Tonpa Shenrab with Episodes from His Life

18th-19th century

Rubin Museum of Art

Rubin Museum of Art

Depictions of Tonpa Shenrab, the founder of Tibet's indigenous Bon religion, are often identical to those of Buddha Shakyamuni, leaving many Bon paintings, like this one, misidentified as Buddhist works of art. However, upon close inspection of its details, this painting's narrative scenes clearly depict events from the life of Tonpa Shenrab, such as the vignette at the bottom right showing Shenrab in a chariot pulled by elephants.

Here, Tonpa Shenrab is shown in royal garb and traveling in an elephant-drawn chariot to different populations, accompanied by what appear to be his wife and children as well as a protective dragon, the mount of one of his disciples. At each location, the regal entourage is greeted with offerings and signs of respect. The people in the lower-left corner wave white scarves (katak) as such a sign. People holding ritual water vessels with peacock feathers and those carrying sculpted barley flour offerings torma are also represented in this painting, modeling actual Bon ritual and practice.

The most surprising elements of this painting are the color choices of pastel pink and light purple hues against a gray-blue background. This distinctive palette, as well as the decorative cloud patterns in Tonpa Shenrab's halo, are sometimes found in paintings from the northeastern Tibetan province of Amdo. A very similar set of paintings in the collection of the Musee Guimet in Paris were acquired in the eastern borderlands of Amdo and the neighboring northwestern Kham Province.

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  • Title: Tonpa Shenrab with Episodes from His Life
  • Date: 18th-19th century
  • Date Created: 18th-19th century
  • Physical Dimensions: 31 1/4 x 20 3/4 in.
  • Type: Painting
  • Rights: Rubin Museum of Art, Gift of Shelley and Donald Rubin, C2006.66.610
  • Medium: Pigments on cloth
  • Place of Creation: Amdo Province, Eastern Tibet
  • Exhibition History: Rubin Museum of Art, "Bon: The Magic Word" (05/10/07 - 04/14/08)


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