01. Three Elements from a Throne

13th Century
Gilt-copper alloy
Heights: 9½, 15½, and 15½ in. (24, 39.3, and 39.3 cm.)

European Private Collection

Casey, J., Ahuja, N.P., and Weldon, D., Divine Presence: Arts of India and the Himalayas, Barcelona, 2003, no. 41, illus.

These three marvelous creatures are decorative elements which once formed part of the upper section of a prabhamandala (throneback) of immense grandeur.  The exuberant portrayal of the spray from which the makaras emerge and the masterful articulation of the bird’s expression and plumage are almost certainly without parallel in large Tibetan cast-metal temple sculpture.

The semi-avian Garuda formed the apex and is shown, winged outstretched, holding its talons before its beak in the act of grasping snakes.  A pair of horns emerge from its forehead and curve around the feathery ears.  To either side, the leviathan hybrid makaras (“sea dragons” or “water monsters”) emerge from sprays of churning water with heads thrown back and trunks curling above their wide-open jaws.  The ears emerge from beneath the eyes, concealing the bases of the curving horns.

A painted representation of a throne incorporating these same mystical animals may be clearly seen in a 14th-century thangka of Vairocana (op. cit. no. 40). In that painting, the makaras stand on the crossbars of the upper portion of the throneback.  The snakes emerge from the same churning water as the makaras and are held by the Garuda figure above.  The painting also gives an indication of the structure of the lower part of a prabhamandala, suggesting that these three gilt-copper sections would have represented at least half the total height of the throneback.  The actual throne to which the current three elements would have once belonged would, thus, have been a massive construction framing a highly-important sculpture.