Himalayas, Buddhist Art in

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The wide geographic area covered by the Himalayan range and reaching from Kashmir in the west to Mongolia in the east includes several civilizations dedicated to Buddhism, often in close symbiosis with other religions. The strength of autochthonous traditions and the different ways in which Buddhism was imported from foreign cultures resulted in different types of Buddhist art in this region.


Sarvāstivāda Buddhism was the dominant religion in Kashmir until the sixth century; from the eighth to the twelfth centuries MahĀyĀna Buddhism was also a strong force. During this period Buddhist art in Kashmir developed a characteristic national style embodying elements from Gupta India and Gandhāra, and even from Syrian-Byzantine styles.

No early Kashmiri Buddhist monastery remains intact, but in structure and style they were probably similar to the still existing brahmanical structures. In Parihāsapura (Paraspor), there are remains of temples and of a stŪpa that date to the first half of the eighth century. The square halls and chapels of these structures were characterized by lantern-ceilings consisting of superimposed intersecting squares and tympana of triangular gables over openings in the facade that enclosed a trefoil arch. The chapels had fluted pillars and stepped pyramidal roofs. A special type of building design was the pañcāyatana form, which consisted of a cubic structure with entrances in all four walls and a large central tower and smaller caitya-like elements at all four corners.

The remains of stūpas allow scholars to reconstruct their original appearance. The stūpa in Huviṣkapura (Uṣkur), located inside a large courtyard, includes terra-cotta and stucco fragments that show Gandhāra influences. Other remains at Sadarhadvāna (Hārvan), datable to between 400 and 500 c.e., can be reconstructed by terra-cotta plaques showing miniature stūpas. The enormous Caṅkuna-stūpa at Parihāsapura, datable to the first half of the eighth century, had a large square double platform with projecting staircases on each side and indented corners, making it somewhat similar to the Borobudur in Java.

Only a few early Kashmiri Buddhist sculptures in stone have survived, including a life-size standing bodhisattva unearthed at Pāṇḍrēṇṭhan (Purāṇādhisthāna), datable to the seventh or eighth century. Stucco and terra-cotta fragments, stylistically comparable to Haḍḍa and Taxila, were found in the ruined stupa at Uṣkur. Sculptures in bronze are also well documented; their yellowish brass material, often with inlays of copper and silver, is typical. Beginning in the eighth century, standing figures of Buddha Śākyamuni wore garments with stylized folds, sometimes including a capelike "cloud-collar" around the neck. The Buddha was also often represented seated and wearing a crown. The stylistic roots for such representations may be found in Bengal. Kashmiri bodhisattvas were generally ornamental, with a luxuriant surface. Avalokiteśvara is often shown seated in a pensive mood, a form probably derived from Gandhāra models. There are also examples of other bodhisattvas, such as Maitreya or Vajrapāṇi, as well as goddesses like Tārā clad in tight bodices accentuating their feminine appearance. After the eighth century, fierce deities of the tantric pantheon were also represented.

An impression of what the lost Buddhist murals in Kashmir must have looked liked may be gained from the enormously rich twelfth-century wall paintings in Ladakh, especially those at Alchi, which were probably executed by Kashmiri artists.


Nepal's proximity to Northern India influenced the Buddhist art in Nepal on many levels; these Indian influences were later integrated into existing local traditions. The earliest still existing monuments were stupas. The four AŚoka stūpas erected at the cardinal points near the entrances to the city of Pāṭan are related to basic Indian forms of the third century, as exemplified by the Great Stūpa of SĀÑcĪ. The stūpas at Pāṭan have flat tumulus-like cupolas on low walls, small shrines for reliefs of buddhas, and square harmikās (pavilion-like blocks of stone atop the domelike stūpas) that show Pāla influence. The large Svayambhūnāth stūpa to the west of Kathmandu, first erected around 400 c.e., is dedicated to the five tathāgatas. It shows a relationship to a Mauryan tumulus, but pairs of eyes painted onto the four sides of the harmikā are a Nepalese characteristic. They symbolize the all-seeing eyes of the supreme ādi-buddha. The stupa is designed as a representation of the axis of the world, and it is thus surrounded by four shrines marking each of the heavenly directions. The plan of the second monumental stupa of Bodhnāth in Bhatgāon (Bhaktapur) is related to the concepts of a maṆḌala. It is also orientated to the four heavenly directions; it has a flat large tumulus on a three-step foundation, as well as eyes on the harmikā.

