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Elements of Newar Buddhist Art :
Circle of Bliss - a Review Article
b Gautama V. Vajracharya
Decembe 22, 2004
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This article is a critical study of the Nepalese art and iconography discussed in the Circle of Bliss, Buddhist Meditational
Art, an exhibition catalogue, by John Huntington and Dina Bangdel with the contribution of graduate students of Ohio State
University, Columbus and some other scholars. [1] Huntington and Bangdels articles [2] published in Orientations as the
prelude to the exhibition also will be discussed here briefly. The materials are collected and presented in the catalogue and
other related works with a great effort to surpass previous scholars in excellence and achievement. This endeavor deserves
admiration. In fact the catalogue is one of the rare examples in the study of South Asian art history where we find a teacher
sharing his new research and ideas with his students. Greatly encouraged by the teachers generosity, the students, in turn,
feed him back with further investigations. Despite such admirable endeavor the work is open to criticism for three different
reasons. First, the catalogue is characterized by misleading information that emanated from defective methodology. Second,
it is riddled with the easily detectable mistakes which resulted from the lack of careful observation, and insufficient
knowledge of variety of subjects such as epigraphy, language and culture, so essential for the study of Newar Buddhist art.
Third, the cult of Cakrasamvara and Vajravrh is treated there without giving any attention to already published important
historical sources closely related to the cult. A few examples may suffice.
Several Buddhist texts repeatedly describe that prince Siddhrtha was born in the Lumbini grove
from the side of the queen mother Maya as she grasped a branch of a tree. According to the
Nidnakath soon after such supernatural birth the newborn baby received an atmospheric shower
bath. Often a peculiar phrase is used to describe the event, utum gahpesum "[the gods] caused
[the baby] to receive the season." [3] This phrase helps us to connect the concept of the nativity scene
with pre-Buddhist belief associated with the birth of a cosmic child, and with a latent aspect of
Newar Buddhist tradition, which celebrates the birthday of Bodhisattvas as the prelude of the rainy
season during the bright half of the Jyestha month. A significant Nepalese sculpture in the catalogue
(fig. 1) depicts the scene almost exactly as described in the text. On the right, Maya is shown
clutching the branch of a tree. On the left, immediately above Siddhrtha, two cloud gods holding
global water jars are depicted flying in the middle of the stylized cloud. Many years ago when
Kramrisch published this image very first time she correctly identified the cloud gods as devaputras [4] because in early
Buddhist texts such atmospheric deities are often described as varsavalhaka devaputras rain clouds, the sons of the
gods ( Aguttaranikvatik 2.2.37 ). In later Buddhist texts the cloud gods are identified as Nanda and Upananda
devaputras or ngas, the serpents. The lotus flowers flowing down from the jars held by the gods symbolize the shower.
The authors of the very first entry in the catalogue, which treats of this sculpture, do not seem to be
familiar with such textual reference to cloud gods or to their significance. Thus they identify the
male divinities of the cloud as apsaras [5] . This is indeed a big problem. If the authors cannot
distinguish female apsaras from the flat chested male divinities, I wonder how it would be possible
to handle the other complexities of art historical study. In the same entry, they argue that the
sculpture should be dated to the 5th to 6th century instead of the previously accepted 9th century.
The main point of their argument is based on the stylistic similarity of the lotus shown in the nativity
13-2-8 Elemen of Nea Bddhi A : Cicle of Bli - a Reie Aicle
Fig. 2
The main point of their argument is based on the stylistic similarity of the lotus shown in the nativity
sculpture as a pedestal on which the newborn Siddhrtha is standing and the same flower held by
the Gana Baha Padmapni. Since the latter can be dated ca. 550 the authors express their opinion
that the nativity sculpture also belongs to about the fifth or sixth century. But stylistic study is not
that simple. The lotus employed for a pedestal and the lotus held by divinities should not be treated
as the same. Compare the lotus pedestal of Gana Baha Padmapni with the lotus he holds (fig. 2). The difference is huge.
The pedestal is treated here rudimentarily, rendering only the pericarp of the lotus decorated with vertical linear pattern
around its edge, whereas the lotus held by the god is rendered much more elaborately and naturalistically. This means the
sixth century Nepalese artist was familiar with the naturalistic treatment of the lotus but it was not used for a pedestal of a
Buddhist deity at that time. Such usage compares with that of the beads and flame motif. It appeared for the first time in 467
A. D. when it was used for the flaming edge of Visnus shield in the famous Tilaganga Visnu image (fig. 3). But this motif
became part of the nimbus only after the seventh century. Thus it becomes clear that the fifth century date for the nativity
sculpture is not based on a logical explanation. The languorous, elongated body of Maya and her diaphanous sri differ
widely from the dwarfish proportion, stiffness, and rudimentary treatment of the sri in the Tilaganga relief (fig. 4) but bears
some similarities with those features seen in the twelfth or thirteenth century bracket figures from Uku Baha (fig. 5). The
abstract space between the crossed legs of Maya and the Uku Baha bracket figures is almost identical. The pleated middle
section of the sri in both examples cascades down from the waist and goes over the left leg in similar fashion before it
terminates into the flower bud like end. Thus the 9th century date given by Stella Kramrisch in her seminal 1964 catalogue
remains unchanged. [6]
Fig. 3 Fig. 4 Fig. 5
The main problem in dating the work of art logically is apparently associated with a lack of ability to distinguish history from
legend. In the introductory essay of the catalogue Bangdel writes:
Although the Licchavi kings were primarily Hindu, inscriptions refer to Buddhist monasteries founded by
royal patronage and grants, such as Mana Vihara built by King Manadeva, Raja Vihara by Amsuvarma,
the Syengu Baha at Svayambhu Mahachaitya by Vrishadeva, and Gum Vihara, also a royal foundation but
without attribution to a specific king. [7]
In support of her argument she footnotes Daniel Wrights Historv of Nepal. Although I have been working on Licchavi
inscriptions meticulously for many decades I have not seen any Licchavai inscription that refers to Syengu Baha as
Vrsadeva's contribution. The information that we get from Daniel Wrights work is not based on the analytical study of
inscriptions. Despite the fact that the tittle of his work is Historv of Nepal it is not a history book but a collection of
legends, fabulous stories and some historical materials of the medieval period. Information derived from such materiel can
not be accepted as factual without verifying contemporaneous sources. Therefore citation of such work as inscriptional
evidence clearly indicates an underlying problem, the confusion between history and legend. As we see shortly, the lack of
historiography is indeed the main problem in the development of the methodology employed throughout the work.
