UNKNOWN; Untitled [Chakraman]
By Tarun Nagesh
A colourful and complex array of deities and cosmic diagrams comprises the strict iconography of this Nepalese scroll, which features a cosmic yogi (practitioner of yoga) carefully poised on a series of gods and avatars. The Chakraman portrays tantric concepts, including inner energies and the cosmic order, that were introduced to Nepal around the seventh century, through both Hindu doctrines and Vajrayana Buddhism.
A popular Nepalese art form for centuries, tantric painting is one of the most important methods in assisting yogic meditation, and illustrating metaphysical concepts such as the chakras (Sanskrit for ‘wheel’ or ‘turning’).(1) The Hindu yogic system generally uses the seven chakras of the kundalini system, which are believed to hold the energy centres and transport neural connections along the spinal axis of the body, ascending from the pelvic region to the brain.(2) Traditionally yoga is the practice of opening the subtle energy centres of the chakras and harnessing meditational forces, as communicated in this painting. The goddess Kundalini represents the divine cosmic energy in the body, who takes the form of a coiled serpent at the base of the spinal column until she is roused by the yoga and the energy released climbs through the body to the sahasrara (1000-petalled lotus) or crown chakra.(3)
Surrounded by colourful petals, the chakras depicted here contain, and are connected by, Hindu deities. They continue past the bodily chakras along a flaming crown which reaches to the clouds, while the feet of the yogi balance upon the serpent Vasuki, an avatar of the Hindu god Vishnu. Below is the earth goddess Bhudevi, who is supported by the red boar-headed avatar of Vishnu, Varaha, who holds a mace, a wheel, a conch shell and a lotus petal, and stands on the tortoise avatar Kurma. Vishnu reclines below as the colour of the cosmic ocean and rests on Ananta, the multi-headed serpent, with his consort Lakshmi massaging his feet. Further below appears a five-headed, ten-armed goddess who represents the shakti or feminine creative power, holding the eight weapons of Vishnu. She is finally supported by a frog (manduka), who stands on red and white spheres symbolising the sun and the moon.(4) Dotted along the arms and above the shoulders are a combination of the lingam (male) and yoni (female) symbols, representing the indivisibility of the sexes.
Tantric paintings of this scale and age are rare. Its detailed treatment is abundant in rich imagery which draws on traditions of Mughal and Rajput miniature painting while adhering to the strict code of tantric illustration. Along with other new acquisitions of South Asian painting, sculpture and photography, this work contributes significantly to the breadth of the Gallery’s Asian Collection.
Tarun Nagesh, Artlines 4-2011, p.62.
1 Krishna Chaitanya, A History of Indian Painting: The Modern Period, Shakti Malik, New Delhi 1994, p.58.
2 John C Huntington and Dina Bangdel, The Circle of Bliss: Buddhist Meditational Art, Serindia, 2003, p.234.
3 Sir John George Woodroffe, The Serpent Power, Being the Satcakra-Nirupana and Paduka-Pancaka, Ganesh & Co, Madras, 1978, pp.1–2.
4 Pratapaditya Pal, Himalayas: An Aesthetic Adventure [exhibition catalogue], Art Institute of Chicago, 2003.