One hundred and eight niches in the low base of the aṇḍa contain statues of AmitĀbha.

The earliest representations of monastic architecture in Newari style are found in illustrations of prajñāpāramitā sūtras that date to 1015. These buildings were characterized by a combination of plain brick walls, with roofs, doors, and windows made of elaborately decorated wood, a style possibly derived from Gupta architecture. Such structures are also characterized by slanting struts supporting the weight of the projecting roofs, which sometimes have Chinese-looking upturned corners.

In Nepal, there is a close technical and structural parallelism between nonreligious and monastic buildings, whether Buddhist or brahmanic. Three or four upper stories were often added to such buildings beginning in about the fourteenth century. Nepalese monasteries and temple complexes consisted of a square courtyard surrounded by buildings, with a main chapel at the end of the central axis. The center of the courtyard was sometimes occupied by a caitya or a maṇḍala structure.

The coexistence of Buddhism and Brahmanism in Nepal resulted in a similarity in iconographical types and forms. The earliest stone and wood sculptures of bodhisattvas in the Licchavi period (300–850) show a relationship to Kushan or Gupta art, but certain influences from Sārnāth may also be observed. During the Thakuri phase (beginning about 1480) some Pala influences became apparent, and between the fourteenth and seventeenth centuries, there develops a distinctive Newari style that can no longer be labeled as a regional variety of Indian art. In this style, the sculptural surfaces, especially of bronze figures, is smooth and usually gilded. There are no obvious stylistic changes over longer periods, although a predilection for sensual representations of Avalokiteśvara and the female deity Vasudhārā began in the eleventh century. After 1278 Newari artists were frequently employed by Tibetan monasteries, including the famous Aniko.

In part because of differences in architectural structures, murals played a much smaller role in Buddhist painting in Nepal than in Ladakh or Tibet. Instead, narrative scenes and holy figures of the pantheon were painted on cotton and mounted as movable hanging scrolls (paṭa or paubhā) to be shown during appropriate ceremonies, a tradition that continued well into the eighteenth century. The earliest dated piece is a maṇḍala of the deity Vasudhārā from the year 1367. These scrolls are characterized by detailed and elegant execution, the use of primary colors (especially red), the hieratic frontality of central figures, and visual order and spatial symmetry.

Another characteristic field of Buddhist painting in Nepal are illustrations in manuscripts on palm leaf or paper, an art practiced since the first half of the eleventh century. The roots for this form may be found in Eastern India, but the Nepalese paintings are more expressive and painterly than Indian Pāla versions. During the first half of the seventeenth century, a new stylistic tradition developed as Nepalese artists came under the influence of Rajput paintings.

Ladakh and western Tibet

Buddhist art in the regions of Ladakh, Spiti, and Guge in western Himalaya mainly came to life under the influence of the "second spread" (bstan pa phyi dar) of Buddhism, which was started by Rin chen bzang po (958–1055) and sponsored by the local royal families. Rin chen bzang po is said to have founded many temples, although only few such reports can be substantiated historically. The new religious trends, with roots in Northern India and Kashmir, were characterized by a cosmic conception centered on the transcendental Buddha Vairocana and the four tathāgatas. This focus is reflected clearly in iconography. Influences from Nepal can also be traced. Later, artists in central Tibet, under the influence of the Bka' gdams pa (Kadampa order), introduced sexually tinted yab-yum figures in sculpture and painting ("yab-yum," literally "father-mother," is a couple in an erotic embrace—he a tantric deity, she the embodiment of transcendental wisdom, or prajñā). After the sixteenth century, when the Dge lugs (Geluk) order became the leading power, Tibetan art shows Chinese influence, especially in monastic architecture, and monasteries of this period often look like fortresses.

Nyar ma, near the capital Leh, is the only monastery in Ladakh that can be confirmed as having been founded by Rin chen bzang po, in about 1000 c.e. This monastery was an influential religious center during the eleventh and twelfth centuries, but only ruined foundations of the buildings remain. Another early building is a small temple at Lamayuru Monastery (Gyung drung dgon pa) in the Indus valley. This building contains murals and a sculpture of Vairocana flanked by the four tathāgatas. The other buildings at Lamayuru were redecorated later.

