Himalayan Art Resources

Item: Mahakala (Buddhist Protector) - Panjarnata (Lord of the Pavilion)

མ་ཧཱ་ཀཱ་ལ། ནག་པོ་ཆེན་པོ། 玛哈嘎拉
(item no. 24453)
Origin Location Tibet
Date Range 1700 - 1799
Lineages Sakya, Ngor (Sakya) and Buddhist
Material Ground Mineral Pigment, Black Background on Cotton
Collection Private
Notes about the Central Figure

Classification: Deity

Appearance: Wrathful

Gender: Male

TBRC: W25327

Interpretation / Description

Panjarnata, Vajra Mahakala (Tibetan: dor je nag po chen po, gur gyi gon po. English: the Great Vajra Black One, Lord of the Pavilion), special protector of the Hevajra cycle of teachings and principal protector of the Sakya School of Tibetan Buddhism. This form of Mahakala arises from the 18th chapter of the Vajrapanjara exclusive explanatory tantra. The Vajrapanajara Tantra is exclusive to the Hevajra Root Tantra whereas a tantra such as the Samputa is an explanatory tantra shared between the Hevajra and Chakrasamvara (and Yogini) root literature.

"...the great Vajra Mahakala, blazing, with one face, two hands, in the right a curved knife and the left a skullcup filled with blood, held above and below the heart. Held across the middle of the two arms is the 'Gandhi of Emanation.' With three eyes, bared fangs, yellow hair flowing upward, a crown of five dry human skulls and a necklace of fifty wet, blood dripping; adorned with six bone ornaments and snakes; having a lower garment of tiger skin; flowing with pendants and streamers of various silks; in a posture dwarfish and thick, standing above a corpse. To the right is a black crow, left a black dog, behind a wolf, in front a black man, above a garuda, emanations of messengers issue forth, with Akshobhya as a crown, standing in the middle of blazing fire of pristine awareness." (Konchog Lhundrub, 1497-1557).

Rinchen Zangpo Lineage of Teachers: Vajradhara, Vajrapanjara Dakini, Brahmin Vararuchi, Pandita Deva Vajra, Shraddha Karavarma, Lochen Rinchen Zangpo, Drag Tengpa Yontan Tsultrim, Mal Lotsawa Lodro Drag, Sachen Kunga Nyingpo (1092-1158), etc.

Jeff Watt 2-2019


The Popularity & Importance of Panjarnata Mahakala in the Study of Tibetan Art

Tibetan art is known for repeating and replicating the same figures in painting and sculpture. This is understandable when most of the figures are derived from religious texts and Buddhist narratives. The totality of figures can be generally separated into two broad subject categories; teachers (real and mythical) and deities (peaceful or wrathful). For the category of wrathful figures, the subject of Panjarnata Mahakala was often replicated in painting, and even more importantly, it was often painted very well with many excellent examples in fine art museums around the world. Why exactly was this and why might it be important for the study of Tibetan art?

Panjarnata, meaning ‘Lord of the Pavilion,’ is classified by function within Tantric Buddhism as a protector deity and within the different Tibetan Buddhist traditions each school had a principal protector. For the Sakya Tradition, founded in 1073, Panjarnata, was in the past and remains today, the principal idealized protector of the school. Subsequent to the founding, the Sakyas were patronized by the Mongols of the Yuan dynasty of China and enjoyed prestige and power. During that time many fine examples of Panjarnata were created for ritual use and gift exchange. Because of the dominance, popularity and power of the Sakya school many sub-schools were spawned with their own prosperous and powerful monasteries and administrations. Examples of these are the Shalu, Jonang, Bodong, Ngor, Tsar and Dzongpa establishments. Those monasteries became powerful because of broad patronage from wealthy donors and strategic alliances often through marriage between the powerful patron families. For example, the hereditary Khon family of Sakya was related by marriage to the Kushang family of Shalu, the Gyantse royalty and to the Maharajas of Mustang and Sikkim.

At various times since 1073 these Sakya influenced but administratively independent schools and monasteries wielded great power and wealth. Based on that wealth many great works of art were created from the 12th century to the present. Being doctrinally related many of those great works of art were depictions of Panjarnata Mahakala the shared protector for all those great monastic houses and related patron families.

