Raktayamari with Entourage
Central Tibet, early 14th century
Pigments on cotton, 25 3/4 x 21 3/4 in (65.4 x 55.5 cm)


Not only is this one of the finest thankas in the Ford collection, but it is also one of the earliest-known paintings of this subject. It is certainly earlier than other Raktayamari paintings given fifteenth-century dates (Rhie and Thurman 1996, pp. 231-35) and is at least coeval to a mandala in the Kronos Collection dated to the first half of the fourteenth century (Kossak and Singer 1998, pp. 150-51). All four paintings were commissioned by Sakyapas and show strong influences from the Newar style, which at this time was predominant in Sakyapa monastic establishments. This particular thanka may well have been rendered in the artistic milieu of Shalu in the early fourteenth century, in which case it may be the earliest example of a Raktayamari mandala.

Yamari literally means the enemy of Yama, who is the lord of death and is therefore homonymous with the expression Yamantaka, or exterminator of Yama. The prefix rakta simply means red. The name of his consort, or prajna, is Vajravetali, or the female ghoul, and not Svabha-Prajna (ibid., p. 150). The two together are locked in a sexual embrace on a red buffalo, which is crushing a handsome blue male. If the object in his raised hand is an arrow, then he may represent Kama or Mara, the god who arouses desire, and also signifies death in Buddhist thought. Yamari holds the vajra-crowned staff (danda) and the skull cup, while Vajravetali has the ubiquitous chopper and skull cup. Interestingly, in both the Ford and the Kronos thankas, her right arm goes all the way around his neck, so that the blade of the chopper is in the cup, whereas, in later representations, the chopper is held over his left shoulder. Moreover, in none of the others is the dark figure beneath the buffalo as active. Rather, he lies at times like a corpse on the animal's back. One wonders whether such variations have theological implications or simply reflect the artist's individual impulses.

That the formation of the entourage suggests divergent teachings or visions is clear enough from the differences in the numbers and forms of the deities and of the teachers, both Indian and Tibetan, accommodated around the central tableau depicted against a bold, fiery aureole. In comparison with the other fourteenth- and fifteenth-century examples cited earlier, the Fords' is the simplest. Four other representations of the central pair, with different colors, and four pots with plants and skull cups are included symmetrically within the panel. In the bottom register are fifteen clones of the principal pair, exactly as in a fifteenth-century mandala in Boston (Rhie and Thurman 1996, p. 234). In the top register, two representations of Krishnayamari, or Black Yamari, at the two ends enclose nine human transmitters of the Raktayamari teachings. Led by Virupa, the first five are mahasiddhas; they are followed by two pairs of conversing monks, the first of whom is an Indian. The second mahasiddha, riding the tiger with his spiritual consort, is Dombipa, whose guru was Virupa. TheTibetan monks are of the Sakya order.

Apart from some of the unusual features of this thanka already noted, mention should be made of the eight remarkably lively, identical figures riding their buffaloes and attacking imaginary enemies with their elephant goads. They appear in a semicircle just inside the upper portion of the flame aureole. Such variations clearly make this a Yamari representation of unusual interest. The rendering of the mahasiddhas, especially of Dombipa, is strongly reminiscent of early figural forms seen in Nepali paintings of the twelfth-thirteenth centuries. The details of ornaments, the billowing scarf, and the tongues of flames are rendered with exquisite finesse. The extraordinary power of the draftsmanship is evident from the remarkable illusion of volume conveyed by the outlines alone, with minimal shading. All together, the clarity and simplicity of the composition, the deftness of the drawing, and the boldness of the imagery have contributed to a visual drama that is both exciting and subtle.

Detail: close-up #1
Detail: close-up #2


all text and images © The Trustees of the Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore