Dialogue  July-September,  2011, Volume 13 No.1

The Tiger Monk in Dunhuang paintings as a symbol to preempt terrorism

Nirmala Sharma

Thirteen paintings1 and now fourteen (after I identified it in the collection of National Museum, New Delhi) of a monk or a householder accompanied by a tiger have been found at Dunhuang. His identification has been always in doubt, though he has been named as Dharmatala from the Tibetan depiction in the Narthang Woodcuts2 and the Three Hundred Icons of Lalitavajra3 . He has been tentatively identified as the Arhat (?) Dharmatala. As a specific personality he was considered the author of the Udanavarga, which was translated into Chinese in AD 224 and was dated to the 2nd century. There are two other authors with the same name who wrote Samyukta-abhidharma-hrdaya- (sastra) translated into Chinese by Sangavarman, and of Panca-vastuka-vibhasa-sastra?4 (T.1555) translated by Hsuan Tsang. This Dharmatala lived in the 4th century AD. A third author of the same name lived in the 5th century AD5  and the Yogacara-bhumi is attributed to him. This makes it clear that the name Dharmatala was common among Buddhist monks.

The second doubt has been whether Dharmatala was one of the eighteen Arhats? The cult of the Arhats begins with the translation of Nandimitravadana by Hsuan Tsang, completed by him on 8th June AD 654 (K-1046)6 in the year of Yung Hui. In this translation there are only sixteen Arhats. The number 16 is confirmed by Tibetan translations as well as the Khotanese version.

The extra personages named Hva-san and Dharmatala appear in various traditions as accompanying the sixteen Arhats. The Narthang woodprints clearly show them as side figures on two blocks with the four Lokapalas.

Prof. G. Tucci (2.566) pointed out that Dharmatala lived in the T’ang period. He was a pious layman (Upasaka) in charge of the temple where the images of the arhats were kept in the time of Tang Emperor Jui-tsung (710-713 A.D). The fifth Dalai Lama too places him in the T’ang period. He is represented in a Central Asian manner especially in the way he holds his books in Tucci thanka no.11.The Khotanese translation of the sixteen Arhats given by Tucci (2.566) indicates a nexus of Dharmatala.    

This “mysterious” tiger monk can be contextualised in the political situation prevailing at the end of the tenth century around Dunhuang. From a guardian monk of the sixteen Arhats he became a generalized guardian of Dharma.

The paintings and murals of the Tiger Monk and the letter of Ma Wen-pin (Stein 2973) with his verses on a tiger on a wall- painting at Dun-huang provide a glimpse into the terrorist threat of the time. According to Stein manuscript 3540, sixteen persons had taken a solemn pledge for the upkeep of the cave temples of Dunhuang.

The Stein manuscript 2973 in the British Museum has a letter of Ma Wen-pin dated 970 AD with his aforesaid verses on a tiger (Giles 1944:32):

        A rare and precious work of art—this king of beasts!

        For fierce valour and heroic heart unequalled the world over.

        His four feet, firmly planted, are like pillars of jade;

        His two rows of teeth are sharp as points of steel.

        As he stands and looks upon the beetling crags, he seems as                   

         fixed as a mountain mass;

        But when he moves, his spring will strike terror into the beholder.

        Let a mere rumour of his presence be heard by the evil sort,

        And which of them will then dare to stir up trouble and calamity?

These verses with the tiger are self-assurance as well as a spell to preempt the risk of a Muslim Karakhanid attack in the pursuit of refugees from Khotan.

The date 970 AD is the time when Buddhist Khotan was in a do-or-die war with the Karakhanids of Kashgar. The Queen of Khotan was the daughter of Ts’ao I-chin, the ruler of Dunhuang. The King of Khotan is pictured in the main chamber of the cave 96 with a large crown, an impressive sword, and sun and moon emblems on his shoulders (Whitfield1995-334). The verses on the tiger are a warning to preempt any Islamic onslaught spreading to Dunhuang.






