Portrait of the Yogi Tiravalla

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Portrait of an Indian Yogi

The Portrait of the Yogi Tiravalla is a painting phenomenally produced by H. P. Blavatsky for Col. Olcott and Mr. Judge in New York, in December 1877. The image precipitated on a piece of note-paper portrays a yogi absorbed in samādhi. This piece of artwork was highly regarded by artists as well as by the Masters.


In his book The Occult World , Mr. Sinnett described the production of the portrait of "an Indian fakir" as follows:

Colonel Olcott told me he took home a piece of note-paper from a club in New York- a piece bearing a club stamp -and gave this to Madame Blavatsky. She put it between the sheets of blotting-paper on her writing-table, rubbed her hand over the outside of the pad, and then in a few moments the marked paper was given back to him with a complete picture upon it representing an Indian fakir in a state of samadhi. And the artistic execution of this drawing was conceived by artists to whom Colonel Olcott afterwards showed it to be so good that they compared it to the works of old masters whom they specially adored and affirmed that as an artistic curiosity it was unique and priceless.[1]

Some years later Col. Olcott commented on Mr. Sinnett's description, and added some more details about this:

At the close of the dinner we had drifted into talk about precipitations, and Judge asked H. P. B. if she would not make somebody’s portrait for us. As we were moving towards the writing-room, she asked him whose portrait he wished made, and he chose that of this particular yogi, whom we knew by name as one held in great respect by the Masters. She crossed to my table, took a sheet of my crested club-paper, tore it in halves, kept the half which had no imprint, and laid it down on her own blotting-paper. She then scraped perhaps a grain of the plumbago of a Faber lead pencil on it, and then rubbed the surface for a minute or so with a circular motion of the palm of her right hand; after which she handed us the result. On the paper had come the desired portrait and, setting wholly aside the question of its phenomenal character, it is an artistic production of power and genius. Le Clear, the Noted American portrait painter, declared it unique, distinctly an “individual” in the technical sense; one that no living artist within his knowledge could have produced.[2]

In regards to the artist's assesment of the artwork, an article published in The Bombay Gazette (March 31st, 1879, p.3) states:

Thomas LeClear, an eminent American painter, and William R. O’Donovan, an equally distinguished sculptor, affirmed in a London journal, that no living artist could, in their opinion, equal it in vigour, breadth, and uniqueness, while they were both unable to decide upon the nature of the colouring substance employed in the manner of its application.[3]

Mme. Blavatsky explained some aspects of the mechanics of precipitation. Col. Olcott writes:

In connection with her New York precipitations of the Yogi's and M. A. Oxon's portraits, the writing of the latter, and other phenomena; she explained that inasmuch as the images of all objects and incidents are stored in the Astral Light, it did not require that she should have seen the person or known the writing, the image of which she wished to precipitate; she had only to be put on the trace and could find and see them for herself and then objectivate them.[4]

The process of precipitating a portrait does not seem to be as "mechanical" as it may sound in Mme. Blavatsky's explanation. It evidently requires artistic skill, along with the occult ability. In one of his letters to Mr. Sinnett, Master K.H. praised Mme. Blavatsky's work as follows:

She can and did produce phenomena, owing to her natural powers combined with several long years of regular training and her phenomena are sometimes better, more wonderful and far more perfect than those of some high, initiated chelas, whom she surpasses in artistic taste and purely Western appreciation of art — as for instance in the instantaneous production of pictures: witness — her portrait of the "fakir" Tiravalla mentioned in Hints, and compared with my portrait by Gjual Khool. Notwithstanding all the superiority of his powers, as compared to hers; his youth as contrasted with her old age; and the undeniable and important advantage he possesses of having never brought his pure unalloyed magnetism in direct contact with the great impurity of your world and society — yet do what he may, he will never be able to produce such a picture, simply because he is unable to conceive it in his mind and Tibetan thought.[5]


Col. Olcott writes:

The yogi is depicted in Samâdhi, the head drawn partly aside, the eyes profoundly introspective and dead to external things, the body seemingly that of an absent tenant. There is a beard and hair of moderate length, the latter drawn with such skill that one sees through the upstanding locks, as it were—an effect obtained in good photographs, but hard to imitate with pencil or crayon. The portrait is in a medium not easy to distinguish: it might be black crayon, without stumping, or black lead; but there is neither dust nor gloss on the surface to indicate which, nor any marks of the stump or the point used: hold the paper horizontally towards the light and you might fancy the pigment was below the surface, combined with the fibres.[6]

At the bottom of the painting there is an inscription that says:

Ghostland or Land of the Living Brotherhood of T—Which?

This is a reference to the Spiritualistic teachings about the the souls of the dead becoming "spirit guides" versus the concept of living Adepts that Mme. Blavatsky was beginning to put forward in her days in New York.