Although the authors of the catalogue show more interest in iconography than stylistic study
neither Huntington nor Bangdel seem to know some basic elements of Tantric Buddhist
iconography. Throughout the catalogue the authors explain the technical term dharmodav, as
a pair of interlocking triangles. [8] This explanation is erroneous. Several esoteric Buddhist
texts including the Jimalaprabh, commentary to Klacakra, [9] testify that dharmodav is
an inverted triangle symbolizing the female principle. Abhaykaragupta, the well-known author
of the Nispannavogvali, explains that in terms of macrocosm (bhva) the triangular
dharmodav is no other than the endless sky, in terms of inward (adhvtman) significance she
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Fig. 6
Fig. 7
dharmodav is no other than the endless sky, in terms of inward (adhvtman) significance she
is Prajn". [10] Moreover, Sdhanaml no. 97 clearly states that Dharmodav is akin to
sky, and appears like the vowel e [Brhm script] because it has a wide upper section and
narrow pointed lower section. [11] Since this vulvate triangle resembles the vowel e in Brhm
script it was also known as ekra the letter e. The interlocking double triangles motif was actually known to the Buddhist
as evam or evamkra, signifying nondual unity of female the principle e and the male principle vam, a syllabic letter in
ancient Indian scripts which was visualized as an upright triangle (fig. 6). Although such a hexagonal double triangle is
known to Hindus as satkona, Buddhists preferred to call it evam. Buddhist texts often begins with the word evam as in the
mantra like phrase evam mav rutam thus I have heard. The representation of interlocking double triangles is based on
the esoteric interpretation of this phrase.
The correct identity of dharmodav may appear to be a trifling matter or an effort at faultfinding. But a careful study of this
symbol is actually very important for understanding the characteristics of Newar Buddhism. Newar Buddhists of
Kathmandu identified this inverted triangle with an aboriginal female divinity of a waterhole or waterholes. We know this
from several sources including the observation of her unique shrine and its symbolic representations in stone relief.
One of this divinitys shrines is located in Hmasinga, currently known to Nepali
speaking people as Phulbari near Balaju, the other one in Mrigasthali, east of
famous Paupati temple. Both these shrines are actually underground, fresh-water
springs covered by a repousse lotus. [12] The Hmasinga shrine (fig. 7) is
considered to be center of the primordial lake of the Kathmandu valley and
according to Buddhist Newars the rainbow like variegated light representing
Jyotirpa Svayambh emerged from it. Some Buddhist Newars believe that the
real Hmasinga is located on the northern slope of Svayambh hill. The word
Hmasinga literally means the depression located in the place called Hmasin. A
nineteenth century colophon of a Newari manuscript in the collection of Babukaji
Vajracharya at Ombahal Kathmandu identifies this hole with the Buddhist
goddess Khagnan Bird Faced, who is also known as Guhyevar. [13] The Newar Buddhist scholars are of the opinion
that the minor deity with the same name, Khagnan, mentioned in the Sdhanaml no. 218, and Samvarodavatantra 7.
19 is identical with this Buddhist goddess. This view may be correct because in Umapatis Jafravrhsdhana
Khagnan is described as the goddess of the Himalaya. [14] However, due to her association with the waterhole and
Svayambh she is not a minor deity in Nepal.
The significance of the waterholes in the valley can be understood properly only if we give an attention to the fact that the
main source of water is believed to be rain and the mother sky itself is considered to be a big hole, mahbila. Newars
originally believed that the sky is mother, which sharply contrasts with Indo-European concept of father sky. [15]
Rainmaking rituals are performed around these waterholes during droughts and some of these water sources are named
after the kagag, the milky-way which is viewed as celestial water in both Sanskrit literature and Newar tradition. [16]
The Svavambhpurna prescribes worshiping the waterholes (falotpannarandhrni) on the full moon day of rvana
month, when the copious monsoon rain is expected. [17] The waterholes are believed to be the reminiscent of the primordial
lake of the Kathmandu valley. Both Hindus and Buddhists agree that the main deity of the waterholes is Guhyevar, and
worship her as their tutelary lineage deities, variously called istadevat, kuladevat or degudva. However, the Newar
Buddhist tradition of the valley prefers to identify her with the dharmodav triangle. This is evidenced by a brief statement
found in the Svavambhpurna, where the symbolic representation of this goddess is described as a voni like
dharmodav (vonvkrena samft dharmodavsvarpena trailokve ca prakhvpit). [18] Such vulvial symbols
are often represented in stone relief. An seventeenth century inscription found at the western section of the Cilamco stpa in
Kiritpur tells us that such stone relief was known to the Buddhist community of the valley not exactly as dharmodav but as
dharmadhtu shrine. This is understandable because in esoteric Buddhist literature the word dharmadhtu is synonymous
with dharmodav. For instance, Hevafratantra Tk (folio 33b) explains that dharmodav is dharmadhtu because the
worldly phenomenon or the noble dharma [directly] rises from here. [19]
Such dharmadhtu shrines are very different from the dharmadhtu mandalas which are round and laid flat on plinth-like
high structures. The dharmadhtu shrines, on the other hand, are vertical stone slabs with pointed arch adorned with the
Garuda or krtimukha motif flanked by two makaras (fig. 8). Locally these shrines are also known as torana, a gate not
only because the shrines appear like the gates of Newar palaces and temples but also because the inverted triangle
symbolizes both the vulva and a celestial gate. The author of the Samvarodavatantra 2.25 clearly states that dharmodav
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Fig. 8
Fig. 9
Fig. 10
symbolizes both the vulva and a celestial gate. The author of the Samvarodavatantra 2.25 clearly states that dharmodav
is both a voni and a gate (dharmodav-voni-dvrnm). This concept goes back to the early Vedic period. The
Atharvaveda 10.2.31, 10.8.43 for instance, describes the human body with nine apertures as an unconquerable city
(avodhv) with nine gates.
