A BRASS FIGURE OF VAJRAVARAHI   NORTHEASTERN INDIA, PALA PERIOD, CIRCA 11TH CENTURY

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Lot 305
A BRASS FIGURE OF VAJRAVARAHI
NORTHEASTERN INDIA, PALA PERIOD, CIRCA 11TH CENTURY

Sold for US$ 400,312 inc. premium
Property from the Nyingjei Lam Collection
A BRASS FIGURE OF VAJRAVARAHI
NORTHEASTERN INDIA, PALA PERIOD, CIRCA 11TH CENTURY
Himalayan Art Resources item no.16914
7 1/2 in. (19 cm) high

Footnotes

  • 印度東北部 帕拉時期 約十一世紀 金剛亥母銅像

    Provenance
    Nyingjei Lam Collection, acquired in the 1990s
     
    Dancing on a corpse representing the human ego, Vajravarahi is a form of the most important female meditational deity (yidam) in Tibetan Buddhism, providing a route to enlightenment. Aloft in her right hand she wields a flaying knife (kartika), which tantric practitioners use in rituals to visualize flaying their own limited self-perception. In her left hand she holds a skull cup (kapala). The staff (khatvanga) cast in the crook of her left arm is a visual cue to her male counterpart Samvara, another key yidam. Also known as a "transformative deity", a yidam serves as a transcendent role model, embodying a set of doctrines, meditations, and ritual practices that a tantric practitioner uses to transform their consciousness and be reborn instantly as the enlightened yidam itself. With her implements, garland of severed heads, and crown of dried skulls, Vajravarahi's terrific vision confronts our mortal limitations. Yet, she does so with the grace and beauty of a young dancer poised entirely on the ball of her left foot. She has a composed, deliberate manner. Underfoot, swirling vegetal waters of the cosmos have given rise to the lotus she dances upon, as more vines rise to support her—for Vajravarahi is the sacred, cultivated blossom of Buddhist wisdom.
     
    Rich with such expressive iconography, this inspired bronze of the goddess derives from the cradle of Tantric Buddhism in Northeastern India. The sculpture is cast in the Pala style of the 11th century, coinciding with the period in which devotion to Vajravarahi and related yidams emerged as central practices in Tantric Buddhism as it would subsequently be preserved in Tibet. Thus, this refined bronze is likely among the earliest depictions of the goddess in bronze.
      
    Vajravarahi is a form of Vajrayogini, the most important female yidam, with a porcine head protruding from the right side of her skull (ibid., "Vajrayogini"). In Buddhist teachings, the pig represents ignorance, one of the three primary obstacles to enlightenment. Thus, Vajravarahi's appearance alludes to her ability to confront and transform this poison into wisdom. There is a general scholarly consensus that Vajravarahi is an adaptation of the Hindu goddess Varahi, the female counterpart to the boar avatar of Vishnu, who raised the Earth from a cosmic watery abyss. The sculpture appears to evoke this heroic, divine act. Vedic literature frequently likens the Earth to a delicate young girl, embodied here by Vajravarahi, who is shown flowering out of chaotic vegetal waters represented by the scrollwork around the base.
     
    Together with the band of plump lotus petals around the sculpture's base, the exuberant scrolls draw on an iconographic convention that permeates Indic religions. Transcending earth, water, air, fire, and space, the aquatic flower symbolizes the sacred source of the cosmos—its stem is life's umbilicus. In Buddhism, the image of the lotus arising from its murky bed is used as a metaphor for any sentient being's ability to achieve enlightenment, regardless of their karmic debt. Below Vajravarahi's right shin, a floral stem rises from the scrollwork and sprouts a wish-fulfilling gem, itself a microcosm of the sculpture's overall sentiment, conveying the promise of the transcendent boon Vajravarahi represents for practitioners.
     
    While the petaled rim of a lotus pedestal supports almost any bronze sculpture of a Buddhist deity that survives with its base, the vines and waters below are much rarer. They are sometimes seen in stone sculpture from the Pala period, but seldom carried over into bronze figures. Examples in stone can be found on two 9th-century steles of Avalokiteshvara and a 10th-century stele of Varaha (Asher, Nalanda, Mumbai, 2015, pp.112, 113 & 117, nos. 5.15, 5.16 & 5.22). An 8th-century stone panel from Nalanda offers a precedent for the Vajravarahi's scrollwork in shallow relief (Chandra, Indian Sculpture, Washington, 1985, p.143, no.64). One reason for the rarity of depicting vegetal waters is that many Pala bronzes were cast separately from their original stands representing the subject, as one stand from the 12th century in the Metropolitan Museum of Art demonstrates (2009.21a–c). Bronze sculptural lotus mandalas also show the stem rising from water, such as a Vajratara mandala in the Indian Museum, Kolkata (Ray, Eastern Indian Bronzes, 1986, nos.281a & b). But, based on the few known examples, including two superlative bronzes from the 10th and 11th century of Buddha and Avalokiteshvara with large openwork roundels (Ray, ibid., nos.232 & 233), and a further 11th-/12th-century Manjushri sold at Sotheby's, New York, 24 March 2011, lot 26 (for over two million dollars) with similar shallow scrollwork, this added symbolism was reserved for outstanding castings.
     