The temples in the village of Alchi (A lci) on the left bank of the Indus, to the east of Leh, occupy an exceptional position in the Himalayan history of Buddhist architecture and wall painting. While the structures of the walls follow the local Ladakhi-Tibetan tradition, the wooden facade and pillars, elements of the ceilings, and especially the wall paintings, clearly represent Kashmiri traditions, and were probably executed by Kashmiri artists invited to western Tibet by Rin chen bzang po. Whereas the congregation hall (Du khang) was erected and decorated early in the twelfth century, the three-storied temple (Gsum brtsegs) dates slightly later to around 1200 c.e. The murals at Alchi are extremely elegant and stylistically quite different from paintings in Tibetan style. The secular scenes depicting male and female donors in royal attire show Indian and Central Asian influence, whereas the Great Stupa, which is actually a pañcāyatana chapel, and its murals belong to the same period as the early Alchi temples. Rich wall paintings of male and female deities united in the yab-yum position correspond to a typical Tibetan style. The only known temple complex in a style closely related to that of Alchi are the four chapels and a pañcāyatana building in the small village of Mang rgyu, which is located in a valley near Alchi.

Whereas many of the earlier temples in Ladakh were built on flat ground near villages, beginning in the fifteenth century most monastic complexes were constructed on hills. These fortresslike complexes consisted of several courtyards with temples. Painted and sculpted icons used the tantric iconography of Tibetan Buddhism. A typical example is Spituk (Dpe thub) near Leh. The temples at Tiktse (Khrig rtse) and Likir (Klu dkyil) show later repainting and restoration. The wealthy 'Brug pa monastery at Hemis consists of several large buildings, some with murals from the eighteenth century.

Five cave temples above the village of Saspol (Sa spo la) opposite Alchi house rich murals with a wide spectrum of iconography. These show Śākyamuni, the Sukhāvatī Paradise, many bodhisattvas, protective deities, and monks.

The important temple complex at Tabo (Rta bo) in Spiti was founded in 996 by Rin chen bzang po and the religious king Ye shes 'od. The walls (lcags ri) surround eight asymmetrically arranged temple buildings.

The entrance hall (sgo khang) includes murals from 996 that show influences from Central Asia, especially in the representation of human figures. The main hall (Gtsug lag khang), which was renovated in 1042, is divided by rows of pillars into three naves with a circumambulation route at its end. The walls show a Sarvavid-Vairocana maṇḍala; the main figures are affixed as sculptures to the walls and are surrounded by paintings. The wooden portals are framed by panels of sculptures with scenes from Śākyamuni's life, probably executed by Kashmiri artists. There are also remarkable painted portraits of royal patrons, nobles, and monks with their names added. Several other chapels are dedicated to different deities.

The group of temples at Tholing (Mtho lding), the religious center of the kingdom of Gu ge, was founded at the end of the tenth century by Ye shes 'od and Rin chen bzang po, who served as the first abbot. The layout was modeled after the Tibetan monastery Bsam yas (Samye). The rectangular outer walls surround a row of small chapels. The greatest building in the center, dedicated by Ye shes 'od, is accentuated with stūpas over its four corners, resulting in a pyramidal effect, the arrangement of which, together with the interior decoration, represents a Vajradhātu maṇṀala. The masonry structure is Tibetan; the Chinese-style copper roofs were added during the fifteenth century. There are several other buildings, including a congregation hall ('Du khang). The hall for initiations (Gser khang) has three stories representing the three bodies of a buddha and a mandala-like plan with chapels; the wooden columns are in Central Asian style and are similar to the wooden portal of the White Temple (Lha khang dkar po).

The surviving murals in the temples at Tsaparang (Rtsa pa brang), only ten kilometers from Tholing, and the later capital of Gu ge, were painted during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries and are related to those of Gyantse (Rgyal rtse). The White Temple had twenty-two stucco statues affixed to its walls; these were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution. Remaining murals show scenes from Śākyamuni's life. The Red Temple (Lha khang dmar po), built during the fifteenth century, has murals with tathagatas executed about two centuries later.