Although the gate like Dharmadhtu shrines are seen all over the valley, one finds them also on the
valleys great stpas including Svayambh stpa, Tukan Bahal stpa in Kathmandu and Pulan
Syangu stpa at the western slope of Svayambh hill. The famous Dhando stpa of Chabhil is
also surrounded by multiple dharmadhtu shrines of this type. Earlier versions of the shrines are
well illustrated in a drawing published in Hodgson's article [20] almost two centuries ago (fig. 8). In
a sense the great stpas of the valley are not only the abode of the five Tathgatas but also the
shrine of the aboriginal mother goddess of waterholes represented by the
dharmodav/dharmadhtu symbol. This is not surprising because the Svayambh himself
emanated from this deitys waterhole.
There is an explanation for why this goddess of the dharmodav/dharmdhtu is known as
Khagnan, "Bird Faced." The Candamahrosanatantra (15. 16) and its commentary by Kumracandra inform us that in
esoteric Buddhist literature the word khagamukha the face or the bill of a bird means female genitalia. [21] Since the term
khagamukha is synonymous with khagnana in Sanskrit, it become abundantly clear that the mother goddess was known
as Bird faced because of her association with yoni.
The voni symbol is represented in South Asian art in many different ways. It is true that in some example the yoni is
depicted almost like the bill of a bird. [22] To my knowledge, such example is not available in Nepal. But in this country the
yoni symbol is depicted almost always within a torana. According to Newar legend the bird depicted on top of the torana
or dharmadhtu shrine is not exactly Garuda of Sanskrit literature but a mythical bird Chepu who controls celestial and
terrestrial water that appear in the form of male and female serpents. The authors of the Tantric Buddhist texts also deny the
identity of the bird with Garuda. Thus they use a technical word kramarsa "he head of the succession" as a synonym for
the apex of the torana. In a description of the elaborate torana of a mandala painting, the author of the Pindkrama, refers
to this bird as a kramarsa paksin "female bird perched at the apex of a [torana]." [23] Although we do not know exactly
where the Pindkrama was written perhaps in Nepal, this particular reference to female gender of the bird is apparently the
initial step toward the Nepalese interpretation of the bird-faced female deity in association with torana and dhormodav.
Art historically, however, the bird on the torana is the metamorphosis of the ancient krtimukha
motif symbolizing four atmospheric directions and center. In my previous work, I have explained
that although the legend of Chepu or female bird is not directly related to such artistic
development, its symbolic association with atmospheric phenomenon has remained intact in the
valley even in the late seventeenth century. The entire shrine with the krtimukha or the bird motif
on the apex of torana is part of the iconography of the tutelary lineage deities worshiped by
Newars before and after monsoonal rain. [24] Hindu tutelary deities are also represented in similar
shrines. In those cases the shrines are not designated as dharmodav or dharmadhtu but simply
a torana. Thus we have good reason to believe that not only the symbolic identity of the yoni with
the celestial gate, but also the popularity of the analogy between the yoni and the bird seems to be
the main reasons that the Buddhists in Nepal prefer to represent the symbol of voni/dharmodav
within the torana.
At the Southeast corner of Svayambh stpa there is an eighteenth century shrine decorated
with the Newar style torana, the dharmodav/dharmadhtu, with the Chepu bird on top,
but with two round openings instead of an inverted triangle as expected (fig. 9). That it is
simply a different version of the typical shrine is borne out by a seventeenth century painting in
the collection of the Cleveland Museum of Art (1973.69) (fig. 10). As Bangdel has noticed, it
depicts a similar shrine, which seems to be that of the istadevat mentioned in the inscription
at the bottom of the painting. It is highly possible that this tutelary deity is Khagnan, an
identity that depends upon the family tradition of the donors mentioned in the inscription. It is
interesting to observe that such a torana shrine closely resembles Tibetan gau, a portable
shrine, which in turn is the cognate of the empty niches of the early monolithic caitvas. The
opening of the gau is known to the Tibetans as sgo-khuin doored space, undoubtedly
because the shrine is no other than a torana.
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Fig. 11
because the shrine is no other than a torana.
The nineteenth century Nepali Pundit Amrtnanda, who helped Brain Houghton Hodgson to study Newar Buddhism, was
familiar with the torana shrine attached to the Svayambh stpa. He describes it briefly in his unpublished work
Dharmasamgrahakoa and expresses his view that the shrine may represent Manjur, Vairocana or Vajradhtvvar.
