Sunday, October 25, 2009


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Hong Kong, 2009

Background: Dr. Ankur Barua had graduated with distinction from the University of Hong Kong (MBuddStud, 2009). He had also completed two other Master Degrees, one from Sikkim Manipal University (MBAIT, 2007) while the other from Manipal University (MBBS-2000, MD in Community Medicine - 2003) and presently working in professional field.
Ms. M.A. Basilio is a nursing professional who has also a keen passion for conducting research on public health, religion and science.

First Publication on 26th October 2009
Buddhist Door, Tung Lin Kok Yuen, Hong Kong

Copyright © Ankur Barua and M.A. Basilio

Communication Address of Corresponding Author:
Block – EE, No.-80, Flat No.-2A,
Salt Lake City, Sector-2,
Kolkata - 700091, West Bengal, INDIA.
Mobile: +91-9434485543 (India), +852-96195078 (Hong Kong)


I wish to express my sincere gratitude and indebtedness to Prof. Dr. Dorothy Wong, visiting Professor of Buddhist Art at the Centre of Buddhist Studies in the University of Hong Kong for her constant encouragement, constructive criticism, personal attention and valuable guidance throughout this work.

I would like to express my sincere gratitude to my beloved father Dr. Dipak Kumar Barua, who was the earlier Dean of the Faculty Council for Postgraduate Studies in Education, Journalism & Library Science in the University of Calcutta (1987-1991) and the Director of Nava Nalanda Mahavihara, Nalanda (1996-1999) for his technical guidance and timely advice for this project.

I would also like to convey my sincere thanks to my beloved mother Mrs. Dipa Barua for showing keen interest and providing constant assistance and support during this endeavor.

Ankur Barua


Amoghapāśa (Avalokiteśvara Bodhisatta with the Unfailing Rope) is one of the popular esoteric forms of Avalokiteśvara, who protects all sentient, living beings by means of his rope of compassion and has their wishes fulfilled. This is why he is known as “the Bodhisatta with the Unfailing Rope (Amoghapāśa)”. This lasso of compassion is used to rope in all wayward sentient beings to the Dhamma, so that they do not fall into the three evil realms, and always guiding them on the Correct Path.1

The widespread worship of this deity first started in India, and then spread to the Himalayas, East Asia during the later part of the eighth century. Though the initiation of this Bodhisatta in East Asia remains unclear, but the examination of Amoghapāśa images suggests that the cult of Amoghapāśa in East Asia arose in the late seventh to eighth centuries. It was initiated by imperial patronage due to their devotion to the esoteric Avalokiteśvara with the concept of royalty and efficacy in protecting the state. Confounded by the lack of early Indian examples, the scholars of Indian art still believe that there must have been Indian precedents prior to the East Asian images.1,2

Early Textual Evidences of Amoghapāśa
Amoghapāśa owes his existence to the rise of the Diamond Vehicle (vajrayāna) in India and is mentioned in various works of esoteric Buddhism. The Amoghapāśakalparāja, the bulky Amoghapāśa-ritual is a masterpiece of the Mahāyānistic Tantra literature containing twenty-six chapters. The first chapter of this text was also published as the Amoghapāśahṛdaya Mahāyāna-sūtra.3
Several versions of the Amoghapāśa-dhāraṇi-sūtra4 have been translated into Chinese, most of them during the sixth and eighth centuries. The earliest known information on Amoghapāśa comes from Chinese translations of this text that were made by Jnānagupta in 587, Hsüan Tsang in 659, Bodhiruci in 693 and Amoghavajra in the seventh century.1 Tibetan versions of Amoghapāśahṛdaya texts emphasize Amoghapāśa’s role as a compassionate savior. Recitation of his mantras results in twenty blessings in this world and eight for those near death. 5,6,7

