Thursday, April 19, 2018

Dreaming Giant Thangkas, Part Two

At Tashilhunpo Monastery in Tsang Province

Continued from here. 

The Eighth Dalai Lama’s thangka was not the first neither was it the largest ‘brocade image.’* It may be interesting to sketch out the earlier history of the construction of the most monumental of these objects of worship.[1] Smaller sized fabric images were being made for Tibetans in earlier centuries, but they will be overlooked for the time being. Instead we will start with what was very probably the first one that was of a monumental size. It is said that this huge one was made, under the inspiration of a dream, by a princess who had the Indic name Puṇyadharī, although she was located quite some distance from India, in the region of the former Tangut Kingdom, I believe.[2] She dreamed of an image of Buddha the size of a neighboring mountain, and decided to have one made in memory of her brother who had recently died. The 4th Karmapa Rol-pa'i-rdo-rje traced the outlines of the image on the mountainside using the hoof-prints of his horse.
(*Göku, or gos-sku, is the usual Tibetan term.)

Completed by the year 1363, the Fourth Karmapa brought it back to Tibet with Him. It was so large it had to be carried on the backs of twenty-two mdzo (the female counterpart of the yak or g.yag), although another 22 mdzo were needed so they could take turns bearing the load.[3] We find the statement that the main central image contained in it measured 11 fathoms from its right to left ear, which means that the brocade icon as a whole must have been amazingly or even impossibly large. It was at first kept at Zho-kha Temple,[4] then divided into as many as three parts, although the main part remained in Zho-kha. It would seem that it was lost during the wars in the time of the Fifth Dalai Lama and can no longer be seen[5] although there is a slight possibility that some pieces of it could have been preserved somewhere.

In 1416, Chamchem Chöjé (Byams-chen Chos-rje),[6] the same teacher who would found Sera Monastery in 1419, returned to Tibet from China with a tapestry thangka (just how large is not stated) of the sixteen Arhats. This was later kept at Ganden Monastery and displayed there every year during the sixth month.[7]

In 1418, the King of Gyantsé (Rgyal-rtse) by the name Rabten Kunzang Pag (Rab-brtan-kun-bzang-'phags), had made what has been said to be the largest brocade thangka ever, and the first of its kind to be entirely constructed inside Tibet proper. It was named ‘Great Silk Icon Purposeful Sight’ (Gos-sku Chen-mo Mthong-ba Don-ldan), or alternatively ‘Silk Icon Great Liberation through Seeing’ (Gos-sku Mthong-grol Chen-mo). 

The central Śākyamuni Buddha figure was 80 cubits in height. He was flanked by His two main disciples Śāriputra and Maudgalyāyana, with further images including Maitreya, Dīpankara and the Sixteen Arhats. The lower part included the Great Kings (the Dharma Protectors of the four directions).  The entire piece, including the framing brocades, measured 190 cubits in height.  Thirty-seven tailors completed it in twenty-seven days.[8]

In 1468, the First Dalai Lama (1391-1474) invited the “king of the brush holders” Menla Döndrub (Sman-bla Don-grub)[9] and his students to erect a giant brocade thangka, which they completed in three months. Donations for it were already being accepted two or three years earlier. The completed icon measured eighteen by twelve fathoms.[10] 

A year later, the leftover silk offerings were used to make a silk icon of Tārā which measured eight by six fathoms.[11] The circle of hair (mdzod-spu) on Her forehead was studded with over a thousand pearls,[12] and inside were placed various relics of holy persons. A variety of semi-precious stones —  corals, pearls, amber and the like — were used for Her jewelry. In 1471, a silk icon of Avalokiteśvara, eight by six fathoms, was made, and in the following year a group of four, each measuring three by two fathoms.[13]

Sometime during the reign of the Rinpungpa (between 1480 and 1512), a huge silk brocade hanging, a “curtain” (yol-ba), depicting all 25 of the Kulika Kings of Shambhala was made. In 1642 it was offered to the Fifth Dalai Lama, and is said to be still in the treasury of the Potala Palace.[14] 

In 1634, the sixty-fifth year of First Panchen Lama (Blo-bzang-chos-kyi-rgyal-mtshan, 1567-1662), a giant thangka was constructed. It was in the form of a kind of triptych. At the center of the central piece was Amitābha, with Mañjughoṣa and Vajrapāṇi on either side. In the two upper corners were Atiśa and Tsongkhapa, while in the two lower corners were Akṣobhya and the Medicine Buddha. The piece to the right had Avalokiteśvara as its central figure, while the piece to the left had Tārā. The same Panchen Lama made still another giant thangka in the same year. Later He also made a huge thangka depicting Maitreya. Work on it was started in 1649, the second Tibetan month, when its outlines were drawn by the celebrated artist Chöying Gyatso (Chos-dbyings-rgya-mtsho).[15] 

