TIBETAN ART, PRE-GREAT ENCAMPMENT (KARMA GAR-RI) : Indian, Newar and the ‘Three Great Tibetan Styles’ of Men-ri, Khyen-ri and Jeyu-ri (7th -15th Century) 17th Karmapa teachings (2021)

17th Karmapa, Orgyen Trinley Dorje

On the last two days of the 17th Karmapa’s recent teachings (see here) , the Karmapa (a talented painter and artist in his own right) gave an extensive introduction to Tibetan art history, accompanied by stunning mural images from various Tibetan monasteries.

This post combines the Karmapa’s teaching and images, with other modern scholarly research on the pre-Karma Gar-dri Tibetan art styles.

The 17th Karmapa first explained the term ‘Karma Gar-ri’ (not Gar-dri) as the style of art and calligraphy that came from the Karma Encampment, established by the 4th Karmapa, Rolpe Dorje to house him and his increasing numbers of followers as he travelled around Tibet to give teachings and perform rituals and so on.and gave a timeline of various examples of extant murals that show the development and styles of pre Karma Gar-ri Tibetan art from the 7th to 15th Century.

This was then followed by a description and examples of the ‘Three Great Tibetan Art ‘ Styles of Men-ri, Khyen-ri and Jeyu-ri, as described in a text by Bhikshu Rinchen Chok (born in 1664), from Milk Lake in Gyaltang, Kham, entitled the ‘Light of the Great Sun: A Commentary on the Presentation of the Characteristics of Statue Forms Called the Essence of Goodness‘, composed at Tsurphu monastery in 1704. This text was also the only one that explained the origin and development of the Gar-ri style, whereas other Tibetan History of Art texts did not.

In the following teaching (to be written up), the Karmapa considers the Karma Encampment (Gar-ri) style itself, in particular the work and contributions of the 10th Karmapa, Choying Dorje and Tai Situ, as described by the 17th Karmapa.

May it be of benefit in preserving and reviving interest in Tibetan art!

Two Main Periods : Pre-Encampment and Encampment

The Karma Encampment (Karma Gar) and the 8th Karmapa
8th Karmapa, Mikyo Dorje (1507 -1554), Eastern Tibet, 16th century. An historically important thangka of the 8th Karmapa who was a noted scholar and artist. He is shown with two of his principle teachers above and two of his four principle students below him. See: Thangka of Mikyo Dorje, the 8th Karmapa (1507 -1554) on Mehmet Hassan (asianart.com)

First, the 17th Karmapa explained what is meant by the Karma Gar-ri (Encampment) style:

“During the time of the Eighth Karmapa, the Karma Kagyu Great encampment (Garchen) gradually improved and became a thriving centre for the Karma Kamtsang. He established Karma Shungluk Ling, a shedra [for the study of sutra and Buddhist philosophy] and Rigdzin Khacho Ling, a tsokdra  [for the study of tantra and ritual]. There were 300-400 solitary retreatants staying in one-man tents. They did not lie down to sleep and would sit up all night when sleeping and solely devoted themselves to practice. There were also extensive and elaborate shrines.

It was also a time of burgeoning creativity. In particular, two people,  who were said to be emanations of Mikyo Dorje,  Topa Namkha Tashi and Dakpo Gopa Nangso Sidral Karma started two new artistic styles: Gardri, “Encampment Painting”, and Garluk, “Encampment Sculpture”.

In terms of the Tibetan term. Karma Gar-dri. It is better to say Karma Gar-ri. In Tibetan, the word ‘dri’ can be confusing in this context, because when you say Gar-dri, it means ‘encampment writing’, so it might be mistakenly thought of as a style of calligraphy that was developed in the encampment, or as a particular handwriting style. So it was less confusing to call the painting style Karma Ga-ri. It would be good to distinguish them in that way. Whether this is logical or not is something that experts should examine. I am not saying unilaterally it should be that. Whatever we say, what we need to understand is that the the Karma Gar-ri style of painting became an exceptional Tibetan style, developed within the Karma Garchen under the instructions of the Karmapas and their Heart Sons. It emerged as a new Tibetan artistic style augmenting earlier Tibetan art forms with techniques and styles from other cultures. It was a new style in that way. Due to the Gyalwang Karmapas and their heart sons, it spread widely and continues to this day.  So it is an artistic style that came from the Encampment (the Gar-ri, the Encampment painting style).”

