Buddhist Paintings in Buryatia

Ts.-B.Badmazhapov (Ulan-Ude)

Buddhist Himalaya: A Journal of Nagarjuna Institute of Exact Methods

Vol. VII No. I & II  (1996)


Copyright 1996 by Nagarjuna Institute of Exact Methods



Buryat Buddhist art and iconography are genetically connected with Tibetan Tantric Buddhist art which originated in India. Burtya pictorial Iconography, originating in the 18th century is the most recent development in Buddhism art and iconography, enabling it to possess a unique feature, namely its ability to reflect the continuous iconic traditions of Indo-Tibetan Buddhism especially the iconography canon and a long line of patterns and standards of religious art.


According to traditional charonography, the Buryat class began to afdopt Mahayana jBuddhism in the tradition of " New Tantras" during the 16th-17th centuries. The invitation of gyalwa Sonam Guyatsho to Altan-qan of Tumet resulted in the spreading of the dGelugs-pa school throughout Mongolia and Buryatia replacing the sakya-pa and Darma-pa schools which had prevailed in the previous epochs of Yuan and Lindan Quturtu-qaran. This even appeared to be of great religious significance for the whole Tibetan-Mongolian cultural community. 


The Buryats adopted the Mantrayana/Vajrayana Buddhism. The spread and  consolidation of Buddhism among the Buryat in the 18th-19th centuries were accompanied with the building of Monasteries complete with richly decorated.


The Tibetan Buddhist temple as a place of the "announcing of the Teaching" is represented by two main distinctive types: "the meeting place of the Monastic Commune" and "the dwelling of a Deity". In aesthetic terms the Tibetan temple can be defined as "art in architectural setting" (see: Ph. Denwood. The Tibetan Temple-art in architectural setting. Mahayanist art after A. D. 900. L., 1971)


The Tibetan temple painting plus the wall-paintings and scroll pictures "thanka" are known under the common name "zhing khams" (ksetra) corresponding to punyaksetra/Buddhaksetra ("the field of good merits"/the land of Buddha").


Tarthang Tulku Rinpoche his book "Sacred art of Tibet" writes: "To appreciate Tibetan art one must appreciate himself, the fact of his beings, the quality of his awareness and all that is manifested therein. Tibetan art is a part of this miraculous process of manifestation, not a comment on it or an attempt at an entertaining alternative to it. Of one understands this art, then he is aware of being a Buddha in a Buddha field" (see: Tarthang Tulku. Sacred art of Tibet. Dharma Publishing. Emeryville, 1974).


 The ideal spiritual intention is realized in the transmission of a continuous Teaching tradition (Buddha-dharma) in Vajrayana. Vajrayana art corresponds to the idea of "enlightened state" (Vajradhara) which is reached by means of Vajrayana. Vajrayanist "enlightenment" is presented almost as a symbol, a subtle level of realization corresponding to subtle forms of existence (sambhogakaya).


In the meditative practice the "thanka" painting refers to the visualization (devayiogad) of deities-yidams of five genesises (gotyra):1) Tathagata, 2) Vajra, 3)Ratna, 4)Padma, 5) Krma, here also exists different aspects connected with the practice of visualizing "six spheres of existence" ion the intermediate state between life, death and new birth (bardo thodol, antarabhava). Being absorbed in smadhi, and adherent leaves the "circle of posthumous travelling",. por, depicted consecutively as "peaceful" angry" and "furious" animal and birdheaded deities totalling one hundred in number.


The Vajrayana iconography collection can be placed in the flatness of "thanka" in accordance with pronouncing of the blessing formulas (bkra sis) 1) Gurus, 2)Yidams, 3) Buddhas, 4) Bodhisattvas, 5) Daka and Dakini, 6) Dharmapalas, 7) Yaksas, 8)nor iha, () Mahaqnaga, gter bdag and others (Dezhun Rinpoche). The order of deity arrangement can be discerned with the "preservers of Teaching" (Dharmapala).


