Himalayan Art Resources

Tradition: Gelug Protectors

Gelug Art History & Iconography

Subjects, Topics & Types:
- Description (below)
- Outline Page
- Three Principal Protectors
- Vajrabhairava & Protectors
- Shri Devi Magzor Gyalmo
- Protector Deities Main Page
- Confusions
- Others...

- Gelug Protectors
- Shadbhuja Mahakala (Shangpa Kagyu)
- Yama Dharmaraja

The Gelug tradition maintains two categories of protector deities: Wisdom Protectors and Worldly Protectors. The Wisdom Protectors are shared with all branches and regional Gelug institutions. The Worldly Protectors are generally selected locally and vary greatly between the different establishments and regions across the Himalayas, Tibetan Plateau, Mongolia and China. The three principal protectors are the Six-armed Mahakala, Yama Dharmaraja and Vaishravana. The selection of these three originates with the Gelug founder Tsongkapa Lobzang Dragpa and his his closest students.

Commonly found at the bottom of Gelug painted compositions is the unique triad of three protectors, Shadbhuja Mahakala, Yama Dharmaraja and Vaishravana. This group of three are unique to Gelug iconographic compositions and are related to the Lamrim and Gyurim teachings of Lama Tsongkapa. The three protectors are further relate to the three types of beings, or Dharma practitioners, 1. greater, 2. middling, and 3. lesser.

Following after the three principal male protectors is Magzor Gyalmo belong to the Shri Devi (Palden Lhamo) class of protector deities. She was popularized in the Gelug tradition by the 2nd Dalai Lama and is regarded as the chief protector of the Lhasa region.

There are many other forms of protectors practiced in the Gelug tradition depending on Tantric cycles of practice or based on institution or regional choices. The same applies to the vast pantheon of worldly protectors. The worldly protectors do not appear to have been popular with the early Gelug tradition of the 15th century and are very much an innovation of the 16th and 17th century and the general Central Tibetan popularization of worldly deities in line with the 5th Dalai Lama and the Gelug administration.

In painted compositions protector deities can be central figures or arranged as secondary figures in the composition. With early painting using a register composition style, as secondary figures the protectors will be located in the lowest or bottom register of the painting. The figures can be located centrally or placed at the far left or right side and often arranged as a group rather than separated. Floating figure composition follows the same general arrangement except with more distance between the three protector figures (see examples).

Jeff Watt [updated 10-2020]

(The images below are only a selection of examples from the links above).