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This gold-on-black thangka depicts an assembly of twelve of the main meditational or yidam deities and important protectors of the Nyingma tradition of Tibetan Buddhism. The iconographical designs for many of these figures are based on the drawings of an accomplished Sherpa artist and yogin-practitioner named Gomchen Oleshey (1924-83), who lived in semi-retreat in his Himalayan hermitage in the Solu Khumbu district of northeast Nepal. Oleshey made these drawings in the late 1970's at the behest of His Holiness Dudjom Rinpoche (1904-87), basing their iconography on an art treatise compiled by the great Nyingma scholar, Jamgon Mipham Rinpoche (1846-1912). The collection of ninety-four deities and lineage holders that Oleshey drew in the early 1970's for Dudjom Rinpoche's 'History of the Nyingma Dharma' were first published in Nepal in the Kailash Journal for Himalayan Studied (Volume III, 1975), under the title of 'The Nyingma Icons'. The twelve deities illustrated in this composition are:
1. Guru Rinpoche and Mandarava (top centre).
2. Yeshe Tsogyal (upper centre).
3. Dorje Drolo (top left).
4. Vajrakila (top right).
5. Four-armed Mahakala (upper left).
6. Maning Mahakala (upper right).
7. Legden Mahakala (centre).
8. Mahadeva and Consort (lower left).
9. Shanpa Marnag (lower right)
10. Rahula (bottom left).
11. Ekajati (bottom centre).
12. Dorje Legpa (bottom right).
Guru Rinpoche and Mandarava
The sambhogakaya forms of Padmasambhava or Guru Rinpoche and his Indian consort Mandarava appear in 'father-mother' (yab-yum) union at the top centre. They are both white in colour, adorned with the five silk and eight jeweled ornaments, and are seated together on a white moon-disc and lotus amidst the clouds. With his right and left hands Guru Rinpoche holds a golden vajra and a skull-cup full of nectar with a long-life vase resting within it. While Mandarava holds a long-life vase in her left hand, and an arrow adorned with a silver divination mirror and five silk ribbons (coloured white, blue, yellow, red, and green) in her right hand.
White Yeshe Tsogyal appears directly below Guru Rinpoche and Mandarava, as she stands upright on a white moon-disc and lotus amidst the clouds. She is beautiful and peaceful, youthful and naked, with two lotus-like eyes and two arms. She wears golden ornaments, a five-jeweled crown, the five bone ornaments of a dakini, a long silk scarf that billows about her body, and a long garland of red and blue flowers. With her right hand she holds aloft a vajra-handled curved knife, and with her left hand she holds a skull-cup full of nectar at the level of her hip.
Dorje Drolo (rdo rje gro lod)
In the top left corner is Dorje Drolo, the 'Pot-bellied Vajra', one of the eight manifestations of Guru Rinpoche, who assumed this awesome form at thirteen different 'Tiger's lair' sites across the Himalayan regions, with Tashi Chidron - one of his five consorts – assuming the form of the lactating tigress upon which he rides. This fierce tigress crushes underfoot a male gyalpo demon wearing the robes and riding hat of a minister, and a naked female mamo demon, with both of these figures lying upon his golden sun-disc and lotus. Dorje Drolo has three angry red eyes, a tawny mass of curled hair, blazing red facial hair, and he frowns menacingly as his sharp upper teeth and fangs bite down on his lower lip. He wears bone ornaments, various billowing robes of embroidered silk, ornate leather boots, and he abides within a blazing mass of awareness fire. As if to strike, his right hand holds aloft a golden vajra, while his left index finger points menacingly as he thrusts forward with his ritual-dagger (Skt. kila; Tib. phurba).
Vajrakila (rdo rje phur ba)
In the top right corner is the powerful form of Vajrakila (Tib. Dorje Phurba), the 'Dagger of indestructible reality', who is one of the eight great heruka deities of the Nyingma Mahayoga transmissions. He is also known as Vajrakumāra (rdo rje gzhon nu), or the 'Youthful Vajra'. Vajrakila is extremely wrathful and blue-black in colour, with four legs, six arms, and three ferocious faces that are white (left), blue-black (centre), and red (right). He stands in pratyalidha posture on a golden sun disc and lotus, as he tramples upon the forms of Rudra (Shiva) and his consort Rudrani (Umadevi). Each of Vajrakila's faces has three angry red eyes, gnashing teeth and fangs, blazing facial hair, and his tawny locks of hair stream upwards above his three five-skull crowns. His body is adorned with gold, bone and serpent ornaments; the flayed skins of a human, elephant and tiger; a garland of fifty severed heads; vajra wings, and he abides within a blazing mass of awareness fire.