Buddhist culture of Tibet and Buryatia is based on a ritualistic mentality. Typologically and homogeniously applied forms cultivate so called "handicraft style" which is ornamentally and plastically polished. Here dominates that type of an attitude to a form and material which is characteristic of folk art in the words, to make something according to recognized values. In Principle, such an  understanding can be compared with the ritualisation of the process involved in the making of sacred things from preliminary gestures to the final ceremony.


The faith of Buddhism in "three precious Ones" is the basis for the creative work of a traditional Buryat artist. This faith exibits a condition of transformation form sacred-schematic information into an emotional expression. This traditional creative work is an example of such fine art with its blending of folklore understanding combined with a reverent attitude to its sacred magnificen


The work upon the from within the canonic limits is an indication that it belongs to a special union marked with the knowledge of sacred rules. The attitude to a form with its didactics and splendid clothes can be determined by the skill of a religious artist and by the purity of style understood as a standard of harmony. But i5t also may be determined by another reason, although it may seem to be rather far from art, it can also be based., for example, on Karma (compare: a recognized Buryat artist from the Anaa Somaon district worked in Peking for many years. But the only thing he brought back when he returned was the statue of Bodhisattva Manjusri, the partron of arts. After this death the painter reincarna5ted in the Abhirati Paradise ("Mintugwa oron"), Buddha Aksobhya's "blessed land".


The head of the Buddhist clergy, Bandido Khambo Lama (Pandita Mkhan po bla ma), resided on the left bank of the Selenga river. The original and refined pieces of art belonging to the artists who lived there were "Derived" from the miraculous reincarnation of Manjushri.


The plastic embodiment of iconic symbols in the "tanka" painting depends of many things, including worship rituals, Iconography, iconometry and on the mastering and reproducing experience of her canonic standards in their materiality, sensibility and preciousness as well as in the modus of "style" the reproduction of the standard metric patterns requires a special artistic meaning in the most recent Buryat iconographic traditions resulting in a "Secondary" synthesis.


The stylistic interpretation and analysis of the pictorial scroll is based on the history of Tibetan Buddhist pictorial styles, which traditionally are fixed as the "Indian style", "Chinese style",. etc. "Indian style" is characterized by proportionality and plasticity, combined with beautiful trees and restrained clouds with only slight toning. "Nepali style", on the other hand, is characterized by mountains, hills and birds, plus trees decorated with garlands and strings of jewelry. In contrast, the "Chinese style"  meaning a purity of painting, is characterized by light, whimsical lines and various flowers, trees and ponds, as well as birds in colourful plumage (see:L. Sh. Dagyab. Tibetan Religious Art. Wiesbaden, 1977)


The painted scrolls from Tibetan dGelugs-pa monasteries differ from earlier scrolls of the rNying ma-pa monasteries with regards to its iconography and formal plasticity, The traditional colours of Western Tibetan wall painting (Tsaparang, Toling) with the types of pigments, nuances of the colour and outline and "plastic quality of interrelations between figures and backgrounds.


The Tibetan style of "thanka" Paintings exhibits a standard plastic decorative quality within the limits of several schools including the early classic school "Kadam" Characterized by simplicity, extensiveness, and background richness. Later the Mentri school was formed in the 15th century by a well-known paint, Menal Tondrub (man la don sgrub). Its style incorporates simplicity and extensiveness  with an abundance of detail. The new Menry of  Mensa school at the end of the 17th century. almost baroque in style, is unusually Picturesque with curved lines and twinkling space. Karma Gardri school associates with the. VIII Karmapa Mikyoa Dorje. This particular style, with it s Chinese influence,  is characterized by purity, accuracy, and richness, with stylized landscape details using pastel colours (see: Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche. Visual Dharma. The Buddhist Art of Tibet. Shambhala. Berkely and London, 1995).


