Tiger, snow leopard, cat and snow lion in Himalayan art

Tiger, snow leopard, cat and snow lion in Himalayan art

This article is translated from Sorang Wangqing's blog.


Interested in our Four Dignities = Garuda,Tiger,Dragon,Snow Lion crafts?

Please click on the link - Amulets 


"Nyingma Pa Mahakala Riding Tiger"
18th century, housed in the Rubin Museum of Art in New York


Tiger see our amulets


Snow Lion (see our amulets


"Lifting Snow Lion", 18th century, private collection


"Lifting Snow Lion", 19th century, private collection


19th century, housed in the Rubin Museum of Art in New York


"Bon God - Wi se en pa"
19th century, housed in the Rubin Museum in New York


Multiple animal visages: garuda - dragon - capricorn - snow lion - tiger - leopard


"Tiger", 20th century, private collection
Majesty and power


"It protects everything when it is present; chaos accompanies wailing when it is absent," Dante's words illuminate the human imagination of beasts in mythology and religion. Buto Rinchenkung (བུ་སྟོན་རིན་ཆེན་གྲུབ་, 1290-1364) also said, "Still images resemble the universe, ferocious images resemble flames, these are the beasts," they have always lived in harsh environments but still maintain dignity, perhaps believing that their bodies can withstand all harm. People maintain their fear of them while also marveling at the sense of survival brought by their appearance and habits.


"The Portrait of Buton Rinpoche"
18th century, housed in the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco


We are discussing several feline animals commonly found in Himalayan and Tibetan art: tiger, lion, leopard, and cat. We will not only analyze the meanings of each in the images, but also see how these beasts are often presented as conceptual combinations. For example, the tiger that appears as a symbol of the Great Master Tsongkhapa; the tiger skin and leopard skin worn by male and female deities; and of course, the incredibly rich symbolism of "Mongolians driving away the tiger" (སོག་པོ་སྟག་ཁྲིད་; which contains at least three layers of meaning: metaphor for political events, transmission of religious history, and the visualization of Buddhist concepts).


"The Mongol Hunters"
18th century, Erie Art Museum.


The Tiger and the Leopard: moving forward surrounded by flames
In Tibetan, the tiger is called སྟག་ (stag), and in ancient Tibetan it is called *stak. Although the tiger has always been an important symbol in the Tibetan political system (representing bravery and martial prowess), tigers are not native to Tibet (but are indeed a species unique to Asia). During the Tibetan Empire, tigers and snow leopards (གུང་དང་སྟག་) were symbols of elite warriors in the classification of social attributes known as the "Six Symbols" (རྐྱེན་དྲུག་), while individuals and families lacking martial spirit were identified by a fox tail. The military significance of the tiger was also reflected in the dress regulations of the Tibetan army. Three types of attire related to tigers were part of the "Six Symbols of Warriors" (དཔའ་མཚན་དྲུག་): tiger fur jackets (སྟག་སྟོད་), tiger fur skirts (སྟག་སྨད་), and tiger fur garments (སྟག་སློག་). In daily political life in Tibet, tiger seals (དཔའ་རྟགས་ཀྱི་ཕྱག་རྒྱ་) were also used as symbols for government military departments.
The Tiger Seal, a modern reconstruction


In Tibetan language, there is a word: སྟག་གཟིག་ (stag gzig, stag gzig), which is widely used to refer to ancient Persia or Arabia (perhaps more of an imagined space), with stag gzig being the center of the Bön religion: the sacred space of Vajralonger (འོལ་མོ་ལུང་རིང་; the birthplace of the Bön founder, Tonpa Shenrab). Of course, this word has an even older etymology: ཏ་ཟིག་ (ta zig), with the former probably being a localized form of the latter. The word stag gzig consists of stag, representing a tiger, and gzig, representing a leopard, hinting at the indigenous religion's impression of a region: dangerous and accompanied by the attacks of wild animals (or possibly using these animals to symbolize the sacredness of the same area).


19th century,the Rubin Museum of Art in New York.


