Times & Places

The Arts of Himalayan Buddhism

Many types of images and objects are used in Tibetan ceremonies, including thangkas (portable Tibetan religious paintings), votive bronze sculptures, small stupas, the conch shell, used as a musical instrument [2009.15.2], and the purba, or ritual dagger. A five-skull diadem, another ceremonial object, has images of skulls that symbolize the passions of greed, anger, ignorance, pride, and jealousy, which a Buddhist must overcome [2000.405]. The diadem is used in masked dances, and the Dallas Museum of Art dakini Vajravarahi figure, illustrating the use of such implements, dances with a ritual chopper in one hand and a skull cup in the other [1982.9.FA]. Like the Vajrabhairava bronze sculpture or sensuous Hindu deities, and like the Durga relief from Rajasthan, the dynamically sensual Vajravarahi is enticing as well as lethal. Such frightening figures embody the ability to transcend attachment to human senses and the obstacles to enlightenment.

The stupa is one of the significant forms of Himalayan Buddhism. Stupas were often memorials constructed to honor Buddhist holy figures. They sometimes contained physical relics and also symbolized basic philosophical ideals. Originating in India, they were based on pre-Buddhist burial mounds. In the Himalayas we find large architectural stupas whose domed shape and tiers that rise to the cosmic symbols of sun and moon symbolize the way to enlightenment. The DMA large bronze stupa is such a visionary structure, both mandala and memorial [2001.263].

From the 11th to 20th centuries, Tibet, with its isolated position high in the Himalayas and its harsh environment, continued to develop its own unique form of Buddhism and associated arts. Even the political changes in modern Tibet have not destroyed the character of Tibetan Buddhism.

The arts of Nepal reflect a different history since Nepal has been more accessible to India and has been influenced by Indian religious art styles from an early period. Buddhism was a powerful force in Nepal from the 8th century onward and is still practiced today. Hinduism and Buddhism coexist in modern Nepal. The two religions have mingled in the arts of the Kathmandu Valley, where the majority of Nepalese artists and artisans work. Just as Hinduism had a powerful influence on the way Buddhism developed in the Himalayas, Hindu art had an impact on Nepalese art. The form of stupas in Nepal resembles certain Hindu structures and architectural features, though with a Nepalese character.

Adapted from

  • Anne Bromberg "The Arts of the Himalayas", in The Arts of India, South East Asia, and the Himalayas (Dallas: Dallas Museum of Art; New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013), 153-154.

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