The Principal Features of Buddhism as Reflected in Early West Tibetan Art

September 2000 to August 2003 I received a three-year research grant by the Austrian Programme for Advanced Research and Technology (APART) of the Austrian Academy of Sciences. In the following the aim of the project is introduced and its first outcomes are summarized including a list of relevant publications.


The 'later spread of Buddhism' in Tibet (phyi dar), as the period from the late 10th–13th centuries is called in Tibetan historical literature, was decisive for the development of Tibetan Buddhism. This formative period was distinguished by extensive translation work in close co-operation with Indian Buddhist scholars, by an adoption of the ideas of late Indian Buddhism, and the formulation of distinctively Tibetan interpretations of Buddhism. Although the major schools of Tibetan Buddhism have their roots in this period, relatively little is known about the Buddhism of that time.

The art-historical evidence as preserved in the monuments and artefacts attributable to the phyi dar in Tibet and present-day Northwest India demonstrate a variety of unique stages and interpretations of Buddhism within the context of the formation of Tibetan Buddhism. Because the information on early stages of Tibetan Buddhism in the indigenous historical literature (chos ’byung) and the hagiographies (rnam thar) of eminent Buddhist teachers and hierarchs is somewhat vague, the preserved monuments and artefacts are the most important source for the religious and cultural history of early Tibetan Buddhism. In the same way as many iconographic forms of early medieval Christian art are the visual expression of the then prevalent religious speculation it is to be expected that early Tibetan art, too, once studied in detail and collated with other comparable appropriate sources, will be equally informative for its religious, historical, and cultural background.

The aim of this research is to elaborate a more detailed account of the specific character of the main themes of early West Tibetan Buddhism by studying its principal themes, the Vajradhātu mandala and the Dharmadhātuvāgīśvaramañjuśrī mandala, on the basis of the surviving art and the literature for which a direct relationship to the art can be established. Thus the project is named ”The Principal Features of Buddhism as Reflected in Early West Tibetan Art”.


Although at a considerable slower pace than originally foreseen, the APART project has facilitated the establishment of an immense body of material resulting from the analysis of the iconographic and formal characteristics of the most relevant themes for the topic, the Vajradhātu- and the Dharmadhātuvāgīśvaramañjuśrī mandalas, in textual sources as well as in the arts.

In general, the material evolving from the core project shows that the history of the main topics and the interrelationship of text and depiction are often not as clearly definable as had been expected, and working out this relationship in detail has required far more effort than originally foreseen. Furthermore, as these topics have turned out to be relevant to later Tibetan art as well, the topics have been followed far beyond the original scope of early western Himalayan art as such.

Initial results of these studies have been utilized throughout the grant period and continue to be presented. Indeed, while few publications completed during the grant period can be considered as direct results of the APART project in the narrower sense, most of the publications below have greatly profited from the work on the project and/or are closely related to it. The APART grant still forms the basis for my ongoing work on western Himalayan art.

Outstanding among the works accomplished during the period of the APART grant is certainly my publication on Buddhist Sculpture in Clay. Early Western Himalayan Art, late 10th to early 13th centuries, which has been published by Serindia, Chicago. Although in principle based on my PhD research, the book extends the original scope of the latter to give a general picture of the basic distinctive character of Western Himalayan art, its most important themes and the relationship and development of the different artistic schools involved. The APART project not only made publication in the present form possible in the first place, but also greatly contributed to refining its content.