Two main time periods of Tibetan Buddhist art

According to David Jackson, in one of the most extensive academic studies of Tibetan Karma Kagyu art history The Patron and Painter: Situ Panchen and the Revival of the Encampment Style (2009:72), there are two main periods in Tibetan art, pre-Karma Gar-ri and Karma Gar-ri styles[i]. The first pre-Karma Gar-ri period can be divided into three main categories, and the second into ‘Old’ and ‘New’ :

I . Pre- Karma Encampment styles (twelfth until the mid- or late fifteenth century)

A. Eastern [Indian] style (shar bris); ca. late eleventh through mid-fourteenth century[1]?

B. Newar-influenced styles (bat bris); fourteenth through fifteenth century in central Tibet, and occasionally as late as the mid- or late sixteenth century [ii] (Jackson (2009: 78-85)

C. Menthangpa styles (sman bris); from the mid-fifteenth century.

The Karma Gar-ri style can be divided into two main categories, the old and new styles:

2. Period of the Karma Encampment styles (late 16th Century to present)

A. The old Encampment styles (sgar bris rnying pa); late sixteenth century through early eighteenth century, a period witnessing the successive two artists named Namkha Tashi (fl. late sixteenth century) and Cho Tashi (fl. early eighteenth century).

B. The later or “new” Encampment styles (sgar bris gsar ma); 1730s to the present, the period beginning with the activities of Situ Panchen and painters who included the third of the “three Tashis,” Karma Tashi (fl.l760s- 70s).

Although I am not that familiar with her work, Dr. Amy Heller of the University of Bern (2021) breaks up Tibetan art history into six main periods, as can be read in this interesting summary of some public lectures she gave last month: An Introduction to Tibetan Buddhist Art: Lectures by Dr. Amy Heller | Buddhistdoor. See Heller’s various books and articles listed in ‘Further Reading’ below.


The 17th Karmapa gave a timeline of various examples of extant murals that show the development and styles of pre Karma Gar-ri Tibetan art from the 7th to 15th Century:

Rasa Temple – 7th Century

The 17th Karmapa explained that Tibetan art forms are evident from the 7th and 8th centuries onwards, with the first establishment of the Buddhist teachings in Tibet, when the Tibetan kings founded various monasteries: Rasa, Pekar, Samye, Khamsum Midok and so on.

“For example, at Rasa Trulnang Shalre Temple [built c.652 CE, renamed fifty years later as the Jokhang, and remains to this day as the oldest part of a much more extensive temple], an extant mural bears the words:

Khenpo Gor Yeshe Yang, Gelong Tak Yonten De, and Ge Namkay Nyingpo Yang drew these figures and dharma as merit for the king and all sentient beings.

8th Century Jowo Statue – Lhasa, Tibet
Jowo Statue, Jowo Lkhakhang, Tibet

“From the 7th and 8th centuries there was an established tradition of art in Tibet. These days, within Tibet, many modern scholars in Tibet believe that the famous Lhasa Jowo Shakyamuni Buddha image in the Jokhang was brought from China by Songtsen Gampo’s wife. However, many modern scholars say it was made in Tibet itself, rather than the Princess Wencheng of the Chinese Tang dynasty.”

9th CenturyKham cave carvings

“Similarly, there are carvings done in 804 CE at the Vairochana Cave in Drakyap Ra in Kham, and in 806 CE at Kyekundu in Kham; they are preserved by Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche. We can still these carvings today.”

9th Century – Dunhuang Silk painting of Medicine Buddha (836 CE)
Painting of the Paradise of Bhaiṣajyaguru, Buddha of Healing, set in a landscape with Mañjuśrī, Samantabhadra and attendants. Bodhisattvas beside the Buddha are painted in Tibetan style. Esoteric Buddhist figures in the lower section (partly destroyed). Tibetan and Chinese inscriptions. Ink and colour on silk. See: https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/A_1919-0101-0-32

“Also, during the Tibetan empire, the earliest signed painting by Tibetan artist can be seen from an example from Dunhuang, a silk painting of the Medicine Buddha (see above) and 1000-armed Avalokiteshvara (see below). The time this was drawn was probably 836 CE and it is in the British Museum. It is signed:

In the Year of the Dragon, I, the bhikshu Palyang, as service for his body, have drawn the Medicine Buddha, Samantabhadra, Youthful Manjushri, 1000-Armed Avalokiteshvara, the wish-fulfilling jewel, and dedications

This is probably the first time a Tibetan artist signed his actual works. We can see this now.”

