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Shri Devi, Dorje Rabtenma - Updated

December 12, 2011 ·

Dorje Rabtenma, (English: the Vajra Stable One), a form of the protector goddess Shri Devi originating in the Nyingma Tradition of Tibetan Buddhism. Dorje Rabtenma is commonly found as the protector deity located in the bottom registers of paintings belonging to the schools originating with the Pagdru Kagyu of Pagmodrubpa. Subsequently, based on the numbers of images reproduced in paintings, the deity was predominantly practiced in the Shalupa and Tsarpa sub-schools of the Sakya Tradition.

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Shri Devi with Three Faces! Sipai Gyalmo?

September 27, 2009 ·


Shri Devi with Three Faces! Sipai Gyalmo? An inquiry has been made about an iconographic form of Shri Devi (Palden Lhamo) with three faces. Unfortunately, I don't know of a three faced, six armed, Shri Devi in Tibetan Buddhism. It doesn't mean that there isn't a Shri Devi having this appearance, it just means that this form hasn't been broadly identified in art or in Buddhist textual description, so far. However, the Bon Religion has a wrathful female deity exactly fitting this description - Sipai Gyalmo, Queen of the World.

Shri Devi is a Sanskrit name used by Indian religious traditions and Buddhist Tantric traditions. To my knowledge the Bon Religion does not typically use the Sanskrit name Shri Devi or the corresponding Tibetan name Palden Lhamo.

See the Shri Devi Resource Page
See the Sipai Gyalmo Comparison Page

Well, aside from pouring through endless sets of Nyingma initiation cards (tsakli) looking for a three faced Shri Devi, I can only think of one instance where I've seen a Shri Devi-like figure with three faces on a Buddhist painting. Look to the middle left side of this Buddhist Sidpaho Protection Chart (above). Fortunately I thought it was strange enough when I first chanced upon it to think to take a detail photo of the unusual, at the time, un-Buddhist-like Shri Devi (detail of Shri Devi figure above). You will note that the body, number of faces and colours along with arms and hand attributes are identical to the Bon deity Sipai Gyalmo Dre'u Nag (Riding a Black Mule). I had no explanation for this.

I did go back and look at the painting several times to see if it was in fact Buddhist, and to think about whether or not the Bon had a similar practice of painting sidpaho charts, as if that would help! Possibly it belonged to the Bon Sarma Tradition? Bon Sarma is a branch of Bon that intentionally seeks to blend the practices of the two religions of Bon and Buddhism. However, I can only conclude that the painting is Buddhist.

Looking at the Sidpaho painting and the Shri Devi-like subject more closely, it did seem unusual to have the small buddha-like figure depicted as if hovering above the head. This is a practice sometimes found occurring on Bon paintings especially with the subject of Tagla Membar where a peaceful Tonpa Shenrab is placed hovering directly above the wrathful head of the central figure. It can however be found, although rarely, in Buddhist paintings. See an example of a Drigung Kagyu deity painting of Guru Dragpur, a Nyingma Terma Tradition, where the Buddhas of the Tree Times are placed above three stupas above the three heads of the central deity. What is common with Buddhist iconography is to find the Five Symbolic Buddhas such as Amitabha above the head of Avalokiteshvara, or Akshobhya above the head of Manjushri, or Amoghasiddhi above the head of Green Tara. A figure depicted like the historical Buddha Shakyamuni is not usual, especially when they appear to be floating and detached from the main figure below.

It is possible that the artist commissioned to create the painting belonged to the Bon Religion and inserted a protector deity that he/she was familiar with - just an idea.

So, now it comes down to what do we know?
1. It is possible that there is a Buddhist form, or specifically a Nyingma form, of Shri Devi with three faces and six arms (as pictured above).
2. There does not appear to be any Sarma (Sakya, Kagyu, Jonang, Gelug, etc.) three faced forms of Shri Devi. This statement is entirely based on looking at iconographic images and reading the general iconographic texts and histories of those traditions. However, this could change if new information comes to light.
3. The most important female protector of the Bon Religion has three faces and six arms, riding a mule, in a similar appearance to the Buddhist deity Shri Devi. Of the two principal forms of Sipai Gyalmo, (1) Riding the Black Mule and (2) Riding the Red Mule, the form riding atop the black mule can have slightly different hand attributes depending on the Bon tradition. The primary difference is the third right hand which can hold either a spear or a banner. In the Buddhist painting exhibited above the Shri Devi-like figure holds a banner in the third right hand.

