Haderer E. The Representation of the Sixteen Karmapas in the Stupa of Elista/Kalmykia
// Сборник «Буддизм Ваджраяны в России: история и современность».
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In this paper, I would like to present the essential results of my ph.D.-paper in Art History on the development of the representation of the sixteen Karmapas (tib.: karma pa) of Tibet. The Karmapas have been the spiritual heads of the Karma Kagyu School (tib.: bka’ brgyud) of Tibetan Buddhism since the 12th century. Due to their importance as fully accomplished meditation masters they (tib.: bka’ brgyud) have ever been depicted on painted scrolls (tib.: thang ka), wall paintings and in form of bronzes in Tibetan art.
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Fig. 1: Stupa of Enlightenement in Elista/Kalmykia, bilt in 1998/1999.(see Tolek Sokolov, Ein Stupa in Kalmückien (in: Buddhistmus Heute, Nr. 26, München 1999, p. 56 – 62))

Within four years of research, I visited the most important museums and Buddhist centers of the Karma Kagyu lineage where I found some of the finest Karmapa paintings and bronzes from the 13th to the 21st Centuries. In 2004, I also made an expedition to Russia where I visited the stupa of Elista in Kalmykia (see fig. 1). The wall paintings inside the stupa (see fig. 9–14, 17) were done by the Tibetan master artist Denzong Norbu (b. 1937) in 2001 in cooperation with his Russian and Western students. The paintings show the successive lineage holders of the Karma Kagyu transmission, in particular the sixteen Karmapas and the Shamarpas. (The Shamarpas, the «red hat» lamas, take the palce of a Karmapa after his death. Since the 13th Centruy they have been responsible for the discovery and the education of the Karmapa incarnations). The Karmapa representations in Elista are one of the most outstanding examples for high-qualitiy contemporary Karma Gardri Buddhist art.
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After the occupation of Tibet in 1959, Tibetan Buddhism and as well the Karma Kagyu tradition and its art have been continually moving to the West. Since then the remaining treasures of Tibetan Buddhist art have been dispersed all over the world. Now, the last great masters of the 1300 year-old Tibetan art traditions want to pass on their knowledge and experience to the people in the West and in Russia in order that it will not be lost. A steadily growing number of Western and Russian artists have already received for example the authentic transmission of the Karma Gardri tradition. One can say, that Buddhism has come to the West as once it came from India to Tibet.


In Tibetan art, the Karmapas are depicted in their representative function as highest lineage lamas of the Karma Kagyu tradition (see e.g. fig. 5) and in their yidam form which is used as a visual guideline for the meditation on the 2nd, 8th and 1st Karmapas (see fig. 16).

Generally, the Karmapas can be identified by inscriptions — which are often missing — and special iconographic features such as an individual appearance, different hand gestures (skt. mudra; tib. phyag rgya) and various attributes or ritual objects they hold in their hands. These have a deep spiritual and symbolic meaning and express their enlightened activity for the good of all beings.


The trademark of the Karmapas is the black hat (see fig. 2) or Black Crown (see fig. 3), which they wear on their head.

According to the Tibetans, each of the Karmapas is surrounded by a black, transparent energy field of a pectagonal form that expresses their spiritual accomplishment and can only be perceived by those with special spiritual abilities (skt. siddhi). The first Karmapa Dusum Khyenpa (1110–1193) who lived in the 12th Century was presented this black «hat» by the Dakinis (female enlightened beings) when he reached full enlightenment. It is said to be made out of their black hair and it is a symbol of his enlightened qualities. The Chinese Mingemporer Yunglo (r. 1402–1424) who was a student of the 5th Karmapa Deshin Shegpa (1384–1415) in the 15th Century was once able to see this black energy field floating above the head of his teacher. Inspired by this he commissioned a precious replica of it and
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gave it to Deshin Shegpa. From this time on the Karmapas used the Black Crown for a special initiation ceremony.

In Tibetan art, the Karmapas can be identified by this black hat. On most representations the first four Karmapas wear a simple black hat (see fig. 2) with two golden stripes and a rhomboid symbol at the front and a golden elevation at the top. All the other Karmapas, the 5th Karmapa to the 16th, are shown with the Black Crown which is decorated with two golden stripes, a double dorje symbol (skt. visha vajra, tib. sna tshogs rdo rje), a sun and a half moon symbol at the front, stylized Chinese cloud decorations at each side and a golden top with a ruby (see fig. 3).

fig. 2: The black hat of the Karmapas (Detail, fig.)

fig. 3: The Black Crown of the Karmapas (Detail, fig.)


In the course of time, special iconographic types have been developed for all of them. Depending on their specific historical and spiritual influence, some of the Karmapas like the 1st Karmapa Dusum Khyenpa (1110–1193) (see fig. 5, 13), the 8th Karmapa Mikyo Dorje (1507–1554) (see fig. 14–16) or the 16th Karmapa Rangjung Rigpe Dorje (1923–1981) (see fig. 17), have a special position within the Karma Kagyu lineage. Therefore, these Karmapas have been more often depicted in Tibetan art and several iconographic types have formed in the course of time concerning their representation.

