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Blending cultures in a thangka

A red, twelve-armed Ganapati stands at the centre of this composition, the flames enveloping his body contrasting with the blue hue of the surrounding rocks. This Buddhist thangka painting depicts the Maha Rakta Ganapati — an avatar of Ganesha exclusive to Tibetan Buddhism.

Ganesha, originally a Hindu god, was widely worshipped by Indian merchants and travelled with them through commercial trade networks. Consequently, from the 10th century onwards, worship of the elephant-headed deity spread across Asia, seeping into other religions. Within Buddhism, thangkas were instrumental in the propagation of Ganapati imagery.

Thangkas are intricate paintings on scrolls that depict Buddhist deities, teachers, lamas, and bodhisattvas as well as mandalas, horoscopes and the wheel of life, amongst other ritual imagery. These paintings, traditionally made by lamas and commissioned to gain divine merit, were extensively used as visualisation and meditation tools. Thangka painting evolved between the seventh and twelfth centuries, deriving from the pattachitra painting traditions of India as well as the Buddhist practice of drawing mandalas on the ground. They are believed to house the deity they depict and were originally rolled up and carried by monks to spread the teachings of the Buddha.

This thangka, held in the collection of the Rubin Museum, New York, has been dated to the Tsang Province of Tibet (16th century).The depicted avatar of Ganapati belongs to a group of three powerful deities within the Sakya school of Tibetan Buddhism, known as Mar Chen Kor Sum (Three Great Red Ones), comprising Ganapati, Kurukulla and Takkiraja. In this form, Ganapati stands on a rat that spits a stream of jewels — a depiction unique to Tibetan Buddhism. The deity has a third eye on his forehead and wears a crown. In his six right hands, he holds an axe, an arrow, a hook, a vajra (a five-sided ritual weapon), a sword and a spear, whereas in the six left hands are held a pestle, a bow, a khatvanga (staff), two skull-cups filled with human flesh and blood and a shield.

On the upper corners of the thangka are two Sakya lamas — identified by their rounded hats, which are distinctive of the Sakya school — who are likely to have been part of the lineage of transmission of this specific meditation practice. At the top of the thangka, centrally located above the Ganapati, is the blue figure of the deity Bhutadamara, the subduer of demons. The figure recalls the Buddhist practice wherein devotees visualise themselves as the deity. They further envision Ganapati before them, in a mountain cave made of blue vaidurya stone (commonly known as chrysoberyl or cat’s eye), depicted through stylised swirls that frame the painting.

The background of the composition is textured with scroll patterns inspired by Nepalese painting styles, which remained popular within the Sakya school long after they had fallen out of favour in other regions of Southeast Asia. This, along with the depiction of a Hindu deity, makes this thangka an example of the cultural confluences in the region.

Discover Indian Art is a monthly column that delves into fascinating stories on art from across the sub-continent, curated by the editors of the MAP Academy. Find them on Instagram as @map_academy

(Published 28 October 2023, 19:24 IST)

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