Lion-faced Maranatha (Kshetrapala)
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This exquisite gold-on-black composition shows the black lion-headed form of Mahakala with his red consort and retinue of eight protector deities, as a 'field or realm protector' (Skt. kshetrapala; Tib. zhing-skyong). This ferocious aspect of 'Lion-faced Mahakala' (Skt. Mahakala-simhamukha) belongs to the retinue of Four-armed Mahakala, who in turn is the main protector of the Chakrasamvara Tantra Cycle, and he is equally venerated in both the Nyingma and Kagyu traditions. Within the Karma Kagyu tradition he serves as the main protector for Benchen Monastery and the lineage of the Sangye Nyenpa Rinpoche (1457-1525), who was the root guru of the 8th Karmapa Mikyo Dorje (1507-1554). Here he is also recognized as the special 'field or realm protector' for the western Pure Land of Amitabha Buddha, which is known as Sukhāvatī or Dewachen (Tib. bde ba can), meaning the 'Realm of Bliss'.
He is most commonly known as Lion-headed Maranatha (Tib. bDud mgon seng gdong), the 'Lord of the maras or obstructive demons', and as Zhing skyong sha za nag po, meaning the 'Black pisacha or demonic flesh-eating realm protector'. And his red yum or consort is known as Sha za dmar mo, meaning the 'Red flesh-eating pisachi or cannibal demoness'. Their 'seat' or sacred abode is at Mt. Tsari, which is one of Tibet's three most sacred mountains and situated near the border of Arunachal Pradesh in eastern Tibet.
Kshetrapala is described as being 'black like the monsoon rain-clouds', with the face of a ferocious lion, three round and angry red eyes, and two arms. The roar of thunder resounds from his throat and gaping jaws, as he bares his sharp teeth and long red tongue that twists like lightning. His eyebrows and tawny mane blaze upwards like fire, and his head is crowned with a single jewel-topped dry white skull. He wears bone and jewel ornaments, with embroidered black boots made of felt and leather, and undergarments of black silk. His flowing outer cloak is made of embroidered black silk and is bound at the waist with a jeweled belt, from which are suspended a bow-case (left) and a quiver of arrows (right). With his right hand he brandishes aloft a spear-flag with a flowing black silk pennon, while with his left hand he holds aloft a vast white skull-cup containing the wrathful offering of a triangular 'ritual cake' or torma. His mount is a blue horse with white fetlocks, which bears an embroidered black silk saddle-blanket, iron stirrups, golden harnesses, and a jeweled yak-tail pendant. He rides swiftly amidst a maelstrom of blazing fire and storm clouds, with his horse galloping upon the billowing clouds or 'wings of the wind'.
To his left rides his consort, the 'Lion-headed Demoness' (bdud mo seng ge dong ma), who rides bareback upon a red horse with white fetlocks. She is fiery red in color and naked, except for her tiger-skin loincloth, bone ornaments, and necklace of fifty freshly severed and blood-dripping heads. With her three round red eyes she gazes lustily at her lord, with her fiery eyebrows and tawny mane blazing upward like fire. Her gaping mouth reveals her four sharp fangs and her twisting red tongue. With her extended left hand she offers the warm heart of a human enemy to the mouth of her lord, while with her raised right hand she wields a skull-topped trident with a flowing ribbon of black silk. She likewise rides upon the billowing clouds amidst a blazing mass of wind and fire.
Directly below their two mounts and the billowing clouds are Kshetrapala's two special monkey attendants, who run swiftly upon their hands in inverted postures with their feet holding skull-cups that contain wrathful red and black tormas or 'sacrificial cakes' that are decorated with white spots. The male monkey directly below Kshetrapala is known as Dūta, the 'messenger' (Tib. pho nya), and the female monkey below his consort is known as Dūti, the 'female messenger' or 'daughter' (bu mo). Kshetrapala's spirit retinue is described as consisting of a hundred thousand 'black ones', ten million piśāca spirits, an army of a hundred thousand heroes to his right and a hundred thousand heroines to his left, a retinue of obedient black goddesses, a host of male yaksha and female yakshini servants, and a female multitude of ten million dakinis, mamo and piśāci spirits.
However, his specific retinue, as represented here, consists of four groups of five hundred spirit beings that accompany Kshetrapala on each side. To his front are five hundred ordained monks or gelongs (dge slong), who are described as 'holding alms-bowls and rattling their monastic staffs or khakkaras as they recite solemn prayers'. These gelongs are represented by a row of five monks wearing the embroidered silk monastic robes and the domed, lacquered and golden riding hats of high lamas. From left to right they hold the attributes of: a water pot and a burning sheath of incense; an alms-bowl; a yak-tail staff and alms-bowl; a pestle and a long scriptural text; a mendicant's staff and an alms-bowl.
