The Bonpo deity Kungsang Galwa Dupa

Kunsang Galwa Dupa, the principal tranquil deity in the pantheon of the Bonpo religion (which coexisted with Buddhism in Tibet), has five heads and ten hands. He sits with the soles of his four feet facing upward. The hands in front of his chest hold sun and moon discs inscribed with the Tibetan letters A and Ma; these symbols help us to recognize this image as Bonpo rather than Buddhist. Among Kunsang Galwa Dupa’s symbolic implements is the swastika, the Bonpo equivalent of the Buddhist thunderbolt, symbolizing indestructibility and good fortune. The square pedestal below the lotus throne is guarded by a dragon, an elephant, a lion, a horse, and a peacock. This image wears a type of five-leaf crown peculiar to western Tibet. The modeling of the body and the silver inlay in the eyes show a distinct influence from the art of Kashmir in northern India and Pakistan. Images from the Bonpo religion are rare in museum collections.

The Hindu deities Krishna and Satyabhama riding Garuda

Here Krishna rides the splendid Garuda, frequently described as king of the birds. The two share qualities of immense strength, courage, and wisdom. Garuda is depicted as part eagle and part man and is shown with Vishnu in many forms. Krishna, being an incarnation of Vishnu, is also seen riding Garuda.

Many Hindu gods and goddesses have a vehicle (vahana), an animal that serves the deity as a mount. These animals, mighty beings in their own right, possess qualities shared in some ways by their corresponding gods. For example, Shiva rides the bull Nandi, a symbol of the god’s masculine power and sexuality. Shiva, the greatest of all ascetics, also rides the bull in the sense of controlling that unbridled energy. Certain half-animal gods, such as the elephant-headed Ganesha, also have animal vehicles. Ganesha is revered as the remover of obstacles, and similarly, his rat companion has the ability and nimbleness of wit to get through any hindrance.

Bowl with splashed and incised decoration

This earthenware bowl is covered by an off-white slip and decorated with splashes of green, dark brown, and ochre colors derived respectively from copper, manganese, and iron oxides run into a transparent lead glaze. Islamic splashed wares were found in Samarra (Iraq) in the ninth century, and recent evidence indicates they were made in Basra (Iraq). They were found throughout the eastern Islamic world by the tenth century. This bowl is related to ones from Nishapur in northeastern Iran. The incised and glazed decorations are unrelated to one another; they demonstrate complexity of design, which is a common feature of Islamic art. Although this bowl may seem to resemble Chinese Tang dynasty (619-906) “three-color” (sancai) ware, the relationship between Chinese and Islamic splashed wares is unclear and still being debated. The Tang ware shapes are different; they were manufactured earlier and were mainly used for funerary purposes and not for export.

Seated bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara

Padmapani, Holder of the Lotus, is a form of Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva of universal compassion. Surrounded by a flaming aureole, Padmapani is seated on a lotus throne with one leg extended. Residing in his crown is his spiritual father, the buddha Amitabha. The antelope skin on Padmapani’s shoulder shows that he is an ascetic, and the lotus in his left hand is a sign of his pure and universal compassion.

The modeling of the body, with its well-defined muscles, curved nose, large eyes inlaid with silver, and prominent chin are typical of this period of Kashmiri art. This style strongly influenced the art of western Tibet.

A King of Hell

This painting offers an interpretation of Buddhist conceptions of death and reincarnation. It depicts one of ten kings of hell who serves under the deity of the afterlife. In the teachings of some forms of Buddhism, it is said that when people die, their souls must appear before each of the ten kings of hell to have their lives reviewed. This judgment determines the fate of the dead. Some are sent to a cold or hot hell. Others are reborn as a deity, a human, an animal, a demon, or a ghost.

Base for a water pipe

The central plateau region of southern India, called the Deccan, was home to several Islamic dynasties whose patronage supported the development of distinctive art forms and styles. This water pipe (huqqa) base represents a type of inlaid metal ware known as bidri, after the Deccani city of Bidar, where the production technique is said to have been practiced since the fifteenth century. Bidri water pipe bases were probably first produced shortly after tobacco was introduced into the Deccan by Portuguese traders in the late sixteenth century.

Architecture, landscapes, and animals are almost never found on bidri ware. Most examples depict floral designs. The pavilions decorating this water pipe base recall chini khanas, or “china rooms,” popular architectural features during the Mughal period in north India (1526-1858). Their multiple niches were used to display objects such as Chinese porcelains, which were highly prized at South Asian courts.

Mandala of the Buddhist deity Vajrabhairava

Mandalas are schematic designs of the three-dimensional palaces of Tibetan deities. They serve as aids for meditation and for visualization of particular deities. While painted mandalas are usually found in museums’ collections, examples in metal are very rare.

Vajrabhairava is the central deity of this mandala. He is a fierce form of Manjushri, bodhisattva of wisdom; Manjushri adopts this terrifying form in order to conquer death. His violent aspect is emphasized by his rectangular bull’s face with its eleven heads, his threatening horns, and his body with thirty-four outstretched hands and sixteen trampling feet.

Serpent king (nagaraja)

Nagas (supernatural serpents) often appear in Indian mythology. They can take on partial or complete human form, as in this sculpture of a naga king. The man and the seven-headed serpent here are understood to be two forms of the same being. Nagas are associated with fertility and the life-giving powers of water in the world’s rivers, lakes, and oceans. They are usually benevolent and even protective, not evil or threatening as in the mythology of many other parts of the world. The inscription on the base of the image says that it was made in 207, during the reign of the Kushan king Vasudeva. It reads:

In the regnal year eighty, 80, of the Great King, the King over Kings, the son of the Gods, the Shahi Vasudeva, in the second month of the rainy season, 2, at the third day, at this date this image of the venerable Nakra was installed as the gift of the general Trivahana [?] [and] of the sons of the Account Keeper of the Treasury, Sulakshaka. Yallarah [?]. May the Lord Nagaraja be pleased. (Translation by Prof. Harry Falk)

Page of calligraphy

Mir Ali Haravi was so famous as a calligrapher that the major artistic patrons of his age in Iran, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan fought for his services. Examples of his work were collected by royal patrons in India and Iran in the centuries to follow. Mir Ali produced designs for large-scale architectural inscriptions as well as album page like this one. He was the master of nasta’liq (“hanging script”), the script in which the verses here are written. The aesthetic appeal of elegant poetry was enhanced by the work of skilled calligraphers and illuminators, as seen in this example.

A seated woman symbolizing a musical mode (Vihag Ragaputra)

This painting represents a musical mode (raga). The sets to which such works belonged were known as “ragamalas” (garlands of musical modes). In them, various modes of classical Indian music were idealized as human figures engaged in activities or placed in settings that evoked the specific emotions, moods, and times of day associated with the raga. In the various classification systems used in South Asia, major musical modes were personified as men or gods, while other modes were personified as their wives, sons, and, infrequently, daughters.

An inscription above the painting identifies this musical mode as Vihag Ragaputra (son of a male raga). In some instances such as this one, male musical modes were visualized as women. This seated woman does not correspond to other known images of Vihag, which typically depict the musical mode as a man and in different settings. The nighttime Vihag raga is here depicted at night, as indicated by the silver moon and the resting birds. The tiger skin upon which the woman sits is usually associated with ascetics. Her jewelry may indicate her transformation, due to heartache, from a beautiful young woman into an ascetic figure. The difficulty in determining her exact identity indicates both the lack of a clearly defined system for illustrating ragamala texts in South Asia and the existence of many regional variations.