Himalayan Art Resources

Buddhist Deity: Vajrabhairava Iconographic Notes

Vajrabhairava Iconography

Subjects, Topics & Types:
- Variations in Iconography (Nine Faced Vajrabhairava)
- Faces & Configurations
- Colours of Faces
- Position of the Buffalo Head
- Painted Depictions
- Sculptural Depictions
- Full Arms Displayed
- Overlapping Arms
- Consort
- Animals & Gods Underfoot
- Others...

There are two main styles for depicting the nine faces of Vajrabhairava: stacked faces and circular faces. (See Faces & Configurations).

Depending on the configuration of faces the colours are arranged differently. For the stacked faces the colours are at the center a buffalo, red above and the face of Manjushri above that. On the proper right side are blue , red and yellow stacked upwards. On the left are white smoke-coloured and black also stacked upward. For the circular faces configuration the central heads are the same. The faces on the proper right side are yellow, blue and red, starting from the face immediately adjacent to the buffalo head. The faces on the left are smoke-coloured, white and black, again beginning with the face adjacent to the left side of the buffalo head.

For painted examples of the stacked face configuration the the buffalo head is very often turned to the left side of the body. Gelug painted examples typically have the face directed forward. The painted and sculptural examples of the deity will consistently vary in a number of ways. Stacked face examples of sculpture have the nine faces forward looking with a slight angle to the three faces on the right and left sides. With the circular faces for paintings the three faces on the right and left sides are projected outward at the sides as if looking in a forward direction. With sculptural examples of the circular faces circle to the back of the head and do not project outward to the sides.

There are two styles of depicting the thirty-four arms and these are slightly different between painting and sculpture. For sculpture, because of the number and complexity of creating the arms, they are generally cast as four pieces with the arms divided into two castings for each right and left side of the torso. The sets of arms per side are then assembled one in front of the other giving the appearance of overlapping arms. In painting there are two styles of depicting the arms with the first style following the sculptural model with overlapping arms. The second style is to display all of the thirty-four arms in a fan-like style depicting each arm and hand attribute equally and visually to the front with no arms depicted behind or overlapping.

Vajrabhairava can appear with or without a consort, typically Vajra Vetali, depending on the particular lineage of transmission. The two most common forms of Vajrabhairava to appear in painting are the Thirteen Deity Mandala of Vajrabhairava with a consort and the Eight Vetali and Thirty-two Ayudha Vajrabhairava Mandala without a consort.

Placed under the feet of Vajrabhairava are sixteen animals and eight gods. (See Animals & Gods Underfoot).

Jeff Watt, 10-2020

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