Yamantaka, the ferocious emanation of Manjushri (Bodhisattva of wisdom), is the most complicated and terrible of all the wrathful Buddhist divinities. Under this from he conquered the demon king of death, Yama, who was depopulating Tibet in his insatiable thirst for victims. According to this myth, in his paroxysm of insight, Manjushri traveled all the way to the underworld to seek out Yama, the God of death, who dwells with all his minions in the sealed up iron cities of hell. Yama appears in Indian mythology with the head of a water buffalo. To tame Yama, Manjushri adopted the same form, adding to it eight other faces and a multiple array of arms, each holding fearful and deadly weapons. He further sprouted a number of legs, and surrounded himself with a vast host of terrifying beings. To confront death, he thus manifested the form of death itself, magnified to infinity. Death (Yama) saw himself endlessly mirrored back to himself, infinitely outnumbered by himself. Death was literally scared to death. Thus the yogi who meditates through the imagery of Yamantaka intends and hopes to develop a sense of identity strong enough to face down death, and the fear that attends upon it. Each head, each limb, each attribute, symbol and ornament of Yamantaka expresses the total mobilization of the faculties of enlightenment needed for this ultimate confrontation.
Yamantaka has the following characteristics:
1). Nine heads. The first head is that of a bull. Next to his right horn he has three heads, and three heads next to the left horn. Between the horns, is a head red and terrible, above which is the head of Manjushri, with a slightly irritated expression.
The main enormous buffalo head is truly fearsome, with its gaping jaws, rolling tongue, three red-rimmed, popping eyes, and red nostrils.
2). Thirty four arms, each holding a symbolic implement. The two main arms hold a skull and a chopper.
3). Sixteen legs, eight on each side. Lying face down under his bent right legs are one human male and six animals that are in turn, stepping on four devas, or heavenly gods. Under his outstretched left legs, four birds are stepping on four devas, including a personification of Ganesha, the Lord of obstacles.
This portrayal of Yamantaka without his consort, in what is called the Lone Hero form, is tremendously powerful. The tight, muscular, blue body, modeled daringly with blue-grey highlights and dark blue shadows, has a tough reality that sets it apart from the more linear, decorative character of the rest of the painting. Each arm fights for individuality in the compact crowd of arms and red-palmed hands holding various symbols and weapons. The legs cluster together, appearing like thick supports for the wayward and spreading array of arms. His erect phallus has a bright red tip. He wears the characteristic ornaments of the wrathful deities-the garland of severed heads and the five-skull crown. He wears the jeweled girdle, and ankle, leg, arm, and wrist ornaments, all executed with gossamer white lines, a style known from as early as the late 12th century and seeming to have stylistic connections with art of Eastern India (Orissa).
The great clusters of limbs and heads create an awesome, even if cumbersome, effect. The Tibetan infusion of a quality of deep primordial power emanates without restraint from this mesmerizing figure, striking to the heart of one who witnesses it.
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Lipton, Barbara, and Ragnubs, Nima Dorjee. Treasures of Tibetan Art: Collection of the Jacques Marchais Museum of Tibetan Art. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.
Rhie, Marylin M. & Thurman, Robert A.F. Wisdom and Compassion: The Sacred Art of Tibet. London: Thames and Hudson, 1996.