Tibetan Sculpture
David Weldon
vajrapani2Amongst the earliest religious imagery in Tibet are fabulous seventh-century carved wooden doorways, lintels and capitals in the Lhasa Jokhang, the holiest sanctuary in the land.1 The carvings, depicting Vedic, Brahmanical and Buddhist mythological scenes, are quite outstanding and noticeably similar to sculpture in Nepal at this period. Indeed they so consummately express Nepalese Licchavi period (c. 300-879) aesthetics, built on classic Indian Gupta period (c. 320-475) sculptural ideals, that the artists must have been perfectly versed in this well-established sculptural tradition. It is clear that Tibetans sought the very best artists they could find to decorate this sacred building, and they chose the master craftsmen of the Himalayas, …
The Nepalese artists who could best interpret the mythology in the most beautiful manner. One can only imagine the splendour of this temple at the time of its construction, when some of the finest remnants of its glory are these peripheral architectural elements. The Nepalese are extraordinary metal workers, and shrines in the Jokhang might well have been filled with the gilded copper images for which they were famed. Indeed, according to Tibetan tradition the Jokhang was built as a shrine to a Nepalese copper image of the Buddha. The statue was brought to Tibet by the Nepalese princess Bhrkuti, as part of her dowry in her marriage to the Tibetan King Songtsen Gampo (c. 618-649). Politically unstable times followed in Tibet that were non-conducive to Buddhism and the commissioning of sculpture. But it was the reintroduction of Buddhism in the tenth century that instigated a vast and continuous production of religious art in the land.
From the latter half of the tenth century Tibetans sought religious inspiration in the neighbouring Indian subcontinent, the homeland of Buddhism, where sophisticated sculptural styles had been evolving for centuries. The Chinese Buddhist pilgrim Xuanzang (602-664) described silver statues over three metres in height depicting Avalokiteshvara and Maitreya in niches flanking the entrance to the Mahabodhi temple at Bodhgaya. He records a large Buddha image made of metal in another shrine in the temple complex. And he observed an important statue of Buddha, cast in gold and silver and inlaid with gems and precious stones being worshipped in the monks’ residence.The Kashmiri historian Kalhana (fl. mid-twelfth century) described the making of massive sculptures in gold, silver and copper, commissioned by a local king:
Into the image of Muktakeshava he put eighty-four thousand tolakas of gold. And collecting as many thousands of palas of silver, that pure-minded [king] made the famous [statue of] Parihasakeshava.3 With just as many thousands of prasthas of copper he made the glorious [statue of] the ‘Great Buddha’ (Brhadbuddha) which reached up to the sky.4
It was sumptuous, sophisticated and awe-inspiring statues of gold, silver and bronze such as these that Tibetan pilgrims encountered in their travels, and which they set out to emulate in their nascent Tibetan sanctuaries. A wealth of Tibetan patronage brought artists from Kashmir to work in the construction and decoration of western Tibetan temples, the large sanctuary sculptures made from clay in more or less the concurrent Kashmiri idiom.
Numerous medieval eastern Indian, Kashmiri and Nepalese sculptures were carried to Tibet by pilgrims or visiting masters, and these images were reverently copied, or their style interpreted by Tibetan artists. This Tibetan image of Buddha may not be as refined as its eastern Indian precursor, but it is nevertheless imbued with a strong spiritual presence. It is this emphasis on spiritual qualities over sensuous form that in some ways distinguishes Tibetan sculptural styles from those of India and Nepal. Eastern Indian sculptural traditions were influential in the south-central Tibetan regions in this early period, due to their relative geographical proximity and the presence there of important eastern Indian masters. While teaching in Tibet, Atisha (982-1054) was known to have commissioned art to be brought from ateliers in his Indian homeland. A great work of Indian art associated with such a revered Indian master would have had iconic status and would certainly have had an impact on local artistic trends. But this contact with India was to come to an abrupt end. Muslim invasions of eastern India in the twelfth century brought persecution of Buddhism and the destruction of temples and their sculpture, and the bonds between Tibet and eastern India were thus all but severed. With the demise of Buddhism in India, Tibetans lost an enormously important link with the origins of their faith. In India, they had found a model for Buddhism and Buddhist art that served as a cornerstone for their own sculptural traditions. Breathtakingly powerful sculpture in a highly individual style filled Tibetan sanctuaries built in the period before the loss of contact, such as in the eleventh-century sites of Yemar and Kyangbu.5Indian artists are known to have escaped to Tibet, but being cut off from the source of their sculptural heritage, now destroyed by the invaders, their influence waned. And with no Indian masters to bring fresh teachings and inspiration, this gloriously inventive period came to a close.
