GREEN TARA, SHAKYAMUNI, AND ACHALA
c. late 12th, early 13th century
Height: 8 ¼ x 26 1/8 inches
This stunning Tibetan book cover is a work of art that is painted on both the inside and outside faces. It once protected a Tibetan manuscript, one of a pair of wooden covers that were placed above and below a double-sided stack of paper (which was often wrapped in fabric), the whole package secured by a leather strap that wrapped around and fastened with a metal buckle.
Tibetan book covers are usually made of wood, a precious substance in and of itself on the 12,000-foot high, virtually tree-less plateau of central Tibet. At the time this book cover was created, wood was used at great cost, as it had to be carried over vertiginous passes from southern and southeastern Tibet and surrounding areas in India, Nepal, and Bhutan.
Depicted on the inside face of this book cover are three Buddhist deities, beautiful renditions of these gods that would only have been seen by the person reading the book. The central deity, the most important, is Green Tara, the compassionate savioress. She sits with her head cocked, as if listening for the pleas of the devoted, her hand extended with the palm up in the gesture of gift-bestowal. Her other hand holds her typical flower, a blue water lily with long petals, depicted here half-closed following the descriptions of Green Tara’s appearance found in Sanskrit texts. Another blue lily blooms beside her.
Green Tara is flanked by two deities – Shakyamuni Buddha on the left and the wrathful deity Achala on the right. The transcendent nature of all three is indicated by their lotus supports. Shakyamuni, the historical Buddha, wears the robes of a monk and makes the gesture of teaching. A blue fabric-covered cushion can be seen behind him. Achala, whose name means “Immovable One,” wields a sword and a noose as his weapons to help the faithful combat internal and external obstacles to enlightenment. The hand that holds the noose also makes the gesture of threatening with a raised index finger held at the level of the heart. Flames rise in the arch behind him, a detail that follows this wrathful deity’s description in texts, which characterize him as standing in the middle of a blazing fire.
The outer face of this book cover has painted decoration that mimics a style of carved and painted book covers that were particularly popular in Tibet in the 12th-15th centuries. The interrelations between the many book covers in this style have yet to be worked out, but the type of decoration on all is similar to a late 11th-early 12th century book cover that has an inscription noting that its painting was done in the “Indian style.”
Three deities, each the center of a roundel, also adorned this face of the book cover, although two have been lost and only part of the central deity remains. The arm positions and remains of a sack suggest that this figure is Jambhala, the god of wealth. Also extant are a pair of eyes in the half-roundel at the far left, which suggest that kirtimukhas once graced these areas at either end of the central rectangle. Each element of the design is outlined by closely placed circles that represent a row of pearls, an ancient decorative device that dates back to at least Sassanian times (3rd – 7th century). The broad outer frame was originally filled with scrolling green foliage set against a red background, a stylistic element commonly found on covers in this style. The target-like concentric circles that float in a red background on both faces derive from symbols on Indian manuscripts that marked the end of chapters.
BOOKCOVER DEPICTING GREEN TARA, SHAKYAMUNI, AND ACHALA (detail)
Tibet, 11th-12th century
Height: 8 ¼ x 26 1/8 inches
Folio from the “Large Bhagavata Purana Series”
Opaque pigments on wasli heightened with gold
North India, Guler
11¾ x 16 in. (29.8 x 40.6 cm.)
Provenance: David E. Rust
FOLIO FROM A RASAMANJARI, Nurpur
SHIVA, PARVATI AND FAMILY AT LEISURE
Gouache, heightened with gold on paper
India, Guler or Mandi
Early 19th century
5 1/2 x 7 inches (13.9 x 17.7 cm)
Narasimha slays Hiranyakashipu
Gouache and gold on paper
9 x 7 1/2 in
RAMA, SITA & LAXMANA IN THE FOREST
Gouache, gold and silver on paper
India, Pahari Hills
9 ½ x 7 3/8 inches (24 x 18.7 cm.)
PICCHVAI DEPICTING KRISHNA VISHVARUPA
Pigments and gold on cloth
India, Rajasthan, 19th-20th c.
56 x 36 in. (142 x 91.4 cm.)