Imagery of the AltarTibetan iconography adopts some Chinese symbolism—but often in a way that is distinctly Tibetan.
Symbols of Health, Wealth, and Domestic Felicity on the Four Doors on a Side Cabinet
Two cranes (1), Chinese symbols of longevity and immortality, wade in the water in a wooded glade filled with a highly stylized pine tree. Cranes migrate north-south passing through Tibet seasonally, heralding the changing of seasons, and marking celebratory events in the liturgical calendar.
Standing in a rocky landscape, this balding white-haired, long-bearded man (2) holds a staff that dangles a scroll and gourd as well as a red speckled fruit. Probably originating from one of the eight Daoist immortals of China (his Chinese name, fu, is a homonym for both “old man” and “wealth”) Tibetans recognize this bearded old man as a symbol of longevity.
The man seated under a parasol (3) unfurling a roll of textiles in his lap most likely represents a successful merchant or trader. A golden or white vase (possibly representing porcelain) rests on a low table and a white scroll is partially unrolled next to a frame that suggests a kind of container used in trade. These goods (porcelain, paper, and textiles) may refer to the source of the original altar owner’s wealth.
Like the mated pair of cranes, these two deer (4)—a stag and a doe—are not only symbols of domestic harmony between man and wife, but also the Chinese name for deer (lu) is a homonym for prosperity and good health.
Panels 1, 2, and 4 depict what Tibetans refer to as the Six Symbols of Long Life, namely an old man, rock, deer, cranes, water, and a highly stylized pine tree.
On the left side panel (5), an equestrian warrior holds up a white, red-trimmed, spear-topped banner and brandishes a riding crop. He is possibly the epic hero Ling Gesar or a protector deity such as a Dra-lha or Srung-ma class spirit. Such classes of martial spirits most likely pre-date Buddhism in Tibet, but were absorbed into the Tibetan-Buddhist pantheon as protectors. Another protector of this type appears on the right panel (6) astride a white horse. He wears a turban and a different style of armor, wields a sword, and makes a threatening hand gesture. Similar to warrior costume still used in contemporary Chinese opera, both warriors have distinctive banners protruding from their heads—a device that was intended to make them more ferocious on the battlefield. The multi-colored tri-lobed clouds surrounding both warriors (5 & 6) are derived from Chinese artistic motifs and are called ruyi in Chinese after an auspicious fungus. They represent wish-granting clouds and indicate the celestial nature of these deities. A standing woman and a seated man (5 & 6) each raises up a white offering scarf (called a khatak in Tibetan) to these fierce warriors. The scarf-offering demonstrates fealty from the lay household to these deities.