The Many Forms of Mahakala, Protector of Buddhist Monasteries

Article of the Month - January 2005
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The Elephant Goad
The Elephant Goad




The other notable departure from the normal Mahakala iconography is the elephant goad held in the center left hand, the sharp point of which symbolizes penetrating awareness.





Two Elephants Under His Feet
Two Elephants Under His Feet




Also, in contrast to other Mahakalas, he stands on two elephants rather than one.




White Mahakala in Tribhanga, Central Tibet
White Mahakala in Tribhanga
Central Tibet
7th century

The elephant skin stretched at the back refers to the deity having torn asunder the pachyderm of ignorance.

Another interesting aspect of White Mahakala is that he is occasionally shown in the tribhanga posture. In this typical stance of the body, the head, torso, and legs slant in contrary directions. The legs and hips jutt to the right, the trunk to the left, and the neck and head then again gently to the right. It is a lyrical, dreamy, very graceful pose. The three curves formed by the body symbolize the three worlds, upper, lower and middle, better known in Sanskrit as triloka. This is also popularly known as the posture of three bends.

White Mahakala is popular for both mundane as well as spiritual reasons, ranging from the basic desire for wealth and prosperity to the ultimate attainment of the precious jewel, which is none other than the Buddhist Dharma.


Some Rare Forms of Mahakala

Mahakala Panjaranatha

We have observed above Mahakala's' special relationship with the Buddhist monastery (vihara). The ever-innovative Tibetan artist however was not content with the aforementioned visualizations of Mahakala. He was looking at the development of an icon which expressed specifically, in a forceful and hard hitting manner, the role of Mahakala as the powerful protector of Buddhist viharas. Thus developed in the canons of Tibetan Buddhist aesthetics a unique form of Mahakala known as Gur gyi mGon po, or the 'Great Lord of the Pavilion.'

Mahakala's Vow to Protect the Monastery of Nalanda
Mahakala's Vow to Protect the Monastery of Nalanda


Grinning wildly and with fiery eyes, this terrible image of the Great Black One stands heavily upon the body of a corpse. While he holds the normal skull cup and chopper in his two hands, supported across the crook of his elbows is an ornamental wooden stick, called the 'gandi' gong, which is used in Buddhist monasteries to summon the monks and nuns to assemblies. It is this intriguing aspect of his iconography which associates him exclusively with the viharas and it is believed to symbolize the vow he once made to the Buddha to protect the monastic community of Nalanda at Bihar and hence by extension all Buddhist retreats. Also, originally it was likely a shaman's staff used during application of protective charms (panjara), hence in this manifestation he also came to be known as Panjaranatha, or 'Lord of Charms." It is also conjectured that the rod denotes the one used to hold up outdoor tents and hence is a reminder that this awesome deity is the supreme savior of the essentially nomadic Tibetan people.




Mahakala Panjaranatha (Lord of the Pavilion), Tibet
Mahakala Panjaranatha (Lord of the Pavilion)
circa15th century

The significance vested with this stick can be realized from the fact that it is also called the 'gandi stick of emanation,' and it is believed that all of Mahakala's other forms emanate from this rod. They are thought to emerge into the world from two sets of doors, and it is a tribute to the Tibetan artistic genius that these two gates are often minutely carved and painted at the two ends of the stick (see accompanying illustration). The Panjaranatha form can thus be thought of as the fundamental or original form of Mahakala, being the source of all the other manifestations, including the four- and six-armed incarnations.

Another peculiarity of this deity is that he is depicted with his knees bent, almost seated on his haunches, as if about to rise. This posture is defined in the Sadhanamala; Mahakala is said to be rising from the body of the ghost (pretasanastham utthitham) on which he was seated in yogic meditation. Also, his physical form is dwarfish (vamana) and often squat, adding to the grotesqueness of the visualization. The short stature shows that Mahakala possesses a compact power.

Panjaranatha is the preserver of the Sakya order.

Mahakala as the Wise Brahman (mGonpo Bramzei)

Brahmanarupa Mahakala, Tibet
Brahmanarupa Mahakala
Circa 18th century

The saga of Mahakala's iconographic journey continues, taking us among other places, to Mongolia. It was the thirteenth century. Sakya Pandita (1182-1251), the founder of the Sakya order, was on a trip to Mongolia. Accompanying him was his nephew Phags pa (1235-89). The latter remained at the court after his uncle went back to Tibet. Phags pa impressed the emperor Khubilai Khan with his wisdom and learning skills and was appointed the imperial tutor. The monarch requested the monk to initiate him in the teachings of the Hevajra Tantra. Unfortunately, Phags pa, young as he was, had still not set his eyes on the sutra. He requested the emperor to postpone the discussion for the next day. That night the revered lama lay sleepless in despair since he did not have with him a copy of the sacred text. At that instant there appeared, to his astonishment, an old white haired Brahman, who asked Phags pa to light his lamp and lay before him the coveted sutra. The monk was thus able to initiate the king, who then happily embraced the folds of the Dharma.

The elderly Brahman was none other than the great Mahakala, who in this form is known as 'Brahmanarupa Mahakala'. Iconographically he is depicted with a long beard (symbolizing the wisdom of experience) and holding up a human thighbone trumpet to his mouth. Harvested from the charnel fields, and being a characteristic attribute of yogis and yoginis associated with the cremation ground, the sound of the trumpet is said to appease wrathful deities but instal fear in the hearts of evil spirits. Tibetan shamans, of both Buddhist and Bon traditions, employ the thighbone trumpet in many rituals of exorcism and weather control. The instrument's threatening drone is said to unhinge the powers of malignant spirits, or of the nagas and those weather gods who either vengefully withhold or unleash the elemental powers of thunder, wind, hail, and rain.

