All illustrations from volumes other than Ka, Ga and A are courtesy of the British Library. Illustrations from Ka are courtesy of the Bodleian Library at Oxford. The Bodleian Library has agreed access to these miniatures from Ka following registration (register from the contents page or from a link under each controlled image). Images from the first folio of Ga and A are courtesy of the Victoria and Albert Museum. All other images from Ga and A are courtesy of the British Library. The Victoria and Albert Museum has agreed access to these miniatures from Ga and A following registration (register from the contents page or from a link under each controlled image). We appreciate the cooperation of these institutions.

The legacy of Rig 'dzin Tshe dbang nor bu: the miniatures illuminating the collection.1

1 Thanks to Robert Mayer for comments on this chapter. An earlier draft was first presented at the British Sociological Association's Sociology of Religion Study Group Conference, entitled, "Materialising Religion: Expression, Performance & Ritual", held in Oxford, April 2001.

     Cathy Cantwell

It is well-known that Tibetan religion makes much use of visual imagery. Indeed, in today's context of the globalisation of religions and cultures, Tibetan religious art and symbols may be taken out of their monastic environment and enlisted for all manner of purposes, from the promotion of New Age religious expressions to commercial advertising or entertainment with little or no religious significance at all. Words such as maṇḍala, with specific senses in tantric Buddhist ritual symbolism, have entered the English language carrying quite new connotations. While such developments are fascinating in their own right, they may obscure an understanding of the earlier Tibetan material. In recent decades, however, some extremely good scholarly work has been published on Tibetan religious art, although much of it is as yet only familiar to specialist Tibetological audiences. In this chapter, I intend to contribute to this expanding subject area by placing the Tibetan artistic work we find in our collection in its Tibetan religious context and reflecting on its significance for those involved in its production, appreciation and preservation. Although our research on the manuscript collection has been a specialist project in the academic field of Tibetan studies, here, the objective is to share with a wider audience some of the less technical but no less interesting features of the collection through an exploration of its art.

Firstly, I must make some preliminary remarks about what a scriptural collection is in Tibetan Buddhism, about how it is produced, how it is used, and what it is envisaged to be. Recent scholarship2 has emphasised the centrality of the cult of the book in the formative period of Mahāyāna Buddhism in India. Mahāyāna sūtras were much more than sets of precepts and doctrines to be followed and studied: they also existed as physical objects, seen as the direct materialisation of the Buddha Dharma (teaching), as the physical body of the Buddhist truth. And since the Buddha Dharma was ontologically equivalent to the Buddha himself, physical books were the objects of worship and offerings; they were circumambulated and prostrated to. This tradition continued unchanged in Tibetan Buddhism. Scriptural collections of the sort we are dealing with were worshipped more often than they were studied. Produced with great care and to very high artistic and scribal standards, they might nevertheless remain nearly all their lives carefully wrapped in the uppermost sanctums of the temple space, from where they were thought to radiate blessings or majestic spiritual power (byin rlabs) upon the whole environment. On special occasions, they might be taken out and ritually paraded to protect the community.3 The books were therefore often hand-crafted with great care as fitting vessels for the Buddha's presence, rather than for convenient reading. [This kind of sacral book production is now being in most cases replaced in Tibet and South Asia by the more modern concept of production for reading, employing modern technologies, although in Bhutan and California, versions of sacral book production still continue. This change raises some interesting questions about the future of the sacred texts in contemporary Buddhism, but that is not the topic of this present chapter.]

2 See Williams (1989: 22) for a discussion of Schopen's work on this.
3 For instance, Lawrence Epstein (1977: Ch. 1) reports the revival of a periodic ritual procession around the community's settlement carrying texts and holy images, in the face of drought at a Tibetan refugee camp in Hubli, Mysore, in 1966. There is no doubt that such “traditional” approaches to Buddhist scriptures persist amongst contemporary Tibetan and Himalayan Buddhists.

Buddhist scriptures come on a vastly bigger scale than Christian scripture. Our collection was originally in thirty-three large volumes, of which two are now entirely lost and one is lost apart from its title folio. The remaining thirty volumes are more or less complete, although two of these volumes are missing their title folios, there are occasional missing pages, or sheets which have not been well preserved, and the final volume has suffered considerable water damage. Apart from these provisos, the collection retains its original character as a beautifully written and illustrated work which is evidence of the allocation of considerable resources to its production, almost certainly by a team of scribes along with one or more artists or a team of artists.4 It indicates the dedication of all those involved, including the sponsors and the religious authorities who would have provided the original manuscripts (Tibetan: ma dpe) from which the texts were copied, and who might have devoted some time to editing or to ensuring that the reproduction preserved established traditional categories for the ordering of the individual texts.

4 *It is difficult to tell whether the paintings were executed by a single artist. The main differences in style between the miniatures in different volumes are that some are more elaborated than others, although there are a few distinctive touches to some. For instance, the figures in Volume Ga, and especially those of Rig 'dzin Tshe dbang nor bu and Gu ru Rin po che (Oyan rje), have very youthful faces, quite unlike the mature expressions we generally find in the other volumes. There are also rather strong resemblances between miniatures found in Volumes Ka, Kha, and Nga, and to a slightly lesser extent Tsha, in terms of halo colourings, background elaborations, colours of the linings of robes etc., which might suggest a single painter for these volumes.
Volume Ka, 1b (detail)
This image from Ka is available courtesy of the Bodleian Library, Oxford.
Miniature Ka 1bn
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On the other hand, we do have a name written in tiny letters in the first volume, Ka, which may indicate a single artist (or perhaps more likely, the head artist of a team).

The collection itself, the rnying ma'i rgyud 'bum, consists of tantric scriptures said to derive from the earliest or "ancient" transmissions of Buddhism into Tibet from the 7th to 9th centuries CE, and having canonical status for the followers of these traditions. While the collection shares a few texts in common with the canon generally accepted by all the major Tibetan Buddhist schools (although even these shared texts may be slightly different versions), the vast majority of its texts were excluded from most versions of the official canon (bka' 'gyur), either due to their questionable origins from the traditional Tibetan scholastic viewpoint, or because they were considered by their custodians too esoteric for inclusion in a relatively accessible public collection.