Dunhuang Cave Painting inspired by Esoteric Buddhism, showing a Thousand-armed, thousand-eyed Avalokiteśvara with accompanying figures, various gestures and his usual attributes (conch shell, vase, sun and moon, Amitābha figure in headdress).  See: https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/A_1919-0101-0-35
10th Century – Lotsawa Rinchen Zangpo and mural at Toling monastery
 Two of the murals at Toling monastery, some of which may originate from the time of Lochen Rinchen Sangpo, others later. Presented by 17th Karmapa (2021)

“During the time of the later transmission of the teachings, Lochen Rinchen Sangpo (958 – 1054 CE) built Toling, Korchag, Nyerma and Topa monasteries in 996 CE. It is still possible to see the murals at Toling. There are also extant murals at Dungkar Sargo Cave and Wachen Cave that can be seen today. Some of these were drawn during that time and some painted later. So, that monastery was founded in the 10th century, 996 CE.”

11th Century -Terton Ngonshe and mural at Pal Dratang monastery
Drapa Ngonshe (1012-1090)

The 17th Karmapa then described the work of the Terton Ngonshe (1012 -1090) at Pal Dratang Monastery:

“There was also a monk Ngonshe, a very famous terton born in 1012 CE. In 1081 CE, he founded Pal Dratang Monastery. He began it, but his nephews Jungne and Jungtsul finished the construction in 1093 CE. These are photos of an 11th-century mural that has survived there, alongside one from Zhalu.”

Murals of Dratang Monastery, presented by 17th Karmapa

[Drapa Ngonshe was the terton who revealed the Four Tantras, the root texts of Tibet’s medical tradition. A master in the Nyingma, Zhije, and Kadam traditions, he established numerous religious communities in Tibet, including the great Dratang monastery which was later absorbed by the Sakya.]

12th Century – Kyura Lhachen and the Seven Wonders of Dusum Khyenpa

The 17th Karmapa then gave the example of the famous Tibetan artist, Khyura Lhachen:

“In the 12th century, towards the end of the life of First Karmapa Dusum Khyenpa, there was a very famous artist from Ga in Kham called Khyura Lhachen.  Although he did complete some paintings, he was primarily a sculptor who made moulded sculptures. He created the statue known as “The Seven Wonders of Dusum Khyenpa”, which was at Karma Gon Monastery. The statues were probably destroyed during the time of the cultural revolution, but some remnants were rescued by an elderly woman and returned to the monastery.”

Khyura Lhachen is said to be one of the main artists who worked on the Jokhang Temple in Tibet and directed them to follow the Newari/Nepali style. However, they changed it slightly to use more Tibetan styles and so it was called the Kyura Lhachen style. There is a TV episode (Tibetan with English subtitle)  in which Southwest Minzu University’s Prof. Kunkyap Tenzi talks about this painter here below. In the lecture, he considers why Khyura Lhachen was called Ajo ‘pioneer’.

He also presents photos of Tarna monastery (a Kagyu temple), at which he says holds many relics of Gesar and other cultural relics, and that ‘the pagodas of Gesar’s thirty generals are held in a cave’ there. The reason it is called Tarna monastery is because a hill in the areas looks like the shape of a ‘horse’s ear (tarna):

13th Century – Pakshi and ‘The Ornament of the World’ at Tsurphu

“At some time after 1263 CE, during the lifetime of Karma Pakshi, the artist and sculptor Pakshi from Phayul was invited to Tsurphu Monastery and made the Buddha statue “Ornament of the World”. Cast from copper and brass and 13 arm-spans high, it was probably the largest cast statue in Tibet.  It was such a solid piece that they were unable to destroy it during the cultural revolution. During the 1970s, however, a craftsman visiting Tsurphu realised it had been cast and that one needed to use fire to smelt it down and destroy it that way. It would have survived if that person had not done that. There are many wonderful stories about the construction of this great statue at Tsurphu.”