Since he could not identify it exactly, he concluded that this empty shrine actually represents nvat. More recently in
1978, when the famous Buddhist Pundit Hemaraja Shakya wrote his book on Svayambh stpa in Newari language he
identified the shrine as Vajradhtvvar. [25] This identification is based on Amrtnandas work but without referring to
other possibilities mentioned in the source. Since then local informants and tourist guides, with great enthusiasm, have been
explaining the significance of the shrine to visitors. Depending on such information, Huntington found no problem identifying
the shrine as Vajradhtvvar, which helped him to show her identity with Prajnpramit and the relation between the
Svayambh stpa and Vairocana sdhana of Guhyasamja. [26] The authors of the catalogue discuss the shrine repeatedly
and have published its photographs in two different occasions. But they did not make any attempt to read the short
inscription given at the bottom of the shrine, which can be translated as follows:
In the year of 872 (A. D. 1752) on the fifth day of the bright half of the sdha month [this] divine
Dharmadhtu is commissioned by the donor Gyanapati.
Clearly this is a dharmadhtu shrine, a typical feature on the stpas of the valley. Here one can argue that both
dharmadhtu and Vajradhtvvar symbolize nvat; therefore the shrine actually belongs to Vajradhtvvar, whose
significance in turn is based on the fact that she is no other than Vajravrh. Such traditional approach, which is based on
synthesis instead of analysis, is not helpful because it prevents us from detecting the amalgamation of pre-Buddhist religious
elements into the esoteric Buddhist pantheon. In fact identification of two divinities bearing different names always indicates
a new layer of development.
At the beginning of the nineteenth century there was a similar dharmadhtu
shrine at the northeastern corner of the Svayambh stpa as testified by the
Laksacaitya painting, dated 1809, in the Avery Brundage collection at the
Asian Art Museum of San Francisco (B61 D10+) where one is clearly
represented (fig. 11). As we know from the Svavambhpurna originally
this northeast corner of the stpa was characterized by a celestial hole
(vivara). [27] Apparently a main purpose of Gyanapatis commission of a
dharmadhtu in this southeast corner was to create symmetricality.
Compare Hodgsons drawing of Chabahil stpa (fig. 8). It is also important
to note that the second representation of Svayambh stpa in the lower
section of the Laksacaitya painting shows two Dharmdhtu shrines flanking
Aksobhyas temple. Thus the round hole at the bottom of Gyanapatis
dharmadhtu shrine apparently echoes the original hole at the northeast corner. Furthermore the stylized lotus petals
around the hole in the dharmadhtu shrine immediately recalls the typical shrine of goddess Khagnan at Hmasinga. In the
Svavambhpurna [28] this goddess of a fresh water spring, is described as falaskandha a mass of water and in the
same text the primordial lake Kalhrada of the Kathmandu valley is designated as dharmadhtu. [29] Clearly in Newar
Buddhism the word dharmdhtu symbolizes not only nvat but also water. The hidden logicality behind this association
of nvat with water is based on the view that nvat is the sky, which is the main source of life giving water both
celestial and terrestrial. The sky is, however, a big hole, a gate, a voni symbolizing the great mother goddess, Khagnan.
Unfortunately, the authors of the catalogue did not even try to understand the significance of Khagnan, mentioned in the
inscription of the laksacaitya painting, and simply identify her as Guhyevar / Vajravrh. [30]
The catalogue is indeed a detail study. The introductory essays and the entries are written so elaborately that quite often
they exhibit redundancies such as the valley is a mandala. Thus, the short articles, published in Orientations before the
exhibition, are the better examples of their methodological approach than the catalogue itself. For instance, in his article
Huntington writes:
In its present iconographic iteration, for which, as mentioned, there is direct physical evidence of having
been in existence since the sixth century, the [Svayambhu] Mahachaitya is a polyvalent symbol of
considerable complexity. [31]
According to this statement Svayambh stpa has multiple symbolism and the present iconography of the stpa is the
iteration of an early version that goes back at least to the sixth century A.D. Nowhere in this work Huntington suggests that
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iteration of an early version that goes back at least to the sixth century A.D. Nowhere in this work Huntington suggests that
earlier symbolism of the stpa might be different from later interpretations. He believes that the deities of the shrines around
the stpa are arranged in accordance with the Pindkrama sdhana of the Guhvasamfa Tantra. He writes:
it can be seen that the Vairocana shrine is just to the South of Akshobhyas. In this meditation, the
practitioner visualizes himself at the east as Akshobhya in non-dual state with Sparshavajri/Mamaki. In the
completion stage, the practitioner as Akshobhya/Sparshavajri is in the centre of the mandala and looks to
the east to realize that Vairochana is present in no-dual state with Saptalochana, who is represented in the
northeast shrine. Thus, for part of the meditation, Vairochana is actually on the east and his shrine is
appropriately physically located there on the Mahachaitya. [32]
This is indeed a fascinating statement, but also a perfect example of his defective methodology. Admittedly one can study
art historical materials as they are understood by a group of people in particular period of time and space. Such synchronic
study may be valuable but it should not be accepted either as complete or accurate. In fact due to the lack of
historiographic analysis such study is often dangerously misleading. This is the main reason that Huntingtons methodology is
open to criticism.
