu temple in central Tibet, made around 820 AD [4]. In this book cover, unfortunately, the facial features of the Buddha and the Bodhisattvas cannot really be discerned, but their simple crown and necklaces, as well as the thick, double-stranded belt are also very similar to the models at Kachu. A similar crown and dhoti are adapted by later Tibetan sculptors in works attributed to the eleventh to twelfth century by von Schroeder; but on the whole, the dhoti is by then clinging more to the body, and rarely of ankle-length [5].

    On the side of the cover, at the centre, the tiered steps of a small stupa have been carved, surrounded by similar vegetal scrolling to that seen in the outer rim of the front surface of the cover. There is no indication of the title of the manuscript formerly contained in this book cover. The early ninth century was a period of a massive programme of translation in Tibet, and the pages of ancient Tibetan Buddhist texts recovered at Dunhuang have a rectangular format. In view of the archaic style of the garments, this book cover was possibly carved during the major translation phase of c. 800-40 AD, or else in the mid-tenth to early eleventh century, when the revival of Buddhism was beginning in western Tibet [6].


    1 The vajra is a symbol of the indestructible strength of the Buddha's teachings as expressed in the Vajrayana vehicle, the school of Buddhism prevalent in Tibet. The lions are primarily associated with Sakyamuni, although in certain Tibetan liturgies it is also the vehicle of Vairocana, but the combination of these two symbols suggests Sakyamuni.

    2 See Whitfield and Farrer, Caves of the Thousand Buddhas, pl. 1, for a portable painting on silk of Sakyamuni surrounded by a group of Bodhisattvas. For in situ representations, see Duan Wenjie, 5000 Years of Chinese Art, vol. 4, p.121, pl. 118: Yulin Cave 25, Amitabha surrounded by an assembly of Bodhisattvas.

    3 Heller, 'Early Ninth-century Images of Vairocana from Eastern Tibet', figs. 12, 14.

    4 Vitali, Early Temples of Central Tibet, pls. 5-10.

    5 von Schroeder, Buddhist Sculpture in Tibet, vol. 2, pl. 297C.

    6 Groenbold, 'The art of Tibetan book covers', p. 171, stated that early Tibetan manuscripts from Dunhuang were in roll form, however the collection of the Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris, comprises many rectangular format Tibetan Buddhist manuscripts recovered from Dunhuang, as well as accordion and roll format paper: see Heller, Tibetan Art, figs. 27-8, a wooden book cover, 19.5 x 66 cm, which has a C-14 dating to the mid-ninth century.

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