Himalayan Art Resources

Item: Mahakala (Buddhist Protector) - Chaturmukha (Four-Faced)

མ་ཧཱ་ཀཱ་ལ། ནག་པོ་ཆེན་པོ། 玛哈嘎拉
(item no. 60629)
Origin Location Tibet
Date Range 1400 - 1499
Lineages Sakya, Jonang (Sakya), Gelug and Buddhist
Material Ground Mineral Pigment on Cotton
Collection Private
Notes about the Central Figure

Classification: Deity

Appearance: Wrathful

Gender: Male

Interpretation / Description

Mahakala, Chaturmukha (Four-faced Great Black One) associated with the Guhyasamaja Tantra along with the Twenty-five and Fifty Chapter Mahakala Tantras. This form of Chaturmukha with the side faces white and red in colour identifies this iconographic form as belonging to the 'Accomplishment' category from the Five Categories of Chaturmukha.

(See the Chaturmukha Mahakala Main Page and the Brahmanarupa Mahakala Outline Page).

The painting was created by the Gelug Tradition of Tibetan Buddhism. The subject and the lineage is of the Sakya Tradition. The lineage then continues into the Jonang Tradition and finally incorporated into the Gelug Tradition. Within the Gelug Tradition Chaturmukha is a minor form of Mahakala however within the Sakya Tradition it remains the 2nd of the two principal Mahakala protector deities - after Panjarnata Mahakala. (See the Gelug Protectors Outline Page and the Sakya Protectors Outline Page).

Lineage: Vajradhara, Nagarjuna, Balimtapa, Buddhajnana, Marmedze Zangpo, Shrideva, Drime Bepa, Ratnavajra, Ratnakirti, Risula Dakini, Nyen Lotsawa, Lama Nam Ka'upa, Sachen Kunga Nyingpo, Sonam Tsemo, Dragpa Gyaltsen, Sakya Pandita and Chogyal Pagpa, etc.

This list of names from the Sakya lineage corresponds with the figures and name inscriptions in the top register. Due to the abrasions and losses on the painting only a few other names can be read, Tsongkhapa, Gyaltsab and Kedrubje. The last two names belong to two important students of Tsongkhapa. On the upper left side of the painting are three more inscribed names: Mangkar Lotsawa Chogden Legpa'i Lodro [P1053], Kyiton Dragpa Gyaltsen [P144] and Dolpopa Sherab Gyaltsen (1292-1361) [P139]. Each of these three figure are teacher and student in succession. Further to that, Dolpopa had a student named Chogle Namgyal who was a teacher to Tsongkapa (1357-1419). It is likely that one of the effaced name inscriptions on the painting is that of Chogle Namgyal (1306-1386), the 5th abbot of Jomonang Monastery. It is also possible that the larger figure seated opposite to the figure of Je Tsongkapa is in fact Chogle Namgyal.

Partial inscriptions found with some of the remaining lineage teachers suggest that they are the group of Eight Principal Students of Je Tsongkapa.

At the upper left is the meditational deity Manjuvajra Guhyasamaja. Chaturmukha Mahakala is the special protector deity associated with Manjuvajra Guhyasamaja. At the upper right side is the meditational deity Ekavira Vajrabhairava. This meditational deity was also special for both the teacher Chogle Namgyal who was prominent in the Rwa lineage transmission and for Je Tsongkhapa.

The painting contains five forms of Chaturmukha. The name Chaturmukha means 'four faces.' The five forms are known as [1] Approximation, [2] Accomplishment, [3] Performing Activities, the [4] Four Families (or activities) and [5] Demon Faces.

The large central image of the painting depicts the Accomplishment Chaturmukha identifiable by the white and red faces on each side of the central face. Slightly to the right of the head of the central figure is a smaller Approximation Chaturmukha identifiable by the two green faces on the right and left. Immediately to the right of the trident staff is Demon Faces Chaturmukha identified by the wrathful blue face, the elephant face, the buffalo face and the lion face. At the bottom center and bottom left are two more forms of the deity likely to be the Performing Activities Chaturmukha at the bottom center and then the Four Families Chaturmukha at the left.

To the lower left of the large central Chaturmukha are two female attendant figures, black Dombini and red Rakshasi. On the right side are yellow Singhali and green Chandali.

