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Chakrasamvara Embracing Vajravarahi
China or Tibet
15th Century
Pigments and ink on silk
22 ½ x 11 ¼ in (57.2 x 28.6 cm)

As in an earlier stone sculpture, this is a representation of the two-armed Sahaja Chakrasamvara, the "innate" or "spontaneous" Chakrasamvara. Adorned and attired similarly, he also stands in an active posture and displays the bell and the thunderbolt with the hands crossed in prajnalingana. Vajravarahi, striding sideways and holding the chopper and the blood-filled skull cup, throws her hands behind him.

The goddess is completely naked. She wraps her right leg around Chakrasamvara's waist, throwing all modesty to the wind and leaving no doubt about their sexual activity. The inclusion of an additional five figures in the painting provides clues to its Sakyapa association. The two protective wrathful deities at the bottom corners are probably Vajrapani and Mahakala. Above, in the sky, are Sakya Pandita in the center and two more Sakyapa teachers, one of whom, on the right, is probably Phagpa. These elements indicate that the underlying contemplation formula (sadhana) for the painting was different from that upon which the earlier stone was based. The painting also omits the two prostrate figures seen in the stone carving.

The expressive vigor of the figures is enhanced by the dramatic surrounding flames, which are strengthened by red highlights. Indeed, washes of reds of different tonalities have been used skillfully to enhance the aesthetic effect of this bold and vivacious drawing of almost calligraphic precision. The illusion of volume created by the central figures, the lotus with its three-dimensional treatment, and the dancing flames are particularly noteworthy.

Both the silk support and the stylistic features indicate a possible origin in China for Tibetan use. The presence of the Sakyapa teachers adds to the uncertainty because of their strong ties with the Chinese court. While an exact date is difficult to suggest until both Sakyapa hierarchs flanking Sakya Pandita are definitely identified, it does seem to be an earlier rather than a later thanka, whether painted in Tibet or China. It is certainly earlier than another representation of the same subject, which has the prostrate figures below, that was rendered by Situ Panchen (1700-74), probably in Derge (Jackson 1995, fig. 140). The attractively gnarled faces of the two deities in the Ford thanka are painted with the kind of finesse on encounters in fifteenth-century Sakyapa works in Tsang. Therefore, it is not improbable that this thanka was painted in a Sakyapa establishment by one of the Chinese artists imported into their realm during the fifteenth century.


all text and images © The Trustees of the Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore

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