Early Appearance of Amoghapāśa Images during the Pāla Period Art in India
The significant period for the popularity of multiple-armed forms of Avalokiteśvara was the early part of the Pāla period (8th-12th centuries), for most images depicting multiple-armed forms date to either the ninth or tenth centuries. While four-armed forms are most commonly found, a smaller number of six-armed images also survive.8 These images were identified as of Amoghapāśa because of the presence of pāśa, which is a distinctive attribute of this form of Avalokiteśvara. 9

The exact origins of Amoghapāśa images are not yet clearly defined. The descriptions of Amoghapāśa are completely missing in the Indian texts, the Sādhanamālā10 and the Niṣpannayogāvalī11, which were used for iconographic identifications. However, descriptions of Amoghapāśa are found in Tibetan, Chinese and Japanese collections. A Nepalese manuscript of the Amoghapāśa Lokeśvara pūjā contains a description of the most popularly depicted eight-armed form of Amoghapāśa.6,12

R.O. Meisezahl has published descriptions of the eight-armed form preserved in the Tibetan Tanjur which are recorded to have come from Bengal and Kashmir. These descriptions all agree in prescribing the akṣamālā, pāśa, abhaya mudrā and varada mudrā for the right hands of the figure and the padmā, tridaṇḍī, pustaka and kamaṇḍalu for the left ones.12

The cintāmaṇi is an attribute of Avalokiteśvara, but usually associated with Cintāmaṇicakra Avalokiteśvara. The cintāmaṇi is viewed as the jewel which grants all wishes, a popular aspect of Avalokiteśvara’s nature, which is also connected to his ability to save an protect. Some earlier images of Amoghapāśa from Japan are also found to have this jewel as an attribute. However, a six-armed form of Amoghapāśa in India, described in the Sādanamālā, known as Pretasantarpita, also holds the jewel or cintāmaṇi. Interestingly, Pretasantarpita which is translated as “satiated with pretās, the hungry ghosts”, share some of the common functions as Amoghapāśa as the deliverer of beings from horrible existence of the hell.9,13

One of the earliest examples of Amoghapāśa image from India during 8th–9th century is the four-armed broken image at Udayagiri (Fig. 1). He is richly adorned and wears a jeweled diadem at the base of is jaṭā-mukuṭa coiffure. His third eye and the effigy of Amitābha in his coiffure are eroded. His head is framed by a plain halo which is flanked on either side by a goddess seated in vajraparyaṅka on a viśvapadma. The rosary and noose are both held in the uplifted back right hand while the principal right hand is lowered in vaada-mudrā. Only abhaya-mudrā of the eight-armed form is missing in the right hand of this image. The major left arm is broken at the elbow. The raised back left hand holds the Kamaṇḍalu. There are seven Mānuṣī buddhas flanked on the right by Vajrapāṇi and on the left by Maitreya, each figure being seated in Vajraparyaṅka, with the centre Buddha displaying dharachakra-mudrā. The lower part of the image below the knees is broken.14

In contrast, a standing four-armed image of Amoghapāśa at Ratnagiri has the noose held in one of the left hands (Fig. 2). This image, dated in 8th century, was found in the area of the banyan grove. He stands rigidly in a slightly flexed pose on a viśvapadma with his principal right hand lowered in varada while the uplifted back hand holds the rosary. His principal left hand held chest-high holds the stalk of a lotus while the uplifted back hand holds the noose. He is richly adorned and an effigy of Amitābha appears in is jaṭā-mukuṭa. He has a third-eye and his head is framed by an oval halo. The sides of the back-slab each contain a meandering lotus stalk branching out from the viśvapadma seat of Amoghapāśa and blossom opposite the halo of the deity where they each support a Tathāgata, Akṣobhya on the right and Amitābha on the left. The centre branch on the left is held in his raised principal left hand to blossom above his shoulder. In the fork made by the two branches of the stalk on the left is placed the kamaṇḍalu, replaced in the uplifted back hand by the noose. In this image there are three objects on the left side, though there are only two arms on this side. Amoghapāśa is flanked at the base by Tārā on the right and Bhṛkuti on the left, each seated in vajraparyaṅka.14