Some scholars, like Paul White, believe that there is a connection between the Tibetan word གཟིག་ (gzig) meaning leopard and གཟིགས་ (gzigs) meaning to watch in Tibetan. The addition of the particle sa distinguishes the two words as different parts of speech: a noun and a verb. The snow leopard, also known as the mountain leopard, is referred to as གུང་ (gung) or གསའ་ (gsa’) in Tibetan. In Tibetan "mountain deity culture", the snow leopard is often considered as the incarnation of a mountain deity, and its mysterious presence adds to its sacredness.


"The Mountain God of Maqing"
19th century, Rubin Museum of Art in New York City.


The snow lion mount and leopard skin cushion


Tigers and leopards are part of the spiritual space of the Mountain God


However, it is regrettable that in the 1990s, the number of snow leopards plummeted due to illegal hunting and habitat destruction. In the Tibetan region, the snow leopard is already an endangered species (although in 2017 the IUCN lowered its status from endangered to vulnerable, the situation is still critical in the Tibetan region). American zoologist Dr. George Beals Schaller has declared more than once, "One only sees the snow leopard skin, not the snow leopard." People often greedily seek to possess and flaunt the sacredness of animals, such as wearing them, don't they?


Dr. Charlton and the Snow Leopard Cub


In traditional Tibetan discourse, the face of the tiger is said to have three different forms: a compassionate expression, a contemplative expression, and a fierce expression. By looking at the relevant deities associated with tigers, attentive friends will notice the distinction. These different states correspond to fixed scenes in the artwork, where objects and people create a set of coded messages about art.

Close-up draws of Three Types of Tigers


"In the midst of paradise, the power of anger burns fiercely, the color brown, the two feet expressive as they dance on top of the mother tiger," describes a prayer text in the Nyingma tradition, depicting one of the eight manifestations of Guru Rinpoche, the Wrathful Vajra. To accurately narrate the life of Guru Rinpoche, Tibetan traditional scriptures use his eight manifestations to illustrate the eight key events in Guru Rinpoche's "biographical literature" (such as the Wrathful Vajra symbolizing Guru Rinpoche subduing the spirits and demons of Tibet), or use the twelve zodiac signs (each month in the Tibetan calendar is associated with an animal name, like the Tiger month) to mark Guru Rinpoche's twelve miracles, which correspond to the twelve months.

"The Wrathful Vajrapani", 18th century, private collection


"The Wrathful Vajrapani", 20th century, Rubin Museum of Art in New York


Tigers trample on non-humans and evil practitioners


"The Wrathful Vajrapani"
19th century,  Shelley and Donald Rubin collection


Countless eyes on the deities observing the world


Birds in the meditation cave, signaling the arrival of the Wrathful Vajrapani


To conquer demons in Tibet and the Himalayan region and to provide a realm for meditation for practitioners, the Lotus-born Master incarnated as the Wrathful Vajrapani, residing in thirteen scattered places of practice. In these places, the Master left footprints and handprints on rocks and water surfaces, which can be discerned if one is observant enough to find them in the imagery.


"The Wrathful Vajrapani"
18th century, Rubin Museum of Art in New York.






In the core Buddhist image of "The Buddha and the Sixteen Arhats", there is often a layman with a fierce tiger by his side (upasaka), known as Jushi Damaotara, an incarnation of the Buddha Infinite Light. This layman, of Central Asian or Central Plains descent (possibly thought to be a high monk from the Tang Dynasty), is often depicted walking with a bent posture. His right hand holds the monk's walking staff (khakkhara), while his left hand holds the belt of the traveling chest (which mainly contains scriptures symbolizing the coming of Maitreya Buddha), able to instantly send beautiful clothes, vegetarian meals, and medicinal food to the Arhats. The tiger and the layman swear to protect the Sixteen Arhats tirelessly in this manner.



Arhat Dharmatala
16th century,Rubin Museum of Art in New York.



Arhat Dharmatala
19th century,Rubin Museum of Art in New York.



The infinite light Buddha on the snow lion incense burner.



The male and female tigers resting by the Arhat.



The luggage of the Arhats.



