An Architectural Representation of Complete Tantric Knowledge

Shengnan Dong

The Kumbum of Pelkhor Chode Monastery; Gyantse, Tsang region, central Tibet (present-day TAR, China); ca. 1427–1442; photograph by Shengnan Dong, 2021

Gyantse Kumbum

Pelkhor Chode Monastery, Gyantse, Tsang region, central Tibet (present-day TAR) ca. 1427–1442

The Kumbum of Pelkhor Chode Monastery; Gyantse, Tsang region, central Tibet (present-day TAR, China); ca. 1427–1442; photograph by Shengnan Dong, 2021

Summary

Art historian Shengnan Dong introduces the Gyantse Kumbum (“a hundred-thousand images,”), a monumental stupa depicting over twenty thousand deities in seventy-three chapels, which provide a nearly complete representation of the Buddhist pantheon as it was understood in the fifteenth century. As a major Buddhist project commissioned by a local prince in central Tibet, the temple compound was built at a time when Tibetans were beginning to develop their own artistic styles, and several famous artists may have been involved.

Key Terms

bumpa

Vases are an important part of ritual paraphernalia and the iconography of many deities; they are often understood to contain the elixir of life. The central bulb of a stupa is often also called a “vase.”

harmika

A harmika is an architectural element that forms a square balustrade section on top of the dome (Sanskrit: anda) of a stupa, and encloses the spire (Sanskrit: yasti) that rises above it. The harmika represents a divine abode.

patronage

A practice of hiring and commissioning artists to create works of art. In religious context patrons were often rulers, religious leaders, as well as ordinary people. (see also donor)

Sakya

Sakya is the name of a monastery and of a major tradition of Tibetan Buddhism that originated there during the Later Diffusion of Buddhism. Sakya Monastery was the seat of power during Sakya-Mongol rule in Tibet (1260–1350s), founded on the priest-patron relationship. Notable Sakya figures include Sakya Pandita (1182–1251), who played an instrumental role in establishing Tibetan relations with the Mongols; Drogon Chogyel Pakpa (1234-1280), who served as Qubilai Khan’s imperial preceptor and invented the Pakpa Script; and Buton (1290–1364), who compiled the Tibetan Canon. The Sakya are particularly known for their Lamdre teachings. In the 1350s, Pakmodru replaced the Sakya political prominence.

stupa

Stupas are monuments that initially contained cremated remains of Buddha Shakyamuni or important monks, his disciples, and subsequently other material and symbolic relics associated with the Buddha’s body, teaching, and enlightened mind. As representations of the Buddha’s presence in the world, stupas with their contents—texts, relics, tsatsas—continue to be important objects of Buddhist worship in their diverse forms of domed structures, multistoried pagodas, and portable sculptures. The original form of stupas was an earthen dome-shaped mound containing the remains in reliquary vessels or urns deposited within the innermost core. The dome would often be successively enlarged and surrounded by a path for a walk around in a clockwise direction and veneration (circumambulation)

tantra

Tantra was a religious movement in India around the fifth to seventh centuries, and its practices are part of Buddhism and Hinduism. The word tantra also refers to texts which transmit tantric practices. In Buddhism, tantra is also called Vajrayana, “The Vajra Vehicle.” Tantric ritual and art are characterized by deity yoga, mandalas, mantras, abhisheka (initiation), wrathful deities, and ritual sexual union. In Hinduism, tantrism was often associated with the worship of Shiva and various goddesses (shakti). A practitioner of tantra is called a “tantrika.” Tantra is also a genre of texts that have been variously categorized. Most common is the division of tantras into four categories: Kriya Tantra, Charya Tantra, Yoga Tantra, and Highest Yoga Tantra.

The Kumbum of Pelkhor Chode Monastery (ca. 1427–1442) is located in the heart of Gyantse County in upper Nyangchu Valley of the  region (fig. 2). The name kumbum is commonly interpreted as “a hundred thousand images,” denoting the great number of deities depicted inside. It is one of the biggest chortens in Tibet and the best-preserved example of its kind. The artistic splendor of the Kumbum, built during a time of political turbulence after the fall of the Sakya Yuan polity (1244–1354), attests to the peak of the Gyantse dynasty as a burgeoning new power in central Tibet. The statues and painted deities it houses provide a nearly complete representation of the Buddhist pantheon as it was understood in the fifteenth century. A grand construction project that lasted for decades, the Kumbum preserves rich visual evidence for an emerging era of indigenous artistic creation.

