Roundel with Karma Lineage, 16th century
Ivory; H. 3 1/2 in. (8.9 cm)
Purchase, Friends of Asian Art Gifts, 2003 (2003.495)
This rare, early example of ivory carving exemplifies the interest in practice lineages that often underlies the creation of Tibetan art. The hat worn by the primary figure in this complex roundel is found in the clothing of monks in the Karma tradition of Tibetan Buddhism: the figure most likely represents Mikyo Dorje (1500–1599), the eighth head of that lineage. The remaining seven monks along the sides represent earlier incarnations of him. Each has individualized facial features and gestures. Several of them, such as the figure holding a book, are attended by smaller kneeling adorants.
Seminal figures in the development of the Karma branch are shown: Tilopa and Naropa, the two Indian adepts responsible for the transmission of this type of Buddhist practice to Tibet, sit at the upper right and left, respectively. Marpa (1012–1098), a renowned translator, and Milarepa (1040–1123), famed for his songs and ascetic lifestyle, are seated in grottoes below the two adepts. Vajradhara, an important Buddha in the Karma tradition, sits at the top with his hands in a gesture of teaching, while the protective Mahakala stands at the bottom encircled by flames.