During the Tubo period, in addition to the traditional South Asian influences, Han Buddhism also had a significant impact on the Tibetan region, with many members of the royal family and nobility practicing Han Buddhism. Tubo, as a world empire from the 7th to 9th centuries, had a relatively tolerant religious policy. Religious works and artistic images from different regions further integrated and evolved in the development of art history. In Himalayan art, we don't just see beautiful men and lotus flowers; instead, if you look closely, you can see a grand ancient world unfold before you.



Arhat Dharmatala
18th century, collected by Navin Kumar.


In South Asian traditions, the preconceived emotional scenes have always been seen as a manifestation of the practitioner's "true self". Dombi Heruka, the great achiever who rode a tiger and wielded a snake whip, had to make a decision about his emotions. As a king born in Magadha, Dombi Heruka ruled wisely and loved his people like his own children; but a charming and intellectual singer instantly captured the king's heart. In order to be with the singer, the king chose to give up his throne and spent 12 years with her in the mountains.


"Dombi Heruka"
19th century,the Shelley and Donald Rubin Collection


Later, when the prince proved to be incompetent in ruling the country, he had to ask for help from Zoe Mi Bu Ba. However, the accusations and slanders about the king and the singer still prevailed in the kingdom. To awe the people, Zoe Mi Bu Ba and the singer rode on a tiger (symbolizing the blessing of the Vajra) to the front of the palace. Zoe Mi Bu Ba shouted loudly, "To prove the supposed superiority of castes, please burn us with fire". The fire burned for seven days and nights, with the crowds outside in shock, and the couple inside unaffected by the flames. In the midst of the fire, they revealed their natural forms, gradually becoming the yin and yang bodies of the Vajra. I often think that besides emotions, perhaps we have nothing; our eternity and brevity are all written in emotions, allowing us to survive step by step in the unknown.


"Dombi Heruka"
19th century,Rubin Museum of Arts


Have you heard of the five sacred forms of the founder of the Gelug school, Tsongkhapa (ཙོང་ཁ་པ་, 1357-1419), one of which depicts him riding a fierce tiger as an Indian yogi? These five forms were conceptualized by Tsongkhapa's disciple, Khedrup Je (མཁས་གྲུབ་དགེ་ལེགས་དཔལ་བཟང་, 1385-1438), as a way to visually represent the religious sanctity of his teacher after his passing (Tsongkhapa had set himself up as a yogi and accomplished master during his lifetime).


Tsongkhapa as the master riding on an elephant


Tsongkhapa as Manjushri Bodhisattva riding on a lion.


Tsongkhapa as the master sitting on a throne offered by the gods.


Tsongkhapa as a yogi sitting on a tiger.


Tsongkhapa displaying the perfect enlightened appearance.


As the influence of Tsongkhapa grew after his passing, his students began to create myths about their teacher and use their own interpretations to demonstrate the correctness and authority of their understanding of Tsongkhapa's teachings. As an important disciple of Tsongkhapa and the third leader of the Gelugpa sect (First Panchen Lama), Khedrup Je organized Tsongkhapa's writings before his passing and enriched the forms of "Tsongkhapa worship".


"Yogin Tsongkhapa"
18th century, the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco


Khedrup Je


"Yogin Tsongkhapa and other great achievers", 18th century, private collection


Lions and Cats: Wise Gaze Cast on the Human World

The lion, not a native animal, holds a deeper meaning in the Tibetan region. It is important to distinguish between lions and snow lions, as these two symbols have different degrees of significance in terms of popular time and space. Ignoring the process of lions entering the Tibetan region and the evolutionary history of snow lions may lead to the misconception that snow lions are native animals (or even the idea that snow lions and lions are two different species).


"The Snow Lion Mask"
18th century, Rubin Museum of Art, New York.