Versions of the official canon were redacted with much support from political authorities on many occasions, including both the rulers of Tibet and of other important centres of power in the ethnically Tibetan regions. An edition of it was first published in printed form in the early fifteenth century, using woodblocks (Harrison 1996: 81). In contrast, the rnying ma'i rgyud 'bum was preserved only in manuscript form until the late eighteenth century, when the Kingdom of sDe dge in East Tibet sponsored its printing. The sDe dge edition, which had been associated with renowned religious teachers and scholars, became reputed as the pre-eminent witness of this early scriptural collection, yet even after this time, older editions were preserved and new manuscripts based on the regionally variant traditions of textual classification were produced. When our edition was made in the late eighteenth or possibly early nineteenth century, Tibet was not the Medieaval, unchanging or "backward" country which certain popular Western and East Asian stereotypes would have us believe. Printing was certainly not unknown, yet the religious and cultural ethos in some cases supported the production of large collections of scriptures in manuscript form, including the official canon as well as our and other scriptural collections. The sponsorship of religious manuscript productions was considered an excellent form of virtuous activity (dge ba), which would generate merit and positive results for the individual in future lives. As late as the early twentieth century, copyists could make a reasonable livelihood (Richardus 1998: 11-40).

The volumes of our collection share a standard format, which again, is not dissimilar from other examples of scriptural collections in manuscript form produced under the patronage of wealthy powerful sponsors.

Volume Na, 121a
Miniature Na 121a

Most of the folios are made up of two or more layers of plain paper stuck together, and on both sides, we usually find seven lines of black ink writing, with red ink margins and ruled lines.

Volume Pha, 1a
Miniature Pha 1a

The first folio of each volume, however, is a laminate of up to eighteen sheets, the outside layers of which are coloured blue with indigo.

On the front, we find brief identification of the collection, the volume and folio given in gold ink, while on the back, we find blue with gold designs around the outside of the page, framing a curtained window cut from the upper sheets, within which the first text titles are given in gold ink on black lacquer, beside three painted miniatures.5

5 More extended discussion of the layout of the folios is to be found in, "General Information on the Volumes".
Volume Ja, 1b, Silk covering
Miniature Ja 1bcu

Volume Pha, 1b
Miniature Pha 1bf

With the exception of the first volume, which has two further miniatures on the recto side of its second folio, these front folio miniatures are the only paintings in each volume. This is a common pattern with large collections: these characteristic blue or black pages with gold ink writing, referred to as "golden manuscripts",6 are often found only for the first few folios of each volume, when, as in our case, they may also have colour illustrations. In smaller collections, however, every folio might have gold letters on blue (Reynolds: 146-7, Plate 66). Generally in our miniatures, the outline of features of the human figures is executed in red, with black upper eye-lids, pupils and eye-brows, and each miniature is painted in various plain colours on an unlacquered black background, within a rectangle marked out from the lacquered sheet by fine gold lines. Decorative details and some outlines, such as lotus seats and halos around the heads, are given in gold ink.

6 See, for instance, Jackson 1991: 3. Scherrer-Schaub (1999: 7) informs us that some fragments of golden manuscripts (gser yig) written on blue paper (shog bu mthing ga) are found in the Tabo (Ta pho) collection. This collection of Buddhist canonical texts from Tabo monastery in present day Spiti, Himachal Pradesh, dates from the 10th to the 16th or 17th centuries. Many of the older manuscripts, and those which are copies of older manuscripts, share formal characteristics with pre-11th century manuscripts found in Dunhuang (Scherrer-Schaub 1999: 13ff, 26-7). A complete manuscript of the Prajñpāramitā, c.11th century, found at Poo in Kinnaur, features an illustrated title page with gold ink writing on a dark blue background (Klimburg-Salter: 442 and Plate 4).

The volumes in Tibetan collections are numbered by the sequence of the thirty letters of the alphabet, and when these are exhausted, then further volumes might be numbered by popular mantra syllables, such as oṃ, āḥ, and hūṃ, which are used to complete our set of thirty-three.7 Of the original thirty-three volumes, we have twenty-nine surviving front folios.8 Thus, with three title folio miniatures on each, together with the two additional miniatures on the second folio of the first volume, we have a total of eighty-nine extant miniatures in the collection.

7 For large collections, such as the forty-six volume set of the mTshams brag edition of the rNying ma'i rgyud 'bum, the alphabet is repeated with the implicit "a" vowel of each main letter qualified by the next vowel in alphabetical order. Thus, after the alphabet beginning, "ka, kha, ga" and so on, we find, "ki, khi, gi", etc.
8 As noted above, two of our thirty extant volumes are missing their title folios, but we also have one front folio (held at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London) for a missing volume.

The miniatures appear beside the title of the first text of the volume concerned, although none of them directly illustrate it. In some cases, it is conceivable that there might be some connection between the choice of miniatures and the subject matter of the texts in the volume concerned.

* Volume Ka, 2a, Samantabhadra
This image from Ka is available courtesy of the Bodleian Library, Oxford.
Miniature Ka 2al
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For instance, we find the Adibuddha, Samantabhadra (Tibetan kun tu bzang po), appearing in the first volume, at the beginning of the category of rdzogs chen scriptures, for which Samantabhadra is of particular importance.

Similarly, there are depictions of protective deities at the front of two of the final volumes, Āḥ and Hūṃ,9 in which we find scriptures of the major protective deity cycles. But although we may note such general associations, they do not necessarily indicate a direct connection between the illustrations and the texts as such. It is more likely that on the contrary, the ordering reflects an internal ordering of the illustrations across the collection as a whole. The order in which these deities are depicted is in line with a general tantric schema of deities, in which we find the Dharmakāya Buddhas presented at the beginning, and the ḍākinīs (female deities) and protectors towards the end. Parallels in the ordering of the texts in some cases would thus be coincidental. In any case, for the most part there is little or no obvious link between the miniatures and the specific subject matter of the texts in question. Rather, what we find is that each miniature depicts a human or divine figure of special significance to the rNying ma religious tradition as a whole. In fact, there was a long tradition in Buddhist manuscript illumination of representing divine figures in preference to illustrating the content of the texts. For instance, Klimburg-Salter (1994: 447) found a similar pattern in Buddhist poṭi manuscripts from 11th century India. Instead of having an explanatory function for the reader, the miniatures in collections of scriptures serve to house or embody the spiritual presence of the holy personages they represent, for in Tibetan religious art, the painted image is at the same time the actual presence of the deity or lama. The primary aim is to materialise the sacred presence, rather than to please the eye. Only in manuscripts of narrative stories, such as hagiographies of great lamas, are we quite likely to find drawings actually illustrating the text (see, for instance, Reynolds: 45, Plate 7).

