A Shift in Buddhist Iconography between the 8th and 12th Century: Rock Carvings and Mandala Murals in Eastern and Western Tibet

Mar 30 12:00–1:30pm
Common Room (#136), 2 Divinity Ave., Cambridge

Zhang Changhong (Associate Professor, The Palace Museum, Beijing, China; HYI Coordinate Research Scholar)
Chair/Discussant: Leonard van der Kuijp (Professor of Tibetan and Himalayan Studies, Department of South Asian Studies and EALC Department, Harvard University)

In the past decades, a large number of Buddhist rock carvings dating to the Tibetan imperial period (8th-9th C.) were discovered in the eastern Tibetan area, the border area of Qinghai, Sichuan and the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR). It is notable that the image of Vairocana was the dominant motif in this period. He appears by himself, in combination with Avalokiteśvara and Vajrapāṇi, as well as in the composition with eight Bodhisattvas. After the collapse of the Tibetan empire and institutional Buddhism at around the middle of the 9th century, a descendant of the Tibetan imperial family went into exile and established his regime in the remote western Tibetan area of TAR. There Buddhism was reintroduced with the support of the Lama-king Ye shes 'od (947-1024/37) and the great translator Rin chen bzang po (958-1055). During their lifetimes, numerous Buddhist monasteries, stupas and caves were constructed. Some of them still exist and are thus witnesses of the revival of Buddhism from the end of the tenth century onward. In the beginning of this period, the image of Vairocana makes its appearance together with Avalokiteśvara and Vajrapāṇi, therewith apparently continuing his iconography of the imperial period. However, this changed soon with the maṇḍala-s that began to dominate the art work in the monasteries and caves from the middle of the 11th century onward. The maṇḍala-s in question were those of the Vajradhātu and the Dharmadhātuvāgīśvara. In my presentation, I will discuss the dynamics of the shift in the iconographic presentation of Vairocana from the imperial period of the Snga dar to the post-imperial period of the Phyi dar period (the earlier and the later spread of Buddhism in Tibet) and illustrate my remarks with abundant archaeological and art historical evidence. And I will try to offer a tentative interpretation.