Tsangpa Karpo

Worldly protector deities represent troublesome spirits turned to the good of the Buddhist teachings. Tsangpa Karpo is associated with the Indian creator god Brahma, who is the power behind all the visible forces of nature. However, it is believed that he was originally an indigenous Tibetan deity, one who embodies the contradictory forces of the mountainous Tibetan landscape, which sustain life and protect Tibetans from invaders, but also make for difficult living in the harsh climate and high altitudes of the roof of the world.

Personified, these local spirits of the land often take the form of a warrior in armor, as depicted here. When Tsangpa Karpo is invoked in ritual, he and his horse are compared to the dazzlingly white appearance of the clouds, sky, and mountains. His horse is “similar to a mighty snow-mountain, possessing the speed of clouds.” The color of his body is “similar to the white brilliancy produced by the gliding of hundred thousand moonbeams over a mountain of magical crystal.”

In stories about the conversion of Tibet to Buddhism, indigenous spirits like Tsangpa Karpo initially obstructed Buddhist teachings, but were eventually tamed and subdued, then made into protectors, so Buddhism could take root and flourish. Since then they have protected the doctrine and worshippers from worldly harm. But they have not yet achieved spiritual liberation and remain subject to destructive emotions like jealousy, wrath, and so forth. Highlighting this contradictory nature, Tsangpa Karpo’s white appearance is contrasted by the black background style of painting, which is reserved for wrathful protectors. At the monastery of Lhamo, the deity acts as an oracle speaking through a medium, advising petitioners (including the Tibetan government) about the future.

Come view our Art of the Week in the exhibition Gateway to Himalayan Art.

Geographic Origin
Pigment on cotton
Gift of Shelley and Donald Rubin
C2006.66.408, HAR 853
Additional Information
Rubin Museum of Art
  • https://rubinmuseum.org/images/content/7284/c2006.66.408har853_2__zoom.jpg
  • https://rubinmuseum.org/images/content/7284/c2006.66.408har853_2__zoom.jpg