Himalayan Art Resources

Buddhist Deity: Vajrabhairava Iconography

Vajrabhairava Main Page

Subjects, Topics & Types:
- Vajrabhairava Single Deity Mandala
- Vajrabhairava, Eight Vetali & Thirty-two Ayudha (Rwa & Mal Lotsawa + Buton & Gelug variations)
- Vajrabhairava Nine Deity Mandala Configuration (Amoghavajra, Mitra Yogin)
- Vajrabhairava Multiple Deities (Vairochana Rakshita, Mitra Yogin)
- Thirteen Deity Mandala Configuration (Rwa Lotsawa)
- Seventeen Deity Mandala Configuration (Kyo Lotsawa Ozer Jungne)
- Forty-nine Deity Mandala Configuration (Zhang Chogdru Sherab Lama)
- Miscellaneous Forms
- Vajrabhairava Faces Outline
- Vajrabhairava Retinue Deity
- Trampled Deities
- Confusions: Yama Dharmaraja, Yamantaka
- Others...

Forms & Types of Vajrabhairava:
In some traditions it is said that there are Vajrabhairavas in the configurations of:
- 1 face, 2 arms (Heruka)
- 1 face, 4 arms
- 3 faces, 6 arms
- 6 faces, 6 arms, 6 legs
- 8 faces, 8 arms
- 100,000 faces, 200,000 arms
- 900,000 faces, 1,800,000 arms
- Solitary (without consort)
- Dual (with consort)

Types of Vajrabhairava by Tradition:
- Yellow Vajrabhairava, One Face, Two Hands
- Heruka Vajrabhairava, One Face, Two Hands (Saraha, Mal Lotsawa)
- Vajrabhairava, One Face, Two Hands, Nine Deity Mandala (Mitra Yogin)
- Vajrabhairava, Four Faces, Eight Arms, Four Legs (Condensed)

Database Search: All Images | Painting | Sculpture | Mandalas | Black Ground

Nine Stacked Faces & Nine Circular Faces:
There are two different systems for depicting the nine faces of Vajrabhairava. The first system is called [1] Stacked Faces (zhal tseg) and the second is called [2] Circular Faces (zhal kor). The first, Stacked Faces is considered the older system and can be found depicted primarily in the paintings and sculpture of the Sakya, Marpa Kagyu, Jonang and Shangpa Kagyu Traditions. The second system of Circular Faces is depicted in the Gelug Tradition. There are occasions where Circular Faced depictions can be found in the Bodong and Ngor Traditions of Sakya. However these instances are rare and isolated to minor or secondary figurative depictions in a larger painting with a central figure and dozens of secondary figures.

Vajrabhairava with nine Stacked Faces is defined by the central face of the deity having a buffalo head with a single wrathful face placed to the right and left sides. Stacked above that are three more wrathful faces. Again above that are three faces. The top level has two wrathful faces at the sides and the middle top face is that of Manjushri, orange in colour, slightly peaceful and slightly wrathful. This orientation or configuration of three levels of three faces is called Stacked Faces.

Vajrabhairava with nine Circular Faces is defined by the central face being that of a buffalo with three additional faces placed to the immediate right side and three more faces placed to the immediate left side. Above the central buffalo face are two more faces one above the other. The orange face of Manjushri is identified as the uppermost face. This orientation is called Circular Faces.

(See the Vajrabhairava Faces Outline Page).

In the 15th and 16th centuries there were a number of dialectic exchanges between teachers of the Sakya and Gelug traditions claiming the orthodoxy of one system over the other. Early examples of paintings and sculpture from both India and Nepal use the Stacked Face system. Early Tibetan paintings can be identified that also depict both forms of Vajrabhairava with examples of minor figures that also depict the deity with the circular faces. Both appear to be old Tibetan iconographic forms with one more dominant than the other.

It was Tsongkapa in the 14th century that popularized the deity Vajrabhairava with Circular Faces as one of the three principal (Anuttarayoga) meditational practices in the Gelug Tradition of Tibetan Buddhism. As a general rule in the study of Buddhist Tantric iconography - any depiction of Vajrabhairava with the faces in a circular orientation means that it most likely belongs to a Gelug iconographic program. Depiction of Vajrabhairava with a stacked face orientation belong to a Sakya, Marpa Kagyu or Jonang iconographic program.

The Three Forms of the Consort:
Vetali, the female consort in wrathful aspect embracing Vajrabhairava
Sarasvati, the peaceful aspect of the consort
Oden Barma (Blazing with Light) the protector aspect of the consort

The words Yama, Yamari, Yamantaka, Bhairava and Vajrabhairava appear frequently in all classes of tantric texts and they can refer to an attendant deity, a protector, or as a worldly god beneath the feet of a Buddhist meditational deity (Skt. ishtadevata) such as Vajrayogini, or Chakrasamvara. In those instances Bhairava represents the various negative emotions to be conquered through meditation. Keeping in mind the similarities in name and form it is important not to confuse the various names, identities, deities and especially the Buddhist Tantric models and systems that each belongs and to properly understand each in its own place. (For more on this subject see the publication Demonic Divine by Rob Linrothe and Jeff Watt, Rubin Museum of Art, New York, 2004).

Lineage: Shri Vajrabhairava, Jnana Dakini, Mahasiddha Lalitavajra, Amoghavajra, Yeshe Jungne Bepa, Mahasiddha Padmavajra, Marmedze Srungwa, Rwa Lotsawa Dorje Drag, Rwa Chorab, Rwa Yeshe Sengge, Rwa Bum Seng, Rongpa Gwalo Namgyal Dorje, Rongpa Sherab Sengge, Lamdrepa Yeshe Palwa, Je Sonam Lhundrub, Choje Dondrub Rinchen, Je Tsongkapa Lobzang Dragpa (1357-1419), etc.

Mal Lineage: the lord of Refuge Vajradhara, Arya Manjushri, Acharya Buddha Jnana, Dipamkara Zangpo, Brahmin Shridhara, the pandita and mahasiddha Naropa, Minyam Dorje Kol, the Nepali of Yerang - Bharo Chagdum, Mal Lotsawa Lodro Dragpa, Sachen Kunga Nyingpo (1092-1158), etc.

Vajrabhairava Profile:
Identity: Manjushri Emanation
Consort: Vajra Vetali
Tantra Class: Anuttarayoga, Method Tantra
Source Text: Vajrabhairava Tantra
Function/activity: Meditational Deity
Metaphor: Death

Special Characteristics:
Appearance: Wrathful with a Buffalo head
Colour: Black/dark blue
Attributes: curved knife & skullcup and 32 additional attributes

Gods Under the Feet: Proper Right Side -
- Brahma
- Indra
- Vishnu
- Shiva

Proper Left Side -
- Kartika
- Surya
- Chandra
- Ganesha

Some texts have the order of the gods slightly different with Kartika followed by Ganesha, Surya, and Chandra, or Ganesha, Kartika, Chandra and Surya.

"Brahma, Indra, Vishnu and Shiva [under right feet]. Ganesha, Kartika, Chandra and Surya [under left feet]. Yellow, white, maroon and black, light yellow, light blue, light red and black. Holding a vase, vajra and chakra, trident, bow and arrow, sword and shield, spear and curved knife." Pandita Vairochana Rakshita.

Jeff Watt [updated 4-2017, 12-2019]

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