Scenes from the Life of Milarepa
Tibet, Eastern region
18th century
Pigment and gold on cotton
107.5 x 63.5 cm (42 ¼ x 25 in)

Himalayas: An Aesthetic Adventure, The Art Institute of Chicago (5 April–17 August 2003) and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., (18 October 2003–11 January 2004)


J. Watt, Himalayan Art Resources (, no. 68329

P. Pal, Himalayas: An Aesthetic Adventure, (Chicago, 2003), pl. 164, p. 248

Milarepa (1040-1123) is probably the most beloved singing saint and mystic in Tibet. Although he belonged to the Kagyu order, he is revered universally and admired for his songs, which have remained popular in Tibet. A disciple of the unconventional Indian mahasiddha Marpa, Milarepa was a charismatic and eccentric figure who was able to capture the popular imagination with his essential humanity. The drama of his life, with his failures and successes, selflessness an compassion, travels and teaching, provided rich narrative for wandering minstrels known as repa who roamed the country recounting his stories with the help of scrolls such as this painting.

Indeed, music has determined the distinguishing iconographic feature of the poet-saint ... his right hand cups his right ear or is placed near it. This is a gesture that singers commonly make both in the Himalayas and in India while singing to sharpen their hearing and block extraneous noise. He is portrayed with a piece of cotton loosely wrapped around an emaciated body (his name literally means "cotton-clad") indicating physical austerities and deprivations. Additionally, he has a skull cup, which is placed on the rocky table beside him in the biographical painting, where he is also given a water pot and a bound manuscript.

...His age is unambiguously indicated by the drooping flesh, the wrinkled, ashen skin, and, of course, the white hair on his face and head. Nevertheless, the face has not lost its youthfulness altogether, and one might say that he is in a reverie as he nostalgically recalls the many events of his exciting life, represented around him with extraordinary narrative detail.

The thangka is rendered in a vivacious narrative manner that has come to be generally known as the Karma Gadri or Karma Encampment style. ... This thangka episodes from Milarepa's spiritual journey is a remarkably complex but lyrical orchestration of layered forms and multiple miniature vignettes in a harmonious composition. Curiously, it has only three golden inscriptions, which identify a few of the numerous scenes, whereas the more succinct and iconic earlier thangka provides at the back extensive excerpts from the biography.