Western Tibet, 11th c. Akshobhya

Early 11th century, Western Tibet, Kingdom of Guge, bronze, at the Walters museum (USA)

Early 11th century, Western Tibet, Kingdom of Guge, buddha Akshobhya, bronze, at the Walters museum (USA)

This buddha is wrapped in a see-through garment covering both shoulders, which reveals a slender waist, broad chest, and large nipples and navel, a long dhoti underneath. His facial features (pointed nose,  thin eyebrows almost joined at nose level, pursed lips) correspond to the Kashmiri style extensive to the former Tibetan Kingdom of Ladakh and Western Tibet. He sits on a double -lotus base with no beading at the top or at the bottom, an inscription at the back gives us information on the date and origin of the sculpture. There are traces of lapis lazuli powder in his hair, made of particularly large curls.

When Akshobhya is depicted as a buddha, i.e. without his princely attire, it is difficult to distinguish him from the historical buddha. Both call Earth to witness with their right hand and hold a begging bowl in the other. Normally, Akshobhya has a thunderbolt or vajra in front of him but the historical buddha may have one too. The fact that there is no urna on his forehead indicates that this is likely to be Akshobhya. The absence of dharma wheels on the soles of his feet and the palm of his hands confirms it.

11th-12th century, Western Tibet, bronze, buddha Akshobhya, at the Ashmolean Museum (Oxford, UK)

11th-12th century, Western Tibet, bronze, buddha Akshobhya, at the Ashmolean Museum (Oxford, UK)

This much smaller and worn sculpture was made in a different style. The mouth is wider, the proportions of the chest less realistic. His see-through garment covers only one shoulder and there is no flap resting on it. He wears a long dhoti too. His short curly hair is topped with two spherical protuberances, probably a double chignon (or a chignon and a finial). This hairstyle can be observed on a few Tibetan and Mongolian sculptures thereafter. The lotus base consists in a single row of thick lotus petals with squarish contours and small dots incised on them with no beading at the top or at the bottom. There is a small vajra sceptre in front of him.

2 thoughts on “Western Tibet, 11th c. Akshobhya

  1. I appreciate your regular posts featuring some great pieces. Two notes/queries on this last post of yours featuring “Akshobhya”. How does the urna symbolise Akshobhya as it’s an identifying mark or lakshana of the historical Buddha?

    And isn’t it the case for most of the more mainstream & less esoteric traditions the vajra simply represents the diamond throne of enlightenment at Lumpini?

    • Thank you for your questions. To answer the first, it was a slip up, it should have read “buddha Akshobhya” (it has now been corrected thanks to your intervention). As to the second, Akshobhya is easier to identify on paintings or clay sculptures because of the (blue) colour of his body, and it seems, according to scholars, that the vajra is one of his attributes, as is the case for Shakyamuni. It is difficult to differentiate between the two when dealing with metal sculptures given that they are not painted. In this case, the absence of an urna is the only element that gives us a clue.

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