Conclusion: Until more examples of a three faced, six armed Shri Devi like deity are found, along with Buddhist textual descriptions, we must, for the time being, consider that all such forms are most probably the Bon protector deity Sipai Gyalmo.

Jeff Watt
Director & Chief Curator

(The Sipai Gyalmo Comparison Page has also been added to the bottom of the Shri Devi Resource Page for comparison purposes).

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Shri Devi: Palden Lhamo: Glorious Goddess

September 25, 2009 ·

From the Shri Devi Resource Page---

Shri Devi is the most important classification of female protector deity in Tantric Tibetan Buddhism. Out of the nearly two dozen textual forms of the goddess there are three principal forms that appear regularly in painting and sculpture. The first and second forms are almost identical. Only the hand attributes distinguish them one from the other. Known as Shri Devi Dudsolma, she has one face and four arms. There is a [1] Sakya version of Dudsolma and a [2] Kagyu version of Dudsolma. The Sakya version holds a sword, skullcup, spear and trident. The Kagyu version holds a sword, skullcup, peg 'kila' and trident. The [3] third form of Shri Devi, most popular in the Gelug Tradition, is known as Magzor Gyalmo and has one face like the previous forms but only two hands. She holds a vajra tipped staff and a skullcup.

Some Tibetan teachers say that there are twenty-one forms of Palden Lhamo (Shri Devi), often including the Bon religious protector Sipai Gyalmo as one of the forms. This is likely a late conflation occurring in the last one hundred years or so, an attempt to organize all of the different forms, along with the major and minor traditions, into a single structured system.

Not all forms of Shri Devi have the same entity or personality. The principal form of the protector, Dudsolma or Dudmo Remati, appearing with one face and four arms, riding a donkey, is a wrathful manifestation of Shri Lakshmi (Pal Lhamo). Principal here means earliest and having the most lineages from India, teachings and commentaries associated with her practice. Magzor Gyalmo with two arms, riding a mule, is a manifestation of Sarasvati. In the Bon Religion Sipai Gyalmo is the wrathful form of Satrig Ersang, one of the four principal deities/gods of the Bon Religion. This shows that the different forms of Shri Devi arise from various narratives, ritual and practice traditions.

The early references and teachings on Shri Devi Dudsolma, or using her full name Dudsol Dokam Wangchugma (Kamadhatv-ishvari) with four arms, are found in detail in two Tantras, the Fifty Chapter Mahakala Tantra and the Twenty-five Chapter Mahakala Tantra. In these texts Shri Devi is closely related to Mahakala, The Great Black One.

The form of Shri Devi known as Magzor Gyalmo, with two arms and riding a mule, has a different history derived from different source literature. In the main text narrating the history of Magzorma, the Dakinyagnijihajvala Tantra, she is described as the servant, or younger sister, of Shri Devi Dudsolma (with four arms and riding a donkey). See the Magzor Gyalmo Introduction and the source literature the Dakinyagnijihajvala Tantra, Dege Kanjur, volume 98, pp.223-253. It is found in the Nyingma Tantra section, vol.3.

Dorje Rabtenma, the special protector of Shalu Monastery in Tsang Province, Tibet, is also a form of Shri Devi: "...Goddess Dorje Rabtenma, Great One, with a body maroon in colour, one face, two hands and three eyes; the body covered by a human skin. Held in the right hand is a blazing sword, a mongoose grasped in the left, riding atop a three-legged mule." (Shalu Liturgical verse by Shakya Gelong Rinchen Namgyal).