Nepal, meanwhile, escaped the full force of Muslim invasion and occupation, with its artistic communities intact. The Newar artists of Nepal had always been widely employed in Tibet. And from around the thirteenth century onwards their mature indigenous style became the dominant foreign influence on Tibetan sculpture. In 1261, Aniko (1244-1306) was sent from Nepal as the leader of a group of eighty fellow Nepalese craftsmen to work in the Sakya monastery. He was such an accomplished artist that he was to go on to take the title ‘Supervisor-in-chief of All Classes of Artisans’ at the court of the Mongol ruler Kublai Khan (1216-1294).  Newar craftsmen are masters in gilding techniques and the setting of gems in the jewellery of statues. Ian Alsop has noted Newar inscriptions on panels from the fabulous sanctuaries of the Tibetan Densatil monastery, with their towering constructions of silver and gilded bronze inset with gems, now sadly destroyed. There is a marked diversity in styles at any one given period in Tibet, due to distance between cultural centres, and local customs and style choices. Yet another style emerged in the fifteenth century, with the Chinese Yongle emperor’s ateliers inventing a completely new way of representing the Tibetan Buddhist pantheon. The finely gilded and exceedingly crisply cast images, never embellished with inset jewels, were produced in some numbers and many found their way to Tibetan monasteries as imperial gifts. The bronzes come from the short period between 1403 and 1424, and thus provide a useful guide to dating Tibetan bronzes bearing similar features.
More than any other culture from the Indian subcontinent or the Himalayas, Tibetans especially venerate their Buddhist teachers, and bronze portraits of the masters, to serve as reminders of their inspired teachings. In esoteric Buddhism particularly, the relationship between a Buddhist teacher and his disciple was paramount, for it was said that a disciple could become awakened only by contact with an enlightened spiritual master.6 In his Lamp for the Path (Bodhipathapradipa), composed specifically for Tibetans, the Indian Buddhist teacher Atisha wrote:
Without holy men [for guidance]
One will always go astray.
Therefore an intelligent person
Wins the favour of a guru, and
Asks for the right personal guidance which
Is in accord with the guru-tradition.7

Similarly, mahasiddhas and yogins are a popular theme in Tibetan sculpture. Fabulous tales abound of the exploits of those who devoted themselves to the attainment of truth and wisdom, often taking extreme paths to this end. One such Tibetan yogin, Tsang Nyön Heruka, ‘The Madman of Tsang’ (1452-1507), emulated the Indian mahasiddhas and spent years of meditation in charnel grounds, his body smeared with blood and human ashes. The mahasiddhas explained, by their example, the true nature of the Void, and were respected and revered by Tibetans for this commitment.
The subject matter of almost every Tibetan sculpture is of a religious nature and predominantly Buddhist. The pre-Buddhist Bön religion has always had a presence in Tibet, but sculpture depicting their pantheon is comparatively uncommon. Secular sculpture is virtually unknown save for massive ninth-century stone lions marking royal tombs. The early Tibetan Buddhist kings are themselves deified, with their portraits enshrined alongside Buddhas, bodhisattvas and protector deities. It was Buddhism that prevailed in Tibet from the turn of the eleventh century and there was no call for secular art. Buddhist symbolism is everywhere and Buddhist statues abound, from private altars in town houses to devotional images in the tents of nomadic yak herders, to the ranks of bronzes in temple collections. It is an act of merit to commission a Buddhist image and Tibetans did so with enthusiasm for centuries, filling their temples with statues.

1. See von Schroeder, 2001, pp. 406-431.
2. Beal, Book VIII, pp. 118-119, 122-123 and 133.
3. A pala might correspond to between 40 and 50 grams, see Weldon & Casey Singer, 1999, p. 38.
4. Stein (1892), vol. 1, p. 142.
5. See von Schroeder, 2001, pp. 832-849.
6. See Bhattacharya, 1980, pp. 93-96; Snellgrove, 1959, p. 30.
7. Atisha, 1980, pp. 16-17