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ACROSS THE HIMALAYAN GAP

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CULTURE AND ART

NEW REVELATIONS OF XINJIANG ART

PRIYATOSH BANERJEE

23

  It is my great pleasure to make a short contribution to this immense and valuable volume which, I am sure, will promote India- China understanding. When we work on the art of Xinjiang ("Chinese Turkistan", as it was conventionally known), we find that our information multiplies, new revelations can be harvested. Let me illustrate this below.

The plaque in question was collected from Yotkan (Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region of China) by the famous explorer, Sven Hedin and is now housed in the Ethnographische Museet, Stockholm, Sweden. So far as my knowledge goes, the theme of the plaque which is of great iconographic interest does not seem to have been identified as yet by any scholar. We are, however, very thankful to Dr. Joanna Williams who has reproduced it in her article The Iconography of Khotanese Painting, published in East and West (New series Vol. 23, March-June, 1973, Fig. 70), though she has offered no remarks regarding its identification. Stylistically, the plaque can be attributed to 9th-10th century AD.

The plaque presents a very intricate composition in the form of a Yantra or Mandala consisting of two intersecting triangles one of which points to the top or apex and the other to the bottom. Inside the first triangle is portrayed a female divinity dancing in Pratyalidha pose over a corpse. She is surrounded on all sides by various subsidiary deities. At the bottom of this diagram or Yantra is a purna-kumbha, (i.e., a jar filled with sacred water and foliage) with a passant lion at one side and a pig at the other.

The main deity which dances over a corpse as mentioned above is somewhat damaged at the face, the lower portions of the legs and few other places, rendering it difficult to understand some of her details. It is very difficult to make out the contents of the face of the deity which was perhaps like that of a sow.

The deity has two arms. Her right hand which is raised seems to hold a vajra with the taryani (the pose of the raised index finger in a menacing attitude) and {he left holding a khatvanga (a staff surmounted by a vajra or kapala or trisula). She wears a garland of skulls. Around her are her attendant deities shown at the corners of the triangles. Further, on either side of the tip of the second triangle (i.e., the triangle which points to the bottom) are two female divinities. The pair at the left includes a kneeling deity with the hands raised and looking up to the principal deity of the Mandala. Her accompanying figure sits with her legs pendent, and a staff held in her right hand. Similarly, the other pair at the opposite side consists of two female figures, one kneeling and looking up to the main deity and the other deity sitting with her legs pendant and holding a circular object which may be called a kapala.

Now with the above background we may discuss the question of the identification of the theme the plaque represents. In our present task we have to depend largely upon the Sadhanamala (the Buddhist iconographic texts, containing the procedure of worship) edited by Benoytosh Bhattacharyya, Baroda, 1924. It is interesting to note that the general features of the main female deity of the present Mandala, dancing in Pratyalidha pose agree to the description of the Vajravarahi of the two-armed variety as is apparent from the following Dhyana specimen:

Atmanam Bhagavatim Vajravarahfm dadimbakusuma-prakhyam dvibhujam ekananam trinetram muktakesam sanmudramudritam digambaram pancha jnaanatmikam sahajananda svabhavam dakshinena vajra- taryanikaram-vamena-karotaka-khatvanga- bhavayet.

"The worshipper should conceive himself as goddess Vajravarahi whose complexion is like the pomegranate flower, who is two-armed, one faced and three-eyed, has dishevelled hair, endowed with six auspicious symbols, is nude, whose essence is the five knowledges, who is of the nature of Sahaja pleasure, who shows in the right hand the vajra together with the taljam, and bears the khatvanga in the left, who stands in pratyalidha attitude (i.e. the left leg outstretched while the right leg slightly bent and placed behind),who tramples upon the fierce Kalaratri represented as the corpse, decked in the garlands of wet heads and who drinks of the blood trickling therefrom." (Benoytosh Bhattacharyya, Indian Buddhist Iconography, Baroda, 1924, pp. 103- 104).

On the basis of the above quoted sadhana, I am inclined to hold that the central figure of our ivory plaque is Vajravarahi with her companions (namely Dakini. Lama, Khandaroha and Rupini).

In the Chakrasamvara Mandala the attributes of Vajravarahi are explained as follows: "She is one faced to indicate the essential sameness of all things and with two hands, because truth is two-fold, absolute and relative...She is naked with dishevelled hair because she has been set free from illusions that hide the essence of things. She wears a girdle adorned with portions of skulls because she bestows supreme bliss and with her right hand in the gesture of menace (tarjani Mudra). She clutches the vajra and terrifies the demons of the ten points of space." (Kazi Dawa Samdup, Sricharasamvara Tantra, Aditya Prakashan, New Delhi. 1987, p.24.)

The Mandala under discussion is placed on a circular pedestal decorated with beads or lotus petals. Below the pedestal is a Purnakumbha with sacred water and foliage shown at the bottom. On its left is a rampant lion, on a lotus base at the left and a seated pig at the right.

Purna-kumbha is an auspicious symbol, used in all forms of Indian worship, Hindu, Buddhist and Jaina. In Jalna Ayagapata (tablet of homage), it occurs invariably as one of the eight auspicious symbols. The Purna-kumbha in a mandala signifies the abhisheka ceremony, i.e. the consecratory rite. As we know from the Tantra, the Pranapratishtha of the deities (the infusion of life in the deities) is performed over it.

Now the presence of the pig in association with the Purna-kumbha, signifies beyond doubt that the plaque is a representation of the Vajravarahi Mandala.

The Purna-kumbha is an attribute also of another Buddhist deity called Marichi who has three faces, one of which is that of a sow. It is interesting to note that a Marichi figure from Khiching {Orissa) bears behind her head a Purna-kumbha with foliage. Or. Oebala Mitra who has illustrated this figure in her book "Buddhist Monuments of India' does not seem to have noticed this Purna-kumbha motif.

The Mandalas are generally shown as circular or square in shape. But the Tantra texts describe Mandalas also as geometrical diagrams as our ivory plaque.

Geometric symbolism was an important part of Hindu ritualism too. In this connection Havel notes: "The principal object of worship in Vaishnava temple in Southern India is the Sudarsana Chakm, Vishnu's discus which symbolises the creator's mind or the first thought of the Supreme Being when the desire of creation moved him to manifest himself. It is represented as a circle of fire with four projecting points of flame. On one face of the chakra sits the lion incarnation of Vishnu in yogi pose enclosed in an equilateral triangle. On the other face are two similar triangles, one standing on its apex and the other on its base, symbolising respectively the evolutionary and involutionary cosmic power. This is the mystic symbol of the Universe known as King Soloman's Seal."

In Japanese Buddhism the Mandala of two sections symbolises the Vajradhatu and Garbhadhatu. The Buddha mind is generally represented as a triangle of flame pointing downwards. The symbol occurs on the breast of Variochana Buddha. (William Edward Soothill and Lewis Hudus, A Dictionary of Chinese Buddhist terms, Oxford, 1931, p. 250 a).

This ivory plaque shows clearly the fact that Tantric Buddhism was popular in Yotkan (Khotan region) in the ninth-tenth century AD. This form of Buddhism originated in India. It became in course of time very popular in Tibet, Nepal, and Central Asia.

It is difficult to ascertain whether the ivory plaque in question was a local product of Yotkan or it was taken there by a pilgrim or trader. Whatever it may be, the Khotan region was an important centre of Tantric Buddhism during the early medleaval period, as we know from other sources also. Even if not a local product, the object might have come to Central Asia in response to a local demand.

 

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1998 Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, New Delhi

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Published in 1998 by 

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