14th century – Shalu monastery
Murals of Zhalu Monastery, presented by 17th Karmapa

In the 14th century, from 1306 CE onwards, there are extant murals from the Shalu monastery.  Shalu Drakpa Gyaltsen painted the murals at Shalu Serkhang. 

15th Century – Gyangtse Chode Monastery and teachers of Menla Dondrup

“Between 1370–1425 CE the Gyangtse Palkhor Chode monastery was built, with many different statues and murals. Then, in 1427 CE, Gyangtse Kumbum Stupa was constructed with its extensive murals and statues which can still be seen. These are two images of Tara from Gyangtse Palkhor Chode. There were two famous artists who drew these murals, Palchen Rinchen and Sonam Paljor. They were among the teachers of the great master artist Menla Dondrup [see below]. Usually people say he studied with Gyalpo Tashi, however he says himself that he studied with these two teachers.”

Gyangtse Kumbum Stupa, Tibet. For a contemporary description of the temple see Gyantse Kumbum | Gyantse, China Attractions – Lonely Planet.

“Commissioned by a local prince in 1427 and sitting beside Palcho Monastery, Gyantse Kumbum is the town’s foremost attraction. This 32m-high chörten, with its white layers trimmed with decorative stripes and crown-like golden dome, is awe-inspiring. But the inside is no less impressive, and in what seems an endless series of tiny chapels you’ll find painting after exquisite painting (kumbum means ‘100,000 images’). Gyantse Kumbum has been described as the most important of its kind in Tibet. There are only two contemporaries, both ruined, remote and off limits, in the Buddhist world: Jonang Kumbum, 60km northeast of Lhatse, and the even more remote Chung Riwoche, in the west of Tsang. However, it is commonly held that neither could ever compare with the style and grandeur of the Gyantse Kumbum.

Upon entering, follow a clockwise route marked by red arrows that leads murmuring pilgrims up through the six floors, taking in the dozens of tiny chapels that recede into the walls along the way. Much of the statuary in the chapels was damaged during the Cultural Revolution but the murals have weathered well. They date back to the 14th century, and if they were not created by Newari (Nepali) artisans then they were obviously influenced by Newari forms. Experts also see evidence of Chinese influence and, in the fusion of these Newari and Chinese forms with Tibetan sensibilities, the emergence of a syncretic but distinctly Tibetan style of painting.” Gyantse Kumbum | Gyantse, Lonely Planet

15th CENTURY- The ‘three great Tibetan’ styles: Men-ri, Khyen-ri and Jeyu-ri

Until the 15th century, most of the paintings and sculptures in Tibet were in either Indian or, primarily, Nepali/Newari style. So when did a distinctive Tibetan art form and techniques  develop? 

The 17th Karmapa described a text by Bhikshu Rinchen Chok (born in 1664), from Milk Lake in Gyaltang, Kham, entitled the Light of the Great Sun: A Commentary on the Presentation of the Characteristics of Statue Forms Called the Essence of Goodness,  composed at Tsurphu monastery in 1704. In this texts, it says there are three main styles that developed in Tibet after the 15th Century. This text was also the only one that explained the origin and development of the Gar-ri style.

1. Men-ri style – artist Menla Dondrup

The Tibetan artist Menla Dondrub (sMan-bla-don-grub, fl.1450s-1470s), was revered as a great painter and founder of a school of painting known as the Menri. He was closely associated with the First Dalai Lama, who offered him patronage and commissioned him to paint murals at Tashilungpo in 1458 and 1464. He described himself as someone who “had mastered all the painting styles from such countries as India, China, Nepal and Tibet, and who had also mastered [Sanskrit?] grammar, poetics, two Indian scripts and all Tibetan scripts.”

David Jackson (2009: 82) says about this style:

“In some influential circles this [Men-ri] style quickly eclipsed the old Tibeto-Newar synthesis. Called the “Men-ri style” after its founding painter, it departed from its predecessors through including much more Chinese landscape in the backgrounds of iconic paintings. This style prevailed throughout much of central Tibet from the late fifteenth or early sixteenth century onward . For the Karma Kagyu, this was also a widely patronized style, before that religious school developed its own distinctive artistic idioms. “

Jackson (2009: 88-89) cites the earliest example of Karma Kagyu painting from this period in the Menri style as a thangka, which probably dates to the early sixteenth century, depicting the Fourth Shamar lama, together with a series of episodes from his young adulthood (see image below):

Fourth Shamarpa thangka painted in Men-ri style (See Jackson (2009: 88)

The 17th Karmapa also explained Menla Dondrup’s contribution to Tibetan art and his connection to the 1st Dalai Lama:

“Then, not long after that,  an emanation of Manjushri, Menla Dondrup, was born in Mentang in Lhodrak.  At that time, vermillion was essential for painting and making ink stamp. He found a great deposit of vermillion in that region.

