The Sanskrit meaning of arhat is 'he who is worthy'. They are considered as free, happy, wise and good company for human beings. They are perfect saints and have reached the eight-fold path and can bestow perfection on others. Actually the arhat state foregoes the bodhisattva-hood in order to show others the way. They were disciples of Buddha Shakyamuni during his lifetime and became patriarchs after his passing away, were entrusted to guard his teachings in times of social decay, religious decline and to spread his teachings abroad.
The various traditions of the group of arhats or in Chinese luohan are complex. The Indian tradition listed sixteen while a Chinese version knows not only the group of sixteen but as well one of eighteen since the Tang dynasty. They were very popular during the Song and Yuan periods where even groups of five hundred were counted. Since then they have remained a major subject in Chinese art. The traditional group of sixteen was added with Hva shang who on behalf of a Chinese emperor invited the sixteen to come to China to teach the Buddhist Law. Together with another layman, Dharmatala, they form the group of eighteen. Both latter are almost always represented as part of the arhat group in Tibetan and Chinese art from at least the late fourteenth century onwards. The various iconographic traditions include all the known sixteen or eighteen arhats, only the sequence of their place in the temple can vary.
Angaja, according to tradition, is noted for his pilgrimage to Mount Kailash in West Tibet. Here he taught the children of the gods the Buddhist Law. Out of gratitude they gave him an incense burner and a flywhisk. It is said about Angaja that his blessings have a special power to protect from suffering and disease. Unfortunate the censer in the presented bronze is now broken. According to various iconographic treatises he is one of the few arhats of the set seated in the so-called 'European fashion'. He is also, according to several traditions, the first of the group of arhats. Actually the reverse of this magnificent bronze sculpture states that he is indeed the first of the group to be placed on the west side of the chapel.
Although the inscriptions are all rendered in Tibetan, apart from three Chinese characters, the style and ornamentation of this sacred image are rather Chinese in approach. Based on style it is suggested to place the bronze in the fifteenth century which can be considered one of the heydays of Tibetan Buddhism at the Ming court of China.
At least four other bronze luohans from the same group are known, three once adorning a place at the east side and one at the west side of the temple chapel according to their inscriptions. These are Bakula, first on the east (Christie's Hong Kong, 24 October 1993, lot 543), Pindola Bharadvaja, fourth on the east (Christie's Hong Kong, 1 May 1994, lot 539), Gopaka, seventh on the east (presently in the Victoria and Albert Museum (cf. illustration) and illustrated in Chinese Art and Design - Art Objects in Ritual and Daily life, R. Kerr (ed.), New York/London 1991, pp.102-103, pl.39.) and Kanakavatsa, ninth on the west (illustrated in 'Kunst Des Buddhismus', Staatliches Museum for Volkerkunde, Munich, no date, p.247, pl.104.)
The sequence of all four bronze arhats, although dating from the fifteenth century, is actually still conforming the pantheon of 'Three Hundred Icons' published in the eighteenth century. The pantheon comes with a preface written by the famous Rol.pahi.rdo.rje (1717-1786), leader of the Tibetan Buddhist church under emperor Qianlong (1736-1795) and where it was xylographed at Beijing.
Based on these four numbered bronze figures it is possible to confirm that the group consisted of just sixteen luohans with perhaps the additional Hvashang and Dharmatala placed somewhere nearby, but not as part of the main group. The sequence starts at the west with Angaja (1), Ajita (2), Vanavasin (3), Kalika (4), Vajraputra (5), Bhadra (6), Kanakavatsa (7) and Kanaka Bharadvaja (8). On the east were placed Bakula (1), Rahula (2), Cudapanthaka (3), Pindola Bharadvaja (4), Panthaka (5), Nagasena (6), Gopaka (7) and Abheda (8). Both groups were placed at both sides of a major bronze image of Buddha Shakyamuni. Together they would have formed a magnificent group of which the one offered through our saleroom still remains as an important testimony.