The attributes held by a figure often give us information as to his/her identity. These attributes vary from one form of the same deity to the other, and from one region to the other. Some of them are displayed by many different deities and also historical people, others are specific to one deity or to a small group of deities. They may be peaceful or wrathful, although some peaceful deities may have wrathful attributes, for example Manjushri and his sword or Padmasambhava and his ritual staff and skull cup, and most wrathful deities carry one or several peaceful attributes, such as the thunderbolt sceptre or the bell.
I. FREQUENT PEACEFUL ATTRIBUTES
1. The thunderbolt sceptre (vajra)
The vajra sceptre, which usually has five prongs on each side (but may have up to nine), is displayed by all kinds of deities and by historical people as a symbol of tantric buddhism, or yielded like a weapon by some wrathful deities (Vajrapani in particular). Several deities have a half vajra finial on top of their head.
It may also decorate a pedestal or be placed on it (especially in the case of Shakyamuni and Akshobhya), or come out of a lotus or be placed on top of it. Many ritual implements have a handle shaped like a half vajra and their name begins with the word vajra (vajra hook, vajra hammer etc.).
2. The double thunderbolt sceptre (visvajra)
Some deities, such as Vajravidarana and Amoghasiddhi, normally hold a double vajra sceptre (visvajra), others hold one occasionally.
3. The bell (ghanta)
Symbolises insight or wisdom
The vajra is often paired with a bell (ghanta) which has a half vajra handle. It may be held in the hand or placed on a lotus, as above. Bodhisattva Ghantapani (the bell bearer) has a bell on top of his head and another in his left hand, against his hip.
4. The rosary (mala)
Shadkashari Lokeshvara – Lama holding rosary
Made of human bones, the rosary (mala) is often worn around the thumb and twisted to form an 8. All kinds of deities and historical people may display it. The four-arm form of Avalokiteshvara generally known as Shadakshari Lokeshvara always holds one in his upper right hand. It represents continuous activity for the benefit of beings.
5. The lotus (padma)
One of the eight auspicious symbols, the lotus appears on many buddhist sculptures, as a seat or pedestal, as an element fastened to the pedestal to support the deity’s foot or stemming from the base and framing the figure on one or both sides, as an element of decoration, as an accessory or part of it, and also as an attribute held in one or more hands. On paintings, the lotus may be white, pink, red, blue or purple.
On sculptures, the blue lotus (utpala) has a triangular shape (because it is never fully open) and its bud has an elongated shape. Especially associated with Manjushri, it may be in the hand or by the side of other deities, peaceful (Green Tara, Vajrapani, bodhisattva Samantabadhra) or wrathful (Vighnantaka).
The lotus displayed by Avalokiteshvara (red, in theory) often has six or eight petals, sometimes more.
5. The wheel of the Law (dharmacakra)
The eight-spoke wheel is the emblem of buddha Shakyamuni, who displays it on the palm of his hands and the sole of his feet. It is associated with various deities, peaceful and wrathful, and normally has a small handle for the deity to hold it. It may have a circular or a tear-shaped frame.
6. The bowl (patra)
Various buddhas (Akshobhya, Shakyamuni) and some historical people hold a begging bowl in their left hand held in the meditation gesture.
Some deities hold a bowl filled with substances or objects (water, sweets, jewels etc.). The main medicine buddha, Bhaisajyaguru, sometimes holds a begging bowl and sometimes a medicine jar (with a narrow neck and a lid).
7. The pot of water (kundika)
There are two basic types of pots held by deities, one with a spout or a thin neck used as a water sprinkler (kundika) and one with a wide neck used as a vase (kalash) .
In the Gandharan culture, the water sprinkler has a long thin neck which the deity (usually Maitreya) holds with one or both hands, and no spout.
In the Himalayas the sprinkler is rather like a teapot, usually without a handle, and it is often supported by a lotus held by the deity (Maitreya and some forms of Avalokiteshvara) or deified lama but it may be held in one hand.
