Handbook of Tibetan Iconometry

Occasional book review

Handbook of Tibetan Iconometry
The Handbook of Iconometry (Tibetan title: Cha tshad kyi dpe ris Dpyod ldan yid gsos) constitutes a lavishly illustrated treatise laying down the iconometic principles and measurements at the heart of the 17th-century art of Tibet. The book was produced in ca. 1687 at the instigation of the famous scholar and statesman sde srid Sangs rgyas rgya mtsho (1653–1705). Today, the original is kept in the Tibet Autonomous Region Archives (Lhasa). The Handbook includes more than 150 meticulously prepared drawings of buddhas, bodhisattvas and divinities, 70 script types and 14 stupa models all extrapolated from the rich heritage of Indo-Tibetan Buddhist art. These are accompanied by an introduction charting the production of the Handbook in the 17th century and the scholarly profile of its principal author Sangs rgyas rgya mtsho. In the appendix, it reproduces passages from the Vaiḍurya g.Ya’ sel that provide valuable additional information about the illustrations.


illustration from Handbook of Tibetan IconometryThe Tibetan author of this work, Sangyay Gyatso (Sangs rgyas rgya mtsho), was a gifted administrator and “right hand man” of the 5th Dalai Lama. When the latter died in 1682 Sangyay Gyatso was left in sole charge of the governance of much of Tibet. He concealed the death of the 5th Dalai Lama for 15 years! He himself was later assassinated in 1705 by men of Jerinaši, wife of a Qošot mongol. It seems this was because he abruptly ended an affair he was having with her.

Sangyay Gyatso was a scholar, indeed a “Renaissance man”, exploring many areas of study. He produce the above manual on iconometrics. Such a manual contains the dimensions/proportions for drawing the various Buddhas and meditational deities that are found in Tibetan Buddhism.

This book is a work for the scholar in as much as it contains Tibetan text, in transliterated form, at the back of the book. Unfortunately no English translation is provided. This is a great pity as it contains information about the illustrations.

illustration from Handbook of Tibetan IconometryThe range of the illustrations is impressive and the reproduction of these for this publication is fantastic. It covers everything: Buddhas, deities, historical teachers (eg Nagarjuna, Padmasambhava, etc) and even different types of Tibetan script. It is a book that can be appreciated by anyone interested in Tibetan Buddhist iconography.

There is one drawback, however. It is very expensive!

Steve Palmer

Handbook of Tibetan Iconometry: A Guide to the Arts of the 17th Century
Edited by Christoph Cüppers, Lumbini International Research Institute, Nepal, Leonard van der Kuijp, Harvard University, Ulrich Pagel, School of Oriental and African Studies, London. With a Chinese Introduction by Dobis Tsering Gyal

€99.00 $138.00, BRILL ISBN13: 9789004180147, 2012, Hardback, 386 pp. (320 full-color facsimiles)
£86.25 (Free shipping worldwide) from The book depository

Categories: Art, Book reviews, Books, Encyclopedia, Tibetan

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