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The Iconography of Tibetan Lamaism

The Iconography of Tibetan Lamaism


Item Code: IAB03

by Antoinette K. Gordon

Hardcover (Edition: 1998)

Munshiram Manoharlal Publication
ISBN 81-215-0260-8

Language: English
Size: 11.5" X 8.8"
Pages: 162 (Color Illus: 2, B & W Illus: 185, Figures: 74)
Price: $55.00
Discounted: $41.25   Shipping Free - 4 to 6 days
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About the Book

The rich cultural and spiritual heritage of Buddhism has recently been commanding serious attention among a wide public in the West. Lamaism, the Tibetan offshoot of Buddhism, has itself fascinated not only the specialists but also an expanding number of artists, students, and collectors who have been impressed by the subtlety of Tibetan religious thought and the quality of its art. And Tibetan art, with its brilliant colouring, decorative design, and subtle iconography, has come to be recognized as one the outstanding achievements of religious art in the Orient. Tibetan art, however, perhaps more so than nay other religious art, is permeated with the tenets of the highly developed religious tradition and body of theological dogma to which it give concrete expression. The colourful thangkas, although aesthetically appealing in themselves, cannot be fully understood or appreciated without at least a rudimentary knowledge of the religious precepts of Lamaism and the profuse symbols used in giving these tenets visual form. For the number of gods in the Tibetan pantheon seems to be limited only by the bonds of human imagination, and every image and detail is given symbolic meaning.

The Iconography of Tibetan Lamaism was first published in 1939, for the express purpose of "giving the student interested in Tibetan Iconography a general idea of the development of Buddhism into Lamaism, and making easier the identification of the various deities of the Tibetan pantheon." Although interest in the field has grown over the years, the books has remained the only authoritative work of its kind.

The book gives a descriptive outline of the principal gods in the Tibetan pantheon, tracing the main features and symbols that are used to denote each one. A comprehensive illustrated list of the various ritual objects, talismans, symbols, Mudras (symbolic hand poses), and asanas and vahanas (position of the lower limbs) that are used in he images of gods is accompanied with a word list of the Sanskrit terms most commonly encountered in a study of Lamaism.

A set of thirty-one thangkas from the famous collection of Baron A. von Stael-Holstein, formerly of Peking, China, which came to America after the publication of the original edition of the book, has been included in this new and revised edition.

About the Author

Antoinette L. Gordon, was the research associate in anthropology at the American Museum of Natural History. She made the study of Tibetan art and religion her life-work. Her other works are:Tibetan Religious Art and Tibetan Tales: Stories from the Dsangs Blun.



THE STUDY of Lamaism and its iconography is both fascinating and baffling. The number of the Gods in the Tibetan pantheon seems to be limited only by the bounds of the human imagination, which, indeed, is here lavishly displayed. Every image is symbolic of something, and every part of an image has a meaning, which doubtless cannot fully be known even to those deeply initiated into the mysteries of Lamaism.

Some of these divinities are in human form and have their origins in history, legend, or pure imagination. The elements, forces of nature, mountains and rivers, and even doctrinal systems, have been deified in human or tantric forms, and spirits and genii, beneficent and malicious, have been imagined and given form. Not only are the classes of divinities thus created numerous-both major and minor, some widely known and worshiped and others existing only locally-but also certain individuals in many of the classes are represented in a variety of forms to indicate their supposedly manifold powers and activities.

In addition there is a formidable array of disciples, apostles, sorcerers, teach- ers, and translators, Indian and Tibetan, through whom the teachings of the Buddha have been spread, transformed, augmented, and handed down; and in Tibet, there are also the founders and successive heads of the different sects of Lamaism and of the various monasteries belonging to each.

All arc represented by images. However, while two images which are exact counterparts of each other are seldom seen, each image is made according to definite specifications, or a fixed formula; and when the cavity therein has been filled with paper rolls bearing mystic inscriptions, food seeds, relics, and what not and ceremonially sealed under priestly supervision, the image becomes sacred and so continues as long as the seal remains unbroken.

I suppose that the names and ritual descriptions of all of these divinities are to be found somewhere in the Lamaist scriptures at Lhasa and elsewhere, almost wholly untranslated, or in books or manuscripts in the repositories of the mon- a teries scattered throughout Tibet. There are such descriptions, in Sanskrit, of those which belong to the Indian Buddhist Pantheon, and they have been trans- lated and published, with illustrations from images in the museums and mon- asteries. There are also a few sets of drawings, each several hundred in number and giving the names of divinities of the Lamaist Pantheon, and there exist occasional books on special phases of Lamaism, with figures of the divinities concerned, On this material most of the present books on the subject are largely based. But there are many images which are neither illustrated nor described in any of these works, and there would appear to be no means for their identification until the Tibetan texts referred to are made available for the purpose.

