The Key Tibetan and Sanskrit Terms for Tibetan Buddhist Art – A Glossary



Where possible the major words or terms will be identified by (T) for Tibetan and (Sk) for Sanskrit. Any idiosyncrasies in the spellings are entirely the personal responsibility of the author. As some of the words are so difficult to read and pronounce, he has opted for the most straightforward version.


See Dharmapala .



Fishes  (two)





Five, Group of

See Dakini .



Five Leaf Crown

See Chopen .



Flaming Pearl

See Cintamani .




See Camara .



Gada  (Sk)





Gahu  (T)

See Amulet Box. (See Photo 9.)



Garuda  (Sk)

Demi-god bird, with human or birdlike face. Ostensibly Hindu  in origin but adopted into the Buddhist pantheon. The traditional enemy of nagas. Sometimes depicted as a mount for a deity.



Gelong  (T)

An ordained Tibetan  monk.



Gelugpas  (T)

Vajrayana  sect or "Yellow Hat". See: Dalai Lama , Tsong-khapa.




See Mudra.



Ghanta  (Sk)

Drilbu  (T) A bell of bronze  with a vajra handle used in most rituals . Also as a symbol of Vajradhara , Vajrasattva , Yi-dam and others.




Gompa  (T)

Buddhist monastery .



Goraksa (T)

Guardian deity of animal herds.



Gotauma  (Sk)

The family name of the historical Buddha .



Gurgyi-Gompo (T)

An aspect of Mahakalla. Also known as the guardian of tents.



Guru  (Sk)

Spiritual guide or teacher.



Hayagriva  (Sk)

"Horses heads". A Dharmapala . The one who protects horses. This deity in all its manifestations is fierce and has a horse's head in his hair. Hayagriva is also associated with the dagger phurba.



Healing Horse

Used by Tibetan  necromancers to indicate the source of pain in both humans and animals. (See Photo 21.)




There is no hell in Buddhism . All hells such as in the Bardo  are temporary and are of a purgatorial nature.



Heruka  (Sk)

A manifestation of the Dhyanibuddhas. Can be peaceful or angry. Another name is Hevajra. A member of the group of divinities known as Yi-dam.



Hinayana  (Sk)

"Smaller Vehicle" is the original pure teachings of Buddha . Hinayana Buddhism  is mostly pursued in Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia .




Long copper  telescopic horns, sometimes as long as five metres. Also much smaller hand held ones of copper . Many designs. Used a great deal in everyday rituals .



Human bone

See The Sky Burial Section.



Hva-sang  (T)

The laughing monk. Fat and sitting on cushions he sometimes holds a corner of his robe or a mala  or a sankha. Often mistaken for the Chinese  Ho-tei or Mi-lo-fu deity.




An Indian religion  founded by Mahavira (619-546 BC). A religion stressing non-violence and extreme care to all living creatures.



Jakata  (Pali)

A collection of 550 stories of the Buddha 's former lives. Folklore of Southeast Asia .



Jambhala  (Sk)

A form of Kubera  (Sk), one of the Yi-dam.



Jambhara  (Sk)

Lemon. Symbol of Jambala.




Kakkhara  (Sk)

Sounding staff. Used by monks  to frighten away all living things from beneath their feet lest they be crushed. A long wooden staff surmounted by a bronze  ring with many rings attached. Also used by the Jains  in India  and orthodox monks  in Japan .




Kalasa  (Sk)

Vase containing the elixir of life. Held by Amitayus  in his upturned hands.




Kalki  (Sk)

A white horse. A Hindu  god, but according to some Buddhists he is the Buddha -to-be, Maitreya.



Kapala  (Sk)

Human skull bowl. Used in sacred ritual as a container for blood. (See Photo 16.)




Kargyut-pas  (T)

Members of the Vajrayana  sect divided into two groups: 'The Red Hats ' and 'The Black Hats.' Kargyut-pas may marry and have children.



