Avalokiteshvara is the bodhisattva of compassion and the earthly manifestation of the buddha Amitabha, whose head is usually shown in his headdress. His main attributes are a lotus flower, a rosary, a water pot. He is said to have 108 forms. In Himalayan buddhist sculptures his main forms are:
– Eleven heads and eight arms (3 rows of 3 heads topped with the head of wrathful god Mahakala, itself topped with the head of buddha Amitabha), standing, more rarely sitting. Two hands are held in prayer at heart level, the upper hands hold prayer beads and an arrow, the middle ones hold a dharma wheel and a bow, the lower arms are held along his body, the right hand open, palm outwards, the left hand holding a water pot. (Ekadasamukha Avalokiteshvara).
14th century, Western Tibet, gilt copper alloy with copper, silver and stone inlay, at San Francisco Museum of Art.
– Eleven heads and a thousand arms, usually standing. Same as before plus a wing-like row of arms and hands on each side.
17th-18th century, Tibet, gilt copper alloy with turquoise inlay and pigments, at the Norbulingka, Lhasa.
– One head, two arms, standing, holding the long stem of a lotus in his left hand (Avalokiteshvara Padmapani), his right hand held in front of his heart with the palm open outwards, the thumb touching the index, or, with the right arm along his body with the palm of the hand open outwards. Or, sitting, with one leg folded or both, holding the long stem of a lotus in his left hand or making a gesture with his left hand and holding a long-stemmed lotus against his arm, with the right hand stretched out, palm outwards or resting on his right knee or making a symbolic gesture.
14th-15th century, Tibet, made by Newari artist, gilt copper and gems, at the Victoria & Albert Museum
13th century, Tibet, Nepalese style, gilt copper alloy with turquoise inlay and pigment, private collection
– One head, four arms, two of the hands held together in a gesture of prayer, the other two holding prayer beads and a lotus respectively, or, one making a symbolic gesture and the other holding a lotus, he is usually sitting in the lotus position, more rarely standing (Shadakshari Lokeshvara).
14th century circa, Tibet, brass, private collection
– One head, two arms, standing with both arms along his body, the left hand placed on the left thigh, the right hand open outwards. He wears a mass of hair folded on his head and sticking out on each side of a three-leaf crown (with Amitabha on the middle leaf) big square earrings, a sash, and a strap across his thighs. (Arya Lokeshvara, also known as Phagpa Lokeshvara, of Nepalese origin).
Thought to be 18th century, Tibet or Nepal, ivory, at the Victoria & Albert Museum
– Finally, Amoghapasha Lokeshvara, protector of the Kathmandu Valley. He can be standing or sitting and usually has one head and 6 or 8 arms, but may have three heads and 2, 4 or 12 arms, each hand holding an attribute (one of them is a rope) or making a symbolic gesture. Other attributes are a rope, a vajra, a flywhisk, a lotus, a water pot, a sceptre. Naturally, these statues were usually made in Nepal, of copper, copper alloy or polychrome wood.
14th century, Nepal, gilt copper alloy inlaid with stones, private collection