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Mahasamvara Kalachakra Mandala
Made in central Tibet, Tibetan Autonomous Region, China
Sakya or Gelug monastic order, Early 16th century
Artist/maker unknown, Tibet, central Tibet
Colors on cloth with cloth mounting
Image: 20 x 17 inches (50.8 x 43.2 cm) Mount: 33 x 22 1/2 inches (83.8 x 57.2 cm)
Purchased with the Stella Kramrisch Fund, 2000

This intimately sized thangka (Tibetan scroll painting) displays the rarely painted Mahasamvara Kalachakra mandala, which represents a divine cosmos in which particular Tibetan Buddhist deities reside. By meditating on this colorful and minutely detailed thangka, devotees can accurately visualize the process of entering the sacred space in order to move inward toward the deity couple at its center. The worshiper’s ultimate goal is to merge with these deities and thereby assume their enlightened qualities.

At the top and bottom of the painting a row of pillared arches encloses the seated figures, who represent the teachers and monks who introduced and passed on this form of Buddhist teaching. The mandala’s outermost rings feature multicolored fire and cremation grounds, complete with bones and vultures. They represent the states of ignorance that a devotee must transcend before gaining access to the more powerful, inner reaches of the divine cosmos. The circle of eight elaborately decorated gates lead to the subsidiary deities, protector figures, and ritual offerings, all of which serve to protect and sustain the deities residing at the center. The central couple is in wrathful form, their formidable expressions warding off obstacles on the spiritual path. The three-headed, multicolored male deity carries numerous ritual implements in his twenty-four arms. While standing in a broad, strong posture he holds his consort against him in sexual and spiritual union. Yellow in color, she tilts her head back to look up into his face as she wraps her right leg around his torso.

This thangka, with its vivid colors, symmetrical composition, and sharply observed details, represents the Ngor style that developed in central Tibet in the fifteenth century. Such a masterfully painted and well-preserved example is a wonderful addition to the other thangkas in the Museum’s Stella Kramrisch Collection. Indeed, it was on Kramrisch’s advice that the former owner, John Hafenrichter, purchased the piece in 1961. Melissa Kerin, from Philadelphia Museum of Art: Gifts in Honor of the 125th Anniversary (2002), p. 14.

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all text & images © The Philadelphia Museum of Art

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