In Buddhist philosophy, the bodhisattva is a being who postpones his or her own liberation for the sake of ushering others along the path to enlightenment. The figure of Avalokiteshvara in his eleven-headed aspect represents the supreme, highest embodiment of compassion. Buddhist tradition holds that this bodhisattva, seeing the state of many beings throughout the world, was so moved to help alleviate others’ suffering that his single head became a tower of eleven in order to see panoramically, and his two arms multiplied such that he could reach out in all directions. In this superb representation of the Compassionate One, the universal aspiration of a Buddhist deity and the regal status of a prince are united in a single figure that combines spiritual wisdom with worldly authority.
The eleven-headed Avalokiteshvara was an important iconographic figure throughout the Buddhist world over a long duration of time. Masterfully crafted, the present Tibetan example can be compared with others from places as widespread as Nepal, Tibet, Mongolia, and East Asia. See a Nepalese example in the collection of LACMA, P. Pal, Art of Nepal, 1885, p.36, fig. 17; a Tibeto-Chinese example at the Pacific Asia Museum, acc.no.1995.20.2; and a closely related Tibetan example in a private collection, HAR item no. 66738.