Subscribe for Newsletters and Discounts
Be the first to receive our thoughtfully written
religious articles and product discounts.
By registering, you may receive account related information, our email newsletters and product updates, no more than twice a month. Please read our Privacy Policy for details.
Share our website with your friends.
Email this page to a friend
By subscribing, you will receive our email newsletters and product updates, no more than twice a month. All emails will be sent by Exotic India using the email address

Please read our Privacy Policy for details.
Your Cart (0)

The Many Forms of Mahakala, Protector of Buddhist Monasteries

Article of the Month - January 2005
Viewed 93673 times since 2nd Oct, 2008
The Dhe-Tsang monastery, built in 1414 by a close disciple of Je Tsongkhapa is situated in the Gyalrong district of eastern Tibet. When its founder, Ngawang Drakpa, came to the region intending to build a monastery there, he realized that the place was special but couldn't decide on the best location to build the hermitage. At that very moment, a huge crow swooped down on him, picked off his scarf, and flew away with it. The monk hastened to follow the crow. Eventually, the garment was found hanging from the branches of a Juniper tree. Here it is relevant to observe that the crow is visualized in Tibetan Buddhism as an incarnation of Mahakala, whose name literally means the 'Great Black One.' Taking this occurrence to be an auspicious omen, Ngawang decided to build the monastery around the tree, which would itself serve as a natural pillar of the prayer hall.

During the actual construction of the monastery, the revered monk faced many obstructions from the local Bonpo masters who practiced a primitive form of shamanism and thus felt threatened by the unfolding of the Buddhist faith in Tibet. Whatever was constructed of the building during the day would collapse during the night. These mishaps were attributed to the black magic performed by the Bonpos. One day, when Ngawang Drakpa was contemplating the problem, the crow reappeared. Much relieved by its presence, the venerable monk wrote a letter to his guru Tsongkhapa in Lhasa, asking for help. The master in response to his pupil's plea then composed a practice brimming with spiritual potency and gave it the name: 'The Solitary Hero Vajra Bhairava Sadhana.' He gave it to the crow to deliver it to Ngawang Drakpa. When the latter received the manual he performed the practice immediately, which led to the subduing of all the leading Bonpo priests. This text later became one of the most significant one used in all Gelukpa monasteries and retains its popularity to the present day.

When the major part of construction was completed, the lama began to look for master sculptors who could create spiritually charged images for the retreat. One day, three black men came to the monastery and stayed there for some time. They later revealed that they were sculptors from India. Delighted on hearing this, Ngawang Drakpa eagerly sought their services in building the required deity statues. Of the three men from India, only one agreed to stay on and help. As per his promise, the sculptor created all the statues requested except that of Mahakala, which alas, was only half-finished when the day of inauguration arrived.

The celebrations for the occasion consisted of various ritual dance performances. At the end of the program, the Indian sculptor declared that he too wished to perform a dance for the contemplation of the audience and proceeded to enthrall them with an exceptionally energetic performance wearing a swirling costume and a large wrathful mask, leaving the viewers in raptures. Towards the conclusion of the dance, his physical form suddenly started to shrink until finally only the giant mask remained on the ground and there was no trace of the body of the dancer. Taken aback by the bizarre turn of events, the monks rushed to the chamber where the half finished statue of Mahakala lay. To their utter surprise, the statue was complete. The sculptor had merged with his creation, granting it an unparalleled spiritual potency.

The story does not end here however. Later they were informed that the two companions of the Indian sculptor, who had declined to stay on, had each made a Mahakala statue at two different monasteries and had likewise mysteriously disappeared into their respective creations. It was not long before the perceptive adepts realized that these sculptors were none other than the great god Mahakala in his various manifestations, incarnating himself as the savior and protector of monasteries. Thus at Ngawang's hermitage he was the Six-Armed Mahakala and had created a sculpture of himself with half-a-dozen hands. In a similar manner the other two had created icons of the Four-Armed and the White Mahakala respectively. Collectively, they were named the three Mahakala brothers and became vastly popular all over Tibet.

Though Mahakala's image is honored in all Tibetan monasteries, it is only at Dhe-Tsang that he is regarded as a living member of the sangha. Thus for example during offering ceremonies it is still customary for the chant leader to announce: "Do not forget the black man's share," and the same of what each monk receives is also set aside for Mahakala and presented to his sacred image. This tradition originated in the fact that when the so called 'black man from India' was sculpting the icons and was asked what he desired in return for his services replied "Only that much that is offered to the monks." When counting the number of residents at this exceptional monastery, this generous protector is also taken as a member. As an interesting fact it should be mentioned here that this monastery was destroyed in the 1950's, falling victim to the political and revolutionary activities of the day. It was however, rebuild spectacularly and was reopened in 1997, with the best wishes and participation of 170 representatives from fifteen nations under the patronage of his holiness Khejok Rinpoche.

