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Mahakala, Protector of the Tent

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Mahakala, the fierce emanation of the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, is one of the most popular guardians in the Tibetan Buddhist pantheon. He is especially revered by the Sakya Order, and the presence of Mahasiddhas and Sakyapa teachers framing the deity makes clear that this protector was commissioned for a Sakya monastery.Mahakala tramples a corpse and holds a flaying knife and blood-filled skull cup, signifying the defeat of all impediments to enlightenment. He wears a profusion of gold and bone ornaments, and coiled around his belly is his Brahmin cord of a live green snake. Beneath it hangs a garland of severed heads. In the crooks of his elbows he supports a gandi gong, used to summon monks to assemblies and a symbol of his vow to protect the Buddhist university of Nalanda. His principal companions, Palden Remati and Palden Lhamo, appear to his left, and Legden Nagpo and Bhutadamara appear to his right. To the lower left is Brahmarupa, blowing a thighbone trumpet.This tangka is one of the earliest and grandest of this subject, and marks the beginning of a transfer from what was largely a mural tradition to large-scale cloth paintings. Although commissioned for a Tibetan monastery, the work is strongly Nepali in style and composition, and can be related to paintings in the fifteenth-century Kumbum at Gyantse monastery, believed to have been painted under Newari direction.

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