9 In the case of Volume Hūṃ, the protective deity is only on the right-hand side of the page (see below), while we have the usual figures on the left and centre of the page. The penultimate volume, Oṃ, may also have depicted protective deities but since this volume is missing, we cannot be certain.

One point of particular note is that of the eighty-nine principal figures depicted in the miniatures, seventy-nine of these are essentially human figures, while only ten are tantric deities. I use the qualification, "essentially", because in a Tibetan Buddhist context, the categories of human and divine may not always be mutually exclusive, just as in a study of Christianity, it would not be straightforward to classify Jesus solely in one or the other category. In the case of those depicted in our seventy-nine miniatures, they are all figures from the historical mythology of the rNying ma pa, who are either clearly identifiable as actual historical persons, or who at least are considered to have manifested in human form. Those familiar with tantric traditions will know that the figure of the guru, called the lama (bla ma) in Tibetan Buddhism, is so central that from the viewpoint of the initiate into these esoteric teachings, the guru comes to embody the Three Jewels of the Buddhist tradition, the Buddha, the Dharma (or teaching), and the Saṅgha (or community). We should not, then, be surprised that our collection should celebrate the foremost gurus of the tradition, giving them explicit and prominent recognition in the artwork accompanying the scriptures concerning tantric teachings and deities. In addition, according to Tibetan belief, secret tantric teachings such as those in the rNying ma'i rgyud 'bum, can never be understood simply by reading the words: equally important is the mystical transmission of their non-verbal realisation from one guru to the next in an unbroken lineage of initiates. Our miniatures, therefore, materialise the presence of the historical figures who were the original sources of the realisation lineage. But embodying them all are the great founder, Guru Padma, and his recent immediate local representative, Kaḥ thog Rig 'dzin Tshe dbang nor bu: a kind of alpha and omega of the rNying ma'i rgyud 'bum lineage transmitted through this particular collection.

Volume ’A, 1b
Miniature 'A 1bf

Thus, in twenty-seven out of our twenty-nine title folios, we have the same figures portrayed each time in the centre and on the left-hand side of the page. Guru Padma or Guru Rin po che, the Lotus Guru or Precious Guru, flanked by his two principal female consorts, is in the centre, while Kaḥ thog Rig 'dzin Tshe dbang nor bu is on the left.

Hence, fifty-four out of eighty-nine, that is, just over sixty percent of our miniatures, depict two key persons (together with the Guru's consorts), representations of which we find in just over ninety-three percent of our extant title folios. Let us look, then, at these significant figures.

Volume Ha, Guru Padma
Miniature Ha 1bc

*Beneath each miniature of Guru Padma we find a homage describing him as, "the second Buddha, Lord of Orgyan" (sangs rgyas gnyis pa oyan rje).

Guru Padma, identified with an eighth century Indian tantric master from Orgyan (= Uḍḍiyāna), is revered throughout the Tibetan speaking world for his part in overcoming what were seen as demonic indigenous forces opposing Buddhism, and firmly establishing Buddhism in the ethnically Tibetan regions. For the followers of the rNying ma teachings, which are traditionally traced back to the earliest waves of the transmission of Buddhism into Tibet from the seventh to ninth centuries, Guru Padma became much more than this. Buddhism was introduced during the Tibetan imperial era under State patronage, and many of the figures associated with this early period are from the Royal entourage. Yet these early Buddhist transmissions survived under stateless conditions for a long time after the collapse of the Yar klungs dynasty and Tibetan empire in the mid ninth century. Monastic establishments fell into disrepair, while a typical pattern for Buddhist practice was that of small-scale groups coalescing around prominent tantric teachers, who might be members of religious families, in some cases tracing descent from aristocratic religious families of the imperial days. Although the early monastic ordination lineages appear to have survived in Eastern Tibet, the tantric masters of this time were often married, and they set up or maintained hereditary lineages for the tranmission of Buddhist teachings. When further transmissions of Buddhist teachings from India were again sponsored by rich noble families from the late tenth to thirteenth centuries, there was no hierarchy nor prominent monastic institutions to integrate those who chose to retain their allegiance to the early Buddhist lineages. By the fourteenth century, the new Buddhist lineages had built up wealthy monastic establishments which had become increasingly central to the entire socio-economic and political structures. These new traditions often had at least some integration in terms of monastic organisation, and also a clearer structuring of the relative statuses of their lamas, frequently having a single lama as the head and focus of the tradition. Under such circumstances, the rNying ma pa began to develop their own sense of identity without organising themselves along similar lines, beginning the task of collecting together their textual heritage and developing the historical/mythological materials relating to the early period of Buddhism in Tibet. The hagiography of Guru Padma was elaborated, and the Precious Guru became, and has remained, a summarising symbol for the entire rNying ma tradition. Not only is he seen as a historical person, but also as an embodiment of Enlightenment, the "Root Guru" (rtsa ba'i bla ma), representing the ultimate Buddha nature to be discovered within each individual, as well as the outer "Second Buddha", fountainhead of the early lineages.

In each miniature of Guru Padma, we see his two principal consorts on each side. They are smaller in size than the main figure, and they are in a posture of supplication towards the Guru. Buddhist tantric imagery includes many female deities and representations of Buddhist wisdom; indeed, four of the ten deity figures we see depicted in our miniatures are female. Yet most of the principal figures of the rNying ma tradition are male, and none of the seventy-nine miniatures portraying human figures are of females.10 The only human female figures we have, then, are the consorts of the Guru.

