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This exquisite mandala is an accurate copy from the famous series of twenty-seven mandalas that were painted in the late 14th century by a group of Newar artists for the Ngor Monastery in Tibet. As a Sakya 'yogini' or mother-tantra mandala it is unusual in that the positions of the yellow southern and green northern quadrants are reversed. Jnanadakini (Tib. Yeshe Khandroma), the 'sky-going dakini of prajna or pristine awareness', is a blue-black manifestation of Vajravarahi and Vajrayogini with three faces and six arms, and she sits in the central chamber of her thirteen-deity mandala. The other four cardinal dakinis on the central dais are white Vajra (east), blue Ghora (north), red Vetali (west), and yellow Candali (south). In the inter-cardinal corners are lioness-faced Simhini (NE), tigress-faced Vyaghri (NW), jackal-faced Jambuki (SW), and owl-faced Uluki (SE). And guarding the mandala's four directional gateways are white Rajanti (east), blue Dipini (north), red Cushini (west), and yellow Kambhoji (south).
Every minute detail of the mandala palace's complex structure have been meticulously painted, and the intricate golden lotus border that surrounds the entire composition is a painstaking work of art in itself. In the corner sections that surround the four protection wheels of the lotus-womb, vajra-fence, mountain of fire, and the eight great charnel grounds, are roundels that contain twenty-six of the thirty-seven dakinis of the Vajravarahi mandala, with the other eleven dakinis appearing in the deity niches at the right of the bottom register. Thus in effect both the thirteen Jnanadakini-mandala deities and the thirty-seven Vajravarahi-mandala deities appear in this composition. The bottom left niche shows Dzongji Gyaltsen Zangpo, the 14th century patron of this mandala series, appears with his offering table in the next niche, and in the other five niches to the right are two-armed Mahakala, Jambhala, Raven-headed Mahakala, Four-armed Mahakala, and Remati (Paldan Lhamo). In the central niche of the top register is Dampa Sonam Gyaltsen (1312-1375), in whose honor these mandalas were commissioned, with Phagmodrupa and six other Lamas appearing to his right, and the Kagyu lineage of Vajradhara, Tilopa, Naropa, Marpa, Milarepa and Gampopa appearing to his left.
This extremely intricate mandala of the goddess Jnanadakini forms part of a series of twenty-seven different mandalas that are textually described in the Vajravali, or 'vajra-garland' cycle, which was compiled by the great Indian master Abhayakaragupta (died 1125). This unique set of mandalas were painted in the late 14th century by a group of Newar artists to commemorate the exemplary life of Buton Rinpoche's disciple, Dampa Sonam Gyaltsen (1312-1375), who appears in the central niche of the line of lineage holders at the top of this composition. Sakyapa Sonam Gyaltsen was the 14th Sakya Trizin and a principal teacher to both Tsongkhapa and Longchenpa. The original mandala, the fourth in the Vajravali mandala series, is now housed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. An unusual feature of this and some other Yogini Tantra mandalas from the Vajravali cycle is that the south and north directional quadrants are reversed in their polarity, with south (yellow) appearing on the right side of the mandala, and north (green) on the left.
Jnanadakini (Tib. Yeshe Khandroma), the 'sky-going goddess of pristine awareness', is a dark-blue manifestation of Vajrayogini and Vajravarahi who belongs to the Caturpitha Mahayogini Tantra cycle, which relates to the 'four seats' (Skt. caturpitha) or sacred sites of the four heart-dakinis of the Chakrasamvara Tantra Cycle. Jnanadakini's mandala consists of thirteen dakinis, nine of which occupy the directional chambers of her mandala's central dais, with the remaining four guarding the four directional gateways. Accompanying the assembly of this thirteen-deity mandala are the thirty-seven dakinis of the Vajravarahi and Vajrayogini mandala cycles, who appear within the roundels in the four corners of the paintings outer square and in the six horizontal deity niches in the bottom right of this composition.
