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Ivory figure of a rakan

1880/1900

British Museum

British Museum

The rakan (Sanskrit: arhats, 'enlightened beings'), were the original disciples of the historical Buddha and possessors of supernatural power and the wisdom of Buddha. They are traditionally represented in groups of sixteen, and sometimes five hundred. They were popular in China in the Song and Yuan dynasties, and Japanese depictions of them are often in the Chinese style.

This rather humorous sculpture is of a rakan accompanied by a dragon and holding a small Buddhist shrine or reliquary. It is typical of the naturalism of the style of the period and was almost certainly made for export to the West. Both elephant ivory and ivory from marine mammals were much sought after by the Japanese at the time for manufacture of such figures and small netsuke.

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