Some six-armed images of Avalokiteśvara, with one hand holding the lasso (pāśa), were found at Kurkihār and Amethi (Fig.3a). They belong to the 9th-10 centuries and are standing images wearing long dhotis and having antelope skins draped around their torsos. They are adorned with jewelry and crowned with a small image of Amitābha placed at the centre. Some of these images also hold the cintāmaṇi jewel on one of the right hands. They are attended by Tārā on the right side and Bhṛkuti, who is four-armed, on the left.9

It is obvious that there were two major iconographic forms of Amoghapāśa evolving in Orissa at this time, one with a noose in the right hand and another with a noose in the left hand. The addition of a third object or attribute on one side or the other in a four-armed image suggests the form is transitional leading to one that will have additional hands. A similar transition was noticed by J. Leoshko on some seated six-armed Pāla period images of Amoghapāśa where a book is added on the left side to make four attributes while the cintāmaṇi on the right side is replaced by abhaya-mudrā. The book and abhaya-mudrā are attributes of the eight-armed Amoghapāśa form as prescribed in texts. So, the only missing attribute is tridaṇdī.15

The paucity of six-armed and eight-armed images of Avalokiteśvara suggests an abrupt cessation in this line of development.16 The reason for this interruption, occurring near the end of the Bhauma period, is unknown. It could be as a result of changing tenets within the indigenous Buddhist sects or due to a change in external patronage.14

These incipient Orissan forms of Amoghapāśa evolved primarily from the four-armed image and do not exhibit many of the peculiar features prescribed in the later texts, such as a tiger-skin wrapped around the lower garment or the antelope-hide serving as a sacred thread. The number of companion deities varies from two to five with variable identities and genders, suggesting their iconography has not yet crystallized. The image of Sudhanakumāra, who is popular in textual descriptions of Amoghapāśa is absent, while Ekajaṭā appears only once or twice. Tārā, in contrast, seldom appearing in textual descriptions, appears in all Orissan examples.9,14

A few twelve-arm forms of Avalokiteśvara were found at Nālandā (Fig. 3b) and nearby Telhāra region which could be identified as Amoghapāśa. Although they do not completely correspond to the twelve-armed description published by Meisezahl, they hold a pāśa in one of their left hands. The images from Nālandā are early example of the eighth century and those from Telhāra dates to the early tenth century. These twelve-armed images of Amoghapāśa were popular at a few sites indicating localized practices of Amoghapāśa. 9

The popularity of the six-armed forms of Amoghapāśa in the Gayā region may reflect the influence of ideas or activities occurring at the nearby sites of Bodhgayā and Gayā.17 The Hindu tīrtha Gayā is considered to be a holy place for the performance of srāddha ceremonies for ancestors.14 These activities are concerned with the welfare of dead ancestors can be related to the Pretasantarpita form of Avalokiteśvara which was common with Amoghapāśa. According to the Amoghapāśahṛdhyadhāranīsūtra, Amoghapāśa is believed to deliver eight benefits at the hour of death to save the human beings from an unpleasant existence.18

Iconography of Early Image of Amoghapāśa from Nepal
Amoghapāśa Lokeshvara, a manifestation of the Bodhisatta Avalokiteshvara and one of the most popular deities in Nepal, is one of the eight tutelary deities of the Kathmandu valley. This sculpture of Amoghapāśa Lokeshvara (Fig. 4), with copper with traces of gilding and gold pigment, epitomizes the classical beauty of Licchavi period (c. AD 300-879) art in Nepal. Amoghapāśa's graceful posture (tribhanga) and gentle countenance are exquisitely rendered. Ornament is pared to the minimum to allow for the cleanest line. The sacred thread (upavita), antelope skin and scarf fall naturally over the god's youthful, sensuous form. The fan-like arrangement of Amoghapāśa's twelve-arm form a halo around his body. This is made of unalloyed copper, which is problematic to cast. But this is cast in one piece and entirely fire-gilt. Unfortunately, the arms have suffered damage and almost all are now displaced.12,19