In Tibetan, lions are referred to as སེང་གེ་ (seng ge; snow lions are called གངས་སེང་ [gngs seng]), and like in Chinese, this term is an imported one. One possible direct source is the Sanskrit word for lion, "सिंह (siṃha)," although it cannot be ruled out that the Persian word (shir) from Central Asia may be an earlier source (it would be important to consider whether it is Old Persian or Avestan). During the Tubo period, the image of lions was widely used in various fields (as early as 657 AD, a Tubo envoy presented a golden city with lion carvings to the Tang Dynasty monarch). Firstly, in Central Asia, lions were favored by the upper ruling class during the Tubo period as funerary protectors and protectors of the soul (of course, in terms of artistic style, they were also influenced by the Tang Dynasty). The stone lions paired with the tomb of Chos rgyal Lha btsun displayed in the image below are representative of this role. Secondly, similar winged lions (the earliest form of a snow lion) appear in Dunhuang manuscript P.T.1083, which may suggest that lions from the Central Asian continent were an important social symbol in Tubo's political life.


The Stone Lions of the Mausoleum of Takamatsu Tokuzan
between 796-800 AD, photographer: Shangwu Ka-Xian


The winged beast prints in the Dunhuang scrolls.


In the Tibetan military system, there are at least two military flags with lion imagery. The armies stationed in the Upper Left Wing Region (གཡོ་རུ་སྟོད་) and the Upper Border Region (རུ་ལག་སྟོད་) of the main eight armies of Tibet use lions as the main symbol on their military flags. The military flag of the Upper Left Wing Region is called the "Red Lion" (སེང་གེ་དམར་པོ་); while the military flag of the Upper Border Region is called the "White Lion Soaring" (སེང་དཀར་གནམ་འཕྱོ་).


Military flag "Red Lion", modern restoration image


Military flag "White Lion Soaring", modern restoration image


With the disintegration of the Tubo Empire, the original animal lion was replaced by the divine lion filled with Buddhist meaning (lion + ancient snow mountain divine beast + South Asian tradition), that is, the snow lion. The snow lion has unique turquoise-colored fur and lives at the top of remote snow-capped mountains and near meditation caves. It is both the protector of the special religious spaces (snow mountains and meditation caves) and the embodiment of practitioners in tantric practices. Although there are accounts of people seeing this creature in some texts, a careful reading of the context reveals that these "sightings" of snow lions all have fixed textual meanings—they are staged.


Snow Lion, 20th century, modern handicraft


The small and lovely cat has various names in Tibetan, commonly known as བྱི་ལ་ (byi la) and ཞི་མི་ (zhi mi). The former name is related to the role of cats as predators of tigers (mice are called བྱི་བ་ [byi wa]), evolving into dialectal terms like ལ་ལ་ (la la) or ལི་ལི་ (li li) for cats; while the latter may be related to cats as a kind of deity, the quiet one, evolving into titles like ཞིམ་བུ་ (zhim bu) and ཞུམ་བུ་ (zhum bu). In some regions of Tibet, cats are considered as guardians of the region and temples, emphasizing the liberating function of their eyes (such as calling cats "eyes of liberation" [རྣམ་གྲོལ་མིག་]) and their protective status in homes (such as considering cats as elders in the home [གྲོང་གི་སྤྲེལ་]). When the Buddhist master Aryadeva (འཕགས་པ་ལྷ་) debated with the non-Buddhist master, a black cat bit the non-Buddhist master's assistant, a parrot (parrots are messengers of the goddess of wisdom), and helped Aryadeva win the debate.


The Debate Between the Sacred and the Profane
19th century, Rubin Museum of Art, New York


Black Cat




Goddess Durga, also known as the warrior goddess or the mother who is difficult to approach, is one of the most prominent goddesses in South Asia. According to later texts, she is often seen as a fierce manifestation of the main god Shiva's companion, the snow mountain goddess Parvati. Many tales of the love between the snow mountain goddess and Shiva mentioned in ancient texts take place near the sacred mountain Gang Rinpoche in present-day western Tibet. Therefore, every year, followers of Shiva from South Asia gather there to celebrate and sing praises, reenacting the stories of Shiva and the snow mountain goddess.


Goddess Durga, Nepal


Originally, the goddess Durga, who was worshiped in some regions of South Asia as a earth deity, transformed into a fierce deity who saved the other gods from the demon's hands through the process of merging with the snow mountain goddess system. Riding on a lion (or tiger), the goddess, armed with countless weapons, finally defeated the demon king Mahishasura after a fierce battle. At that moment, traditional texts considered her to be the only manifestation of the "ultimate reality", the mother of all gods.