His argument that the iconography of the stpa is in perfect harmony with the Pindkrama Sdhana of the
Guhvasamfatantra is mainly based on the location of the Vairocana shrine at the eastern section of the Svayambh
Stpa. But this shrine did not exist there before 1713. The Svavambhpurna , most of which was written around the time
of King Yaksamalla's rule (ca. 1428-1482), refers to only four Buddhas: Aksobhya , Ratnasambhava, Amitbha, and
Amoghasiddhi at four directions of the stpa. Since Vairocana was considered to be in the middle of the stpa his shrine
was not represented then outside the dome of the stpa. According to contemporaneous diaries known to the Newars as
thvasaphu the earliest image of Vairocana at eastern section of the stpa is the contribution of the queen mother
Bhuvanalaksm, who was active during the first quarter of the eighteenth century. [33] Almost exactly a hundred years later,
the Newar Buddhists of Kathmandu replaced the original contribution of the queen with much bigger statue of the god when
they renovated the stpa in 1816. However, the image of Vairocana that we see today is of even more recent date.
According to the pedestal inscription, the image was erected only in 1918. Although most of these materials were at least
partially published in Nepalese publications many decades ago, Huntington does not seem to have taken much time to study
them. This was grievous omission. It led him on faulty grounds to adduce a startling new theory proclaiming that the
iconography of the stpa, presumed static since at least the sixth century, is based on the meditational practice prescribed in
the Guhvasamfa. As the historical materials amply illustrate this cannot be substantiated. Similarly, his view that the image
of Saptalocan Tr to the left of Aksobhya represents both Mmak and Saptalocan is unacceptable. [34] In 1918 when
Svayambh stpa went through a massive renovation the Buddhist priests of Kathmandu rearranged the images of the
Trs, [35] clearly because there was a discrepancy in the scheme of the five Trs association with the five Tahgatas,
apparently which was not settled even in the twentieth century. Without examining these historical documents one cannot
jump to the conclusion that the image at the northeastern shrine of the caitva stands for both Mmak and Saptalocan
Trained in this inadequate methodology, Bangdel begins her own investigation and claims to explore the origin of Buddhist
divinities of Kathmandu valley. Unfortunately, however, her study of Nepalese materials is also characterized by the
weakness in understanding the difference between original and secondary development. For instance, explaining the
significance of Vasudhr or Vasundhar she writes:
For the Newar Buddhist lay practitioner, the great esoteric deity, Vajravarahi/Vajrayogini, is remote and
aloof in the extreme, yet powerful beyond the wildest imagination. It is through her exoteric manifestations
that the full force of her wisdom and power come to fruition for the laity. In Newar Buddhism, one of the
preeminent exoteric manifestations of Vajravarahi is Vasundhara, one of the most beloved of the Buddhist
goddesses. [36]
According to this statement the significance of Vasundhar or Vasudhr is based on the fact that
she is the exoteric manifestation of Vajravrh. This reasoning does not differ much from the
traditional explanation of the Newar Buddhist priests of Kathmandu. Bangdel simply accepts it
without giving much attention to the fact that Vasudhrs pre-Buddhist association with agrarian
prosperity can be detected easily with a careful observation of her iconographical features. The
main attribute of the goddess is dhnvamanfar, a Sanskrit compound word for sheaf of rice
paddy (fig. 12). Although Bangdel translates it sometime as sheaf of grain and other time as
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Fig. 12
paddy (fig. 12). Although Bangdel translates it sometime as sheaf of grain and other time as
sheaf of wheat we know for sure that in classical and Buddhist Sanskrit dhnva means rice
paddy (Nepali dhn). Here it is important to note that in Nepal rice is harvested in the beginning of
autumn, wheat in the winter. Thus Vasudhr is worshiped annually on the first day of autumnal
rice harvest known to the Newar farmers and Buddhists as Gtil. During the Gtil ritual, her
image is placed on top of a heap of rice and an offering of rice paddy to her is considered mandatory. Clearly Vasudhr is
a deity presiding over fresh paddy. This is why she is conceived as yellow, and holds a sheaf of rice paddy as her main
attribute. Illustrated Newari manuscripts in the National Archives in Nepal (A. 151; A. 153) dealing with auspicious and
inauspicious sights often represent a heap of rice as very auspicious and identify it as Vasudhr, so labeled immediately
below the representation. Once we are familiar with such original significance of the goddess it becomes obvious that her
affiliation with Vajravrh is secondary development. Such analysis is completely absent in the catalogue despite the fact
that authors claim to investigate the origin of the valleys Buddhist divinities before the introduction of either Hinduism or
Buddhism to the valley. [37]
The lack of proper knowledge of Sanskrit is also a monumental problem for Bangdel. This is evident in many places e.g. in
a following example. In her frequently quoted work as a main source for the catalogue, Bangdel describes Manjughosa
"rejoicing [in sexual embrace] with Vajrasattva." [38] This embarrassingly erroneous translation, which is given twice in her
work within few pages in the same chapter, resulted from the misspelling and misunderstanding of following Sanskrit
sentenceiha bhagavn mahvairocantm manfughosah suviuddhadharmadhtufnnasvabhvah
svbhavafrasattvena mudritah, which actually means "Here Bhagavn Manjughosa stands for Mahvairocana and
symbolizes pure dharmdhtufnna; [his crown] is marked by [the image] of Vajrasattva who bears similarity [in
complexion] with (Manjughosa) himself." The correct reading of this text is found in Bhattacharyas edition of the
Nispannavogvali. [39] But Bangdel did not understand the meaning of the technical iconographical terms svbha bearing
similarity (with his or her own color) and mudritah marked, (a headgear marked by the image of a superior deity). Thus
she changed svbha into svabh and mudritah into muditah to obtain desired translation. Although space does not allow
me to write in detail, this is not an isolated example of the desired translation but a trend throughout their works. The
Newari inscription found in Jivaramas sketchbook, for instance, does not contain any word or words to prove that
Jivarama personally wrote this [inscription]. [40]
Lack of the knowledge of Newari language and culture is yet another big problem of the authors. Huntington is a specialist
of Tibetan art. His study of Newar Buddhist art is his new interest. In fact he began to investigate Newar art intensively only
after Dina Bangdel, a daughter of Nepali art historian Lain Simh Bangdel, began to work with him. But Dina could not help
him much because her knowledge of Newari language and culture was limited as well. Thus she argues that the appearance
of Tibetan goddess Palden Lhamo in a Los Angeles painting is helpful to pinpoint the provenance of the painting as Tibetan.
