The Fifth Dalai Lama Ngawang Lobzang Gyatso (1617–1682) with Previous Incarnations

Delicate red lines stand out against the shimmering golden surface of this painting of the Fifth Dalai Lama.

The Fifth Dalai Lama Ngawang Lobzang Gyatso (1617–1682) with Previous Incarnations, 18th century, pigments on cloth, 27-3/8 x 17-3/8 inches (Rubin Museum of Art, New York). Speakers: Dr. Karl Debreczeny, Senior Curator, Rubin Museum of Art and Dr. Beth Harris

Rubin Museum senior curator Dr. Karl Debreczeny and Dr. Beth Harris of Smarthistory explore a painting of the Fifth Dalai Lama. Get a detailed look at the artwork and learn about the significance of the Fifth Dalai Lama in Tibetan Buddhism.

The Rubin Museum of Art has teamed up with Smarthistory to bring you an “up-close” look at select objects from the Rubin’s preeminent collection of Himalayan art. Featuring conversations with senior curators and close-looking at art, this video series is an accessible introduction to the art and material culture of the Tibetan, Himalayan, and Inner Asian regions. Learn about the living traditions and art-making practices of the Himalayas from the past to today.


0:00:04.9 Dr. Beth Harris: We’re in the McMullen Museum Of Art here in Boston, and we’re in an exhibition called “Gateway to Himalayan Art,” which showcases some of the great works in the collection of the Rubin Museum in New York, and I was immediately drawn to this very special type of painting, which is red-ground with gold paint.

0:00:24.5 Dr. Karl Debreczeny: And red-ground paintings, or mar thang, are a special format associated with the Buddha Amitābha and his Lotus Family, which includes the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara and his emanations. First, there’s an undercoat of yellow, and then they put gold over it, I think to emphasize the color. If you look very closely, you’ll actually find that fine patterns are polished into the surface. In his robes, you’ll see floral patterns, and in the cushions that he sits upon, you’ll see different textile patterns. So this is a very elegant and subtly ornamented work.

0:00:56.8 Dr. Beth Harris: And this speaks to the spiritual and political importance of the Fifth Dalai Lama, who lived in the 17th century.

0:01:05.2 Dr. Karl Debreczeny: So, the Dalai Lamas are an important lineage of incarnate lamas, or tulkus, and basically all Buddhists believe in reincarnation, but the Tibetans harness this to create a system of succession, both religious and political, and it’s in the 13th century that the system becomes codified, and in the 17th century the system of incarnate lamas becomes even more prominent. And the Fifth Dalai Lama declares himself an emanation of Avalokiteshvara, Bodhisattva of Compassion, the most popular deity in Tibet, considered the national deity, the protector of Tibet.

0:01:41.4 Dr. Karl Debreczeny: So you’ll see the Fifth Dalai Lama seated in the center, and he’s surrounded by the important members of his incarnation lineage. He is holding a lotus, the symbol of the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, so that indicates that he is an emanation of Avalokiteshvara, [who] sits directly above him, and he is holding a vase of long life, which indicates that this painting was probably done in the Fifth Dalai Lama’s own lifetime. On his face, he has a small mustache, which is associated with the physical appearance of the Fifth Dalai Lama. So even within this very idealized portrait as an emanation, there are still personal details of his appearance.

0:02:18.4 Dr. Beth Harris: This figure is formed by these curving, delicate lines that so perfectly describe this drapery that flows around him.

0:02:27.3 Dr. Karl Debreczeny: On top of the gold surface, the artist has come back with a red pigment, and because there is not shading or landscape and other details, the quality of line really stands out here, the modulation of the brush, and so you can see the line thins and thickens as the drapery curves, and it shows off the artist’s skill with the brush.

0:02:48.0 Dr. Beth Harris: Surrounding him are figures that speak to the legitimacy of his political power and also his religious authority.

