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This outstanding example of monumental Tibetan painting represents Maitreya (TIB Byams-pa), the Future Buddha. He is identified by his distinctive attributes, the stupa and the kundika (pitcher), placed on two lotus flowers emanating from his upper arms. Maitreya wears princely clothes and jewels, as appropriate for a bodhisattva who resides in the Tusita Heaven. Yet he also sits on a lion throne performing the teaching gesture, hinting at his role as the Buddha of the next era. The seven Manusibuddhas (Buddhas incarnated in human form or Buddhas of the past), represented in the upper corners of the painting, constitute a lineage of teaching of the Buddhist law and reinforce the message of continuity of transmission of the dharma.
Maitreya’s benevolent bodhisattva nature is, on the other hand, stressed by placing him in the context of the eight Mahabodhisattvas: the other seven bodhisattvas of this group are represented as standing figures in the left register of the painting. The human masters who transmitted Maitreya’s doctrine are represented in the right register and are mostly depicted as Indian monks. They are recognisable as such because they do not wear the inner sleeveless shirt, which covers the right shoulder, typically worn by Tibetan monks. The presence of many Indian masters is not surprising, considering the antiquity of Maitreya’s cult, which presently makes him the only bodhisattva with a celestial status accepted by both the Mahayana and non-Mahayana traditions. Kashmir seems to be especially linked to the cult of Maitreya. Faxian, the Chinese pilgrim who journeyed to India in the fifth century, reports a story that an arhat transported a sculptor to Tusita, who, on his return, created a colossal statue of Maitreya in a place north of Kashmir. Some Tibetan teachers are represented on the painting, the most recognisable of whom is Milarepa on the right. In the lower part of the painting the consecration ceremony is depicted on the left, followed, below the throne, by some protective deities like Vaisravana seated on a lion and Nilayamarja trampling on a buffalo.
The painter of this Maitreya thang-ka used only a rather limited palette of yellow, red and browns to emphasize the rich green of the background silk. Stylistically he has adopted a basically Newari idiom, mixed with some Chinese influence in the volumetric rendering of the garments. The side figures are symmetrically placed around Maitreya, with little attempt to show a naturalistic setting. They are actually floating on clouds, which possibly represent the Tusita Heaven. An unusual detail is the representation of two atlases supporting the lion throne Maitreya is seated on. Atlases ultimately derive from the Graeco-Roman tradition and are well known in Gandhara and Kashmiri sculpture. Their presence in a fifteenth century Tibetan painting of Maitreya could point to a much earlier prototype from Western India for this image.
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