This process was also influenced by many factors like the artistic preferences of a certain period of time, the wishes of the sponsor, the used
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text sources and meditation instructions (skt. sadhana), the art tradition the artist belonged to and also the creativity and whim of the artist. Besides that, copying famous older paintings and using them as a model has always played a crucial part in the history of Tibetan art.

In general, one can say that a special Karmapa iconography started to form during the 18th and 19th Centuries. This process is particularly connected with the activity of the 8th Situpa Chokyi Chungne (1700–1771) who was a lineage holder of the Karma Kagyu tradition and a brilliant scholar and exceptional artist of his time. The 8th Situpa is said to have painted a famous thangka set of the successive lineage holders of the Karma Kagyu lineage

fig. 4: The 1st (?) Karmapa Dusum Khyenpa (1110–1193), thangka, colour on silk, central Tibet, c. 13th Century, 54, 6 x 48,3 cm (Rubin collection, New York).

fig. 5: The 1st Karmapa Dusum Khyenpa (1110–1193) and Gampopa, thangka, colour on canvas central Tibet, 16th Century, 86,9 x 60,3 cm (Rubin collection, New York).

including the portraits of the Karmapas. The set was copied many times until today and has influenced the development of the Karmapa iconography in contemporary Tibetan art (see fig. 7, 8).

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The first Karmapa paintings date back to the 13th Century. The Rubin collection in New York possesses a golden silk thangka from about the 13th/14th Century (see fig. 4). It shows a figure which wears a black hat with a sun and a half moon symbol and sits in full meditation posture on a lotus and a moon disc. With its hands it performs the dharmawheel gesture (skt. dharmachakra-mudra; tib. chos kyi ‘khor lo ‘i phyag rgya) in front of the heart. The center of the composition is taken by two life-sized foot prints and the background is filled with lotus tendrils in between which the eight auspicious symbols are arranged. The upper rim of the painting is made up of an honour parasol. The parasol and the foot-prints have been symbols for Buddhahood since the early times of Indian Buddhist art. They designate the figure as a high Tibetan lama as the Karmapa is. The early date of origin of the thangka, the black hat of the figure and the dharmawheel gesture it performs indicate that it is the 1st Karmapa Dusum Khyenpa (1110–1193) shown in the painting.

Early Karmapa representations (c. 13th/14th Century) were mainly influenced by Indian and Nepalese art traditions (see fig. 4). From the 15th Century on, Tibetan paintings were executed in the Menri-stlye (see fig. 5) which was one of the first independent art traditions in Tibet which additionally incorporated elements of Chinese art.


In the middle of the 16th Century the Karma Gardri style (tib.: ka rma sgar bris) emerged and from that time on a majority of the Karmapa paintings were done in this significant painting style which particularly followed Chinese models (see fig. 6). The painting tradition was inspired by the 8th Karmapa Mikyo Dorje who was a great artist himself and who used to travel through Tibet accompanied by a big camp of students. The name Karma Gardri derives from this Tibetan tradition and literally means «the style of the Karmapa encampment». Typical of this refined painting school are an open landscape composition with scattered symbolic elements like plants, animals and buildings, the use of azurite blue and malachite green which derives from Chinese paintings of the Ming time (1368–1644), the light and translucent colour application and the exact rendering of details such as the faces of the figures, cloth patterns and jewellery. The main figure is positioned asymmetrically at either the left or the right side of the painting whereas the
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fig. 6: The 9th Karmapa Wangchug Dorje (1556–1603), thangka, colour on canvas, Eastern Tibet, 16th/17th century, Karma Gardri-style, 124,4 x 82,5cm (Navin Kumar collection). collection, New York).

fig. 7: The 9th Karmapa Wangchug Dorje (1556–1603), thangka, colour on canvas, eastern Tibet, Gonpo Dorje, 19th/20th Century.

fig. 8: The 9th Karmapa Wangchug Dorje (1556–1603), line drawing, line drawing, Christopher Banigan, late 20th Century (see Karma Thinley).

attending figures — lamas, students, yidams and protectors — are arranged on the outer rims of the painting in the landscape or the sky.


The paintings in the Stupa of Elista in Kalmykia/Russia are an example of a contemporary Karma Gardri work of art (see Introduction) (see fig. 9–14, 17) On the walls of the square room inside the stupa the holders of the Karma Kagyu tradition are depicted. The transmission lineage startes with Buddha Diamondholder (skt. Vajradhara / tib. rdo rje ‘chang) and continues with the Indian mahasiddhas Tilopa, Naropa, the Tibetan translator Marpa who brought the Kagyu teachings to Tibet, his student Gampopa and the 1st Karmapa Dusum Khyenpa (see fig. 13).

