The Buddhist deity and the afterlife are two important elements of the Buddhist religion and this is represented in the two images which are being studied here. The Buddhist deity Simhavaktra Dakini is an important figure in this religion and lore since she has great powers when putting people on the right path. On its part the Bactrian camel figure personified hard work and thrift and builds a passage towards a successful afterlife. The Simhavaktra can be compared to the bodhisattva which is another imposing figure in Buddhsit lore from the Heian period. Both figures have similar aspects and also demonstrate the advanced sculpting techniques which were prevalent in those times.
The paper attempts to argue that the figures represent Buddhist thinking and lore especially with regards to the afterlife. The similarities in both works also show fastidious attention to detail as well as an intrinsic understanding of the Buddhist religion.
Buddhist Deity Simhavaktra Dakini
The Buddhist Deity Simhavaktra Dakini is probably one of the most famous sculptures dating from the Heian period and shows the art of sculpture of those times in full flow. The sculpture is an example of the forbidding nature of this God which had considerable spiritual and physical powers.
Simhavaktra Dakini is described as the guardian of Vajrayana Buddhism and has also been described as a female ‘sky walker’ who eventually guides and puts human beings along the right path or The Middle Way (Hirakawa p 55). Her face is usually grim and foreboding and is similar to that of a lion. Apparently this deity is a spirit which can remove those physical obstacles such as pride and self-centeredness. She is usually portrayed alone as found here and is usually in a dancing and graceful position with her right leg raised and her left leg crushing some demon or devil. However in this portrayal this deity is not present.
The figure is impressive in her nakedness and she is dressed only in her jewellery. According to research, she usually holds some form of implement such as a knife in her right hand and a bowl which is usually similar to a skull in her other hand but these are again missing, probably stolen in the past by looters.
There is no information on the artist who sculpted this deity since very little historical information is prevalent from the Qing Dynasty period. The sculpture is impressive in its detail with a form that shows an imposing wrathfulness as well as a certain sense of piety in that same wrath. According to the Buddhist faith, Dakini is part of the hugely respected Eight Guardians.
The scale of the sculpture is also impressive since she is quite huge and imposing in appearance at first glance. However for her size, she is quite well balanced although her posture is also rather strange. The sculpture also has considerable artistic prowess and was probably extremely difficult to create so many years must have passed before its completion. The Dakini’s face is also full of wrath but according to Buddhist lore, this wrath is being used as a force for good and not violence or destruction. The fiery and angry appearance was apparently important for Simhavaktra to overcome what were termed as features such as lust and ignorance.
Each aspect of the statue conveys important clues and meanings. The fiery and blazing hair are symbols of the fire of the deity’s wisdom while the human skin cover is a symbolic portrayal of the stripping away of the veil of illusion from the perception of man. She is also richly adorned in jewels which are also extremely symbolic and we find her adorned with bracelets, amulets and a necklace which actually are symbolic of the Five Buddhas which also preside over the directions of the universe. The jewels symbolize the four directions and the central axis with the negative components or human psychology thrown in for good measure – these are delusion, pride, hatred as well as jealousy. The imposing third eye on the deity’s forehead indicates that she is able to see past negativity, an imposing power.
An interesting comparison here would be with Senju Kannon’s work from Japan in the Heian period called the One Thousand Armed Bodhisattva of Compassion. Senju Kannon’s work is replete with several themes from the Heian period, especially the way the figure is constructed and how it reaches out to the world. There is a deep spiritual intimacy about the painting (Mason, p 85). The Heian period was also renowned for its rich cultural associations and was also an important period for Japanese culture and this work by Senju Kannon is representative of that.
Actually a bodhisattva is someone who is still impure and not yet perfect. He is still subject to the normal human emotions such as illness, death, sorrow and even defilement. One can read further on the lives of the Buddha in this state in the Jatakas. The Theravada literature describes a bodhisattva as someone who is on the path to finding liberation. There are also essentially two types of bodhisattvas, the peacebodhisattva who will eventually attain a status of peace and the savakbodhistattva who will attain enlightenment as one of the disciples of the Buddha. Kings of Sri Lanka were actually described as bodhisattvas with several of them being renowned for their compassion and wisdom.
This is a Bactrian camel which was principally used to haul and carry goods across the famous Silk Road which led out of China and into the vicinity of Central asia and beyond. Thus it is very symbolic and an important part of Chinese culture. It is constructed from earthenware clays which are light coloured and was made using molds which were painstakingly added together. The inside of the sculpture is hollow and one can also detect some holes which were apparently important for non-distortion of the subject when it was submitted to fire. The material is made out of polychrome or multi-coloured glaze which is termed ‘sancai’ literally meaning three colours. These three colours were made from a lead mix which contained mineral pigments of copper (green) and iron (brown and amber), as well as cobalt which had a shade of blue. This mixture was eventually fired at a temperature ranging from between 800 degrees and 1000 degrees Celcius to produce the end sculpture which was highly advanced for its time.
The production of such products was very popular in China between the late 600’s and 700’s principally in the Northern parts of the country. Before this period the colours used on the ceramics were mostly limited to a range of green and brown colours.
This camel object was usually placed in a tomb for wealthy individuals and which are mostly found in the Northern regions of China. The Tang Dynasty tombs usually date from 618 to 806 AD and were usually constructions with multiple chambers that were often adorned with a multitude of passages and niches where these objects would have been placed. This usually took place after the funerary rite would have been completed and the body interred. Due to the lead glaze used in the making of such objects, these could not have been used for living persons so they were manufactured specially to be buried in tombs.
This camel gives us a colourful and detailed view of life during the Tang dynasty although objects such as these were principally intended for burial purposes. The camel makes specific reference to the Silk Road Trade Routes since these were used to transport a vast quantity of goods across those regions of the Northwestern part of the Tang Enpire which were themselves arid and remote. The camel earned the nickname, ‘the ship of the desert’ due to the fact that it was a hardy and strong animal which could travel for hundreds of miles without water. Their padded feet were also ideal for traversing sand dunes. The camel also carried a cushion which was located between its two humps along with its mixed cargo and this cushion was usually decorated with some sort of comical face as can be seen in this particular exhibit. There have been several similar discoveries of such glazed earthenware objects found in Tang Dynasty tombs, some of which also include figures such as musicians and travellers perched atop the camel. Other camels have been found carrying several reams of silk which was the main commodity exported by China in those times. In fact the tang capital of Chang-an was one of the most important cities in the world at the time and was known as one of the most cosmopolitan and was also a magnet for commerce and trade.
Both the Buddhist deity and the camel bring about different yet converging aspects to the Buddhist religion. The former conveys fear but at the same time there is also redemption while the latter emphasises the values of hard work and pilgrimage. The styles of the work rely on the brownish red colour but techniques such as firing also show an advanced state of sculpture at the time. The figures have important social connotations since they demonstrate an obsession with the afterlife as well as the will to live a properly spiritual life in all aspects which is essentially the main element of Buddhism.
Asian Art Museum San Francisco. Retrieved from: http://www.asianart.org/
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