The Symbolic Iconography of the Three Mahakala Brothers

Each of the three forms of Mahakala has some distinctly different qualities and aspects, symbolized by the physical forms and also the various implements they hold in their hands.

The Six-Armed (Shadbhuja) Mahakala (mGon po phyag drug pa)

Six Armed Mahakala
Six Amed Mahakala






This form is most favored by the Gelukpa order of Tibetan Buddhism, and in this manifestation Mahakala is considered to be the fierce and powerful emanation of Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva of compassion.








The Five Skull Crown
The Five Skull Crown

He is adorned with the following symbolic attributes:

1). A crown of five skulls: This is worn by all manifestations of Mahakala and represents the transmutation of the five negative afflictions of human nature into positive virtues. Thus:

a). Ignorance transforms into the wisdom of reality.
b). Pride becomes the wisdom of sameness.
c). Attachment becomes the wisdom of discernment.
d). Jealousy becomes the wisdom of accomplishment.
e). Anger becomes mirror like wisdom.


2). The Six Arms signify the successful completion of the six perfections (shad-paramita), which are practiced and brought to perfection by bodhisattvas during the course of their training. These are:

a). The perfection of generosity (dana-paramita)
b). Morality (shila-paramita)
c). Peace (shanti-paramita)
d). Vigor (virya-paramita)
e). Meditation (dhyana-paramita)
f). Insightful Wisdom (prajna-paramita)


3). The arms hold various implements each of which has a symbolic significance:

a). The first right hand holds a curved knife. In Mahakala's symbolism the curved knife cuts through the life veins of enemies such as oath-breakers and hindering spirits.


The Skull Cup and Chopper
The Skull Cup and Chopper





b). The skull cup in his primary left hand is filled with the heart-blood of these enemies.

The crescent shaped chopper of the right hand corresponds in shape to the cavity of the skull cup and functions to make 'mincemeat' of the hearts, intestines, lungs, and life-veins of enemies hostile to the Dharma, which are then collected in the skull cup. A similar crescent shaped hand cleaver is used in oriental cuisine to chop meat and dice vegetables.





Ritual Damaru
Ritual Damaru





c). The next right hand holds a damaru - the hourglass-shaped drum, signifying the primordial sound from which is said to have originated all manifested existence. Its rattle is also said to emanate the sound that arouses us from our ignorant state, coaxing us on to the path of Dharma.





The Rosasry of Skulls
The Rosasry of Skulls





d). The uppermost right hand holds a rosary of skulls. The continuous counting of the rosary is a symbol of perpetual activity, which Mahakala achieves on a cosmic scale.





The Trident
The Trident






e). Another left hand holds a trident which represents the Three Jewels of Buddhism, the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha.







The Lasso
The Lasso





f). Finally there is the noose for lassoing those of us who have strayed away from the path of the Dharma.











One Elephant Under Mahakala's Feet
One Elephant Under Mahakala's Feet

The Six-armed Mahakala's left leg is outstretched while the right is bent at the knee. The former symbolizes his accomplishments for the benefit of others and the latter those for himself. An elephant-headed entity lying crushed under his legs represents our instinctive, primary animal force and urge, which when unleashed can prove to be extremely destructive. These cravings however, can also be extremely useful to our self-development and -realization when we master them and bring them under our moderation. Indeed, it is warned that dreaming about a herd of elephants is a sign that instinctive and irrepressible forces that may have been suppressed for too long are about to be unleashed.

The Lotus
The Lotus



The sun-disc on which Mahakala stands denotes his illumination of the darkness of ignorance, and the lotus on which this disc rests signifies his undefiled purity.



The Three Wide Open Eyes
The Three Wide Open Eyes

The blazing fire surrounding him demonstrates his powerful energy out to consume all neurotic states of minds. Further, his three organs of vision express his ability to see the past, present and future. That he stares at the world with wide eyes signifies that he is incensed at the current state of affairs.

Snakes slither across his body as ornaments and also as the scared thread of Brahmins. The writhing serpent is a metaphor for the stirring of our psychic instinctive and primordial energy and Mahakala's wearing them as adornments expresses the fact that rather than impede our spiritual progress, such emotions have been tamed and harnessed, becoming in the process, crowning glories of our spiritual achievements.