Amoghapāśa is particularly popular in Nepal and is only rarely encountered in Tibet. However, this image has been worshipped in Tibet for an indeterminate period, as confirmed by the presence of traces of gold paint on the face and neck and blue pigment in the hair. The practice of applying paint to images in this manner is unknown in Nepal. Elegant facial expressions and sense of movement, the pronounced webbing between the fingers, seen here especially between the thumb and forefinger are iconographic features that appear throughout the Licchavi period.20 A pronounced nose, protruding lower lip and webbed fingers were standard sculptural features of this period which were derived from the ideals of the great artistic era of the Indian Gupta kings.12,19

Iconography of Early Image of Amoghapāśa from Tibet
In the Garbhakosa Maṇḍala of Tibet, Amoghapāśa is seated in the middle of the 3rd row of the Lotus Section. Amoghapāśa here is white-fleshed and 3-eyed in each of the three faces. He has 4-arms and wears a robe of deerskin (Fig. 5). The two important attributes of this form of Amoghapāśa Avalokiteśvara are the infallible lasso and Vajra of Equal Guidance.1,6 The indication of Hindu influences on the esoteric Buddhist iconography is evident from the inclusion of multiple arms and multiple heads, depicting the superhuman power and efficacy similar to Maheśvara, a form of Śiva.21
Iconography of Early Images of Amoghapāśa from China
A group of esoteric images dating to late seventh and early eighth centuries at Longmen, reflects the influence of Esoteric Buddhism fostered by the patronage of the Empress Wu. The eight-armed Bodhisatta at Longmen could have been an incipient form of Amoghapāśa.22 Buddhism was an instrument to augment her political status and legitimacy for Empress Wu. She promoted the cults of Amoghapāśa and other esoteric Avalokiteśvaras, notably the Eleven-headed Avalokiteśvara and the Thousand-armed Avalokiteśvara, invoking their powers to protect the state. It was the same ideological principles that took shape in Japan about half a century later, focusing on Todaiji.23

There is no existing representation of this Bodhisatta dating to the late seventh and early eighth centuries from China at present. The only known example comes from Dunhuang Cave 148 which dates to 776; the statue is lost but there are murals depicting the benefits of worshiping this Bodhisatta.24
One maṇḍala of Avalokiteśvara as Amoghapāśa (Amojia Guanyin), also known as Bukongjuansuo Guanyin, was found in one of the Mogao caves near Dunhuang. In this maṇḍala of the tenth century, Amoghapāśa sits in an eight-pointed star at the center of the painting as the primary deity (Fig. 6). He is surrounded by a circle of vajras and placed within a square foundation with protective deities at the four cardinal directions. He wears a crown and jewelry and holds a lasso, the traditional lotus and a rosary in three of his four arms. Additional forms of Avalokiteśvara alternate with attendant deities in the eight peaks of the stars. The four-armed wish-granting Avalokiteśvara Monibao Guanyin) and the powerful thousand-armed manifestation (Qianshou Guanyin) appear at either side of five buddhas in the upper portion of the painting. The buddhas, who are echoed by the smaller images in their crowns and in that of the principal icon, represent the five lineages of Buddhism. Buddha Vairocana, identified by his white color, is the central and largest of the five. The donors are depicted at the bottom of this painting.25

