Art/ Collection/ Art Object

Portrait of the Indian Monk Atisha

early to mid-12th century
Distemper and gold on cloth
Image: 19 1/2 x 13 15/16 in. (49.5 x 35.4 cm) Framed: 32 13/16 x 21 11/16 in. (83.3 x 55.1 cm)
Credit Line:
Gift of Steven Kossak, The Kronos Collections, 1993
Accession Number:
Not on view
Atisha was the abbot of Vikramashila monastery in northern India, one of the mahaviharas (great monasteries) that granted the learned degree of pandita, here indicated by his yellow hat. In 1042, he traveled to Tibet at the invitation of the western Tibetan king Yeshe ‘Od to help purify Buddhist practices there. Atisha’s authority was rooted in his lineage, an unbroken chain of pupil-guru relationships going back to the Buddha himself. This portrait of Atisha, among the oldest preserved, shows him as an enlightened being with golden skin and a halo, seated on an elaborate jeweled throne. His right hand is held in the teaching gesture and he holds a bound palm-leaf manuscript in his left. The tangka can be dated from a contemporary inscription on the reverse naming known historical figures.
Inscription: Inscriptions on the back:

Among the inscriptions on the back there are two lines in black ink along the top, the first is in a print letters (dbu-can), the second in handwriting letters (dbu-med), both quite well legible. The first inscription appears to identify the person depicted, the Indian scholar Atiśa who visited Tibet in the 11th century, and a gift of one histroical personage to another spiritually higher one.
The person receiving the gift is mentioned first and called Rin-chen-sgang-pa (1245–1302), a bKa'-gdams-pa teacher {TBRC, #1047: P4831}.
The second phrase ston pa dar blo denotes the giver, the teacher (ston-pa) Dar-blo, for Dar-mablo-gros {TBRC, #1047: P8203}.
In the Blue Annals {Roerich, 1988r #667: 314} a dar-blo is mentioned along with another Rinchen-sgang-pa (he must be earlier than that for which the dates given in TBRC) among the pupils of sNe'u zur pa Ye-shes-'bar (1042–1118, {TBRC, #1047: P1316}). However, the Blue Annals are not absolutely reliable for the early events considering the fact that they have been written several centuries after these events. This is even more so regarding the lists these two names occur together there.

a ti śa | rin chen sgang ba la ston pa dar blos phul |

Atiśa. Given to Rin-chen-sgang-ba by the teacher Dar-[ma]-blo-[gros]

The second inscription directly underneath contains two possible interconnected statement noting the importance of the thangka and its placement. It notes that ‘ many consecrations abide [in the thangka]’ and ‘god of the dwelling’. I would tentatively interpret this statement that
a) the painting was used in a monk’s dwelling
b) that the painting functioned as house-god, replacing a traditional non-Buddhist deity in this function
c) justifying this function or usage of the thangka it is noted that this image has often been
consecrated and thus is particularly worthy.
It has to be seen if similar inscriptions occur on other paintings.

**| | rab gnas mang du bzhugs | gzims kyi lha | |

Additionally there are consecration mantras and an inscription in the shape of a stūpa written in an ornamental script (yet to be analyzed).

The two inscriptions along the top are apparently not contemporary. It is likely that the first
inscription has been written quite soon after the thangka was made, it may even denote that the image has been made to be gifted to Rin-chen-sgang-ba. The second inscription is certainly later and could have been added any time. However, its content, the tension between the native gods and a Buddhist replacement probably also accounts for a relatively early date of this inscription. It appears, however, likely that it was added when the original receiver of the gift was not alive anymore and the thangka has got a new function.

Christian Luczanits, May 22, 2004
New York. Rubin Museum of Art. "Mirror of the Buddha: Early Portraits from Tibet," October 21, 2011–March 5, 2010.

New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "The Arts of Nepal and Tibet: Recent Gifts," January 16, 2016–January 15, 2017.

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