It was finished within five months, and it was first shown the following year, on the fifteenth day of the fifth Tibetan month. Finally, when the First Panchen Lama was in His ninetieth year, in 1659, He had the artist Chöying Gyatso once again construct a huge thangka, this one depicting Avalokiteśvara.[16] Many more huge thangkas were made by subsequent Panchen Lamas. 

These thangkas were mainly meant to be displayed on the holiday of the full moon of the fifth Tibetan month, by being unrolled down the side of Tashilhunpo's giant tower, said to be about 12 fathoms high (20.4 meters?), built for this purpose by the First Dalai Lama in 1468.[17]

From 1992 to 1994, a huge thangka was made at Tsurpu (Mtshur-phu), chief monastery of the Karmapa school. With Śākyamuni as its central figure, it measures 23 by 35 meters.[18] It is supposed to have been made to replace a similar thangka made in the seventeenth century by the Tenth Karmapa Chöying Dorjé who was Himself a remarkably original artist with a style of His own. Indeed He has been called “one of the most versatile and idiosyncratic artists in Tibetan history.”[19] In fact, however, this icon was begun in 1585 (by the year 1590, it had already been completed) by the Ninth Karmapa Wangchuk Dorjé.[20] In the latter’s biography we learn that the silks were donated by the Chinese Emperor, while the Ninth Karmapa Himself did the preliminary sketches for it. By comparing sources, we may see that the modern thangka[21] and the 16th century one[22] were quite different in their subject matter. In any case the modern thangka does have a piece of the original sewn into it, which assures its ritual continuity. This is the thangka that is supposed to be unrolled annually on a hillside near Tsurpu on the twelfth day of the fourth Tibetan month.

In 1683, soon after the actual death of the Fifth Dalai Lama, the Regent had made a giant thangka with the red Buddha Amitābha as the central figure. It is a well known story how the Regent concealed the death of the Dalai Lama from the public, as well as from foreign governments. This is the larger of the two thangkas that were always displayed on the front side of the Potala Palace during the Great Worship Assembly holiday, held on the 30th day of the 2nd Tibetan month.*

(*See now Michael Henss’s Monuments of Central Tibet, pp. 132-133 for the Potala fabric thangkas. It has a lot of information about stitched thangkas in general, but I haven’t made much use of it here.)

This holiday was instituted by the Regent as an annual memorial for the Fifth Dalai Lama.[23] In the Regent’s biography of the Dalai Lama, he gives the measurements of this thangka in terms of finger-widths (sor-mo): 2,598 by 2,208 finger-widths.[24] These measurements have been converted into the metrical system by Dagyab Rinpoche as 55.08 by 46.81 meters.[25] The second, smaller brocade thangka, with Buddha Vairocana as its central figure, measured in at 1,299 by 1,081 finger-widths.[26] Before long both thangkas became worn and had to be replaced. The Rdo-ring Paṇḍita biography informs us, in its account for the year 1787, which was during the time of the Eighth Dalai Lama, that they were exchanged for new ones.[27] In the first years of the 1940’s, following the enthronement ceremonies for His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, the two thangkas were replaced yet again.[28] So it is no surprise that the thangkas to be seen today[29] do not seem to quite match the descriptions of the divine figures found in the original.

Of course, many more huge brocade thangkas have been constructed down to the present day. It was not my intention to supply a complete inventory.[30] Especially in biographies of prominent figures of the 16th through 18th centuries there are numerous testimonies on their construction and display.[31] The significant points for now are that they were probably first ‘dreamed up’ by a Buddhist noble woman, that they subsequently continued to be made in great size, in a certain degree of abundance, and that they were used in acts of public worship in monasteries on annual holy days. They were usually explicitly made in memory of a famous teacher who had died a short while before. And, although we haven’t yet said much about this aspect, certain religious practices of both monks and laypersons were associated with giant thangka displays.








Tsurpu Monastery

Unidentified Dutch Trade card

At Ganden Monastery

At Ganden Monastery, in front of the göku notice the white funerary
chorten for Tsongkhapa

— to be continued —


  • Notice that I use shortened titles in the bibliographical references. The key will finally appear at the end of Part Three.