In Fowan Cave 136 in the Beishan caves, Dazu, Sichuan, dated to 1142-1146, Amoghapāśa is portrayed as seated with six arms, holding two round discs in the upper two hands (for Sunlight and Moonlight Bodhisattas), a bowl and a willow branch in the middle two hands, and a sword and an axe in the outer two hands (Fig. 7). The Bodhisatta has an elaborate floral crown with Amitābha at the top is lost, and florid jewelry on the chest. The two attendants by the side of the pedestal represent Vasiṣṭha and Lakṣmi. In later Chinese iconography the two attendant figures for Avalokiteśvara have transformed into a young boy, Sudhana and a young Dragon Girl, revealing a process of local adaptation.2
Iconography of Early Images of Amoghapāśa from Japan
The earliest representation of Amoghapāśa in Japan (J. Fukūkenjaku Kannon), dated 748 is in the Sangatsudō (Hall of the Third month) of Tadaiji, Nara (Fig. 8). This Amoghapāśa image is a grandiose artistic masterpiece of 3.62 meters high, with a vivid countenance and thick and round cheeks with an austere expression. This ancient image of Amoghapāśa, having three eyes and eight arms, realistically curved and painted with dry lacquer technique introduced from China. His two central hands are pressed in front in the praying gesture, holding the cintāmaṇi, while the other hands hold emblems that include a lotus, pilgrim's staff, and lasso. A separate piece of lacquered cloth covers the shoulders to represent the deer skin. The halo and light rays behind the statue are rendered in openwork metal, with attached flame patterns. The figure appears heavy, with drapery folds hanging on the two legs. The creation of this image is thought to have been a response to Emperor Shomu's decree that provincial temples install statues of this divinity.1,2,26

Formerly, a huge picture scroll of cloth representing Amoghapāśa was hanging in the Hall of the Great Buddha (Daibutsuden) of the Tōdaiji. The figure of the Bodhisatta was 35 feet high and 25 feet wide. It had been constructed by the order of Empress Kōken to console the late Empress Dowager Kōmyō, her mother who was a worshipper of Amoghapāśa. Due to the perishable nature of the material, the hangings no longer exist, but more than 1000 characters of the inscriptions along the borders of the hangings have been recorded.1,26

Daianji was an important state-sponsored temple in the first half of the eighth century before being eclipsed by Todaiji which was dedicated in 752. During 749, at Daianji in Nara, a painting of Vairocana Buddha (30 shaku tall) was installed as the main icon, flanked by paintings of Amoghapāśa and Thousand-armed Avalokiteśvara (15 shaku tall each). These were thought to precede the iconography of the triad of Vairocana and two Avalokiteśvaras at Todaiji.
Carved in wood in the Single-block technique, a standing Amoghapāśa of Daianji, has eight arms; the attributes held in various hands have been lost (Fig. 9). The face and body are rendered fully, while the jewelry and drapery on the surface are naturalistically carved and detailed. This heavy style is found in sculptures of mid-to late eighth-century associated with the Todaiji and Toshodaiji workshops, including the Sangatsudo Amoghapāśa. The Amoghapāśa images at Ratnagiri in India, during 8th–10th centuries, all have four to six arms and do not show the deer skin. They appear to have no connections to these early Japanese examples.2,27

Iconography of Early Images of Amoghapāśa from Java, Sumatra and Bali
No existing text from Indonesia mentions the Amoghapāśa form of Avalokiteśvara. A sādhana written by Kaśmīri Śakyaśrībadra (1127-1225), now present only in its Tibetan translation, describes the white Amoghapāśa. The Jago Amoghapāśa closely fits this description, though he lacks the antelope skin upavīta. This sādhana also mentions Amoghapāśa’s attendants Hayagrīva, Sudhanakumāra, Bhṛkuṭī and Tārā.7

The remarkably beautiful statues of the Bodhisatta Amoghapāśa Lokeśvara and his retinue are found at Candi Jago in East Java have been cited as evidence of a new wave of religious and stylistic influences from the Pāla kingdom in eastern India. The Amoghapāśa statues found here are assisted by four attendants, four cosmic buddhas (Jina Buddhas) and their four śakti. Of the thirteen statues that originally made up this Amoghapāśa maṇḍala, only the central image remains in situ (Fig. 10), standing in the courtyard of the temple.7

