Dialogue  April-June 2009 , Volume 10 No. 4

Some Inscribed Bronze Masterpieces from Western Inner Himalayas: A Stylistic Appraisal

A.K. Singh

This paper is focussed on some selected artworks discovered from the western Trans-Himalayan region, formerly constituent states of Western Tibet (gNari-Khorsum). The paper attempts to present an aesthetic overview on the beginning and burgeoning of a unique artistic culture on Indian periphery which later resulted in to Indo-Tibetan aesthetic expression. Artworks on view and under discussion were mainly discovered from Upper Sutlej valley (in Tibetan chronicles called Khunu), Ladakh and Zanskar by the author during his more than two decades field work in the region stretching between upper catchments of the rivers Indus and Sutlej.

Aesthetically superb in manifestation, artworks under investigation present a very interesting case of diffusion of an art style that is Kashmiri, about which still not much is known. In medieval period from 8th to 10th century when Kashmir consolidated its power in Northern India, Western Himalayas, and Central Asia and established her hegemony in the region, the state of artistic tradition too achieved a high watermark. The artistic expression of Kashmir became eclectic rather more international due to intensive cross cultural currents in the North-Western Indian peninsula, having been in close proximity of International Silk Road. During the hay days of political hegemony of Kashmir, its art too spread far a field in Central Asia. With the Second Diffusion of Buddhism under the leadership of Ye She Od, the king of Guge and Lotsava Rinchen bzang po the art history in the Trans-Himalayas took a new turn and a new artistic culture began to emerge.

This paper brings forth some Buddhist bronzes bearing single line inscription on pedestal “Lha Na ga ra dza (Nagaraja)” in old Tibetan script. The images under discussion were discovered by the author from the frontier district Kinnaur of Himachal Pradesh, India which has been referred as different territory of mNgaris skhor gsum under the name Khun nu in old Tibetan texts. Under a documentation project, conducted from 1992 to 1996, the author registered more than 800 bronze icons, mostly unpublished, This huge corpus of the cult images includes different stylistic provenance and their development, however, all grouped under a common term Indo-Tibetan art style, many of them bear the names of the donors and patrons, even some records name of the artists (Singh 1994:110).

In the history of Western Tibet (mNgaris), Nagaraja (988-1026 AD): the ordained younger prince is mentioned as an enthusiastic benefactor of Buddhism. Alike his father, the king of Guge Lha blama Ye she od (Srong nge), he devoted his whole life for the reestablishment of Buddhism in western Tibet. He was younger one of the two sons of the king Ye she ‘od, otherwise known khri-lde-mgon-btsan and Lha Khor-btsan who after ordination respectively received Indianised names Debaraja and Nagaraja. Nagaraja, on being fully ordained at the age of 29, received another name Nagaprabha (Vitali 1996: 241).     Nagaraja’s father king Ye she ‘od (947-1024 AD), known as a great patron of Buddhism, devoted his life for re-establishment of Buddhism in western Tibet and laboured hard to bring cultural renaissance in the land of snow. During his reign twenty-one young boys of western Tibet were sent into Kashmir for education in Buddhism. Only two survived and returned Guge. Lotsava Rin chen bzang po (958-1055 AD) was one who led a vigorous move of translating Sanskrit texts into Tibetan and temple building in the three provinces of Western Tibet (Francke 1972: I, 50-52; Tucci 1988: II, 10-12). He commissioned many Kashmiri artists, at first thirty-two artists directly from Kha che (Kashmir) in 1001 AD (Vitali 1996: 273 and note 409), for the construction and decoration of the Buddhist temples under direct patronage of king Ye she ‘od. Several major early temples in the western Tibetan provinces are attributed to have been constructed by Rin chen bzang po; some still survive and preserve the artistic heritage of the period e.g. Tholing, Alchi, Tabo, etc. bearing clear evidence of the craftsmanship of Kashmiri artists (Tucci 1988: II, 3).

