Saturday, August 13, 2005

Mongolia | Ulaan Baatar | Zanabazar Art Museum

“During his lifetime, he was the greatest Buddhist sculptor in Asia.”—Art Historian Patricia Berger, on Zanabazar
Wandered into the Zanabazar Fine Arts Museum. I have of course been here dozens of times but I went back again for one more look at Zanabazar’s art works. There is also an art show by ubiquitous Mongolian Buddhist artist Purevbat in progress but the walls are plastered with signs warning that photography is prohibited and violators will be prosecuted, so no photos of that.

Anyhow, when you enter the main part of the museum you are first confronted with a large statue of the museum’s namesake on a landing off the staircase to the second floor. Just beyond, the middle hall on the second floor contains as its centerpiece Zanabazar’s magnificent twenty-seven inch-high Sitatara, or White Tara, considered by many to be his greatest work.

White Tara
Zanabazar came about his devotion to Tara naturally. The famous Tibetan lama Taranatha, believed to be the previous incarnation of Zanabazar (see Incarnations of Javsandamba), was the author of The Golden Rosary Illuminating the Origins of the Tantra of Tara, one of the main texts of the Tara mythologem, and was himself one of the main proponents of the so-called Cult of Tara. (Taranatha also wrote History of Buddhism in India.) During Zanabazar’s first trip to Tibet (1649-51) he visited Punksokling Monastery, which had been established by Taranatha in 1614, and acquired there several works of art, some of which may have been Taras which later inspired his own work. According to legend the White Tara in the Zanabazar Art Museum is modeled on Zanabazar’s wife or consort, Dorjiinnaljirmaa, as a young teen-aged woman. Curiously, monks now tell two versions of this legend. In one Dorjiinnaljirmaa was a beautiful girl as depicted in the Tara statue. In another version Dorjiinnaljirmaa was remarkably ugly, and the statue represents an idealized version of her. It should be noted that this statue of White Tara has been known to have a strange effect on whose who view it. Two people I know claim that while standing in front of the statue Tara actually spoke to them inside their heads, while others assert that they had vivid dreams about Tara after viewing the statue. I myself was first inspired to write Guide to Locales Connected with Life of Zanabazar while standing here in front of White Tara.

In the same room with White Tara are four of Zanabazar’s famous set of five Transcendent, or Dhyana Buddhas. Each is twenty-eight inches high, similar in general design, but with distinctive hand gestures associated with each Buddha and slightly different facial expressions and ornamentation. This set of five statues was created by Zanabazar in 1683, presumably at his workshop at Tovkhon. The record is unclear, but the statues may be been intended for Sardgiyn Khiid, the construction of which was nearing completion at that time and which Zanabazar meant to make the center of Buddhism in Mongolia. The Five Transcendent Buddhas are:

Akshobya—Hands in earth-touching gesture; represents the Center of the Buddhist universe, suppresses wrath.

Vairocana—Hands in gesture of “turning the wheel of the law”; represents the East, suppresses ignorance.

Amitabha—Hands folded in contemplation; represents the West, suppresses passion.

Amoghasiddhi—One hand raised in the “fear not” gesture; represents the North, suppresses envy.
Ratnasambhava (currently located in the Choijin Lama Museum)—Hand outstretched in charity; represents the South, suppresses pride.

A foot-high bronze Buddha is attributed by the museum to Zanabazar, and a twenty-two inch high standing Manjusri, the Bodhisattva of Wisdom, is attributed to Zanabazar or his school.


The large painting of Zanabazar is according to tradition a self-portrait, done by Zanabazar himself, although art historians have pointed out Chinese influences in the painting which would have been alien to Zanabazar own style. Curiously, he is shown here with a full head of hair, instead of conspicuously bald, as he appears in most statues. A portrait of Zanabazar’s mother Kandjamts is also by tradition attributed to Zanabazar, although it is done in much the same style and the “self-portrait” and probably dates from a later period. There is also a chart showing Zanabazar’s famous Soyombo script which he invented in 1686 to transcribe Mongolian, Tibetan, and Sanskrit words, as well a red mineral paint handprint on silk cloth said to be from Zanabazar‘s own hand.

On the staircase leading to the second floor is a large painting identified as the “Red Warrior” by famous Russian artist, mystic, and Shambhalist Nicholas Roerich. This is probably the painting “Ruler of Shambhala” which Roerich donated to the Mongolian government when he visited Ulaan Baatar in 1927. According to Mongolian tradition the last Bogd Gegen will be reborn as a general in the army of the 25th King of Shambhala and lead the final battle against the enemies of Buddhism. Traditionally the King of Shambhala’s horse was blue, but Roerich may have made it red as a sop to the new communist rulers of Mongolia, who in 1924 had renamed the capital Ulaan Baatar (Red Warrior).

The museum has many other items connected with Zanabazar, including thangkas depicting various of the seven Bogd Gegens who succeeded him. As of this writing most of these are not on public display but they might well be in the future. Also, be advised that since Zanabazar’s works are considered world-class art they are often out on loan to museums around the world. Sometimes lesser pieces are placed the same display cases without making it clear that they are not in fact works of the Master. For instance, the stupa now on display in the main Zanabazar room is not Zanabazar’s famous bronze stupa usually found here, but a School of Zanabazar work. The stupa by Zanabazar is currently on loan to a museum in Germany.