14th century
Distemper on cloth
42 by 35 cm - 16 ½ by 13 ¾ in

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This magnificent jewel-like paintingrepresents Buddha Samvara, the ultimate tantricunion of female and male, wisdom and compassion. Set against a vibrant fiery aureole, the animated centralcouple is engaged in passionate embrace. Not only have the figures been painted with precision, but they alsopossess a powerful aura of energy.

Lunging to the left, blue-skinned Samvaraas Vajraheruka[1] crushes thebodies of two prostrate figures beneath his feet, Kalaratri and Bhairava.[2] His consort, red-skinned Dakini Dzalshambaram, wraps her legsaround his waist, encircles her left arm around his neck, and gazes upward tomeet the intensity of his gaze. Both figures are covered in delicate bone jewelry which appearssumptuous against their richly-hued bodies. A long garland of recently severed heads hangs fromSamvara's neck as a sign of his victory over egotism, and a more diminutivenecklace of skulls hangs from the neck of his consort. Although the dakini has only one head and two arms, the hands of which hold a vajra and kapala, her male counterpart is characterized by four heads andtwelve arms. His primary handscross behind her back in the diamond gesture, holding a vajra and ghanta. Symbolizing his triumph over evil, aseries of attributes are displayed in Samvara's remaining hands: the uppermostpair stretches the hide of the mad elephant of ignorance behind his back; thenext pair holds a khatvanga staff anddrum; the next a kapala and axe; thenext a lasso and vajra chopper; andfinally at the bottom a four-faced Brahma head and trident. Samvara's four distinctly colored facesbear equally intense, ferocious expressions, each representing a unique Buddhawisdom.

The central couple is surrounded by a groupof sixty-two deities, as is typical of classic Cakrasamvara iconography.[3] However, instead of the more prevalentcircular theme for the entourage, the arrangement is horizontal on both sidesof the central deity. The upperregister is populated by several mahasiddhas,including Nagarjuna who is identified by the mantle of snake heads depictedover his own. At the center of thegroup, the Buddhas Vajradhara and Vajrasattva are prominently featured.

Within the Sakya monastic order, this typeof mandala was eventually produced,particularly by the Ngor sub-school. The present example, however, dates to a period earlier than thefoundation of Ngor in 1429/1430.


Dr. Walter N. KoelzCollection, Michigan


[1] An inscription on the verso of thepainting specifically identifies the central deities. The first line invokes the glorious Vajraheruka and the Dakini Dzalshambaram as the precisenames of the aspect of Samvara and his female partner represented at the centerof the mandala. The second line invokes the aspect ofSamvara by his name of Vajra (Heruka), the Buddha Vairocana, and all the Buddhas. The third line invokes the dakini and her partner, the deity Vajra(Heruka). We are grateful to Dr.Amy Heller for her assistance and translation of the inscription on thepainting's verso, a copy of which is available.

[2] See Rhie and Thurman (2000), p. 217. Both Kalaratri and Bhairava are emanated forms ofSamvara. Thus, the deity'sposition of power over them symbolizes his conquest of all forms of egotism.

[3] For a related Cakrasamvara painting see ibid, no. 69. Although the present example is smallerand slightly earlier, both works are of exceptional quality. Similarities in composition, style andsubject are evident.