10 See, however, note 11 on Ye shes mTsho rgyal. It is also worth noting that while our right-hand miniatures depict the principal male disciples of the Guru, a list of five principal female disciples frequently accompanies the lists of the group of males. Dudjom (1991: 536-7) lists seventeen such female disciples along with their accomplishments.
Volume ’A, detail: Mandāravā
Miniature 'A 1bcl
Volume ’A, detail: Ye shes mTsho rgyal
Miniature 'A 1bcr

Their subservient demeanour and reduced size might suggest a tradition in which women at best have supportive roles, although such an impression would be a little misleading. In hagiographies of these and other female figures in Tibetan Buddhism, we frequently find an acceptance of gender stratification coupled with the assumption that spiritual realisation is attainable by women as well as men, and that despite obstacles faced by women, there are certain qualities of insight and wisdom which are more readily accessible to dedicated female practitioners than they are to men.

Volume Ka, detail: Mandāravā
This image from Ka is available courtesy of the Bodleian Library, Oxford.
Miniature Ka 1bcl
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The Indian consort, the Princess Mandāravā, occurs in the Guru Padma stories performing tantric practices with the Guru, the pair demonstrating miracles together.

Volume Cha, detail: Ye shes mTsho rgyal
Miniature Cha 1bcr

Yet for the Tibetans, the greatest devotion is reserved for the Tibetan consort, Ye shes mtsho rgyal, who became the Guru's chief disciple, and the one on whom vast quantities of textual transmissions were supposed to have been bestowed.11

11 *Indeed, it is possible that she was represented in her own right in the right-hand miniature of our missing front folio to Volume Ca (see "Tables of Miniatures": Table 3). If I am correct in my speculation (see footnote 17 below) that the figure in Volume Ga is in fact intended to be gNubs chen Sangs rgyas ye shes, then, with Ye shes mTsho rgyal depicted in Volume Ca, we would have an order of right-hand miniatures in seven consecutive volumes (from Kha to Nya) corresponding to the order given in a list of the "most fortunate group" of seven of them by Dudjom (1991: 534-5). Note that this group is headed by an eighth figure in Dudjom's list, the King, Khri srong lde'u btsan, who may have been depicted in the right-hand miniature of our missing Volume Ta, which follows our seven consecutive volumes. The Nitartha Online Tibetan-English dictionary mentions this group as the chief recipients of the eight principal Mahāyoga sādhana teachings (that is, the scriptures of the sgrub pa bka' brgyad). It is clear that these associations are central to the hagiographies: Dudjom (534-5) gives a full list of the specific attainments of the eight, each attainment related to one of the bka' brgyad deities. The connection between the transmission of the bka' brgyad and the special set of the Guru's closest disciples is also emphasised in the account found in snga 'gyur rig mdzod rtsom sgrig lhan tshogs (2000: 17-26, 61-8).

Thus, Ye shes mtsho rgyal is considered to have attained Enlightenment, she became a crucial link in the teaching lineages, and there are spiritual practices with her as the principal tantric deity figure. But above all, her human qualities and especially, her humility and devotion to the Guru, make her into an image of the ideal disciple with whom it is possible for all, including male students, to identify. Such an identification with a consort/female figure as an ideal means for spiritual development is not arbitrary but explicitly encouraged in the meditation exercises performed by practitioners during sessions of Guru Yoga, in which identification with a female figure is the preliminary stage in uniting and ultimately identifying with the Guru himself, who, from an ultimate viewpoint, combines both masculine and feminine qualities.

To return to the paintings of Guru Padma, there are a number of other features which they share as well as the similar drawings of the two consorts.

Volume Kha, Guru Padma
Miniature Kha 1bc

In all, the Guru is shown in full cross-legged posture, with his legs tucked within his robes. This is not the most usual posture we see in images of Guru Padma; more frequently he is shown in what is called vajra cross-legged posture, which we will see in some of the other miniatures. In all the paintings, the positioning of the arms is virtually identical. The right hand is raised to the heart, the middle fingers bent around, with at least one touching the thumb, while the forefinger and little finger are extended, a hand posture symbolising tantric protection.

* Volume Ka, Guru Padma
This image from Ka is available courtesy of the Bodleian Library, Oxford.
Miniature Ka 1bc
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In most cases, he holds a vajra (a ritual implement representing the indestructibility of Enlightenment, and the power of the tantric methods to bring it about) in this hand, although this appears to have been omitted in the first volume.

The left hand is placed palm upwards in his lap, holding a skull-cup of nectar, representing tantric control over life and death, and the transformation of the five emotional poisons into primordial awareness elixir. He has a three pronged trident in the crook of his left arm, an implement characteristic of Guru Padma as well as of many other male tantric deities. It is said to symbolise the tantric consort. Thus, even images of the Guru which do not show any outer female partner, implicitly represent the feminine dimension of spiritual realisation in the Guru figure, who in himself integrates and balances (feminine) wisdom/insight and (male) skill in means. In all the paintings, he wears the red lotus hat, again specifically characteristic of Guru Padma, and expressing his status as a tantric master, and in most he has a gold necklace and long dangling earrings. In slightly under three-quarters of the paintings, we find a moustache, usually thin and curling upwards, and sometimes some trace of a very short beard. In the other paintings, he is clean shaven. Three or four robes are visible. The inner white robe, said to be a secret inner tantric robe, can be seen at the neck or sleeves in just over half the paintings, but is not visible at all in the others. The main inner robe is a blue wrap-over robe, usually with long dangling sleeves, and this is generally described as symbolising his tantric accomplishment of complete perfection.12 Occasionally, a further secret tantric robe, yellow in colour, is said to be worn between the white and the blue robes, and the sleeves of such a robe are often seen in iconographic representations of Guru Padma. In the case of our miniatures, no such robe appears to be visible, although in a little under forty percent of the paintings, we do see what appears to be lining of the blue robe. In half of these, the lining is green; in one miniature it is dark maroon, but in the others it is yellow, and this "lining" may be intended to represent the further layer of robe. Interestingly, all the miniatures in which we find this yellow layer have other extra details, such as background decorations. The middle robes are red monastic robes, which represent his basic Buddhist and bodhisattva commitment and discipine, while his dark maroon outer cloak, which is wrapped around his back and legs like a blanket, is also said to symbolise his tantric status. Iconographically, I have heard that these outer robes should have green lining; about seventy percent of our paintings do depict this green lining (including those found with yellow lining to the blue robe), although we find pink lining in about fifteen percent of cases, and both green and pink or no visible lining at all in the remainder. The five layers of Guru Padma's costume are moreover said to symbolise the five primordial awarenesses, represented in the colours white, yellow, blue, red and green.

