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There are several legends about the meaning and origin of the Eleven-headed Avalokiteshvara. According to one version the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara had promised his spiritual father Amitabha - the god of eternal lights, that he would never give up practicing tender loving compassion, and would not reach enlightenment himself until all beings had reached nirvana. He descended into hell, converted the wicked, liberated them and escorted them to Sukhavati, the paradise of Amitabha. This way Avalokiteshvara tried for many years to help all living things, when he saw no decrease in their suffering within samsara, the wheel of existence i.e., he discovered that after every conversion and liberation another culprit instantly used to take up the vacated position. So he gave up his promise in despair. Immediately his head split into a thousand pieces. His spiritual father, the Dhyani Buddha Amitabha then consolidated the thousand pieces into ten heads that he placed above each other and then put his own head on the top. He also told Avalokiteshvara not to renounces his promise and that there was still another way to accomplish his goal. Mahakala, the wrathful manifestation of Avalokiteshvara, was then created to fight against the negative forces with compassion, and to destroy obstacles in the path toward righteousness, thereby helping all sentient beings reach enlightenment.
The eleven heads are arranged in five series from below upwards of 3,3,3,1 and 1. The topmost head as mentioned above, is that of Amitabha.
The hands of the Bodhisattva are 42 in number, arranged in the manner of thousand arms. The two principal hands are joined in Anjali to signify that he is identical with the dharmakaya, plane of the absolute, and that in this his essence is revealed to others. Only the first five hands have particular attributes; the remaining are in Varada mudra, the gesture of presenting a gift or boon. The upper right hand holds the wheel of Buddhist law, the second right hand carries a jewel and his lower right hand is in the charity or varada-mudra. The upper left hand holds a lotus flower. The second left hand holds a bow and arrow. The lower left hand holds a water jar. He is seated in vajraparyankasana on a lotus throne, placed on a slightly high pedestal. A lion on either side supports the seat. The center of the pedestal depicts a hanging scarf. The border of the pedestal is incised with stylized designs.
He is adorned with necklaces, earrings, armlets, bracelets and anklets. Moreover he is also wearing a skirt and flowering scarf. The three series of heads are wearing beautiful crowns, while the one wrathful face (Mahakala) has the crown of skulls. The hair of the top head (Amitabha) has been arranged in curls with prominent ushanisha.
The facial expression expresses different gestures - the heads looking forward wear an aspect of benevolence, the left ones express anger at the faults of men, while the right faces smile graciously at the good deeds. The tenth wrathful face (Mahakala) symbolizes dominant action. The ten heads in totality represent the ten parmitas (perfections) and the eleventh head is the attainment of Enlightenment.