Central and eastern Tibet

Whereas Ladakh and western Tibet were strongly influenced by the art of Kashmir, the Buddhist art of central and eastern Tibet was in its formative period stimulated by the introduction of Buddhism from India, via Nepal, and from Central Asia, and in its later phase from China. Characteristic local styles were the result of mingling adaptations with autochthonous traditions, especially in architecture.

The Jo khang in Lhasa, its founding in the eighth century attributed to King Srong btsan sgam po, is close to Indian Gupta models. There are three stories over a square plan, the third story probably constructed later. The five inner chapels are surrounded by corridors for circumambulation. The wooden chapel doors and heavy columns are decorated with carvings resembling a mid-seventh century Newari style. The projecting Chinese-style roofs were built later. The principal chapel contains a sculpture of the eastern tathāgata, AkṢobhya, as its main image, with sculptures of Amitābha and Maitreya in side chapels. The original monumental murals are lost; the existing paintings were executed in the twelfth century and show Tibetan style with some Nepalese and Pala influences.

The temple complex of Bsam yas (Samye) in the Tsangpo valley was founded in 779 by King Khri srong lde btsan. The layout comprises several buildings and four outer chörten (mchod rtens), or stupas, which were based on maṇḍala concepts. The three-storied central temple (dbu rtse) symbolizes Mount Sumeru as axis mundi. The circular perimeter wall stood for the chain of mountains surrounding the world (lchags ri). The differing architectural structures of the three stories reflect the pluralism of religious and stylistic sources from India, Khotan, and China. Turrets at the four corners of the upper story transform it into a pañcāyatana structure. The wall paintings in the chapels symbolize the ascent of the adept through the spiritual layers of the Buddhist religion.

The extremely dilapidated temple of Yemar (Gye dmar) in the Khangmar county, erected early in the eleventh century, holds an important position in art history. Three chapels inside a processional path (skor lam) house larger than life-size clay figures of buddhas, bodhisattvas, and guardian deities, which were originally colored and gilded. The figures are characterized by fine molding of the faces and the folds of garments, the latter featuring rich ornamental medallions showing Central Asian influence. The figures represent a Tibetan substyle with Pāla and Central Asian elements. All the murals have disappeared.

A highlight of the later phase of Tibetan art is the temple complex Dpal khor chos sde at Gyantse (Rgyal rtse), formerly the third-largest city in Tibet. Gyantse is crowned by a fortress (rdzong), destroyed in 1904 by the Young-husband expedition, but partly reconstructed. The temple complex was founded in 1418 by a Gyantse prince and comprised many buildings and eighteen colleges run by different Buddhist schools, including Sa skya (Sakya), Karma pa, Dge lugs (Geluk), and others. Most of the buildings were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution. Most important is the building of the Sku 'bum, erected and decorated between 1427 and 1442. Its ground plan has the character of a maṇḍala and its four-storied elevation resembles an "auspicious stūpa with many doors," the so-called Bkra shis sgo mang mchod rten. The building contains seventy-two temples and chapels that are decorated with sculptures and paintings of more than twenty-seven thousand deities. These images illustrate the esoteric and cosmological speculations of the Sa skya school, which are experienced by adepts during circumambulation. A central figure is that of the transcendental Vajradhara, located in the fourth story. The stucco statues and the paintings represent a typical Tibetan style called "school of Gyantse," into which foreign influences have been fully integrated.

Beginning in the fifteenth century, temple plans in Tibet develop according to different systems, culminating in complex monastic cities like Dga ldan, especially under the influence of the Dge lugs order. An increasing Chinese influence is noticeable, mainly in roof structures. Examples are the Kumbum (Sku 'bum; Chinese, Ta'ersi) at the birthplace of Tsong kha pa (1357–1419) in Amdo, and Labrang Tashi Khyil (Bla brang bKra shis dkyil), founded in 1710 by the Dge lugs order.

