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. 65083)
Origin Location Tibet
Date Range 1600 - 1699
Lineages Karma (Kagyu) and Buddhist
Size 57.15x34.93cm (22.50x13.75in)
Material Ground Mineral Pigment, Black Background on Silk
Collection Rubin Museum of Art
Catalogue # acc. #C2002.8.4
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 of Tibetan Buddhism. This form and depiction of Bernagchen is based on numerous visions beheld by Karma Pakshi as Mahakala appeared surrounded by clouds in the sky above.

Video: HAR #65083

Tibetan: Bernag Chen

The fiercely wrathful, Black Cloak Mahakala is 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 with a green jacket beneath. He stands surrounded by black smoke and faint red licks of the flames of pristine awareness.

At the top center of the composition is an unidentified Karmapa, the Black Hat Lama of the Kamtsangpa Tradition of Tibetan Buddhism. He is very likely to be the 9th Karmapa, Wangchug Dorje (1556-1602/03 [P889]). To the right is the female meditational deity Vajravarahi, red in colour, holding a curved knife in the upraised right hand and a skullcup in the left with a katvanga staff leaning against the left shoulder. She stands in a dancing posture. Below Karmapa on the left is a protector of the world, the Guardian of the Northern Direction, Vaishravana, wearing the helmet and armor of a king. He has one face and two hands holding a conical banner and a mongoose spewing jewels; riding atop a lion. On the right is Karnag Dorje Gyalpo a naga with a hood of snakes above the head and lower body in the shape of a serpent. The two hands hold a wish-fulfilling jewel.

At the right side of Mahakala is Shri Devi Dudsolma, black, with one face and four hands holding a vajra peg (kila) katvanga staff and a skullcup and mirror. She rides atop a donkey. On the left side of Mahakala is Damchen Garwa Nagpo, the oath-bound blacksmith, with one face and two hands holding a blacksmith's hammer and a bellows. He rides atop a brown goat.

Arranged below the central figure are three more wrathful attendant figures in the retinue of the Black Cloak Mahakala. At the left is Trakshe, a fearsome figure who stands with a female consort at the side. In the middle is Tsogdag, a black male naga with a hood of snakes, riding atop an elephant. At the right the male attendant, Shingkyong, with a lion face rides atop a black horse clutching a spear in the right hand and a skullcup with wrathful food offerings (torma) in the left. Shingkyong is often accompanied by a male and female monkey. One monkey can just be discerned standing behind Shingkyong and staring forward.

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 Nyingma School.

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

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

An inscription at the bottom right side of the composition reads 'Without error [doubt] this painting of the Five Retinue [Mahakala] was done by the hand of Cho Jung.' Possibly this is a misspelling of Choying - meaning Choying Dorje, the 10th Karmapa, or possibly [Situ] Cho[kyi] Jung[ne]. There are a number of misspellings in the inscription. So far there are no paintings directly attributed to the hand of Situ Panchen Chokyi Jungne and no reference in his biography to having painted a black ground Bernagchen in the style of Choying Dorje.

Jeff Watt 3-99 [updated 4-2015]

Front of Painting
English Translation of Inscription: Without error [doubt] this painting of the Five Retinue [Mahakala] was done by the hand of Cho Jung.

Wylie Transliteration of Inscription: mkhor lngai zhar thang chos ''''''''''''''''byung phyag dris ''''''''''''''''khrul med lag.

Related Items
Publication: Selection of Works - Painting (RMA)
HAR: Jeff Watt - Profile

Thematic Sets
Painting Type: Black Ground Masterworks
Mahakala: Bernagchen Masterworks
Collection of RMA: Black Ground Masterworks
Artist: Choying Dorje & Atelier (RMA)
Teacher: Karmapa Choying Dorje Religious Context
Textile: Mounts (Palpung Style)
Collection of Rubin Museum of Art: Mahakala Painting Masterworks
Subject: Name Inscription - Misidentified or Name Added
RMA: How or Why an Object was Acquired
Collection of RMA: Black Ground Masterworks (Curator's Selection)
Collection of RMA: Historically Important Works
Artist: Choying Dorje (Painting)
Painting Type: Black Ground Main Page
Collection of Rubin Museum of Art (RMA): Main Page
Tradition: Kagyu, Enlightened Protectors
Artist: Choying Dorje (Miscellaneous Paintings)
Textile: Composition & Finishing
Mahakala: Bernagchen Page (Black Cloak)
Mahakala (Kagyu)
Artist: Choying Dorje & Atelier Works of Art (All Paintings)