Himalayan Art Resources

Buddhist Protector: Shmashana Adhipati (Chitipati)

Shri Shmashana Adhipati Masterworks

- Art History

- Iconography

- Religious Context

It is important not to confuse the protector deities Shri Shmashana Adhipati, Father & Mother, with the skeleton dancers found in the various systems of Tibetan religious Cham dance. Those skeleton dancers, sometimes categorized as having three types, are unrelated to the Secret Wheel Tantra and the practices of the Shri Shmashana Adhipati. So far all of the iconographic depictions in painting and sculpture of two skeletons dancing as a couple, with appropriate hand attributes, and standing atop a conch and cowrie shell, are Shmashana Adhipati as described in the Secret Wheel Tantra. It should also be understood that Shri Shmashana Adhipati are not worldly deities, but enlightened deities categorized as 'Wisdom protectors.' They are emanations of Chakrasamvara.

The skeleton figures, representing worldly spirits, in Tibetan Cham dance are often seen as jesters or servants for other minor worldly gods such as Yama. These Cham dancing skeletons, like the other characters found in dance such as the deer and yak headed servants of Yama, are generally only found in narrative vignettes if found at all in Tibetan paintings. The most common dance represented in painting is generally known descriptively as the Black Hat Dance, and specifically understood to be the Vajrakilaya Cham dance. There will of course be images or random skeletons found in wrathful deity paintings or in the many depictions of the charnal grounds where the relevant Sanskrit and Tibetan texts explicitly state that skeletons are found in cemeteries.

A survey of Vajrayogini paintings in the database finds 16 where Shmashana Adhipati is depicted in the composition as a protector.

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Jeff Watt 4-2004 [updated 4-2017, 12-2019]