12 I owe this and other comments on Guru Padma's appearance given here to the help of monks in Rewalsar, Himachal Pradesh, where I made a major study of ritual practice (fieldwork 1981-3).

In just over eighty percent of paintings, the Guru has a green halo around his head while the consorts have blue halos, and in one painting, the Guru has the green halo but the consorts do not have halos. In all the other miniatures, the colours are reversed, the Guru with a blue halo and the consorts with green. A larger halo around the Guru's body is coloured beige in about half the paintings and brown in the other half. In one case (Volume Tsha), the halo has two colours, blue and brown. In just under one fifth of the paintings, there are background decorations of foliage emerging from behind the Guru's halos, and occasionally also cloud formations above, and in a similar proportion of cases, to the upper left and/or right, we find one or both of two tiny circles of white and bronze respectively. These represent moon and sun disks, again illustrating mastery of insight and means. In all the miniatures, the Guru himself is seated on a moon disk above a green disk, with a lotus below. In about seventy percent of cases, the consorts are seated on leaves, while in the other paintings, they are each seated on a white moon disk, a green disk and a lotus.

Stylistically, then, there are many similarities in these depictions of the Guru; even where details differ, such as in the alternative colours for the halos, we find a reversal of colours rather than an entirely different colour scheme. In some, such as Volume Ga, the Guru has a relatively youthful face, while in most his face appears mature, but the principal variation we find is in the level of elaboration. A few of the miniatures are more detailed than others. In particular, the first volume has more elaborate background decoration and also the addition of blue colouring for the sky. Volume 'A has especially fine drawings of different species of trees in the background to the right and left.

Volume Tsha, which depicts background foliage and is the one instance of a large halo in two colours, gives more elaboration to the consorts' leaf seats and includes the calyx supporting the Guru's lotus seat.

Volume ’A, Guru Padma
Miniature 'A 1bc
* Volume Tsha, Guru Padma
Miniature Tsha 1bc

* Volume Ka, Rig’dzin Tshe dbang norbu
This image from Ka is available courtesy of the Bodleian Library, Oxford.
Miniature Ka 1bl
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The miniatures of Kaḥ thog Rig 'dzin Tshe dbang nor bu (1698-1755), given on the left of every page which also features Guru Padma, are identifiable by an identically worded homage written below each.

The prominent positioning of these miniatures would seem to indicate that this is the lama in whose honour our collection was produced. Evidence which I have discussed elsewhere (see "Distinctive Features of the Edition") suggests that we can associate our manuscripts with the activities of students of the lineage of Rig 'dzin Tshe dbang nor bu during the late eighteenth century who were actively involved in a revival of the rNying ma scriptural heritage in the Southern Tibetan region bordering present day Nepal.13 Our collection includes no written discussion of the place or occasion for its production; it begins with the first scripture in the set and ends with the last scripture. However, these miniatures effectively help to reveal its associations. Rig 'dzin Tshe dbang nor bu was a famous scholar and tantric master from the Eastern Tibetan monastery of Kaḥ thog, whose activities promoting Buddhist practice and mediating disputes extended through much of the Tibetan and Himalayan region.

13 Franz-Karl Ehrhard (Ehrhard 1997) has discussed this revitalisation.

As in the depictions of the Guru, there are some features which each painting has in common. The Rig 'dzin wears a red lotus hat, usually slightly less elaborately ornamented than that of the Guru, and he has three main robes. In about half of the paintings, the short right sleeve of an undershirt, coloured pink or peach, is visible beneath his robes. His inner sleeveless robe is usually green with strips of maroon or brown on the shoulders and along the edges, visible around the neckline and close to the arm-holes.14 This robe then tucks into a white lower robe which reaches from the chest down to the ankles, and is secured with a variously coloured belt or sash around the waist. Finally, he has outer red monastic robes, worn over his left shoulder and tucking under his right arm in two-thirds of the paintings, but worn over both shoulders in a third of the paintings. He is always clean-shaven and has a green halo around his head. He is seated in full cross-legged posture, with his robes tucked around his legs, in about three-quarters of the paintings. In the remaining quarter, he is seated in vajra cross-legged posture, with one knee slightly raised and the foot coming down slightly below the other foot. In these cases, we see the bare feet emerging from his robes at the ankles. He is usually seated on a maroon lama's cushion cover, sometimes draped over a green or blue cushion or a cushion seat with slightly raised back and sides.

14 In Volume Tsha, the strips are red; in Volume Zha, the robe itself is maroon, not green.

In all except for two of the paintings, a blue or blue and black back rest/seat back is behind his body;15 the other two miniatures each have a large halo instead.

15 Such ornamented back rests or seat backs are common in Tibetan paintings of lamas; see, for instance, Jackson 1996: Plates 28, 33, 46, 67; Kimiaki: Plate 49.
* Volume ’A, Rig’dzin Tshe dbang norbu
Miniature 'A 1bl

There is considerable variation in the extent of ornamentation of these back rests; in some cases, we find a simple pattern of gold dots, while in others (eg. Vol. 'A), we find elaborate gold designs.

In a third of the pictures, a white ornamental offering scarf (kha btags) is draped over the back rest. The first three volumes have background decorations of foliage emerging from behind the back rest; in the case of the first volume, the sky is also painted blue and there are cloud formations above.

