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.

This week Jeff takes a look at artistic renderings of King Gesar of Ling, folk hero in Tibetan epic literature.

Himalayan Art 101: King Gesar of Ling

Tibet, 18th century, Buddhist lineage, ground mineral pigment on cotton, private collection.

King Gesar of Ling is a well-known subject in Tibetan literature and has been a popular topic of Western study for over one-hundred years, with numerous books and articles written about him to show for it. Gesar as a figure in art, however, has not received the same level of attention.

Gesar was an early eastern Tibetan folk hero. There is some debate regarding the actual history and dates surrounding his life and, moreover, whether he was in fact a real person at all. While the epic literature and adventures of Gesar are old, the art is not—the oldest painting to date is from the 18th century (probably from around 1750). It is certainly possible that earlier images might be found, but as of now, this is it. Shown here, the painting depicts a scene from the life story of Gesar, and is suspected to belong to a larger series of compositions, though no other paintings from the set have ever been located or identified.

1960, private collection.

The most common image of Gesar depicts the folk hero atop a horse, wearing Tibetan warrior garb, clad in armor and a helmet with elaborate flag pennants and streamers. Sometimes he is accompanied by large numbers of similar horse-riding figures. Alternately, he might be surrounded by thirteen animals, spiritual familiars, and messengers always at the ready to accomplish the wishes of the King.

The second-most-common form that Gesar takes in both painting and sculpture is that of a seated king flanked by attendants and servants. He wears a white felt hat and heavy clothing with felt boots. This form of Gesar is relatively new, making its first appearance in the late 19th century and continuing to this day.

Only two sets of paintings depicting the life story of Gesar are known to exist, though a number of individual paintings and sculptures reside in various museums and private collections throughout the world. The individual works are not related so much to the epic literature or oral narratives of Gesar, but rather to the development of a religious Gesar, or ritual Gesar, which began in the late 17th and early 18th centuries.

The majority of artwork portraying King Gesar was produced at the turn of the 20th century and owes its popularity to important figures of that day, such as Mipham Jamyang Namgyal Gyamtso (1846-1912) and Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo (1820-1892). 

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