Karma -pas (T)

The same as Kargyut-pas .



Karma  (Sk)

Actions and their effects. See section on Buddha  and Buddhism .



Karttrka  (T)

Chopper. Tantric symbol of Dakinis and Dharmapala . (See Photo 10.)




Khadga  (Sk)

Sword  with flaming nimbus around the tip of the blade.

Note: An ancient myth to do with a war dance is worth repeating to appreciate the vigour and imagination of  the Khadga’s use. It is rumoured that this blood-dripping sword is the dispatcher of lives. It is made of the material of the thunderbolt, welded into shape by a thousand wizard smiths so that in the summer it has to be tempered on the top of a white mountain and in the winter at the bottom of the sea. Dipped in various poisons, the myth has it, that its edge has been ground sharp on a man-slaughtering boulder. More valuable than the world, when waved above the head it emits sparks of fire. When lowered point downwards, it drips fat and blood. When flourished at an enemy, it takes his life. When struck against bodies, it shreds them to ribbons of tissue. When used against spirits, it subjugates them. It is an object of worship of the guardian deities. The myth continues by saying that it is the executioner’s sword of all evil doers and foes. It is the owner’s most cherished friend. The sword can be called, “ the lightening-life taker”. The myth ends by an invocation to the glory of the God, Mahakala.




Khatvangha  (Sk)

A magic  wand invented by Padmasambhava . A vajra-top, then two Buddha  or demon heads and a trisula. Sometimes also used by Dakinis.




Ksepana-mudra  (Sk)

The posture of pouring elixir. Both hands are placed palm to palm. The tips of the index figures touching and pointing down into the nozzle of the Kalasa .




Kshitigarbha  (Sk)

'Earth Womb' One of the group of eight Dhyanibodhissatvas .



Kubera  (Sk)

'God of Riches' One of the Dharmapala , though not ferocious in aspect. Obese, he sits in royal-ease on cushions or snarling lion. In his left hand he holds a squirming mongoose (Nakula ) vomiting precious stones.



Kum-bum  (T)

Huge Lamasery in Northeast Tibet . Once known as the monastery  of one hundred thousand images of Buddha . Also the birthplace of Tsong-khapa.




A tiny country bordering Tibet . Lamaism  is practised there. Ladakh is part of the Western Himalayas  between Tibet and Muslim Kashmir . It is often, in an historical context referred to as ' Western Tibet .' Many fine religious images and paintings  originated there. Alchi Choskor temple  houses some of the most breathtaking paintings  of Buddhist worship from the eleventh century. The capital of Ladakh is Leh.



Lalitasana  (Sk)

A seated posture in which the right leg is pendant, and the left leg is in dhyanasana.



Lama  (T)

A senior member of the Tibetan  Buddhist order. A monk is a gelong, some incarnate Lamas are tulkus, then there is the Panchen Lama, and of course the Dalai Lama.



Lamaism  (T)

The type of Buddhism  practised in Tibet . Lamaism is a term that if often bitterly contested by Tibetan  Buddhists, as it is perceived to be a description of a religion  run by Lamas for Lamas, and that the name Lamaism is an invention of early travellers from the West.



Lhamo  (Sk

Same as Sridevi .



Lhasa  (T)

Sacred capital of Tibet .




Support for throne of deity. See Simhasana .



Lokapala  (Sk)

"Guardians of the Cardinal Points." Minor gods  who guard the four entrances to the Buddhist paradise. They wear warriors' garments and wear beards and moustaches.




A much venerated Buddhist symbol that represents a rising from the roots of mud to the sunlight, a metaphor for following the Buddhist way.




Lumbini  (Sk)

Birthplace of Buddha . Marked by a pillar erected by the Buddhist emperor, Asoka . Lumbini is in Nepal .



Lung-ta  (T)

"Airy horse" Supporting symbol for the Cintamani .





See Vina .



