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NOTE: A similar unbrocaded thangka of this 'Cosmos According to the Kalachakra Tantra' by Sunlal is now available for sale. Priced at GBP £1,180.00.
This composition is the first in a set of four didactic mandalas that depict the outer cosmology of our universe according to the Kalachakra Tantra. The central horizon delineates the 'three worlds' of existence that are above, upon, and below the earth. The horizon itself represents the surface of the Earth, with the central island of buildings and trees representing our world system with its human and animal inhabitants. The upper half of the painting shows a side view of Mt Meru and its various ascending heavens or god-realms, while the lower half of the painting displays a semi-circular plan of the vast discs or mandalas of earth, water, fire, and wind that support our world system in the immensity of space. Warring asuras and aquatic nagas inhabit the first yellow and blue half of the earth mandala, while the second yellow half shows the first of the eight great hells or 'joyless realms', which is known as the hell of Gravel Water (Skt. sarkarambha). The second and third 'cold hells' appear in the two halves of the water mandala, and are known as the hell of Sandy Water (Skt. balukambha) and the hell of Muddy Water (Skt. pankambha. The two halves of the fire mandala contain the fourth and fifth 'hot hells', which are known as the hell of Intense Smoke (Skt. tivradhuma) and the hell of Fire
Mt Meru itself is shaped like a vast inverted cone, with its four faces coloured: sapphire-blue on its eastern face, ruby-red on its southern face, golden-yellow on its western face, crystal-white on its northern or rear face, and green on its flat summit where the heavenly realm of Indra is located. Rahula and the Four Great Kings appear on Meru's red face, and above are the palaces and trees that form the 'neck, face and crown' of Meru. The groups of four ascending coloured bands above represent (along with Indra and the Four Kings) the remaining four of the six 'desire god realms'; next are the four levels of the sixteen 'form god realms', and at the top are the four 'formless god realms'. On each side of Mt Meru two groups of cloud-borne gods appear, who hold banners, a fan, a parasol, a mirror, a water-pot, and a drum.
This thangka was painted by Sunlal Ratna Tamang in 2005, and is the first in a set of four mandalas that depict the outer cosmology of our universe according to the Kalachakra Tantra.
The central line of the horizon delineates the 'three worlds or levels of existence' that are above, upon, and beneath the earth. The horizon itself represents the surface of our world system, with its central cluster of buildings and trees representing its human inhabitants. The upper half of the painting shows a side view of Mt Meru and its ascending heavens or god-realms, and the lower half of the painting depicts a semi-circular plan of the great discs or mandalas of earth, water, fire, and wind (air) that support our world system in the vast immensity of space. The subterranean discs of these four elements are inhabited by asuras and nagas, and the denizens of the various hells or 'joyless realms'.
Appearing as a guardian at the base of Mt Meru is the great planetary god, Rahu (Rahula), 'the seizer', whose dark shadow causes eclipses of the Sun and Moon. Rahu is brown in colour, and draws a bow and arrow with his two arms. His fierce upper body is adorned with countless eyes, his lower body has a coiled serpentine tail, and his nine wrathful faces are crowned with the head of a black raven.
Behind Rahu appears the vast inverted conical form or 'body' of Mt Meru, which is circular in section and tapers outwards as it ascends towards the flat plane at its summit. Ascending into space to an equal height above its summit is the 'mental form' of Mt Meru's 'neck, face and crown', which represent the twenty-four higher heavens of the Kalachakra system, all of which are invisible to ordinary human beings. A group of heavenly palaces and wish-granting trees indicate the outline of Mt Meru's 'neck and crown', with the large palace at the centre representing the 'face' of Mt Meru.
The four directional quadrants of Mt Meru are coloured sapphire-blue on its eastern face, ruby-red on its southern face, golden-yellow on its western face, and crystal-white on its northern or rear face, while the flat summit and inner core of Mt Meru is emerald-green. Meru's red southern face appears at the centre of this painting, with the curving planes of its golden-yellow (western) and blue (eastern) quadrants appearing on its left and right sides.
Standing upon the upper terraces of Mt Meru are the Four Great Kings, who appear as armour-clad warriors that guard the four directions: with yellow Vaishravana at the top centre (north); white Dhritarashta to the right (east); red Virupaksha to the left (west); and blue Virudhaka at the bottom (south). And seated upon Mt Meru's green summit are the eight dikpalas or 'lords of the eight directions', who protect the heaven of the 'thirty-three' (Skt. trayastrimsa), which is ruled by the great god Indra and his retinue of thirty-two attendant gods. Indra is partially shown behind Mt Meru's 'neck', where he abides in his divine city known as Swarga.