Although the Rig 'dzin is depicted seated wearing similar clothes in all the paintings, we do find variations in his hand gestures and in the emblems which he holds. In a number of the portraits, he has his right hand resting on his knee, but in some the hand is held down, either palm out in a gesture representing generosity (eg. Kha, Ba, Tsa, Sa), or in the earth-touching gesture (eg. Nga, Pha, Dza, 'A, Ya, Hūṃ).16 In others (eg. Ka, Za) the wrist rests on the knee while the hand is held out to the side, in a gesture symbolising the granting of boons. Alternatively, his right hand may be held up at the heart (eg. Wa, Zha), in some cases (eg. Ja), making the gesture of exposition, or (eg. La, Ha) a gesture of protection. Less frequently, his right hand is held up and out to the side (eg. Ma) or rests in the lap, holding a jewel (Da).

16 These and other hand gestures are illustrated and discussed in Beer 1999: 149-158. The earth-touching gesture is well-known throughout the Buddhist world, since it is associated with the hagiographies describing the Buddha's Enlightenment. When he is challenged by Mārā, the Buddhist personification of evil, the Buddha-to-be touches the ground, summoning the earth as witness of his spiritual effort and accomplishment throughout his innumerable lives, thus confirming his worthiness to attain the ultimate goal.
Volume Kha, Rig’dzin Tshe dbang norbu
Miniature Kha 1bl
Volume Wa, Rig’dzin Tshe dbang norbu
Miniature Wa 1bl

* Volume Ja, Rig’dzin Tshe dbang norbu
Miniature Ja 1bl
* Volume La, Rig’dzin Tshe dbang norbu
Miniature La 1bl

* Volume Ha, Rig’dzin Tshe dbang norbu
Miniature Ha 1bl
Volume Ma, Rig’dzin Tshe dbang norbu
Miniature Ma 1bl

* Volume Da, Rig’dzin Tshe dbang norbu
Miniature Da 1bl

He may have his left hand in his lap, empty (Ja) or holding a bowl (eg. Ka, Ma, Tsa, Zha, 'A, Ya), a vase (eg. Pa, Ba), a manuscript (eg. Cha, Pha, Wa, Sa), a skull cup (eg. Tsha, Dza, Ha), or a jewel (Hūṃ). He may hold a jewel (eg. Nga) or manuscript (eg. Na) at the heart.

Volume Ba, Rig’dzin Tshe dbang norbu
Miniature Ba 1bl
Volume Cha, Rig’dzin Tshe dbang norbu
Miniature Cha 1bl

Volume Hūṃ, Rig’dzin Tshe dbang norbu
Miniature Hu'm. 1bl
Volume Nga, Rig’dzin Tshe dbang norbu
Miniature Nga 1bl

Volume Na, Rig’dzin Tshe dbang norbu
Miniature Na 1bl

Occasionally, where the right hand is at the heart (eg. Nya, Tha), or in his lap (eg. Da), his left arm may be stretched down to the knee, in one case (La) holding a jewel.

Volume Ra, Rig’dzin Tshe dbang norbu
Miniature Ra 1bl

Rarely (eg. Ra), we find the two hands intertwined making a mudrā/symbolic gesture at the heart, in this case, representing the act of "turning the wheel of the Dharma", or giving Buddhist teachings.

The various postures and hand gestures in these miniatures express either his qualities as an exemplar, in terms of meditation, scholarship or tantric skills, and/or his abilities as a teacher. Unlike the case of the central miniatures of Guru Padma, where all are depicted with the same essential postures and gestures, to have a full picture of the ways in which Rig 'dzin Tshe dbang nor bu is celebrated in our collection, it is necessary to see at least a selection of the paintings.

Yet this is not all: Rig 'dzin Tshe dbang nor bu is also thought to have a special relationship with the tantric masters depicted in the right-hand miniatures. These are all of different persons, although they all represent one of the key figures in the mythological histories of the early period of the transmission of Buddhism into Tibet. Most are representations of the "twenty-five disciples" of Guru Padma (rje 'bangs nyer lnga). In fact, there are variations in the standard set, so that a few more than twenty-five may be classified as close disciples. If our collection were complete, it is possible that we might have a group of at least twenty-five, perhaps twenty-seven of them. Two figures appear not to be from the group of "twenty-five" as such.

* Volume Ka, Hūṃ ka ra
This image from Ka is available courtesy of the Bodleian Library, Oxford.
Miniature Ka 1br
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In the first volume, Ka, we have Hūṃ chen ka ra, that is, the Nepalese teacher Hūṃ ka ra, who was significant in the early lineages of the tantric teachings known as Mahāyoga and Anu yoga.

Although not himself in the list of "twenty-five", he was a master of Nam mkha'i snying po, who is included in the set, and is depicted in the second volume, Kha.

* Volume Kha, Nam mkha'i snying po
Miniature Kha 1br

Often shown flying in the air (see, for instance, Dudjom: 534-5) due to his reputed tantric abilities in riding on the sun's rays, Nam mkha'i snying po is seen here seated in cross-legged position, with his right hand at his heart in a gesture of exposition, and his left hand in his lap, holding a skull-cup.

The most significant point about the prominent placing of Hūṃ ka ra and Nam mkha'i snying po in our first two volumes is that Rig 'dzin Tshe dbang nor bu is considered to have been a manifestation (rnam 'phrul) of Nam mkha'i snying po (snga 'gyur rig mdzod rtsom sgrig lhan tshogs: 18; Dudjom: 736). Clearly, those producing our manuscripts were fully aware of this association, and deliberately depicted Nam mkha'i snying po at the head of the group of "twenty-five" in the second volume, while his guru, and thus the former guru of Rig 'dzin Tshe dbang nor bu himself in a previous life, is allocated an even more special place on the first folio of the first volume.

The only other right-hand miniature besides that of Hūṃ ka ra which does not seem to depict one of the "twenty-five", occurs in the third volume, Ga. Here we have a figure given as, sPang sangs rgyas, who is possibly to be identified with sPang rgan sangs rgyas mgon po, a student of Vairocana.17

17 * I am not entirely certain about this. It seems surprising that such a figure would be given so prominent a position (unless he, too, is related to our Rig 'dzin Tshe dbang nor bu in some way), and he is usually depicted with a meditation belt and a prop to support his chin. It is also surprising that we are missing the important figure of gNubs chen Sangs rgyas ye shes, who is usually given at the head of the list of "twenty-five", and whose appearance in other sources is rather closer to the figure in our painting. I am therefore exploring the possibility that we have a scribal error in the caption: that "gnubs" and not "spang" might have been intended (see "Tables of Miniatures": Table 3).
Volume Nya, Vairocana
Miniature Nya 1br

Vairocana is one of the "twenty-five", appearing in Volume Nya.

