Tangka of the arhat Kanakavatsa

From Tibet
14th century AD

An Indian saint protects Buddhism in Tibet

Arhats are the saints of Buddhism, followers of the Buddha who have attained freedom from ignorance and suffering. In the Hîyâna school of Buddhism, the arhat was considered to be the Buddhist ideal, but in later Mahāyāna Buddhism this role was taken over by the bodhisattva. Arhats remained important in Tibetan Buddhism as protectors of the doctrine. Prayers were said to them and they were credited with many miracles. Groups of 16, 17 and 18 arhats are depicted in Tibetan and Chinese art, though not in Indian art.

This tangka painting on cloth shows the arhat Kanakavatsa with two attendants. The large haloed Kanakavatsa with a beard and prominent, bright eyes sits bent slightly forward. One attendant carries a bag and an Indian adorant offers him coral. Kanakavatsa was born in Bihar in eastern India. His dark skin and that of his adorant reflect Chinese artistic conventions for portraying Indian figures. In Kanakvatsa's hands are his distinctive attribute, a string of precious stones that grant understanding of the Buddhist doctrine. The background with a mountain, tree and waterfall is characteristically Chinese in style. This reflects the intimate relationship between China and Tibet created by the conversion of Kublai Khan, the thirteenth-century Mongol ruler of China, to Tibetan Buddhism. This tangka was found in a ruined monastery at Shigatse in central Tibet.

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More information


W. Zwalf (ed.), Buddhism: art and faith (London, The British Museum Press, 1985)


Height: 57.000 cm
Width: 44.000 cm

Museum number

Asia OA 1955.4-16.029



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