Jnanadakini is semi-wrathful and blue-black in colour, with three faces and six arms, and she sits in sattva-paryanka posture upon a sun and moon disc, a multicoloured lotus, and a lion-throne. Her central face is blue with a slightly fierce expression, her right face is white with a meditative expression, and her left face is red with a passionate expression. Each of her faces has three eyes and is adorned with a crown of five jewel-topped skulls, and she wears a silk loincloth, golden ornaments, and the five bone ornaments. With her three right hands she holds a khatvanga, a vajra, and an axe; and with her three left hands she holds a bell, a sword, and a skull-cup. Her radiant aura is encircled by a blazing mass of wisdom fire, and she abides within the square blue-black vajra chamber at the centre of her mandala.
Occupying the cardinal chambers of the mandala's central dais are four identical one-faced and two-armed dakini-goddesses, who each hold a khatvanga and a skull-cup in their right and left hands, and sit upon a sun disc, lotus, and lion-throne. In the east (bottom) is white Vajradakini; in the north (left) is blue Ghoradakini; in the west (top) is red Vetali; and in the south (right) is yellow Candali. These four goddesses respectively belong to the Tathagata, Karma, Padma, and Ratna Families, and the coloured pillars of their chambers are traditionally ornamented with their emblems of wheels, swords, lotuses, and jewels.
The four corner chambers are occupied by the inter-cardinal goddesses, who are two-coloured on the left and right sides of their bodies. White and blue Simhini, the 'Lioness' (faced), sits in the northeast on an elephant throne. Blue and red Vyaghri, the 'Tigress' (faced), sits in the northwest on a jewel throne. Red and yellow Jambuki, the 'female Jackal' (faced), sits in the southwest on a buffalo throne. Yellow and white Uluki, the 'female Owl' (faced), sits in the southeast upon a serpent throne. And guarding the four gateways, as they sit on corpse, sun and lotus thrones with their two hands joined in different mudras are: white Rajanti (east); blue Dipini (north); red Cushini (west), and yellow Kambhoji (south).
A ring of vajras and coloured flame-banks encircles the central dais of the mandala palace, and two lotus-mounted golden ritual flasks or vases stand amidst the entwined lotus roundels that decorate each of the four directional quadrants of the palace's floor. The mandala's transparent five-coloured walls of light surround the inner square and four gateways of the palace, such that the walls appear blue on their interior and white on their exterior. The 'Sixteen Offering Goddesses' stand on the red platform that surrounds the square exterior of the four walls, with four directionally coloured offering goddesses appearing on each side of the platform. Crescent moon and half-vajra symbols, which respectively represent relative and absolute bodhicitta, are placed at the corners and each sectional end of the red 'Offering Goddess Platform'.
In the four corners outside this red platform are four decorative layers that represent the upper structure of the mandala's walls and roof. The first layer is a golden beam that runs along the top of the five-coloured wall, which is decorated with the geometric symbols of the four elements; earth (squares), water (circles), fire (triangles), wind (crescents), with the fifth element of space being represented by the empty spaces between each of the geometric symbols. The second layer is a dark blue band decorated with hanging loops of golden jewels. This layer represents the intricate ventilation frieze of the mandala palace, which consists of a lattice fashioned from seven different kinds of jewels arranged in four layers, with the upper two layers supporting the horizontal wooden beams of the mandala's ceiling. The third layer represents the herringbone pattern of wooden laths that form the ceiling, with a top layer of vajra-mud covering the roof. The inverted stupa-like bands of diminishing lines represent the guttering, waterspouts, and protruding cantilevers that overhang the roof and support the hanging emblems of a mirror, a bell, and a yak-tail pendant. The fourth layer of the outer square represents the recessed parapet of lotus-petal designs that runs around the entire roof of the palace.
The four directional gateways are each supported by golden and white pillars, the golden pillars are decorated with auspicious symbols, and the white pillars with the lotus, elephant, lion, mythical sharabha and deva emblems of the Buddha's enlightenment throne. The pillars support eleven different horizontal beams made from various gemstones, which each have symbolic designs and meanings. The first block-like beam supports the trefoil arch of each gateway, with its blue-black interior ornamented with silk parasols, and hanging golden loops and strings of jewels, lotuses and bells. The top beams appear as a lotus-frieze, with the Buddhist emblem of two deer flanking a golden eight-spoke wheel at its centre.
