Mahakala, painted clay, flour-paste and human bone ash, Tibet, 1650-1800
Height: 37.7 cm, Width: 31 cm
South-East Asia, room 47a
Mahakala is a Buddhist adaptation of Siva in his vengeful (ugra) manifestation. In the Buddhist context Mahakala serves as defender of the faith (dharmapala) and is particularly revered in this role by followers of the dGe-lugs-pa ("Yellow Cap") sect. clay was widely used for images in Tibetan temples but examples are rarely seen outside Tibet because of their fragility.
This object was acquired in Mukden (Manchuria) about 1920-25. During the repair of damage it was discovered that prayer rolls printed on paper and wrapped in coloured silk damasks had been embedded in the image; the prayers were written in Tibetan characters but in the Sanskrit language.
This is a painted clay image of the six-armed Mahakala, a wrathful protector of the Buddhist religion (or Idharmapala). This form is particularly revered by the Gelukpa (or dGe lugs pa) order. Clay was, and still is, widely used for images in Tibet, but the fragility of such images means that they are rarely seen outside the country. The inclusion of human bone ash may suggest that this was a commemorative image made partly as a shrine incorporating the remains of a revered religious figure.
The anger of Mahakala, shown in the surounding aureole of flames, roaring mouth and bulging eyes, is directed at the enemies of the Buddhist religion. His attributes, including the crown of skulls, garland of severed heads and chopper and skull cup (held by the two inner hands), all represent the means of destroying and transforming inner or outer obstacles to enlightened awareness.