On each of his four heads is a crown of five skulls, above each of which is a flaming pearl. Every face has a third eye and an angry expression. He has twelve arms.
He wears a long garland of heads, and a tiger-skin hangs from his waist. He steps to the left on a four-armed female, and on the right treads on a four-armed man with a tiger-skin covering. The whole group is on a lotus pedestal where a squatting gnome uplifts a skull cup in worship.
Shamvara is represented here with his shakti, Vajravarahi. Embracing each other in a gesture of climactic ecstasy, their lips meet, fangs exposed, in passionate unison. His two main arms are crossed at her back, holding a bell and vajra respectively. She wraps her legs around his waist, straddling him. Her right hand is raised in a victorious cry of primordial bliss. Vajravarahi's left hand falls over his right shoulder and holds a skull cup (not visible). The right brandishes a chopper. She, according to her sadhana, has 'nothing but the four quarters as her garments', i.e., is represented nude.
Shamvara's hair is arranged in the coif of a yogi (crowned with a vajra). This is a reminder that he was first worshipped by the wandering ascetics of medieval India, and that he shares some attributes with Shiva. According to legend, the Hindu god Shiva became the Buddhist deity Shamvara, and his teachings were brought to Tibet in the eleventh century. Both Shiva and Shamvara are supposed to dwell on Mount Kailash, a place for pilgrimage for Hindus and Tibetan Buddhists. His name too, for example, is related to Shamba (Fortunate), an epithet of Shiva.
Tibetans say that rather than having an ordinary physical form, such a deity is a congerie of pure symbolic elements. Thus, the deity's attributes are of paramount importance; they are clues to his identity and to his function in meditation and ritual. According to Snellgrove, the symbolic interpretation of Shamvara is as follows:
'Each of his faces has three eyes, indicating that he sees the (whole) threefold world and that he knows the substance of the three times (past, present, and future). He has twelve arms indicating that he comprehends the evolution and reversal of the twelvefold causal nexus and eliminates these twelve stages of transmigration.'
Corresponding to the usual iconography of Shamvara, this image has twelve arms, each of which hold a characteristic implement. Tantric texts explain the meaning of each implement:
The first pair of hands holds, right and left, a vajra sceptre and a bell respectively, symbolizing the union of skilful means and wisdom.
The second pair rends the elephant of illusion and stretches its hide out like a cape.
The drum in the third right hand shows that Shamvara's "voice resounds joyously." From the corresponding left hand dangles the severed head of the god Brahma showing that Shamvara "avoids all illusion."
His fourth right hand brandishes the axe that "cuts off birth and death at the roots." The vajra lasso in his fourth left hand shows that he binds beings to wisdom from life to life.
His fifth right hand wields the vajra chopper that "cuts off the six defects, pride and the rest." In his fifth left hand he holds the skull bowl full of blood which shows that "has cut away discrimination between existence and non-existence."
The trident in his sixth right hand signals that he has "overcome the evil of the threefold world. The corresponding left grips the khatvanga staff that represents "the blissful Thought of Enlightenment."
The painted line is bold as is the subject matter. It goes to the credit of the skill of the artist that even the secondary heads of the deity have been delineated as finely as the primary one. A halo, densely packed with arabesque, surmounts the couple.
The painting is achieved solely using the twin, precious hues of gold and silver. This mystic combination lends a certain starkness to the artwork and at the same time renders the gruesome aura of the black ground less macabre, bringing to the fore, the aesthetic virtues of the artwork.
The two voluptuous forms are outlined totally in gold, while the bodies are black. Splashes of gold further lend fleshiness to the forms, which are also speckled with rich, silver jewelry.