Maha  (Sk)




Mahakala  (Sk)

"The Great Black One" One of the Dharmapala . He is most often shown in fierce aspect and can have several forms possessing many heads, arms and legs. He is frequently to be seen standing on human or animal demons . Some scholars believe that the human forms that he subjugates represent the enemies of Buddhism . (See Photos 49-52.)



Mahasiddhas  (Sk)

'A Great Attainer of Spiritual  Accomplishment' A group of great tantric  teachers and powerful magicians, 84 in number. Although most often portrayed in Thangkas, they also exist as sculptures . Male and nude, they have long hair and wear it woven in elaborate top-knots, they often wear hats that are reminiscent of a circular food bowl. Virtually all the Buddhist symbols can be his property. One very strange symbol that he possesses is the "meditation  rope", this is a rope that winds around the left knee and the right shoulder, fixing the body in an immovable position, supposedly as an aid to meditation ? Seated in a variety of asanas on lotus bases, they are, quite dramatic and seem to radiate a Cheshire cat type of humour that is almost always borne of a perfect centre of gravity. (See Photos 40-41, 43-44.)



Mahayana  Buddhism  (Sk)

"The Great Vehicle!" So called because it is an enlargement of the original teachings of the historical Buddha . Based on the sanskrit canon, venerated in Tibet , China , Korea and Japan . Mahayana Buddhism has been much influenced by the Hindu -pantheon.



Maitreya  (Sk)

"The Next Buddha  To Be". One of the group of the eight Dhyani Bodhissatvas . Maitreya seems to be the most popular of all Tibetan  deities . He is often depicted sitting in bhadrasana on a lotus base with his hands held in dharmacakra-mudra.



Mala  (Sk)

A rosary. Made of beads. (See Photo 6.)




Mandala  (Sk)

"Circle". Elaborate designs changed and charged with occult significance, were used as aids to tantric  meditation . Usually circular in outline it encloses a magic  diagram. Whether simple or complex, the design circumscribes the area in which the meditator operates. By means of arcane spells and invocations the adept tries to communicate with the spirits who inhabit the various sectors of the patterns. When this process works, the mandala in then transformed into a yantra or an engine that powers the energy of the occupying spirit forces. Every mandala, as indeed every yantra differs in its efficacy due to the level of the meditator and to the powers imbued in the very objects themselves.



Mani  (Sk)

A jewel of great luminosity.




A flat stone, large or small with "Aum Mani Padme Hum " carved or engraved upon it. Walls, completely constructed from thousands of mani stones are a feature (and a present-day one at that) of Ladakh .



Manjusri  (Sk)

"Glorious wisdom". One of the group of the eight Dhyanibodhissatvas . He has many forms, some in fierce aspect. The most familiar form is him sitting in Dhyanisana, his left hand holds a Pustaka  at chest level, while his right hand holds a Khadgha. Often the Pustaka and the Khadga rests on sprigs of lotus on either side of him at shoulder level. His hands are in dharmacakra-mudra. See Photo 34.)



Manla  (T)

See Bhaisajyaguru .



Mantra  (Sk)

Words that are believed to have magical effect when uttered with intent. The formula suggests that with repetition that good things can occur, also that illness and unhappiness can be healed. A mantra is really a sacred sound, a vibration. Mantras also have the power to destroy by fire and fear. It is believed that every magician or necromancer has his own special mantra that is used when he needs it. It is said that there is a secret mantra that is known to only one Tibetan  master and that mantra has the power to reveal the formula for ultimate knowledge.



Marici  (Sk)

"Brilliant Rays". A female Bodhissatva . She has several pacific and fierce forms. Sometimes seated on a large pig or on a chariot drawn by seven pigs.




A disciple of Atisa  and a founder of the Kargyut-pas  school in the 11th century. His most famous pupil was Milarepa .




See disciples.



Maya  (Sk)

The name of Buddha 's mother.