During the first quarter of eleventh century Debaraja and Nagaraja provided uninterrupted support in the task of temple building and embellishing them with artwork. The Tibetan text “mNgaris rgyal rabs” records important evidence in this regard. Nagaraja established dPe pa chos sde and dBu sde; and placed in the premises several statues of Buddhist deities cast in silver, gold and brass. Further this account clearly records that the statues were executed in Kha che (Kashmir) style (Vitali 1996: 272-73). During the period of second diffusion his deliberations to promote Buddhism and its culture were not restricted within the kingdom of Guge; rather he worked in a larger area including the Garhwal Himalayas (Uttar Pradesh, India) bordering western Tibet. Where he built a Buddhist monastery at Barhat in Uttarkashi (Garhwal), and commissioned a bronze image of Buddha which still survives and is worshiped as Dattatreya, a form of Brahmanic god Vishnu. The image bearing an old Tibetan inscription refers the donor’s name as Nagaraja (Sankrityana 1990: 236). Most important evidence referring to the Nagaraja’s passion for the art work of high aesthetic quality is the well known standing image of Shakyamuni in Kashmiri style, which is currently at the Cleveland Museum of Art (Pal 1975: Pl. 26). Hence there are substantial reasons to believe that Nagaraja, being a promoter and lover of art, commissioned skilled artists from bordering Indian states or imported the images from art workshops in neighbouring areas.

The images under discussion are often called bronzes but the term, strictly applicable only to the alloy of copper and tin, is conventional. From an early period the metal for casting the statuary in Kashmir, Swat, Western Himalayas, Western Tibet and Tibet has most commonly been used is copper alloy with high zinc percentage. The method employed for casting is lost wax method (cire-perdue), most popular throughout the ancient world. The images were cast in solid except for the pedestals, which were kept hollow for holding necessary sacred fillings.

Description of the Icons:

Bodhisattva Padmapani

(Plate: 1; Height 34 cm.)

The image represents a graceful deity of proportionate physiognomy standing in a subtle and well-equipoise triple flexion on a lotus cushion resting on a square pedestal which is inscribed on front reading, “Lha na ga ra dza”. The god is shown holding a lotus stalk in the left hand and making gesture of munificence (dana) by the right. His sweet face with naive and serene expression presents a typical facial formula featuring in medieval Kashmiri sculptures, which shows oval face, cubby cheeks with protruding chin, crescent eyebrows with dreamy almond eyes, prominent nose and small mouth bearing spiritual smile on sensuous lips. The modelling of chest, shoulder, and abdominal muscles is remarkably meticulous; especially flare of the belly adds sensuous verve to the figure. We know this has been a characteristic feature of the medieval art of Kashmir. The deity is wearing a garland (Vanamala) reaching down below the knees and lower garment dhoti in a stylish manner. The Bodhisattva wears the antelope skin on his left shoulder. Besides a sash and a sacred cord (Upavita) provided to him, a miniature image of Amitabha in the hair bun over the skull ascertains his identification as Bodhisattva Padmapani (Getty 1978: 64). The deity is provided a flame-etched mandorla, of which the lower part is a proper aureole (prabhamandal) while the upper one is flaming nimbus (prabhavali) toped with a combined moon and sun pattern; the base of which is ornamented with flowing ribbons as in the case of Buddhist stupas. This image of Bodhisattva, stylistically, is in close analogy of the brass statue of Sugatisandarshana Lokeshavara, S. P. S. Museum, Srinagar (Schroeder 1981: fig 18A) dated to the 980-1003 AD, the reign of queen Didda, Kashmir.


Shakyamuni Buddha

(Plate. 2; Height 30 cm.)

The image presents Shakyamuni Buddha standing on a lotus cushion in the posture of comfort- the subtle triple flexion. He is depicted wearing a dhoti and samghati of soft and fine fabric which reveals his well modelled bodily form which can be compared with two images of Shakyamuni Buddha of Kashmiri origin dating to the eleventh century (Schroeder 1981: Pls. 23B and 23C). His right hand is raised in abhaya mudra (gesture of protection/assurance) and the left holds the seam of his upper garment. This seems most common form of Buddah’s iconic representation from the earliest period (Kushana) depicted at Mathura, Gandhara and Sarnath. Of course belonging to a different stylistic provenance, the iconic formula of the image seems to have preserved the unique blending of physical beauty and spirituality that was achieved by the Gupta artists, became Indian standard and eventually adapted by the Kashmiri successors. His facial type presents a close similarity with that of Padmapani (plate 1). Silver in his eyes and copper on his lips add extra beauty to the image, which can be ascribed as Kashmiri feature (Pal 1975: 30). The figure is set against a flame-etched aureole combined with a nimbus, of which the top is damaged. The hairs of deity appear as combed without curls, a feature found very seldom in some bronzes from Western Himalayas and Western Tibet (Schroeder 1981: Pl. 32E).