William R. O'Donovan, a distinguished American sculptor and art critic who made the bronze medallion Mme. Blavatsky, wrote to the Editor of the Spiritualist attesting that it was a real phenomena and of a very high quality:


“SIR,—For the benefit of those among your readers who may be able to gather the significance of it, I beg to offer some testimony concerning a remarkable performance claimed by Colonel Olcott and Madame Blavatsky to have been done by herself without the aid of such physical means as are employed by persons usually for such an end The production referred to is a small portrait in black and white of a Hindu Fakir, which was produced by Madame Blavatsky, as it is claimed, by a simple exercise of will power. As to the means by which this work was produced, however, I have nothing at all to do ; and wish simply to say as an artist, and give also the testimony of Mr. Thomas Le Clear, one of the most eminent of our portrait painters, whose experience as such has extended over fifty years, that the work is of a kind that could not have been done by any living artist known to any of us. It has all the essential qualities which distinguish the portraits by Titian, Masaccio, and Raphael : namely, individuality of the profoundest kind, and consequently breadth and unity of as perfect a quality as I can conceive. I may safely assert that there is no artist who has given intelligent attention to portraiture, who would not concur with Mr. Le Clear and myself in the opinion which we have formed of this remarkable work ; and if it was done, as it is claimed to have been done, I am at utter loss to account for it. I may add that this drawing, or whatever it may be termed, has at first sight the appearance of having been done by washes of Indian ink, but that upon closer inspection, both Mr. Le Cleat : and myself have been unable to liken it to any process of drawing known to us ; the black tints seem to be an integral part of the paper upon which it is done. I have seen numbers of drawings claimed to have been done by spirit influences, in which the vehicle employed was perfectly obvious, and none of them were of more than mediocre artistic merit ; not one of them certainly could be compared at all with this most remarkable performance of which I write.


The painting suffered an unfortunate "accident" when in India. An Indian member tried to test the quality of the artwork using an eraser, and as a result the beard in the portrait was damaged, to Col. Olcott's dismay. In recalling this event he wrote:

This incomparable picture was subjected in India later to the outrage of being rubbed with India-rubber to satisfy the curiosity of one of our Indian members, who had borrowed it as a special favour “to show his mother”, and who wished to see if the pigment was really on or under the surface! The effect of his vandal-like experiment is now seen in the obliteration of a part of the beard, and my sorrow over the disaster is not in the least mitigated by the knowledge that it was not due to malice but to ignorance and the spirit of childish curiosity.[8]


Mr. Sinnett referred to the subject of the painting as "an Indian fakir" and Master K.H., in one of his letters to him, refers to it by writing the word fakir in quotation marks and adding the name Tiravalla. This seems to be the same name used by Mme. Blavatsky. "Tiruvalla" (alternately spelled Thiruvalla) is the name of a town in the State of Kerala in South India, so the subject of the portrait could actually be "the Yogi of Tiruvalla". This may also throw some light upon the meaning of part of the inscription that mentions the "Living Brotherhood of T—".

The Hindu Master Narayan (also known as the "Old Gentlement" or the Rishi Agastya) is connected with this place. A letter he sent to be published in The Theosophist and signed as "One of the Hindu Founders of the Parent Theosophical Society" is dated "Tiruvallam Hills, May 17".[9]

Col. Olcott, however, speculates the yogi could be Thiruvalluvar, a celebrated Tamil poet and philosopher who is thought to have lived sometime between the 2nd century BC and the 8th century AD:

The yogi’s name was always pronounced by H.P.B. “Tiravâlâ”, but since coming to live in Madras Presidency, I can very well imagine that she meant Tiruvalluvar, and that the portrait, now hanging in the Picture Annex of the Adyar Library, is really that of the revered philosopher of ancient Mylapur, the friend and teacher of the poor Pariahs. As to the question whether he is still in the body or not I can venture no assertion, but from what H.P.B. used to say about him I always inferred that he was. And yet to all save Hindus that would seem incredible, since he is said to have written his immortal “Kural” something like a thousand years ago! He is classed in Southern India as one of the Siddhas, and like the other seventeen, is said to be still living in the Tirupati and Nilgiri Hills; keeping watch and ward over the Hindu religion. Themselves unseen, these Great Souls help, by their potent will-power, its friends and promoters and all lovers of mankind. May their benediction be with us! . . . H.P.B.’s account of him confirms that of his Indian admirers, that he was a person of the highest spirituality of aspiration and purest character.[10]

Disappearance and reappearance

Just before Col. Olcott and Mme. Blavatsky left for India, the portrait disappeared from its frame in Olcott's bedroom. On August 23, 1880, while he, Blavatsky, and Damodar were conversing in the office at Bombay, the portrait fell through the air on the desk at which the Colonel sat.[11]


  1. Alfred Percy Sinnett, The Occult World (London: Theosophical Publishing House, 1969), 177.
  2. Henry Steel Olcott, Old Diary Leaves First Series (Adyar, Madras: The Theosophical Publishing House, 1974), 367-368.
  3. See Theosophic Thaumaturgy--A Startling Story at The Blavatsky Archives.
  4. Henry Steel Olcott, Old Diary Leaves Second Series (Adyar, Madras: The Theosophical Publishing House, 1974), 366.
  5. Vicente Hao Chin, Jr., The Mahatma Letters to A.P. Sinnett in chronological sequence No. 92 (Quezon City: Theosophical Publishing House, 1993), 296.
  6. Henry Steel Olcott, Old Diary Leaves First Series (Adyar, Madras: The Theosophical Publishing House, 1974), 368.
  7. Alfred Percy Sinnett, Incidents in the Life of Madame Blavatsky (New York:Cambridge University Press, 2011), 202-203
  8. Henry Steel Olcott, Old Diary Leaves First Series (Adyar, Madras: The Theosophical Publishing House, 1974), 368-369.
  9. Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, Collected Writings vol. X (Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Publishing House, 1988), 438.
  10. Henry Steel Olcott, Old Diary Leaves First Series (Adyar, Madras: The Theosophical Publishing House, 1974), 369-370.
  11. Henry Steel Olcott, Old Diary Leaves Second Series (Adyar, Madras: The Theosophical Publishing House, 1974), 214.