0:02:57.1 Dr. Karl Debreczeny: To Avalokiteshvara’s left, you see the founder of the Tibetan Empire, who is also considered an emanation of Avalokiteshvara, and you can see this indicated by the tiny Buddha head peeking out of his turban; and this is one of the reasons that the selection of Avalokiteshvara was so important, because then it put the Fifth Dalai Lama in the direct incarnation lineage of the founder of the Tibetan Empire, and therefore his legitimate successor.

0:03:23.7 Dr. Beth Harris: And on the other side, we have another figure sitting on what looks like a lotus.

0:03:27.2 Dr. Karl Debreczeny: And that is Dromton, the founder of the Kadampa School, and he’s indicated also as an emanation of Avalokiteshvara by the lotus that he holds. And his tradition was very important in the second transmission of Buddhism to Tibet after the collapse of the Tibetan Empire, and so the Fifth Dalai Lama is declaring his religious and spiritual lineage by directly associating himself with Dromton and the Kadampas.

0:03:55.7 Dr. Beth Harris: And we see more figures with halos.

0:03:58.4 Dr. Karl Debreczeny: To the left of the Fifth Dalai Lama’s head you see the First Dalai Lama; to his right, the Second Dalai Lama; and then to the lower left, the Third Dalai Lama, who is in fact the first historical figure to be called Dalai Lama, the title bestowed upon him by the Mongol Altan Khan. Especially interesting, then, on the lower right, you see the Fourth Dalai Lama, who is found in the grandson of Altan Khan, and this cements Mongolian interest in the Gelukpa tradition to which the Dalai Lamas belong.

0:04:28.4 Dr. Beth Harris: At the bottom center, we see a figure who is surrounded by gems and offerings.

0:04:34.9 Dr. Karl Debreczeny: And this is the wealth deity Jambhala, surrounded by abstract forms of the seven jewels of the Universal Ruler, which include things like rhinoceros horn, elephant tusks, the round earrings of the queen, the square earrings of the minister, and so on. So this is both a traditional set of offerings, but there is also an association with the concept of the Universal Ruler, which the Fifth Dalai Lama was promoting.

0:04:57.4 Dr. Beth Harris: Now the Fifth Dalai Lama we know was a very learned man. He authored many religious and historical texts, and was very interested in promoting an image of himself.

0:05:10.3 Dr. Karl Debreczeny: So you can see in this iconometric drawing that in his lap he holds the Wheel of the Chakravartin, or the Universal Ruler, a symbol of political authority. So the Fifth Dalai Lama was very cognizant of the power of images, and was heavily involved in image production, as well as the codification of knowledge more broadly. So the Fifth Dalai Lama wrote a history of Tibet just one year after he comes to power. In this, he depicts the Tibetan Empire as a golden age, where the series of religious kings are actually Bodhisattvas incarnate who convert Tibet to Buddhism, and he positions himself as the reincarnation of one of those religious kings. So the message in this painting is key to his political message, where he is conflating himself with the first Tibetan emperor and positioning himself as the rightful inheritor of the Tibetan Empire.


About the Rubin

The Rubin is a global museum dedicated to sharing Himalayan art through a dynamic digital platform, participatory experiences, exhibitions, and partnerships. Inspired and informed by Himalayan art, the Rubin invites people to contemplate the human experience and deepen connections with the world around them in order to expand awareness, enhance well-being, and cultivate compassion.

Images: The Fifth Dalai Lama Ngawang Lobzang Gyatso; central Tibet; 18th century; pigments on cloth; Rubin Museum of Art; Gift of the Shelley & Donald Rubin Foundation; F1996.29.3 (HAR506)

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Cite this page as: Dr. Karl Debreczeny, Senior Curator, Rubin Museum of Art and Dr. Beth Harris, "The Fifth Dalai Lama Ngawang Lobzang Gyatso (1617–1682) with Previous Incarnations," in Smarthistory, April 3, 2024, accessed June 16, 2024,