Portrait of Jnanatapa Attended by Lamas and Mahasiddhas

Date: ca. 1350

Culture: Eastern Tibet, Kham, Riwoche monastery

Medium: Distemper on cloth

Dimensions: 27 x 21 1/2 in. (68.6 x 54.6 cm)

Classification: Paintings

Credit Line: Purchase, Friends of Asian Art Gifts, 1987

Accession Number: 1987.144


This painting of the Tantric practitioner Jnanatapa was created for Riwoche Monastery in eastern Tibet during the fourteenth century. Surrounding the central figure are the progenitors and abbots of Taklung Monastery, of which Riwoche was an offshoot. The two latest historical figures, second from the top on both sides and identified by inscription, are (left) Onpo Lama Rinpoche (1251–1296), who briefly served as the abbot of Taklung and was the founder of Riwoche, and (right) his young disciple, Choku Orgyan Gonpo (1293–1366), who became second abbot of Riwoche. Despite some intriguing clues, the identity of the central figure in this painting was a mystery until recently. The painting once had a silk cloth attached to it, inscribed "Jnanatapa." The figure depicted under an arch, directly above the central figure and thus in the position where one would expect his teacher to be, is identified by inscription as Avagarbha. The identity of the central figure became clear after reference to a chapter on Onpo Lama Rinpoche in a Taklung history written by Ngawang Namgyal (1571–1626), which includes an account of one of Onpo's previous lives in India. Ngawang Namgyal states that in his Indian incarnation, Onpo was "the peerless mahasiddha Jnanatapa" and his Tantric teacher was Avagarbha, a Bengali siddha in the tradition of Tilopa and Naropa. Remarkably, here is a painting that illustrates the spiritual lineage of Riwoche Monastery, featuring at its center a portrait of one of the Indian incarnations of its founder. Why Onpo's Indian incarnation should have been considered a worthy subject for portraiture is unclear, but it recalls the Tibetan concern for the purity of spiritual lineages, which often were judged by their unbroken links with respected Indian masters.