Public Talk: Uṣṇīṣavijayā Icons

Iconic Rituals and Ritual Icons

The iconography, use, and function of Uṣṇīṣavijayā icons in Nepalese old age rituals

with Professor Alexander von Rospatt

Prof. Alexander von Rospatt

Wednesday, 30th March 2022
19:30 NPT (Kathmandu)
08:45 EST (Toronto)

Zoom Link:

Meeting ID: 874 2653 7699
Password: 110690

Among the rich heritage of medieval forms of Tantric Buddhism and Hinduism surviving among the Newars of the Kathmandu Valley is a unique series of elaborate old age rituals that are performed upon the attainment of a particular threshold age. Central to the first old age ritual, the bhīmarathārohaṇa, as performed by the Buddhists of Kathmandu are scroll paintings or repoussés, typically dedicated to Uṣṇīṣavijayā, the goddess of longevity. She is depicted in a stupa and surrounded by a host of deities including the planetary deities, whose propitiation forms an integral part of the old age rituals. These paintings or repoussés serve both as an icon of Uṣṇīṣavijayā, and as commemorative objects that depict the key moments of the old age ritual in the register below the main subject, and that record in an inscription at the bottom the date, occasion and principal protagonists of the ceremony. They are produced ahead of the ritual performance and play a central role in the very ceremony they commemorate. That is, the old age ceremony includes the elaborate consecration of these icons, and many of the consecratory rites are performed in parallel for the icons and for the celebrated elders, with the shared agenda of sacralizing the given object.

This talk will examine the iconography of such icons, and also pay attention to the complex ways in which these icons are tied to the elaborate sequence of rituals, and how the consecration rituals performed for them structure the old age ceremony, with the elders undergoing many of the same sacralizing rites as the icon. Attention will also be paid to how the icons function as objects of propitiation within the ritual and beyond—they are subsequently kept “alive” by daily worship in order to assure the continued blessings of the invoked deities—and how they serve to commemorate a grand and prestigious family ceremony for posteriority.

Alexander von Rospatt is Professor for Buddhist and South Asian Studies, and Director of the Group in Buddhist Studies. He specializes in the doctrinal history of Indian Buddhism, and in Newar Buddhism, the only Indic Mahayana tradition that continues to persist in its original South Asian setting (in the Kathmandu Valley) right to the present. His first book sets forth the development and early history of the Buddhist doctrine of momentariness. His new book “The Svayambhu Caitya and its Renovations” deals with the historical renovations of the Svayambhū Stupa of Kathmandu. Based on Newar manuscripts and several years of fieldwork in Nepal, he reconstructs the ritual history of these renovations and their social contexts.

Charges – All are welcome


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