The following fifteen Karmapas and the ten Sharmarpas are arranged in chronological order in two horizontal lines at each wall and respectively
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fig. 9: The Lineage Holders of the Karma Kagyu Tradition, Denzong Norbu (b. 1937), 2001, Elisat/Kalmykia (Detail, right wall).

the opposite wall (see fig. 9). They sit on elaborate wooden thrones which are decorated with stylized flaming jewels, dragon-and lion heads and fine throne drapery that is ornamented with lotus and cloud patterns (see fig. 11). The Karmapas are dressed in the threefold, red-coloured monk’s robe that consists of the lower cloth (tib. mthang gos), the other cloth (tib. bla gos) and the half skirt (tib. sham thab) or shawl which is a kind of coat. They are depicted in slight profile and their heads are surrounded by a transparent mandorla and whisps of clouds. The background is made up of a landscape made up of softly sloped green hills inbetween which delicate flowers, rocks and animlas such as different kinds of birds (see fig. 12) or deer (see fig. 11) are placed. At the horizon mountain peaks loom into the azurite blue sky. The sophisticated colour graduations and the staggered placement of the figures create a threedimensinal effect and depth of space. The colours are
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fig. 10: The 16 Karmapa Rangjung Rigpe Dorje (1923–1981) (middle), the 9 th Shamarpa Kunchog Jungne (1733–1741) (left) and the 9 th Karmapa Wangchug Dorje (1556–1603) (Detail, see fig. 9, back wall).

bright and shiny and the application of colour is strong. Revolutionary of are the name inscriptions of the figures which are done in Cyrillic letters and not as usual in Tibetan (see fig. 12).

The faces of the Karmapas clearly show individual features but the portraits have not been painted in a naturalistic way. In particular, the traits of the 16 th Karmapa show simularities with photographs of him (see fig. 17). The trend of reproducing faces in a highly photo-realistic way is typical of contemporary depictions of Tibetan lamas and is also common in recent Asian Buddhist art. Generally, the types of portraits used for Karmapa depictions correspond with Dietrich Seckel’s definition of the so called «traditional portrait». Here, the person or Buddhist lama who is depicted on a painting has already died some time before and the artist has used historical or oral sources for visualizing the individual’s appearance.
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fig. 11: The 12 th Karmapa Changchub Dorje (1703–1732) (Detail, see fig. 9).

fig. 12: Peacocks (Detail, see fig. 9).

fig. 13: The 1 st Karmapa Dusum Khyenpa (1110–1193) (Detail, see fig. 9).

fig. 14: The 8 th Karmapa Mikyo Dorje (1507–1554) (Detail, see fig. 9).

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The representation of the sixteen Karmapas in the stupa of Elista is characteristic for their iconography (see above).


In Tibetan art, the 1st Karmapa is generally shown with the his characteristic features: a prominent lower jaw, a stubbly beard, grey hair and a wrinkled face that indicate his high age. On most representations he performs the dharmawheel gesture in front of his chest. (see fig. 13)


On paintings he is usually shown performing the dharmawheel gesture in front of his heart (see fig. 14). As a bronze statue he can hold his right hand in the gesture of granting refuge (skt.: śaranagamana-mudrā; tib.: skyabs sbyin gyi phyag rgya) at the level of the chest while he clasps a text with his left

fig. 15: The 8th Karmapa Mikyo Dorje (1507–1554), bronze, 2004, (Buddhist center of the Karma Kagyu lineage Hamburg).

fig. 16: The 8th Karmapa as a yidam form, thangka, colour on canvas, 20 th /21 st Century, Karma Gardri style (private collection).

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hand which rests in meditation gesture in his lap (see fig. 15). Furthermore, he can have a youthful face or that of an old man with wrinkles and grey hair. As a yidam form he has crossed hands at his heart in the diamond gesture (skt. Hūmkāra-mudrā; tib.: hum mdzad kzi phyag rgya, rdo rje phyag rgya) and holds a dorje and a bell in them (see. fig. 16).


The 16th Karmapa holds a golden dorje in his right hand and a silver bell in his left hand and sometimes also two lotus flowers on which a book and a sword lie. Typical of his representation is the diamond gesture which he performs in front of his heart (see fig. 17).

fig. 17: The 16th Karmapa Rangjung Rigpe Dorje (1923-1981) (Detail, see fig. 9).

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The paintings in the stupa of Elista are an example for that Tibetan Buddhism and its art is getting gradually transferred to modern Western societies. After the destruction of Buddhism in Kalmykia and Buryatia during the communist era in Russia, the teachings of the Buddha are now being revived by a new generation of Russian Dharma practitioners. Since about 30 years, more and more people have get acquainted with Tibetan Buddhism and its art in the West and in Russia. At the moment, many exhibitions and events take place in this field and Buddhist art has become popular as never before. In the future, Tibetan thangkas, wall paintings and Buddha statues of high quality will be produced in the West and in Russia to fit the needs of the Dharma practitioners there (see: Astrid Schmidhuber, «In Zukunft wollen wir die Statuen in Europa herstellen». Interview mit dem Thangka-Maler Norbu (in: Buddhismus Heute, Nr. 40/2006, München 2006, p. 77–79)). This development is demonstrated in the paintings of the stupa in Elista where Russian and Western artists got the transmission of executing traditional Tibetan art in a modern context. One can say that Tibetan Buddhism and its art has already arrived in the West.

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