Structure, Prototype, and Symbolism

The overall structure of the Kumbum displays some of the essential elements of a Tibetan chorten, including a four-tiered base, a cylindrical vase called a , a spire base , and a conical spire on top. Yet the seventy-three chapels spanning eight stories (fig. 3), with more than twenty thousand deities represented, make it stand out as a unique edifice, as chortens in the Himalayas are normally solid and can only be approached by circumambulating the outside. The exterior decoration shows a remarkably eclectic style, revealing cultural exchanges with neighboring regions, as exemplified by the painted eyes on the harmika that are typical for stupas in the Kathmandu Valley, as well as the corbel brackets under the roof (fig. 4), an element from the Chinese architectural tradition.

Fig. 3

The Chapel of Purifying All Evil Rebirths, north side, third story, Gyantse Kumbum; Gyantse, Tsang region, central Tibet (present-day TAR, China); 1430–1435; photograph by Shengnan Dong, 2021

Fig. 4 Corbel Brackets under Roof of Bumpa, Gyantse Kumbum; Gyantse, Tsang region, central Tibet (present-day TAR, China); ca. 1427–1440; photograph by Shengnan Dong, 2021

The four-tiered terrace is designed in a twenty-corner plan (fig. 5). On each tier there are doors opening to individual chapels. Visitors enter these chapels via the open-air path surrounding each floor before reaching the bumpa, a round story with four main temples. Staircases lead further up into the harmika, where one can walk a two-story inner  path around the Central Pillar before climbing up to the topmost chapel inside the gigantic spire.

Fig. 5. Pelkhor Chode Monastery, Plan of the first story; Gyantse Kumbum, Gyantse; image after Ricca and Lo Bue 1993, 224, fig. A

The Kumbum of Gyantse takes the form of an Auspicious Stupa of Many Doors, or tashi gomang, one of the eight chortens in Tibetan Buddhist tradition commemorating the in Buddha Shakyamuni’s life. Tashi gomang, in particular, is a remembrance of the exposition of . As explained by the third patriarch of Sakya, Khon Drakpa Gyeltsen (1147–1216), the numerous openings that adorn the four tiers symbolize the myriad doorways of the Buddhist teachings. Tashi gomang became popular in western Tibet during the tenth to twelfth centuries and were found in much simpler designs on many tsatsa clay tablets, or as architectural units(figs. 6 and 7).

Fig. 6

Tsatsa Representing the Stupa with Many Doors; western Tibet; ca. 11th century; photograph by Elena Pakhoutova

Fig. 7 Corner Stupa of the Red Temple of Toling Monastery; Toling, Guge Kingdom, Ngari region, western Tibet (present-day TAR, China); ca. 11th century; photograph by Shengnan Dong, 2021

Immense tashi gomang like the Gyantse Kumbum emerged as early as the thirteenth century in central Tibet. Decorative niches of early tashi gomang were turned into actual entrances to chapels devoted to different . These large chortens likely evoke Buddha’s third turning of the wheel, an occasion when tantras were first taught at the Glorious Stupa of in South India, as widely believed in the Tibetan tradition.

Iconographic Program, Style, and Artist Collective

From the lowest level to the top, chapels of the Gyantse Kumbum are arranged in a hierarchical order in accordance with the Four Classes of Tantras, as systemized by Buton Rinchen Drub (1290–1364). This fourfold scheme of categorizing tantric teachings belongs to the New Transmission Period traditions. The bottom two stories are mainly devoted to Kriya Tantra and the Charya Tantra, the two lower classes of the system, while the chapels of the third story are mostly associated with Yogatantra. On the fourth story, various lineages of masters who contributed to the introduction of these tantric cycles to Tibet are represented (fig. 8), connecting the terrace to the bumpa, where devotion to Yogatantra continues in the four temples dedicated to , Vajrasana (the diamond throne in ), Shakyamuni, and respectively. The double-story harmika is a space for the two aspects of the Anuttarayoga Tantra, the Father and Mother tantras. In the top chapel sits , the embodying the ultimate origin of the universes, surrounded by masters of Kalachakra, representing the third aspect: the nondual tantras.

Fig. 8. Mahasiddha Virupa with Sonam Tsemo at right; Chapel at the southwest corner, Level 4 of Gyantse Kumbum, Tsang region, central Tibet (present-day TAR, China); mineral pigments on clay; photograph by Shengnan Dong, 2021

Although they were repainted over the centuries, almost all the large sculptures in the main chapels are the fifteenth-century originals. The sculptures are predominantly made of clay over an internal wooden structure. The Vajradhara inside the top chapel and the Vairochana in the east temple of the bumpa are the only gilded-copper exceptions (fig. 9), underlining their higher status in the whole tantric system.

