Mahakala

15th century
Tibet
Gilt copper alloy
Height: 28.9 cm - 11 ⅜ in.

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Ferocious in appearance, Mahakala, one ofthe eight dharmapalas, is known inTibet as a protector (mGon-po) and a Defender of the Law of Buddhism. Here, in one of his many possiblemanifestations, he is depicted with six arms and one head as Gom-ponag-po. He lunges deeply to hisright in pratyalidha, and althoughhis ample stomach might suggest otherwise, the deity presents a powerful andfearsome facade. At one time,Mahakala would have stood atop a trampled and prostrate vinayaka (obstacle) as a symbol of his power over variousobstructions.[1]

In addition to his aggressive pose, thedivinity's face is contorted in anger: Bulging eyes pop from beneath a pair ofbushy brows, nostrils flair wildly, and a broad mouth opens to expose a row ofintimidating teeth. An explosivemass of fiery red hair is piled atop his head behind a skull crown, and a longgarland of human skulls hangs from his neck as yet another indication ofMahakala's wrath. As decorativeaccessories, writhing snakes form necklaces, armlets and anklets, and a scarfbillows behind his large head. Inthe deity's primary hands he holds a red kapala(skull cup) and karttrka (chopper),and in his right he grasps a mala ofskulls and a damaru. The iconography of this particularmanifestation of Mahakala calls for apasa and trisula which, althoughnow missing, would likely have been held in the deity's left hands.[2]

A dynamic bronze, Mahakala is stylisticallymost akin to works that were cast in the workshops of Central Tibet during thefifteenth century. The broad, boldfeatures, solid proportions and animated composition combine here to create amost vibrant and compelling image.

Notes:

[1] See Pal (2003), p. 142. The Sanskrit term vinayakatranslates as one who causes obstacles, but as a proper noun is synonymous withthe term for the Hindu god Ganesha. Imagery of Mahakala as Gom-po nag-po portrays the deity astride anelephant-headed god who is typically perceived to be Vinayaka (Ganesha). Pal suggests, however, that theprostrate figure represents vinayakain the broader sense of the word as opposed to Vinayaka specifically.

[2] The trident, snakes and skulls that embellish the figure call tomind Mahakala's ancestral link to Shiva. See Kossak and Singer (1998), p. 146.