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The Tale of Two Thangkas: A Digital Journey

(The following post is by Susan Meinheit, Reference Specialist for the Tibetan and Mongolian Collections, Asian Division)

This thangka depicts renowned Tibetan saint-scholar Rje Tsongkhapa emanating on “curd white clouds” from the heart of Maitreya, the Buddha of the Future, residing in Tushita paradise. “Thangka of Tsong-kha-pa Blo-bzang-grags-pa (1357–1419) with silk veil folded behind,” [not after 1900], Tibetan Rare Book Collection, Asian Division.

This thangka is the central piece of a set known as “Dzegye Paksam Trishing” or “The wish-granting tree of a hundred lives.” The set depicts the stories of the Buddha’s former births, or Jataka tales illustrating its history of the textual transmission from the 11th–17th centuries. The central image is the historical Buddha Shakyamuni. “Buddha Shakyamuni from the Paksam Trishing Collection with silk veil folded at top,” 1744–1746, Tibetan Rare Book Collection, Asian Division.

The Library of Congress recently digitized three rare thangkas (traditional hand-painted scrolls) from its Tibetan collection. Although the Asian Division does not actively collect works of art, these three items were acquired under special circumstances and were selected for digitization. This blog will present the first two thangkas, which have a unique connection, and the third thangka will be featured in a forthcoming blog. All of the Library’s digitized thangkas are freely available for closer viewing online.

The “Thangka of Tsongkhapa” began its journey to the Library of Congress in 1908, at Wutai Shan, the sacred Five-Peak Mountain located in Shanxi Province, China. There the 13th Dalai Lama, Thubten Gyatso (Ngag-dbang-blo-bzang-thub-bstan-rgya-mtsho, 1876–1933), presented the thangka to William Woodville Rockhill, a Tibetologist and American diplomat serving as U.S. Minister to China in Beijing. The Dalai Lama was seeking advice as to whether to return to Tibet from his self-imposed exile in Mongolia. They met twice to discuss a wide range of topics, and at the final meeting they exchanged gifts. The Dalai Lama presented Rockhill with this thangka and a 19th-century Tibetan xylograph print of “The Perfection of Wisdom in 8,000 Verses” (‘Phags pa shes rab kyi pha rol tu phyin ba).

This close-up view of the thangka shows Tsongkhapa descending from the heart of Maitreya, the future Buddha, and surrounded by his close disciples. “Central painting of Thangka of Tsong-kha-pa Blo-bzang-grags-pa (1357–1419) without brocade border,” [not after 1900], Tibetan Rare Book Collection, Asian Division.

Details of that meeting and the presentation of the thangka are described in my 2011 article “Gifts at Wutai Shan: Rockhill and the Thirteenth Dalai Lama” in the open-access “Journal of the International Association of Tibetan Studies.” The thangka was later donated to the Library by Rockhill’s widow, Edith Rockhill, in 1942, and Rockhill’s handwritten note can be seen on the upper verso of the thangka. For a complete inventory of the Rockhill Collection, please visit this research guide.

William Woodville Rockhill’s handwritten note on the upper back of the “Thangka of Tsong-kha-pa Blo-bzang-grags-pa” reads, “Presented to me by the Tale lama. Wu-t’ai shan, June, 21st, 1908.” “Back of thangka showing William W. Rockhill’s handwritten note,” [not before 1900], Tibetan Rare Book Collection, Asian Division.

In this thangka, the central image is Rje Tsongkhapa (Rje Tsong-kha-pa, 1357–1419), one of the greatest religious figures of Tibet, and founder of the Geluk (Virtuous) sect. The thangka shows Tsongkhapa emanating from the heart of Maitreya, the future Buddha residing in Tushita heaven. The image represents a popular Tibetan meditation practice known as Ganden Lha Gyema (Dga’ ldan lha brgya ma), or “the Lord of Tushita’s Myriad Deities.” Tsongkhapa is surrounded by his two main disciples and his eightfold pure retinue (khor dag pa rnam brgyad), close disciples whose names appear under the images. In the upper right corner is a Gelukpa lama from Amdo, Gendun Chokyong Gyatso, Thar-shul IV (Dge-‘dun-chos–skyong-rgya-mtsho, 1810–1884). His name is written in gold letters beneath the image, as a sign of respect.

