This set of thangkas was likely commissioned by the immediate entourage of the Ninth Dalai Lama, Lungtok Gyatso, around the time of the his death in 1815 to celebrate his lineage. The thangkas are painted in an innovative style combining motifs from both Central Tibet and Kham painting from the Chamdo region. Details of nature such as the knots in the trees, the intertwining creepers of flowers, and the animals, are depicted with great delicacy and attention to detail, becoming the defining hallmark of this master's style. Great attention has also been given to the figures, such as the use of burnished gold-on-gold to show the richness of the Great Fifth's robes.
The Great Fifth Dalai Lama, here depicted in the central painting, earned his title in the 17th century when, with the help of his regent, he retroactively established the genealogy of the Dalai Lamas, vital for cementing the "conscious rebirths" system as a viable system of political succession. Prior to the 16th century, important monastic positions were filled through family-based successions, leading to bitter rivalry amongst siblings competing for primacy. As a replacement, the "conscious rebirths" system filled important monastic positions, including that of the Dalai Lama, with reincarnations of important figures. To visually connect the Great Fifth to the thangkas' commissioner, the succeeding Dalai Lamas, the Sixth, the Seventh, the Eighth, and the Ninth are all seated in the clouds above him. A further description of the figures depicted in the set are as follows:
First Right - Depicted is the first monarch of Tibet, Songtsen Gampo, with an important prince, Gyalwu Jikten Wangchuk above, and the first mythical king of Tibet, Nyathri Tsenpo, the "Neck-Throned One," below; all impart a sense of royal entitlement to the institution of the Dalai Lama.
Second Right - The First Dalai Lama, Gendun Drup is depicted with an important Indian prince, Gyalwu Depatenpo, considered to be a previous incarnation in the Dalai Lama lineage, and the second monarch of Tibet, Thrisong Detsen, responsible for inviting Padmasambhava to Tibet and establishing the country's first convent.
Third Right - Depicts the Third Dalai Lama, Sonam Gyatso, with another Indian prince, Gyalpo Gewapel, again, part of the lineage of the Dalai Lamas, along with the esoteric master Nyangrel Nyima and the Sakya master Sachen Kunga.
First Left - Depicts the lay master Domton Gyalwe Jungne, founder of the Kadam monastery and the man responsible for inviting the Indian master Atisha to Tibet. Seated above him is another important Indian royal and previous incarnation, Lhe Gyalpo, with the mythic king Lha Thothori Nyenshel below, who according to tradition discovered the sacred objects of the Avalokiteshvara cult on the roof of his palace; these objects are alluded to by the stupa to his right.
Second Left - Depicts the Second Dalai Lama, Gendun Gyatso, with an Indian prince, Konchok Bang, above, and the Kashmiri yogin Khache Gonpapa below.
Third Left - Depicts the Fourth Dalai Lama, Yonten Gyatso, the Mongol-born prince. Depicted with him is the founder of the Tshelpa Kagyu sect, Zhang Yutrakpa Tsondrakpa, his younger contemporary and important Lhasa engineer, Lhaje Gewabum, and the little-known Nepalese ascetic, Panchen Padmavajra.
For a detailed description of each thangka, please see P.K. Sorensen's essay in The Dalai Lamas, A Visual History.