5 minutes with… A Tibetan statue — and the human relic believed to be within it

Sandhya Jain Patel, Head of Indian, Himalayan and Southeast Asian Art at Christie’s, introduces a 17th-century devotional object that may be a bridge between the mortal and the divine

‘At first glance, this small statue might seem unassuming,’ says specialist Sandhya Jain Patel, above, of the gilt silver figure she holds in her hands, which will be offered in Christie’s Indian, Himalayan and Southeast Asian Art  sale on 14 March. Closer inspection, however, reveals something unexpected: not only does the work represent one of the most influential of Tibetan Buddhist teachers — the Sixth Shamarpa (1584–1630), believed to be the manifestation of a celestial buddha, Amitabha — but an inscription suggests that his tooth may be concealed within it.

When she first inspected this exquisitely cast portrait, Patel admits she ‘jumped with excitement. On the back of the carved cushion is the inscription: ‘Image of the Sixth Shamarpa placed tooth’. ‘What makes this historical relic so special is that it potentially links the earthly to the divine,’ explains the specialist. ‘There is a tangible connection that transports the piece to the beyond. The suggestion of the tooth within makes the statuette highly personalised — a token of remembrance to summon the presence of the Shamarpa at any moment.’

Finding a devotional object within a Himalayan bronze is not that unusual, she says, because they often functioned as offerings to the deity they depicted. But this piece is quite rare because of the Sixth Shamarpa’s influence as an ambassador of Buddhist practice.

A gilt silver figure of the Sixth Shamarpa, Mipan Chokyi Wangchug (1584–1630). Tibet, 17th century. 3¾ in (9.4 cm) high. Estimate $40,000-60,000. This lot is offered in the Indian, Himalayan and Southeast Asian Art Sale on 14 March 2016 at Christie’s in New York

A gilt silver figure of the Sixth Shamarpa, Mipan Chokyi Wangchug (1584–1630). Tibet, 17th century. 3¾ in (9.4 cm) high. Estimate: $40,000-60,000. This lot is offered in the Indian, Himalayan and Southeast Asian Art Sale on 14 March 2016 at Christie’s in New York

A gilt silver figure of the Sixth Shamarpa, Mipan Chokyi Wangchug (1584–1630). Tibet, 17th century. 3¾ in (9.4 cm) high. Estimate $40,000-60,000. This lot is offered in the Indian, Himalayan and Southeast Asian Art Sale on 14 March 2016 at Christie’s in New York

A gilt silver figure of the Sixth Shamarpa, Mipan Chokyi Wangchug (1584–1630). Tibet, 17th century. 3¾ in (9.4 cm) high. Estimate: $40,000-60,000. This lot is offered in the Indian, Himalayan and Southeast Asian Art Sale on 14 March 2016 at Christie’s in New York

Mipan Chokyi Wangchuk (1584–1630), was born in central Tibet. He was recognised as the sixth incarnation of the Shamarpa (‘Holder of the Red Hat’) by the Ninth Karmapa, who was the head of the Karma Kagyu, the largest sub-school of one of the four major schools of Tibetan Buddhism. By the age of 17 the Shamarpa had memorised 50 volumes of sutras and tantras; later, he would write texts explaining the traditions of both. He was also a great debater, earning the moniker ‘Pandita of the North’ after having confronted 13 of the most learned Bonpo priests in debate, defeating them, and converting them to Buddhism.

‘The use of such costly materials hints at a commission by a person of significant status — possibly a royal one’

At the invitation of the Wanli Emperor, who reigned from 1572 to 1620, he visited China to facilitate the printing and dissemination of Buddha’s complete teachings. 

There are, however, additional details that make this piece special: ‘Many statues of this nature are completed in silver, but the layer of gold paint on this one distinguishes it. This is a striking detail, especially since the identity of the commissioner remains unknown. The use of such costly materials hints at a person of significant status — possibly a royal one. Perhaps the Wanli Emperor himself wanted to memorialise the image of his special visitor.’

Other notable stylistic details include the seat, which bears a cushion rather than a lotus flower. Lotus flowers are reserved for posthumous veneration, whereas the cushion suggests the sculpture was made during the Sixth Shamarpa’s lifetime — or shortly after his death.

While the physical connection with the divine remains tantalisingly — and perhaps fittingly — nebulous, the specialist says she ‘feels a sense of responsibility to honour the story of a piece like this — to be true to the history of a man of such prominence, and to continue the dialogue he was engaged in.’