Buddhas and Bodhisattvas

Behind the altar of the Assembly Hall a tripartite passageway crowded with sculptures leads to the Cella surrounded by an Ambulatory (Korlam སྐོར་ལམ་, ◊ Ambulatory). One enters the circumambulation of the Cella exactly opposite the renovation inscription. This inscription is accompanied by a donor depiction which presumably is headed by the 'royal monk' Jangchup Ö (བྱང་ཆུབ་འོད་) and also represents the monastic community of Tabo monastery headed by a certain Dülwa Jangchup (འདུལ་བ་བྱང་ཆུབ་), who is also depicted in other parts of the temple (◊ Donor Assembly).

The main theme of the paintings of the Ambulatory is the fortunate aeon (bhadrakalpa) as expressed through its Buddha and Bodhisattva depictions. The outside wall of the Cella, and thus the Ambulatory's inner wall, is covered with repeated small Buddha images, the 1000 Buddhas of the fortunate aeon. This theme begins in the top row of the outer wall, just where the circumambulation commences, with a scene in which the Bodhisattva Pramuditarāja (མཆོག་དགའ་རྒྱལ་པོ་), the interlocutor of the Bhadrakalpikasūtra, questions the Buddha Śākyamuni. He begins the row of Buddhas the first of which are captioned. The theme of Buddhas continues on the back wall with a depiction of the Seven Successive Buddhas (སངས་རྒྱས་རབས་བདུན་) and Maitreya on the back wall (west; ◊ Eight Buddhas). The first of these buddhas have been covered by a large recent painting of Tsongkhapa (ཙོང་ཁ་པ་, 1357–1419) and his chief disciples. Further, some of the Buddhas have been subject to rather poor restoration and repainting.

A highlight of the temple are the paintings of the 32 Bodhisattvas mainly represented on the south and north walls of the ambulatory. Captions accompanying them identify the upper row of Bodhisattvas as Bodhisattvas the names of which are fairly well known group from diverse enumerations of the ◊ Sixteen Bodhisattvas of the fortunate aeon. The lower row of ◊ Sixteen Mahābodhisattvas is not known from elsewhere. The latter fact and the reversal of hierarchy between the two groups suggests that the identification of the Bodhisattvas is unlikely to reflect the intentions of the designer of the sophisticated program of the temple. The recent identification of the full Dharmadhātu mandala assembly in the upper area of the Assembly Hall makes it most likely that the upper Bodhisattvas complement this mandala. The lower Bodhisattvas then relate to the Vajradhātu mandala, but these associations still have to proven in future research.

Underneath the Bodhisattvas is a band of narrative scenes that until recently resisted identification. It turned out, that it represents the story of the Bodhisattva Sadāprarudita in search of the perfection of wisdom (prajñāpāramitā) as described in greater detail below.

As throughout the Main Temple the ceiling was decorated with painted cloth. In the Ambulatory the paintings represent flying deities with various offerings besides lotus blossoms. The eight auspicious symbols (བཀྲ་ཤིས་རྟགས་བརྒྱད་) are shown in the corner triangles (◊ Ceiling).

In some places, in particular on the south side of the Ambulatory, the original paint layer is visible underneath the renovation period murals. From these traces it appears that the iconography of the original decoration was very similar to that of the renovation, but the Bodhisattvas represented on the side walls were standing and there was no narrative underneath them (◊ Original Paint Layer).

For the renovation inscription as well as the captions of the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas in the Ambulatory are recorded in:

  • Petech, Luciano, and Christian Luczanits, eds. 1999. Inscriptions from the Tabo Main Temple. Texts and Translations. Serie Orientale Roma. Rome: IsIAO.

Sadāprarudita in Search for the Perfection of Wisdom

There are three picture narratives in the Tabo Main Temple, Sudhana's Pilgrimage and the Life of the Buddha in the Assembly Hall, and the story of Sadāprarudita (རྟག་ཏུ་ངུ་) in search for the Perfection of Wisdom in the Ambulatory. The following narrates the identification of the story, while the story itself accompanies the pictures in the ◊ Sadāprarudita gallery.

Since the mid 1990ies Renate Ponweiser started to work on the narrative for her MA thesis (Magister). However, although she has read all Buddhist stories she got hold of since then the source for the narrative escaped her, probably because it is found at the end of an otherwise purely a doctrinal text. In the end, she had to finish her MA with an unidentified narrative and a summary of her study has been published in Ponweiser 2007.

While I was teaching at UC-Berkeley 2004-2005 I met Jinah Kim, who worked on Indian and Nepalese Buddhist manuscript illuminations for her PhD. One of her discoveries she told me off at another visit in spring 2006 was, that a book cover depicts scenes of a story taken from the last chapters of the Aṣṭasāhasrikāprajñāpāramitā, namely the story of Sadāprarudita in search of the Perfection of Wisdom.

Only when I narrated Jinah's discoveries to Eva Allinger it occurred to me to check if the Tabo mural depicts this story, and indeed it does. The rather extensive narrative, following the convention of the other narrative paintings at Tabo, is presented in the picture gallery accompanied by quotations from Edward Conze's translation of the Aṣṭasāhasrikāprajñāpāramitā (Conze 1958). Also the quotation below stems from this source.

  • Luczanits, Christian. 2010. In Search of the Perfection of Wisdom. A short note on the third narrative depicted in the Tabo Main Temple. In From Turfan to Ajanta: Festschrift for Dieter Schlingloff on the Occasion of his Eightieth Birthday, eds. Eli Franco, and Monika Zin, II, 567-578. Lumbini, Nepal: Lumbini International Research Institute.
  • Kim, Jinah. 2008. Iconography and Text: The Visual Narrative of the Buddhist Book-cult in the manuscript of the Aṣṭasāhasrika Prajñāpāramitā sūtra. In Kalādarpaṇa: The Mirror of Indian Art, edited by Arundhati Banerji, and Devangana Desai. New Delhi: Aryan Books International. 250-68.
  • Ponweiser, Renate. 2007. A hitherto unidentified narrative composition in the Ambulatoty of the Cella in the Main Temple at Tabo (Himachal Pradesh). In Text, Image and Song in Transdisciplinary Dialogue. PIATS 2003: Tibetan Studies: Proceedings of the Tenth Seminar of the International Association for Tibetan Studies, Oxford 2003, Volume 10/7, eds. Deborah Klimburg-Salter, Kurt Tropper, and Christian Jahoda, 151-166, 11 pls. Leiden, Boston: Brill.
  • Ponweiser, Renate. 2004 2.12.2004. Ein Zyklus nichtidentifizierter, erzählender Malereien im Umgang der Apsis in Tabo (Himachal Padesh). Diplomarbeit, Universität Wien.
  • Conze, Edward. 1958. Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā, the Perfection of Wisdom in eight thousand slokas. Bibliotheca indica, issue no. 1578, work no. 284. Calcutta: Asiatic Society.