Watt, J., Tibetan Thangkas: Buddhist Paintings from the 17th to the 19th Century (Hong Kong: Rossi & Rossi, 2018), 34–37
Watt, J., Himalayan Art Resources (himalayanart.org), no. 88592
Manjushri (Tibetan: Jampalyang, Jampaiyang [rje btsun ‘jam pa’i dbyangs]) is a popular Buddhist figure commonly represented in art. He first arises from the Mahayana Sutra literature of northern Buddhism, in which he is regarded as the bodhisattva of wisdom. In artistic depictions of this form, his iconography is not fixed: Manjushri still has one face and two arms. His typical emblem is a Prajnaparamita Sutra book, which he holds in his left hand or supports with a flower blossom. He often brandishes a sword in his right hand. In art, he is typically depicted in a relaxed posture, in front of a temple or in narrative settings.
This single composition of Manjushri belongs to a nine-painting set depicting the Eight Great Bodhisattvas. Typically, the central painting of the set features either the Shakyamuni Buddha or the Amitabha Buddha. The painting style appears to be East Tibetan, from the Lhatog region south of Chamdo, and is strongly associated with Khampa Gar, a stronghold of the Drugpa Kagyu tradition of Tibetan Buddhism.
The Eight Great Bodhisattvas
A figure in peaceful appearance, Manjushri has an orange complexion, with one face and two arms. In his right hand, he holds the stem of a blue utpala flower, which supports an upright sword. In his left hand, which extends across his knee, he grasps the stem of a white flower blossoming beside his left ear and supporting a folio text. His patterned upper robe is made of a white material; his plain lower robe is red. A green and blue ribbonlike scarf hovers about his shoulders and falls to his sides. The deity’s head and body are adorned with a variety of jewellery. Depicted in a relaxed manner atop a blue dragon-patterned cloth, Manjushri sits with his left leg pendant, his foot resting on a short, green, flower-shaped stool. The whimsical throne has curves and unusual structures, and is adorned with multicoloured wishfulfilling jewels.
In some Tibetan traditions, peaceful deities are identified by the Thirteen Adornments of the Peaceful Deity, which include the Five Silken Garments and the Eight Jewel Ornaments. The Five Silken Garments are: a scarf, pendants for the crown, the upper garment, the lower garment and sleeves for dancing. The Eight Jewel Ornaments are: a crown, earrings, a short necklace, a medium necklace, a long necklace, a shoulder ornament, bracelets and anklets.
Manjushri wears most of these garments and ornaments, which are described in technical manuals written for religious rituals and meditation practice. The artist of this work, however, also had a fair amount of freedom to reinterpret the deity’s garments and ornaments. In this case, we have a non-iconic depiction of Manjushri, which means that he is being portrayed as a student of the Buddhas, as described in the sutra literature of Mahayana Buddhism.
Tantric images of Manjushri are technical and precise, iconic and unchanging, and, for the most part, static and formalised. Mahayana depictions are fluid and dynamic, and generally only conform to cultural and artistic conventions, and not to technical iconographic tantric literature.
With these kinds of depictions, which fall under the category of Mahayana Buddhism, there are no strict iconographic descriptions for the bodhisattvas. They can sit in any posture that the artist chooses. They can carry their attributes in any manner, have them rest on a table at their side or even held in the hand of an attendant figure. The colours of the garments are influenced by the colour chosen for the figure’s face, body and arms.