January 20, 2021

Lokapala, The Heavenly Tomb Protectors

Lark Mason, Jr.
Chinese tomb pottery includes figural and other objects that were made to accompany the deceased into the afterlife. Among the most striking of these figures are Lokapala, protectors of the Buddhistic religion, guardians of the four directions.

Pair of Chinese Painted Pottery Lokapala, Tang Dynasty
Pair of Chinese Painted Pottery Lokapala, Tang Dynasty,
Sold for $9,800 on iGavel Auctions

Among the most striking of these figural models are those in clay made during the Tang Dynasty in China (618-906 ad) for inclusion in tombs. These figures have a variety of different poses, modeling, painted or glazed surfaces and other features based on their regional location and the individual workshops that supplied the figures for the funerary event.

Lokapala Guardian King, one of a pair, late 7th-early 8th century
Lokapala Guardian King, one of a pair, late 7th-early 8th century, Minneapolis Institute of Art

Usually the figures appear in a confident, militant stance standing on rock work or animals and wearing armor, with grimacing expressions. They project power and control. The models come in a variety of sizes and many were unglazed and painted and sometimes heightened with gilding.

Part of a group of 'sancai' tomb figures comprising two earth spirits, two 'lokopala' and two civil officials. Figure of a 'lokapala' (Buddhist guardian), standing on a bull. Made of green, brown glazed earthenware, Tang Dynasty, The British Museum

Those without a glaze often have very little painted decorative elements remaining because of degradation from burial with accompanying water damage. Figures with a protective surface, called a glaze are usually better preserved and the glazes often incorporate three colors, called sancai.

Read more about the Tang Dynasty here.

The immense wealth of the ruling and merchant classes of Tang society enabled vast expenditures for tombs and burial ceremonies and with the ending of the Tang Dynasty the models became much less elaborate. Indications of age include the finely crackled glaze surfaces resulting from the cooling of the lead-based glazes over the pottery body, burial dirt adhesion, and loss of painted details from water and burial.

Read Chinese Ceramics in the Late Tang Dynasty by Regina Krahl here.

The pigments used to paint are a type of tempera and were not intended to be touched and are easily damaged. Care must be taken in handling the painted pottery lokapala and the flame-like projections, swirled heavenly scarves, horns, and other features are often fragile and easily broken. Repairs of breaks are not difficult but require a skilled and practiced restorer who has worked with similar archaeological material. Generally, damaged elements are common on these pottery figures and as long as the majority of the model is intact, the value of the figure will usually be maintained. When large areas are missing and those elements must be reconstructed from new material, then the value will be less than compared to a more complete version.