With his first pair of hands he embraces his consort as he rolls a ritual dagger or kila between his palms. With his other two right hands he holds a five-pointed vajra and a wrathful nine-pointed vajra with open prongs. With his other two left hands he makes the threatening tarjani gesture as he unleashes a blazing mass of fire from his palm, and holds a skull-topped trident or khatvanga. His consort, Diptachakra (Tib. Khorlo Gyendepma), the 'Blazing Wheel', is wrathful and blue in colour, with one face and three eyes. In the bliss of sexual union she presses her body against his, with her right leg extended, her left leg wrapped around his waist, and her loosened hair hanging freely down her back. She wears bone and gold ornaments, a five-skull crown, a leopard-skin skirt, and a garland of fifty dry white skulls. With her left hand she offers a blood-filled skull-cup to Vajrakila's mouth, and with her right arm she embraces his neck while holding a khatvanga trident in her right hand.
Four-armed Mahakala (mgon po phyag bzhi pa)
Below Dorje Drolo in the upper left is Four-armed Mahakala (Skt. Chaturbhuja Mahakala), who is also known as the 'Great Black One' (Tib. nag po chen po). He is wrathful and black in colour, with a fierce face, three round red eyes, gnashing fangs, and four arms. His beard, eyebrows and tawny red hair stream upward, and he wears a five-skull crown, gold and bone ornaments, a vajra-scarf, a tiger-skin loincloth, and a garland of fifty blood-dripping heads. In a seated posture of royal-ease he crushes the two pairs of male and female demons that lie upon his golden sun-disc and lotus. With his first two hands he holds a curved knife above a skull-cup full of blood as he embraces his consort, while with his second pair of hands he holds a blazing iron sword, and a trident-topped khatvanga. His consort Mahakali (nag mo chen mo) is wrathful and black, with loosened tawny hair, three round red eyes, a gaping mouth, and sharp fangs. She wears bone ornaments, a five-skull crown, a garland of fifty dry white skulls, and a leopard-skin skirt. In sexual union she sits on Mahakala's lap with her two thighs wrapped around his waist, her left holding a skull-cup full of blood, and her right hand holding a damaru as she embraces the neck of her lord. Together they abide amidst a blazing mass of awareness fire.
Maning Mahakala (mgon po ma ning)
Below Vajrakila in the upper right is the black neuter form of Mahakala known as the 'Glorious Lord of Pristine Awareness, the Black Eunuch' (dpal ye she gyi mgon po ma ning nag po), who is the body emanation of Mahakala. The Tibetan term maning (ma ning) implies that he is genderless and thus neither male nor female. He is extremely wrathful and blue-black in colour, with three angry red eyes, upward-blazing facial hair, a gaping mouth, gnashing fangs, and a twisting red tongue. His head is adorned with a five-skull crown, and his hair is fashioned from long poisonous green-black serpents that hang down behind him at his sides and trail across the golden sun-disc upon which he stands. He is surrounded by a blazing mass of awareness fire, and stands in pratyalidha posture with his left leg extended as he crushes underfoot two female demons.
He wears gold ornaments, ornate leather boots, and various embroidered silk robes, the outermost of which is fashioned from black silk with several layered folds. Around his neck he wears a garland of fifty blood-dripping heads and hearts (shown here as vajras), and around his stout waist is a girdle made from human-skin, with a heavy jewel-topped sandalwood club tucked into it, within which lurks a host of venomous serpents. With his right hand he wields aloft a long trident-topped spear flag, with a billowing red and black triangular pennon. With his left hand he feeds a warm and poisonous heart with its life-veins into his mouth, and wrapped around his palm is a rope-snare that he casts towards his enemies.
Legden Mahakala (mgon po legs ldan)
Dominating the centre of this composition is the 'Great Excellent One' (legs ldan chen po) as Iśvara Vajra-rākṣasa (legs ldan rdo rje srin po), who is accompanied by his 'Supreme Consort Krodiśvarī' (yum mchog khrodisvari ma). As the 'emanation of virtue' Legden Chenpo is extremely wrathful and black in colour, with three angry red eyes, a gaping mouth, sharp fangs, a twisting red tongue, and blazing facial hair. His tawny hair streams upward above his five-skull crown and vajra-marked topknot, and he wears gold and bone ornaments, a garland of fifty blood-dripping heads, and a garland of vajras. His billowing robes are fashioned from embroidered silks, with an outer black cloak with layered folds, two silk belts, leather boots, and the flayed skins of an elephant, a human, and a tiger. With his left leg extended in pratayalidha posture he crushes underfoot two demonic enemies and two horses that lie prone upon the golden sun-disc of his lotus seat.
