Tibetan: Dur bdag yab yum
Citipati / Śmāśana Adipati
- The Male and Female Lords of the Cremation Ground
Tibet 14-15th century
Soap stone H. 9.3 cm
The Nyingjei Lam Collection
On loan to the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, 1996–2005
On loan to the Rubin Museum of Art, New York 2005-2018
石 高 9.3厘米
Commonly known as Citipati (meaning ‘Lord of the Funeral Pyre’) these Guardians of the Cremation Ground invariably depicted as a pair of male and female skeletons in a dancing pose. They are intended to be quite terrifying with a gruesome smile on their skull-faces but this function is intended to scare only those who enter the graveyard with improper intentions. Such intruders might include tantric vow-breakers who wish to misuse the cemetery for evil rituals or thieves who intend to rob the deceased person’s remains. In addition to these obvious protective roles they also act as encouraging presences for those meditators whose proper tantric rituals require the use of a cemetery as a place for meditation on impermanence and death itself.
The Tibetan text Bod brgyud nang bstan lha tshogs chen po (People’s Publishing House, Sining 2000, pages 982-3) gives us the following information: their tongues curl back into their mouths and their teeth are bared, they hold in their right hands a dried human skull as a club and in their left hand a glistening white skull cup full of blood. It goes on to say that their manner of dancing is to hold their left leg extended and their right leg bent as in a sitting posture. Their clothes are silks draped around their shoulders and they wear precious diadems on their heads. Their dance is performed inside an aureole of flames and they are surrounded by various types of ḍākinī-s. The text then gives a short prayer which in essence says that the Citipati’s activities are the same as those of the Buddha himself, that they can extinguish all kinds of evils, and are able to grant all types of wishes to the earnest seeker and liberate them from all earthly bonds.
The story of the origins of the Citipati known to all Tibetans is quite important as it illustrates the way in which their roles have crossed over so-called ‘boundaries’ such as life and death and fear and happiness. Originally they had the form of a pair of meditators, perhaps a male yogin and his consort, who performed their practices in a cremation ground. They were set upon by robbers who beat, robbed and killed them. The heavy blows of the beating they suffered is supposed to have activated the specific ‘spiritual power points’ within their bodies and they lived on after their deaths in the form of the skeletons they were inevitably to become.
From these events they understood the true nature of what was real and what was illusory and they could do little other than dance and laugh at the simplicity of their realization. It is easy to see the symbolism of this story - it is we ourselves who are like those self-same skeletons, laughing and dancing in the cemetery (known as the world we inhabit), perhaps not seeing the closeness of death and danger and the need to prepare for its eventuality and its potentials.
As victims of a robbery both the male and female skeleton figures vowed to remain for all time within the confines of the cremation ground and to protect all those who enter such places, making no distinction between practitioners of tantric Buddhism or grieving relatives of the deceased.
Tibetans believe that having an image of the Citipati in the home offers protection from burglary and similar crimes and some say that the pair also bring wealth to the home. To this day quite regularly in Tibetan cultural areas the Citipati are to be seen as dancers in the Aché Lhamo Tibetan operatic presentations in which they sometimes come very close to the audience whom they thrill and re-assure at the same time with their energetic and challenging dances.
This particular pair is portrayed in what is known as the ‘older’ style, that is without the female (on the viewer’s right) holding a vase of long-like elixir and a stalk of grain. This more recent ‘elixir and grain’ style is usually seen in images made after the mid-16th century and only very rarely before then. It is usually (but not always) associated with the Gelug tradition (the so-called ‘Yellow Hat’ school). However they sometimes also appear in other traditions bearing those attributes to accent their association with fruitfulness as well as protection.
The present image is an impeccable piece of stone carving which embodies a great deal of what is already known about these Lords of the Cremation Ground. The aureole of flames possibly represents not only the cosmic fire which serves to protect deities within its ambit, but also might be the flames of the cremation ground in which these Citipati have vowed to remain.
The pair have their leg bones locked together as is the usual way of depiction in Citipati images. The significance of this is that the viewer is being told that the pair exemplify the union of opposites, a state in which there no longer exist false and delusional dualities such as male and female, good and bad or even personal likes and dislikes – there is simply the state of ‘being as it really is.’
From the top downwards, we note that the Citipati (male to the left and slightly larger) are not simply portrayed as comical figures – the half-vajra protruding from the top of their heads shows them as being enlightened beings with immovable (vajra) minds. Moreover their diadems of skulls with attached cockades, tells the viewer that these are beings whose inner nature is one of complete enlightenment as demonstrated by the 5 skulls representing the 5 types of wisdom they possess. Their tongues may be seen curled backwards and their teeth are held in a grimace as referred to in the Tibetan text above.
Held in the left hand of each figure (note small damage to the female’s arm) is a kapala skull cup, as referred to in the Tibetan text above. The skull cup is glistening white showing that it is freshly gathered from a corpse and it represents the vessel into which is placed the ambrosia of perfect wisdom which may be seen nearly reaching the cup’s rims.
In their right hands they hold the club (Sanskrit daṇḍa; Tibetan: be con; dbyug) but they are slightly different – the male (left side looking at image) has a club tipped with a skull and a vajra, the male power symbol while the female’s club is tipped by a skull and lotus bud, the female symbol of wisdom and purity.
The ribcages, spines and pelvises are wonderfully portrayed and flex appropriately with the colour of the stone almost appearing to become the Citipati’s bones. I note that the lower garments of the male (on the left side looking at the image) seem to be stippled and have raised dots which may once have been a part of the way his tiger skin lower garment should have been portrayed.
A further indicator that these are enlightened beings rather than some sort of purely demonic apparition, is that they dance upon a lotus base representing the purity of their domain and the base has been achieved with utmost simplicity quite unlike the rest of the image.
Interestingly, the rear of the image shows the cavity into which ritually blessed items would have once been placed and sealed with a type of tree sap. In most cases Tibetan images contain the blessed substances in their bases but for certain deities, in particular Vajrapani, the blessings are often placed in the figure’s back.
This is a quite unusual and well achieved piece with fine detailing and a coherent balance to it. Its small size and the detail of the carving is testimony to the skills of its maker. Stone carving reached its peak between the early 15th and early 18th centuries Tibet and this example is precisely from this apex period.