Details & Cataloguing

The Heart of Tantra – Buddhist Art Including Property from the Nyingjei Lam Collection

Hong Kong

standing in alidhasana atop a double-lotus throne, the male deity with the primary face of a buffalo and seven auxiliary human faces surmounted by the head of the bodhisattva Manjushri, the primary and auxiliary faces with flaming hair, fierce grimaces and third eyes, with thirty-four arms grasping ritual weapons and implements, wearing a garland of skulls and the six bone ornaments, in ecstatic union with the consort Vajravetali wearing the five-pointed crown, the right leg extended and the left wrapped around the waist of her partner, holding a kapala filled with amrita in the left hand and a kartrika in the right hand, both figures trampling underfoot a host of supine corpses, birds and animals 

Himalayan Art Resources item no. 13442

30 cm, 12 in. 
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Acquired in Geneva, 30th January 2002.

Catalogue Note


Displaying tremendous power and presence, this magnificent group of Yamantaka Vajrabhairava and Vajravetali, arguably the greatest example in private hands, demonstrates the marriage of Nepalese and Tibetan sculptural elements with its rich gilding, powerful and sensuous physical modelling, complex and sensitive casting and chasing, and masterful use of semi-precious stone inlay. On every area of the current sculpture, details are rendered with meticulous attention to detail. The iconography of the ferocious emanation is articulated with truly elegant proportions and elegant spacing.

The only other Tibetan fifteenth century gilt-bronze figure of this iconography of similar large size, elegance and proportion, is preserved in the Red Palace in the Potala collection, Lhasa, illustrated in Ulrich von Schroeder, Buddhist Sculptures in Tibet, Hong Kong, 2001, vol. II, pp. 1050-1051, cat. no. 265B-C (fig. 1). It shares several features, including the bulbous petals with stylised tips and lower edge of tiny pearls along the base of the current figure. It is also applied with cold gold atop the gilded faces, with graceful draping of the bone ornaments inlaid with turquoise, and rows of supine animals, birds and figures trampled under the feet of the divine couple.   

However, the structural quality and casting of the current figure transcends all other examples. Where typically the complex iconography of Yamantaka and Vajravetali is expressed in a formulaic manner, on the current sculpture every minute detail is conveyed with individual artistic quality, from the sharpness of the ferocious facial expressions, through to the opulent jewellery and the skilfully rendered attributes the figures are depicted holding, including the kapala and ritual chopper. Even the various beings which are depicted as being trampled upon retain their individual identities, each with varying expressions of discomfort and pain on their taut bodies. Unlike other recorded examples, including the Potala Yamantaka, the intricately cast base on the present lot has a superbly engraved scrolling cloud motif along the upper platform, edged with a row of tiny pearls above the double-lotus throne. 

Gilt bronzes of this exceptional quality and size depicting Vajrabhairava and consort are extremely rare in the market, and no other figure of comparable quality has ever been offered at auction. The closest example sold at auction is the 16th century example from the Sporer collection, sold at Christie’s New York, 15th September 2015, lot 18.

Yamantaka Vajrabhairava is one of the most formidable deities in the Tibetan Buddhist pantheon, the fearsome manifestation of the bodhisattva Manjushri, lord of transcendent wisdom. Vajrabhairava, the Adamantine Terrifier, stands in militant alidhasana with his eight legs planted on subdued gods, birds and animals, with a fan of thirty-four arms surrounding his massive bulk. He grasps a panoply of solidly cast ritual weapons and implements, including kartrika in the primary right hand and a kapala filled with amrita in the primary left hand. The buffalo-headed god of destruction bellows with flaming lips parted and fangs bared, proclaiming triumph over ignorance, suffering and death. The myriad arms and heads and trampling legs symbolise the deity’s total mastery over all elements that bind sentient beings to the wheel of existence, the constant cycle of birth and death, passions, desires and fears. The bull's head signifies Vajrabhairava's conquest of the buffalo-headed god, Yama, the lord of death in ancient Indian mythology, thus eliminating the obstacle of death (yama-antaka) through the enlightened Buddhist state of transcendent wisdom.

The yidam and consort wear the tantric adornments of the six bone ornaments representing the six paramitas or perfections. These textural bone ornaments appear in beaded rows in the present work, and also represent the Five Dhyani Buddhas: (1) the crown of the head, symbolising dhyana or concentration and Buddha Akshobhya; (2) the earrings that symbolise kshanti or patience and the Buddha Amitabha; (3) the necklace that symbolises dana or generosity and Buddha Ratnasambhava; (4) the armlets and anklets that symbolise shila or discipline and the Buddha Vairocana; (5) the girdle and apron that symbolises virya or exertion and Buddha Amoghasiddhi; and (6) the crisscrossed torso ornament that symbolises prajña or wisdom and Buddha Vajradhara. From Vajrabhairava’s neck hangs a garland of fifty-one severed heads strung on a length of human intestine and the hair of a corpse, signifying both the purification of speech and the purification of the fifty-one mental factors according to the Chittamatra or Mind-Only School as described by Asanga.

The Heart of Tantra – Buddhist Art Including Property from the Nyingjei Lam Collection

Hong Kong