To Kshetrapala's right appear five hundred 'black hat magicians, who recite wrathful mantras as they dance to the rhythm of shamanic drums'. They are represented here by a group of four black hat magicians who wear voluminous and wide-sleeved robes of embroidered black silk, felt boots, and wide-brimmed hats with triangular torma-like tops that are crowned by a skull and a blazing gem. From the top downwards they bear the attributes of: a fiery triangular blade of meteorite iron; a blazing hearth of red hot iron; a fierce makara or crocodile that vomits a maelstrom of flaming meteorites; a sheath of poison-tipped spikes.
To his rear appear five hundred heroic warriors 'that bear shields and weapons, and speak courageous words'. They are represented here by a group of three armour-clad soldiers with pennon-topped helmets that emerge from the thunderclouds behind Kshetrapala.
And to his left are five hundred black demoness-like women from the Mon country that borders Tibet, 'who utter terrible curses as they shake out their clothes'. They are represented here by a group of four fierce naked women, who spin wildly in a lewd 'ring dance' amidst the clouds, with their disheveled hair and pendulous breasts swinging freely to the rhythm of demonic drums.
Surrounding Kshetrapala in the cardinal and inter-cardinal directions are the eight great attendant deities that accompany him as his main retinue. Collectively these eight fierce deities are known as the 'Powerful Messengers of the Eight Classes of Spirits' (Tib. stobs ldan pho nya sde brgyad).
In the east (bottom center) is the 'minister' or chief manifestation of the oath-bound protector Vajrasadhu or Dorje Legpa (rDo rje legs pa), who is known as the 'Blacksmith' (mgar ba nag po), or 'He who bears the marks of a Blacksmith' (mgar ba'i mtshan can). The 'Blacksmith' is black in colour, with a ferocious face, three round and bulging red eyes, and two arms. His mount is a brown billy-goat with entwined horns, which he rides amidst a violent environment of billowing winds, dark storm clouds, descending tongues of fire, and jagged mountain peaks. He wears various garments of embroidered and layered black silk, the inner ones bound by a silken belt, while the outer ones billow about his body. His tawny hair streams upward above his five-skull crown, his gaping mouth reveals his four sharp fangs and twisting red tongue, and his facial hair blazes upward like fire. He is adorned with jewel and bone ornaments, and black leather boots with white soles. In his right hand he wields aloft a heavy foundry hammer made of cast iron, and with the fingers of his left hand he squeezes together a tiger-skin bellows, the metal nozzle of which blows all enemies into dust. A row of jewels stretches out behind him, with the five sense offerings to his right, and the armoured attire, shield and weapons of a warrior to his left. Above these are two skull-cups mounted upon tripods of small skulls, with the one to his right containing clockwise-swirling white 'nectar' or rice beer (chang), and the one to the his left containing anticlockwise swirling red 'blood' or Chinese tea.
In the south (below the black hat magicians) is the wrathful dark-green form of Yama, the 'Lord of the Dead' (gshin rje'i rgyal), with a fierce face, three round red eyes, and two arms. His tawny hair streams upward above his five-skull crown, his gaping mouth reveals his sharp fangs and twisting red tongue, and his facial hair blazes like fire. He wears bone and jewel ornaments, a crown of five dry white skulls, a tiger-skin loincloth tied with a black silk belt, and the flayed skin of an elephant hangs about his shoulders and back. With his right hand he brandishes a heavy red sandalwood club that is sealed with a vajra, while with his left hand he casts a snare made from human entrails. His mount is a fierce blue water buffalo, which he rides across a lake of blood. He is surrounded by a blazing mass of awareness fire, and to his left crouches a snarling tiger.
In the west (directly above Kshetrapala) is the 'Black Nine-headed Serpent Demon' (klu bdud nag po mgo dgu). He is extremely wrathful and black in color, with three round red eyes, a gaping mouth, sharp teeth and fangs, red facial hair, and two arms. He wears bone and jewel ornaments, a five-skull crown, a tiger-skin loincloth, and a long flowing silk scarf billows about his body. Above his head rises a crest of the eight great nagarajas or serpent kings, and with his two hands he wields aloft a long green-black poisonous serpent as a snare. His mount is a fierce makara or water-monster (crocodile), which he rides amidst a swirling mass of clouds. This aquatic dragon-like creature has an upturned red snout, two bulbous eyes, two forearms, a scaled body with a fish-like tail, sharp teeth and claws, and feather-like gills or tendrils around its ferocious head.