He was an especially important figure, since he was central to the transmission of teaching lineages of the famous formless meditation teachings called rdzogs chen, and he is attributed with translating vast numbers of the scriptural texts included in the rnying ma'i rgyud 'bum.

In fact, what all our figures have in common is that, like the paintings of the Guru and Rig 'dzin Tshe dbang nor bu, they are seated, generally in a meditation position, either in full cross-legged posture, kneeling, or in vajra cross-legged posture.

Volume Ma, dPal gyi dbang phyug
Miniature Ma 1br

Occasionally, there may be some sense of movement to the figure, such as in the case of dPal gyi dbang phyug, brother of the Guru's consort Ye shes mtsho rgyal, depicted in Volume Ma, seated upright, but with his body leaning very slightly to his right, his head and shoulders tilting slightly to his left, and his right arm stretched out to the side.

The figures all have green halos around their heads. They are generally seated on cushions; three are seated on lotus and moon disks (in Volumes Ka, Kha and Tsha).

Volume Na, rDo rje bdud 'joms
Miniature Na 1br

Behind them, they either have large halos of various colours or the kind of back rest we find in the paintings of Rig 'dzin Tshe dbang nor bu (we see an especially elaborate example in the depiction of rDo rje bdud 'joms in Volume Na).18

18 Other examples of paintings of the "twenty-five" may feature similar blue back rests/seat backs with gold decorative motifs; see, for instance Tsogyal: 541, Plate 32.

Although not unusual in Tibetan paintings of lamas, one striking feature is that very few of our figures have any visible footwear; their feet are either tucked within their robes, or in the case of those in vajra posture, their bare feet emerge at the ankles. Out of the total of seventy-nine miniatures of human figures, there are three exceptions to this general point. 'Brog mi dpal in Volume Cha wears blue material boots with white soles, as does the unidentified right-hand figure in Volume Za, who is probably Dran pa nam mkha'i dbang phyug,19 while Shod bu (= Shud bu) dpal seng in Volume Dza has green material boots20.

19 *We are missing the legend for this figure, since it has been torn away. However, I believe it likely to be Dran pa nam mkha'i dbang phyug, since the order of our paintings from Volume Na to La (fifteen volumes) appears to be following an order given elsewhere (eg. Tsogyal: 562-591; snga 'gyur rig mdzod rtsom sgrig lhan tshogs: 65-68), in which case, Dran pa nam mkha'i dbang phyug would fit in here (see "Tables of Miniatures": Table 3).
20 The ten deity figures are also shown without footwear, with the exception of rDo rje legs pa, in Volume Hūṃ, who wears black material boots with white soles and pointed toes.
Volume Cha, 'Brog mi dpal
Miniature Cha 1br
Volume Dza, Shod bu
Miniature Dza 1br

Our right-hand miniatures wear various coloured long robes, but in general, their clothes are either representative of monastic dress (eg. the figure of rGyal ba21 in Volume Wa), or of the garb of a tantric lay practitioner (eg. Volume Za).

21 *I am not entirely certain about the identity of this figure; it is most likely to be 'Bro (or 'Bre) rGyal ba'i blo gros, an early monk said to be skilled in transforming corpses into gold, and renowned for his magical powers through which he was supposed to have extended his life for some hundreds of years. If we are following the sequence given elsewhere (see note 19 above), this figure would indeed be rGyal ba'i blo gros. Alternatively, it might be La gsum rGyal ba byang chub, who was one of the group of seven monks said to be the first to ordain in Tibet. But it is more likely that rGyal ba byang chub is given in Volume Sha: we do not have the front folio of this volume, but in the sequence given elsewhere, he would fit in Volume Sha. However, if we are not following this sequence, it is even just conceivable that the rGyal bas in Volume Wa is rGyal ba mchog dbyangs, who was also one of the first group of seven monks, but if so, we have a repeat of the right-hand miniature in Volume Nga, where rGyal ba mchog dbyangs is shown as a much older figure. The likelihood of our following the sequence is strengthened by the fact that in a list of the disciples given by Dudjom (1991: 534-6), following the, "most fortunate group" (see above, footnote 11), we find a list of seventeen which corresponds almost exactly to our sequence from Volume Tha, assuming that the figure in Volume Wa is meant to represent rGyal ba'i blo gros. The only difference in the ordering is that the first two figures (in our Volumes Tha and Da) are reversed, and Dudjom's list omits the figure in our Volume Za (probably Dran pa nam mkha'i dbang phyug). It ends with La gsum rGyal ba byang chub, in the position which would correspond to that appropriate for our missing front folio of Volume Sha (see "Tables of Miniatures": Table 3).
Volume Wa, rGyal bas
Miniature Wa 1br
* Volume Za, Dran pa nam mkha'i dbang phyug?
Miniature Za 1br

In two of the volumes, although we have the usual pattern of Rig 'dzin Tshe dbang nor bu and Guru Padma for the left and central miniatures respectively, we have a deity figure on the right, bCom ldan rDo rje sems dpa’ (= Sanskrit Vajrasattva) in Volume Ha, and the rNying ma protective deity, rDo rje legs pa, in Volume Hūṃ.

Volume Ha, rDo rje sems dpa’
Miniature Ha 1br
* Volume Hūṃ, rDo rje legs pa
Miniature Hu'm. 1br

In another two volumes, the standard layout is broken altogether. In Volume A, we have depictions of the popular set of three long life deities (tshe lha rnam gsum): Amitāyus (rgyal ba tshe dpag med) on the left, Uṣṇīṣavijayā (gtsug tor rnam rgyal ma) in the centre, and White Tārā (sgrol dkar yum) on the right. In Volume Āḥ, there is an unidentified female deity, which might be another form of Uṣṇīṣavijayā, in the centre,22 and the fierce protective deities, Ekajaṭā and Rāhula, to the left and right respectively.

