VA Review|Figures of Ekadashamukha from Tibet

New York Asia Week is coming soon with a wide-range of fine works for offerings. In Buddhist works of Art, there are two extraordinary figures depicting Ekadashamukha, respectively offered by Sotheby’s and Bonhams. Both were made in Tibet, one in the 13th century and one in the 15th century, epitomizing the aesthetics and the evolution of Tibetan Buddhist art in two different periods.

A Large and Rare Bronze Figure of Ekadashamukha
Lokeshvara Tibet, 13th Century

Auction house: Sotheby’s New York
Sale: Indian, Himalayan & Southeast Asian Work of Art

Auction date: 2018/3/222pm

Lot no.: 1031
Height: 97cm

Acquired privately, April 2006

Estimate: US$1,500,000-2,000,000

A Gilt Copper Alloy Figure of Avalokiteshvara Sahasrabhuja Ekadasamukha
By Sonam Gyaltsen (a.15th Century), Central Tibet, Circa 1430

Auction house: Bonhams New York
Sale: Indian, Himalayan & Southeast Asian Art
Auction date: 2018/3/193pm

Lot no.: 3033
Height: 67.7cm

  • O Oriental Antiques Ltd, London, by 1968
  • Sotheby's, London, 9 May 1977, lot 167
  • Private English Collection, 1977-2014

Estimate: US$1,000,000-1,500,000

In Buddhism, Avalokiteshvara is a bodhisattva who embodies the compassion of all Buddhas. Ekādaśamukha, portrayed as a deity with eleven heads and eight arms (or thousand arms in the depiction of Sahasrabhuja), is believed to be one of the incarnations of Avalokiteshvara.

Figure of Ekadasamukha at Sotheby’s

There is a number of literary sources telling the origin of eleven-headed Ekādaśamukha. One version is about Avalokiteshvara promised Amitabha that he would devote to helping every soul reach enlightenment. He emptied the hells to achieve salvation for everyone but only found the underworld instantly filled up with new sinners. He became deeply upset and agitated that his head split into thousand pieces. Amitabha attempted to assemble the pieces into ten heads, putting them on top of each other, and placing his own head above them all.

Looking at the figure, three principal heads, in peaceful countenances, are surmounted by seven heads in three tiers, including a wrathful face on the 10th. The wrathful forms reflect Avalokiteshvara’s ability to ward off evil with comparable strength. At the top is the peaceful Buddha Amitabha.

Figure of Ekadasamukha at Bonhams

One interpretation says that ten heads represent the ten Pāramitā (meaning perfection) that Mahāyāna practitioners should aspire to. Ten perfection includes Dāna (generosity), Sīla (virtue), Nekkhamma (renunciation), Paññā (transcendental wisdom), Viriya (energy), Khanti (patience), Sacca (truthfulness), Adhiṭṭhāna (determination), Mettā (goodwill), Upekkhā (equanimity). Whereas the eleventh one, the one at the top, represents enlightenment.


Eight-armed Ekādaśamukha and Sahasrabhuja Ekadasamukha

Figure of Eight-armed Ekādaśamukha, offered by Sotheby's

Comparing both figures of Ekadasamukha, the most striking difference in the manifestation lies in the arms. The one offered at Sotheby’s is the customary eight-armed form with primary hands in Anjali mudra, gesture of reverence, whereas the lowered right hand in Varada mudra, a gesture of bestowing blessing of giving charity. The remaining hands were separately cast with ritual implements, which are now missing after surviving almost a thousand years.

Figure of Sahasrabhuja Ekadasamukha, offered by Bonhams

The one offered at Bonhams depicts Avalokiteshvara Sahasrabhuja Ekadasamukha – the All Seeing, All Sided Lord with One Thousand Hands and Eleven Faces, who looks in every direction to save all creatures. Its primary hands in Anjali mudra while the remaining hands in Varada mudra, with a ‘wisdom-eye’ in the palm of each of their hands.


Shift in Tibetan Buddhist Art

Both made in Tibet, one in the 13th century and the other in the 15th century, the two figures stand as the quintessence of Tibetan Buddhist Art in these two periods. The evolution is evident through a close comparison between the two. 

Figure of Eight-armed Ekādaśamukha, offered by Sotheby's

Each of the eleven faces, both peaceful and wrathful, on the eight-armed Ekādaśamukham shows its own distinctive spirituality and vividness. Eight arms are crafted in a natural form, embodying the magnificence and gracefulness of Ekādaśamukham.

Figure of Sahasrabhuja Ekadasamukha, offered by Bonhams

Tibetan sophisticated and exquisite craftsmanship is fully exemplified in the figure of Sahasrabhuja Ekadasamukha, especially on its elaborated thousand arms where each is adorned with turquoise jewelled bracelets. Great care is taken to portray the anatomy of every finger, always modelled in a position different from the next. Silk garments on the deity are engraved with fine patterns on a broad hem, as well as on the back. Differences shown from the comparison between the two figures suggest a possible paradigm shift in Tibetan Buddhist art as two centuries elapsed. 


Left: Sotheby’s one; right: Bonhams’ one

The eight-armed Ekādaśamukham, with no pedestal, is 97 cm tall, taller than the 67cm-tall Sahasrabhuja Ekadasamukha attached to a pedestal. Nevertheless, the latter one is equally mind-blowing in terms of its visual imagery, accentuated by its thousand-armed design.


The one offered at Sotheby’s is estimated at US$1.5m-2m, and the one at Bonhams is estimated at US$1m-1.5m.

Figure of Eight-armed Ekādaśamukha, offered by Sotheby's

Regarding the condition, there are obvious cracks at the back of the eight-armed Ekādaśamukham. The lower body was cast with a flimsy layer of copper alloy, probably due to the limited metal materials available during that period when transportation was not yet prevailed. All heads, hair, and crowns adorned with ritual polychromy, some were possibly smeared by worshippers.