The Principal Features of Buddhism as Reflected in
Early West Tibetan Art

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Copyright © C. Luczanits
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September 2000 to August 2003 I received a three-year research grant by the Austrian Programme for Advanced Research and Technology (APART) of the Austrian Academy of Sciences.

In the following the aim of the project is introduced and its first outcomes are summarized including a list of relevant publications.


The 'later spread of Buddhism' in Tibet (phyi-dar), as the period from the late 10th – 13th centuries is called in Tibetan historical literature, was decisive for the development of Tibetan Buddhism. This formative period was distinguished by extensive translation work in close co-operation with Indian Buddhist scholars, by an adoption of the ideas of late Indian Buddhism, and the formulation of distinctively Tibetan interpretations of Buddhism. Although the major schools of Tibetan Buddhism have their roots in this period, relatively little is known about the Buddhism of that time.

The art-historical evidence as preserved in the monuments and artefacts attributable to the phyi-dar in Tibet and present-day Northwest India demonstrate a variety of unique stages and interpretations of Buddhism within the context of the formation of Tibetan Buddhism. Because the information on early stages of Tibetan Buddhism in the indigenous historical literature (chos-’byung) and the hagiographies (rnam-thar) of eminent Buddhist teachers and hierarchs is somewhat vague, the preserved monuments and artefacts are the most important source for the religious and cultural history of early Tibetan Buddhism. In the same way as many iconographic forms of early medieval Christian art are the visual expression of the then prevalent religious speculation it is to be expected that early Tibetan art, too, once studied in detail and collated with other comparable appropriate sources, will be equally informative for its religious, historical, and cultural background.

The aim of this research is to elaborate a more detailed account of the specific character of the main themes of early West Tibetan Buddhism by studying its principal themes, the Vajradhatu-mandala and the Dharmadhatu-vagishvara-mañjushri-mandala, on the basis of the surviving art and the literature for which a direct relationship to the art can be established. Thus the project is named ”The Principal Features of Buddhism as Reflected in Early West Tibetan Art”.


Although at a considerable slower pace than originally foreseen, the APART project has facilitated the establishment of an immense body of material resulting from the analysis of the iconographic and formal characteristics of the most relevant themes for the topic, the Vajradhatu- and the Dharmadhatu-vagishvara-mañjushri-mandalas, in textual sources as well as in the arts.

In general, the material evolving from the core project shows that the history of the main topics and the interrelationship of text and depiction are often not as clearly definable as had been hoped, and working out this relationship in detail has required far more effort than originally foreseen. Furthermore, as these topics have turned out to be relevant to later Tibetan art as well, the topics have been followed far beyond the original scope of early western Himalayan art as such.

Initial results of these studies have been utilised throughout the grant period and will be presented in greater detail in the near future. Indeed, while few publications completed during the grant period can be considered as direct results of the APART project in the narrower sense, most of these have greatly profited from the work on the project and/or are closely related to it (see the list of publications below). The APART grant will certainly form the basis for a number of publications in the future.

In view of my previous specialisation on western Himalayan art, it was decided at an early stage of the grant period to concentrate not solely on the narrower field of the APART project itself, but to use this independent grant to work on a range of subjects that extend my field of expertise. In this concern my study of the role of Maitreya in Gandharan art, part of which is now being published in a collection of articles in memory of Maurizio Taddei in Rome, is most noteworthy. My contributions to the catalogue of Tibetan paintings of the Tucci collection at the Museo Nazionale d’Arte Orientale, which were completed as far back as two years ago and are still awaiting publication, are also important in this regard.

Nevertheless, outstanding among the works accomplished during the period of the APART grant is certainly my publication on Buddhist Sculpture in Clay. Early Western Himalayan Art, late 10th to early 13th centuries, which is now in the process of being published by Serindia, Chicago. Although in principle based on my PhD research, the book extends the original scope of the latter to give a general picture of the basic distinctive character of Western Himalayan art, its most important themes and the relationship and development of the different artistic schools involved. The APART project not only made publication in the present form possible in the first place, but also greatly contributed to refining its content.

List of publications

Page last updated: 03.05.2009