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A Tibetan Astrology Thangka – The Continuing Digital Journey

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

A tangka with color illustrations.

Srid pa ho,” [19th century], Tibetan Rare Book Collection, Library of Congress Asian Division.

The Library recently digitized three special thangkas from the Asian Division. In a previous post, two thangkas (traditional hand-painted scrolls) were presented. The third thangka, “Srid pa ho” depicts “Srid pa ho” or “Srid pa ho phyogs srung,” (“The thangka which wards off harm from all directions”), in a presentation standardized by the regent of the 5th Dalai Lama, Desi Sangye Gyatso (Sde-srid sangs-rgyas-rgya-mtsho) (1653-1705), in the 17th century. It is a representation of the basic concepts of Tibetan astrology and is often hung in doorways for protection and displayed on special occasions year round.

Tibetan astrology combines influences from India, China, Persia and Greece with Buddhist philosophy into a uniquely Tibetan system. Elemental astrology (byung-rtsis) was used in Tibet during the period of the early kings, 2nd century BC, and was also a popular system of divination, along with shamanism, in the pre-Buddhist Bon religion. In the 7th century, Tibet’s first great Buddhist king, Srong-brtsan-sgam-po (ruled 627-649), married an Indian princess, a Nepalese princess and a Chinese princess. The Chinese princess brought to Tibet many ancient books including works on astrology and most likely the system of the nine magic squares and eight trigrams. This period of the early Tibetan Empire was quite cosmopolitan, bringing in concepts of medicine and astrology from surrounding civilizations of India, Iran, Central Asia, and China, and blending them with their own traditions and Buddhist ideas.

Tibetan astrology is not only cosmopolitan but has historical depth as well. The current system is based on the 1207 Tibetan translation of the Kālacakra Tantra (“Dpal dus kyi ʾkhor lo” = Wheel of Time), the symbol of which appears in the upper left of the “Srid pa ho.” Desi Sangye Gyatso then synthesized all these basic concepts of Tibetan astrology into the current presentation of the “Srid pa ho.” In the center is a large golden tortoise, an emanation of the bodhisattva Mañjuśrī, upon which are the 12 animals of the 60-year cycle, the nine magic squares (sme ba dgu) and eight trigrams (spar kha brgyad). Symbols of the eight planets appear directly below. Surrounding this are various auspicious seals, mantras, and verses, and at the bottom are two wheels of protection with sacred mantras. The three bodhisattvas: Avalokiteśhvara (Bodhisattva of compassion), Mañjuśrī (Bodhisattva of wisdom), and Vajrapāṇi (Bodhisattva of power) are shown along the top register. The inscription at the bottom is the standard blessing for the presentation.

Back of a thangka with script.

The back of the thangka contains auspicious verses and appears to have been covered by Chinese newspapers. “Srid pa ho,” [19th century], Tibetan Rare Book Collection, Library of Congress Asian Division.

Astrology continues to be considered a branch of Tibetan medicine (so ba rigs pa) and remains an important field of study in traditional Tibetan culture. Training generally requires six years of study in medical schools. The Asian Division’s Tibetan collection includes many works on its history, terminology, practice, and development. For example, Sde-srid Sangs-rgyas-rgya-mtsho’s famous 1685 work, “Vaiḍūrya dkar po” (White Beryl), is an overview of previous practices and explains their relevance. “Bai-dkar dgongs don ʼbras rtsis dri med kun phan me long” (White Beryl: The Stainless Beneficial Mirror of Predictive Astrology) is an astrological manual for consultation of different important events which is based on the “Vaidurya dkar po.” Another work, “Rtsis kyi bgro gleng” (Seminar on Astrology), contains articles from an astrological conference organized by the Ladakh Ecological Development Group. “Rig gnas kyi brda rtags” (Signs of Science) is a study of astrological signs, lunar calendars and horoscopes, published in Lhasa. “Skar nag rtsis kyi lo rgyus phyogs bsdus mu tig phreng ba” (Pearl Rosary: a Brief History of Tibetan Astrology) outlines the origins and development of Tibetan astrology and astronomy; and “Rtsis gzhung” (Major Texts of Astrology) is a collection of ancient texts on astrology and astronomy including the Kālacakra Tantra.

Our thangka is somewhat of a mystery. It began its journey to the Library in Lhasa, where it was purchased in 2001. It was said to have come originally from Chamdo, a large town in Eastern Tibet, and estimated to be a 19th-century work. The back side appears to have been covered with old Chinese newspaper, which might provide clues as to part of its recent history. Where and when was it created, and where has it been kept? For comparison, see digitized images of a modern 20th-century version of the thangka, a gift from visiting Tibetan scholars in 1990, to illustrate the continued tradition of this painting.

A thangka with colorful illustrations.

A 20th century thangka of “Srid pa ho” or Srid pa ho phyogs srung, “Srid pa ho,” [not before 1900], Tibetan Rare Book Collection, Library of Congress Asian Division.

All of the Library’s digitized thangkas are freely available for closer viewing online. For inquires about these and other texts from the Library’s rich Tibetan collection please use the Asian Division’s Ask-a-Librarian online form to contact the relevant reference staff.

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