Vajrabhairava and Consort

The center of this painting is occupied by a pair of ferocious Buddhist deities standing in union within a flashing aura. The are Father-Mother (yab-yum) whose sexual embrace symbolizes the union of wisdom and compassion. The god, colored dark blue, is Vajrabhairava, the Diamond Terrifier, a fierce, cosmic form of the bodhisattva Manjusri and a particular aspect of Yamantaka, Terminator of Death. In Nepal the deity is often called Mahisa Samvara. Vajrabhairava’s consort, colored pale blue, is Vajravetali, the Diamond Zombie.

Vajrabhairava has nine heads, the principal one in the form of a fierce, three-eyed, horned buffalo, seven supplementary demonic heads in human form, and the crowning ninth the benign, golden-skinned Manjusri. All but two of the god’s thirty-four arms fan around him like wings and with red painted palms he spreads behind him the flayed skin of the elephant of ignorance and grasps a variety of emblems, weapons and human body parts. With his two principal arms he embraces his consort and displays an entrail-filled human skull and a chopping knife. His sixteen legs are compressed into two stocky columns but reveal clearly demarcated red-soled feet and a multitude of toenails. Standing in the energetic “heroic diagonal,” he tramples deities and assorted animals (on his right) and deities and birds (on his left). Depicted beside the principal deities, at the right border of the painting, is a cremation ground occupied by Naropa, a famous siddhua (accomplished one), a stupa, human remains, and scavenger animals. It symbolizes the phenomenal world.

At the top of the thanka are five seated figures, the central one a benign, blue-colored deity who with crossed arms symbolically embraces a consort. It is the sixth transcendental Buddha, Vajradhara. He is surrounded by three yellow-hatted Gelukpa monks, a sect which particularly favors Vajrabhairava. The monks wear red and gold robes and two of them hold tantric symbols. The third, at far left, holds his hands in the teaching mudra and probably represents Tsong Khapa, founder of the Gelukpa sect. The fifth image, unidentified and possibly female, wears lay clothing and holds a large lotus and manuscript. If female, she may represent the manuscript-holding goddess Prajnaparamita.

In the lower register, directly beneath the principal pair of deities, is an ithyphallic buffalo-headed, image who brandishes a skull-tipped wand in one hand and in the other a gilt, trident-tipped standard. He is supported on the back of a water buffalo engaged in raping a dead or dying human in the midst of a sea of blood. It is Yama, the God of Death. His consort, Chamundi, depicted as a long-haired, animal-headed dakini cloaked in an animal skin, presents him with a skull cup brimming with human remains. Beneath this pair are other skull cups filled with grisly offerings, and around them are twelve vari-colored yab-yum figures. They represent the twelve Yamantaka couples that accompany Vajrabhairava

Historical period(s)
17th-18th century
Medium
Distemper on Cotton
Dimensions
H x W: 93.7 x 64.1 cm (36 7/8 x 25 1/4 in)
Geography
Tibet
Credit Line
Bequest of Adrienne Minassian
Collection
Arthur M. Sackler Gallery
Accession Number
S1999.5
On View Location
Currently not on view
Classification(s)
Painting
Type

Thangka

Keywords
Buddhism, buffalo, cosmic union, death, elephant, lotus, Manjushri, Naropa, Prajnaparamita, skull, stupa, teaching, Tibet, Vajradhara, water buffalo, woman, WWII-era provenance, Yamantaka
Provenance
Provenance research underway.
Description

The center of this painting is occupied by a pair of ferocious Buddhist deities standing in union within a flashing aura. The are Father-Mother (yab-yum) whose sexual embrace symbolizes the union of wisdom and compassion. The god, colored dark blue, is Vajrabhairava, the Diamond Terrifier, a fierce, cosmic form of the bodhisattva Manjusri and a particular aspect of Yamantaka, Terminator of Death. In Nepal the deity is often called Mahisa Samvara. Vajrabhairava's consort, colored pale blue, is Vajravetali, the Diamond Zombie.

Vajrabhairava has nine heads, the principal one in the form of a fierce, three-eyed, horned buffalo, seven supplementary demonic heads in human form, and the crowning ninth the benign, golden-skinned Manjusri. All but two of the god's thirty-four arms fan around him like wings and with red painted palms he spreads behind him the flayed skin of the elephant of ignorance and grasps a variety of emblems, weapons and human body parts. With his two principal arms he embraces his consort and displays an entrail-filled human skull and a chopping knife. His sixteen legs are compressed into two stocky columns but reveal clearly demarcated red-soled feet and a multitude of toenails. Standing in the energetic "heroic diagonal," he tramples deities and assorted animals (on his right) and deities and birds (on his left). Depicted beside the principal deities, at the right border of the painting, is a cremation ground occupied by Naropa, a famous siddhua (accomplished one), a stupa, human remains, and scavenger animals. It symbolizes the phenomenal world.

At the top of the thanka are five seated figures, the central one a benign, blue-colored deity who with crossed arms symbolically embraces a consort. It is the sixth transcendental Buddha, Vajradhara. He is surrounded by three yellow-hatted Gelukpa monks, a sect which particularly favors Vajrabhairava. The monks wear red and gold robes and two of them hold tantric symbols. The third, at far left, holds his hands in the teaching mudra and probably represents Tsong Khapa, founder of the Gelukpa sect. The fifth image, unidentified and possibly female, wears lay clothing and holds a large lotus and manuscript. If female, she may represent the manuscript-holding goddess Prajnaparamita.

In the lower register, directly beneath the principal pair of deities, is an ithyphallic buffalo-headed, image who brandishes a skull-tipped wand in one hand and in the other a gilt, trident-tipped standard. He is supported on the back of a water buffalo engaged in raping a dead or dying human in the midst of a sea of blood. It is Yama, the God of Death. His consort, Chamundi, depicted as a long-haired, animal-headed dakini cloaked in an animal skin, presents him with a skull cup brimming with human remains. Beneath this pair are other skull cups filled with grisly offerings, and around them are twelve vari-colored yab-yum figures. They represent the twelve Yamantaka couples that accompany Vajrabhairava

Collection Area(s)
South Asian and Himalayan Art
Web Resources
Google Cultural Institute
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