Art/ Collection/ Art Object

Initiation Card (Tsakalis)

early 15th century
Opaque watercolor on paper
Each 6 1/4 x 5 3/4 in. (16 x 14.5 cm)
Credit Line:
Rogers Fund, 2000
Accession Number:
Not on view
Tsakali cards were used by itinerant teachers moving from one monastery to another in order to evoke Vajrayana Buddhist deities. When laid on the ground in the form of a mandala, as seen here, they functioned to create a fixed sacred space like that of a temple. The deities shown on these initiation cards include the Tathagata Buddhas, various bodhisattvas, fierce protectors, and the six possible realms of rebirth seen across the bottom. They probably were made by a Nepali artist for a Tibetan patron of the Nyingma school of Tibetan Buddhism.

Tsakali cards were used individually to align a disciple with a deity from the vast pantheon. First, the disciple sought permission from the deity, either through a dream or under the guidance of a teacher. The associated ritual involved visualizing the deity as described in recited mantras (incantations) and with an image—in this case, the deity represented on the tsakali.

The cards form a mandala if the first one is placed in the middle and the following cards are arranged clockwise, as is auspicious. The bodhisattvas Samantabhadra (male) and Sambantabhadri (female), appearing in the upper corners, have as their esoteric counterpart the central and most important figure, Vajrasattva. While there is no text explaining this mandala, the Maha Vairochana sutra tells us that Vajrasattva should be venerated in order to purify the mind prior to undertaking advanced tantric techniques. This accords with the inscriptions on the back of each card, which associate mental states with each deity and delusions, such as pride, jealousy, and hatred, with each of the possible rebirths. It is remarkable that these cards, perhaps the earliest set of tsakali that survives intact, together form a mandala suitable for the ritual of initiation.
Inscription: Initiation Card 25. Identified by the Tibetan letter "RA"

The delusion of hatred is uncreated mind. By attaining the naturally arising state of hell realms and by the initiation into meditational ability, may it tend to a complete mental subjugation. Mantra, Om Mu Ne Ye Sva Ha follows. (illeg.) the Mahamudra deva body. By means of this initiation into the 42 Buddhas, and by abiding in the 42 (associated) offering ceremonies, may (the postulant) come to abide in the state of reality of the 42 Buddhas, and may they gain the power of the meditation levels of the yogins themselves!

(There is no identification which suggests that this is in fact the final card.)
Gerry Virtue ; [ Sam Fogg Rare Books Ltd. , London, 2000, sold to MMA]
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Sacred Traditions of the Himalayas," December 20, 2014–June 14, 2015.

Related Objects

Initiation Cards (Tsakalis)

Date: early 15th century Medium: Opaque watercolor on paper Accession: 2000.282.1–.25 On view in:Gallery 251

Portrait of Jnanatapa Attended by Lamas and Mahasiddhas

Date: ca. 1350 Medium: Distemper on cloth Accession: 1987.144 On view in:Gallery 253

Mandala of Hevajra

Date: 16th century Medium: Ink and color on cloth Accession: 1982.225 On view in:Gallery 253

Offerings to the Goddess Palden Lhamo

Date: late 16th century Medium: Distemper on cloth Accession: 1983.510.1 On view in:Gallery 253

White Tara and Green Tara

Date: 1450–1500 Medium: Distemper on cloth Accession: 2012.460 On view in:Gallery 253