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Diverse Forms of Mahakala and Other Protectors
Tibet, early 19th century
Ground Mineral Pigment on Cotton
C2007.21.1 (HAR 65787)

This crowded, vibrant painting is dedicated to nine
wrathful deities and centers on the six-armed form of
Mahakala, the principal protector of the Gelug School of
Tibetan Buddhism. For the last several centuries this has
been the predominant school in Tibet.

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Three-fold division

The composition of this painting follows a three-fold
division that is typical of Tibetan painting. At the top are
the teachers, whose instruction is essential to the
practice represented by the painting. In the center are
the meditational deities to whom that practice is
devoted. At the bottom are various protectors, wealth
deities, and other figures within the Buddhist pantheon.

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Teachers

Tibetan Buddhist practice is preserved through the
passing of instructions from teacher to student. Thus the
teachers within a particular teaching lineage are
presented at the top of the painting. Here they are all
shown wearing Tibetan monastic dress and the pointed
yellow hat particular to the Gelug School. Tsongkhapa,
the founder of that school, is at the center and is flanked
by the Fourth Panchen Lama and the Ninth Dalai Lama.

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Teachers: Panchen Lama

The Panchen Lama is the second highest incarnation
lineage in the Gelug hierarchy. Here the Fourth Panchen
Lama, Tenpa Nyima (1782–1853), is depicted. As a
scholar he performs a teaching gesture and holds a
book. Since he is the teacher of the younger Dalai Lama
he is placed more prominently even though the Dalai
Lama is the higher incarnation lineage.

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Teachers: Tsongkhapa

Je Tsongkhapa (1357–1419) was one of the most prolific
scholars of Tibetan Buddhism and is the founder of the
Gelug School. He is shown teaching and holding two
lotuses, which carry a sword and a book. These symbols
are representative of the Bodhisattva of Wisdom,
Manjushri, of whom Tsongkhapa is an emanation.

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Teachers: Dalai Lama

The Dalai Lama is the highest incarnation lineage in the
Gelug hierarchy. Here the young Ninth Dalai Lama,
Lungtok Gyatso (1805–1815), is shown. His unusual
facial proportions and large eyes indicate his boyhood.
He holds a lotus in his right hand and a book in his left.

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Main Deities

At the center of the painting six higher-wisdom deities
and protectors favored by the Gelug School are depicted.
Their relative importance is indicated by their size and
position, and each of the six deities serves a different
function. The four leftmost deities are all different forms
of Mahakala.

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Main Deities: Six-armed White Mahakala

Six-armed White Mahakala is the wish granting mighty
king of gems. He is white and holds a large gem in his
main right hand and his skull-cup is filled with nectar
and a vase of jewels. His wrath is less pronounced, and
he stands on two Ganapatis against a halo of jewels.

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Main Deities: Six-armed Mahakala

At the center of the painting is Six-armed Mahakala, lord
of pristine awareness and remover of all obstacles, the
principal protector deity of the Gelug School. He is dark
blue, six-armed, and holds a rosary of skulls in his
upper right hand. He tramples on the elephant-headed
Ganapati, here symbolizing the obstacles to be
overcome.

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Main Deities: Magzor Gyalmo

At the top right of the central area is the wrathful
goddess Magzor Gyalmo, the “Queen Who Repels the
Army.” She is the two-armed form of Palden Lhamo, the
principal protectress of Tibet. She rides a mule, holds a
trident and a skull cup filled with a heart, and a lion and
a snake emerge from her ears.

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Main Deities: Mahakala as a Brahman Ascetic

In the bottom left is Mahakala in the form of a Brahman
ascetic. He is bright blue and dances with a bone flute
and a skull cup. Other attributes, such as the sword and
the trident, identify him as a disguised form of Mahakala
and the bone jewelry indicates his wrathful nature.

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Main Deities: Four-faced Mahakala

In the lower center is Four-faced Mahakala. He has four
differently colored faces and four arms, the main ones
with a curved knife and skull cup. The other arms hold a
sword and a trident.

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Main Deities: Yama Dharmaraja

At the bottom right is the buffalo-headed Yama
Dharmaraja, “King of the Dharma,” or Buddhist teaching,
together with his sister. Yama, is the Indian god of death,
who rides a bull and has a bull’s head. Yama Dharmaraja
looks like Yama but symbolizes the surpassing of death.
He holds a bone stick, skeleton, and noose.

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Subsidiary Dieties

The bottom area of the painting is occupied by deities
whose practice complements and facilitates that of the
main deities. These deities are invoked for more
mundane goals such as protection, health, and wealth.
The center and the left of this register are filled with
worldly protectors, converted local spirits bound to
protect Buddhism, and the right side presents a wealth deity.

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Subsidiary Dieties: Sebdrabcen

In the bottom-left corner is the earth-spirit Sedrabcen,
a local protector of Ganden Monastery, one of the three
large monasteries of the Gelug school around Lhasa,
Tibet. He brandishes a club to disperse evil spirits, a
noose, and a lance under his arm. His headdress is
decorated with flags, banners, and a small conch.

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Subsidiary Dieties: Begtse

At the bottom center is the enlightened protector
Begtse, the “Great Coat of Mail.” He is red, is dressed
like a Tibetan warrior, and holds a sword and a fresh
heart. Further weapons are held in the bend of his arm.
He stands on a horse and a corpse. Begtse is an
important protector of the Gelug School.

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Subsidiary Dieties: Tshangpa Karpo

In the bottom-right corner is Tshangpa Karpo, the
peaceful aspect of Sedrabcen, the deity in the bottom-left
corner. He is a white-skinned king with a conch-shaped
turban headdress. He holds a lance and a bowl filled with
jewels and a vase. Such worldly deities are often
associated with particular places and monasteries and
thus help to determine a painting’s origin.

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