The Four-Armed (Chatur-bhuja) Mahakala (mGon po phyag bzhi pa)

Four-Armed Mahakala
Four-Armed Mahakala





The four arms of this manifestation of Mahakala perform one of the following four positive karmas or actions, which are said to be his specific boon to his worshippers:

a). Pacify sickness, hindrances, and troubles.
b). Increase life, good qualities and wisdom.
c). Attract whatever Dharma practitioners need and bring people to the Dharma.
d). Destroy confusion, doubt, and ignorance.





The Khatvanga or tantric staff
The Khatvanga or tantric staff



In addition to the ubiquitous skull cup and chopper, the Chatur-bhuja Mahakala holds in his other two arms a khatvanga (left hand) and flaming sword respectively. The khatvanga is a kind of ritual staff having three human heads at the upper end. These represent the overcoming of the three roots of evil, namely greed (raga), ill will (dvesha), and delusion (moha).

The sword is the flaming weapon of transcendental wisdom (prajna) with which Mahakala destroys ignorance. The latter is the principal attribute of Buddhist deities especially associated with overcoming ignorance and embodying the wisdom aspect of enlightenment within their physical forms.

The four-armed Mahakala is significant to the Nyingma school of Tibetan Buddhism.




The White Mahakala (Skt. Shad-bhuja Sita Mahakala; Tib. mGon po yid bzhin nor bu)

The Chintamani Jewel in White Mahakala's Hand
The Chintamani Jewel in White Mahakala's Hand





This is the wealth aspect of Mahakala which specifically supports the comfort and economic well-being of tantric practitioners. The following description is according to his sadhana:

"His body is white. His face is wrathful and he has three eyes. He has six arms. His main right hand holds a wish- fulfilling jewel (chintamani) mounted on a jewel-tipped handle, in front of his chest."







White Mahakala's Bowl of Jewels
White Mahakala's Bowl of Jewels



The White Mahakala is known as mGon po yid bzhin nor bu in Tibetan with the last four meaning 'Wish-Granting Gem,' and he is the special protector of Mongolian Buddhists. His iconography is rich in symbols delineating his 'wealth-deity' status. For example his skull bowl, rather than contain the mortal remains of his victims, is full of various jewels,



White Mahakala's Crown of Jewels
White Mahakala's Crown of Jewels





and his crown is made up of five jewels instead of the trademark five skulls.







Continued in Page 2

Next Page »

Post a Comment
Post Review
  • Thank you for the excellent article about Mahakala. How is about Manjushri ?
    by Ha Nguyen on 28th Jan 2012
  • Thank you for an inciteful article I was looking for a better Image of the four armed mahakala than appears in "THe Myth of Freedom _ Chogyam Trungpa." which has a detailed description on working with negitivity through the principals of the four armed mahakala
    by Windhorse on 25th Nov 2009
  • excellent article, do u have more detail about mahakala history n story thanks
    by wilsontzr on 12th Sep 2006
  • Thank you for the beautiful article. I was guided to find the sanskrit name for Destiny and we called the card game we produced Mahakala Destiny. I felt completely overwhelmed when I found out recently the history and significance of Mahakala, and so grateful for the meaning and insight. I will connect this site to our website May we use some of the images from this site when we update ours? Love, Lesley
    by Lesley Matzopoulos on 19th Mar 2005
  • Excellent article about Tibetan Buddhism; very minute and profoundly documentated, with wonderful coloured images. A real joy for spirit, soul and eyes. Thank you very much.
    by Cristina, Romania on 19th Jan 2005
  • Thank you for this great article! The illustrations are superb as always!
    I took the liberty to introduce it to the Daruma Forum too:

    Gabi Greve
    by Gabi Greve on 19th Jan 2005
Parcel received is brilliantly packed by your dispatch team. Excellent collection, beautiful Micro-art work. The items are exactly same as displayed. Hats-off to the collection team. The shiva linga Ring & Garuda pendant were superb. Its pleasure shopping every time. God bless your team with good energy to continue this Real collection work.
Badarinath, India
Jamavar arrived so quickly and is beautiful, thank you!
Your service is exceptional. I am very pleased with your professionalism.
Shambhu, USA
Statue rec'd & it is beautiful, thank you!
Fran, New Jersey
Very good collection. Once ordered previously I had received exactly what has been displayed on the website. Very honest and genuine. But there was little delay in delivery. Nice experience shopping in this website.
Badarinath, India
I’ve received my blue scarf and I am delighted. I am impressed by your professionalism. Thank you so much! I will place another order soon.
Celine, France
Received the consignment in time. Excellent service. I place on record your prompt service and excellent way the product was packed and sent. Kindly accept my appreciation and thanks for all those involved in this work. My prayers t the Almighty to continue the excellent service for the many more years to come. Long live EXOTIC INDIA and its employees
A very thorough and beautiful website and webstore. I have tried for several years to get this Bhagavad Gita Home Study Course from Arshavidya and have been unable. Was so pleased to find it in your store!
George Marshall
A big fan of Exotic India. Have been for years and years. I am always certain to find exactly what I am looking for in your merchandise.
John Dash, western New York, USA
I just got my order and it’s exactly as I hoped it would be!
Nancy, USA.
Subscribe to our newsletter and discounts
Share with friends
Related Links
"This middle path lies in between extreme asceticism on one side, and extreme indulgence on the other…. When standing under a Ashok tree, tired and exhausted, she raised her right hand for seeking support of a branch of the tree…. The unique balance that defined his entire life was pre-determined in this duality….One day, in the palace garden he frightened his attendants…. He ate less and less till his diet reduced to a sesame seed, and himself, to a mere skeleton…. Seven days after the attainment of enlightenment gods sent food for breaking his fast…. However, he postponed his ‘nirvana’ for three months till he visited the places he had reminiscences of."
The Light That Enlightened Millions
(The life of Buddha in the popular mind)
"But to pull this statement out of context and give it as an advice for anyone is far from correct…. But how is one to recognise the guru? Obviously, he will be able to understand the difficulties of the disciples and clarify to them the meaning of the scriptures on the basis of logic and experience…. They will have to search in their own neighbourhood only….The guru chosen by him should be at least better than himself!…. Of course, if the ideal guru whose features have been enumerated in the beginning is available, then the sadhaka should immediately go and surrender to him…. It is just like going to another teacher for higher education, after completing the education in a school."
The Qualities of a Guru and How to Find One
"Whenever he gets the time, he should go and live amongst people who have given up worldly life…. A wise person should serve his body and family only to the extent that is functionally necessary…. The person who lays claim on the surplus wealth is nothing but a thief…. He should share all objects of enjoyment with everyone, right down to dogs, sinners…. Such is the attachment to one’s wife….How despicable is this body, which if buried is going to become the food of worms, or excreta if eaten by animals….Since a son is to thus revere his elders even after their death, what to say that he is expected to serve them when they are alive…. The person wishing to follow the path of dharma should steer clear of the five forms of Adharma."
Narada Teaches Yuddhishtra a Householder’s Dharma
"Actually, the one who worships Bhagwan Vishnu should get rich and the one who worships Shiva should become an avadhuta like Him…. Then he works hard again to acquire wealth. I render all his efforts futile…. However, Bhagawan Vishnu is not like that, it takes longer to please Him…. As a consequence, they later harassed the great God Himself…. On the seventh day, he bathed in the holy waters of Kedarnath and began to cut his head with an axe to offer into the fire…. The boy bowed respectfully before the demon and asked…. No one who commits sin against a great person can be safe and happy in this world."
Shiva and Vishnu: A Unique Aspect of Their Worship
"Vyasa Ji explained through a story how it came to be that the Pandava's marriage with a single wife was in conformity with dharma….The gods, along with their king Indra, were sitting on the bank of a river when they saw a beautiful golden lotus floating on its waters…. Both were playing a game of dice…. On hearing Shiva’s words, Indra started shaking with fear… Without death, the burden on the earth becomes too much…. Her birth had the sanction of all the three Gods - Brahma, Shiva and Vishnu."
Devi Draupadi: Resolving the Paradox
"Who would not satisfy his wife who is but his better half?…. Later, he took a bath, performed pranayama and meditating silently on the pure, eternal light, repeated internally the Gayatri Mantra…. Once it so happened that goddess Lakshmi was out of Vaikuntha…. Despite being older, they always maintain the appearance of five-year olds…. Seeing the great saints he welcomed them with reverence…. It is never for one single purpose but to fulfil many functions at the same time…. He ensured for them a glorious death."
God’s Lila, Understanding the Collective Impact of Avatara
