Wednesday, June 01, 2011

A Padampa Portrait Painting: The Middle

Zhije Lineage Tree, photo courtesy of Sotheby's
(click on the photo for an enlargement [I hope] - 
click on the enlargement for a super-sized version -
The copyright for the image remains with Sotheby's)

My, isn't this an amazingly beautiful painting?  Just ignore the stuff I'm writing here and go back to look some more at that painting. Some of the figures are so alive, you imagine they might talk to you or step off the page. Even if it is only partly there, it is really remarkable for so many reasons. Even if you didn't know the central figure was Padampa (and I do know that it's Padampa as you will see) it would be fascinating.

Now that we've seen and said how beautiful it is, let's look into what can be known about this historically richly important painting. The first thing that I believe can be known without a doubt is that the central figure is Padampa. I would know this if only the central figure, nothing else, were visible in it. Equally, if only the surrounding figures were visible while the central figure was left blank, I could tell you who the person in the blank space ought to be, so much am I sure of this identification. But you may need to read further into this blog if you want to learn at least some of the sources of my conviction, not least among which is an early text that basically tells you what the Zhije lineage tree would look like if you were to visualize it. The text is very likely to date from somewhere close to the same time as the painting itself. But please don't do as I know some are inclined to do and assume that the painting must have proceeded out of the text. It could be that the painting is older. Try to keep an opened mind. We'll go where the evidence leads us.

First, some necessary disclaimers:

I don't have any connection to the art trade, let alone any art auctioning houses.  I wouldn't call myself a collector, or if I am, I never owned any art that cost me more than one hundred dollars, which I guess from some perspectives would label me as pathetic. I have nothing to gain or lose if anything I might say would have an effect on the future placement of this painting or the livelihood of its owners, although my best hope is that it will go to a public institution (like a museum) that will take care of it well. I find it a matter both for pride and alarm that Tibetan paintings have already a few years ago pushed through the million dollar ceiling. 

Well... This kind of neutrality is important. With no economic interests, I can speak freely but perhaps, too, you might feel a little more inclined to believe what I have to say, although it's hard to feel too sure of it. I won't even pretend to be neutral about Padampa. What would he think about all this high-level commerce going on around his person? If you need to ask this question, it's clear you have yet to be introduced.

I was surprised to see this painting on auction, although I wasn't surprised that it existed. I knew about it back in around 2004 or 2005, when I corresponded about it with A.H. It was A.H. (I will put your complete name here if you will permit me) who brought it to my attention for the first time and sent me some photographs. I very much wanted to study it and write about it, but the owner at the time, it appears, was not interested. He wanted to keep its existence a secret. I must admit, I was a little annoyed by this decision, especially since I was at the time writing up an article, meanwhile published, on the iconography of Padampa. 

Now compare the central figure in the painting with the figure on your left in this ink drawing dating to the mid-13th century:

Ink drawn miniature - Padampa ("Dam-pa") on your left, his student Kunga on your right -
from vol. 2 (kha), folio 15, the Zhijé Collection scribed in 1245 or so

When you compare the two Padampas illustrated here so far, you see a few remarkable things in common. First of all visualize the thrones away as irrelevant. Then look at the interesting and unusual ‘lobed’ hair on top of his head (more on this later) with what looks like several small braids splayed out over the shoulders.  Look a little closer and notice the skimpy beard in both portraits.

Wait, let me try and put a detail of the painted head up here for you so you won’t have to scroll back and forth so much:

The hand gestures (the mudrâs) are different, but then they are different in all the images in the Zhijé Collection (I’ve only put one example here; others may be seen in the Martin article listed below). Both are seen sitting in what might best be described as a sitting bag, otherwise they both are basically naked. I’m not an expert on this subject, but I imagine the style of Padampa’s loincloth in the painting resembles better the simpler style of underwear, with string or twisted cloth tied at the sides, used in South India (kaupina seems to be the word for it) than the somewhat more complicated langot[i] used in the north. I won’t embarrass myself by exposing more of my ignorance on this particular matter, although I would warmly welcome clarification from those more knowledgeable. If it is in fact an item of South Indian attire depicted here, there is something wonderful about knowing this. It lends a touch of South Indian authenticity to his portrayal.

I promised to return to the hair. Perhaps you are already aware that Padampa is normally portrayed in more recent Tibetan art with something closely resembling the standard “Buddha curls.”  In early art, as well as this text that must date to mid 13th century, we find something different:
“Imagine the precious holy Indian Dampa with a body of dark brown color with a reddish cast, his hair rising up like elm tree [leaves?], wearing a varicolored loincloth, his hands held in a cross-pointed (tips crossed?) gesture [capable] of pressing down all of phenomenal existence if he pressed down with them or raising it up if he raised them.”*
(*For the source, see the work by ’Jam-dbyangs-mgon-po listed below, p. 413. This passage was cited already in Martin’s 2006 article, pp. 118-119. The Tibetan text will be examined a little further on in this blog.)

