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Marcel Nies

16. King Songtsen Gampo
17th century
Gilt copper, cold gilding and traces of paint on the face, cast in the lost wax method, sealed, turquoise inlay
height 20 cm.

King Songtsen Gampo

Songsten Gampo is regarded as the founder of the first royal dynasty in Tibet. This powerful monarch and conqueror ruled Tibet from 627 till 649 A.D. He was the thirty-third king of the Yarlung dynasty, originating from the Yarlung valley, Southeast of Lhasa. His marriages to both a Chinese princess and one of the royal Nepalese family, led to his acceptance of Buddhism. Being the first religious king, he built a number of Buddhist temples, unifying the factious regions into the first Tibetan empire. Earning the true status of an emperor, the king extended its boundaries throughout Central Asia and defeated the armies of Tang China. The intelligent ruler controlled the silk route cities and dominated Nepal, Ladakh, and large areas of what are now Northeast India and northern Burma; a great expansion which brought the Tibetans into close contact with Buddhism. Songtsen looked for models to those empires that manifested the greatest magnificence and stability at the time- the Pala of India and the Tang of China- both in their patronage of Buddhism. In order to secure a source of long-lasting universal and spiritual legitimisation, the king who was considered as a Buddhist incarnation himself and assumed the role of Dharmaraja, 'king of truth', imported Buddhism in his country.

Seated on a double lotus throne in a graceful, relaxed posture of royal ease, the king's right hand is pointed to the earth, making the gesture of vitarka mudra (argumentation). His left hand is holding a vase, one of the asta mangala (the eight Buddhist symbols), symbolizing the treasury of all desires. The attire the king is wearing reflect the period during which he lived; a fine folded drapery, decorated with engraved flower motifs cover his body, both his arms and legs. Adorned with flowers above his ears, elaborate earrings and ornaments, he has two long plaits of hair falling down from his shoulders. A turban is depicted on top of his head, showing the head of Buddha Amitabha (the cosmic Buddha who symbolises the stream of life), an allusion to his identification with Avalokitesvara, the Bodhisattva of compassion. A special wide belt is depicted at his waist, similar to belts seen on statues of Persian kings from the 3rd century and in portraits of the Kushans in northern India.

This fine portrait of Songsten Gampo is inspired by the famous large statue known in the Potala in Lhasa. Idealised and following the general patterns of religious figures in Tibet, the bronze shows Nepalese Newari influence. Like most Nepalese bronzes, it is cast in a copper alloy, the lotus leaves are pronounced and are finished at the back. The ornaments which spring from the drapery are characteristic of the Malla style and help to date this bronze to the 17th century. The seal at the bottom and the cold gilding on the face suggest the Tibetan origin of the bronze.

The bronze king is a fine work of naturalism and meaningful symbolism. The figure has a sense of articulation and solid mass complemented by the complex folded drapery configurations. As exemplified by the elegant posture of royal ease and a gentle mudra of his right hand, the king's composition is well modelled. An aura of mysticism is coupled with a majestic appearance, exhibiting a powerful and lively expression and enhancing his role as important monarch and conqueror.


all text, images © Marcel Nies

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