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Marcel Nies

15. Mahakala
15th century
Bronze, gilded and cast in the lost wax method
height 22.2 cm.


The popular Mahakala was originally a demon, who was tamed by Manjusri and Avalokitesvara and turned into a fierce protector of Buddhism, belonging to the Dharmapalas. This important spiritual protector deity is also known as 'the lord of the wind', and 'the great black one', a great guardian of the Dharma. Mahakala takes a terrific form to conquer the most horrible realms of existence. As a fierce manifestation of Avalokitesvara, he helps beings overcome all negative elements, especially spiritual ones, personified and symbolised by the fearsome creatures over which he becomes lord.

Mahakala stands on the body of a lying corpse, depicted on a double lotus throne with strands of pearls. In his hands he holds a kartrika (vajra chopper) and a kapala (scull) in front of him; the skull is full of the blood and guts of demons turned into elixir. Mahakala is wearing beaded jewellery around his waist, a garland of demon heads and has a serpent tied on top of his pot-belly. Adorned with necklaces, naga bracelets, coiled serpent ear ornaments with foliate pendants, and a billowing sash, Mahakala wears a five-leafed crown with ornaments fluttering behind his ears and strands of pearls suspended on his forehead. His crown of five skulls represent the five afflictions of anger, greed, pride, envy and ignorance. The protector's face is depicted with fierce expression, three bulging round eyes, broad nose, snarling mouth with fangs bared and with curly beard and moustache.

After Taizu, the Hongwu emperor (1368-1398 A.D.), restored diplomatic and trade missions with Tibet, the Chinese emperor Chenzu sought actively the services of Tibetan lamas, in the Yongle era (1403-1424 A.D.). Of the outstanding bronze sculptures from this period, many bear the imperial inscriptions of the Yongle and Xuande (1426-1435 A.D.) periods, as they were produced in government workshops, and may be regarded as classic examples of the Tibeto-Chinese style. This bronze Mahakala is a good example of this period, an early Ming work of art, produced in the first half of the 15th century, exhibiting all the typical stylistic characteristics: the double lotus throne with pronounced large leaves continuing at the back, the shape of the five-leafed crown, the typical moving ornamentation, and the style of the jewellery.

Spiritual obstacles are not caused by external circumstances, but by inner defilements, such as fear, hate, pride and jealousy. The inner force of Mahakala is invoked to vanquish these problems; he appears in this superb bronze image as 'self assured', possessing an amazing amount of concentrated magical power. The figure is well modelled and cast, revealing striking positioning of his hands, perfect balance and a lively movement of all features. Portrayed with great imagination, Mahakala is depicted as a powerful god and spiritual protector.


all text, images © Marcel Nies

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