Let’s think about what this passage says. Ignore for the time being the mudrâ, since the fact is the language of the description isn’t clear, and in early representations his gestures haven’t become fixed yet.  Then notice it says that his body was “of dark brown color with a reddish cast.” This rather exact description of skin tone seems to be followed out in the painting. If that idea leaves you plagued by doubts, notice the mention of the loincloth, not often seen in Padampa portraits (although I get your point, it doesn’t seem to be very ‘variegated’ in color as the text would have it).  Is it possible that this text played a role in the making of the painting? 

I’m not sure we can answer the question. Still, in the attempt we may learn something. Besides, if some large part of the information in the text corresponds with what is in the painting, it ought to be enough for us. I think the information that enters into the painting has the same general source as that that enters into the text, so one may be used to illuminate (or in some cases perhaps add to or correct) the other.

Well, what I’ve just described is a major project that may takes more effort and time than I can give to it. I think we will have to take a lot of texts into account to explain the painting in its entirety. Two cases in point are the identity of the two divine mandala arrays on either side of Padampa, but on his same mid-level part of the painting. Let's start with the one on his right (your left):

Detail of divine assemblage on the central figure’s right side
Although I haven’t yet located any text about her, neither among the Tanjur texts by Padampa nor in the Zhijé Collection, it appears we must identify the central figure as Rdo-rje-gtum-mo, with the four surrounding figures being the las-mkhan-ma. Basing ourselves on the Dharmaśrī text in the Gdams-ngag Mdzod, vol. 13, p. 251, they are:

1. In the southeastern quarter, lion-faced.
2. In the southwestern quarter, tiger-faced.
3. In the northwestern quarter, monkey-faced.
4. In the northeastern quarter, wolf-faced.

Given that east is usually the direction closest to the viewer, the orientation may need to be tipped 90° or so one way or another... Do you think the textual information fits the animal heads in the painting?

Divine assemblage on the central figure’s left side

On Padampa’s left side is a different divine assemblage, with a form of Vajravārāhī at the center. In this case we do have a Padampa text in the Tanjur. It’s this one: Rdo-rje-phag-mo’i sgrub-thabs — Toh. 2328, found in vol. ZHI, fol. 269, where she is described like this:
rnam par dag pa lha'i sku zhal gcig phyag gnyis pa gri gug dang thod pa dang kha ṭwāṃ gi 'dzin pa / sku mdog dmar ba la dur khrod chas kyis brgyan pa zhabs g.yas bskum pa / g.yon brkyang bas dus mtshan ma mnan pa / gar dgu'i nyams kyis bzhugs pa bsgom par bya'o //
To translate quickly: 
“Visualize a perfectly immaculate divine form of one face and two arms holding chopper and skullcup and khatvanga, her body red in color ornamented with the cemetery items, her right leg bent, the right extended pressing down Kālarātri (Dus-mtshan-ma), displaying all nine communicable dramatic emotions (rāsa).”
The main different aspect of this portrayal is that Vajravārāhī has a sow’s head alone.  Usually the sow’s head is off to the side of a human face. The single representation that exists for her among the ink drawings in the Zhijé Collection, doesn’t appear to show any sow’s face at all, but it isn’t all that clear. It is at least of interest because the loose scarf floats around her in a very similar way to the one in the painting.  The legs are reversed, you may notice.

Now that we’ve finished with the central register, we’ll talk about the figures both visible and invisible in the upper register, along with the group primarily made up of Tibetan followers of the Zhijé lineage down below Padampa, in an upcoming blog posting.  Until then...

- - -

Here is the description of “Lot 85” of the Stuart Carey Welch collection, Part II, at the Sotheby’s site. Try to get there soon in case the link expires.

Although Stuart Carey Welch was born long before me, we were born in the same city. For an obituary look here. He specialized in Indian Mughal and Islamic art, and taught for 35 years at Harvard. I once had one of his books as the only assigned textbook in an Islamic art class, which is the main reason I remember his name. He was definitely one who felt that one could appreciate art and art history well enough without being encumbered by the language used in the culture that produced the art. Perhaps that helped to make his book more suitable for an undergraduate course, if I may be forgiven for trying my best to put this all in a better light.

