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Home > Historical, Cultural, and Comparative Studies > Comparison of Buddhist Traditions > A Comparison of Buddhist Art Styles in the Mongol Regions

A Comparison of Buddhist Art Styles in the Mongol Regions

Alexander Berzin, 1991

Thangka Scroll Paintings and Statues

The Mongolian style of Tibetan painting maintained the iconography but adapted the details of the background. In Tibetan tangkas (scroll paintings framed in brocade), the backgrounds typically have stylized snow-capped mountains and lakes. In Mongolia, the rolling grasslands and hills of Mongolia are more frequent. The small human figures in the background tend to look more like Mongolians than like Tibetans, and eventually the facial features of the main deities also acquired Mongolian traits. Thus, the faces tend to be larger and rounder than Tibetan ones. The Mongolians also tend to use more shading than the Tibetans to depict body musculature, although this is occasionally found in Tibetan tangkas as well. The Buryats follow the Mongolian style, with some minor variations in details.

The most outstanding sculptor of Mongolia was the First Bogdo Gegen, Zanabazar. His statues are far more alive in expression and body, and more broad shouldered than Tibetan ones. The postures are canonical, but give an impression of great stateliness. His female statues, such as of the twenty-one Taras, are more sensuous than Tibetan counterparts. Mongolian sculpture follows his style.

There were great schools of Tibetan painting and statue making at Dolonor Monastery in Inner Mongolia and at the various Tibetan monasteries in Beijing. The artists at both places were mostly Chinese. Tibetan tangkas and statues were mass-produced starting in the early nineteenth century in Beijing, and during the second half of the nineteenth century at Dolonor. They were distributed throughout Mongolia and Buryatia, as well as northern China and Tibet. The Chinese style of Tibetan tangka had typically bright, garish Chinese colors, in contrast to the more subdued colors of the Tibetans. They had a great amount of gold leaf work, more than the already considerable amount found on Tibetan tangkas. Chinese style Tibetan statues, for instance of forceful protector figures, tended to be more muscular and asymmetrical than their Tibetan counterparts. They usually had slight free-style adaptations not in accordance with canonical measurements. Different alloys were used from those made in Tibet, so that the color of the statues was often lighter. Many Chinese artists were in Mongolia as well, and sometimes their influence is seen.

Temple Architecture

The temple architecture of Mongolia has strong Chinese as well as Amdo Tibetan influences. Often temples have green tile roofs, not found in Central Tibet. At one monastery, for instance Erdene Zu, there would be some buildings in pure Tibetan style, with massive walls sloping outwards and windows with black trapezoidal shaped fringes around them, and next to them buildings in Chinese influenced Mongolian style.

In Buryatia, the temples and monasteries were built mostly of logs, in Siberian fashion. This was not found in Mongolia or Tibet, where buildings were made mostly of stone or clay. The early Buryat temples were built by Russian workers and were influenced by the style of Russian Orthodox churches. Some early ones even had a central dome with four smaller domes over the four corners. In Tuva, some temples were also built of logs, but in a more simple, square style than in Buryatia.

The Kalmyks had a unique style of architecture, with temples sometimes built with spires. Most temples, however, were of the portable kibitka type, consisting of a large yurta tent on wheels.

Khushud Khurul, the main monastery of Kalmykia, was influenced by the architecture of the Kazan Cathedral in Leningrad. Like its model in Leningrad, this Kalmyk temple had a large courtyard encircled by a porch with a colonnade, in the style of St. Peter's Cathedral in Rome. Khushud Khurul was built by a Kalmyk cavalry officer, Tumen, in celebration of the Russian defeat of Napoleon in the early nineteenth century. The Kalmyk cavalry had helped the Russians in the war against France, and Tumen had participated all the way to Paris. The Kazan Cathedral housed an icon that had been credited with the defeat of the Polish invasion of Russia two centuries earlier. This cathedral and icon had been the focus of prayer for a similar expulsion of the Napoleonic armies. For this reason, Tumen was so moved by his war experiences that he sponsored the construction of a Buddhist temple in Kalmykia in the style of the Kazan Cathedral.

The Leningrad Datsang temple, which belonged to the Thirteenth Dalai Lama, was built in Tibetan style. Certain features, however, are European, such as a skylight over the main prayer hall.

Although the external style of the temples in Mongolia, Buryatia, Tuva, Kalmykia, and Leningrad each was influenced by local customs and tastes, the internal decoration and arrangement of the main prayer halls were standardly Tibetan. There were rows of columns covered with multicolored brocades and tangkas, walls with elaborate frescoes and a wild array of bright colors. The front wall had elaborate, painted cases for scriptures and statues, an enormous statue, usually of Buddha, in the center, and a throne for the Dalai Lama before the main statue. Tangkas were hung wherever possible. Everything was ornate and elaborately decorated.

As in Tibet, the monks sat in parallel rows, facing each other, perpendicular to the front of the temple. The chanting was in the Gelug style, using deep bass voices, with monks producing overtones so that each person sings a chord. The long brass horns, oboes, conchshells, cymbals, bells, and drums that accompany Tibetan chanting are found throughout. Copious amounts of salted butter tea is drunk everywhere in Buddhist Central Asia, as in Tibet.