Himalayan Art Resources

Item: Mahakala (Buddhist Protector) - Chaturbhuja (Four-hands)

མ་ཧཱ་ཀཱ་ལ། ནག་པོ་ཆེན་པོ། 玛哈嘎拉
(item no. 35880)
Origin Location Tibet
Date Range 1700 - 1799
Lineages Kagyu and Buddhist
Material Ground Mineral Pigment, Black Background on Cotton
Collection Private
Notes about the Central Figure

Classification: Deity

Appearance: Wrathful

Gender: Male

Summary: This form of Mahakala can be either a protector deity (dharmapala) or a meditational deity (ishtadevata).

Interpretation / Description

Chaturbhuja, Mahakala (Tibetan: gon po, chag shi pa. English: the Great Black One with Four Hands). The principal protector of the Chakrasamvara class of Tantras; from the lineage of Arya Nagarjuna. (See HAR #88588). The painting is likely to be either from a set depicting the most important Gelug protector deities or at the least from a series of paintings, possibly unrelated, that were commissioned from the same artist and workshop.

At the top center of the composition is Heruka Chakrasamvara with one face and two hands, in a standing posture, blue in colour, embracing the consort Vajrayogini, red in colour. Seated in front are two deity figures holding upraised initiation vases. To the immediate left is Arya Nagarjuna (2nd century C.E.)in monastic attire. Adorning the head are five coiled snakes representing naga spirits of the underworld. In the upper left corner is the Tibetan teacher Gva Lotsawa Zhonnu Pal (birth 12th century [P3674]) wearing monastic attire, a yellow pandita hat, and holding a book. To the immediate right of Heruka is Aryadeva (2nd century A.D.), the heart student of Nagarjuna, wearing monastic robes and holding a book. At the upper right corner is Pagmodrubpa Dorje Gyalpo (1110-1170): [TBRC P127], wearing monastic garb and a red meditation belt, supporting a vase in the proper left hand.

Each of the five forms, deity and teachers, at the top of the composition have name inscriptions written in Tibetan script beneath each figure. No other figures lower down in the composition have inscriptions.

The central image of the composition is Chaturbhuja Mahakala in solitary form (four-armed great black one). Mahakala has many different forms with any number of heads and arms. Chaturbhuja Mahakala has one face and four arms, sometimes solitary and at other times embracing a consort. The forms are not random but rather based on Indian liturgical texts. Mahakala is generally considered to be a protector deity (Dharmapala) but can also function as a meditational deity (ishtadevata). He is surrounded on the sides and below by sixteen attendant retinue figures.

"...Shri Jnana Nata Mahakala, the Great Solitary One, with a body blue-black in colour, dark like the end of time, with three round red eyes, quickly glancing, a radiant face with bared fangs, tongue lolling. The hair, eyebrows, mustache and beard are yellow like a blazing fire. There are four arms, the first right [hand] holds a coconut fruit that is like a [human] heart. The first left [hand] holds a blood filled skullcup at the level of the heart. The lower right [hand] holds a blazing sword aloft. The lower left holds a katvanga staff upraised marked with a trident. With five dry human skulls as a crown, fifty wet dripping heads as a necklace, a jewel at the crown [of the head], four races of snakes [ornaments] and adorned with all of the bone ornaments, wearing a lower garment of tiger skin, seated in a playful manner within a swirling heap of pristine awareness fire." (Karma Ngagwang Yontan Gyatso (1813-1899 [TBRC P264]). Dam Ngag Dzo, vol.10 page 430).

At the upper left side with figures descending below is Panjara Mahakala more typically associated with the Hevajra Tantra. At the upper right side is Dorje Shanglon the special form of Mahakala as the protector of the four Tibetan Medical Tantras (a Nyingma 'Revealed Treasure' text). Both are wrathful in appearance and dark blue in colour. These two figures are not included as part of the sixteen figure retinue of Chaturbhuja Mahakala and have most likely been added at the request of the sponsor of the painting.

Among the sixteen attendant figures, fourteen have have animal and bird faces. All or almost all are female in form. Slightly below Chaturbhuja to the left is a standing figure holding a large staff and gazing to the viewer's left and directly below the central large figure is a raven-faced figure. These two are male in appearance. To the right of that is a wrathful female, red in colour, with four arms and in a dancing posture. This figure is Chandika, the consort of Chaturbhuja Mahakala and the only figure other than Mahakala to have four arms. Some of the animal faces are of a pig, bear, tiger, lion, wolf, jackal, and birds.

