Eleven Headed Avalokiteshvara

author: Tove E. Neville
edition: 1999, Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers
pages: 144
ISBN-10: 8121504570
Topic: Mahayana

Introduction (general description of Avalokiteshvara)

General Description

This study aims both to trace the origin and to study in detail the development of one particular form of Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara, the Eleven-Headed Avalokitesvara, also called Aryavalokitdvara or Ekadasamukha. In this manifestation, the Bodhisattva is also known as Samantamukha, the "all-sided one", meaning the one who looks in all directions to save every sentient being.

The fully developed form of the Eleven-Headed Avalokitesvara is found to have existed almost simultaneously from the sixth to the eighth century in such diverse locations as India, Central Asia, China, Korea and Japan. Earlier eleven-headed figures of this Bodhisattva are not known at the present time, but later examples occur in Southeast Asia as well as in China and Japan.

The eleven-headed, two-armed Avalokitesvara developed into Tantra forms with four, six, eight, ten, sixteen, twenty-four, forty-six, one hundred and eight, or as many as 1,000 arms" and is in the latter form known as Sahasrabhuja." The multiple heads and arms are considered as the "ultimate pictorial multiplication of the Mahayana ideal of great compassion at work in all six worlds” (of sentient beings).

In another interpretation, "gods" both Hindu and Buddhist with several heads are seen as a symbolic representation of omniscience and many arms as one of omnipotence. According to one iconographic description Aryavalokitdvara can have six to 1,000 arms, with an eye in each hand. However, the scriptural source the Shi-i-mien Kuantzu-tsai P'u-sa Hsin-mi-yen Nien-sung I-kuei-ching mentions only four arms for the eleven-headed, but in the Amitayurdhyana the form has eleven heads and a hundred thousand arms, while a hundred thousand times ten million eyes are attributed to it.

Criterion for this study of the Eleven-headed Avalokitesvara

In this study, when considering both early and later art examples, whether from South Asia, Southeast Asia, Central or East Asia, it will at all times be the head style of the eleven heads, or its variant of twelve heads, that will be considered as the basic form, without regard to the number of arms. Thus some figures will be studied with eleven, or twelve, or more, heads and from two to 1,000 arms and eyes because they have some bearing on this Eleven-Headed Bodhisattva form's origin or special development.

Others will be chosen to illustrate a type or special features or because they are the only available known specimens from a particular locality. Such examples may be of an early, late or undetermined date. The main criterion will be the relevance of any example to the basic form, its symbology, iconology and iconography.

Two head styles: vertical and pyramidal

Two basic head styles can be recognized, a vertical, five-tier style and a pyramidal three or four-tier style. Each of these styles can again be categorized into two distinctive styles, viz., vertical and pyramidal.

Vertical Style

The five-tier style consisting of the main head, with three tiers of smaller heads on top and a Buddha head above those, will be called the vertical style no. 1, or the single-main-head vertical style.

The vertical style no. 1 is seen in an example from South Asia, i.e. central India, namely the Kanheri cave example, as the only true Indian example now known (Figs. 8, 9). A Southeast Asian example of four tiers in approximately the same design is a variant example from Cambodia (Fig. 10).

Another five-tiered head style has three tiers of three heads each, including the main head, with two heads on top of the three tiers, a wrathful or other Bodhisattva head and above it a Buddha head. This will be called the vertical style no. 2, or the triple-main-head vertical style.

The vertical style no. 2 is found mainly in northern India and other Himalayan regions, such as Nepal and Tibet. One such example (Fig. 13) is a disputed T'ang dynasty votive tablet with Tibetan writing and characteristics, which may have been the result of many generations of copies of an original Tibetan T'ang dynasty image. Chinese examples representing this style, or a variant of it, are also found in an early Tun-huang wall painting (Fig. 30), which seems to show no angry heads. The vertical styles are not found in images from Korea or Japan.

Pyramidal Style

The pyramidal head style is often arranged in a two-tier to four-tier, crown shape or modified pyramid shape, of smaller heads usually all piled up on top of the main head. This style will be called the pyramid style no. 1, or the single-main-head pyramid style. This style will also here be termed the pyramid crown style as all the extra heads, added to the Bodhisattva's main head, are much smaller than the main head and appear to be a crown decoration of symbolic heads rather than actual heads belonging to the main figure, as in Fig. 32.

The pyramid style no. 1, or pyramid crown style, is found in one example from Central Asia, a small wood sculpture found at Toyuk, dated from the seventh to eighth centuries (Fig. 31). This style is also found all over East Asia. In China it is represented in T'ang dynasty sculpture from Ch'ang-an (Figs. 32-35) of the eighth century, as well as in small metal sculptures, and in painting from the Tun-huang caves of late T'ang or early Sung dates.

In Korea this style is seen in T'ang era stone sculpture (Figs. 43 and 44), and in later Surra manuscripts. In Japan this style has many more variations in sculpture than are found in Chinese examples, and the iconography is often very complex and regularized according to Sutras as developed on already existing models, probably imported from China and Korea. Excellent examples in lacquer from the Nara period show this head style, as do both Nara and Heian period wood sculpture (Figs. 48-61). Japanese paintings with this head style also compare with Chinese models (Figs. 66, 67).

A second pyramidal style has two additional heads at the same level as the main head, one on each side, often of wrathful or demonic mien, with the rest of the heads usually smaller and piled on top in a pyramidal or crown style. This will be called the pyramid style no. 2, or the triple-main-head pyramid style, or the triple- main-head crown style.

The pyramid style no. 2 is only found in China and Japan so far. In China it is most often found in painting both of the T'ang and early Sung periods in images from Tun-huang (Figs. 36-38, 40-41) and in later Sung scrolls, such as the Yiinan (Ta-li) scroll of the twelfth-century (Fig. 42). In Japan the examples in this style are few. One is the Nara period painting in the Horyu-ji Golden Hall (Fig. 47) of the early eighth century; the other is the Heian period sculputre of Togan-ji Kanon-do, Kogen-ji, mid-ninth century (Figs. 62-65).

The earliest example to be examined in detail in this study will be the sixth century Indian Avalokitesvara and the latest the twelfth century Chinese Kuan-yin from Yiinan and the Japanese Yamato Kannon. Thus the development of the vertical and the pyramid styles dealt with here spans about six hundred years. In addition, an iconographic scroll (twelfth-fourteenth century) is used for comparison. Moreover, as early Nepalese and Tibetan examples are not extant, later images are presented in order to show iconographically important features. Still, both in the case of head configuration and colors, most late examples hark back to the seventh century text (refer, ch. III, fn. 74). For convenience, AD will be omitted throughout, except for specific dates, and is understood for all centuries unless otherwise stated.

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