"The Lion Rider Goddess Durga"
15th century, Nepal, Rubin Museum of Art


Among the bodhisattvas in the Buddhist system, Manjushri rides a lion, while Avalokiteshvara has a unique incarnation known as "Simhanada" or "Lion's Roar Avalokiteshvara". Manjushri holds a very important position in the Tibetan and Vajrayana traditions, often seen as the embodiment of a fully enlightened Buddha. The image of Manjushri riding a lion is considered the main object of meditation in Tibetan Buddhism, especially in the Sakya and Gelug schools.


"Riding on a Lion Manjushri"
18th century, Asian Art Museum of San Francisco


"Riding on a Lion Manjushri"
17th century, private collection


"In front of a magnificent palace, Lion's Roar Avalokiteshvara sits on a lotus on the back of a lion, his body white with a slight smile. His right hand extends above his knee, holding a stem of a red lotus, with the petals blooming by his ears; above is the white sword of wisdom," praised Yarlung Zangpo Jangtsen in the 14th century.


"Lion's Roar Avalokiteshvara", National Museum of India


"Lion's Roar Avalokiteshvara", 19th century, Rubin Art of Museum


The belief in Lion's Roar Avalokiteshvara originates from the Kriya Tantra sect of Buddhism, and was formally introduced to Tibet by the Indian master Atisha and the 11th-century Tibetan Buddhist master Manla Zhutozhaba. The main role of Lion's Roar Avalokiteshvara is to eliminate diseases and dangers from the dragon race (nagas). Generally, images of Lion's Roar Avalokiteshvara will show the king of the nagas (Nagaraja) and the master Nagarjuna above, while below are the eight dragon races who have been subdued by Lion's Roar Avalokiteshvara.


The King of the Dragon Clan on the left and the Dragon Tree on the right


The Kings of the Eight Dragon Clans


The lion mounts of the Dharma Protectors (often snow lions) have a strong local flavor, which is one of the symbols of the esoteric or Tibetan transformation of the Dharma Protectors. Among them, the Goddess of Auspicious Longevity in the King Pehar(པེ་ཧར་རྒྱལ་པོ་), Dojileba(རྡོ་རྗེ་ལེགས་པ་), and Longevity Five Sisters(ཚེ་རིང་མཆེད་ལྔ་)is the representative of this type of Dharma Protector.


"The Protector King Pehar,"
17th century, Rubin Museum of Art.


King Pehar can be said to be a protective deity that runs through the political and cultural history of Tibet. Originally believed to be a ruler of a kingdom in North Asia or Central Asia (this is rather vague) or the main deity of a small religious sect; as the Tibetan Empire under Tsongkhapa Desen continued to expand, documents show that this protective deity was "captured" to Tibet. After being tamed by Guru Padmasambhava, he became the protective deity of the first monastery in Tibet, Sangye Monastery. The Nyingma sect regards him as an important protector of hidden treasures and believes in five forms of White Hayagriva King, with the most common being the "career" White Hayagriva King, who rides a snow lion.


"The Five Kings Pehar"
19th century, Rubin Museum of Art, New York.


With the rise of the Gelug sect, the King Pehar gradually became an important protector of the sect. During the time of the Fifth Dalai Lama, the origin myth of the Gelug sect of the King Pehar (as well as the origin myth of the Nechung monastery) began to spread. The Ganden Phodrang government recognized the worldly incarnation of the King Pehar as the main oracle deity, Nechung, one of the protectors of the government, for regular divination through trance.


"Dorje Legpa"
18th century, Rubin Art Museum


"On the lion emitting white light sits Dorje Legpa, with poisonous breath, red hair and flowing whiskers. His right hand grips a vajra to strike the heads of enemies, while his left hand holds a human heart. He wears a fierce and angry red silk cape. In accordance with his pact with Guru Rinpoche, Dorje Legpa transformed from a native deity to a protector of Buddhism, especially safeguarding Nyingma practitioners. In the autobiographies of many Nyingma masters, there is often a plot where Dorje Legpa appears as a yogi to assist the lineage holder."


