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23. Three Tathagatas
a. Ratnasambhava

 Three Tathagatas

23. Three Tathagatas
a. Ratnasambhava
Central Tibet, ca. 1200-1250
Distemper on cloth
68.6 x 54.9 cm (27 X 215/8in.)
Pritzker Collection 

click on  image below for 23a: Detail full screen view

23a: Detail

23a: Detail

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23b. Amitabha

23c. Amoghasiddhi

The five Tathagatas, Celestial Buddhas, comprise one of the most important groups of Esoteric Buddhist deities described in the Yoga Tantras. Each deity is associated with a color, direction, gesture, and vehicle: Vairochana (white, zenith, dharmachakra mudra, lion), Akshobhya (blue, east, bhumisparsha mudra, elephant), Amitabha (red, west, dhyana mudra, peacock), Ratnasambhava (yellow, south, vajra mudra, horse), and Amoghasiddhi (green, north, abhaya mudra, Garuda). Each governs a family (kula) of deities that includes bodhisattvas, a human Buddha, and a goddess.1 Vairochana usually presides over the group of five.2

Judging by the large number of images that survive from the late twelfth and the first half of the thirteenth century, the cult of the Tathagatas must have been particularly popular during that period. All five are depicted with the same format, which is based on an earlier model (see cat. no. 4). Each is placed on a lotus seat, flanked by two standing bodhisattvas and a group of seated bodhisattvas. These comprise a chorus of listeners (shravakas). Typically, the vehicles of the Tathagatas appear at the sides of or beneath their lotus seats. At the bottom of the thanka is a register of auxiliary deities. No precise explanation for the assemblage of standing and seated bodhisattvas flanking the Tathagatas has been given. It has been posited that the artists were portraying the Tathagatas as they preached to devotees in their heaven. One would assume that originally each Tathagata had specific attendants. However, in this set, the same two bodhisattvas, Avalokiteshvara and Maitreya, flank three different Tathagatas. A similar uniformity exists among the seated bodhisattvas in all three thankas: they make the same hand gestures and their colors are the same.3 The composition could also simply be a melding of two standard types of Indian images: the Buddha flanked by standing attendants, which has its roots in some of the earliest images, and the Buddha flanked by a chorus of listeners, which harks back to depictions of the historical Buddha preaching in the Tushita (joyful) Heaven before his descent to earth. The hieratic structure of these compositions with deities of three distinct sizes four, if the lower register is considered is different from what can be observed in Indian and Nepalese book illustrations. There, the standing attendants and lower register are absent.

The Tathagatas' elaborate garb, which proclaims their elevated status, is worth examining closely. Their jewelry includes a crown and armlets with triangular jewel-encrusted elements, a series of four necklaces, the lowest two of which support lotus-bud dangles, and a horizontal pendant amulet. Large earplugs, bangles, and anklets complete the ensemble. The crowns are attached above the ears by means of ribbons whose ends stream upward. Strands of hair fall to either side of the head, tied above the shoulders with jeweled bands and ribbons; curly tendrils tumble down the upper arms. The short, horizontally striped dhotis are attached by elaborate waistbands, tied so that their bifurcated pleated ends stand up along the top edges of the thighs. Central pleated sashes fall between and under the Tathagatas' legs and fan out along the tops of the lotus seats. In some instances, a transparent scarf is worn across the shoulders.

These three thankas are all that survive of the original set of five. The painting is particularly fine, and the extraordinary calm, restraint, and monumentality typical of the best examples of the period are clearly seen. The drawing is elegant, well rendered, and the color is harmonious. Although the compositions follow the early model, there are subtle differences in the details. No throne back is indicated, and even the gilded triangular flanges abutting the upper sides of the pillow are absent. The foliate scrolling associated with the makara or hamsa has been reduced to an abstract motif that follows the contour of the pillow (rather than twining behind) and terminates after only two scrolls. As noted above, the standing and seated bodhisattvas in all of the paintings are identical, and the only differences, aside from the main deity, are in the lower registers.4

In each of the thankas, the Tathagatas (Ratnasambhava, Amitabha, and Amoghasiddhi) are shown in canonical fashion, with their appropriate color, mudra, and vehicle. The deities in the lower register are identified by inscriptions (most of which can be read), but the system that governed their choice is not apparent. Other thankas of the same Tathagatas have different deities in the bottom register (see cat. no. 36). In the thanka of Ratnasambhava they include a group of auspicious and wealth-giving deities; from left to right: Vaishravana, the yaksha Dhanada, probably Jambhala, Ganapati, a fierce blue deity holding a skull cup and mongoose, and a standing female goddess, probably Vasudhara (who is associated with Jambhala). In the painting of Amitabha, they are Manjushri, Manidharin, Shadakshari Lokeshvara. Mahavidya, Padmapani, and Tara.

In the Amoghasiddhi, five forms of the goddess Tara and a consecrating monk in front of an offering stand are pictured. As was typical, the Amoghasiddhi was the painting in the set that was reserved to include the consecrating monk. There must have been a standard order, following the directions for these deities, and Amoghasiddhi was probably either the first or the last in the list.     SMK

1. See cat. no. 9 and Mallmann 1986, pp. 36-37. [back]

2. See Matsunaga 1978, pp. xv and xxii, for a discussion of the evolution of the Vajradhatu mandala in which, earlier, Shakyamuni had reigned in the central position. [back]

3. It is tempting to see this group of eight bodhisattvas as those of the Eight Bodhisattva mandala (see cat. no. 28), but the presence of the standing Maitreya and Avalokiteshvara in the paintings, who are members of this ensemble, seems to negate the possibility. (See also cat. no. 4, note 1.) [back]

4. A version of the scroll without a source already exists in the Ford Tara, but there, it clambers up to the top of the nimbus. Compare the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, book cover, fig. 15. [back]

all text & images © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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