The heaven of the 'Four Great Kings' and the heaven of the 'thirty-three' form the first two classes of the six 'desire-god realms' of the Kalachakra cosmos: with the other four sensual desire-god realms being represented by the first four horizontal blue bands that ascend above Mt Meru's summit. Ascending above these four blue desire-god realms are the sixteen heavens of the 'form-gods', which appear as four different coloured layers, each consisting of four horizontal bands, that correspond to the progressively refined elements of earth, water, fire and wind. And above these sixteen levels or realms of the form-gods are the four supreme levels of the 'formless gods', which appear at the level of Mt Meru's 'crown' and represent the element of space. The Tibetan names of these five variegated four-fold levels, which represent the twenty highest heavens of the form and formless gods, are inscribed across the top of each four-fold group of levels.
Standing upon the billowing rainbow-coloured clouds on either side of Mt Meru are two groups of five gods that hold various auspicious offerings, such as banners, parasols, mirrors and musical instruments.
Clustered around the central horizon at the base of Mt Meru are the buildings and trees that represent the upper surface of the yellow earth disc or mandala, which is inhabited by the various races, species and classes of humans, animals and ghosts. The environment surrounding Mt Meru has a complex geographical structure, which is depicted in the second in this series of four cosmological thangkas.
Descending below the horizon and the earth's upper surface are the semi-circular sections of the earth, water, fire and wind discs or mandalas, with their various inhabitants. Each of these four discs consists of an upper and lower half, which are represented here by two consecutive semi-circles. The upper half of the earth mandala is itself divided into two quarters, with the asuras occupying the upper quarter, and the nagas inhabiting the quarter below. The asuras or 'jealous gods' are shown fighting with swords and shields in the yellow semi-circle below Rahula, and the nagas are shown in their aquatic palaces within the second blue semi-circle of water. The lower half of the yellow earth mandala contains the first of the eight great hells, known as the hell of Gravel Water (Skt. sarkarambha). The denizens of this joyless realm are shown being pierced by thorns, bound with ropes, crushed between rocks, and chased, hacked, and sawn in half by human and animal-headed demons.
The next two semi-circles of the blue water mandala show a multitude of human beings floundering and clutching at each other as they drown in its freezing waters. These two cold hells are the second and third of the eight great hells. The hell contained in upper half of the water mandala is known as the hell of Sandy Water (Skt. balukambha), and the hell in the lower half is known as the hell of Swamps or Muddy Water (Skt. pankambha).
The next two semi-circles of the blazing fire mandala depict the two hot hells that form the fourth and fifth of the eight great hells. The tawny-flamed hell contained in the upper half of the fire mandala is known as the hell of Intense or Endless Smoke (Skt. tivradhuma), and the orange-flamed hell contained in the lower half is known as the hell of Fire (Skt. havis). The denizens of these two hot hells are shown being burned alive and snared by demons.
The next semi-circle depicts the upper half of the wind mandala, with its tawny flame-like billows appearing against a black darkness where beings are snared and tortured by demons. This, the sixth of the eight great hells, is known as the hell of Darkness (Skt. tamas). The lower half of the wind mandala contains both the seventh and eighth hells, which are known as the hell of Great Wailing (Skt. maharaurava), and the hell of Vajra Flames (Skt. vajraci). The hell of Great Wailing occupies the smoky-grey billows of the wind mandala's outer semi-circle, where beings are shown being snared, pierced, hacked and butchered by both human and animal-headed demons.
The eighth great hell of Vajra Flame (Skt. vajraci) is depicted in the bottom left and right corners of the painting. Here human beings are shown being subjected to all of the great torments of the different hell realms. In the lower left corner a man vomits an ocean of blood, within which another person ploughs a field that symbolizes karma. Above these are the red-hot forms of the blazing iron hells, a fiery cauldron where beings are boiled alive, and a cold hell where beings are pierced by slivers of ice. Above these are scenes of people being crushed by an elephant and by books, being tormented by a skeleton demon, being buried up to their necks, and thrown off cliffs. In the lower right corner two animal-headed demons break open a skeleton and a fresh human rib cage, and above this a group of demons throw people into a blazing tank of boiling blood. Above again are three demons forcing an iron triangle into a woman's vagina, and a blue demon weighing the flesh of two people upon a scale. Across the bottom of the painting from left to right are: a naked woman protecting her baby in a hut; humans being dragged and bound by their necks; people buried beneath ice; a person being crushed between two demon-headed rocks; beings vomiting and excreting fire; beings covered in sores and bleeding profusely, and people being crushed under a large rock.
© text by Robert Beer