- Place of origin:
Odisha (eastern, made)
12th century (made)
- Materials and Techniques:
- Museum number:
- Gallery location:
Buddhism, Room 17, The Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation Galleries of Buddhist Art, case PL1
This sculpture depicts the protector Mahakala. He represents a violent and vengeful aspect of the Hindu god Shiva absorbed by Buddhism as a guardian of the faith (‘dharmapala’).
Here Mahakala stands astride the prostrate figure of a corpse. His face radiates his wrathful nature. His wide eyes glare, his gaping mouth reveals fangs, and a garland of severed heads hangs above his knees. His hair is represented as flames, rising horrifically above a snake ornament. Entwined snakes also form his armlets, bracelets, anklets and sacred cord. In his four hands he carries the flesh-cutter (‘karttrka’), skull-cup (‘kapala’), rosary and ‘trisula’ and skull-headed ritual staff (‘khatvanga’). These are the signifiers of his role.
Tantric Buddhism generated a proliferation of deities, benign and ferocious. Both were conceived as servants of the faith. But it was the wild and angry deities, typically demonic spirits subdued by Buddhism and henceforth willing servants of the faith, who retained their wrathful countenance in order to intimidate non-believers and those hostile to Buddhism.
The powerful protector Mahakala stands squarely against a flame-edged arched background on a defeated long-haired foe, who is also being attacked by a small animal. He carries a chopper and skull-cup; his second pair of hands holds a skull-topped trident formed like the Buddhist
vajra and noose. His hair rises horrifically above a snake, and his armlets, bracelets, anklets and sacred cord are all snakes. He is wearing heavy circular earrings and a circlet on his head with side cockades and uplifted streamers. He also has a necklace and a girdle below his waist over which spills his protruding paunch. His eyes stare fiercely with a third eye in between. He has a curling moustache over his open mouth which is fanged, and a garland of severed heads hangs down to his knees.
Place of Origin
Odisha (eastern, made)
12th century (made)
Materials and Techniques
Height: 119 cm, Width: 58 cm, Depth: 30 cm, Weight: 290 kg
Object history note
Bought from Mr L. Wickes for £35
Historical context note
The protector Mahakala, a violent and vengeful aspect of Shiva absorbed by Buddhism as a guardian of the faith (dharmapala). Such borrowings from Hinduism into Buddhist imagery became common in the late phase of Buddhist development in Eastern India as the more esoteric stream of Buddhist practice gained ascendency. Images such as this Mahakala became, in turn, the source for many of the fierce deities of Himalayan Buddhism, the elaborate pantheon of Tibetan Buddhism, drawing heavily on the imagery of Eastern India
Mahakala, basalt, Orissa, India, 12th century
Bibliographic References (Citation, Note/Abstract, NAL no)
W Zwalf: Buddhism - Art and Faith
John Guy, Indian Temple Sculpture, V&A, 2007, pl 148, pg 133
ISBN 978 185177 5095
Guy, John (ed.).: ‘L’Escultura en els Temples Indis: L’Art de la Devocio’, Barcelona : Fundacio ‘La Caixa’, 2007. ISBN 9788476649466. p.83, cat. 43.
Clarke, John; The New Robert H.N. Ho Family Foundation Galleries of Buddhist Art at the Victoria and Albert Museum,
Orientations; vol. 48. no. 5, September/October 2017, p. 67, fig. 7.
Arts of Bengal : the heritage of Bangladesh and eastern India : an exhibition organized by the Whitechapel Art Gallery in collaboration with the Victoria and Albert Museum : 9 November-30 December 1979, Whitechapel Art Gallery ..., 12 January-17 February 1980, Manchester City Art Gallery ... . [London]: Whitechapel Art Gallery,  Number: 085488047X (pbk.) :
Labels and date
Orissa, East India
Mahakala was an important guardian (dharmapala)
of Buddhism in India during its last phase. His violent
imagery, borrowed from the vengeful aspects of the
Hindu deity Shiva, includes hair as a mass of flames
and jewellery formed from entwined snakes. Destroyer
of the enemies of Buddhism, he carries in his four
hands a skull cup, flesh knife, rosary and staff with
Museum no. IM.10-1930
Orissa, eastern India
Figures; Deities; Buddhism
Sculpture; Buddhism; Religion
South & South East Asia Collection