T’ang Emperor Jui-tsang (710-713) had sent Hva-san to invite the sixteen Arhats to China. Dharmatala accompanied them back. A tiger issued from his right knee. He is represented in Central Asian costume, bearing a pack of books on his back, with a tiger and a vase for water (Tucci 1949:2.558). Hva-san is not a proper name but a general term for an eminent monk, and likewise Dharmtala stands for a muscle monk to accompany the arhats for safety on the way. The several representations of a monk with a tiger in the paintings at Dunhuang are the generic Dharmatala. Soldier monks from Khotan must have accompanied the Arhats. Khotan was known to have a number of Arhats. The Tibetan manuscript J 547 from Dunhuang is “The prophecy of the Khotanese Arhats”(Schaik/Doney 2009:181). 

The Tiger monk symbolizes Buddhist monks trying to save relics, statues and sacred books. Jean-Pierre Drege describes two paintings in Musee Guimet, and remarks “the figure remains mysterious”. He notes the different identifications by scholars without accepting any. One identification is Dharmatala. Dharmatala acts as a security guard to the sixteen arhats. He carries a bundle of books on his back, before him is an image of Amitabha; he holds a water vase and a flywhisk. When the sixteen Arhats visited China at the invitation of the Tang Emperor Jui-tsung they observed their summer retreat on the Ha-la san hill. There were many dangerous animals on the hill. Dharmatala created a tiger from his right knee to guard the Arhats. Thus the tiger is portrayed to his right (Dagyab 1977:113) Drege is cautious to leave it as “ initially identified  ……Dharmatala”(Giles 1996:152). The ambience of Dharmatala as ‘Protector (tala=trata) of Dharma’ from the perils faced by the Khotanese diaspora is evident.

Drege notes the following characteristics of painting EO 1138. (i) He walks over rough and arid ground from which grow sparse tufts of grass. (ii) He appears exhausted (iii) The nose betrays his non-Chinese origin. (iv) He holds a rosary in the right hand and a crooked staff in the left, (v) two knives and a censer hang from the waist. (vi) The basket on his back contains sutra scrolls. (vii) A tiger walks to his right. The tiger is hu in Chinese, and Hu normally implies an Iranian (Bailey 1982:95). The character Hu for an Iranian also means a ‘beard’ (Dict. of Giles no.4930). The thick black beard of the Iranians was famous: Kalidasa in his Raghuvamsa alludes to the beard of the fallen Persian soldiers which made the whole battlefield appear as if strewn with beehives. The painting represents the arid topography of the Central-Asian route from Khotan. He is dead tired because of the harried fleeing away from persecution. The physiognomy of the noose and the tiger (hu) mark him out as a Hu, an Iranian monk from Khotan. The rosary and the crooked staff speak of his piety and devotion. The two knives hanging by the waist are for protection. The books in the back rack are scrolls and not pothis in Indian style. In Tibetan illustrations too Indian teachers are sometimes shown with scrolls and not with pothis.

Khotanese monks, pilgrims and others carried books to China where they were avidly sought after. The Sanskrit-Khotanese bilingual scroll from Dunhuang (Pelliot 5538) records the conversation of a Khotanese monk who has been to India and was now going to China to visit Manjusri on Wu-t’ai-shan. He has books of sutra, Abhidharma, Vinaya and Vajrayana. The other person to whom he was speaking was interested in Vajrayana (Bailey 1937:528-529) The Khotanese monk must have brought Sanskrit manuscript from India and was taking them along to China to defray the expenses of his pilgrimage to Wu-t’ai-shan. Nepalese scrolls have three rondels at the top: Dharma-mandala, Buddha mandala and the Sangha-mandala. The Nine Scriptures of Nepalese Buddhism are shown as manuscripts in the Dharma-mandala. Likewise the Chinese expression to secure texts after arduous journeys is to ‘obtain the Dharma’, where dharma means books. Dharma in East Javanese royal names refers to literature (Lokesh Chandra 1998:239f). To save the Dharma, the Tiger Monk is carrying books, in spite of the fact that he is loaded with everyday objects.

    The rack on the back of the monk has seven scrolls of scriptures. Kumarajiva’s version of the Lotus sutra has seven chuan or rolls. The painter has depicted the Lotus Sutra, which was the national scripture of Khotan by virtue of Prabhutaratna Tathagata, referring to jade (ratna) as the core of the economy of the Kingdom.

