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Ca. 1400
Painted, unfired clay modeled over metal armature
41 in.(102 cm.)
Published: Slusser 1996, pp.23 and 25, fig.14; Fisher 1997, p. 117, fig. 96

This representation of the esoteric Buddhist goddess Vajravarahi is certainly the largest and most impressive sculpture from Nepal in the Ford collection. Originally, it would have been used in a shrine as a principal image, and Vajravarahi's left foot would have rested on a supine male, as it does in an equally imposing painting of the goddess in the collection. Usually, in sculptural representation, the lunar orb between her foot and the corpse in not included.

In this form, the goddess, represented by herself, is supposed to be known as Vashya-Vajravarahi, the epithet vasya, meaning shining or lustrous (B. Bhattacharya 1958, p. 219). However, no such characterization is found by Bhattacharya, though he does tell us that in this form she helps the devotee subjugate (also denoted by the word vasya) others. In the well-known Buddhist tantric text Chakrasamvaratantra, which is very popular with Newar Buddhists, Vajravarahi is the presiding goddess who unites with the god Chakrasasmvara, also known as Heruka. In one of the descriptions in the iconographic compendium called Sadhanamala, she is called the "first queen of the god Sri-Heruka" (ibid., p. 217). She is also loosely characterized as a dakini and Vajrayogini, though the latter is a different deity.

What does distinguish Vajravarahi from other similar goddesses (another being Nairatma, the consort of Hevajra) is the sow's-head excrescence behind her right ear, which refers to the "varahi" component of her name. She dances on a corpse in the posture known as ardhaparyanka, which means "one leg on the thigh." Her other emblems, such as the chopper in the right hand, the skull cup in the left, and the tantric staff (khatvanga) in the crook of the left arm, are missing here. But the red complexion, the third eye, the garland of severed heads (of enemies of the religion), and the bone apron that serves as her only apparel are some of the other features that distinguish the deity.

The sculpture is admirable for its sensitively delineated facial features and limbs, and its exquisitely rendered ornaments, which were made separately and attached. The posture is at once animated and poised, making the large figure remarkably buoyant. The graceful lines and curves of the contours, the smooth plasticity of the form, the aesthetic integrity of the composition, and the boldness of the pungent red surface make for an arresting work of art.

Painted, unfired clay images constructed around a metal armature are still worshipped in the Buddhist shrines in the Kathmandu Valley. They are usually discarded when replaced by new icons. Another example, also representing Vajravarahi, is now in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, but it is neither as dramatic nor as early. Although the Ford image has been dated generally to the fifteenth century, it may have been modeled by a master sculpture in the second half of the fourteenth century, about the same time as the outstanding painted version of the subject in the collection.

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

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