The central figure, Yamantaka Vajrabhairava, is the main tutelary deity of the Gelug order of Tibetan Buddhism, dark blue in color, with nine heads, thirty-four arms and sixteen legs. The main head is that of a wrathful buffalo with two horns, whilst the small topmost head is that of Manjushri, indicating that Yamantaka Vajrabhairava is the wrathful tantric form of Manjushri, the bodhisattva of wisdom. Yamantaka Vajrabhairava (also known as the Death Tamer and the Diamond Terrifier) is especially important for the Gelugpas, due to lineage founder Lama Tsongkhapa’s special assocation with Manjushri, the Conqueror of Yama.
Standing on a sun disc above a lotus throne, he embraces his pale blue consort, Vajravetali; together they symbolize the union of method and wisdom. In his hands he holds various tantric implements which symbolically destroy all defilements and all enemies of the dharma, whilst underfoot he tramples on numerous animals, birds, humans and devas. Both hold a skull bow and chopper in their main hands and both are naked except for bodily adornments of skulls and bones, indicating there are no delusions. They are encircled by powerful tongues of orange-red flames.
Above Yamantaka Vajrabhairava is the dark blue primordial Buddha, Vajradhara, in union with his consort, Vajrayogini. On his right is Lama Tsongkhapa in teaching mudra holding the stems of two lotus flowers which support a wisdom sword and a book; and on his left, Manjuhsri, bodhisattva of wisdom, holding the sword which cuts through ignorance and the book of wisdom. They are further flanked by two Gelug monks holding skull cups and two mahasiddhas. Directly beneath Yamantaka Vajrabhairava is the dark blue Inner Yama Dharmaraja, with the Red Secret Yama Dharmaraja to his right and Vaishravana (the god of wealth holding a victory banner and a jewel-spitting mongoose and riding a snow lion) to his left.
At the bottom left quadrant are two skull offerings: on the lower left is a wrathful offering to the five senses–heart (touch), eyes (sight), ears (sound), nose (smell) and tongue (taste), and on the lower right is an inner offering to the five senses. The latter is common to all anuttarayoga tantra practices or sadhanas, because it consists of the visualized offering of inner substances derived from humans and animals; hence one sees a cow, elephant, horse, dog and human. At the bottom right quadrant is a table supporting a skullcup (which contains pale blue amrita representing method–specific to deities in the Father Tantra class of Anuttarayoga), torma, conch, vase of lotuses, incense burner and butter lamp.
The lengthy inscription on the reverse indicates that the painting was commissioned and blessed at the Great monastic college of Danyakatakuri, which is within the monastery of Gonglun Jampa Ling in Amdo, Eastern Tibet. The last part of the inscription gives the date in the Tibetan and western calendar, and further reinforces the date by stating that this was during the time of the 30th throne holder of the monastery, Ngawang Geleg Gyatso.
Compare the present work to another large-scale 18th century thangka of Yamantaka Vajrabhairava from the Zimmerman Family Collection, see M. Rhie and R. Thurman, Wisdom and Compassion: The Sacred Art of Tibet, New York, 1991, pp. 284-286.
The inscription on the reverse can be translated as follows:
Due to the wisdom of all the Buddhas who achieved the best compassion, this wrathful image of Vajrabhairava, lord of the past, present and future, is made by compassion for the benefit of all sentient beings. In the three worlds of the past, present and future, may the fierce Vajrabhairava qualm all frightening forces. May this conqueror, the hero who overwhelms Yama, lord of death, speak to all sentient beings. By the compassion of the Buddha, there is the great brilliance of this one who conquers and makes the red blood flow from the heart of all the demons.
On this day which is the time of desiring to make the mandala ritual, may the ferocious brilliance of the wrathful one show all the power of his fierce nature. At the top of his head, there is the Buddha who is the lord, then there are surrounding heads of the protectors of the word of the Buddha, and marvels [of the Buddha's teachings] thus [this appearance] frightens the demons completely. By the glorious means and manifestations [of this mandala and the thangka portrait of Vajrabhairava], may it be particularly noble and auspicious. This Vajrabhairava has his body dancing above the many corpses, manifesting his vision and his attention to all the phenomenal world.
May the capable Namkha Lodro Zangpo, who is the master of the mandala, completely achieve the full blessing of the strength, the intelligence and uphold the mantra [of Vajrabhairava]. By the meditative visions of Vajrabhairava, may it be a source of earnest desire for doing good and achieving the full moment of this power over enemies. Here in the land of the snowy mountains, where the Vajrayana teachings are firmly understood and practiced, in this unrivalled place of solitary meditation, may there be the liberation [from all suffering] by this best of all religious paths. May this state persist without any obstructions during all the lifetime.
The wisdom of Dharma is the way for all sentient beings. May all sentient beings reach the unparallelled level of Vajrabhairava without delay. May the above wishes come to fruition, at the great Shri Danyakatakuri College of Jamgon Lama Tsongkapa, according to the teaching of his mantra and sutra. May the consciousness of the faithful Wangchuk Gelek, also known as Gyatso, be in the presence of Bhairava. This commission (of the thangkha) has been called for to assure reincarnation during this time of the reign of the 30th throne holder of the seat of Gonlung Jampa Ling, who is the pristine third reincarnation of the great Palden Gyatso, Ngawang Geleg Gyatso. [Dated] in the Year of the Iron Monkey, and in the common year of 1740, at the seat of Gonlung Jampa Ling.
Special thanks to Zara Fleming and Dr. Amy Heller for their assistance in the research for this catalogue entry.
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