[41] But she is not familiar with the fact that according to Buddhist Newars Chvsakmin, or Ugracand, the dreadful
goddess who resides at chvsa is Palden Lhamo. Chvsa is a place originally distant from the Newar residential area
where trash and debris are deposited and where are ritually thrown the clothes and other belonging of a dead person, as
well as newly born childrens umbilical cords. She causes and cures pediatric diseases. An examination of Newari paintings
reveals that she is popular in them as well as in Tibetan paintings. Likewise, Bangdel does not seem to be familiar with the
fact that the Newari name Syegu or Sigu is derived from s-hmegu a compound word from classical Newari. As we
know from the Newari translation of Amarakoa, a celebrated Sanskrit thesaurus, it literally means a cow-tail. Therefore
in the Svavambhpurna this compound word is synonymously used for Gopuccha, the Sanskrit name for the Cow-tail
Hill of Svayambh. When the hilltops were visualized as horns it is also designated as Gosrga Cows Horn. Unaware of
the different meaning of these Newari and Sanskrit words, Bangdel combines both Sanskrit and Newari terms and creates
a new word for the cow-tail hill Gosingu. And Huntington simply accepts it.
Before we conclude this review article, it will be prudent to examine briefly Huntington and Bangdels major study regarding
the cult of Cakrasamvara and Vajravrh in Kathmandu. Prior to them, several scholars contributed on this subject. David
Gellner, for instance, treated the subject in detail showing the relation between Cakrasamvara's mandala and the ritual of
pthapf "the worship of power places" in the valley which was visualized by the practitioners as the mandala of deities.
Gellner correctly pointed out that the three pilgrimage circles were interpreted as standing for the circles (cakra) of the
mandala, body, speech, and thought (kva, vk, citta). [42] Huntington and Bangdel incorporated this view in their work
as their main theme. Apparently, well-known Tibetologist Robert Thurman is not familiar with the works on Newar
Buddhism. Thus, in the foreword he highly praises the authors for their discovery of a thriving practice still alive among the
Newars of Nepal.
13-2-8 Elemen of Nea Bddhi A : Cicle of Bli - a Reie Aicle
It is true that the cult of Cakrasamvara plays an important role in modern Newar Buddhism. This is not however the
reiteration of great antiquity. The early phase of Tantric Newar Buddhism of the valley was devoid of Cakrasamvaras cult
and remained so until it overlapped with the second phase, which was dominated by the cult of Cakrasamvara and
Vajravrh. In order to study epigraphic and textual evidence related with this development we need to be familiar with an
important architectural element of the Newar Buddhist monastery. This architectural element is locally known as gamchem.
The word gam apparently derives from the Sanskrit word gama "learning," and the second word chem is Newari and
literally means an edifice. The significance of this edifice is based on the fact that esoteric rituals are performed in the second
floor of this edifice. But its ground floor contains an exoteric shrine of Buddha akyamuni or one of the five Tathgatas,
who are known to the Newars as kvpdva, a generic term used for all these Buddhist divinities when they are housed in
that particular shrine. The etymology of "kvpdva" is not clear but the well accepted Sanskritized version of this word is
kosthapla , which literally means "protector of a room". In this exoteric shrine the Buddhist priests and devotees perform
regular devotional pf. My own observation indicates that most of the time the kvpdva is Aksobhya and the main
tantric deities of the esoteric shrine in the second floor of gamchem often correlate with the iconographic identity of the
kvpdva enshrined in the first floor.
Earliest reference to such edifice with double shrines is found in a copper plate inscription dated 1388. This important
inscription, which is in situ on the wall of the gamchem of Hnaikam Bahi in Kathmandu, tells us that during the reign of
Sthitimalla (ca. 1382-1395) a Buddhist devotee consecrated a multistoried shrine as well as an image of kosthapla
Buddha (kvpdva) in a pre-existing Buddhist monastery known as Kirtipunya Mahvihra. According to same
inscription the upper story of this newly built shrine housed an image of Heruka Ymalaka Heruka in pair. [43] Very likely
this Heruka, is no other than Cakrasamvara because another Buddhist inscription (dated 1511) found in Vivakarma Vihra
in Kathmandu refers to the establishment of new shrine of Heruka who is described there as the incarnation (avatra) of
Aksobhya. [44] Indeed the family head of Cakrasamvara is Aksobhya. For this reason the headgear of the early images of
Cakrasamvara bears Aksobhya's image. It is true that the epithetic name Heruka is also used for Hevajra. But this god is
not the member of Aksobhya's family. Note also the fact that the date of the earliest epigraphic reference to Heruka
coincides with the growth of the popularity of artistic representations of Cakrasamvara and Vajravrh in Nepalese art.
Despite such popularity of these divinities, Newar Buddhist monasteries, which followed earlier convention, remained
without a shrine for Cakrasamvara and Vajravrh even in later time. An inscription dated 1593 in situ near the entrance of
Otubaha in Kathmandu informs us that the construction of Buddhist monasteries of the valley and the consecrations of the
images in the monasteries closely followed the rules and rituals prescribed in Kuladatta's Krivsamgraha. [45] This
important text is a manual of the Buddhist rituals for constructing and consecrating monasteries, stpas, and images.
