Buddhist Cosmos (Cakravala)
This contemporary mural is located at Pal Karma Zurmang Shedrup monastery in Sikkim, India. It faces a mural of the Wheel of Existence (Bhavacakra), detailed in an additional interactive image on this site.
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All photographs are by Eric Huntington.
Although the chief of the gods dwells atop Mount Sumeru, additional heavens with ever more ethereal beings spread out above it in the sky. In this mural, these heavenly abodes are represented by literal abodes—small iconic depictions of houses.
The center of the world is dominated by an enormous mountain called Meru or Sumeru, the largest object in the universe. Its terraces and peak are home to many different classes of devas (gods).
Heaven of the Thirty-Three (Trayastrimsa)
The chief of the gods, Indra or Shakra, sits in his palace atop Mount Sumeru. This same scene is also depicted in the wheel of existence that faces this mural.
The Northern Region
The northern continent, Kuru, is not depicted in this mural because it is occluded by Mount Sumeru. The two smaller continents on either side, however, mimic its square shape. The sky in this region is yellow, a reflection of the golden northern face of Sumeru. In this painting, that coloration appears in the ocean as well.
The Southern Region
The southern region holds the continent Jambudvipa, traditionally understood as the realm of our human civilizations and the home of the historical Buddha Shakyamuni. The sky in this region is blue, a reflection of the blue-jeweled southern face of central Sumeru. In this painting, that coloration appears in the ocean as well.
The Western Region
The western region has a red sky that reflects the red-jeweled western face of central Sumeru. In this painting, that coloration appears in the ocean as well.
The Eastern Region
The eastern region has a white sky that reflects the silver eastern face of central Sumeru. In this painting, that coloration appears in the ocean as well.
Jambudvipa is the largest continent in the southern region, the traditional location of our human civilization, and the home of the historical Buddha Shakyamuni. At its center is depicted the reconstructed Mahabodhi temple, which marks the place where the Buddha became enlightened. The human realm and Shakyamuni are also depicted very differently in the wheel of existence mural on the facing wall.
The largest continent in the western region is Godaniya, sometimes translated as "Bountiful Cow." Circular in shape, it is depicted with a large, wish-fulfilling cow.
The largest continent of the eastern region is Videha, sometimes translated as "Superior Body." Semi-circular in shape, it is depicted holding a powerful male figure wearing jewels.
Dhrtarastra, one of the four Great Kings, stands on the middle terrace of Mount Sumeru and guards the eastern direction of the world. He is depicted here with white skin and holding a stringed musical instrument.
Virudhaka, the one of the four Great Kings, stands on the middle terrace of Mount Sumeru and guards the southern direction of the world. He is depicted here with blue skin holding a sword and jewel.
Virupaksa, one of the four Great Kings, stands on the middle terrace of Mount Sumeru and guards the western direction of the world. He is depicted here with red skin and holding a serpent and a stupa.
Inhabitants of the Lower Terraces
The lower terraces of Mount Sumeru hold lower classes of deities. From bottom to top are depicted the so-called Vessel-bearers, Garland-holders, and Always-intoxicated.
Seven Golden Mountain Ranges
Central Mount Sumeru is surrounded by concentric ranges of golden mountains. According to the textual tradition of the Treasury of Abhidharma, on which this mural is based, these mountains increase in size and distance apart towards the center of the cosmos, but visual images frequently depict them in other ways.
A set of eight royal jewels is depicted floating outside the boundaries of the world. Although they are not literally understood to exist there, such treasures are associated with imagery of the cosmos, which is a place of great wealth.
The Cakravala Mountains
The Cakravala mountain range, from which this model of the cosmos derives one of its common names, represents the exterior boundary of the world. Below and beyond it are the elemental layers of wind and water that support the disc-shaped earth.
Sun & Moon
The sun and moon are said to orbit Sumeru at half its height. Night occurs when Sumeru obscures the sun as viewed from a particular region.