Buddhist practice and Buddhist art have been inseparable in the Himalayas ever since Buddhism arrived to the region in the eighth century. But for the casual observer it can be difficult to make sense of the complex iconography. Not to worry—Himalayan art scholar Jeff Watt is here to help. In this “Himalayan Buddhist Art 101” series, Jeff is making sense of this rich artistic tradition by presenting weekly images from the Himalayan Art Resources archives and explaining their roles in the Buddhist tradition. 

Hats: Traditional History vs. Art History

Traditional Buddhist history, both textual documentation and oral history, tend to dominate Himalayan and Tibetan studies. In the study of Buddhist Himalayan art, this proclivity for traditional history often devalues the considerations of art history, which might be considered less relevant. Here, I will present two clear examples that demonstrate how art history might aid our understanding of two pressing issues in Tibetan Buddhist studies involving hats. (Yes, there are pressing hat issues.)

The first involves the modern trademark Sakya hat—what is considered the traditional hat of the Sakya tradition and its sub-schools. The traditional history of the Sakya School tells the story of how Chogyal Pagpa (1235–1280) originated the distinctive look by taking up and folding across the crown of the Pandita hat its lappets, which traditionally hung down over the right and left shoulders. The reason given for this alteration is that the lappets would often get in the way when the teacher was performing rituals and initiations. Chogyal Pagpa simply wanted the lappets out of his face.

Art history’s investigation contradicts this history, relegating it to the world of myth. There are no known examples in Himalayan art—paintings, murals, or sculptures—prior to the late-16th century that depict a Sakya hat with lappets folded across the crown of the head. This evidence, or lack thereof, suggests that the current style of the Sakya hat only came into fashion in the 16th century, and was then copied in art in the latter part of that same century. It has been the dominant style ever since.

The second hat controversy involves the famous black hat of the Karmapas, worn only by the successive incarnations of the Karma Kagyu Tradition. Both textual documentation and oral history recount that the hat was gifted to the First Karmapa Dusum Khyenpa by dakinis, and that it would remain invisible to all but the most spiritually advanced. It is said that when the Fifth Karmapa visited China, the emperor perceived the mythical black hat perched on his head. The emperor subsequently had an ornate replica of the black hat created, and gave it to the Karmapa so that all could behold its wonder.

The discipline of art history has a different story to tell. Depictions of the Second and Third Karmapas created while they were still living or shortly after they passed away show them wearing black hats. Most early depictions prior to the Fifth Karmapa’s visit to China clearly display black hats atop the heads of the First through Fourth Karmapas. And when we look at the Mongolian and Xia textual and oral histories, both cultures claim to have given the first black hat to the Second Karmapa during his travels to those regions.

These are just two examples of how the study of visual culture and art history can add to, or challenge, our understandings of religious histories in general. In the study of Himalayan and Tibetan hats, art must be taken as a principal source of documentation, especially with regard to the iconic religious hats and their development over time.




Chogyal Pagpa. Central Tibet, 1500–1599. Sakya and Ngor (Sakya) lineages. Ground mineral pigment on cotton. Ngor Painting School. Private collection.

Ngor Khenchen. Tibet, 1600–1699. Sakya, Ngor Buddhist lineages. Ground mineral pigment on cotton. Collection of Rubin Museum of Art.

Karma Pakshi (2nd Karmapa). Tibet, 1200–1299. Karma (Kagyu) Buddhist lineages. Ground mineral pigment on cotton. Private collection.

Wangchug Dorje (9th Karmapa ). Tibet, 1700–1799 Karma (Kagyu), Drukpa (Kagyu) Buddhist lineages. Ground mineral pigment on cotton. Private collection.

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