[1] Reynolds, "Fabric," pp. 248-251, and Tanaka, "Note," contain the most detailed sketches of gos-sku history known to me. Huge painted thangkas have their own history which will not be considered here.  However, it is interesting to note that Atiśa's disciple Nag-tsho, already in the mid-eleventh century, had a portrait painting of Atiśa made that was 14 or 16 cubits in height (which I suppose would mean about 6 or 7 meters). It was made in Tibet by a resident Indian artist named Kṛṣṇa (see Martin, "Painters," pp. 141-146).
[2] Mi-nyag or Xixia (Hsi-hsia) in Tibetan and Chinese. Some believe that the Tangut land was the center of production for the earliest Tibetan Buddhist style fabric icons.  See for examples Henss, "Woven," p. 26, and Heller, "Development," p. 213.  I am hoping for greater clarity about the geography of Pundharî's kingdom. Despite her and her brother’s Indic names she was likely a scion of the Mongol ruling family.
[3] This information was taken from Sman-sdong, Bzhi-pa, p. 188.
[4] See Tanaka, "Note," p. 873, for more details based on a passage in Dpa'-bo's history (p. 966). For an account, in English translation, of the Fourth Karmapa’s life, with brief mention of Zho-kha in Kong-po, see 'Gos Lo-tsā-ba’s history, pp. 493-506 (with an account of the gos-sku on pp. 505-506).  Zho-kha was the site of the Fourth Karmapa’s death (Dung-dkar’s dictionary, p. 34). The central image was of Śākyamuni Buddha, with Mañjuśrī and Maitreya to His left and right sides, with depictions of beautiful birds below the lotus thrones. Accounts of its construction may also be found in Karma Thinley, History, pp. 66-67, in Douglas and White, Karmapa, p. 58; and in Ldan-ma, Dpal, pp. 109-110.
[5] This suggested in Rin-chen-dpal-bzang, Mtshur-phu, p. 237, which also contains an account of the historical circumstances surrounding its construction. This author finds eleven fathoms to be equivalent to 18.70 meters. There being four cubits in a fathom, this would mean that for him one cubit is equivalent to .425 meters.
[6] Byams-chen Chos-rje Shākya-ye-shes (1354-1435), a disciple of Tsong-kha-pa who spent many years at the Ming capital. Returning to Tibet, he founded Se-ra Monastery in 1419. A number of fabric images that depict him have survived; see Henss, "Woven," pp. 36-38.
[7] Tanaka, "Note," p. 873.  Henss, "Woven," p. 37, says that it was still preserved at Dga'-ldan Monastery in 1959. There is brief mention of this thangka in Rdzong-rtse’s history of Se-ra, p. 43, but note here that gnas bcu (which might seem to mean 'ten places') is simply a contraction of Gnas-brtan bcu-drug, ‘sixteen Arhats,’ and that the word bzi thang used here is an unusual spelling for si-thang (see the very important discussion of this term in Jackson, History, pp. 132-133). Looking back at the corresponding passage in Sde-srid‘s history, p. 118, we find that this same thangka, which was offered to the tomb of Tsong-kha-pa at Dga'-ldan, is referred to by the words Gnas-brtan bcu-drug-gi si-thang. More giant brocade thangkas were made at Dga'-ldan, and more may be known about them if Mkhar-nag Lo-tsā-ba’s history of Dga'-ldan ever reaches publication (for more on this work, see Martin, Tibetan Histories, no. 187).
[8] My source for most of these details is Dung-dkar’s dictionary, p. 550, although the thangka, which still exists, does merit brief mention in Chan, Tibet Handbook, p. 420, with longer treatment in Reynolds, "Fabric," p. 251, and Henss, "Woven," p. 39. Dung-dkar Rin-po-che estimates that the 'fathom' of an average person is 1.8 meters. Using this standard of conversion, the height of the main Śākyamuni Buddha image, at 20 fathoms, was 36 meters, while the overall height of the entire icon was 80.2 meters. This and still other giant brocade thangkas later constructed by the same king are mentioned in Ricca and Lo Bue, Great Stupa, p. 20; Reynolds, "Luxury Textiles," p. 130; and also Jackson, History, p. 111 (on a giant cloth image of Maitreya completed in 1439).
[9] For what is by far the most in-depth study of the early Sman-ris school of art, initiated by Sman-bla Don-grub in the mid-15th century, see Chapter 3: sMan-thang-pa sMan-bla-don-grub and the Early Followers of His Tradition," contained in Jackson, History, pp. 102-138.