Inside this religious-cultural integrity, what we call Tibetan Buddhism of the 18th century with its imperial supervision of the Qing Dynasty, we find that the "Chinese style" certifies originality as well as a blending of styles or rather a tendency towards an "international style", a trend which had been observed as early as in the time of the Vth Dalai Lama Ngagwang Lobsang Gyatsho (1617-1682). the term "international style" regarding Buddhist art was first used by M Lerner in his article" an International Style" wooden mandorla" (see: H. Karmay, Early Sino-Tibetan Art. Warminster, 1975) The typological "background" of the Buryat Buddhist paintings of the 18th century unfolds in the Nepali-Tibetan, Sino-Nepali, Sino-Tibetan. Tibeto-MOngolian and Sino-Mongolian styles. Tibetan iconography with its new balance of style is imprinted on two painted 18th century scrolls, depicting the picture of Tsonkhapa. Tsonkhapa's figure, on the plane of the scrolls, is without encirclement (parivara) in a "lotus sitting" pose and with a dharma-preaching gesture while on the right hand side a book lays on the lotus. the scroll depicts Tsonkhapa on the triple seat composed of the Sun, moon, and Lotus flower (see:ill.!). On one of the scrolls the seat is erected on the "lion throne".


Through their various styles the scrolls are characterized by harmonized architectonics and impenetrable, transparent cold-pane colour including dense tones of dark blue, dark blue-lilac, gray, gray-blue, coral-red, orange pinkish-violet and green details. they differ from both the "Chinese style" scrolls, with their different shades of glittering gold, coral-pink, turquoise and pearl, and from the Menri style Tibetan paintings, characterized by numerous figures, greater refinement, a strained and saturated range of brown, red, and dark-blue tones combined with glittering gold impregnations. Refined lineation without a professional finish outlines the beauty, simple forms outline turn into graceful picture composed of liner-symbols and decorative planes. Carnation whiteness along with subtle and delicate shades of pink are visible through lighter and darker tones and through semitransparent "nephrite" the one of chromatic range including glittering golden veins.


The divine-demonic nature of Sridevi Lhamo with its refined delicate balance is "manifested" On the plane of this 18th century scroll. A low horizon signifies and expressive means for composing iconic space and determines the background structure of pale-pink clouds. Waxen shades of he colour range and graphic patterns  including small lines on the goddess's body, are not depicted in the painted iconography of Sridevi Lhamo, revered in Tibet as a special patroness of both Dalai Lamas and the dGe-lugs-pa school.


Tsagan Ubugun's typically rather heterogeneous iconography is presented in syncretic form as a symbol of the magical and ritualistic importance of a Deity. Flat as a shell, Tsagan Ubugun's body is clothed in Chinese dress giving him a motionless look with the finger gestures similar to those of the peaceful deities. the deity's function is to regulate the local space. Visually he is marked with a green halo and a crown-like head-dress plus a dragon's head staff and shoes of a stylized decoration. the periphery of the scroll is separated from the centre by the decorated composition similar in form to the back of a throne reminiscent of a temple entrance (torana). Tsagan Ubugun's more recent type of iconography, developed by the beginning of the 20th century and depicting symbols of "long life" is introduced by Jina Amitauyus's picture in the upper corner of a scroll. this particular picture indicates that Tsagan Ubugun belongs to the circle of the deities of longevity" Rosary, in addition to the usual set of attributes, such as a dragon heads staff and a boo, is added in Buddhist symbolism to indicate the pronunciation of sacred tests. However, as the picture of Tsangan Ubugun has no place inside the temple or in the canonic iconography, it becomes apparent that the iconic image of this deity possesses a formal character since highly stylized model does not correspond to initial topic and functional rolr to which it is connected.


