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. 8096)
Origin Location Tibet
Lineages Kagyu, Karma (Kagyu) and Buddhist
Material Ground Mineral Pigment, Black Background on Cotton
Collection Private
Notes about the Central Figure

Classification: Deity

Appearance: Wrathful

Gender: Male

Interpretation / Description

Bernagchen, 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 (1204-1283) as Mahakala appeared surrounded by clouds in the sky above.

The fiercely wrathful, Black Cloak Mahakala is dark in colour, with one face, three round bulbous eyes, a large gaping red mouth with bared 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 jacket beneath. He stands surrounded by black smoke and faint red licks of the flames of pristine awareness fire.

At the top center of the composition is a small unidentified Karmapa, the Black Hat Lama of the Kamtsangpa Tradition of Tibetan Buddhism. Quite possibly he is the 1st Karmapa Dusum Khyenpa. Directly below is Karma Pakshi, the 2nd Karmapa. At the right and left sides are additional teachers, both wearing hats. At the top left side is the mahasiddha Dombi Heruka riding a pregnant tiger. At the top right side is Padmasambhava in the appearance of an Indian pandita scholar. At the lower left side is Vajravarahi, a female meditational deity of Tantric Buddhism, standing in a dancing posture. At the lower right side is Jinasagara Lokeshvara embracing a consort.

At the bottom center below the central figure of Mahakala is 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 left side 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. At the right side is Shri Devi Rangjung Gyalmo, black, with one face and four hands holding a vajra peg (kila) katvanga staff and a skullcup and mirror. She rides atop a donkey.

Directly below Vaishravana is the female mountain goddess Tseringma riding a snow lion. To the left side are three figures. The first is Trakshe, a fearsome figure who stands with a female consort at the side. At the side 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. Below those is Dorje Yudronma, a female, holding an upraised drum and a mirror.

On the right side below Shri Devi there are three figures. The first is Shingkyong Yaba, father and mother. 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 the Bamro Yab-yum, a pair of monkies standing on their hands. At the lower right is Tsogdag, a black male naga with a hood of snakes, riding atop an elephant.

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 Teachers: 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 by the artist or the patron.

Jeff Watt 8-2018

Secondary Images
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Collection of Anna Maria Rossi & Fabio Rossi
Mahakala: Bernagchen Page (Black Cloak)