[10] Reynolds, "Fabric," p. 248, gives the measurements as 274.3 by 213.4 centimeters, although it is very likely that the intended numbers were 27.43 by 21.34 meters, which could be correct.
[11] See the already-mentioned works of Reynolds and Tanaka, as well as Heller, Tibetan Art, p. 177.  There is information to be found in the biography of Dge-'dun-grub as contained in 'Khrungs-rabs, vol. 1, pp. 207-300, in particular at pp. 273-276, which has been nicely summarized in Jackson, History, pp. 117-118.  Jackson estimates that the larger thangka was about 28 by 19 meters in size.  Reynolds, "Luxury Textiles," p. 130 gives the measurements as 2.74 by 2.13 meters (this is surely a typological error; most probably the intended measurement was 27.4 by 21.3 meters, although Reynolds, "Fabric," p. 248, gives the quite impossibly small measurement of 122 by 91 centimeters).  Henss, "Fabric," p. 39, measures it at 27.4 by 21.3 meters. The story of this thangka is briefly told in Rdzong-rtse's history of Bkra-shis-lhun-po, pp. 125-126.
[12] Ye-shes-rtse-mo’s biography of Dalai Lama I, p. 471, gives a more exact number of pearls at 1,275.  Reynolds, "Fabric," p. 248, gives the number as 2,775.
[13] Ye-shes-rtse-mo’s biography of Dalai Lama I, pp. 475-476.
[14] This information on the 'Kulika curtain' (Rigs-ldan yol-ba) is almost entirely based on Dung-dkar's dictionary, p. 551, and Tanaka, "Note," p. 873. However, what may be the ‘original’ passage about the donation of this famous fabric artwork is to be found in the Fifth Dalai Lama’s three-volume autobiography, in the first volume, bearing the title Za-hor-gyi Bande Ngag-dbang-blo-bzang-rgya-mtsho'i 'Di Snang 'Khrul-pa'i Rol-rtsed Rtogs-brjod-kyi Tshul-du Bkod-pa Du-kū-la'i Gos-bzang-las Glegs-bam Dang-po, at folio 107: rin spungs ngag dbang 'jig rten dbang phyug gi zhal bkod ma'i rigs ldan yol ba khyad mtshar gyis sna drangs / nang rten / bla sku / li ma / rgya nag mas mtshon pa'i rten mchod mang po dang gzhis ka bsam grub rtses thog drangs bod khri skor bcu gsum yongs su rdzogs pa 'bul ba yin zhes dril bsgrags. This passage of the biography, in the part covering the year 1642 (the very year of the founding of the Dga'-ldan Pho-brang government, which continued to rule Tibet until the 1950's), was located and reproduced from the digital version of the text produced by Tsering Lama and Christoph Cüppers of the Lumbini International Research Institute (Lumbini, Nepal).
[15] For a major study of his life and artistic accomplishments, see Chapter Eight in Jackson, History, pp. 219-246.
[16] This paragraph is based entirely on Rdzong-rtse’s history of Bkra-shis-lhun-po, pp. 124-131.  On following pages Rdzong-rtse tells of still more giant thangkas that were later made and kept at Bkra-shis-lhun-po Monastery. One was made under the orders of the Second Panchen Lama in 1683 in order to replace one that had become worn, while yet another with Mañjughoa at the center was newly constructed. 
[17] See Rdzong-rtses history of Bkra-shis-lhun-po, p. 134. This tower is known as the Gos-sku Spe'u, or ‘Brocade Icon Tower.’  Samuel Turner made note of this tower, which he calls "Kugopea," in his account of his 1783 visit to "Teshoo Loomboo" (Bkra-shis-lhun-po; see Turner, Account, especially the engraving on p. 315). An account of the festival as held in 1882 may be found in Das, Journey, pp. 198-199.
[18] See Temple and Nguyen, "Giant."
[19] Jackson, History, p. 247. Jackson's entire Chapter Nine is devoted to the Tenth Karmapa.
[20] His making of a Śākyamuni brocade image is mentioned in Karma Thinley, History, p. 99, and in Jackson, History, p. 177, and the story is told in some detail in Rin-chen-dpal-bzang, Mtshur-phu, p. 235. The date of 1585 for starting it is based on Si-tu and 'Be-lo's history, vol. 2, p. 186; it was consecrated in 1589 (ibid., p. 198).  It is possible that it was constructed from the many offerings made after the death of the Fifth Zhwa-dmar hierarch in 1583 (His funerary chorten at Yangs-pa-can was completed and consecrated only in 1586), and it may also have been made in His memory. This brocade thangka had the ‘proper’ name Brocade Icon Ornament Beautifying the Three Realms (Gos-sku Khams Gsum Mdzes-rgyan).
