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Pratapaditya Pal: Roshan Sabavala’s Tryst with Himalayan Art

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Lot 8: Hevajra
Parcel gilt-bronze
Eastern India
11th or 12th Century
Height 3 ½ in. (8.9 cm.)

Nairatmya, clinging round the neck of his hero and god, addresses him… (He replies:)/ There at (the mandala’s) centre am I, O Fair One, together with you… / I have eight faces, four legs, and sixteen arms, and trample the four Maras under foot. Fearful am I to fear itself,/ with my necklace made of a string of heads, and dancing furiously on a solar disc. Black am I and terrible with a crossed vajra on my head,/ my body smeared with ashes, and my mouths sending forth the sound HUM. But my inner nature is tranquil, and holding Nairatmya in loving embrace, I am possessed of tranquil bliss.

An extract from the Hevajra Tantra, Rob Linrothe, Ruthless Compassion: Wrathful Deities in Early Indo-Tibetan Esoteric Buddhist Art, London, 1999, p. 269.

Kapaladhara Hevajra in his sixteen-armed form, with eight heads, stands in pratyalidhasana on four Maras whose bodies are intertwined. He is joined in yab-yum with his consort Nairatmya, his principal hands crossed behind her back hold kapalas containing an elephant and a seated deity, his remaining fourteen hands, also hold kapalas, each either containing further animals or seated deities. Nairatmya encircles Hevajra’s waist with her left leg, her hands holding a vajrakartrika and a kapala. Both deities stand on an intricately cast multi-tiered pedestal of double-lotus form, above swirling water edged at top and bottom by a beaded rim.

The 12th century artist who sculpted the wax for this miniature masterpiece was evidently aware of the nuances of the Hevajra Tantra. He has captured the fury, the loving intensity, the dramatic movement. The deities are gilded, the Maras are not. Gilding overrides iconographic colour, so although the tantra describes Hevajra as black he can be visualised as golden, as gold is the colour of all gods. A gilt-bronze Hevajra shrine was found at Dharmanagar, Tripura, ibid, p. 270, pl. 194, which may also be the provenance of the Sabavala example. Linrothe concludes that Bengal was perhaps the centre of Hevajra teachings in India in the 12th century.

Containing the three most important Buddhist pilgrimage sites, Bodh Gaya, Nalanda, and Sarnath, Northeast India was the epicentre of Buddhist art and learning during the Pala and Sena Dynasties (mid 9th – 12th centuries). As Hindu traditions gained popularity throughout the rest of India, Buddhist practice and cultural production consolidated in the regions of Bihar and Bengal, supported by royal patronage and a sudden influx of Buddhist followers arriving from the North and Southeast of Asia. The local ateliers produced black stone steles for the large scale stupas and temples in the local region, but they also cast finely rendered votive bronzes on an intimate scale that could easily be transported overseas by visiting pilgrims, for use either as offerings to a monastery or in private devotion.

The 9th century founder of the Pala dynasty, Gopala and his successor Dharmapala were ardent followers of Buddhism, bestowing munificence upon the local monasteries, universities and Buddhist communities of the region. The universities drew students of the faith from across Asia. Amongst the diverse group of foreign followers who arrived in the area were a group of Tibetan scholars and pilgrims who came to learn about developments in Vajrayana and Tantrayana Buddhism. In contrast to the ‘first diffusion’ of Buddhism into Tibet, which was largely influenced by the Buddhist community of Kashmir, the Phyi Dar, the ‘second diffusion’ beginning in the 9th century was marked by a wave of Buddhist ideas and objects that traveled back from Northeastern India to Tibet. The infusion of Eastern Indian bronzes into Tibet also coincides with skilled artisans in metal casting travelling from India and Nepal to Tibet to set up local ateliers, whose bronzes then imitated East Indian styles. The Muslim invasion of Northeastern India in 1202 and the subsequent destruction of all major Buddhist centres of learning in the region, meant that the production of Buddhist icons ceased almost entirely in India. Instead, new ateliers begin to flourish in Nepal and Tibet taking on local stylistic influences and religious iconography.