Encircling the sculptures are mural paintings of features drawn from both Indic and Chinese sources, showing a diversity that echos the designs of the Kumbum’s outer structure. The prevalence of sumptuous vegetal curls and floral motifs suggests a dominance of Nepalese style in the overall rendering. Meanwhile, Chinese elements permeate in the stylistic design of clouds and a naturalistic treatment of the figures.

The grand project attracted a galaxy of talents, whose work was overseen by Rinchen Peldrub, the abbot of , a then prosperous teaching center near . Inscriptions in different chapels document the names of at least thirty-nine painters from different regions of the Tsang region, which may explain the diverse styles coexisting in the Kumbum. The inscriptions also indicate that in most chapels the master artists worked in teams with their students instead of on their own. Their work demonstrates the wide range of modes and styles available to the artists, and potentially how different ideas might have circulated among them.

Many scholars are of the opinion that the Gyantse Kumbum represents the maturation of a Tibetan style, while some maintain that the art of the Kumbum still stands at a transitional point. What is clear is that the art contained in the Kumbum is closely related to two major later Tibetan art schools. According to an artist manual attributed to the founder of the , Menla Dondrub, he once studied with Peljor Rinchen and Sonam Peljor, the master artists from Nenying who led the decoration at the Gyantse Kumbum. Recent studies further propose that Khyentse Chenmo, the founder of the Khyenri style, might have once worked with Menla Dondrub as apprentices at Gyantse or Nenying. This means that the project at Gyantse may have played a direct part in the development of their own styles.

Patronage and Related Projects

Rabten Kunzang (1389–1442, r. 1414–1442), the prince of Gyantse, was the main of the Kumbum and the entire monastic complex. During his reign, the principality thrived at an unprecedented level, so it was able to compete with other major powers like the or even the Pakmodrupa establishment that superseded Sakya rule in the mid-fourteenth century.

The ruler embraced a nonsectarian attitude toward Buddhist teachings and sponsored a great number of other artistic and building projects. Besides the magnificent chorten, he famously commissioned a set of three giant appliqué thangkas (fig. 10), depicting the Buddhas of the Three Times, which are the earliest large-scale cloth thangkas that have survived to this date. The weaving of the image, in particular, was based on sketches made by one of the Nenying master artists mentioned above, Sonam Peljor. These were likely shown consecutively over three days during the Sagadawa festival, commemorating the enlightenment of the Buddha, similarly to how this is practiced at Tashilhunpo Monastery in . Considered as Liberation through Seeing images, they render the display an important occasion for viewing. The wall specially designated for their exhibition sits on the mountain ridge above the monastic complex and is visible from miles away (fig. 2).

The Kumbum witnessed Gyantse’s own grandeur as a local dominion and a high point in the history of Tibetan art. Even after the fall of the principality at the end of the sixteenth century, it has remained one of the most important pilgrimage sites of the Tibetan Buddhist world. The idea of opening doors to pictorial depictions of the Buddhist divinities continued in the portable tashi gomang shrines used by traveling monks, a Bhutanese cultural heritage dating to the seventeenth century.

Footnotes
1

Tucci (1932–41) 1989, 1:172; Tucci 2009, 1:30n1.

2

Tucci 2009. The Chinese edition of Indo-Tibetica 4 (Tucci 1941), provides full documentation of the inscriptions from different chapels of the Gyantse Kumbum, including about one-third of the text that was omitted in Tucci’s original publication; see Tucci 2009, vol. 2. For wider discussions on the eight events in the Indo-Tibetan tradition, see Bagchi 1941.

3

Bentor 1995a, 35–39. A similar version of the eulogy is found at Juyong Guan Stupa.

4

Tucci 1932, 1: pls. 5, 6; Pakhoutova 2009, 55–56, fig. 2.7.

5

Many of these stupas were associated with influential masters. See Tucci 1949, 179–96; Vitali 1990, 123–36; Akester 2016, 487–90, 608–9, 615, 637–39, 653–56.

6

See Macdonald 1970; Hoffmann 1973. 

7

The Adibuddha is the primordial buddha from which all other buddhas and deities emanated. This conception was promulgated mainly by the dissemination of the Kalachakra cycle of tantras after the eleventh century and is interpreted differently within the Tibetan tradition. The Nyingma tradition considers Samantabhadra as the Adibuddha, while for the New traditions, it is Vajradhara who sits in the center of the doctrinal universe.

8

For an iconographic description of each room, see Ricca and Lo Bue 1993, app., 225–313.

