Thousand-Armed Avalokiteshvara, Bodhisattva of Compassion
Eleven-Headed and "Thousand-Armed" Avalokiteshvara, Bodhisattva of Compassion
Deity who helps beings reach enlightenment so they can escape the cycle of time

Artist/maker unknown, Tibetan

Made in western Tibet, Tibet, Asia

Medieval Period

Early 14th century

Copper alloy with silver and copper colored inlay, coral, turquoise, lapis lazuli, and at multiple layers of applied cold gold

20 1/2 × 13 × 4 1/2 inches (52.1 × 33 × 11.4 cm) Base: 3 5/8 × 7 13/16 × 5 5/8 inches (9.2 × 19.8 × 14.3 cm)

Curatorial Department:
South Asian Art

Object Location:

Currently not on view

Accession Number:

Credit Line:
125th Anniversary Acquisition. Purchased with the Stella Kramrisch Fund, 2001

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One of the most popular devotional deities in Himalayan Buddhism, Avalokiteshvara (the Bodhisattva of Compassion) appears in many forms, but this eleven-headed, “thousand-armed” form is one of the most popular. The many heads, eyes, and hands represent the countless ways in which Avalokiteshvara can see, hear, and benefit all sentient beings. This figure is exceptional because two parts of the original multipiece work (the body and the separately cast splay of arms) are preserved together. A third layer of hands originally fanned out at the back of the sculpture to make a complete set of one thousand arms.

Additional information:
  • PublicationGifts in Honor of the 125th Anniversary of the Philadelphia Museum of Art

    Avalokiteshvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion, appears here in his cosmic form with eleven heads and “one thousand” arms. The deity was introduced into Tibet from India in the seventh century and quickly became the most popular of all Buddhist beings. He even came to be considered the tutelary deity of Tibet, where he protects the world in the time between the departure of Shakyamuni Buddha, the historical founder of Buddhism, and the advent of Maitreya, Buddha of the Future.

    The eleven heads rise upward in progressive manifestations of Avalokiteshvara, culminating with the fearsome face of a protector deity and, finally, the beatific head of the Eternal Buddha, Amitabha. The eight arms that are cast with the body once each held standardized attributes, although now only the jewel of enlightenment remains, concealed within the folded front hands. The fanlike halo of another thirty-four arms is separately cast and attaches to the body. Originally the entire composition would have also had an additional halolike back-piece depicting even more arms and an elaborate lotus-shaped base. Although ritual accretions, including a layer of gold pigment, now cover the sculpture, ornamental details abound. Not only are the crowns and jewelry inset with semiprecious stones, but silver- and copper-colored metal inlays embellish the garments and enliven the lower faces, while graceful foliate swirls decorate the garment folds.

    This impressive sculpture is extremely rare in the preservation of two parts of its original four-part composition, which together with its large stature and exquisite modeling would be enough to make it a significant acquisition for the Museum. However, its identity as a complex form of the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara also enriches the collections by complementing the Museum’s superb and important images of this primary Buddhist deity from other Asian regions, including India, Cambodia, and China. Darielle Mason, from Philadelphia Museum of Art: Gifts in Honor of the 125th Anniversary (2002), p. 6.