This striking gilt-lacquered wood figure depicts the indigenous Tibetan mountain goddess, Serchen Khading Dorje Lumo Gyal, one of the twelve deities that make up the group known as the Tanma Chunyi. The Tanma Chunyi are considered deified female personifications of mountains, and were worshipped in Tibet prior to the introduction of Buddhism. The legendary eighth-century Buddhist master, Padmasambhava, was said to have subdued the Tanma Chunyi, and in doing so, incorporated the group into the Buddhist canon. In reality, the goddesses were likely assimilated into Buddhism to strengthen the local Tibetan population’s ties to the new religion. As such, the Tanma Chunyi are some of the oldest deities in the Tibetan Buddhist canon, and can be found across the four main sects of Tibetan Buddhism.
Within the Gelugpa sect, the Tanma Chunyi became retinue figures to the goddess, Shri Devi Magzor Gyalmo. Worship of Shri Devi Magzor Gyalmo, with the Tanma Chunyi as her retinue figures, became popularized by the Fifth Dalai Lama, Ngawang Lobsang Gyatso (1617-1682). In his attempt to unify Tibet, the Great Fifth cleverly sensed the wide appeal of the Tanma Chunyi, given the local population’s strong ties to the indigenous mountain deities. The Gelugpa success in achieving supremacy in Tibet in the seventeenth century resulted in close ties to the imperial Qing court in China, and hundreds of Gelugpa temples were built in Beijing and its environs.
The present figure is carried out in a distinct style that emerged from the Qing patronization of Tibetan Buddhism, which has been referred to as Tibeto-Chinese or Lamaist. The application of lacquer over a wood structure was more common to China than to Tibet, and the reddish-gilding and facial features, with triangular nose and semi-circular brows are characteristic of the eighteenth-century Buddhist art of lamaist Beijing. The present figure was almost certainly part of a larger sect, perhaps of nineteen or twenty-four total figures, that were commissioned for a Tibetan Buddhist temple in China. Another figure from the same set was sold at Christie’s New York, 16 September 2014, lot 270 (illustrated at left); two more figures, likely from the same set as the present figure, are in the collection of the Musée Guimet in Paris, illustrated by G. Beguin in Terreur et Magie: Dieux farouches du Musée Guimet, Brussels, 1989, pp. 27 and 29, nos. 4 and 5. A fifth example, also likely to be from the same set, is in a private collection and illustrated on Himalayan Art Resources (himalayanart.org), item no. 36240.