Mahakala Maning - The Black Eunuch (mGon po maning)

Mahakala Maning, Tibet or Bhutan
Mahakala Maning
Tibet or Bhutan
circa 19th century




In this manifestation Mahakala is the avowed guardian of the Nyingmapas. He holds a fresh and throbbing human heart in his left hand, and also a garland strung with the same macabre organs. His right hand holds the trishula and the gandi-staff is pushed into his waist belt. The term 'maning' (eunuch) used in Mahakala's name here means genderless or without genitals. It has also been translated insufficiently as hermaphrodite. In any case, research on this aspect of Mahakala has been speculative and much needs to be done to bring out the true meaning behind this strange but breathtaking visualization.




The Four-Headed Mahakala (mGon po zhal bzhi pa)

Four Headed Mahakala
Four Headed Mahakala




Here, Mahakala has, in addition to the central face, one face each to the right and left and another above these three. His four hands in addition to the skull cup and chopper hold the wisdom sword and khatvanga respectively. Mahakala's quartet of faces symbolizes the four kinds of mindfulness:

1). Mindfulness of the body.
2). Mindfulness of sensations.
3). Mindfulness of the mind.
4). Mindfulness of phenomena.

The Four-Headed Mahakala is the special protector of the Nyingmapas.




The Two-Armed Mahakala

Mahakala (AD1661), Stone
Mahakala (AD1661)
Svayambhu Mahachaitya Museum, Nepal






The two-armed Mahakala is most popular in the Newar Buddhism of Nepal. In the Mahakala Tantra he is described as the form by which the sufferings of sentient beings are removed. Such images are placed in the entrances to many bahals (monasteries) with Mahakala on the left as one enters and Ganesha on the right.







Kartridhara Mahakala
Kartridhara Mahakala







He may also be holding his chopper aloft in which case he is referred to as 'Kartaridhara (Holder of the Chopper) Mahakala.'









Mahakala of the Black Cloak, Tibet
Mahakala of the Black Cloak
circa 16th century







Finally, there is the misshapen and squat two-armed, black-cloaked (Bernag chen) Mahakala, who is particularly the protector of the Karma Kagyu School.






Mahakala as 'Great Time' - The Symbolism Behind His Color

Mahakala's typical blackness symbolizes his all-embracing, comprehensive nature, because it is the hue into which all other colors merge; it absorbs and dissolves them. Just as all colors disappear in black, so do all names and forms melt into that of Mahakala. Black is also the total absence of color, again signifying the nature of Mahakala as ultimate reality. This in Sanskrit is named as nirguna (beyond all quality and form). Either way, Mahakala's dark complexion represents his transcendence of all form. Kala however also means time. Etymologically, 'kala' means that which absorbs everything within itself (kalayati iti kala). Thus Mahakala is the cosmic nature of time, into which we will all dissolve in the course of time. He is the transcendent-time (maha-kala), absolute, eternal, measureless, and ever present.

References and Further Reading

  • Bangdel, Dina., and John C. Huntington. The Circle of Bliss Buddhist Meditational Art: Chicago, 2003.
  • Berger, Patricia & Terese Tse Bartholomew. Mongolia The Legacy of Chinggis Khan: San Francisco, 1995.
  • Bunce, Frederick W. Numbers Their Iconographic Consideration in Buddhist and Hindu Practices: New Delhi, 2002.
  • Bhattacharya, N.N (ed). Tantric Buddhism - Centennial Tribute to Dr. Benoytosh Bhattacharya: New Delhi, 1999.
  • Beer, Robert. The Encyclopedia of Tibetan Symbols and Motifs: Boston, 1999.
  • Colin, Didier. Dictionary of Symbols, Myths & Legends: London, 2000.
  • Cooper, J.C. An Illustrated Encyclopedia of Traditional Symbols: London, 1999.
  • Danielou, Alain. The Myths and Gods of India: Vermont, 1991.
  • Getty, Alice. The Gods of Northern Buddhism: New Delhi, 1978.
  • Jansen, Eva Rudy. The Book of Buddhas (Ritual Symbolism Used on Buddhist Statuary and Ritual Objects): New Delhi, 2002.
  • Kalsang, Ladrang. The Guardian Deities of Tibet: Dharamsala, 2000.
  • Keown, Damien. Oxford Dictionary of Buddhism: Oxford, 2003.
  • Landaw, Jonathan., and Weber, Andy. Images of Enlightenment (Tibetan Art in Practice): New York, 1993.
  • Linrothe, Rob & Jeff Watt. Demonic Divine Himalayan Art and Beyond: New York, 2004.
  • Nebesky-Wojkowitz, Rene De. Oracles and Demons of Tibet: Delhi, 1996.
  • Oleshey, Gomehen. & Tenzin Khempo Sangyay (tr. by Keith Dowman). Deities and Divinities of Tibet (The Nyingma Icons): Kathmandu.
  • Pal, Pratapaditya. A Collecting Odyssey: Chicago, 1997.
  • Pal, Pratapaditya. Art of Tibet. Los Angeles: The Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1990.
  • Pal, Pratapaditya. Art from India, Nepal, and Tibet: New Delhi, 2001.
  • Pal, Pratapaditya. Himalayas An Aesthetic Adventure: Ahmedabad, 2003.
  • Rhie, Marylin M. & Thurman, Robert A.F. Wisdom and Compassion: The Sacred Art of Tibet. London: Thames and Hudson, 1996.
  • Rhie, Marylin M. & Thurman, Robert A.F. Worlds of Transformation Tibetan Art of Wisdom and Compassion: New York, 1999.
  • Vessantara. Meeting the Buddhas (A Guide to Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, and Tantric Deities), Birmingham, 1993.

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