Not everyone joined in the “chorus of praise” for Sotheby’s record-breaking sale (i.e., earnings) of the Islamic art in the Welch collection that took place in April. Here is what Souren Melikian had to say about it. Souren Melikian, by the way, is one of the most formidable scholars on the subject of early Iranian and Islamic connections with Buddhism and Buddhist art, and on the history of Iranian Buddhism in general. His criticism of the auction houses in recent years has placed them on the defensive, which is probably why they more than anyone need to hear what he has to say. I’m just passing on this information. I’m not eager to criticize auction houses or the people who bid in them, not today.  Today, if you don’t mind, I’ll feign neutrality and keep my opinions to myself.

§  §  §

More to read, as if you can’t find enough, and even more discussions of tediously minor issues that have to do with trees, hair and the like:

On the iconography of Padampa, see D. Martin, Padampa Sangye: A History of Representation of a South Indian Siddha in Tibet.  Contained in: Rob Linrothe, ed., Holy Madness: Portraits of Tantric Siddhas, Rubin Museum of Art (New York 2006), pp. 108-123. There is a brief but substantial iconographical study of Padampa (Pha Dam-pa Sangs-rgyas) contained in Lokesh Chandra, Transcendental Art of Tibet, International Academy of Indian Culture and Aditya Prakashan (New Delhi 1996), pp. 97-8, revised in Lokesh Chandra, Dictionary of Buddhist Iconography, International Academy of Indian Culture and Aditya Prakashan (New Delhi 2003) vol. 9, pp. 2619-20.

'Jam-dbyangs-mgon-po, Grub-chen Dam-pa Sangs-rgyas-nas Brgyud-pa'i Dam-chos Sdug-bsngal Zhi-byed-kyi Lam Lnga'i Khrid-yig Dri-med Snang-ba Grub-pa Mchog-gi Zhal-lung, contained in Gdams-ngag Mdzod: A Treasury of Precious Methods and Instructions of the Major and Minor Buddhist Traditions of Tibet, Brought Together and Structured into a Coherent System by 'Jam-mgon Kong-sprul, Lama Ngodrup and Sherab Drimey (Paro 1979-1981), vol. 13, pp. 409-438. About the author of this text, which is misattributed in the Table of Contents, look here and here. Following is the text of the passage translated above, although I also consulted a parallel in the same volume. This passage is on p. 413:  rje btsun dam pa rgya gar rin po che sku mdog smug la dmar ba'i mdangs chags pa / dbu skra bho lo ltar gzengs pa / sku la ras khra bo'i am gar ga gsol ba / snang srid thams cad mnan na non pa / btegs na theg pa / phyag rgya rtse bsnol du lag ge ba. This differs from, and deserves comparison with, the parallel in the same volume at p. 369 buried in a lengthy work by Smin-gling Lo-chen Dharmaśrī (1654-1717): rje btsun dam pa rgya gar rin po che sku mdog smug la dmar ba'i mdangs chags pa / dbu skra yo 'bog gi sdong po ltar gzengs pa / sku la ras khra bo'i ang rag gsol ba / snang srid thams cad mnan na non pa / btegs na theg pa / phyag rgya rtsa bsnol du bzhugs par bsam mo. I located in medical reference books the Tibetan word yo-'bog, identified as Ulmus pumila: Siberian elm. I thought it ought to mean the rather serrated lobes of the leaves, but here it clearly says that his hair rises up like the trunk (or just the whole tree) of the Siberian elm. I couldn't identify the bho-la found in the other text, although I suppose it could be Zhangzhung language for rabbit, or, as found in other T-B languages, a word for thumb (just grasping at straws here, friend).

There is, if truth be told, a small body of literature about hair - and the absence of hair - among Buddhists. But perhaps the most interesting for present contexts is Benjamin Bogin, The Dreadlocks Treatise: On Tantric Hairstyles in Tibetan Buddhism, History of Religions, vol. 48, no. 2 (November 2008), pp. 85-109 (references to further literature on hair may be found here).

