Tibetan art and architecture

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.
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Tibetan art and architecture

Tibetan art and architecture have been almost entirely religious in character (see Tibetan Buddhism). The art of Tibetan Lamaism retains strong elements drawn from the forms of both Hinduism and Buddhism in India and Nepal, and was later influenced by the arts of China. In architecture, the chorten, or Tibetan stupa, was derived from Indian prototypes and was composed of one or more square bases, a square balcony, a bulbous dome, and a mast upholding umbrellas, surmounted by a flame finial. Tibet is famed for its gigantic monastery-cities, which house thousands of monks. The one at Tashi Lumpo, built in the 15th cent., is the headquarters for the Tashi Lama. A labyrinthian complex, it is composed of long streets of cells, which surround courtyards. At the center is a shrine. The 17th-century monastery at Lhasa includes the Potala palace, residence of the Dalai Lama, and a series of monastic skyscrapers that echo the forms of the surrounding mountain peaks. Tibetan sculpture, often in the form of gilt bronze statuettes, consists of slim, elegant figures with heart-shaped heads, resembling the Indian Pala or Nepalese figures and frequently ornamented with elaborate jewels. Tibetan paintings appear most frequently in the form of tankas, or temple banners, usually in brilliant colors on cotton or silk. The central figures of tankas may follow Nepalese or Indian types, but their decorative details, such as cloud scrolls, flowers, and architectural motifs, are often of Chinese origin. It is difficult to date these paintings, since the text, canons of proportion, and technical rules for making them have been almost unvaried for centuries. The symbolism is highly complex. Strongly schematized paintings portray ritual diagrams, scenes of the pantheon of divinities, and the wheel of life. There are representations of Buddha in his myriad aspects and saints such as Padmasambhava or Atisa (Tsong-Kha-pa). There are also images of ferocious deities, accompanied by their female counterparts. Among the most famous of these are the fearsome-faced goddess Lhamo and Yamantaka, with a bull's head. Religious significance is invested in several glorious emblems, e.g., the white parasol, two fishes, the lotus, and the seashell, and countless symbols of tantric and nontantric origin. Tantric manifestations are generally fierce. Fine examples of Tibetan art may be seen at the British Museum; Musée Guimet, Paris; the City Art Museum of St. Louis; the Newark (N.J.) Museum; the Jacques Marchais Center of Tibetan Arts, Staten Island, New York City, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

See A. K. Gordon, The Iconography of Tibetan Lamaism (rev. ed. 1967); G. N. Roerich, Tibetan Paintings (1986); B. C. Olschak and Geshe T. Wangyal, Mystic Art of Ancient Tibet (1987).

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