Kumara Manjushri / Mañju Kumara:

(Plate 3; Height 27 cm.)

The image displays fine workmanship alike two previous examples, it seems that the deity represent esoteric form, of which identification is difficult. Considering the tiger nail worn in necklace and the peacock as vehicle, the deity gives indication towards the syncretism of Hindu god of war Kartikeya (also called Kumar- the eternal youth) and Buddhist god of wisdom Manjuòrƒ, who is described in the Buddhist text Aryamanjushri Mulakalpa. He is represented very rare, until now no image showing this aspect of Manjushri has been noticed from Kashmir and Western Tibet or Tibet. Nevertheless, graphic manifestation of Kumara Manjushri is found in cave of Yu Kang near Shenshi, China (Mukherjee 1989: 69). The god is shown in youthful valour, standing in the posture of ease (trƒbhanga) on a lotus pedestal and has one face and four arms. By rear hands he holds a Kamandalu in the left and a Khakkhara with six rings in the right, a symbol of Bodhisattva Kíitigarbha (Getty 1978: 102), whose images are too rare. The right front hand depicts dana mudra (gesture of charity) and the left holds a stalk of utpala (lotus) with vitarka mudra,. His vehicle peacock is rendered in a stylish way docking with long neck towards the face of the deity. His three pointed diadem, marked with a vertical vajra, is different from the classical Kashmiri prototypes but resembles with that of Vaikunthanatha (late 8th and early 9th century), Hari Rai temple, Chamba (Postel 1985: Fig. 116). This type seems to have become popular from ninth century onwards in the art of northern Kashmir or Western Tibet and Himalayas. However, his identification is still uncertain since the attributes held by the deity do not corroborate with the textual prescription.

The eyes of the god are almond shapes filled with silver electrum and the summarised full lips gleaming with pink of copper. Well-modelled and proportionate anatomy of the deity alike athlete bears special features such as gentle flare of belly, prominent pectoral muscles, and muscular chest with broad shoulders. The deity shows a close affinity with the painted figures at Mangnang (Tucci 1973: Pl. 115), Alchi and Tabo (Singh 1985: Figs. 55 and 81) and the bronzes ascribed to the Kashmiri origin (Schroeder 1981:). As in the previous examples (Plates 1 and 2), the deity is provided a mandorla combined with a pointed nimbus ensuing flames. His closest facial analogy can be seen in the statues of Brahmanical triad preserved in the private collection of Spink & sons Ltd.London, datable to the 10th-11th century (Pal 1977: Pl. 2).



(Height. 14 cm.)

This small image was discovered from the Buddhist temple of Chhitkul, the last village in Baspa valley towards the Tibetan border, in Kinnaur. It also bears a Tibetan inscription on the pedestal reading Lha btsun pa Na gar a dzahi thugs damthe name of Lha Na ga ra dza.


The genesis and development of artistic culture in the western Tibetan world is a very intricate subject since the metamorphosed art style presents a unique blending of various strands from Indian side as well as from other side of the Himalayas. In the making of the artistic expression the role of Kashmir, that too in a wider geo-political and cultural perspective, is evident but that of the Central Asian states can not be undermined; for instance the murals of Alchi presents a fascinating case of stylistic complex fusion (Singh 1985: 48-70). In case of western Tibet, which remained in very intimate contacts with India from time immemorial, Indian influence from adjoining states was inevitable. Many archaeological remains have survived to prove that since Kushan period Kashmir, as a politically powerful outpost, remained instrumental in the spread of Buddhism and its art in the remote parts of the Western Himalayas and even beyond in Central Asia (Cunningham 1970: 317-57). During the Karakota and Utpala period (600-856), Kashmir emerged as a strong political and cultural power, besides controlling the political affairs in the whole region, it played a decisive role in the formation of artistic expression of the Western Himalayas and later enormously influenced Western Tibet. Neophyte rulers of the new western Tibetan dynasty in the tenth and eleventh century gave impetus to the revival of Buddhism. During this period cultural contact of Western Tibet with northern India especially Kashmir turned very strong and laid solid base for the extension of its artistic expression into the Tibetan world and later helped in designing a native style (Tucci 1972: 177-83). Nothing is known about the state of indigenous art prior to the second spread of Buddhism. Hence, we have to rely on the available sources which affirm that early phase of Western Tibetan art was prototype of Kashmir, and most probably it was Avantipura art school of the ninth century which alike the Gupta art style permeated into the far north Himalayas (Roerich 1966: 109).