A special position in Tibetan architecture is occupied by the political and religious center of the Potala on the Red Mountain at Lhasa. Since the fifth Dalai Lama started construction on the White Palace in 1645, the fortresslike palace and temple complex, rising thirteen stories and covering more than 100,000 square meters, served as a residence for the dalai lamas. The palace comprises halls, chapels, shrines, chörtens, and libraries, as well as quarters for administration and living. Its architectural style is a combination of Tibetan and Chinese features, but it has a uniquely Tibetan appearance. It has slightly slanting stone walls and golden roofs for the main buildings, and it is filled with murals, paintings, and sculptures of historical figures from the seventh to the seventeenth century and of deities of the pantheon, along with many other treasures. The rich interior wooden structures are heavily painted.

In Tibet, sculptures that were not permanently fixed into an architectural context were rarely executed in stone, but rather in stucco, clay, and metal. The center of bronze casting was Kham in western Tibet, especially Sde dge (Derge); the technique was cire perdue, often gilded. Foreign influences, especially from Pala and Sena in eastern India, are obvious during early periods in western Tibet and Ladakh. During the Yuan period (1279–1368) in China, artists from Nepal were also active. Different local stylistic varieties exist over longer periods. Whereas icons used in rituals were subject to formal rules and measurements of iconography, the portraits of historical saints and monks show tendencies toward realism.

Paintings not executed on walls of temples may be grouped into two categories: mobile hanging scrolls (thang ka) and book illustrations. Thang kas, which show Chinese influences, were painted mainly in gouache on cotton or paper and framed in elaborate mountings, often of brocade. Icons were governed by strict rules of iconometry; illustrations of texts or biographies and views of temples were more freely represented. The different styles were connected to the spread of religious schools, but beginning in the fourteenth century there was a stylistic unification connected with the spread of the Sa skya order over Tibet. Chinese influences are obvious after the fifteenth century in landscape images, even when these images serve only as settings for compositions centered on figures.


Knowledge about Buddhist art of the Mongolian region is limited, partly because many monuments have been destroyed through the centuries. Only a few lamaistic monasteries remain, their architectural structure and style exhibiting a mingling of autochthonous and Tibetan traditions, with increasing Chinese influence beginning in the eighteenth century. Beginning in the sixteenth century, Buddhist monasteries in Mongolia were established as centers of cities. Buildings in Tibetan style, like the temple in the monastery Erdeni Zuu, erected in 1586, had a square plan with enclosing walls that were crowned by stupas. Erdeni Zuu has 108 small stūpas on its walls, as well as three temples and a stūpa inside. The temple Wudang-zhao, erected in 1749 in Inner Mongolia, looks purely Tibetan and contains wall paintings of Śākyamuni, Yamāntaka, and Tsong kha pa in its three stories. The most important temple in Mongolian style was located at Maidari, but it was destroyed in 1938. The Da Kürij-e of 1651 is crowned by an upper story with a roof in the form of a Mongolian tent. Monastic buildings in Sino-Tibetan style, like the Dalailama Temple of 1675 at Erdeni Zuu, are characterized by Chinese roofs. Stupas, called suburgan in Mongolian, resemble Tibetan chörten in form and style.

The sculptor Bogdo Gegen Zanabazar (1635–1723), trained at Lhasa as both a religious patriarch and an artist, created in Outer Mongolia a tradition of bronze sculpture with characteristic drum-shaped pedestals that exhibits simplicity and excellent workmanship. Slight influences from Nepal and China are observable. Another school of Dolonnor at Urga in Inner Mongolia is stylistically closer to China.

Buddhist painting in Mongolia is directly related to that of Central Tibet, the paintings mostly being framed with silk brocades from China. Typical are hanging scrolls formed by application of textiles in different colors and showing mandalas or icons.


Most early monuments and buildings in Bhutan were destroyed during an earthquake in 1896. Monastic complexes have three-story temples at the end of a square court with habitations at the sides. The upper stories contain chapels, with the most important chapel at the top center. The slightly projecting roofs are designed like those in secular mansions. Typical for Bhutan are monastic fortresses (rdzong) with inner courts containing religious and secular wings and surrounded by galleries. The main building has five floors with chapels. The court of Tashi chödzong (Bkra shis chos rdzong) at Thimbu is used for religious dance festivals. The compact structure at Paro (Spa gro) was burnt, but reconstructed in 1864; today it is a museum.

See also:Central Asia, Buddhist Art in; Huayan Art; India, Buddhist Art in; Monastic Architecture; Mongolia; Nepal; Silk Road; Tibet


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Roger Goepper