Arte-Factual: Buddhist Symbols of Barkhang Monastery (Part 2)

Ladies and gentlemen, it’s time for another edition of Arte-Factual! And this time around, we’ll be making the trek back to Barkhang Monastery to look at some of the other Buddhist symbols that can be found throughout the fictional monastery.

The Wheel, or “Dharmachakra”:

The Buddhist wheel, or dharmachakra, is one of the oldest and most recognisable motifs in Buddhist art and was once used to represent the Buddha himself (human depictions of the Buddha only started appearing in art around the 1st century BC; see Greco-Buddhist art).

Like the Endless Knot I wrote about in Part 1, the dharmachakra is one of the Eight Auspicious Symbols of Tibetan Buddhism and is thought to have had its origins in ancient Hindu iconography. It may have evolved from an Indian solar symbol or from the Sudarshana Chakra, the disc-like weapon used by the Hindu god Vishnu to conquer demons and evil desires, and represents motion, spiritual transformation and rebirth, concepts that lie at the centre of Buddhist thought.

The dharmachakra is commonly depicted as an eight-spoked wheel, symbolising the Noble Eightfold Path, which encourages mindfulness, ethical behaviour, non-violence, and good will towards all other living creatures. Buddhists believe that the only way to escape the endless cycle of birth, death and rebirth (or samsara) is by following the path set out by the Buddha. The wheel is therefore a reminder of the cyclical nature of existence and, by extension, the Buddha’s teachings.

Rooftop of Barkhang Monastery
A close look at the rooftop of Barkhang Monastery
(Image credit: Katie’s Tomb Raider Screenshots)

So, where can we find the dharmachakra in Barkhang Monastery? Well, this might be a bit of a stretch (though it’ll make a bit more sense later on) but the eight-spoked star-shaped wall seen in the screenshot above almost fits the bill.

It might not look like a wheel but its position on the rooftops and near two golden animal statues is significant. We’ll come back to this in the next section so read on, dear reader. Read on…

Deer in Buddhist Art:

Have you ever wondered what the two golden animals on the monastery’s rooftops are supposed to be? They are, in fact, deer.

The symbol of the dharmachakra flanked by two golden deer (one male, one female) could once be found adorning the rooftops of most Tibetan monasteries and can still be seen above the main entrance to Jokhang Temple in the Tibetan capital, Lhasa. So one could argue that the star-shaped door and golden statues is a loose and extremely stylized adaptation of this iconic symbol.

Roof of Jokhang Temple in Lhasa
The dharmachakra and deer can be found above the entrance to Jokhang Temple in Lhasa (Image credit: Wikimedia Commons)

As for the golden deer, they represent fidelity, grace and harmony as well as the site of the Buddha’s first sermon. Following his enlightenment at Bodh Gaya, the Buddha went to the deer park at Sarnath (near modern-day Varanasi, India) and shared his new-found knowledge with five of his former companions, who established Buddhism’s first monastic community.

While the deer and dharmachakra are most commonly associated with Buddhism, some archaeologists argue that these symbols may have evolved from motifs found on clay seals excavated at Indus Valley sites,. Some of these seals depict an early form of the Hindu god Shiva in his incarnation as the horned deity Pashupati, the “Lord of the Animals”, flanked by deer, tigers, and other creatures.

In addition, it is thought that the deer park at Sarnath may have once been a grove sacred to Pashupati and that the images of the god were replaced with the dharmachakra wheel, reflecting the shift from Shaivism to Buddhism in that region. Although this link isn’t universally acknowledged, it does give an interesting insight into the changing spiritual traditions of northern India in the first millennium BC.

And thus concludes our look at the Buddhist symbols of Barkhang Monastery. Just in case you think I’ve missed out the prayer wheels, fear not! These will be dealt with in a future edition of Arte-Factual. 😉

Sources & Further Reading:

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2 thoughts on “Arte-Factual: Buddhist Symbols of Barkhang Monastery (Part 2)

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