This cosmic form of Avalokiteshvara with eleven towering heads and a fan of arms is strongly emblematic of Tibet. Although the iconography has its origin in India it was the Tibetans that made this aspect of the bodhisattva their own. The fantastic imagery seems to have chimed with Tibetan sensibilities. Statues and paintings of the bodhisattva abound in places of worship and it is he that is evoked in the constant turning of prayer wheels and rosary beads with the ubiquitous Tibetan mantra “Om Mani Padme Hum”. The topmost head of the statue represents Buddha Amitabha, the spiritual progenitor of the bodhisattva. The ten heads below symbolise the steps on the path to enlightenment of the Buddha, and the principal hands held before the heart symbolically protect the ratna jewel of this enlightened state.
It is not only the Indian iconography of the bodhisattva that is incorporated in the statue, but also vestiges of mediaeval Indian sculptural tradition as well. The Tibetan use of silver and copper to enhance details of non-gilded bronzes is a continuum from Indian Pala period styles imported in the early days of contact. Inlaid silver draws dramatic focus on the whites of the statue’s piercing eyes, and red copper lends realism to lips and fingernails. Comparisons may be made with a group of similarly monumental Pala inspired bronzes of Tathagatas in Nethang, an ancient monastery close to Lhasa in southern Tibet. Nethang was a principal residence of the revered Indian guru Atisha (982-1054) during his stay in Tibet in the last ten years of his life. It is said that Atisha brought Buddhist images with him from his homeland, the like of which were undoubtedly known to the artists who sculpted this figure: hundreds of early Indian bronzes still remain in Tibetan monastery collections that have always inspired copies and interpretations. Details of the faces of the Nethang images are obscured by modern paint but their hands reveal copper inlay and it is more or less safe to assume their eyes and lips are silver and copper like the Ekadasamukha Avalokiteshvara. The jewellery of the Nethang Tathagatas is similarly inlaid with colored stones, and the casting sprues that connect the tops of the crown leaves are also left in place for strength, perhaps meaning to double as garlands. The Nethang group provides an indication of the important context for this massive temple statue of Avalokiteshvara.
It is one of the largest recorded early Tibetan bronzes of this iconic form of the deity, and certainly one of the most aesthetically successful. The elegant proportions of the towering heads and fan of arms create a mesmerising effect with the piercing gaze of the silver eyes. There is gleaming intensity in the expressions of the angry faces with their bared silver teeth, but the overall effect is of calm and grace in this evocative image of Tibetan Buddhist culture.