Painting EO1141 in the Nakayama collection has a cartouche, which names the image of Prabhutaratna (Chin.Pao-sheng). Other paintings of the Tiger Monk do not bear any name. Khotan is called Ratna-janapada “the Country of Precious and Profuse Ratnas”in the Khotanese panegyric of Vijayasangrama (P2787, Bailey 1982:71). The Chinese term” Khotan of Great Jewels.” is evocative of the role of jade as its core export. Prabhutaratna was the Protector of Khotan, the Land of Ratnas. He appears in the Saddharma-pundarika-sutra as a former Buddha in the distant world of Ratnavisuddha, to sanctify its enunciation by Sakyamuni. The nearly complete Petrovsky manuscript of the Sanskrit

Sadharmapundarika and fragments of other manuscript have been found in Khotan. Rites and ceremonies of this sutra became popular in China and Japan (Visser 1935:2.416-702).

      Painting EO 1138 is so exquisite that it tempts us to surmise that an Imperial painter did it for a royal patron. The Imperial painter could have been from the Court of either the Liao or Sung Emperors to whom the rulers of the Dunhuang had sent jade and horses. The Queen of the Dunhuang was a princess of Khotan and the Tiger monk could have been the Royal Precepter/Rajaguru of her father, the king of Khotan. The disappearance of Buddhist Khotan was a religious, cultural and political shock to China.


1. The cult of the sixteen Arhats started with the Chinese translation of the Nandimitravadana by Hsuan Tsang in AD 654 under the title “The record of ensuring the Abiding of Dharma”. The sixteen (not eighteen) Arhats are depicted in paintings or enshrined as images in Zen monasteries to this day.

2. There were never Eighteen Arhats in the canonical tradition.

3. A T’ang emperor sent Hva-san to invite the Arhats from the Western regions, which have been interpreted as India. Hva-san means a Buddhist teacher. It is a transliteration of Upadhyaya, which means a high-ranking monk in general and it is not a proper name.

4. Western regions in this context refer to Khotan, which had a number of Arhats or more precisely incarnations of Arhats. They are frequently mentioned in the “Prophecy of the Li Country” and other annals.

5. Hva-san had gone from T’ang China, while Dharmatala accompanied the Arhats for their safety on the long way from Khotan to China. The tiger to the right indicates that he was a strong ADC to the Arhats.

6. Dharmatala was a pious layman (upasaka) and not an Arhat who took charge of the monastery where the images of Arhats were placed in the reign of the T’ang Emperor Jui-tsang (710-713).

7. Klu.mes Hbrom-chun went to China and had the sixteen Arhats painted on linen and brought them to the Yer.pa monastery. He was active around AD 853. A teacher of Klu.mes named Rab.gsal presented an image made in Khotan by King Dharmika Zla. bzan (Candrabhadra).

8. A Central Asian painting (A. Stein, The Thousand Buddhas, pl. 33) represents the sixteen Arhats with two supplementary figures of Hva-san and Dharmatala. Dharmatala wears a Central Asian costume, bears a pack of books on his back, is with a tiger, and has a vase for water.

9. In the 300 Icons of Lalitavajra (1717-1786) Dharmatala is clearly designated a layman (Upasaka).           


   1.  Jacques Gies, The Arts of Central Asia, London, 1994:151 lists 13 paintings and I have found the 14th in the National Museum, New Delhi.

   2.  Doboom Tulku, Sixteen Arhats, Tibet House, New Delhi, plate 6.

   3.  Sushama Lohia, Lalitavajra’s Manual of Buddhist Iconography. New Delhi, 1994:204-205.

   4.  Taisho Shinshu Daizokyo.

   5.  Paul Demieville, Hubert Durt, Anna Seidel, Repertoire du canon Bouddhique sino-japonais, Paris-Tokyo, 1978:242.

   6.  Lewis R. Lancaster, The Korean Buddhist Ccanon, a descriptive catalogue, Berkeley 1979.



Dialogue (A quarterly journal of Astha Bharati)

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