Himalayan Art Resources

Item: Mahakala (Buddhist Protector) - Bernag Chen (Black Cloak)

མ་ཧཱ་ཀཱ་ལ། ནག་པོ་ཆེན་པོ། 玛哈嘎拉
(item no. 30904)
Origin Location Tibet
Date Range 1800 - 1899
Lineages Karma (Kagyu) and Buddhist
Material Ground Mineral Pigment on Cotton
Collection Private
Notes about the Central Figure

Classification: Deity

Appearance: Wrathful

Gender: Male

Interpretation / Description

Museum of Vancouver, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada Acc.# DE 748.

Bernagchen, Vajra Mahakala (English: the Great Black-Cloak Vajra Mahakala), the personal Dharma protector of the Karmapas and the special protector of the Karma Kagyu (Kamtsangpa) School of Tibetan Buddhism. The composition and iconographic elements follow the standard program of Palpung Monastery, Dege, Kham Province, in Eastern Tibet (present day Sichuan Province, China). (See a similar painting of a Refuge Field possibly by the same artist).

Context and Background: Bernagchen Mahakala is the personal protector of the Karmapas and the special protector of the Karma Kagyu (Kamtsangpa) School. The Karmapas are a line of successive teachers believed by some to be the first lineage of reincarnating lamas in Tibetan Buddhism. Mahakala is a classification of Buddhist protector deity originating in India. There are many different types and iconographic forms of Mahakala. This specific form belongs to the sub-category of Bhagavan and is known as Bernagchen (black cloak). Bernagchen originates with the Nyingma 'Revealed Treasure' Tradition of Tibet and was later introduced into the Karma Kagyu School at the time of the 2nd Karmapa, Karma Pakshi (1206-1283). With reference to the different types of Tantric Buddhist iconography Bernagchen Mahakala has Wrathful Appearance. According to function he is a Wisdom Protector Deity - dharmapala. (See the Eleven Figurative Forms).

Principal Figure: The fiercely wrathful, Black Cloak Mahakala is also black in colour, with one face, three round bulbous eyes, a large gaping red mouth with bared white fangs. His yellow beard, eyebrows and hair flow upward like flames. The right hand holds aloft a curved flaying knife with a vajra handle. The left holds a white blood filled skullcup to the heart. Adorned with a crown of five dry white skulls, earrings, bracelets and a garland of freshly severed heads, he wears a great black cloak as his unique characteristic. He stands surrounded by black smoke and red licks of the flames of pristine awareness fire.

Secondary Figure Upper Composition: At the top center is Vajradhara Buddha with Tilopa and Marpa seated to his proper right. On his proper left side is Naropa and Milarepa.

At the top left corner is Jamgon Kongtrul Lodro Taye (1813-1899 [TBRC P264]). At the top right corner is Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo (1820-1892 [P258]). Both wear monastic robes and red pandita hats.

Beneath Vajradhara Buddha is Karmapa wearing a black hat. This incarnation of Karmapa appears to have white hair. This would indicate that it represents the 1st Karmapa, Dusum Khyenpa. To his proper right is Gampopa with the hands in a meditation gesture, wearing a large broad hat. On the proper left is Tai Situ wearing a red cap similar in style to the black hat of Karmapa. At the far left side is Lokeshvara Jinasagara, red in colour, with four arms, seated, embracing a consort. At the far right side is Vajrayogini, red, female, in a dancing posture standing on the left leg, encircled by a ring of orange fire.

Secondary Figures Middle and Lower Composition: Descending at the middle left side is Vaishravana Riding a Lion, yellow in colour. Below that is Shri Devi, Rangjung Gyalmo, dark blue in colour, with four arms, riding atop a mule. Below that is Shingkyong Yab-Yum, a couple, both with lion faces, riding atop horses.

Descending at the middle right side is Ngag Dag, a naga, serpent-like figure, with the lower body in the shape of a coiled snake. Below that is Damchen Garwa Nagpo, blue-black in colour, riding atop a goat. Below that is Sin Gon, blue in colour with a consort red in colour.

Directly below the lotus and rocky bluff of Bernagchen is Tashi Tseringma, peaceful in appearance, riding on the back of a white and green snow lion. Next to her is Kharnag, a naga, blue in colour riding atop a white elephant.

Along the bottom of the composition are three traditional Tibetan figures, warrior in appearance, wearing armour, helmets and riding variously coloured horses. These figures are typical representations for mountain gods, spirits of the open plains, or craggy uninhabited regions. Indigenous Tibetan spirits were believed to have been subjugated centuries ago and now serve as worldly protectors for Tibetan Buddhism.

Lineage Teachers for the Initiation and Teachings on Bernagchen: Dagnyi Heruka, Chog Drub Arnapa, Mal Lotsawa Lodro Drag, Nyal Nyima Bar, Nyal Jose, Drogon Rechen, Gyalse Pomdragpa (1170-1249 [TBRC P2438]), Karma Pakshi (1204-1283 [P1487]), etc.

Jeff Watt 4-2001 [updated 10-2008, updated 4-2017]

Secondary Images
Related Items
Thematic Sets
Tradition: Karma Kagyu Main Page
Mahakala: Bernagchen Page (Black Cloak)
Collection: Private 1
Collection Index: Museums
Mahakala: Bernagchen Masterworks
Buddhist Protector: Mahakala Art History