There are only three principal painting traditions popular in Tibet after the 17th century. The traditions are the Menri, Khyenri and Khamri. Khamri is more popularly known as the Palpung Monastery painting tradition and prefers a minimalist background and landscape composition.

The Chaturbhuja Mahakala composition follows the Menri painting tradition of Mantangpa (15th century). The term 'tradition' is very broad and often includes many different styles of painting appearing over a short or very long period of time. The term 'style' is different in meaning from 'tradition' and generally denotes an individual artist style of painting. In some cases 'style' could refer to the murals of a specific monastery where the drawing, colour palette and composition is similar enough to be considered of the same style. Some monasteries and temples deliberately employ different styles such as during the building and decoration of Yangpachen Monastery, as recorded in literature from the 16th century, with some chapels deliberately painted in a Menri style and others in a Khyenri style.

The Menri tradition has many different individual and regional styles evolving from the immediate students of Mantangpa and then growing and spreading throughout Tibet after the 16th century. The specific styles are dependent on the individual artist and the time. Without an inscription naming the artist or the donor it makes it very difficult to identify specific master artists. Black ground paintings are very sparse with landscape features which makes the analysis of style primarily dependent on observing the central and secondary figures. Key iconographic elements of Menri Tradition wrathful figures are the orange and red flames composed in a wild free form composition surrounding the main figure. The yellow flowing hair on the head of each of the fierce figures is unique to each and not stylized or fixed in any set pattern such as with the Khyenri Tradition of painting. Likewise, the overall composition is more free with many figures slightly overlapping other figures in a macabre dance of seeming violent excess.

Abhayakaragupta Lineage: Vajradhara, Bodhisattva Mati, Nagarjuna, Aryadeva, Acharyavira, Du Shap Greater and Younger, Vajrasana the Greater, Abhayakaragupta, Tsami Sanggye Shap, Gva Lotsawa Namgyal Dorje, Khampa Aseng, Pagmodrupa, etc.

Tsal Lineage 1: Vajradhara, Nagarjuna Garbha, Aryadeva, Tayang Vajrasana, Abhayakara, Tsami, Gvalo, Pagdru, Tangpa, Ratna Nata, Sanggye Yarjon, Sanggye Palzang, Ratna Guru, Ratna Kara, etc.

Tsal Lineage 2: Vajradhara, Vajrapani, Indrabhuti, Lakshminkara, Lu'i Bu Tubpama, Rahulabhadra, Nagarjuna, Aryadeva, Tayang, Kalachakrapada, [Abhaya, Tsami], etc.

Tsal Lineage 3: Vajrayogini, Ghantapa, Anangavajra, Lalitavajra, Kalachakrapada, Abhaya, Tsami, Gvalo, Shang Tsalpa, etc. (Rinjung Gyatsa, Tbrc pages 16801218 - 16801220).

Jeff Watt 10-2015 [updated 2-2019]


- Twenty-five Chapter Mahakala Tantra

- Mahakala Tantraraja Nama. nag po chen po mgon po mngon par 'byung ba zhes bya ba'i rgyud kyi rgyal po. [TBRC w25348].

- William Stablein. Healing Image: The Great Black One Berkeley-Hong Kong: SLG Books, 1991. ISBN 0-943389-06-2.

- William Stablein. The Mahakalatantra: A Theory of Ritual Blessings and Tantric Medicine Ph.D. Dissertation, Columbia University, 1976.

- Emi Matsushita, Iconography of Mahākāla. M.A. Thesis, Ohio State University, 2001.

- Ladrang Kalsang (author), Pema Thinley (trans.) The Guardian Deities of Tibet. Delhi: 1996 reprinted 2003, Winsome Books India, ISBN 81-88043-04-4.

- De Nebesky-Wojkowitz, Rene. (1956) Oracles and Demons of Tibet. Oxford University Press. Reprint Delhi: Books Faith, 1996. ISBN 81-7303-039-1. Reprint Delhi: Paljor Publications, 2002. ISBN 81-86230-12-2.

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