The Goddess of the White Umbrella (the Buddhist deity Ushnisha-sitatapatra)

Who is the Goddess of the White Umbrella (the Buddhist deity Ushnisha-sitatapatra)?

Enlarge this image. The Buddhist deity Ushnisha-sitatapatra, 1800–1900. Tibet. Thangka; colors on cotton. Courtesy of the Asian Art Museum, The Avery Brundage Collection, B76D10.

The Goddess of the White Umbrella (the Buddhist deity Ushnisha-sitatapatra) is one of many powerful female deities. She manifests her power with her thousand heads, arms, and legs. She has eyes on the palms of each of her hands and soles of her feet, and each head has three eyes. Standing triumphantly within an aureole blazing with the fire of wisdom, the goddess tramples the enemies of spiritual attainment (such as anger, greed and delusion) with her numerous feet. In Ushnisha-Sitatapatra’s primary hands are the white umbrella of protection and the wheel of the Dharma (the Buddha’s teaching). Her other hands brandish various weapons and form a halo around her. In front of the goddess are three Mahakalas (enlightened beings who protect those on the path to Buddhahood). Above her is a small image of Buddha Shakyamuni in his form as the Lord of Nagas (serpent divinities).

The Buddhist deity Ushnisha-sitatapatra (detail), 1800–1900. Tibet. Thangka; colors on cotton. Courtesy of the Asian Art Museum, The Avery Brundage Collection, B76D10.

What do the demons under her feet represent?

Demons in the Buddhist sense are the bad qualities within all living beings that hinder our path to Buddhahood, such as greed, hatred, and pride. Buddhists have compassion for all beings, even the demons, who must be subdued and brought back into the fold. Every being in the universe will eventually attain enlightenment, including the most evil. For all Buddhists, there is no ultimate evil, only delusions represented by demons, who need to be guided back on the Buddhist path. Representations of demons also assist in the meditation on one’s own inner demons that need subduing. The meditator seeks to become like the deity and subdue these inner demons.

What are the steps involved in traditional Tibetan tangka painting?

This tangka is painted in the traditional style where the proportions of the figures, their poses, attributes, and colors are strictly governed by the rules and customs given in Buddhist texts. It is in the subtleties of the images, their expressions and details, and in the backgrounds of paintings (landscape and flowers, etc.) that artists need to use more original expression. Paintings were often done by a workshop of artists. The master drawing and final gold work and outlining is done by the artist and the apprentices fill in the colors and supply repetitive details such as stitching in the robes and leaves on the trees.
First, fine cotton or linen cloth is stretched over a wood frame. Several backing coats of a chalk-like substance mixed with glue are applied to the cloth and polished down so it is smooth. Grid lines are drawn to ensure the design aligns with correct proportions established in Buddhist texts. The design is then drawn on the grid. After tracing the design, the colors are applied. These are primarily blue, white, yellow, and red. These main colors are mixed to achieve all the colors needed by the artist. Colors were created by grinding precious stones of the color desired. Shading is done next. Gold is often added to show respect for the deities in the painting. The final, and according to some, the most important step, is the eye opening ceremony. The eyes of the deity are painted in while prayers are recited. The three syllables om, ah, and hum, which symbolize body, speech, and mind respectively, are written onto the back of the tangka where the crown, throat, and heart of the figure is on the reverse.
The painting is then mounted onto a backing and framed by a silk brocade border; the brocade was usually imported from India, where Moslem artisans dyed and wove the raw silk. The silk may have originated from China and Japan. [1]

[1] José Ignaxio Cabezón and Geshe Thubten Tendar, “The Tangka According to Tradition,” in Carole Elchert, ed. White Lotus: An Introduction to Tibetan Culture (Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion Publications, 1990): pp. 134-136.
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