He was a married layperson but since his wife and him did not get along well, he was forced to leave the region. So, he went to Tsang, and found some art supplies and developed an interest in art. He wanted to find a good teacher and so he then studied art from Dopa Tashi Gyalpo.

Not only did he study that, he had a memory from a previous life that he has been an artist in China. At Dratang, there was one particular Chinese-style painting, and when Menla Dondrup saw it, he immediately remembered his previous life as an artist in China.  Using this recall of his previous life, he started developing a unique, fully-developed artistic style. Additionally, he determined the measurements and proportions according to the Kalachakra and Samvarodaya, tantras which describe the proportions, costumes and accoutrements of the different deities.  This style became known as the Great Mentang style.

First Dalai Lama, Gedun Drub

Later, Gyalwa Gendun Drubpa, the First Dalai Lama (1391-1474) had a dream that he would meet an emanation of Manjushri the following day. The very next day Menla Dondrup came to see him.  For that reason, the Dalai Lama determined that Menla Dondrup was an emanation of Manjushri.

When Gendun Drubpa founded Tashilhungpo Monastery at Shigatse, he commissioned Menla Dondrup to paint the murals of Vajradhara and the Sixteen Arhats. The murals still exist but are very faded and blackened and cannot really see the detail except shape and form. A few years ago, a thangka was found at Sakya Monastery in Tibet and on the back it says “painted by Menla Dondrup” (see image below):

Image presented by 17th Karmapa (2021)

Consequently, now we have this, more research is needed into Menla Dondrup’s style and working methods, which became known as the Menluk (or Men-ri) tradition.”

Himalayan Art Resources has compiled this short video about the Men-ri style[iv].

2. Khyen-ri styleartist Khyentse Chenmo

The 17th Karmapa then went on to introduce the second major style of the 15th Century, developed by the artist Khyentse Chenmo (mKhyen brtse chen mo) :

“One of his [Menla Dondup’s] companions and a fellow student of Dopa Tashi Gyalpo was Khyentse Chenmo from Upper Gang in Gongkar.  He also developed a particular artistic style which became known as the Khyen-ri tradition. So, there were these two traditions, the Men-ri style and the Khyen-ri style. These are extant murals by Khyentse Chenmo which can be seen at the Sakya Gongkar Chode Dorje Den monastery.”

Presented by 17th Karmapa (2021)

Himalayan Art Resources has compiled this short Youtube video about the Khyen-ri style[v]. In the video, Jeff Watts also talks about a Jonang monastery that heavily relies on the Khyen-ri style of painting. What defines it? On the HAR website it says:

“The Khyenri painting tradition is most closely associated with and influenced by the murals of Gyantse Kumbum and Monastery. There are two distinct subjects of Khyenri painting, (1) peaceful deities and teachers and (2) wrathful deities. Khyenri paintings are known for a bright palette, attention to small detail, portrait like faces and almost perfect circles of light or flame surrounding the deities. Transparent halos are often found with the various Khyenri mahasiddha and arhat paintings sets.” See: Tibet: Gongkar Chode, Hevajra Chapel (SRG Archive) (himalayanart.org).

Thus, by the end of the 15th century, the two earliest Tibetan artistic traditions existed, the Menluk [also called Men-ri] and Khyenluk [also called Khyen-ri].

