Himalayan Art Resources

Subject: Charnel Grounds & Cemeteries

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Charnel Ground: Indian cemeteries where bodies are deposited. The Tantric texts that describe wrathful deities also describe wrathful venues for their practice. Charnel grounds are the most fearsome and abhorrent places in India. Wrathful deities are therefore associated with charnel grounds and peaceful deities are associated with pleasant and beautiful surroundings. (See Eight Great Charnel Grounds). Tantra source text: shmashanalankara-tantraraja.

Eight Great Charnel Grounds: according to Tantric literature and the descriptions of wrathful deities and their environments, the eight charnel grounds surround the central palace and deity. There are several different sets of eight names and descriptions for the eight great charnel grounds depending on the Buddhist and Hindu Tantric literature consulted. These charnel grounds also have physical locations in India such as the Laughing charnel ground at Bodhgaya and the Cool Grove charnel ground close by, along with the Frightening charnel ground in the Black Hills of Bihar.

From the Hevajra Tantra literature: "In the east is the Gruesome charnel ground (chandograkatasi); south Frightful with Skulls (bhairavakapalika); west Adorned with a Blazing Garland (jvalamalalankara); north Dense Jungle (girigahvaronnati); north-east Fiercely Resounding (ugropanyasa); south-east Forest of the Lord (ishvaravana); south-west Dark and Terrible (bhairavandhakara); north-west Resounding with the Cries Kili Kili (Kilikilaghoshanadita). Furthermore, there are headless corpses, hanging corpses, lying corpses, stake-impaled corpses, heads, skeletons, jackals, crows, owls, vultures, and zombies making the sound, "phaim". There are also siddha with clear understanding, yaksha, raksha, preta, flesh eaters, lunatics, bhairava, daka, dakini, ponds, fires, stupa, and sadhaka. All of these fill the charnel grounds." (Konchog Lhundrub 1497-1557, written in 1551). (See painted example). (See Charnel Ground).

In the Chakrasamvara cycle of Tantra the Eight Great Charnel grounds are: east Gruesome, north Dense Wild Thicket, west Blazing with [the Sound] Ur Ur, south Terrifying, south-east Marvelous Forest, south-west Interminably Gloomy, north-west Resounding with the Sound Kili Kili, north-east Wildly Laughing. These names are extracted from a Chakrasamvara ritual text composed by Chogyal Pagpa).

A common Nyingma list: east Cool Grove, south Perfected in Body, west Lotus Heap, north Lanka Heap, southeast Spontaneously Accomplished Heap, southwest Play of the Great Secret, northwest Pervasive Great Happiness, northeast World Heap.

Sixteen Charnel Grounds: In the Kalachakra Tantra system sixteen charnel grounds are described. The 634 Deity Kalachakra Mandala, being only slightly wrathful, generally does not appear with any surrounding charnel grounds. However, the Mahasamvara Kalachakra always appears in paintings surrounded by the sixteen charnel grounds. These eight or sixteen can appear either immediately surrounding the Celestial Palace of the deity and retinue or they can appear as the outer ring of the mandala. The root Tantras are vague on this subject of charnel grounds and it is the Indian Sanskrit commentaries that explain the different ways that the cemeteries can be imagined and subsequently depicted in visual representations.

In the Tantric Buddhist classification of Anuttarayoga, according to one system, the Eight Direction Gods of the Cemeteries are: 1. east Shakra on an elephant, 2. south Yama on a buffalo, 3. west Varuna on a makara, 4. north Yaksha on a horse, 5. north-east Ishana on a bull, 6. south-east Agni on a goat, 7. south-west Rakshasa on a zombie, 8. north-west Vayu on a deer.

Jeff Watt 8-2009