This painting of Panjarnata conforms to an established standard in Buddhist hierarchy and the placement of figures in the composition. The placement follows the common adage for such paintings ‘big to small, top to bottom, left to right, and inside to outside.’ Panjaranata is the large oversized central figure with a glaring slightly sideways wrathful expression. At the top center is a blue deity figure accompanied by the two historical figures of Mal Lotsawa Lodro Drag (birth 11th century) and Sachen Kunga Nyingpo (1092-1158). The last two represent the human lineage of teachers.

Descending on the left side are Bhutadamara Vajrapani, blue, with four arms, and Shri Shmashana Adhipati in the appearance of two dancing skeletons. Descending on the right side are Ekajati holding a vase and Shri Devi with four arms, riding atop a donkey. Bhutadamara is the meditational deity (ishtadevata) and the latter three are additional but lesser protector deities within the Sakya tradition. Alternately, the ‘Tsang’ Matrix of related religious traditions can be used to refer to the religious streams originating from or relating to the Sakya school and traditions which almost all are based in the Tsang Province of Central Tibet. In the lower third of the composition are five figures known as the Five Activity Protectors. These five, referred to in the liturgies are a family with a mother, father, and three wrathfully agitated children who as a group function as the special attendants, or servants, to Panjarnata.

Scattered throughout the composition, regardless of the hierarchy of the principal figures, are very small depictions of monks, warriors, black hat dancers, black men and women. In the mass of red and maroon flames surrounding Panjarnata are the forms of birds, dogs and wolves. These many additional depictions represent the outermost of the retinue of the entourage of Panjarnata. The most important figure(s) are the largest and the smallest are the least important. The more important of the secondary figures are read from top to bottom. The more important of the subjects are placed on the left side. In art the central importance of Panjarnata paintings are related to the length of time from their original production, the wealth of the donors who commissioned the works and the skill of the highly paid artists over the centuries. Because there are many examples of fine Panjarnata paintings that have survived it becomes possible to study a great variety of Tibetan painting styles by focusing on a single iconographic subject example - Panjarnata. These examples have been repeated many times and in many different regional areas providing a wealth of information and different compositions to compare for study and investigation.

The early examples of Panjarnata prior to the 15th and 16th centuries follow an Indian or Nepalese influenced Tibetan style of composition. Early compositions are generally characterized as figures placed within strict vertical and horizontal registers and geometric structures. Following that period arose the greatly influential painting traditions of Mentangpa and Khyentse Chenmo of the late 15th century. These two artists abandoned the strict compartmentalization of the principal and secondary figures and adopted a floating landscape composition where the figures are placed against an imaginary landscape or open space. The figures are represented as more dynamic with movement and realistic expression, likewise in the ornaments and dress. Landscape, for the wrathful deity depictions is generally suggestive and minimalist. For the peaceful deities and human figures landscape becomes abundant and varied in the differing painting styles based on the imagination of the artist. A distinction should be made between a painting tradition and a painting style. The first can have many different styles within the tradition and the latter unique to an individual artist or atelier and readily identifiable as a style.

This painting example of Panjarnata belongs to the artistic style of a currently unknown artist of central Tibet that has followed in a mixed style of the two principal painting traditions of Mentangpa and Khyentse. The facial features, curled or flowing hair, ornaments, decorations and the small figure vignettes with cemetery scenes are all reminiscent of the Khyenri painting tradition. The robust and wild flames surrounding all the figures is a characteristic of the Mentangpa tradition. In general, the painting follows neither of these traditions or styles specifically because it is a fusion of the two with added and changed elements and characteristics that are unique to the changing times and the style and skill of this unique and unknown master artist.

Jeff Watt 1-2019 (Christie Catalogue, New York, March 2019)

Related Items
Publications
Collection: Christies New York (Painting. March, 2019)

Thematic Sets
Mahakala: Panjarnata, Lord of the Pavilion (Main Page)
Mahakala: Panjarnata Masterworks (Painting & Textile)