Kyen-ri thangka of early Abbots of Gendungang (for more on them see here.) Second half of the fifteenth century. Rubin Museum of Art. Gift of Shelley and Donald Rubin (HAR 273)
Jackson 1999, pl. 18; Jackson 2009, fig. 5.23

David Jackson, in A Revolutionary Artist from Tibet (2016), focuses exclusively on the Khyenri style and Khyentse Chenmo. He states that:

“The painting of Khyentse Chenmo, founder of the Khyenri style who flourished in the 1450s–1490s, was significant for his radical rejection of the prevailing classic Indic (especially Nepalese-inspired) styles with formal red backgrounds, enthusiastically replacing them with the intense greens and blues of Chinese landscapes. Khyentse was famed for his fine and realistic looking work, both as a painter and sculptor. His painting style has often been overlooked or misunderstood by scholars, but is a missing link in the history of Tibetan painting as it has often been misidentified as early examples of the Karma Gardri style The Khyenri style is now most closely linked with a small sub-school of the Sakya school, the Gongkarwa. The most important in-situ murals of the Khyenri style survive at the Gongkar Monastery in southern Tibet, south of Lhasa near the Gongkar airport. There we find murals by the hand of Khyentse Chenmo himself, many of them were covered by a layer of whitewash and thus escaped destruction during the Cultural Revolution. “

” Khyentse Chenmo’s full title was “Master-artist Khyentse of Gongkar” (Gong dkar mKhyen brtse chen mo). He was also commonly called just “Khyentse of Gongkar” (Gong dkar mKhyen brtse).In some sources, or simply “he of Khyentse” (Khyentsewa, mKhyen brtse ba). Khyentse Chenmo was born in the Lhokha district of Ü province, south of Lhasa. He was born at Gangtö (sGang stod), a place in Gongkar just outside of what became in the 1460s, a few decades after his birth, the precincts of Gongkar Dorjeden Monastery. Though Khyentse Chenmo’s exact year of birth is not known, he probably was born in the 1420s. After study[1]ing art in the 1430s or early 1440s, he likely achieved his original style by the late 1440s or early 1450s and went on to lead major projects by the early 1460s, at the latest. He painted his most famous murals at Gongkar between 1464 and 1476, some of which survive. He remained a very prominent artist in the 1470s and 1480s; in those decades, he painted murals at the great stupa of Champaling, none of which survive. In Drathang, he also produced a set of outstanding gilt-copper sculptures, which still exist. His career continued to flourish in the 1490s, and in 1503 he was invited to work on a major artistic project, the murals of Yangpachen (Yangs pa can) Monastery, though by then he must have been quite old. The last time his name appears in historical records is in association with the Yangpachen project; he presumably died at some point during the following twenty years.” (2016: 3)

3. Jeyu-ri style – artist Tulku Jeyu

The 17th Karmapa continued with the third ‘great style’ of artist Jeyu (Byed’u):

“Then came a third, distinctive style developed by Tulku Jeyu. He really enjoyed studied art very diligently. He would always travel around carrying with his paintings and art supplies and studying with various masters. Hence, he was called Jeyu , which means ‘little bird’ in Tibetan, because, just like a little bird, he was constantly flitting from place to place. The first part of his name, Tulku, does not mean as we normally mean,  reincarnation or emanation, her in this context it is a title given to artists who make statues and paintings of buddhas and bodhisattvas. So, he was an artistic tulku not a tulku as we think of in terms of nowadays. He was noted for his superior use of colour.

There were, of course, many other different artistic styles in Tibet, but most of them can be included in one of these three major styles. The descriptions are in the text by Rinchen Phuntsog. Also there was a Bikshu Rinchen Drug who wrote a slightly longer commentary.”

There is a TV episode (Tibetan with English subtitle)  in which Southwest Minzu University’s Prof. Kunkyap Tenzi talks about this painter here.

Davd Jackson, in A History of Tibetan Painting: The Great Tibetan Painters and Their Traditions. (1996: Chapter 2) gives an extensive account of Jeyu and says:

“According to a recent Tibetan historian, one of the early outstanding Tibetan painters was also somehow linked with one of the multiple- temple stupas built in gTsang during the 15th century. He was the painter called Bye’u (or Byi’u) from Yar-stod, who, if this account can be trusted, was thus one of the first painters to be mentioned in historical accounts purely for his own attainments as a professional artist, and not because of his fame otherwise as a Buddhist master or as an artist patronized by some Buddhist master. “

17th Century histories of Tibetan art by Desi Sangye Gyatso and Geshe Tenzin Phuntshog

The 17th Karmapa finished the teaching on the pre-Karma Gar-ri style with an explanation of how the main Tibetan source texts on these ‘three great styles’ do not mention anything about the Karma Gar-ri style:

“Later, Je Sangye Gyatso (sDe-srid Sangs-rgyas-rgya-mtsho) ‘s Catalogue of Offerings of the Ornament of the World, written in 1697 CE, mentions Dopa Tashi Gyalpo, his students Menla Dondrup and Khyentse Chenmo, and the Chiwu style. It is the primary source for historians of Menluk and Khyenluk. However, there is not a single word about the Gar-ri style. The reason for this is unclear, but from one perspective, Sangye Gyatso was writing at a time when the Karma Kagyu were being suppressed, so the Garchen was probably also suppressed and could not be mentioned.