9

On the making of clay sculptures, see Luczanits 2003.

10

Lo Bue and Ricca 1990, 32.

11

Tucci 1949, 1:206–7; Ricca 1997, 198; Stoddard 1996, 41–43.

12

D. Jackson 2010, 148–50.

13

Sman thang pa sman bla don grub 1985, 177–88, quoted in D. Jackson 1996, 108.

14

Jackson and Fermer 2016, 7.

15

Lo Bue 1992. 

16

For the political history of the Gyantse principality, see Everding 2017.

17

They depict Dipamkara, Shakyamuni, and Maitreya.

18

’Jigs med grags pa 1987, 241, 244, quoted in Henss 2011, 79.

19

Henss 2011, 73–74.

20

On his other projects, see Everding 2017; Lo Bue 1992. On the Tsuklakhang of Gyantse, see von Schroeder 2006.

Further Reading

Lo Bue, Erberto, and Franco Ricca. 1990. Gyantse Revisited. Florence: Le Lettere.

Ricca, Franco, and Erberto Lo Bue. 1993. The Great Stupa of Gyantse: A Complete Tibetan Pantheon of the Fifteenth Century. London: Serindia. 

Tucci, Giuseppe. (1932–41) 1989. Gyantse and Its Monasteries. Edited by Lokesh Chandra. Translated by Uma Marina Vesci. 3 vols. Indo-Tibetica 4. Reprint, New Delhi: Aditya Prakashan.

Citation

Shengnan Dong, “Gyantse Kumbum: An Architectural Representation of Complete Tantric Knowledge,” Project Himalayan Art, Rubin Museum of Art, 2023, http://rubinmuseum.org/projecthimalayanart/essays/gyantse-kumbum.

bumpa

Language:
Tibetan

Vases are an important part of ritual paraphernalia and the iconography of many deities; they are often understood to contain the elixir of life. The central bulb of a stupa is often also called a “vase.”

harmika

Language:
Sanskrit

A harmika is an architectural element that forms a square balustrade section on top of the dome (Sanskrit: anda) of a stupa, and encloses the spire (Sanskrit: yasti) that rises above it. The harmika represents a divine abode.

patronage

A practice of hiring and commissioning artists to create works of art. In religious context patrons were often rulers, religious leaders, as well as ordinary people. (see also donor)

Sakya

Language:
Tibetan

Sakya is the name of a monastery and of a major tradition of Tibetan Buddhism that originated there during the Later Diffusion of Buddhism. Sakya Monastery was the seat of power during Sakya-Mongol rule in Tibet (1260–1350s), founded on the priest-patron relationship. Notable Sakya figures include Sakya Pandita (1182–1251), who played an instrumental role in establishing Tibetan relations with the Mongols; Drogon Chogyel Pakpa (1234-1280), who served as Qubilai Khan’s imperial preceptor and invented the Pakpa Script; and Buton (1290–1364), who compiled the Tibetan Canon. The Sakya are particularly known for their Lamdre teachings. In the 1350s, Pakmodru replaced the Sakya political prominence.

stupa

Language:
Sanskrit
Alternate terms:
chaitya, chorten

Stupas are monuments that initially contained cremated remains of Buddha Shakyamuni or important monks, his disciples, and subsequently other material and symbolic relics associated with the Buddha’s body, teaching, and enlightened mind. As representations of the Buddha’s presence in the world, stupas with their contents—texts, relics, tsatsas—continue to be important objects of Buddhist worship in their diverse forms of domed structures, multistoried pagodas, and portable sculptures. The original form of stupas was an earthen dome-shaped mound containing the remains in reliquary vessels or urns deposited within the innermost core. The dome would often be successively enlarged and surrounded by a path for a walk around in a clockwise direction and veneration (circumambulation)

tantra

Language:
Sanskrit
Alternate terms:
Vajrayana, esoteric Buddhism, tantric

Tantra was a religious movement in India around the fifth to seventh centuries, and its practices are part of Buddhism and Hinduism. The word tantra also refers to texts which transmit tantric practices. In Buddhism, tantra is also called Vajrayana, “The Vajra Vehicle.” Tantric ritual and art are characterized by deity yoga, mandalas, mantras, abhisheka (initiation), wrathful deities, and ritual sexual union. In Hinduism, tantrism was often associated with the worship of Shiva and various goddesses (shakti). A practitioner of tantra is called a “tantrika.” Tantra is also a genre of texts that have been variously categorized. Most common is the division of tantras into four categories: Kriya Tantra, Charya Tantra, Yoga Tantra, and Highest Yoga Tantra.