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. 544)
Origin Location Tibet
Date Range 1700 - 1799
Lineages Nyingma and Karma (Kagyu)
Size 66.04x45.72cm (26x18in)
Material Ground Mineral Pigment, Fine Gold Line, Black Background on Cotton
Collection Rubin Museum of Art
Catalogue # acc.# F1996.32.7
Notes about the Central Figure

Classification: Deity

Appearance: Wrathful

Gender: Male

Interpretation / Description

Bernag Chen, Vajra Mahakala (English: the Great Black-Cloak Vajra Mahakala), the personal protector of the Karmapas and the special protector of the Karma Kagyu (Kamtsangpa) School.

Tibetan: Bernag Chen

Fiercely wrathful, black in colour, with one face, three round bloodshot eyes, a gaping red mouth with bared white fangs, his yellow moustache, 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 skulls, a snake entwined in the hair, earrings, bracelets, anklets and a garland of freshly severed heads, he wears a great black cloak tied with a sash at the waist. With the right leg bent and left straight, the red soled feet with sharp elongated toenails trample atop a supine form, sun disc and lotus seat, surrounded by the red licks of flame of pristine awareness. In front, supported by a hearth of three small skulls, a large skullcup is filled with the offering of the five senses, topped with a black banner and surrounded by red flames.

At the top center is Guru Rinpoche Padmasambhava holding a gold vajra to the heart and a skullcup in the lap. A katvanga leans against the shoulder. Richly clad in fine garments he sits in vajra posture above a lotus seat. At the left sits a Karmapa Lama with the right hand in the mudra of blessing and the left in the mudra of generosity. Wearing the black vajra crown and monastic robes he sits on a cushion seat. At the right an older figure with receding hair holds the left hand in the mudra of blessing and the right in the mudra of earth witness extended across the knee. Wearing monastic robes he sits wrapped in a meditation cloak above a cushion seat.

At the left is the tutelary deity Vajravarahi, red, with one face and two hands holding aloft a curved knife in the right and holding a skullcup to the heart with the left. Atop a corpse, sun and lotus seat, she stands surrounded by flames of wisdom. A katvanga staff is held in the bend of the elbow. Below is the Direction Guardian of the North, the wealth deity Vaishravana, yellow in colour, holding a victory banner with the right hand and a jewel spitting mongoose in the left, riding a snow lion. Below that is the naga princess, Lumo Tseringma, yellow in colour, peaceful in appearance with a hood of seven snakes. The hands are folded respectfully at the heart and the lower body is that of a coiled snake. At the bottom left is the wrathful protector Damchen Garwa'i Nagpo, black, holding an upraised hammer in the right hand and a blacksmith's bellows in the outstretched left. Riding on the back of a goat he is surrounded by black smoke and flames.

At the top right is the activity dakini, Simhamukha, blue, with a snarling lion face, wrathful vestments and ornaments, an elephant hide and human skin. The right hand holds upraised a curved knife, the left a skullcup to the heart and a katvanga against the shoulder. Below is a wrathful protector, blue-black, holding a curved knife in the right hand and a skullcup in the left, wearing a long black cloak and riding a black horse. Below that is a wrathful figure holding a skull stick in the right hand and an upraised skullcup in the left, wearing a cloak. At the bottom right is a wrathful figure, black, with a lion face holding a spear in the right hand and a skullcup and heart in the left, wearing a cloak she rides on a black horse.

Bernag Chen was introduced into the Karma Kagyu School by the 2nd Karmapa, Karma Pakshi (1206-1283). The practice originated from the Revealed Treasure (Tibetan: ter ma) tradition of the Nyingmapa School.

Lineage: Dagnyi Heruka, Chog Drup Arnapa, Mal Lotsawa Lodro Drag, Nyal Nyima Bar, Nyal Jose, drogon Rechen, Gyalse Pomdrakpa, Karma Pakshi, etc.

The style of painting is 'black scroll' (Tib.: nag thang). The figures are drawn in outline on a black canvas and filled with colour and details as desired.

Jeff Watt 3-1999

Related Items
Exhibition Appearances
Exhibition: RMA Masterworks, January 28th, 2021

Thematic Sets
Mahakala: Bernagchen Masterworks
Mahakala: Bernagchen Page (Black Cloak)
Mahakala (Kagyu)
Buddhist Protectors: Enlightened
Collection of Rubin Museum of Art: Painting Gallery 3
Painting Type: Black Ground Main Page
Buddhist Protector: Mahakala Main Page