22 Unfortunately, we are missing the legend below (see “Detailed descriptions of miniatures”).
Volume Āḥ, Uṣṇīṣavijayā
Miniature A'h. 1bc

Volume Āḥ, Ekajaṭā
Miniature A'h. 1bl
Volume Āḥ, Rāhula
Miniature A'h. 1br

These two, along with the protective deity rDo rje legs pa who, as mentioned above, occurs in the right hand miniature of the subsequent volume, Hūṃ, make up a trio of protective deities who are special guardians of the rNying ma teachings (known as gza' sngags dam gsum).

Finally, the extra miniatures on the second folio of the first volume depict Samantabhadra (as mentioned above) on the left, and the (Dharmakāya) Buddha figure, Amitābha, residing in his paradise or Buddha Field of Great Bliss (Sukhāvatī) on the right.

Volume Ka, 2a, Amitābha
This image from Ka is available courtesy of the Bodleian Library, Oxford.
Miniature Ka 2ar
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Guru Padma is said to be an emanation of Buddha Amitābha, who is Lord of the Lotus Family of Buddhas; hence the name Padma, which means Lotus in Sanskrit.

To conclude, our miniatures do not directly illustrate our texts. What they do is to put a stamp of identity onto the collection, and to celebrate its associations with great spiritual masters and a renowned religious tradition, and beyond that, they are intended to actually embody the presence of those masters and traditions. Here we find a set of scriptures rejected by influential traditional scholars of other schools for their dubious origins, firmly linked with culture heros from the Tibetan imperial past. In particular, the tradition is identified with Guru Padma, his close disciples and associates. We are reminded of the religious symbolism of the great Guru's tantric accomplishment at the outset of virtually every volume. Furthermore, the miniatures place the early eighteenth century lama, Rig 'dzin Tshe dbang nor bu, in a direct line of descent from these revered figures. They underline his identification as a principal member of the group, proclaim his many faceted skills and the connection between his lineage and the ancient rNying ma scriptural heritage. In the care that has gone into the production of our front folios, in the impressive curtained blue pages with black laquered writing areas, the colour paintings and the gold ink words and decorative features, we can see the message that even a religious tradition with little formal involvement in the political structure could win substantial sponsorship and produce a manuscript collection to rival State sponsored manuscript productions of the official Tibetan Buddhist canon.


*Robert Beer 1999 The Encyclopedia of Tibetan Symbols and Motifs. London, Serindia.

*Dudjom Rinpoche 1991 The Nyingma School of Tibetan Buddhism: Its Fundamentals and History, Volume One. Boston: Wisdom.

*Franz-Karl Ehrhard 1997 "Recently discovered manuscripts of the rNying ma rgyud 'bum from Nepal". In H. Krasser, M. Torsten Much, E. Steinkellner, H. Tauscher, Tibetan Studies: Proceedings of the 7th Seminar of the International Association for Tibetan Studies, Graz 1995, Volume I: 253-267.

*Lawence Epstein 1977 Causation in Tibetan Religion: Duality and its transformations, unpublished Ph.D thesis, University of Washington.

*Paul Harrison 1996 "A Brief History of the Tibetan bKa' 'gyur", in J.I. Cabezon and R.R. Jackson (eds) Tibetan Literature: Studies in Genre, Ithaca, Snow Lion, 70-94.

*David Jackson 1991"Fragments of a 'Golden' Manuscript of Sa-skya Paṇḍita's Works" in The Tibet Journal XVI, Spring 1991, Dharamsala: Library of Tibetan Works and Archives.

*David Jackson 1996 A History of Tibetan Painting. Vienna: Österreichische Akademie der Wissenschaften.

*Tanaka Kimiaki (ed.) 1999 Art of Thangka: from Hahn Kwang-ho Collection, Vol. 2. Seoul: Hahn Foundation for Museum.

*Deborah Klimburg-Salter 1994 "Indo-Tibetan Miniature Painting", in Kvaerne, (ed.) Tibetan Studies: Proceedings of the 6th Seminar of the International Association for Tibetan Studies, Oslo, 441-453.

*Nitartha International Online Tibetan English dictionary, Rangjung Yeshe Publications 1998,

*Valrae Reynolds 1999 From the Sacred Realm: Treasures of Tibetan Art from the Newark Museum. Munich, London, New York: Prestel.

*Peter Richardus (ed.) 1998 Tibetan Lives: Three Himalayan Autobiographies, Richmond, Curzon.

*Cristina A. Scherrer-Schaub "Towards a methodology for the study of old Tibetan manuscripts: Dunhuang and Tabo", in C.A. Scherrer-Schaub and E. Steinkellner (eds) 1999 Tabo Studies II: Manuscripts, Texts, Inscriptions, and the Arts, Rome, Is. I.A.O., 3-36.

*snga 'gyur rig mdzod rtsom sgrig lhan tshogs (Editorial Committee, Ngagyur Nyingma Institute) 2000 "rje 'bangs nyer lnga'i mdzad rnam mdor bsdus", in snga 'gyur smon lam chen mo skabs bcu gcig pa'i dran deb, Nyingma Monlam Chenmo, 17-27.

*Yeshe Tsogyal (attributed) 1978 The Life and Liberation of Padmasambhava, Volume II. Emeryville: Dharma Publishing.

*Paul Williams 1989 Mahāyāna Buddhism: The Doctrinal Foundations. London and New York: Routledge.

Tables of Miniatures

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All English text and transliterated Tibetan and other transliterated text is copyright 1999-2003 of Cathy Cantwell and Robert Mayer; the xml document structure and design is copyright 1999-2003 of Michael Fischer. The digital images of Volume Ka are the copyright 2001 of the Bodleian Library Oxford; all other digital images of the Tibetan manuscripts are the copyright 2001 of the British Library. Other artwork is copyright 2000-2003 by Cathy Cantwell. The web collection is copyright 2001-2003, Centre for Social Anthropology and Computing.