Though the central stone stele of Amoghapāśa is damaged, with the head and several hands missing, but it reflects former grandeur (Fig. 10). From the ankle to the neck it measures 1.5 meters. He wears a damaged waistband and a long sarong with shallow folds on either side of his legs and also running down the middle. On the upper right thigh the face of a tiger can be seen and the legs of this tiger skin drape down onto each of the thighs. On either side of him are lotus plants that grow up from wavy lines that look like roots. This is thought to be a hallmark of Singasari-period sculpture. According to Stamford Raffles, who visited Jago in 1815; the image’s head had been removed and taken to Malang by a Dutch man several years earlier. Despite the removal of the head of the statue, the three folds of the neck (trivala) are still visible on the torso. Though most of the attributes in the hands are damaged, but the most important attribute still preserved for identification of this statue is the pāśa or noose held in the second uppermost right hand. The figure’s uppermost right hand holds an akṣamālā (rosary) and the other two lower right hands are broken. On the left side, the uppermost hand holds a book, the next is missing, the third hand holds a stick like object which could be a lotus stem and the lower hand is also missing. The statues of Amoghapāśa’s attendants were also found at Jago and they were much better preserved than the main image. Today, all four attendants stand together at the Museum Nasional in Jakarta, Indonesia.7 Stylistically; the statues that comprise the Amoghapāśa maṇḍala are remarkably different from the bas-reliefs that encircle the temple. These reliefs have a flattening abstraction of the human figures resembling that of traditional Javanese shadow-puppets. The free-standing sculpture of Amoghapāśa and is attendants, in strong contrast, are naturalistic. The difference in styles provides the evidence that these images were imported from India or made by immigrant sculptors and their students.7

Another image of Amoghapāśa was produced by King Kṛtanagara, the last of the Singasai dynasty in an attempt to replicate the image at Jago (Fig. 11). This sculpture, which was found near Rambahan in West Sumatra, has three inscriptions: a dated one at the base (1286), another on the back of the stele and a third at the feet of the deity. The second inscription is from the mid-fourteenth century; the third is highly eroded and has never been translated. The stone stele has borne significant damage, especially at the top.7
An image of Amoghapāśa was also found in Bali (Fig. 12), which is now restored in a closed shrine at the Pura Puseh in Kutri, central Bali. The figure stands in a stiff stance against a plain stele, with a raised halo around the head. His dress and ornaments are elaborate. There are three bracelets around the each wrist, numerous bows and slashes at his waist, and large pleats of fabric that fall by his knees and twisted upward over his hands. His attributes are slightly different from the Jago Amoghapāśa. On his left side from bottom to top he holds a kamaṇḍalu (vase), a missing attribute, a śaṅkha (conch) and a padma (lotus). On his right, his lower hand is broken, then akṣamālā (rosary), nāga (snake) and an angkuśa (elephant prod). Here, the conch replaces the book and the angkuśa replaces the abhaya mudrā. The nāga might be transformed into nāgapāśa (snake noose) in later images. Though the face of this image is severely damaged, but Stutterheim proposed that the image was a portrait of Dhammawangśa (Wiṣṇuwardhana),28 a Balinese ruler (1022-1026) known for his inscriptions.7

The cult of Amoghapāśa, originating from India, was widespread at Dunhuang and in Sichuan, Java, Sumatra, Bali, Japan and received impetus from the Himalayan tradition as well as local adaptations. Though the Amoghapāśahṛdaya Mahāyāna-sūtra also describes the iconography in making images of this Bodhisatta, and the rituals attending the worship, but the study of images shows a wide variation in following these instructions. Numerous early appearances of Amoghapāśa images outside of India provide the evidence that widespread popularity of Amoghapāśa was not limited to surviving texts. The oppression associated with the revival of Hinduism followed by the Muslim invasion of the Gangetic plains had led to the widespread destruction of Buddhist monasteries and mass killing of Buddhist monks during the 12th Century CE. This had resulted in the extinction of this Amoghapāśa cult from India, which was its place of origin. However, the various traditions of representation of Amoghapāśa, which had evolved independently in India and East Asia during the eighth to tenth centuries6,7, need to be investigated in detail for better understanding of the history of evolution of Buddhist art and archeology.

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