Detail from “Thangka of Tsong-kha-pa Blo-bzang-grags pa,” showing Gendun Chokyong Gyatso, Thar-shul IV (1852–1912), a Gelukpa lama from Amdo. “Central painting of thangka of Tsong-kha-pa Blo-bzang-grags-pa (1357–1419), without brocade border,” [not before 1900], Tibetan Rare Book Collection, Asian Division.

When he gifted the thangka to Rockhill, the 13th Dalai Lama had just returned from his three-year stay in Mongolia, including six months at the Kumbum Monastery in Amdo, an area of northeast Tibet inhabited by Tibetan, Mongolian, and Turkic peoples. Close ties between Tibet and Mongolia began in the 13th century, and from the 17th century Tibetan Buddhism became the dominant religion of Mongolia. The title Dalai Lama (“Ocean of Wisdom”) was actually bestowed by a Mongolian, Altan Khan in 1578, and dalai is Mongolian for “ocean.” The Dalai Lama was seeking refuge in Mongolia after fleeing from the 1904 British invasion of Tibet, and threats also from the Qing in China. On his return, he stayed at Wutai Shan where he was seeking advice from several Western diplomats, including Rockhill, about whether to return to Tibet. Considering the location of the gift exchange and several stylistic features, such as the blue colorings, led my untrained eye to wonder if the thangka had been painted originally in Mongolia, and possibly acquired during the Dalai Lama’s journey there.

This detail from “Thangka of Tsong-kha-pa Blo-bzang-grags-pa,” depicts three offering goddesses floating on clouds. “Central painting of thangka of Tsong-kha-pa Blo-bzang-grags-pa (1357–1419), without brocade border,” [not before 1900], Tibetan Rare Book Collection, Asian Division.

Indeed it was. In August 2013 Mongolian art historian Dr. Uranchimeg Tsultem confirmed the thangka was Mongolian during a Kluge fellowship at the Library, the results of which were discussed in her lecture. Dr. Tsultem also published her results in a 2013 article titled “A Thangka in the Library of Congress: Art for Independence and International Politics in Inner Asia in the early 20th century,” which appeared in volume 35 of “Mongolian Studies: Journal of the Mongolia Society.” She confirmed that it was painted in Amdo, in Mongolian style, tracing its origins to Thar-shul’s close disciple, the Seventh Zhabrung Karpo Gendun Tenzin Norbu (Zhabs drung Dge-‘dun-bstan-dzin-nor-bu, 1873–1927). The Seventh Zhabrung, an ethnically Monguour lama, also travelled to Beijing in 1908 and met the 13th Dalai Lama en route, both at Wutai Shan and at Kumbum Monastery. The Seventh Zhabrung is represented as the monk shown as the thangka’s donor in the lower right corner of the scroll. The thangka was most likely an offering to the 13th Dalai Lama by the Seventh Zhabrung after receiving Buddhist teachings.

This leads us to the second thangka. His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso (Bstan-‘dzin-rgya-mtsho) visited the Library of Congress in July 2010 to receive the Democracy Service Award from the National Endowment for Democracy. Before the ceremony, a special display of rare Tibetan items featured Rockhill’s thangka.

His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, Special Envoy Lodi Gyari and conservator Holly Krueger, viewing “Thangka of Tsong-kha-pa Blo-bzang-grags-pa,” on February 19, 2010, Library of Congress. Photo used by permission, copyright Sonam Zoksang/ICT.

While looking at the thangka, the Dalai Lama remarked that he thought it was painted in Mongolia, and added that when he returned home he would send the Library one painted in Tibet.