[21] As described by Temple and Nguyen, "Giant."
[22] As described by Rin-chen-dpal-bzang, Mtshur-phu, p. 235.
[23] See Richardson, Ceremonies, pp. 74-81, which includes three old photographs showing the two thangkas hanging over the front side of the Potala.
[24] It does seem rather unusual that the Regent would choose to give the measurements of such a large object using the small measurement of the finger-width. In the measurement system Tibetans inherited from Indian Abhidharma texts, twenty-four sor-mo is the equivalent of one khru, or cubit.  Therefore, the thangka would have measured 108.25 by 92 cubits. Note that the same height measurement of 2,598 fingers is given in Sde-srid, Mchod-sdong, p. 420. Tanaka, "Note," p. 876, note 9, says that Charles Bell gave the height of each of the two thangkas at 80 feet, while Austin Waddell gave their height at 52 meters.
[25] The autobiographical and biographical parts combined fill six volumes, so locating a single passage in it recalls the proverbial needle in a haystack. I could locate the original passage in the Fifth Dalai Lama's biography only thanks to a reference in Dagyab, Tibetan Religious Art, pt. 1, p. 40, and with the further help provided by the digital version of the text produced by Tsering Lama and Christoph Cüppers of the Lumbini International Research Institute (Lumbini, Nepal). Dagyab Rinpoche takes a finger-width (the width of the middle finger of an adult male) to be equivalent to 2.12 centimeters. The entire passage, which goes into great detail on the materials that went into making the two thangkas, has been placed in an appendix at the final installment, based entirely on the Lumbini digital text, since I was unable to locate a print version.
[26] The primary literary source for the iconographic content of the two original giant Potala brocade icons is found in Sde-srid, Mchod-sdong, pp. 419-421 (a passage located thanks to the reference given in Tanaka, "Note," p. 876).
[27] The passage, found in Bstan-'dzin-dpal-'byor, Rdo-ring, vol. 1 (stod-cha), p. 538, leaves no possibility of doubt which thangkas were being replaced:  gzhan yang rgyal mchog lnga pa chen po'i sku'i dus mchod du grags pa tshogs mchod chen mo'i skabs pho brang po tā lar 'grems rgyu'i gos sku rnam gnyis kyang lo mang bskul bgres la song stabs gsar brje dang. I must once more thank Tsering Lama and Christoph Cüppers  of the Lumbini International Research Institute (Lumbini, Nepal) for the use of their digital versions of this text.
[28] For many details, see Gyeten Namgyal, "Tailor's Tale," particularly pp. 39-41 (here gos-sku is phoneticized as kyigu). The author informs us that at that time two pairs of gos-sku still existed, the pair made during the time of the Eighth Dalai Lama, and a still later pair. The original pair made by the Regent no longer existed, since it had been disassembled and its brocades distributed to various monasteries. Thus it would seem that the original thangkas were replaced with new ones three times.
[29] See pp. 18-19 of the official government publication Potala for a photograph of the two thangkas which were displayed in 1994 to mark the completion of the five-year renovation. These are very likely the ones made in the early 1940’s. One might compare the photograph from circa 1900, published in Reynolds, "Fabric," pp. 244-245 (which is also remarkable for depicting the elaborate procession).
[30] A Bhutanese thangka of Spungs-thang (Punakha), called Great Liberation through Seeing, was made between 1689 and 1692, and still another, called the Zhabs-drung Thang-ka, was made in 1753. See Smith, Among Tibetan Texts, p. 256. Every chief monastery in the Tibetan Buddhist world seems to have had the tradition of showing giant thangkas, stretching from Leh in Ladakh in the west to Kumbum, Labrang, and other monasteries in Amdo in the far northeast of the Tibetan cultural realm, and still further to the north in the Tibetan-style Buddhist monasteries of Mongolia.
[31] The biographies of the Fourth through Sixth Dalai Lamas, as well as the biography of Rdo-ring Paṇḍita, etc., are especially rich in such references, which could not all be included here.
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