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Deities and Devotion in Mongolian Buddhist Art

Six-Armed Mahakala
Mongolian
19th century
Pigments and gold on sized cloth
36.8 x 29.2 cm.

Hope College Collection, 2019.11.9

A wrathful form of the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, Mahakala has been revered in Mongolia as both a dharma protector and a meditational deity since the 16th century. There are many different forms of Mahakala. The Six-Armed (Shadbhuja) Mahakala portrayed here has black skin, three glaring eyes and a mouth full of sharp fanged teeth. His upswept hair is encircled by a crown made of five human skulls, and his body is adorned with an elephant-hide cape, a tiger-skin loincloth and jewelry made of human bones. Two of his six arms are positioned in front of his body with the hands holding a ritual flaying knife and a skull cup brimming with blood. His other four arms fan out from the sides of his body with the hands holding a skull rosary, a skull-form hand drum, a trident spear and a lasso. His feet trample the corpse of an elephant and his body is surrounded by a mandorla of flames. To make this image even more terrifying, Mahakala is shown here flanked by two ogres, Jinamitra and Takkiraja, who stand over an offering bowl on the ground that contains an assortment of human body parts.

References: Fleming, Zara (ed.). Mongolian Buddhist Art: Masterpieces from the Museums of Mongolia. Volume 1, Parts 1 & 2: Thangkas, Appliqu├ęs and Embroideries. Chicago: Serindia Publications, 2011, pp. 732-743 and 756-779; Meinert, Carmen (ed.). Buddha in the Yurt: Buddhist Art from Mongolia, Volumes 1 & 2. Munich: Hirmer Publishers, 2011, pp. 590-605; Berger, Patricia and Bartholomew, Terese Tse. Mongolia: The Legacy of Chinggis Khan. San Francisco: Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, 1995, pp. 236-237.