"Dorje Legpa"
18th century, private collection


"The Five Sisters of Longevity"
19th century, Rubin Art Museum


The Five Sisters of Longevity were also local deities tamed by the Great Master Padmasambhava. These five goddesses originally belonged to the "healing gods" and mountain god system of the local religion, and they have a high reputation along the borders of Tibet and Nepal. In Tibetan texts, the three encounters between Milarepa and the Five Sisters of Longevity are particularly exciting. These five sisters are the main goddess Tashi Tseringma (riding a snow lion and controlling longevity), Tashi Tseringma (riding a wild donkey and controlling wisdom; the main goddess of Mount Everest), Miyo Lozangma (riding a tiger and controlling agriculture), Chöpen Drinzangma (riding a deer and controlling wealth), and Täkar Drozangma (riding a dragon and controlling livestock).


Tashi Tseringma (bkra shis tshe ring ma), she is white with one face and two arms, holding a golden nine-pronged vajra in her right and a long-life flask ornamented with an auspicious knot and a swastika in her left hand. Her mount is a white snow-lioness.


Tingi Shalzangma (mthing gi zhal bzang ma), she is blue with one face and two arms, holding a silver mirror in her right and a banner of the gods in her left hand. She rides a mare.


Miyo Lozangma (mi g.yo blo bzang ma), she is yellow with one face and two arms, holding a bowl with delicious foods in her right and a mongoose in her left hand. Her mount is a tigress.


Chöpen Drinzangma (cod dpan mgrin bzang ma), she is red with one face and two arms, holding a wishfulfilling jewel in her right and a jewel encrusted casket in her left hand. She rides a hind.


Täkar Drozangma (gtal dkar ´gro bzang ma), she is green with one face and two arms, holding a bushel of durva grass in her right and a snake noose in her left hand. Her mount is a female turquoise dragon.


In order to test the determination of Milarepa's practice, the five sisters created illusions to tempt him. Seeing that Milarepa remained unaffected, the five sisters then swore to protect the Kagyu lineage and offered their essence (giving life essence through mantras), before returning to the heavenly realm three days later. During their second encounter, the five sisters received teachings such as the Great Seal (ཕྱག་རྒྱ་ཆེན་པོ་) from the master. A few months later, during their third encounter, the five sisters requested the master Milarepa to bestow upon them the empowerment of the accomplishment of their activities (ལས་ཀྱི་ཕྱག་རྒྱ་ཆེན་པོ་). It is for this reason that many later practices in the Kagyu lineage are related to the Five Sisters of Long Life.


"Imitation Rhino Horn Carving with Deity from the Ga School"
18th century, private collection.


Tashi Tseringma


Aside from riding lions, some gods also presented themselves with lion faces. In order to kill the evil demon Hiranyakashipu and protect his son Prahlada, who followed the righteous path, Vishnu took on his fourth incarnation as the lion-human hybrid Narasimha (this story is very interesting, I recommend everyone to check it out).


The Lion Man
14th century, Rubin Art of Museum


In the Tibetan region, there are also two deities with lion-like bodies: Simhamukha, the lion-faced mother, and the followers of the Kagyu sect, the Black Cloak Mahakala, who is accompanied by the lion-faced deity, the parents of good fortune. Simhamukha is a meditative goddess and is considered very important in the Sakya, Kagyu, and Nyingma traditions. She is believed to have originated from the Chakrasamvara mandala in Vajrayana Buddhism and is associated with the highest yoga tantra. In the Nyingma tradition, Simhamukha is considered to be the secret manifestation of the Lotus-born guru.


"The Lion-Faced Dakini"
19th century, Rubin Museum of Art


"The Lion-Faced Dakini"
1514, with the inscription of the name of Emperor Zhengde:
Daqing Fawang, private collection


"The Lion-Faced Dakini with Parents of Fortune"
Shechen Archives, with an upside-down monkey as an offering


No matter what kind of feline animal it is, we seem to feel a certain genuine internal feeling, a kind of perseverance that has survived between heaven and earth, and constantly circulates in the impermanence of the world. Roaring, unseen but heard, in the sound, the teachings of the Bodhi flower bloom and the Dharma sound is present.
Back to blog

Leave a comment