Buddhism first spread to Tibet in the seventh century, and the history of thangka painting dates from the tenth century during the revival and full flourishing of the religion in the region. Referred to as Tantra and Lamaism, Tibetan Buddhism enables the devout to achieve enlightenment by forming a mystical union with deities through meditation on sacred diagrams, and the recitation of potent phrases. This tantric hanging (thangka), depicting the deity Mahakala in his form as lord of the pavilion, was made as an aid to meditation for devotees of the Sakya order of Tibetan Buddhism.
Mahakala is revered as a wrathful guardian (dharmapala) of the Buddhist law. A fierce incarnation of the compassionate saviour figure Avalokiteshvara, he demolishes obstacles faced by worshippers in their search for enlightenment. Mahakala is identified by his golden skull-crown, serpent garland, tiger pelt and waistband made from severed human heads. Surrounded by a flaming halo, the blue-skinned deity stands upon a prone figure—sprawled across a lotus base with intricate foliate designs—symbolising the death of negative or destructive forces. He is armed with additional attributes including a monastic gong (gandi) with finials in the form of the thunderbolts (vajras) that destroy all ignorance; a ritual chopper (kartika) symbolising the severance of material and worldly bonds; and a skull cup (kapala) filled with human entrails. Along with images of Mahakala’s various manifestations, the otherworldly landscape is alive with popular Buddhist deities and guardian figures, monks and animals scavenging for prey.
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2014
From: Collection highlights: National Gallery of Australia, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2014