  • “Methodological Comments Regarding Recent Research on Tibetan Art.” Wiener Zeitschrift für die Kunde Südasiens 45, no. 2001 (2001): 125–45.
  • “The Wanla Bkra shis gsum brtsegs.” In Buddhist Art and Tibetan Patronage Ninth to Fourteenth Centuries, edited by Deborah E. Klimburg-Salter, & Eva Allinger. PIATS 2000: Proceedings of the Ninth Seminar of the International Association for Tibetan Studies, Leiden 2000, 2. Leiden: Brill, 2002: 115–25.
  • “The 12th Century Buddhist Monuments of Nako.” Orientations 34, no. 5 (2003): 46–53.
  • “Art-historical aspects of dating Tibetan art.” In Dating Tibetan Art. Essays on the Possibilities and Impossibilities of Chronology from the Lempertz Symposium, Cologne, edited by Ingrid Kreide-Damani. Contributions to Tibetan Studies, 3. Wiesbaden: Ludwig Reichert Verlag, 2003: 25–57.
  • Buddhist Sculpture in Clay: Early Western Himalayan Art, late 10th to early 13th centuries. Serindia, Chicago 2004.
  • “The Eight Great Siddhas in Early Tibetan Painting from c. 1200 to c. 1350.” In Holy Madness. Portraits of Tantric Siddhas, edited by Robert N. Linrothe. New York: Rubin Museum of Art, 2006: 76–91.
  • “The Early Buddhist Heritage of Ladakh Reconsidered.” In Ladakhi Histories. Local and Regional Perspectives, edited by John Bray. Brill’s Tibetan Studies Library, 9. Leiden: Brill, 2005: 65–96.
  • “Alchi Sumtsek Reconsidered.” In Recent Research on Ladakh 2007, edited by John Bray & Nawang Tsering Shakspo. Leh, Ladakh: J&K Academy for Art, Culture & Languages – International Association for Ladakh Studies, 2007: 61–72.
  • “The depiction of Hindu and Pan-Indian Deities in the Lo tsa ba lHa khang at Nako.” In South Asian Archaeology 1999. Proceedings of the Fifteenth Conference of the European Association of South Asian Archaeologists, held at the Universiteit Leiden, 5–9 July 1999, edited by Ellen M. Raven. Gonda Indolocical Studies XV, Groningen: Egbert Forsten, 2008: 493–506.
  • “Alchi and the Drigungpa School of Tibetan Buddhism: The Teacher Depiction in the Small Chörten at Alchi.” In Mei shou wan nian — Long Life Without End. Festschrift in Honor of Roger Goepper, edited by Jeong-hee Lee-Kalisch, Antje Papist-Matsuo & Willibald Veit. Frankfurt a. M.: Peter Lang, 2006: 181–96.
  • “A First Glance at Early Drigungpa Painting.” In Studies in Sino-Tibetan Buddhist Art. Proceedings of the Second International Conference on Tibetan Archaeology & Art, Beijing, September 3–6, 2004, edited by Xie Jisheng, Shen Weirong & Liao Yang. The Monograph Series in Sino-Tibetan Buddhist Studies, Beijing: China Tibetology Publishing House, 2006: 459–88.
  • With Holger Neuwirth. “The Development of the Alchi Temple Complex. An Interdisciplinary Approach.” In Heritage Conservation and Research in India. 60 years of Indo-Austrian collaboration, edited by Gabriela Krist, & Tatjana Bayerová. Konservierungswissenschaft, Restaurierung, Technologie, 6. Wien, Weimar: Böhlau, 2010: 79–84.
  • “The Many Faces of Buddha Vairocana.” In The All-Knowing Buddha: A Secret Guide, edited by Jan van Alphen. New York and Antwerp: Rubin Museum of Art and BAI, MAS Books, 2014: 12-23.


On the iconography of thangkas dedicated to the five esoteric Buddhas

There are a number of Central Tibetan scroll paintings or thangkas closely related to the Vajradhatumandala. These paintings are part of a series of at least five where each is dedicated either to the centre or a quarter of the mandala. As the main deities on these paintings are the five esoteric Buddhas heading the five Buddha families the relevant thangkas have commonly not been identified precisely and differentiated from other depictions of the five esoteric Buddhas.

For reasons of space, the article focuses only on the way the thangkas featuring the deities of the Vajradhatumandala differ from other representation of the five esoteric Buddhas and how they are organized and to be read. By discussing examples of different types and variations of depictions and pointing out distinctive elements the reader will be enabled to distinguish Vajradhatu based thangkas from other five Jina representations.

This contribution is complemented by Eva Allinger’s study on stylistic aspects of the same group of paintings in the same volume.

  • “On the Iconography of Tibetan Scroll Paintings (thang ka) Dedicated to the Five Tathāgatas.” In Art in Tibet. Issues in Traditional Tibetan Art from the Seventh to the Twentieth Century. PIATS 2003: Tibetan Studies: Proceedings of the Tenth Seminar of the International Association for Tibetan Studies, Oxford 2003, edited by Erberto F. Lo Bue. Leiden, Boston: Brill, 2011: 37–51 + pls. 6–12.