The identification of the images is not unlike the analysis of plants and min- erals-in fact, I was strongly reminded of my botanizing days when I first read the manuscript of Mrs. Gordon's book and saw the plan on which it was laid out. Thus, as with a flower one determines in order its division, family, and species, so with an image one first takes a look and from its general appearance-pose, expression, and dress-can generally determine the class to which it belongs and then by a detailed examination of the mount, posture, number of faces, arms, and legs and the mystic gestures exhibited by it and the symbols, if any, carried in the hands, seeks to identify and name both the individual in the class and the particular form of such individual. Color is always important for, and frequently decisive of, a correct identification. The images, however, are seldom colored, and hence a study of the thang-kas in connection with that of the images is highly to be recommended, since not only do these painted banners present the divinities in their distinctive colors, but also through the subsidiary figures by which the principal figure is usually accompanied or surrounded they may either aid in the identification of that figure, or, if the figure is known, give a clue to the identity of one or more of the subsidiary figures. Moreover, it is not uncommon to find inscribed on a thang-ka the Tibetan names of the various divinities or brief descriptions of the scenes pictured thereon.

This being the scheme of this book, from the data given and by following its charts and referring to the illustrations I feel sure that the beginner will soon be enabled to identify and call by name many of the divinities represented by the images most commonly encountered. I am equally satisfied that for all readers Mrs. Gordon has in this book amply fulfilled her expressed object, namely, that of making easier the identification of the various deities of the Tibetan pantheon -at least a large number of them. And there is some satisfaction in the knowledge that the identity of an indefinitely large number, including some personified by images which may be picked up occasionally in almost any shop or auction room, must remain "undetermined" after the most persistent and scholarly research in the material now available.

The only danger is that, once started on the path here so attractively opened up, one can never foresee to what lengths he, or she, may be led. Everybody, however, must at times take some risks.


TIBETAN iconography is a most interesting subject from the standpoint of both religion and art. The few books which have been written on the sub- ject are for the learned scholar who has knowledge of Buddhism and its symbolism. For the student the identification of the images is very difficult, since the Tibetan religious works which have been translated and which usually contain accurate descriptions of the deities are not accessible to the general public. The only sources of information are the museums and books such as those by Pander, Grunwedel and Waddell, which are not easy to obtain. The purpose of this book is to give the student interested in Tibetan iconography a general idea of the development of Buddhism into Lamaism, and to make easier the identifica- tion of the various deities of the Tibetan pantheon. The Sanskrit terminology, which is the customary medium for the description of Buddhist deities and symbols, has been used throughout, except in those instances where the deities or ritual objects are indigenous or purely local and only the Tibetan names are known.

In the charts which follow, the object is to give a descriptive outline of the principal Gods of the Tibetan pantheon, those which are commonly encountered in sculpture and in painting. There are probably many inconsistencies, for some deities have many forms and variations, depending on the specific purposes for which they are invoked.

By making these charts, it is hoped that identification has been simplified considerably for the student and that he will be sufficiently interested to continue his studies and researches in this fascinating and comparatively unexplored subject.


Foreword, by William B. Whitneyvii
Foreword to the Second Editionix
Sanskrit Pronunciationxxv
Term in General Usexxvii
Sanskrit-English ; English-Sanskrit Origin of Buddhism and its Development into Lamaism3
Ritual Objects8
Talismans: Amulets, Horoscopes, Special Weapons, Charms, Luck Flags11
Asanas and Vahanas24
Painting: Thang-kas, Mandalas, Tshog-shing, Bhavacakramudras27
Trikaya System and Chart30
Classification of Sacred Images32
Key to Identification of Sacred Images39
Identification Example45
Forms of Sakyamuni55
Medicine Buddhas56
Thirty-five Buddhas of Confession58
Forms of Vajrapani62
Forms of Avalokitesvara64
Forms of Manjusri68
Feminine Divinities: Bodhisattvas, Taras, Dhyanibuddhasaktis, Pancaraksa71
Minor Gods: Lokapala, Mhapancaraja92
Nonhuman Types: Citipati, Nagas, Garudas, Demons, Witches, Furies, Goddesses of the Bardo95
Greater Mandala of the Chonyid Bardo97
Local Gods: Wealth Gods, Earth Gods, House Gods, Personal Gods, Mountain Gods, Kinnaras, Apsaras, and Yaksas102
Historical Persons Defined and Dalai and Tashi Lamas104
The Narthang Series of Thirty-one Thang-kas109
Sample Pages

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