Behind the wheels are the 'jewel tips' of the four central prongs of the vast crossed-vajra (Skt. vishvajra) that supports the entire structure of the mandala palace as a symbol of vajra-like stability. The outer prongs of this vast crossed-vajra emanate from the fierce heads of makaras or crocodiles on each side of the four gateways, with the inner halves of their curving prongs coloured to represent the cardinal directions, and their outer halves coloured to correspond to their adjacent directions. The circle of green and black roundels that surrounds the square palace represents the vajra-ground of the mandala; with one of the eight great Mahasiddhas of the Jnanadakini transmission seated on a mat at each side of the curved vajra prongs. Arrays of intricate jewel banners extend on golden poles above the roof and gateways of the palace, with the shafts of a parasol extending from each corner of the roof parapet. In the corners next to these parasols are eight lotus-mounted golden vases, each with a wish-fulfilling vine that scrolls from the vase's aperture to form seven roundels that contain the 'Seven Precious Jewels' or possessions of a chakravartin or 'Universal Monarch'. These are: the precious jewel, wheel and minister (centre); the precious general and elephant (left); and the precious queen and horse (right).
Outside of the vajra-ground are the three great protection wheels of the 'lotus circle', the 'vajra fence and canopy', and the 'mountain of fire', which respectively protect the mandala palace from impurities and the natural disasters of floods, earthquakes and destruction by fire. The 'Lotus Circle' consists of thirty-two pure and variegated lotus petals, which would support the palace during a flood. The 'Vajra Fence and Canopy' is an impenetrable net or frieze of vajras that encircle the lotus circle as the indestructible domed-hemisphere of a perfect circle, and it is traditionally depicted as a ring of sixteen, thirty-two, or sixty-four golden vajras on a red or black band. The 'Mountain of Fire' is a hemispherical mass of five-coloured wisdom fire that surrounds the dome of the vajra canopy. The 'mountain of fire' is represented by a ring of thirty-two flame banks of five different colours, which traditionally circle in an anticlockwise direction for 'Mother-tantra' mandalas, and in a clockwise direction for 'Father-tantra' mandalas.
Surrounding these three protection wheels is the wheel of the 'Eight Great Charnel Grounds', which invariably appears as an outer wheel upon all semi-wrathful and wrathful yidam deity mandalas. The turbulent waters of the 'eight lakes' separate the segments of these eight cemeteries, each of which has a central red section with five directional deities seated within the crossed white sections of a circle. On the left side of each segment is one of the eight great Indian Mahasiddhas of this particular mandala, who all sit upon animal vehicles or skins with their consort or attendant facing them. The flower of one of the 'eight great trees' appears between these two figures, with the exception of the top western cemetery, where the tree's canopy appears behind the central red deity circle and its background semi-circle. The eight stupas, the eight mudras, the eight crown-like funeral fires, and the eight directional protectors also appear in the left area of each cemetery: along with the severed body parts, skulls and bones, skeletons, corpses and mindless corpses (zombies), jackals, tigers and vultures that inhabit the entire pictorial area of all the eight great charnel grounds. On the right side of each red segment appear the eight great naga-rajas or serpent-kings, the eight clouds, the eight great rock-like mountains, and the eight realm protectors.
The square blue area decorated with small gold roundels that encloses the great circle of Jnanadakini's mandala has four corner sections, each of which contains five entwining roundels. In the central flame-filled roundel of the upper left corner is Vajravarahi, who dances in bow-and-arrow posture upon a corpse seat and lotus. She is naked and red, wears the five bone ornaments, a garland of fifty severed heads, and she holds a skull-cup, a curved knife, and a khatvanga. Flanking her to her left and right are blue Dakini (east), and yellow Rupini (south); with red Khandaroha (west) appearing separately in the small roundel below, and green Lama (north) appearing to the left of the central blue dakini in the large roundel in the opposite upper right corner. These four 'Heart Dakinis' are identical in appearance to Vajravarahi and collectively populate the mandala's 'Wheel of Great Bliss'.