Geshe Tenzin Phuntsok of Marsho Gojo [born 1673] was skilled in Tibetan medicine and astrology.  He also wrote about techniques of coloration in a text called Giving Hues to Flowers and Bringing Out the 100,000 Colours of Rainbows. In this work, he wrote a history of Tibetan art similar to that of Sangye Gyatso. In 1716, he wrote the Long Explanation of Consecration: The Smile that Pleases Maitreya, Eight Parts of Excellent Auspiciousnes, within this he says basically the same thing as Sangye Gyatso and that the first styles to develop were “the three great styles.”

The next post will consider the Karma Gar-ri style in more detail, including the 17th Karmapa’s recent teachings on it and the contributions of the 10th Karmapa and Tai Situpas.

Compiled and written by Adele Tomlin, 12th April 2021.

Further Reading

  • Brown, Kathryn Selig. “Tibetan Buddhist Art.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/tibu/hd_tibu.htm (October 2003)
  • Chandra, Lokesh (1996). Transcendental art of Tibet. New Delhi: International Academy of Indian Culture and Aditya Prakashan.
  • Debreczeny, Karl. (PDF) Sino-Tibetan Artistic Synthesis in Ming Dynasty Temples at the Core and Periphery | Karl Debreczeny – Academia.edu (2003).
  • Heller, Amy.  (PDF) “An Early thanka of Avalokiteśvara from the Kingdom of Guge” | Amy Heller – Academia.edu (2015).
  • Heller, Amy. Hidden Treasures of the Himalayas: Tibetan manuscripts, paintings and sculptures of Dolpo. Chicago: Serindia Publications, 2009.
  • Heller, Amy. Early Himalayan art. Oxford: The Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford, 2008.
  • Heller, Amy.  Xizang Fojiao Yishu (Tibetan Buddhist Art). Beijing: Culture and Art Publishing, 2008.
  • Heller, Amy.  Tibetan Art Tracing the Development of Spiritual Ideals and Art in Tibet, 600 – 2000 A.D. Milano: Jaca Book and Woodbridge: Antique Collectors’ Club, 1999. Translations: Arte Tibetana, Davide Cova, translator, Milano: Jaca Book, 1999; Arts et Sagesses du Tibet, Divina Cabo, translator, La Pierre-qui-Vire: Editions du Zodiaque, 1999. Arte Tibetano, Inés Martin/ José Luis Tamayo, translators, Madrid: Libsa, 2000 (reprint 2002).
  • Heller, Amy. Tibetan Art. Milan: Editoriale Jaca Book SpA, 1999.
  • von Schroeder, Ulrich. 1981. Indo-Tibetan Bronzes. (608 pages, 1244 illustrations). Hong Kong: Visual Dharma Publications Ltd. 
  • von Schroeder, Ulrich. 2001. Buddhist Sculptures in Tibet. Vol. One: India & Nepal; Vol. Two: Tibet & China. (Volume One: 655 pages with 766 illustrations; Volume Two: 675 pages with 987 illustrations). Hong Kong: Visual Dharma Publications, Ltd. 
  • von Schroeder, Ulrich. 2006. Empowered Masters: Tibetan Wall Paintings of Mahasiddhas at Gyantse. (p. 224 pages with 91 colour illustrations). Chicago: Serindia Publications. 
  • von Schroeder, Ulrich. 2008. 108 Buddhist Statues in Tibet. (212 p., 112 colour illustrations) (DVD with 527 digital photographs). Chicago: Serindia Publications.
  • Steven M. Kossak, Jane Casey Singer. Sacred visions : early paintings from central Tibet; with an essay by Robert Bruce-Gardner. b1249196 1 – Metropolitan Museum of Art Publications – Digital Collections from The Metropolitan Museum of Art Libraries (oclc.org)


[i] Jackson (2009: 72): “For its first four and a half or five centuries, it cannot claim to have possessed its own style. Rather, it commissioned works in roughly the same sequence of painting schools and styles as the other contemporaneous religious schools. In the second period, i.e., from about the 1580s on, it developed its own special heavily sinicized painting traditions. Both periods witnessed more than one major stylistic development.”