The transformation of Tsagan Ubugyunm';s picture in the early scrolls of the 18th century came about as a result of the graphism combined with a carefully graduta6ted thickening of coloiur4 near the borders. The colours refract through the pale and watery paint consistency. painted on the thickened plane of prime coating as if powdered with lazurite dust. It combines light white outlines and decorative local red with black ornaments like a brocade design in addition to light-malachite shades of green (see: ill. 2)


This sphere of sanctificing is of great importance is Buddhism. It corresponds with the "accumulation of good merits" (punyasambhara). the Buryat painter Loda Sambu's formal interpretation of avadana concerning prince Mahasattva, illustrating the "paramita of giving" (dana), presents and almost symbolical expression of harmony within which is harboured a delicate balance of decorum and painting, graplusm and plastics, planimetry and perspective.


In the centre of a composition lies Mahasattva in a Buddha image with urna and usnisa, without triple monastic clothes (tricivara)_ and with a branch in his hand, in a pose close to that of parinirvana. Cinnabar red short lines signify wounds on his golden skin, while his gold-embroidered dresses hang on a tree.


The figure of Bodhisattva, clouds drawn with lengthy brush strokes, mountains, flowing waters, blue-green rocks in golden setting and trees with golden leave are painted in a classic iconographic style using graduated chromatic thickenings and lightenings plus graphically even lineary and smooth  polished gilding similar to a porcelain gilded surface. Grass and ground are imitated through the use of short lines and strokes allowing for a speckled and rough texture instead of many coloured "varnished" background or line-patterns. Rythmically moving away mountain images and trees from the direct visual space of a "cooling" subject.


The tigress and her tiger-cubs surrounding the prince embody, with their unusual grace in stylized form, the decorative qualities of animalistic images made of coliured and polished wood-all these are indicative of subtle observating of traditional plastics with its generalized form-outlines, masses and surfaces flowing from one to another with structural and luministic interpretation.


Penetrability of the "mirror of text" and "mirror of image" in the illustration in avadana about Bodhisattva Mahasattva refers to Buddhist classical literature, which is surrounding of constructive and plastic canon transformation. A degree of originality as a reflection of imaginary structure, and inner poetic semantic coherency in conjuction with a mastery of execution allow conjuction with a mastery of execution allow us to regard Lodoi sambu's painting as an  expression of a real artistic language and a distinct style in its own right.


In the sacred atmosphere the sculpture darting back to the time of Sakyamuni Buddha are becoming the standard for scroll images. According to the hagiographic tradition, these sculpture were carved by the masters (or divine master Visvakarman) out of sansalwod, gold and "seven precious ones" at god's request. Buddha Candanprabha ("Sandalwood shining") in iconographic style is standing, with a  tiara-booking hair dress (jata-mukuta) crowned in precious necklaces with a tiny relic container, "ga'u", and dressed in draping long cloak (sanghati) above the falling and folded petticoat (antarvasaka) his  right hand is in abhayamudra, and his left hand is in Varadamiudra. Wavy dress folds resemble riples on the waters surface; Buddha was painted by Visvakarman on brahman dByartsul's advice  from the reflection in the water "Taken-from-the-water) because of the dazzling brilliance emanating from Buddha.


The type of jBuyddha Candanaprabha is sometimes called "King Udayana Buddha". His dresses repeat in sculpture those decorative motive which belongh to painted pictures.


The Buryat iconography of "Sandalwood Buddha" (Zandan Ahou) dated from the late 19th to the beginning of the 20th century presents two compositional decorative schemes with variety in the background details and surrounding figures: 1) Buddha Sakyamuni with his disciples, Sariputrea and Maudgalyayana, in the "Chinese style" temple interior on a high carved altar framed with columns and railing including a canopy, ritual standards and flags and full set of altar "precious ones and offerings", 2) Buddha and his disciples are against a background depicting a landscape with blooming trees, golden veined rocks, clouds resembling whimsical coral bush or stratified-transparent nephrite and flowing dense  dark-blue waters. In Buddhist iconography the structure of form, which is construction hand decorum, corresponds to the placing in the iconic space the centrum and periphery elements. Mutual reversibility of the two components of the iconic space is formed by a special type of ritualisitic order in Buddhist personology characterized with passages between  levels, several types of meaning, and reincarnation. From this point of view, the style-forming motives in Buryat iconographic and decorative traditions are obvious for observation and classification as regards coordination and or asymmetry of the parts and the whole, as well as graphicsm and plastics "pure " colouress and "non saturated" chromatism.


