Itinerant Monk Accompanied by a Tiger
West China, Dunhuang
End of the Tang Dynasty, 9th century
Ink and colours on silk
H: 82 cm, W: 55 cm
(Inv. EO 1141), Pelliot Mission, 1906-1909
Paris, National Museum of Asian Arts - Guimet
Of all the paintings to have come out of the Qianfodong, this portrayal of an itinerant monk carrying books and accompanied by a tiger provides the most explicit illustration of the ways in which Buddhism was transmitted along the routes of Central Asia.
Of the twelve works representing this theme, this is one of the two finest. The monk is shown at a standstill while the tiger accompanying him continues to move forward. The man, his skull shaven and his head haloed, seems exhausted and has a haggard look. The wrinkles of the neck are readily visible and the eyebrows are bushy. He wears a robe and a jiasha. He carries a pouch with the usual small objects on one side and a cylindrical basket which undoubtedly contains sutras, as may be inferred from the vapours emerging from the basket. The ground is suggested by flowerets, with a wavy line to indicate the unevenness of the land and to distinguish it from what seems to be a symbolic domain.
A cartouche in the upper right may be translated, "An image of the tathagala Baosheng, painted for my dead younger brother Zhiqiu, on the occasion of the fast of the third period of seven days (following his death), and offered for his happiness." In Tantric doctrine this same Baosheng is invoked to cast out demons. Chapter 26 of the biography by Ceng Bao, written in 514, indicates that a large temple was dedicated to him at Khôtan in the heart of Central Asia.
This divinity was supposed to protect travellers crossing the desert. Whoever the portrait may be, it corresponds above all to a stereotyped formula widely represented in China and in Tibet of the Central Asian or Indian monk weighed down under holy texts. It is without doubt such representations as these which influenced the Japanese iconographers who created the Genyô Sanzo or portraits of Xuanzang, of which the Tokyo National Museum owns a fine specimen dating from the first half of the fourteenth century.
Jean -Paul Desroches