[ii] Jackson (2009: 76): “NEWAR-I NFLU£NCED STYLES Like other religious schools in central Tibet, the Karma Kagyu commissioned much or most of its religious paintings from about the mid- or late fourteenth until the fifteenth (and occasionally even sixteenth) century in styles that later Tibetan authorities usually call ” Newar Painting” (bat ris). These styles were by no means pure Newari but rather a Tibeto-Newar stylistic syntheses, and they persisted quite long, with some paintings commissioned in the style even as late as the second half of the sixteenth century. Typical features of this style include the continued linear arrangement of figures , predominantly of range and red palette (though more vermilion and increasing use of blues and greens). A few highly simplified and stylized landscape elements (such as clouds or plants) were also depicted, if minimal landscapes were encouraged by the subject matter.”

[iii]From Whitfield 1982: “In spite of extensive damage to the lower half, this painting is one of the largest silk paintings from Dunhuang. It is also one of the most important because the central inscription in Tibetan and Chinese, although almost completely faded when first seen, can be read and does provide a date. This inscription (see below) had not been read when Waley catalogued the Stein collection, but has recently been revealed by infra-red photography (Fig.43) and published by Heather Karmay in her book on Early Sino-Tibetan Art. Her translation of the Tibetan part reads as follows:

“In the year of the dragon, I, the monk dPal-dbyangs, painted in a group the images of Bhaisajyaguru; Samantabhadra; Mañjusri-kumara; a thousand-armed, thousand-eyed Avalokitesvara; Chintāmanicakra; Parina-tacakra etc., for the benefit of my health and to transfer the merit (?) (created by the act of painting, to all beings).”

The Chinese inscription, in nine columns from left to right, repeats the substance of the Tibetan part, but is more specific as to date. More of the text can be made out than when it was published by Karmay:

this is not so much the paradise of the Medicine Buddha, however, as a composite reflecting the personal predilections of the Tibetan monk who commissioned the painting. Not only the dual inscription in Tibetan and Chinese, but the painting itself reveals its Tibetan connections, for here in the same composition we find, as Heather Karmay has pointed out,”two quite different styles that existed side by side in Dunhuang.

[iv] In the HAR video, Jeff Watts states that the Men-ri and Khen-ri styles are very similar when it comes to the peaceful figures, but for the wrathful figures there are significant differences. He states that on the HAR website they have very few examples of the Men-ri style.  They are mainly scroll-work paintings but not scroll-works. In the 17th Century, there is the new Men-ri tradition, by Choying Gyatso of which there are many examples, was from Tashi Lungpo in Shigatse. In modern times, they do not use this term New Men-ri and seems to be a Lhasa term. It is hard to track because it quickly became a tradition rather than a style. That it is still being studied.

[v] In the HAR video, Jeff Watts states that the Men-ri and Khen-ri styles are very similar when it comes to the peaceful figures, but for the wrathful figures there are significant differences. He states that on the HAR website they have very few examples of the Men-ri style.  They are mainly scroll-work paintings but not scroll-works. In the 17th Century, there is the new Men-ri tradition, by Choying Gyatso of which there are many examples, was from Tashi Lungpo in Shigatse. In modern times, they do not use this term New Men-ri and seems to be a Lhasa term. It is hard to track because it quickly became a tradition rather than a style. That it is still being studied.

2 thoughts on “TIBETAN ART, PRE-GREAT ENCAMPMENT (KARMA GAR-RI) : Indian, Newar and the ‘Three Great Tibetan Styles’ of Men-ri, Khyen-ri and Jeyu-ri (7th -15th Century) 17th Karmapa teachings (2021)

  1. Concerning Tibetan paintings and murals worthy to notice that inside Rumtek monastery there is painting/mural with Hindu elephant head deity Ganesha/Ganapati. Story says that XVI Karmapa had vision of Ganesha/Ganapati who helped Karmapa with completing Rumtek. ! On Google easy to find those details. Also Google is mentioning Buddha Siakyamuni teachings about Ganapati.

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