Tibet, 11-head Avalokiteshvara (5)

7th-8th century (or later?), Western Tibet or China, Avalokiteshvara, Tang dynasty style, private collection, photo by Bonhams.

A curious image of the eleven-head Avalokiteshvara, with Chinese facial features and silks, standing on a lotus with artichoke leaves typical of the Swat Valley, over a lotus pedestal with heart-shaped leaves associated with Western Tibet/Western Himalayas. The nine heads arranged around his chignon plus Mahakala’s and Amitabha’s on top are unknown in the Tibetan iconography, but there is at least one  Chinese wooden example at the Art Institute of Chicago, dated 9th century, which has six hands – the above only has two.

14th-15th century, Tibet, Avalokiteshvara, copper alloy (brass) with turquoise inlay, private collection, photo by Bonhams.

In Tibet (and Nepal), his nine heads are stacked in three tiers of 3, topped with Mahakala’s and Amitabha’s. He usually wears several layers of silk down to his ankles and has 6 or 8 hands. His main hands are held in prayer at heart level.

On the eight-arm version, the lower right hand is held in the gesture of supreme generosity, the lower left holds a pot of water, as above.

The upper hands hold a rosary and a lotus, the middle ones a wheel and a (missing) bow. There is an antelope skin over his shoulder (labelled and often referred to as ‘Krishnasa deer’ in allusion to a legend about Krishna and a deer, but the horns are those of an antelope). His jewellery is inlaid with large turquoise cabochons.

15th-16th century, Tibet, 11-head Avalokiteshvara, gilt copper alloy with pigments and turquoise inlay, private collection, photo by Christie’s.

A similar image, with harmonious facial features, richly gilt, with a festooned belt over the two-tiered garment.

Same as before, photo by Galerie Petillon.

This Chinese-style figure departs from the traditional iconography in several ways: the heads are stacked in groups of 3+3++2+2+1; among the attributes, the bow has been replaced by a bunch of gems (triratna). Apart from that, the triple lotus base and the long skirt-like garment worn over a knee-length dhoti are unusual. We will note that, like the first image, the long garment has a broad strip that goes across the thighs, in imitation of the Nepalese sash.


14th century, Tibet, 11-head Avalokiteshvara, gilt copper alloy, private collection, photo by Christie’s.

Another variant is the 11-head Avalokiteshvara with 1000 arms, eight main ones plus a number of others (usually 50) arranged in a circle around him.

On all these, Avalokiteshvara’s main head is normally peaceful while the others can be a combination of peaceful, semi-wrathful, wrathful, or all peaceful, or all wrathful.




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