8. The vase (kalash)
Often referred to as ‘long-life vase’, the kalash is usually filled with the nectar of longevity and is particularly associated with buddha Amitayus. It may be topped with leaves of the ashoka tree or with a jewel (or a set of three jewels as above), or the effigy of a buddha, or an aureole, or peacock feathers. There are four foliate pendants coming out of it and falling down the sides, often decorated with stones. These are often interpreted as the elixir overflowing but in his Handbook of Tibetan Symbols, Robert Beer explains that they represent the four cardinal buddhas that accompany Amitabha (or Amitayus?) on the long-life mandala.
9. The reliquary (stupa)
Apart from the reliquaries of the same shape and name, a lot of stupas appear in Himalayan art, as decorative elements on top of an arch or on a backplate, and as an attribute, especially in Maitreya’s headdress or on a lotus beside him.
10. The manuscript (sutra)
The Prajnaparamita sutra is particularly associated with the female deity of the same name and with bodhisattva Manjushri. It may be held in the hand horizontally or vertically or it may be supported by a lotus and sometimes topped with a flaming pearl.
11. The jewel(s) (ratna or mani)
The single jewel
A jewel on its own, usually round and surrounded with flames, may be held by deities, in the palm of the hand or in a skull cup.
Alternatively, we may see a group of three round flaming jewels (triratna) arranged in a triangular shape or three tapered crystals placed side by side, a larger one and two smaller ones. (On paintings, there are also groups of seven or nine jewels).
Jewels are often used to decorate crowns, chignons and other accessories. From the 15th century onwards it is not unusual to see Nepalese and Tibetan sculptures richly inlaid with gemstones including bunches of jewels sprouting from the edge and/or the extremities of their celestial scarf, crown ribbons, and even from the tail end of their dhoti.
or a raining-jewel design adorning the end of belts or scarfs. It may be shaped like a tapered pendant with a gem at the end or like jewels hanging from a string or several strings of pearls, like the jewels spitted by Yellow Jambhala’s mongoose (on the left).
A particular form of Avalokiteshvara known as Chintamani Lokeshvara stands under a tree full of jewels shaped like leaves.
12) The antelope skin
Some deities and historical people are portrayed seated on an the skin of an antelope, easily recognizable through the two long horns (but sometimes labelled ‘deer’ although deer horns are a different shape).
The antelope skin may also be worn over the left shoulder as an attribute associated with Maitreya (the stupa on his head clearly identifies him)…
and Avalokiteshvara in his padmapani form (the lotus in his left hand and the effigy of Amitabha in his crown leave no doubt as to his identity).
13) the myrobalan tree and the citron
Bhaisajyaguru, the main medicine buddha, usually holds an arura fruit in the palm of his right hand. This small fruit with ridges is often called myrobalan, which is a generic term referring to various trees.
Alternatively, he holds a branch of the myrobalan/arura tree.
Bhaisajyaguru’s myrobalan/arura fruit mustn’t be confused with Yellow Jambhala’s citron (on the right), which is egg-shaped and smooth.
14. The fly whisk (chauri)
This yak tail implement is especially held by Amoghapasha, some arhats, the six-hand form of Avalokiteshvara and a rare form of Vajrapani.
As a symbol of anti-caste behaviour, flowers are worn by most mahasiddhas, as garlands, crowns and jewellery.
16. The monk staff (khakkhara)
This ringed staff, used to make noise and thus warn of one’s arrival or presence, is the attribute of bodhisattva Kshitigarbha and arhat Nagasena. The number of rings on it depends on whether it is held by a monk, a bodhisattva or the buddha.
17. The ashoka tree
Marichi, the goddess of dawn, often holds a branch of this tree. Manjushri (Namasangiti) and Yamari (3-head and 6-hand form) may also have one. The branch is sometimes placed on a lotus to the right of Maitreya.
18. The hilt of a sword
Coming out of a lotus, usually to the right of the bodhisattva, buddha or deified lama with whom it is associated, it may be plain or flaming.
19. The mirror of karma
Yama Dharmaraja, various forms of Manjushri and Padmasambhava, Kalachakra, amongst others, hold a mirror.
20. The parasol (atapatra)
Vaishravana holds a closed one by his side, Sitatapatra (‘The White Parasol’) has an open one.