Are you surprised that there is actually a blogger site devoted to traditional Indian underwear and loincloths in particular? When you get over your amazement, you can find it here. The Tibetan words for loincloth used in the two versions of that early description of Padampa are am-gar-ga (probable better reading: am-ga-rag) and ang-rag. I've never seen the first spelling, even in the corrected reading of it, while the second is seen occasionally, but not all that often. Tibetans in the past have been known to wear the loincloth, although it’s not the usual fashion. As suggested by one Bengali scholar whom I’ll mention in a moment, it seems to be limited to Tibetan yogi types and not everyday wear by ordinary people. I’ve been assured that traditional Tibetans wore something they call[ed] a smad-g.yog, which just means a lower [body] wrap, and as the name suggests it's just a piece of cloth wrapped like a very short skirt around the waist without — how shall we say it — any support mechanism. In his often but not always reliable (in my humble opinion) listing of Indic loan words in Tibetan, Vidhushekhara Bhattacharya, Loan Words in Tibetan, Archiv Orientalni, vol. 6 (1934), pp. 353-357, at p. 356, no. 74, says that an-'ga'-rag, another spelling I haven’t encountered, means “the trousers worn as an under-garment by Tantric priests in Tibet, cf. Hindi aṅgarkhā, Skt. aṅgarakṣā.” The Sanskrit word he gives means literally limb protection, and that might appear to suit the loincloth somehow, come to think of it, but my Monier-Williams dictionary gives a closely similar word as meaning limbs protector, which is to say coat of mail. An epigraphical dictionary says it means [the king's] bodyguard. Other sources translate it as coat or even turban. The Hindi word he gives is not in my Hindi dictionary. So, well, I don’t know if Bhattacharya is right on this or not, although the reading am-ga-rag would seem to help him, if this is the right reading and if it would in fact represent an earlier and not-yet-so-Tibetanized form of the presumably borrowed word. No plausible Tibetan etymology of the two syllables ang and rag rises up to suggest itself, so let’s bet more than even odds it really is a borrowing of some kind or another. Still, I haven’t succeeded in finding any source for the notion that Sanskrit aṅgarakṣā means underwear. I’ll keep looking.

-  -  -

Note:  I’ve timed the posting of this blog for the day after the painting is to be auctioned. If you think about my possible reasons for doing this, I don’t think you’ll be too far off.  

Happy Birthday, Larry!

PS (Dec. 1, 2014):  Thanks for Small Person for pointing out that the url stopped working.  I hope it will work now!


  1. The auction results are in, and the painting went to a "European institution."

    You can find out more here if you are interested.

  2. Thomas Roth [Sherab Drime]Monday, June 06, 2011

    Re your "sitting bag": what you describe here is commonly known as a "zla gam" in Tibetan and still very much in use these days. I have one myself for use in winter. It is a heavy cloak, usually made of felt and lined with one or the other kind of fur, these days most often synthetic. They're mostly maroon, while those for monks or masters higher up in the hierarchy are often yellow or orange and the outer material may be silk or even brocade. In moderate winter temperatures one would simply sit in them to keep one's legs, kidneys and lower back warm. That then looks exactly like Padampa in these pictures. In very cold weather you would pull them up over your shoulders and be almost completely wrapped in it, just your head sticks out. Very nice and toasty indeed...



  3. Dear Sherab-la,

    What you say about the zla-gam is true, but I haven't seen this item much represented in Tibetan art. There are two examples in that Wisdom and Compassion book edited and partly authored by Thurman and Rhie (the old 1991 edition), pp. 201 and 254, and I think 270 (now that I come to look for them, I think you can spot them fairly often in portraits of Tibetans).

    Although it must be the very same item Padampa made use of, still I don't believe the word zla-gam is ever used to describe it. There is an old word phyam-tse that is defined in the dictionaries of supposedly obsolete words as meaning the same as zla-gam, but I don't think it was used in the Zhije Collection either, although you do find it in the Zhije chapter of the Blue Annals spelled phyam-tshe and phyam-rtse. The word you do find in the early sources associated with Padampa is bal-thul. In other words it's a thul[-pa], an outer robe that was usually made of pelts, but one that is specified as being made of wool (bal). I'm not sure about the meanings of the syllables of phyam-tse and zla-gam, are you? Well, sure, zla-gam may indicate that the entire garment was supposed to the shape of a half circle. Sorry, I'm just thinking aloud and playing with the words. Thanks for writing and have a great day.


  4. Thomas Roth [Sherab Drime]Monday, June 06, 2011

    Hi Dan!

    I guess, as you say, that "zla gam" simply refers to the shape the thing has with someone sitting in it. It may also be a fairly modern term. What with Padampa having been rather early, they might have used all sorts of different names back then. I've never come across the term "phyam tse" and can't think of any possible meaning right now.

    Concerning the Vajravārāhī with a single sows head, there are various forms of her like that. Tāranātha describes three in his "rin byung brgya tsa": "phag mo don grub", "rje btsun ma thod pa rgyan can" and "bram ze dpal 'dzin lugs kyi phag mo".

    The main figure in the maṇḍala on his right seems rather more intriguing. She does display the sows head on the right, but I just can't make out the attributes in her hands, except for (maybe) a lotus flower in her upper left hand. Maybe "rdo rje gtum mo" indeed. Must find my copy of the Sadhāna-mala. Right, back to a cold glass of lassi and my fan.

    Greetings from much too hot Kathmandu. If only the monsoon would get under way...


  5. "People say I'm two-faced. It's true. To be one-faced is inadequate. There are two sides to every question... and really, in life, one needs a face for each side."

    Countess Lydia Ivanovna in Anna Karenina (the 1935 movie version).

    I'm not sure if she was thinking about conventional truth and ultimate truth.


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