"Only a certain fraction of this karma is chosen by God in order to form the blueprint of our next birth…. The fruit that one experiences in this birth is due to prarabdha and a portion of the present agami…. Similarly, a fish in the Ganga does not accrue punya because of always living in Ganga…. A good karma can be annulled by a bad karma and a bad one by a good one…. Sometimes we also hear that prarabdha cannot be got rid of. It has to be spent through…. Bhagawan Vyasa says that for the full result of the karma to manifest, three things are necessary…. Then how to understand the statement that prarabdha should unavoidably be experienced?"
Theory and Practice of Karma: Some Salient Features
"She has always believed that this would redeem her of her distress….A coconut, otherwise an ordinary dried fruit or the source of edible, or at the most, beauty oil, has always been revered as an auspicious object effecting good and well-being and the food that gods most loved….The tree in the Buddhist tradition was later identified as Bodhi-tree, seated under which Buddha had attained Enlightenment….Body gestures and symptoms, signs, indications among others must have been the early man’s tools of communicating oneself and knowing and understanding the world around….Kirttimukha was initially conceived as a mystical mask….Lion does not figure in the wide range of animal toys or figurines excavated from Indus sites."
Auspicious Symbols in Indian tradition
" Contrarily metaphysicians and theologians perceived his form as it manifested in the Upanishads and Puranas….The ‘Advaita’ philosophy also contends that the entire Creation is just the extension of One…. Dance illustrates one of the ever-first cosmic acts with which Shiva seems to have tamed violent motion and separated from it rhythm, moves that communicated emotions and states of mind – human mind and the cosmic, and disciplined and defined pace…. Unlike Vishnu who resorted to dance for accomplishing a contemplated objective, Shiva has been conceived more or less as a regular dancer performing for accomplishing an objective as also for pure aesthetic delight…. Unfurling locks of hair and his snakes floating into space portray the dynamics of the act."
Shiva, the Nataraja
"We assume that our happiness is the result of an interaction with external objects…. Suppose that an individual is deprived of sleep and food and pleasurable objects for a long time and then all of them are simultaneously offered to him…. Actually, seeking the answer to this question is the most significant pursuit in life…. The veil comes up again and the duality returns…. In this background, we can now analyse the nature of dukha (grief)."
Ananda: Understanding the True Nature of Happiness
"The Bhagavad Gita, while describing the qualities of a wise person says…. This verse is vividly illustrated in the story of king Rantideva occurring in the Srimad Bhagavatam…. He did not believe in hoarding, was above all attachments and was highly patient…. They were all trembling due to starvation and thirst….bowed to the dogs and their owner…. What I want is only this: That I be able to go and live in the hearts of all beings and undergo sufferings on their behalf, so that they may become free from all miseries."
An Example of Living Vedanta: The Story of King Rantideva
"Once as he was engaged in puja, a saint came to visit him….Like a true householder attached to his family, Gajendra sported in the water with his wives, children and friends…. Understanding that his end was imminent, they all slowly withdrew, till Gajendra was left alone…. If we reflect on it calmly, we will realise that there is no house in the world where the story of Gajendra does not play out…. The one who is careful towards the end is able to reform his death…. Gajendra’s hymn of praise is one of the greatest philosophical poems in the annals of world literature."
Moksha of Gajendra: Liberation by The Formless God
"During one such sacrifice, nine spiritually charged men entered the sacrificial hall….As for Bhagavat Dharma, it is the dharma spoken by God directly from his own mouth…. Like a person eating food finds himself gratified simultaneously in three ways…. We are all constantly taught by spiritual texts to offer or dedicate all our actions to God. However, the question remains as to how to practically carry out this injunction…..The only fruit of wealth is dharma... Therefore, there is no need for the Vedas to enjoin us to these things for which we already have a tendency….The real intention of the Vedic injunctions in these matters is to make a person abstain from them…”
Nine Teachings from Nine Yogis: The Essence of Bhagavat Dharma
"Here is a fragment from one of the most poignant episodes of Indian history…. This piece of history is from the Mahabharata…. She was dying with shame but inside, like a true kshatrani (woman of the warrior race), she was burning with anger…. I have heard that women who follow dharma were never brought before a public court….Greed is the destroyer of dharma. I do not desire a third boon…. Draupadi was as forgiving as mother earth herself…. Just then Arjuna saw his dear friend Bhagawan Krishna approaching him…. “Leave him, leave him. He is a brahmin and worthy of our worship. Their mother should not cry, like I have at the death of my children."
Analyzing the Eternal Dimensions of Dharma Through Itihasa (History)
"It concedes that for an orderly social life a division into four groups based on the principle of varnadharma is necessary…. Each individual sometimes acts in a sattvika manner while at other times he may act in rajasic or tamasic manner, which means that the manifestation of a particular guna depends on circumstances…. Though all the three gunas are present in everyone, different persons are driven to act differently…. The karma that I have to perform should depend on my inherent gunas and should have the ability to regulate these gunas…. There is no instant transition to moksha…. An individual has to make his way towards moksha only through worldly life."
Varnashrama Dharma: A Logical View
Show More
TRUSTe online privacy certification
All rights reserved. Copyright 2016 © Exotic India