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Unknown | Nepal | Untitled (Chakraman) (detail) late 19th century | Distemper on cotton | 293 x 51.5cm; 301 x 59.5 x 9cm (framed) | Purchased 2010 with funds from the Henry and Amanda Bartlett Trust through the Queensland Art Gallery Foundation | Collection: Queensland Art Gallery

Untitled (Chakraman) late 19th century

The iconography of Untitled (Chakraman) portrays tantric concepts of inner energies and the cosmic order, ideas that were introduced to Nepal from India around the seventh century, through both Hindu doctrines and Vajrayana Buddhism.

The central figure is a yogi (male yoga practitioner). It features the inner structure of the body, presenting an aid for yoga and meditation in transforming the body into an enlightened spiritual force. Hindu yogic tradition generally believes in a system of seven chakra (Sanskrit for ‘wheel’), which are lined along the spine. The serpent goddess Kundalini is believed to lie coiled in the pelvic region until its energy is awakened, when it ascends through the opening of the lotus petal­–lined chakras, each with its own colour and deity. Travelling from the root or base chakra in the pelvic floor, the force travels through the sacral chakra, navel, heart, throat and brow chakra, ending in the crown chakra, which in this painting connects to a flaming crown where the chakras continue ascending toward heaven. The composition is symmetrical and coded: the face echoes the style of Mughal miniature painting, and the body is dotted with lingam-yoni, the abstract, phallic symbols representing male and female energy.

In the lower section of the painting, an array of gods and incarnations connect the yogi to the earthly realm in veneration of Vishnu, the preserver of the universe. The serpent Vasuvi, a transitory manifestation of Vishnu, balances above the earth goddess Prithvi, who rests on the boar-headed avatar Varaha. Below is the golden tortoise Kurma, the second avatar of Vishnu, under which Vishnu lies in an ocean, on a multi-hooded serpent with a chauri (fly-whisk) bearer and his consort Lakshmi at his feet. At the base is a ten-armed goddess holding the eight weapons of Vishnu, supported by a frog standing on two spheres representing the sun and moon.

Newar artists of the Kathmandu valley were considered masters in depicting the metaphysical world. Tantric art was an important didactic instrument in illustrating the cosmic order and its energies. Nepalese artists borrowed many of their styles from religious traditions in India, however as these rapidly evolved with the many courts and artistic centres in India, the Nepalese often continued to refine styles further than their southern neighbours. Nepalese painters and sculptors were greatly influential on Tibetan art, with envoys of artists employed to decorate Buddhist temples in Tibet and sometimes further into China.