In the north (below the four ring-dancing Mon women) is the wrathful form of the 'Demon of Countless Distant Carnivores' (bdud po bye ba gung ring). He is ferocious and black in color, with tawny upward-streaming hair, three round red eyes, a gaping mouth with four sharp fangs, and two arms. He wears jewel and bone ornaments, a five-skull crown, and a billowing robe, undergarment and belt of black silk. With his raised right hand he brandishes an iron sword with a jeweled handle, while with his left hand he holds the coils of a rope snare. His mount is a black horse with white fetlocks, which he rides through a maelstrom of wind. He is surrounded by a blazing mass of awareness fire, and to his right leaps a snarling blue-black hunting dog.
In the southeast (bottom left corner) is the red lord of the tsen (btsan) demons Yamshud Marpo (yam shud dmar po), who rides upon his saddled, ornamented and leaping red horse within a radiant aura encompassed by a circle of flames. He is ferocious and dark red in color, with three round red eyes, tawny hair, a gaping mouth with sharp fangs, a twisting red tongue, and blazing red facial hair. He wears bone and jewel ornaments, a crown of five skulls, brown leather boots, and billowing garments of embroidered red silk. With his right hand he holds his horse's reins as he carries a long red spear-flag with a billowing red silk ensign, while with his left hand he makes the threatening tarjani gesture as he casts a rope snare.
In the southwest (above the black hat magicians) is the wrathful king of the srin-po or cannibal-demons, Nara Sengha. He is smoke-like or reddish-gray in colour, with tawny upward-streaming hair, three round red eyes, blazing facial hair, a gaping mouth with sharp fangs, and a twisting red tongue. He wears bone and jewel ornaments, a crown of five white skulls, a garland of severed heads, a tiger-skin loincloth, and an upper shawl made from a flayed human-skin. In his right hand he wields a 'scored tally-stick' (khram shing) of red sandalwood, upon which are inscribed magical designs that both counteract and imprecate spells and curses. In his left hand he wields an iron hook, with which he subjugates all enemies and oath-breakers. He is surrounded by a blazing mass of fire, and he rides amidst a billowing cloud-bank upon a gray ass that is marked with a red blaze on its forehead.
In the northwest (above the four ring-dancing Mon women) is the protector deity White Brahma (tshangs pa dkar po), who is white in color, with a semi-wrathful expression, two piercing eyes, and a gaping mouth. His mount is a saddled white horse with jeweled harnesses, which he rides across a 'cloud street' with the swiftness of the wind. He wears a turban of white silk, a jeweled headband and jewel ornaments, leather boots, white undergarments, and a billowing outer cloak of embroidered white silk. With his extended right hand he wields a cutlass of white crystal, while with his left hand he holds aloft a spear flag with a billowing white silk pennon.
In the northeast (bottom right corner) is the wrathful black ma-mo or 'mother' goddess Mamo Dorje Balan (ma mo rdo rje ba lam). She is black in colour, with a fierce face, three round red eyes, a gaping mouth, sharp fangs, an emaciated body, and sagging breasts. She is adorned with bone and jewel ornaments, a five-skull crown, a leopard-skin loincloth, and the flayed and bloody skin of an elephant is stretched across her back. With her right hand she wields aloft a flaming iron sword with a golden handle, while with her left hand she holds a sack full of contagious diseases. Her mount is a black mule with a saddle fashioned from the flayed skin of a demonic enemy, which she proudly rides amidst a maelstrom of wind. To her left appears a snarling tiger.
In the top left and right corners of the painting appear the yidam deities Chakrasamvara and Vajrapani. Chakrasamvara is represented in his two-armed blue form, in union with his red consort Vajravarahi. Vajrapani is represented in his fierce blue-black form as Chandamaroshana Vajrapani, 'According to the Tradition of Rechungpa'. In this aspect he is 'Exceedingly Ferocious' (Skt. chandamaharosana) and holds a five-pointed golden vajra in his raised right hand, while with his left hand he holds and rings an upturned silver bell at the level of his hip. He stands in pratyalidha posture with his two feet crushing the forms of Mahadeva and his consort Mahadevi, who have respectively been thrown down upon their front and back. Amidst a cloud-bank at the top center is the crowning figure of Padmasambhava (Guru Rinpoche), who is flanked to his right and left by the Second Karmapa, Karma Pakshi (1204-83), and the Eighth Karmapa, Mikyo Dorje (1507-54).
© text by Robert Beer