The image of Shri Devi Dudsolma pictured above is taken from a photograph of a paper poster acquired in 1973. The poster is believed to have been made in India in the late 1960s or early 70s. There is no information on the poster at all, front or back, no writing and no numbers. If anybody has seen another image like this or knows where this original painting resides then please send an e-mail to us at info@himalayanart.org. Thank you.

Please see the extensive Shri Devi Resource Page

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Magzor Gyalmo, a form of Shri Devi

September 20, 2009 ·

Magzor Gyalmo, meaning the Queen who Repels Armies, or the Queen who has the power to turn back armies, belongs to the larger class of enlightened protector deities known as Shri Devi, or Palden Lhamo in Tibetan. Magzor Gyalmo is a wrathful emanation of the peaceful goddess Sarasvati, popular in both Hinduism and Buddhism.

Shri Devi is understood as a class of female protectors. Some say that there are twenty-one forms of Shri Devi, often including the Bon protector Sipai Gyalmo as one of the forms. Not all forms of Shri Devi have the same entity. The principal form of the protector, Dudsolma or Dudmo Remati, appearing with one face and four arms, riding a donkey, is a wrathful manifestation of Shri Lakshmi. Magzor Gyalmo with two arms, riding a mule, is a manifestation of Sarasvati. In the Bon Religion Sipai Gyalmo is the wrathful form of Satrig Ersang, one of the four principal deities/gods of the Bon Religion.

Magzor Gyalmo, often shortened to Magzorma, was first popularized in Tibet by the Zhang, Mu and Sakya family lineages. This form of Shri Devi was likely indigenous to Tibet and the result of a pure vision (dag nang) or a revealed treasure (terma) discovery. It later entered the Gelug School through the family tradition of either the 1st or the 2nd Dalai Lama (see possibly the earliest Gelug painting). Again at the time of the 5th Dalai Lama in the 17th century it became the special protector of the Dalai Lama incarnation tradition and of the Ganden Podrang Government of Tibet.

The majority of Magzor Gyalmo paintings and sculpture on the HAR website were created for Gelug practitioners and institutions in Tibet, Mongolia and China. Of the nearly 100 objects on the site only three paintings can be identified as belonging to the Sakya Tradition. All of the others are Gelug in origin. How do we know?

There are two ways to distinguish between Sakya and Gelug forms of Magzor Gyalmo. With paintings, inspecting the over-all composition, the minor figures surrounding the central Magzor Gyalmo must be looked at carefully. [1] It is most often the case that Lama Tsongkapa, founder of the Gelug Tradition, wearing a yellow hat, will be placed at the top center, and if not there then somewhere else along the top of the painting. [2] In the texts describing the iconography of Magzorma, for the Gelug, she has a snow lion as an earring for the right ear and a coiled snake for the left earring. In the Sakya Tradition this iconographic detail is reversed. Don't believe us? Look for yourself: Gelug Example, Sakya Example.

Because Magzorma is the wrathful form of Sarasvati and because Sarasvati is the goddess of learning and eloquence, then it follows that she is related to and paired with the bodhisattva of wisdom - Manjushri. However, it would not be proper to have the peaceful appearance of Manjushri associated with the wrathful appearance of Magzorma. So, with all of that said, Magzorma is most commonly associated with the wrathful forms of Manjushri: Heruka Vajrabhairava, Rakta Yamari or Krishna Yamari. These three are the most wrathful forms of Manjushri. They are also meditational deities of the Anuttarayoga Classification of Tantra. It is very common to find one of these three wrathful figures of Manjushri at the top of a Magzorma painting. Sakya paintings generally portray Rakta Yamari at the top along with one or two Lama figures, and often Ngorchen Kunga Zangpo, wearing a red pandita hat.

In the Tantra narrating the history of Magzorma she is described as the servant or younger sister of Shri Devi (with four arms). Aside from functioning as a protector deity in the Sakya and Gelug Traditions of Tibetan Buddhism, Magzor Gyalmo is used extensively in the ritual of divination - generally using dice or prayer beads.

The textual source for Magzor Gyalmo is the Dakinyagnijihajvala Tantra, Dege Kanjur, volume 98, pp.223-253. It is found in the Nyingma Tantra section, vol.3.

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