II. FREQUENT WRATHFUL ATTRIBUTES
1. The skull cup (kapala)
In Tibetan rituals, skull cups are made from human skulls. An empty skull cup is one of Padmasambhava’s attributes, and lamas can be portrayed with it. It sometimes contains a flaming jewel (as we have seen in the first part of this page). When a wrathful figure holds the vessel, it is filled with blood, sometimes flesh. Above, Vajrayogini drinks her menstrual blood from a skull cup.
2. The flaying knife (kartrika)
In most cases the skull cup is complemented by the flaying knife, sometimes called ‘chopper’ or ‘curved knife’, which has a half-vajra shaped handle.
For instance, in his standard two-arm form, Mahakala holds the flaying knife above the skull cup, at heart level.
3. The ritual staff (khatvanga)
Traditionally, the ritual staff includes two freshly severed heads topped with a skull and a trident, and it is decorated with flowing ribbons.
4. The trident (trisula)
Of Hindu origin and highly symbolical, the top part of the ritual staff is a trident or three-pronged spear. Wrathful figures hold one with a skull at the top and a handle, sometimes with ribbons.
5. The triple stave (tridandi)
Equally full of symbolism, and sometimes labelled ‘trident’ (late sculptures depict it as a trident), the tridandi is in fact a group of three lotus buds on a lotus stalk. Apart from being held by various wrathful figures, it is one of Amoghapasha Lokeshvara’s usual attributes.
6. The stick (danda)
The ghandi stick or danda is mainly associated with the Panjarnata form of Mahakala. It is a broad flat stick usually with a half-vajra at each end. The above has jewels instead.
7. The three-blade peg (kila)
This ritual implement is made of three blades coming out of a makara’s mouth, plus with various elements that form the handle and one or three heads at the top (usually Mahakala’s). The above also has a half-vajra finial. Held by wrathful deities, it can also be the lower part of Vajrakila’s body.
8. The drum (damaru)
The ritual Tibetan drum was made of two craniums and human skin stretched over, a small handle, string and shells for percussion, plus some gemstones, ribbons or human hair for decoration.
9. The bow (capa)
Usually paired with an arrow in the other hand (or in one other hand in the case of deities with various pairs of arms), the bow is displayed, in particular, by Kurukulla, Ushnishavijaya, Marichi/Marici, Kalachakra, Mahasiddha Shavaripa, and by one or more forms of Manjushri, Avalokiteshvara, Vairocana, Tara, Janguli, Dorje Legpa, Hevajra, Pratisara etc.
10. The arrow (sara)
The arrow without a bow is Mahasiddha Saraha’s attribute. It may also be displayed alone by Jambhala (three heads), Rahula (three heads), and Mandarava. There is a variety of designs and different ways of holding it, unfortunately in most cases the arrow (dadar in Tibetan) is missing or broken.
11. The noose or snare and the lasso (pasha)
To bind the ego
The noose is particularly associated with Amoghapasha but it is also displayed by Achala (black/blue), Kurukulla, Mahakala (6 hands), Rahula (3 heads), Vajrapani (various forms), Krishna Yamari, Vajritara, Vajradhara (3-head 6-hand form), Krodha Vighnantaka, Vajrapasha. It may be held up folded or wound around the hand.
The lasso, which may be fully extended, coiled, folded or sheathed, is related to many wrathful deities but also to one of the yaksha generals, various arhats, some female deities , some bodhisattvas and some meditational deities.
12. The hook (ankusa)
An elephant goad tipped with a half vajra, the hook is held by many wrathful deities but also by some forms of Avalokiteshvara, Manjushri, Tara, Vajradhara, and it is one of Amoghagpasha’s attributes.
13. The axe (parasu)
This may be a hatchet or a long-handled axe, tipped with a vajra (hence the common reference to a ‘vajra axe’).
14. The sword (khadga)
To cut through ignorance
Achala’s main attribute, the sword is used by many other deities, in particular Manjushri (to cut through ignorance). It may have a long or a short blade, plain or with a flaming tip, or sometimes a vajra tip.