Vajravarahi with Retinue
Nepal, late 14th century
Pigments on cotton, 42 3/8 x 36 1/8 in (107.6 x 91.8 cm)
Published: Pal 1975B, pp. 62-63 and 82, no. 45


When this painting was first published (Pal 1975B), I wrote, "although quite damaged, this exceptionally large painting is included here because of its extraordinary quality and its historical importance." The damage is now hardly visible except for the missing register above as the painting has been judiciously and brilliantly restored to reflect its original state. Not only is this one of a very few fourteenth-century painted icons to survive from Nepal, but it is also the largest. The date of the painting can be firmly ascertained by a comparison with the 1367 Vasudhara mandala in another private collection, to which it is closely related (ibid., pp. 58-59, no. 43).

The Amazonian central figure in the painting is Vajravarahi, who is distinguished from other female initiators and embodiments of wisdom by the sow's head protruding from her head above the right ear. Unlike Nairatma, however, Vajravarahi is frequently represented by herself and is an important deity for tantric initiation, especially for new initiates. For instance, she intercedes far more often in the lives of the eighty-four mahasiddhas than any other deity. To cite one example, not only was the great Luipa (eighth-ninth century) initiated into the mandala of Vajravarahi, but he is supposed to have received direct transmissions of the Samvaratantra from the goddess, who is characterized as a dakini-a Sanskrit word that is applied to a female divine initiator (Bowman 1985, pp. 36-37). In Tibet, Vajravarahi is also the patron deity of the Semding nunnery. The impressive size of the Ford painting, which represents a mandala, is likely to have been made for an initiation ceremony of an important adept. The consecratory scenes depicted in two end panels-separated lay a group of dancing deities- however, offer no clue to the identification of the patrons. On the left, a priest known as a Vajracharya offers oblations (homa) into the fire in the company of an assistant and several lay persons. On the other side are three monks along with more lay persons, all of whom seem to be women. Among the ritual implements before the first monk is a three-dimensional mandala, which is further indicative of the function of this painted mandala in an initiation ceremony.
It is not possible to identify all the deities included in the mandala since the depictions do not conform to any of the known descriptions in published literature. A few short inscriptions identifying some of the deities along the margins are legible (see appendix). Even if all were identifiable, it would not help in recognizing the precise tradition on which the mandala was based. The missing top register may have provided a clue and may have included mahasiddhas along with the five transcendental Buddhas. As a matter of fact, the two mahasiddhas included just beyond the flame aureole of the goddess are the yellow Virupa, exhorting the sun, and the dark Luipa, eating the innards of a fish. The latter has already been mentioned above; and the former's association with Vajravarahi was even more intimate (ibid., pp. 43 - 44), and, like Luipa, who may have been a contemporary, he, too, was empowered by the goddess after a rigorous praxis of twenty-six years.
Naked except for a plethora of ornaments, a bone apron, and a garland of severed heads, Vajravarahi dances in the ardhaparyanka posture, balancing her left foot on the red orb of the sun placed on a prostrate naked male on a multi-hued lotus. She brandishes a diamond chopper in her right hand while holding a blood-filled skull cup in her left. In the crook of her left arm is the tantric staff (khatvanga). This is the form invoked in rituals performed for bewitching men and women (vasyavidhi) (see no. 127).

She is accompanied by the four goddesses Dakini, Lama, Khandaroha, and Rupini within the flaming red aureole of delicate lace-like scrollwork. Each is identical except for her complexion. Beyond, against a similarly rich blue background, beside the two mahasiddhas, are four other goddesses, only two of whom remain intact. They are Vajrayogini, who holds her own severed head with the left hand (and hence also known as Chinnamasta), and a form of Varahi. At the two upper corners are two manifestations of Samvara in yab-yum. Twenty-six goddesses in various poses are included in the two marginal columns. They include, among others, various Dakinis such as Naro Dakini and Buddha Dakini, mother goddesses, Marichi, and others. In the central panel in the bottom register are eight offering goddesses, including Lasya, Mala, and Gita, flanking yet another form of Samvara and Nairatma in yab-yum.

Thus, both for its iconographic richness and for introducing a hitherto unfamiliar mandala of Vajravarahi, this is an important painting for the history of esoteric Buddhism. It is also an aesthetic tour de force of the Newari artistic genius, clearly justifying the great esteem in which Newar artists were held in Tibet and beyond. It is amazing how effectively the dominating red is used with subtle tonal variations to create a visual design of compelling force. The powerful goddess of Amazonian proportions is both physically desirable and spiritually inspiring.

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


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