    The exceptional artist has embedded yet more symbolism into a technical detail of his creation. The waters brim with additional sprouts creeping over the sides of the lotus pedestal. The vines perform a structural function by supporting the figure, who would otherwise be connected to the base only by the weak point of the left foot. This technical knowhow was commonly employed by Pala artists, though rarely so elaborately. More often, long trailing scarfs or even a plain stem at the back were used as supports, as for a Hevajra in the Nyingjei Lam Collection (Weldon & Casey Singer, Sculptural Heritage of Tibet, London, 1999, p.21, fig.14). A later Tibetan copy of Vajrayogini in the Pala style shows a simple stem rising from the top of the base (HAR 57313), and another of Vajravarahi in the Metropolitan Museum of Art has a more elaborate support rising from the tail of a goose (2014.720.2). Yet, all pale in comparison to the creative vision and technical prowess exhibited by the variety of flowers reaching upward in celebration of this Vajravarahi.
     
    The 10th, 11th, and 12th centuries saw a period of religious and artistic transfer between India and Tibet known as the Second Dissemination of Buddhism in Tibet. While many sculptures imitating the Pala style were produced in Tibet during and after the Second Dissemination, the nuance and depth of this Vajravarahi's symbolism indicate an original model from Northeastern India. Indeed, the confident display of the knot tying Vajravarahi's belt at the small of her back, the crisp pendants hanging from her necklace, and the lozenges in the bangle around her left wrist, representing human bone ornaments sometimes used in tantric rituals, evince the intricate bronze casting of the late Pala period. The insistence on figural plasticity in India's material culture is alive in the suppleness of her waist and hamstrings. Rather than sacrifice a convincing portrayal of her balance in order to merely accomplish the iconography of her dancing, as is often done in Tibetan copies, the trajectory of sprouting flowers cater to an ideal representation of her pose. Moreover, whereas Indian religious art aims to entice the deity with a sensuous body to temporarily inhabit, a Tibetan icon's sacred energy is provided by consecrations lodged within it. Therefore, the absence of a consecration plate underneath the sculpture, or of any indication that it was ever meant to confine one, is another compelling indicator that the bronze is from Northeastern India. 
     
    Helping to narrow the dating of the bronze to c.11th century, the flaying knife (kartika) in Vajravarahi's right hand appears to have an early shape that subsequently fluctuates by the 13th century. Cast unambiguously here as a curved dagger, it differs from the wider crescent blades and ever-shifting positions of the handle represented across several 13th-century thangkas compiled as HAR set no.3765 ("Vajrayogini: Early Paintings"). However, an earlier Kadam thangka attributed c.1100 (HAR 35845) depicts a knife more akin to the dagger in the present bronze, and in equally exacting detail. A 12th-century Pala bronze of Vajravarahi preserved in the Potala Palace Collection, Lhasa, also shows her brandishing a curved dagger (von Schroeder, Buddhist Bronzes in Tibet, Vol.I, Hong Kong, 2001, no.94A), while its comparatively reductive ornamentation and posture suggest it is a later casting. An excellent stylistic comparison in stone from the early 11th century is a famous Pala stele of Hevajra in the Bangladesh National Museum (Huntington & Huntington, The Art of Ancient India, New York, 1999, p.399, fig.18.13). His flaming hair is similarly arranged into a fan-like coiffure above a crown of three dried skulls tied by a ribbon with upswept ends. His torque's pendants also appear modelled after tiger teeth, the long necklace that approaches his navel is made of strings of beads, and the severed heads he wears as a garland are similarly dwarfed by his size.
     
    By the end of the 10th century in Northeastern India, a new class of tantras ascended in popularity, centered around yidams such as Hevajra and Vajravarahi (cf. Linrothe, Ruthless Compassion, London, 1999, p.324). Called Anuttarayoga Tantras, or "Highest Yoga Tantras", they and their icons spread to the Tibetan Plateau as central practices during the Second Dissemination. As most Pala sculptures that remained in India were lost or buried during the onslaught of Muslim invasions at the start of the 13th century—which leveled the region's Buddhist monasteries—this Vajravarahi's buttery, un-encrusted surface, and cold gold pigmentation almost certainly indicate that it travelled to Tibet as an agent of the Second Dissemination.

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Saleroom notices

  • Please note this sculpture was on long-term loan to the Rubin Museum of Art, New York, from May 2012 to November 2020.
    This sculpture was also exhibited at the Rubin Museum of Art, in Masterworks of Himalayan Art 2019, from 19 April 2019 to 11 June 2020.
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A BRASS FIGURE OF VAJRAVARAHI   NORTHEASTERN INDIA, PALA PERIOD, CIRCA 11TH CENTURY
A BRASS FIGURE OF VAJRAVARAHI   NORTHEASTERN INDIA, PALA PERIOD, CIRCA 11TH CENTURY
A BRASS FIGURE OF VAJRAVARAHI   NORTHEASTERN INDIA, PALA PERIOD, CIRCA 11TH CENTURY
A BRASS FIGURE OF VAJRAVARAHI   NORTHEASTERN INDIA, PALA PERIOD, CIRCA 11TH CENTURY
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