The linearly-chromatic typology of the Zandan Zhou scroll images can be discerned from the dress modeling of the central character as the graphic transcription of reflection d(or "prefiguration"), on the water surface and from the quality of gold used in painting, Colour and written calligraphic decorum are usually connected with the graduation of golden surfaces. The lines are sometimes "ribbed" with measured rhythmnival transitions and intervals between thick purple rigs and vibrating  shiny gilding, sometimes iridescent golden substance is formed with as embossed luminiscence of carnation gold, with the sparking golden illumination of crowns, halos, strings of jewelry, with dress gilding, with subtle threadlike shining of gold line on the thick and saturated mandorala blue background.


The style material quality in the Buryat iconographic development proved, that the learning of canons and high mastery were not enough for making a sacred perfect art, which reconstructed the autochthonic traditional values sin the new painting.


The exalted style resfraint expressed in such iconographic pieces as "Bodgdo Zonkhobae", the image of the "Precious Teacher Sumatikirti, Vajra Keeper" is still a priceless experience which had no verbal analogies.


The Buryat handicraft tradition realized the Canon graphic language (text/icon) " in a complex mysterious way" into the classical pure form of early style" (18th century) and into splendid blossoming of embodied Tantric art (an "international style"). The weakening of plastic affect of form buy the middle of the 19th century is supplemented with complicated decorative colour, while the motive isolation in side the scroll graphic structure is supplemented with the scroll shining embossed surface, the form and style "akme" is presented by the painting of the 19th century, when it was possible to enumerate the tectonics laconicism, wide color surfaces, proportion and outline "rational": regularity and non saturated ornamentics.


As for the beginning of the 20th century in the development of Buryat Buddhist art, we could say that it was a period when the structural unity in painting and sculptural form modeling was revealed, particularly in chromatic and luministic connection of the gilding of statues and the use of gold in painting and catalogization of ornaments. Various sacred genres (for example, the elements of the "biographical" and "illustrations of the Teaching" genre periphery in painting were tending to synthetic picture, experience in foreshortening , visual ("panoramic") space widening and, in prospect, to graphic language "rarefied" unity rather then were developing together with iconography ("Dugar Zaisan", "Tunshe"). In this respect it could be seen that the pictures of Palden Lhamo and Tsagan Ubugun buy their 18th century style were similar to later local iconography due to a blending of religious and autochtonic elements in cultural typology and also thanks to certain peculiarities of formal realization.


There fore painted iconograpic patterns present a peculiarity of style: monumental design laconic picture s as a sign of refinement of "archaizing" spontaneity etc., in "blending;' as moving to a standard fixed set of signs, images, symbols of religious culture realizing all sacred qualities inherent in it. For all that the standard owns not mean separately understood artistic value of precious refined colourness of a scroll, in thanka painting the standards is associated no with mimetic relation-likening, but with the harmony of "symbolic and decorative things. It can be concluded that Buryat paintings realized the style purity in the line and brush culture, inside of that incomparable and unique totality which is presented by the continuous successive tradition of Tibetan Tantric art. This art is inimitable and its expressive richness gives rise to the joy of the overcoming of illusions, because Tantric art is inseparable from the practice of  realization (samadhi) of numerous forms of existence (sambhogakay), Painter-yogin realized, if we use a metaphor, "the enlightenment body" (mahabodhi-nirmanakaya) into visible beauty without effort and emaciation, buy means of uniting of a method and intuition (upaya prajna).