In an unusual configuration the eight dakinis of the Vajravarahi and Vajrayogini 'Commitment Wheel' appear in the row of horizontal niches at the bottom of the painting. In the first niche to the right of centre appear green and blue Yamamathani (northeast corner), and red and green Yamadamstrini (northwest corner). In the next niche appear yellow and red Yamaduti (southwest corner), and blue and yellow Yamadadhi (southeast corner). In the second and third niches are the four guardians of the gateways; with yellow sow-faced Shukarasya (south), and red dog-faced Shvanasya (west) in the second niche; and green owl-faced Ulukasya (north), and blue crow-faced Kakasya (east) in the third niche. All of these eight dakinis are similar in appearance to Vajravarahi and stand in dancing bow-and-arrow posture.
The last two niches on the right of this horizontal row contain three of the eight white dakinis of the mandala's 'Body Wheel', with the other five white dakinis appearing in the small roundels in the lower left and right corners. Six of the eight red dakinis of the 'Speech Wheel' appear in the two large central roundels in the bottom left and right corners, with the other two red dakinis appearing in the smaller adjacent roundels in the right corner. Five of the eight blue dakinis of the 'Mind Wheel' appear in the small upper roundels in the lower left and right corners, with the other three blue dakinis appearing in the upper right corner. All of these twenty-four white, red and blue dakinis of the combined 'Body, Speech and Mind Wheels' are similar in appearance and stand leaning towards the left in alidha posture upon a corpse, sun and lotus throne. They likewise hold the attributes of a curved knife, skull-cup and khatvanga, but like Vajrayogini they wear a garland of fifty dry white skulls rather than the severed-head garland of Vajravarahi. Collectively the five deities of the 'Great Bliss Wheel', the eight deities of the 'Commitment Wheel', and the twenty-four deities of the 'Body, Speech and Mind Wheels', constitute the thirty-seven deity mandala of both Vajravarahi and Vajrayogini, which are known here as the deities of the Mahavirya, or 'great effort', Yogini Mandala.
In the first of the remaining seven niches on the left of the horizontal bottom row is a portrait of the patron that commissioned this unique set of Vajravali mandalas. He has recently been identified by the scholar David Jackson as Dzongji Gyaltsen Zangpo, a powerful functionary in the court of Phagmotrupa during the 1370's and 1380's. In the second niche is the patron's table of offerings to Jnanadakini. In the third niche is Two-armed Mahakala. In the fourth niche is yellow Jambhala. In the fifth niche is Raven-headed Mahakala. In the sixth niche is Four-armed Mahakala, and in the seventh niche is Shri Devi Remati (Paldan Lhamo).
Occupying the central niche in the top row of lineage holders is Lama Dampa Sonam Gyaltsen (1312-1375), who appears here wearing a red hat with his hands crossed in humkara-mudra. In the niches to the left of Sonam Gyaltsen are the main lineage holders of the Kagyu tradition: Vajradhara, Tilopa, Naropa, Marpa, Milarepa and Gampopa. And in the niches to the right of Sonam Gyaltsen are: Phagmodrupa, Drikhung Choje, Pyangba Rinpoche, Gyalba Rinpoche, Chunyipa Rinchen Dorje, and Dakye Rinpoche. Another ten unidentified lineage holders appear in six of the smaller roundels that occupy the two upper corners of this mandala.
This exquisite mandala was painted in the studio of Sunlal Ratna Tamang, and took about a year to complete. The outer border alone, with its meticulous golden frieze of entwined lotuses, is a delicate work of art in itself, and this precise degree of attention to every minute detail has been applied to the whole painting. But because Sunlal copied this early Newar masterpiece from a pictorial illustration in a Tibetan Art book, he unfortunately made some minor iconographical errors. These relate to the faces and mounts of the four inter-cardinal animal and bird-headed dakinis, to the absence of skulls on the crowns of the thirteen principal deities, to Jnanadakini holding a skull-club instead of an axe, and to the absence of wheels, swords, lotuses and jewel emblems on the coloured beams of the chambers of the four directional dakinis on the central dais. I am indebted to John Huntington's research in identifying the lineage holders of this mandala, which are given in his book 'The Circle of Bliss' (page 398-403).
© text by Robert Beer