Yamântaka (‘Yama’s Destructor’ or ‘Yama’s Enemy’, Yama meaning ‘Death’ as personified by a Vedic god absorbed into the Buddhist pantheon) is a wrathful assistant of the Bodhisattva Mañjushrî, of whom he came to be regarded as a manifestation. Yamântaka (Tib. gShin-rje-byed) is often confused with Vajrabhairava (Tib. rDo-rje-`jigsbyed), a tutelary deity with Buddha rank characterized by a bull or a buffalo head as his main head, in spite of the fact that the main tantric texts describing the former do not mention an animal head in connection with him.(1) Here the identification of the deity is confirmed by the inscription in Sanskrit transliterated into Tibetan and reading ‘Noble Mañjushrî Yamântaka’ on the prong underneath the right foot of the image meant to secure it to its stand,(2) which was probably represented by buffalo lying on a sun supported by a lotus. Several manifestations of Yamântaka evolved in the course of time from the simplest one, with one head, two hands and two legs, to the triumphal ones, having up to six faces, six hands and six feet.(3)
The image portrayed here shows a triumphal manifestation of the god, who was also known in the Nepal Valley, whose sculptors may have fashioned this statue in Tibet during the 11th century. Since the first half of the 7th century Newar craftsmen brought many skills to Tibet, especially that of metalwork, and, after an interlude following the collapse of the Tibetan empire, they were active again from the 11th century, their idiom being adopted also by Tibetan artists, who often copied their Newar models. The similarity of a group of 11th century western Tibetan metal images produced at the royal workshops of Toling with statues fashioned in the Nepal Valley was pointed out by the Tibetan scholar and connoisseur Pèma Karpo (Padma-dkar-po 1526–1592).(4) From Tibetan sources we also learn that around 996 or shortly afterwards the kings of western Tibet employed the Newar sculptor Ashvadharma, in collaboration with a Kashmirian artist, to fashion the c. 2.40 metre-high gilded silver statue with throne and halo of Mañjushrî for a temple in the monastery of Kojarnath, where the same sculptors made six more statues.(5)
Newar art was highly thought of all over Tibet and in some instances its idiom combined with the Tibetan one to an extent that a single and undistinguishable style was created. That amalgamation was encouraged by the great mobility of both artists and art objects. This phenomenon cannot be understood in solely artistic terms: to appreciate it one must take into account the overall economic, social, cultural and religious interaction which has marked the relationship between Tibetans and Newars until this day, of which religious art is one aspect.
Yamântaka’s five heads wear tiaras bearing the images of the five cosmic Buddhas, while the upper one corresponds to Mañjushrî’s. Only few of the god’s attributes are extant: the disc of the law and the hilt of his sword in two of the right hands, and a vajra in the upper left hand
1) Cf. Marie-The ére èse de Mallmann, Introduction a à l'iconographie du ta ântrisme bouddhique, Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, Paris 1975, p. 469.
2) Pratapaditya Pal with the collaboration of Amy Heller, Oskar von Hinu über and Gautama Vajracharya, Himalayas. An Aesthetic Adventure, The Art Institute of Chicago - University of California Press - Mapin Publishing, Chicago - Berkeley – Ahmedabad 2003, p. 290, n. 112.
3) Cf. Franco Ricca and Erberto Lo Bue, The Great Stupa of Gyantse. A Complete Tibetan Pantheon of the Fifteenth Century, Serindia, London 1993, p. 167, pl. 52, and p. 300, with Marie- The ére èse de Mallmann, op. cit., pp. 465 and 467.
4) Padma-dkar-po, Li-ma brtag-pa'i rab-byed smra-'dod-pa'i kha-rgyan, Collected Works, Darjeeling, 1973 repr., vol. 1, pp. 301-302.
5) Cf. Giuseppe Tucci, Santi e briganti nel Tibet ignoto, Hoepli, Milano 1937, p. 40 and fig. between pp. 44 and 45 (see also one of the figs. between pp. 48 and 49 for a detail of the throne), Tibetan Painted Scrolls, Rinsen Book Co., Kyoto 1980, vol. I, pp. 274 and 684, n. 72, and Preliminary Report on Two Scientific Expeditions to Nepal, Is. M. E. O., Roma 1956, pp. 61-62.