With his two hands he holds a vajra-handled curved knife above a blood-filled skull-cup, and resting in the crook of his right arm is a long red sandalwood club with a blazing jewel at its top and a sharp triangular iron blade at its base (which is hidden behind his right leg). Within this club are the armies of the gods and asuras who are ready to be sent out to war. Flames emanate from its jeweled top and from its fiery iron tip. His fierce consort Krodiśvarī is red in colour, with three angry round eyes, a gaping mouth, sagging breasts, and disheveled hair. She wears gold and bone ornaments, a five-skull crown, a human-skin shawl, and a leopard-skin skirt. She straddles Mahakala's left leg as she offers a blood-filled skull-cup to his mouth with her left hand, whilst wielding a snare made from a poisonous serpent in her right hand. Together they stand amidst a blazing mass of awareness fire, from which emanate their animal messengers of lions, tigers and wolves, with a serpent-devouring garuda flying overhead.
Īśvara Mahādeva with consort (lha chen dbang phyug yab yum)
Mahadeva (lha chen-po), the 'Great God', is a title given to Ishvara or Shiva as the chief of all the gods (lha), and he appears at the mid-left of this composition. His practice derives from a terma revelation unique to the Nyingma tradition, where he is recognized as a victorious wealth deity, and an emanation of Avalokiteshvara's power and compassion. Mahadeva is semi-wrathful and red in colour, with two arms and three eyes. He stands upon a golden sun disc and lotus in pratyalidha posture, with his right leg bent and his left leg extended. His penis (linga) is fully erect, and his naked body is adorned with both golden ornaments and the six bone ornaments, a crown adorned with flowers and bone beads, a billowing silk scarf, and a long garland of red flowers. Half of his hair is bound up into a jeweled topknot, while the other half hangs freely about his shoulders. With his right hand he holds aloft an iron hook that brings the 'three worlds' under his control, and with his left hand he holds a rope-snare. Mahadevi, his semi-wrathful red consort, straddles his left leg as she embraces his powerful body. She is youthful, naked and lusty, with three eyes, full breasts, and she wears gold and bone ornaments, a floral tiara, a flower garland, and her loosened hair hangs freely down her back. With her left hand she holds a small golden treasure vase, and with her right arm she embraces her lord as she holds a rope-noose or an iron hook. Together they abide amidst a blazing mass of awareness fire.
The Dark-red Butcher and consort (bshan pa dmar nag yab yum)
'Yaksha, the Dark-red Butcher' (gnod spyin bshan pa dmar nag), also known as the 'Butcher Marutse' (bshan pa ma ru tse), is the leader of a group of fierce male and female 'butchers' (bshan pa) who appear in the retinue of deities such as Yama and Mahakala, where they are described as severing the life-force or breath of demonic enemies. The Dark-red Butcher is extremely wrathful and maroon in colour, with three angry red eyes, a gaping mouth, gnashing fangs, blazing facial hair, and four arms. With his legs loosely crossed in sattva-paryarika posture he rides on the back of a copper-coloured garuda that devours a long poisonous black serpent with its sharp beak. The garuda has blue wing feathers, two angry red eyes, sharp horns, and it presses down upon the blue demon that lies upon the butcher's sun disc and lotus.
The Dark-red Butcher wears gold and bone ornaments, a five-skull crown, the flayed skins of a human, elephant and tiger, a garland of fifty blood-dripping heads, and a billowing robe of embroidered black silk. His tawny hair streams upward, and he abides amidst a blazing mass of fire. With his first two hands he holds a curved knife above a blood-filled skull-cup as he embraces his consort, and with his second pair of hands he holds an iron sword and the warm blood-dripping heart of an enemy. His consort is wrathful and ruby red in colour, with three angry red eyes, a gaping mouth, and two arms. She sits on her lord's lap with her two thighs wrapped around his waist, and she wears a leopard-skin skirt, gold and bone ornaments, and a five-skull crown. With her left hand she holds a warm and blood-dripping human heart, and with her right hand she holds a curved knife or an iron trident as she embraces the neck of her lord.