While using the term Kashmir, we should bear in our mind that it is denominator of the medieval Kashmir not in a restricted sense of present political state. The quantity of bronzes known to have reported from Western Tibet and attributed to Kashmir suggests that there must have been many art workshops running in the peripheral region to appropriately meet the demand of metal images or cult icons in Western Tibet. These may have been located in higher northern part far from Jhelum valley, in Gilgit, Ladakh, Chamba(Chenab valley) and Kulu regions. On comparing with the medieval Kashmiri sculptures those found from Pandrethan, Parihaspora, Ushkur, Avantipura, Verinag etc. located in the Jhelum valley, the bronzes reported from the Western Tibetan sites and attributed to Kashmir display a slight diversion within the greater framework of the Kashmiri school. Medieval Kashmiri art expression, perhaps, is most unique one in the Indian art history, exotic in character and eclectic in nature assimilated various elements of artistic traditions of the east and west. A microscopic analysis of the style reveals a synthesis of Gupta, Gandharan (Greeco-Roman), Sasanian, Central Asian, Chinese and Byzantine traditions (Goetz 1955: 68). Still the Sassanid Persian and Khotanese influence is more distinctly perceptible in the art expression of the northern Kashmir mainly in the murals of early temples of Western Tibet e.g. Mang nang, Alchi, Tabo, Nako etc. and also in bronzes (Singh 1985: 28-41).


The images, on the basis of their stylistic analogy with the known work displayed in different museums all over the world, can be attributed to the Kashmiri art style of the 10th and 11th centuries which prevailed in the region of Western Tibet and northern Kashmir. The aesthetic formula and rendering of stylistic details in the bronzes help the speculation about a sub-style in the far northern periphery of Kashmir, the higher regions of river Indus and Chandra-Bhaga (Chenab) lying in between Kashmir and Western Tibet, although no archaeological or material evidence is available to locate any such workshop in the region. Nevertheless, references in the Tibetan texts indicate that Kashmiri artists and metal caster were active in the region and were employed by the neophyte rulers and nobility of western Tibetan provinces. The images bearing the inscription of Nagaraja, being very limited in number probably not more than ten, display slight variation in style, due to executed by different individual hands belonging to the same Kashmiri tradition. The images seem to have come from the personal collection of Nagaraja or were cast on his behalf for some temples. Hence, it would be appropriate to date them more precisely to the first quarter of the eleventh century, although the Cleveland statue is an excellent work inspired by the great master.


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        Francke, A. H. 1972. Antiquities of Indian Tibet (reprint), New Delhi

        Getty, Alice 1978. Gods of Northern Buddhism (Reprint), New Delhi

        Goetz, H. 1955. “Medieval Sculptures of Kashmir”, Marg, vol. VIII, no. 2, Bombay

       Mukherjee, B. N. 1989. “An Illustration of Iconographic Contact Between Kartikeya and manjushree in China”,  

        Buddhist Iconography, New Delhi

        Pal, P. 1975. Bronzes of Kashmir, New Delhi

        Postel, M. 1985. Antiquities of Himachal, Bombay

        Roerich, G. 1966. “Tibet(Medieval Buddhist Art)”, Marg , vol IX, no. 2, Bombay

        Sankrityayan, Rahul 1990. Kinnar Desh Mein(3 rd edition in Hindi), New Delhi

        Schroeder, U. V. 1981. Indo Tibetan Bronzes, Hong Kong

        Singh, A. K. 1985. Trans-himalayan Wall Paintings, New Delhi

        Singh, A. K. 1994. “An Inscribed Bronze Padmap@$i from Kinnaur”, Acta Orientalia , 55, Denmark

        Tucci, G. 1973. Transhimalaya, Geneva

        Tucci, G. 1988 RIN CHEN BZANG PO (English version of Indo Tibetica II, Rome, 1932) New Delhi

        Vitali, Roberto 1996. The Kingdom of Gu ge Pu hrang, Dharmsala


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