07. Thangka of Dharmatala

China, Qing Dynasty
18th Century
Distemper on cloth
27½ by 18 1/8 in. (70 by 46 cm.)

French Private Collection

In this vibrant composition, the layman Dharmatala (upasaka) is depicted at the upper right holding a fly-whisk and accompanied by his companion tiger.  In the foreground Vaishravana (Guardian of the North, King of the Yakshas, and Leader of the Worldly Dharma Protectors), yellow in color, carries a banner of victory in his right hand and a mongoose that vomits jewels in his left.  Virupaksha (Guardian King of the West and King of the Nagas), red in color, holds a small stupa in his left hand and a serpent in his right.

The mongoose or "treasure mongoose" (nakula) which disgorges a shower of jewels from its open mouth is a main left-hand attribute of wealth deities such as Jambhala, Vaishravana, and Kubera.  It is also held in the left hand of Bakula, who strokes and squeezes it with his right hand as it vomits a stream of jewels. As a hand-held attribute, the mongoose symbolizes generosity, the granting of desires, treasures, and accomplishments.

Dharmatala is described as a layman (upasaka) and is seen as an attendant to the sixteen arhats( 罗汉).  He is usually depicted with a large set of sutras that he carries in a bamboo library on his back, and he always travels with a tiger that is said to protect against malevolent spirits.  Some accounts suggest that the figure is modelled on the Chinese pilgrim Xuan Zhuang who travelled to India in the seventh century returning with many Buddhist sutras.  The arhats represent the sixteen close disciples of the Buddha and who were entrusted by him to remain in the world and not to enter nirvana until the coming of the next buddha in order to provide people with objects of worship.

Compare Himalayan Art Resources item no. 54441, a painting at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago with a very similar composition of Dharmatala and two of the four Guardians.