At the bottom of this composition appear the three principal terma or 'concealed treasure' protectors of the Nyingma and Dzogchen traditions: Rahula (left), Ekajati (centre), and Dorje Legpa (right). In the lower landscape are two skull offerings of swirling nectar and fresh blood in the left and right corners, while at the centre is an upturned skull with its scalp attached, which contains the wrathful offering of the five torn out sense organs: eyes, ears, a nose, a tongue, and a heart.
Rahula (khyab jug)
Rahula, the 'Great all-pervading' planetary demon (khyab 'jug chen po), is a personification of the shadowy 'eclipse planet' that causes eclipses of the sun and moon, which is equated with the 'northern node' of the ecliptic (rahu). Rahula is dark-red or maroon in colour with nine wrathful heads and the crowning black head of a raven. His lower body takes the form of a coiling naga-serpent that writhes within a fiery blood-filled triangular dharmodaya, which is decorated with white skulls, hanging loops of jewels, and flames. His powerful upper body is endowed with a 'thousand eyes', with a voracious face appearing upon his stomach that is capable of swallowing the sun, moon and planets. He is adorned with jeweled and bone ornaments, a human-skin shawl, a garland of fifty blood-dripping heads, a silk belt, and a short tiger-skin loincloth. His nine wrathful heads are stacked up into three tiers, each has three angry red eyes, a gaping mouth, blazing facial hair, and is adorned with a five-skull crown His tawny hair streams upwards and he abides within a blazing mass of fire. With his first pair of hands he holds a drawn bow and arrow, which he aims at the heart of an enemy. And with his second pair of hands he holds aloft a makara-dhvaja or 'crocodile banner', and a long green-black serpent that he casts as a snare.
Ekajati (ral gcig ma)
Ekajati, which in Sanskrit means the 'One braid' (eka-jati) or 'single hair-lock', is the main Nyingma protector of the terma or 'revealed treasure' traditions, where she also serves as the principal protector of mantras. She is an extremely fierce and unique mamo goddess or dakini who possesses the peculiarities of a single eye, a single tooth, a single breast, and a single crowning lock of hair. She leans towards the right in standing pratyalidha posture, with both of her feet trampling upon the stiff corpse of an enemy that lies upon the golden sun-disc of her lotus seat.
She is reddish-brown or maroon in colour, with a terrifying face, and she abides amidst a swirling maelstrom of wind and fire. In the center of her forehead is her single round red eye of awareness, which gazes forwards menacingly. Her other two eye sockets are empty creases, above which blazes her fiery yellow facial hair. Her mouth gapes open with her long single tooth pointing threateningly downward like a spiked weapon, and from her mouth and lower orifices streams a poisonous mist. Her yellow hair hangs freely down her right and left sides, with a solitary plait of 'iron' hair rising up from the crown of her head. She is adorned with gold and bone ornaments, and around her neck is a 'cloud collar' of dark thunderclouds, beneath which hangs the long nipple of her single sagging breast.
She wears a five-skull crown, a flayed human-skin shawl, a long garland of fifty dry white skulls, and a loosened tiger-skin loincloth that reveals her pubic area. With her right hand she wields aloft a corpse-club fashioned from the mummified body of a human enemy. With her left hand she holds the warm and blood-dripping heart of an enemy with its life-veins attached, and with her index finger raised threateningly she dispatches the iron she-wolf that serves as her principal messenger.
Damcan Dorje Legpa (dam can rdo rje legs pa)
Damcan Dorje Legpa (Skt. Vajrasadhu), meaning the 'Oath-bound Indestructible Excellent One', who along with his three hundred and sixty brothers was 'oath bound' by Guru Rinpoche to serve the Dharma as a powerful worldly protector. Dorje Legpa is very wrathful and dark red in colour, with three round red eyes, upward blazing facial hair, gnashing teeth, and a gaping mouth, from which he exhales a poisonous mist. He wears a broad-rimmed and lacquered golden riding hat, golden earrings and bracelets, ornate leather boots, and various garments with a heavy embroidered outer robe of embroidered red silk. With his right hand he brandishes aloft a golden vajra, which is described as having nine open prongs and being cast from meteorite iron. With his left hand he feeds a warm and blood-dripping heart into his mouth with his thumb pointing upwards. His vehicle is a ferocious and 'brilliant' white lion, upon which he rides sidesaddle above his golden sun-disc and lotus. The lion is adorned with golden ornaments and a billowing mane, and roars loudly as it turns its head towards Dorje Legpa.
© text by Robert Beer