According to Gustav Roth, this work belongs to the category of of Buddhist Kriva-tantras of the eighth and ninth
centuries AD [46] The text begins with a salutation to Vajrasattva, who is treated there as the main tantric deity. This text,
however, neither refers to Cakrasamvara nor suggests that it is compulsory to have a shrine of the deity in a Buddhist
monastery. When we study this textual evidence and compare it with the information found in the Otubaha inscription (dated
1593) and the earliest reference to Heruka Ymalakas shrine in Hnaikam Bahi inscription (dated 1388) it become
abundantly clear that for a period of time the cult of Cakrasamvara developed in overlapping mode. Eventually, the
Kriysamgraha became obsolete mainly because this early manual could not fulfill Newar Buddhists growing interest in the
cult of Cakrasamvara and Vajravrh. As a result this text was gradually replaced by Jagaddarpana's Krivsamuccava ,
another manual of Buddhist rituals of later time written after the twelfth century. The main tantric deity of this text is
Cakrasamvara and Vajravrh. At the beginning of the work, the author salutes them as the most prominent divinities. The
significance of this manual for our study, however, derives from the fact that much of the contemporary Newar tantric
tradition including the rituals associated with Cakrasamvara and Vajravrh is mainly based on this manual instead of
Kuladatta's Krivsamgraha. Although a comparative analysis of these two manuals awaits a longer study, even a brief
observation like this clearly indicates that the cult of Cakrasamvara and Vajravrh is the new element that dissects early
and later approaches of Tantric Buddhism of Nepal. The authors of the catalogue, once again, did not make any attempt to
study such historical development of the cult in Nepal although all these epigraphic documents were published many years
Finally it should be pointed out that there is plenty of evidence to show that in the milieu of the ongoing interaction between
the Hinduism and Buddhism, Budddhist intellectuals including the author of the Svavambhpurna did not have any reason
to show hesitation in assimilating Shaivite elements into Buddhism. Even ivaligas are considered in the purna as Vtarga
or Vaitarga Bodhisattvas. [47] The list of Shaivite pthas given in an unpublished manuscript called Nepla-mandala-ptha-
pf-vidhi (4. 214, reel no. b. 189.16) in the collection of National Archive of Nepal do not differ much from the three
13-2-8 Elemen of Nea Bddhi A : Cicle of Bli - a Reie Aicle
pf-vidhi (4. 214, reel no. b. 189.16) in the collection of National Archive of Nepal do not differ much from the three
circles of Buddhist pthas described in the Svavambhpurna. Furthermore, it is difficult to deny the similarity between
Samvara and Natarja as exemplified by various attributes. They have in common such as crescent moon, elephants hide,
dance posture, khatvga, and Brahmairas. Unfortunately, however, in the methodology of the authors of the catalogue
cross-religious analysis is almost completely missing. Moreover, any information suggesting Buddhist divinitys association
with Hindu deity is avoided sometime removing the name of a Shaivite deity such as Virpksa in translation although the
god is clearly mentioned in the inscription. [48] Such unscholarly approach apparently stemmed from almost devotion-like
over emphasis on the cult of Cakrasamvara and Vajravrh.
all text & images Gautama V. Vajracharya
I would like to thank my younger sister Sumati Vajracharya for assisting me to collect important documents from the
Vajracharya priests in Kathmandu. I am grateful to Prof. Alexander Rospatt for the information dealing with the
Vairocana image commissioned by queen Bhuvanalaksmi. Furthermore, I would like to express my gratitude to
Prof. Joanna Williams and Dr. Mary Slusser for providing me with excellent detail photographs of Nepali sculptures
that I have used here for illustrations.
1. John C. Huntington and Dina Bangdel, The Circle of Bliss. Buddhist Meditational Art (Chicago: Serindia
Publications), 2003.
2. John C. Huntington, The Iconography of Svayambhu Mahachaitya: The Main Mandalas, Orientations, vol. 33,
No. 10 (December 2002), pp. 16-23; Dina Bangdel, Goddess of the Periphery, Goddess of the Centre: Iconology of
Jnanadakini in Newar Buddhism, Orientations, vol. 33, No. 10 (December 2002), pp. 24-30.
3. Mahesh Tivari (ed.), Nidnakath (Varanasi: Chaukhamba Sasnkrit Serries), 1970, p. 130.
4. Stella Kramrisch, The Art of Nepal (Vienna: The Asia Society), 1964, p. 62, 130.
5. Huntington and Bangdel, The Circle of Bliss, p. 60.
6.Kramrisch, The Art of Nepal, p. 62.
7. Huntington and Bangdel, The Circle of Bliss, p. 31.
8. Ibid, p. 524.
9. Jagannatha Upadhyaya (ed.), Jimalaprabhtk (Varanasi: Central Institute of Higher Tibetan Studies), 1986, pp.
10. Benoytosh Bhattacharya (ed.), Nispannavogvali (Baroda: Oriental Institute), 1972, p. 83.
11. For more information on dharmodav see Vrajavallabha Dvivedi and Thinalerama Sasani (ed.) Bauddha Tantra
Koa vol. 1 (Varanasi: Central Institute of Higher Tibetan Studies), 1990, pp. 55-56.
12. For illustration, see Janice M. Glowski, Kavacha for the Goddess Kumari: A Vest Fragment in the Los Angeles
County Museum of Art, , Orientations, vol. 33, No. 10 (December 2002), p. 37.