Presentation of thangka and gifts from the 14th Dalai Lama by Special Envoy of the Dalai Lama, Lodi Gyari, with Librarian of Congress, Dr. James Billington. “Library of Congress Information Bulletin (LCIB),” Sept. 2010, vol. 69, #9, “Preserving Culture.” Photo by Abby Brack.

Several months later, a special event was held in the office of the Librarian of Congress, Dr. James Billington, for the presentation of gifts from His Holiness, including this thangka, a golden butter lamp, and a gold-plated mandala set.

This 18th-century thangka is the central piece of a set known as “Dzegye Paksam Trishing” or “The wish-granting tree of a hundred lives.” The set depicts the stories of the Buddha’s former births and is based on the Sanskrit work, Avadānakalpalatā, written by Kashmiri poet Ksemendra and completed by his son Somendra in 1052. The central image is the historical Buddha Shakyamuni. “Buddha Shakyamuni from the Paksam Trishing Collection without brocade border,” 1744–1746, Tibetan Rare Book Collection, Asian Division.

The thangka is the central piece of a set of thangkas known as Dzegye Paksam Trishing or “The wish-granting tree of a hundred lives.” It depicts the transmission of the Jataka tales, stories of Shakyamuni Buddha’s former lives, based on the Kashmiri poet Ksemendra’s “Avadānakalpalatā,” completed by his son Somendra in 1052. The central image is Shakyamuni Buddha, and immediately above is the 5th Dalai Lama, Ngawang Lobsang Gyatso (Ngag-dbang-blo-bzang-rgya-mtsho, 1617–1682) who supervised the printing of the Tibetan-Sanskrit bilingual edition of the text in the 17th century. The Library has several later editions of this text, such as, a bi-lingual reproduction of the rare 1664-1665 edition.

This detail from “Dpag bsam ‘khri shing” depicts Ngag-dbang-blo-bzang-rgya-mtsho, Dalai Lama V (1617–1682) who supervised the printing of the Tibetan-Sanskrit bilingual edition of the Jataka tales. “Buddha Shakyamuni from the Paksam Trishing Collection without brocade,” 1744–1746, Tibetan Rare Book Collection, Asian Division.

The main historic figures in the transmission of the text are identified by their names in small gold letters underneath the images.

This long poetic inscription on the back of “Dpag bsam ‘khri shing” documents that the thangka was commissioned by Phurchok Ngawang Jampa (1682–1782) and painted in the Jokhang Temple in Lhasa, 1744–1746. “Inscription on back of “Buddha Shakyamuni from the Paksam Trishing Collection” with cloth folded at top,” 1744–1746, Tibetan Rare Book Collection, Asian Division.

A long poetic inscription on the back identifies the thangka as having been commissioned by Phurchok Ngawang Jampa (1682–1762) and painted in the Menri (sman thang) tradition inside the sacred Jokhang Temple at Lhasa, from 1744 to 1746.

Together the two thangkas illustrate the historic importance of the Tibetan literary, artistic and religious traditions. With the digitized images, researchers are now able to explore the intricate details and rich beauty of both thangkas. The thangkas will continue to delight, inspire, and serve as special resources for further scholarly discovery.

Detailed images in “Dpag bsam ‘khri shing” are especially elaborate. Shown here is a Garuda (khyung or mkha’ lding), a mythical semi-divine bird-like creature sacred to both Tibetan and Mongolian cultures. In Tibetan Buddhism the khyung is both a protector and an “eagle of wisdom,” and in Mongolian tradition khyung also represents the god of a sacred mountain. “Buddha Shakyamuni from the Paksam Trishing Collection without brocade border,” 1744–1746, Tibetan Rare Book Collection, Asian Division.

Please note that the original thangkas are considered rare items and accessible only in the Asian Reading Room by advance appointment. To schedule an appointment or for any other inquiries about this or any other materials in either the Tibetan or Mongolian collections, please use the Asian Division’s Ask-a-Librarian online inquiry form to contact the relevant reference staff.

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