Descending at the middle left are the Sakya protectors Panjarnata Mahakala, Shri Devi and the five figures known as the Putra Mising Nga. Descending at the middle right are four retinue figures belonging to the Demon Faces Chaturmukha.

At the bottom right is the protector deity Yama Dharmaraja - related to the meditational deity Vajrabhairava. Next to him is the wealth deity Yellow Jambhala. On the bottom left side, next to Chaturmukha, is Black Jambhala.

At this time, this is the earliest known Tibetan painting of Chaturmukha Mahakala. Based on the lineage and the last two figures one of which is Khedrubje Geleg Palzang [1385-1438], it is reasonable to assume that the painting was created at some point after his passing before the lineage became longer with the addition of later lineage teachers. A date of mid to late 15th century is perfectly reasonable based on the lineage figures and identifiable names.

Short History: When the great Tibetan Translator Nyen Lotsawa received the Manjuvajra Guhyasamaja (also known as the Jnanapada Lineage) empowerment from the dakini Risula, she also bestowed the initiation of the Mahakala (Chaturmukha) in the special form according to the Guhyasamaja Tantra. At this time she gave him as a servant a dark skinned Brahman. When Nyen Lotsawa and the Brahman reached Nepal the servant changed appearance and took on the form of a monk, an appearance more conducive for travelling in Tibet. After the passing of Nyen Lotsawa the monk remained with Lama Nam Ka'upa and then later with Sachen Kunga Nyingpo.

Brahmarupa Mahakala is none other than Chaturmukha Mahakala of the Guhyasamaja Tantra. In his wrathful appearance he is black in colour with four faces and four hands, surrounded by the four dakinis. In the Sakya School it is inappropriate to show the wrathful form to anyone who has not received the initiation. For this reason the iconographic tradition arose for painting Chaturmukha in the form of the Brahman servant of Nyen Lotsawa. At the bottom of many Sakya paintings it is a common theme to see Panjarnata Mahakala flanked by the Brahman on the right and Shri Devi (Palden Lhamo) on the left - the three main protectors of the Sakya School.

Jeff Watt 1-2012

Numbered Image: (white numbers)
1. Approximation Chaturmukha
2. Accomplishment Chaturmukha
3. Performing Activities Chaturmukha
4. Four Families Chaturmukha
5. Demon Faces Chaturmukha
A. Dombini, black
B. Rakshasi, red
C. Singhali, yellow
D. Chandali, green

Miscellaneous Figures (yellow numbers):
1. Manjuvajra Guhyasamaja
2. Ekavira Vajrabhairava
3. Panjarnata Mahakala
4. Shri Devi
5. Kala Rakshasa
6. Kala Rakshasi
7. Putra
8. Bhatra
9. Singmo
10. Black Jambhala
11. Yellow Jambhala
12. Yama Dharmaraja

Lineage Teachers (blue numbers & letters):
1. Vajradhara
2. Nagarjuna
3. Balimtapa
4. Buddhajnana
5. Marmedze Zangpo
6. Shrideva
7. Drime Bepa
8. Ratnavajra
9. Ratnakirti
10. Risula Dakini
11. Nyen Lotsawa
12. Lama Nam Ka'upa
13. Sachen Kunga Nyingpo
14. Sonam Tsemo
15. Dragpa Gyaltsen
16. Sakya Pandita (1182-1251)
17. Chogyal Pagpa (1235-1280)

(The names below are not listed in lineage order):
A. Chogle Namgyal (?) (1306-1386)
B. Tsongkapa, Lobzang Dragpa (1357-1419)
C. Mangkar Lotsawa Chogden Legpa'i Lodro
D. Kyiton Dragpa Gyaltsen
E. Dolpopa Sherab Gyaltsen (1292-1361)
F. Gyaltsap Dharma Rinchen (1364-1432)
G. Kedrup Geleg Pal Zangpo (1385-1438)

Secondary Images
Related Items
Thematic Sets
Video: Protector Deities (YouTube)
Collection: Private 21
Mahakala: Chaturmukha (Four-faced, Masterworks)
Mahakala: Chaturmukha, Early Works
Mahakala: Chaturmukha (Four-faced) Main Page
Subject: Greyscale - Figurative & General Composition
Mahakala: Chaturmukha - Accomplishment