13. Hemaraj Shakya, rsvavambh Mahcaitva (Kathmandu: Svayambhyu Vikas Mandala), 1978, p. 773.
14. Elizabeth English, Jafravogini. Her Jisuali:ations, Rituals, and Froms (Boston: Wisdom Publications) 2002, pp.
274. The word medhra is used in this Buddhist text not for penis but for vagina.
15. Gautama V. Vajracharya, Atmospheric Gestation: Deciphering Ajanta Ceiling Paintings and Other Related
Works, part 1, Marg, Vol.55, No 2 (December 2003), p. 48.
16. Ibid.
17. Hari Prashad Shastri (ed.), The Brihat Svayambh Puranam, Containing the Traditions of the Svayambh
Kshetra in Nepal N. S. 842 (Calcutta: Asiatic Society of Bengal), 1894 pp. 285-286.
18. Ibid, 179.
19. Dvivedi and Sasani (ed.) Bauddha Tantra Koa vol. 1, p. 55.
20. Braian Houghton Hodgson, Sketch of Bouddhism, derived from the Bauddha Scriptures of Nipal Transactions
of the Roval Asiatic Societv vol 2 (1928), pl 3.
21. Samdhong Rinpoche and Vrajvallabh Dwivedi (ed.), Krsnavamritantram with Ratnvalipanfik (Varanasi:
Central Institute of Higher Tibetan Studies), 1992, P. 117. Here the commentator explains: khagamukhntastham iti
sdhvastrvonimadhvastham placed inside the khagamukha means inserted in the middle of the vagina of the desired
13-2-8 Elemen of Nea Bddhi A : Cicle of Bli - a Reie Aicle
22. For illustrations see Philip Rawson, Tantra, the Indian Cult of Ecstasv (New York: Avon Books), 1973, fig. 5, pl.
23. Ram Shankar Tripathi (ed.), Pindkrama and Panchakrama (Varanasi: Central Institute of Higher Tibetan
Studies), 2001, p. 6. For more information on kramarsa, see Kumracandras commentary on Krsnavamritantra,
Rinpoche and Dvivedi (ed.), Krsnavamritantram, p. 15, where the word is spelled ulternatively as kramairsik.
24. Gautama V. Vajracharya, Meet the Genies from Kathmandu forthcoming in a Marg publication.
25. Shakya, Sri Svavambh Mahcaitva, pp. 542-543.
26. Huntington, The Iconography of Svayambhu Mahachaitya: The Main Mandalas, p. 19.
27. Shastri (ed.), The Jrihat Svavambh Puranam, p. 414.
28. Ibid, P. 183.
29. Ibid, p. 44.
30. Huntington and Bangdel, The Circle of Bliss, p. 514.
31. Huntington, The Iconography of Svayambhu Mahachaitya: The Main Mandalas, p. 17.
32. Ibid, 21.
33. Shakya, Sri Svavambh Mahacaitva, p. 283. In a recent email message (August 27, 2004) Prof. Alexander
Rospatt, who worked intensively on the Svayambhu stupa, informed me that The records for the previous renovation
from 1681to 1683 only mention four Buddha statues. Moreover, at the renovation carried out from 1814 to 1818, the
Vairocana statue was replaced and the replaced original is explicitly identified as of Bhuvanalaksmi (buvanaraksmi
mafum tavahma vairocana likava santipurisa duta chova tava). That Bhuvanalaksmi had commissioned the
Vairocana statue, and that this was indeed an innovation is confirmed by the source I use for the renovation of her
time (NGMPP=Nepal German Manuscript Preservation Project B100/22). In 163v4f it specifies that after the
production of the 4 tathagatas of the cardinal directions a Vairocana statue of small size was made. The text then
goes on to describe how the four old statues in the niches were ritually removed.
34. Huntington, The Iconography of Svayambhu Mahachaitya: The Main Mandalas, p. 19, fig. 5.
35. Shakya, Sri Svavambh Mahacaitva, p. 325.
36. Huntington and Bangdel, The Circle of Bliss, p. 414.
37. Bangdel, Goddess of the Periphery, Goddess of the Centre: Iconology of Jnanadakini in Newar Buddhism, p. 25.
38. Dina Bangdel, Manifesting the mandala. A Studv of the Core Iconographic Program of Newar Buddhist
Monasteries in Nepal. (Ph.D. dissertation, The Ohio State University, Ann Arbor: University Microfilms
International), 1999, p. 295, 301-302.
39. Bhattacharya, Nispannavogavali, p. 65.
40. Huntington and Bangdel, The Circle of Bliss, p. 496.
41. Ibid, p. 267
42. David N. Gelner, Monk, Householder, and Tantric Priest. Newar Buddhism and its Hierarchv of Ritual
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), 1992, pp. 190-191.
43. Shankramana Rajavamshi, sthiti mallako palako vi. sam. 1445 ko manacandra sakyako tamrampatra ra tyasako
aitihasika vyakhya, Purnima, vol. 1, no. 4, pp. 54-57.
44. D. R. Regmi (ed.), Medieval Nepal, (Calcutta: Firma K. L. Mukhopadyaya), 1966, P.98.
45. Dilliraman Regmi (ed.), Medieval Nepal, part 4, (Patna, published by the editor himself), 1966, pp. 37-44.
46. Gustav Roth, Symbolism of the Buddhist Stupa, in The Stupa, Its Religious, Historical and Architectural
Significance, edited by Anna Libera Dallapiccola in collaboration with Stephanie Zingel-Ave Lallemant, Wiesbaden,
1980, p. 195.
47. Shastri, The Brihat Svavambh Puranam, pp. 237-245.
48. Huntington and Bangdel, The Circle of Bliss, p. 514. || articles