Tibet’s history has been shaped by its national patron deity Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva of compassion. The first Tibetan emperor and legendary founder of Buddhism, Songtsen Gampo (ca. 605–649), was believed to be an incarnation of Avalokiteshvara. Many successive rulers and religious leaders, including the Dalai Lamas and the Karmapas, also claimed the legacy of deity and emperor. This sculpture is a copy of a statue that is viewed as a living embodiment of Tibet’s patron deity. The original Phakpa Lokeshvara icon is believed to date back to the time of Songtsen Gampo, and for centuries it was kept in a hermitage on the Red Hill (Marpori) of Lhasa, the site of Songtsen Gampo’s palace. Because Phakpa Lokeshvara is one of the most sacred sculptures in Tibet, it inspired the creation of many replicas, including this one.
In the 17th century, warfare broke out between the regions of U and Tsang, whose rulers supported the rival traditions of Geluk and Kagyu Buddhism, respectively. In 1605, the local ruler of Lhasa, the Ganden Kyishopa, took the Phakpa Lokeshvara icon to his personal estate to prevent it from falling into the hands of the Kagyu enemy. After Tsang conquered the Lhasa region in 1618, the Ganden Kyishopa felt it was necessary to send the icon into exile from Tibet. He entrusted it to the Fourth Dalai Lama’s clan relatives in Mongolia.
After the victory of the Geluk forces over Tsang in 1642, the Fifth Dalai Lama requested the return of the Phakpa Lokeshvara icon. A Mongolian queen duly returned it and the Dalai Lama used it in the sadul “earth taming” ritual in order to build the Potala Palace on Marpori Hill. Ever since the palace’s completion, the Phakpa Lokeshvara icon has been enshrined in its own chapel as Tibet’s principal icon.
C2006.66.61 , HAR 700080