The Depiction of Hindu and Pan-Indian Deities in the Lo tsa ba lHa khang at Nako

  • “The depiction of Hindu and Pan-Indian Deities in the Lo tsa ba lHa khang at Nako.” In South Asian Archaeology 1999. Proceedings of the Fifteenth Conference of the European Association of South Asian Archaeologists, held at the Universiteit Leiden, 5–9 July 1999, edited by Ellen M. Raven. Gonda Indolocical Studies XV, Groningen: Egbert Forsten, 2008: 493–506.

Eight Great Siddhas

While the importance of the Eight Great Siddhas is generally acknowledged surprisingly little is known about their earliest representations. Also their origin and their meaning is not yet satisfactorily clarified. My study focuses on the 13th and 14th century representations of the eight siddhas taking inscribed depictions as point of departure. Following the iconography of the siddhas and their position within the group and the whole composition the study differentiates their representation within different schools. It also tries to clarify if the visual evidence supports the view that the eight great siddhas became important because they are depicted in the charnel grounds of a mandala or vice versa.

  • “The Eight Great Siddhas in Early Tibetan Painting from c. 1200 to c. 1350.” In Holy Madness. Portraits of Tantric Siddhas, edited by Robert N. Linrothe. New York: Rubin Museum of Art, 2006: 76-91.

The 12th Century Buddhist Monuments of Nako

Nako is one of the most important sites for Buddhist monuments in the western Himalayas with seven temples distributed around the village, two of which date back to the 12th century (my attribution). This article aims at providing a more complete picture of the art preserved within the two oldest monuments and its value for research on the Buddhist art, culture and history of the region. The article is based on the chronology later presented in greater detail in my book Buddhist Sculpture in Clay. Despite further evidence available, for reaosns of readability the argumentation is solely based on comparisons to the two most important and best published monuments of early Buddhist art in the western Himalayas, the Tabo Main Temple and the Three-storeyed Temple at Alchi.

The two oldest temples at Nako bear witness to a distinctive phase in the early development of (western) Tibetan Buddhism. The decorative, iconographic and technical details observable in the Nako paintings show a large number of innovations when compared to the renovation period murals in the Tabo Main Temple, which can be attributed to the mid-eleventh century. On the other hand, the Nako murals often represent iconographic themes that can be compared to those in the Alchi monuments. Thus, the Nako murals allow us to understand in greater detail the extent to which the Tabo and Alchi murals are related and what their respective characteristic features are, and in this way constitute a link between these monuments. If the proposed dates are accepted, the Nako temples are the only monuments in the western Himalayas attributable to the first half of the 12th century, a period which saw the disintegration of the West Tibetan kingdom. They are thus an invaluable source for the study and understanding of the early development of Tibetan Buddhism and Tibetan culture in general.

This article also aims at publicizing the fact that this jewel of early western Himalayan Buddhist art is faced with ruin if counter-measures are not taken soon. On the initiative of INTACH and the Vienna research project the Nako temples have been nominated among the 100 Most Endangered Sites 2002 by the World Monuments Watch (India, Nako Temples; site no. 45).

Deborah E. Klimburg-Salter introduces the Nako Preservation Project in a parallel article in the same volume.

  • Klimburg-Salter, Deborah E. (2003) The Nako Preservation Project. Orientations 34 (5): 39–45.


Methodological Comments Regarding Recent Research on Tibetan Art

In Wiener Zeitschrift für die Kunde Südasiens 45 (2001): 125–45.

As a consequence of my teaching obligations over the two years prior to this publication as well as my work on the thangkas in the Tucci collection, I have started to consider the art-historical methodology of the study and interpretation of Tibetan art, as apparent from recent publications. This review article of Amy Heller’s book Tibetan Art considers the publication within the general context of recent studies on Tibetan art, and focuses on the general and methodological problems. I compare the state of research to research on European art and its basic methodology with regard to dating, style and iconography.

As the interests of the art market rule the initial scholarly publication of Tibetan objects, the main goals are to place it chronologically, to identify its main subject and recently also to attribute to the objects a certain workmanship or the origin of the artist. This concentration on appearance rather than content consitutes a major difference to European art history as a science among the humanities. This basically materialistic approach is founded in and supported by two circumstances, the concentration of much research on single objects without context and the generally poor state of documentation within Tibet. As Tibetan art history, particularly regarding early Tibetan art, is a very recent field we are still at the stage of building a foundation for studying the content.

  • Heller, Amy (1999) Tibetan Art. Tracing the development of spiritual ideals and art in Tibet 600–2000 A.D. Milano, Jaca Book.