Panjaranatha Mahakala

With sharp fangs and hair of flames, the Buddhist deity Mahakala is invoked for military and political success.

Panjaranatha Mahakala, 16th–17th century (Tibet), clay with pigments (Rubin Museum of Art, New York). Speakers: Dr. Karl Debreczeny, Senior Curator, Rubin Museum of Art and Dr. Beth Harris

Rubin Museum senior curator Dr. Karl Debreczeny and Dr. Beth Harris of Smarthistory examine a sculpture of Mahakala, one of the eight great wrathful dharma protectors in Vajrayana Buddhism—a remover of obstacles, both internal and external.

The Rubin Museum of Art has teamed up with Smarthistory to bring you an “up-close” look at select objects from the Rubin’s preeminent collection of Himalayan art. Featuring conversations with senior curators and close-looking at art, this video series is an accessible introduction to the art and material culture of the Tibetan, Himalayan, and Inner Asian regions. Learn about the living traditions and art-making practices of the Himalayas from the past to today.

0:00:05.0 Dr. Beth Harris: We’re here in the McMullen Museum of Art, at an exhibition, “Gateway to Himalayan Art,” drawn from the Rubin Museum in New York City, which focuses on the art of the Himalayas, Tibet, and inner Asia, and we’re looking at a sculpture of Mahakala.

0:00:24.2 Dr. Karl Debreczeny: Mahakala means “Great Black One.” He’s one of the eight great Dharma protectors. He’s a remover of obstacles, both internal and external. Mahakala comes in many forms, and this form is Panjaranatha, or Lord of the Pavilion — in Tibetan, “gur gyi mgon po.” He’s the primary protector of the Sakya school of Tibetan Buddhism, and is also a specially revered protector in Mongolia. In Tibetan Buddhism, you have both peaceful and wrathful deities.

0:00:50.3 Dr. Beth Harris: And we’re certainly looking at a wrathful figure here. His eyes are bulging, his hair looks like flames.

0:00:58.7 Dr. Karl Debreczeny: He’s baring his fangs, his tongue is lolling, he’s ornamented with a diadem of skulls, with a garland of severed heads, and surrounded by flames.

0:01:10.0 Dr. Beth Harris: In his hands we see a flaying knife and a skull filled with blood.

0:01:15.8 Dr. Karl Debreczeny: And while these figures may be scary, they are in fact considered to be manifestations of wisdom and compassionate means, the two aspects required for attaining enlightenment. And so for instance, he’s standing on a corpse, and the corpse is the classic symbol of the ego, which is the greatest obstacle to attaining enlightenment, attachment to self.

0:01:39.6 Dr. Beth Harris: He is there to protect us, to help us on our path to enlightenment. And the object that he’s holding across his chest is an object that’s specific to this version, this emanation of Mahakala.

0:01:53.2 Dr. Karl Debreczeny: This long stick is called a gandi. It’s a wooden gong that’s used to summon monks, and according to his liturgy, he uses this to summon all of the 72 forms of Mahakala, which emanate from it, and if you look closely, you can actually see two sets of doors.

0:02:08.7 Dr. Beth Harris: So not only do we have him protecting us, but he can call on essentially an army of Mahakalas.

0:02:15.4 Dr. Karl Debreczeny: Some have recently suggested that this shape is derived from a cross bar and may reveal his origins as a door guardian.

0:02:22.1 Dr. Beth Harris: Because we do sometimes see him as a figure guarding Buddhist temples.

0:02:26.3 Dr. Karl Debreczeny: Wrathful figures at the entrance to temples is a very common convention. However, the origins of this gong aren’t clear because this iconographic form, cradling the gandi, is not described in his early liturgies or sadana. This, combined with the fact that figures in his retinue bear Tibetan place names, suggest that this particular form of Mahakala may have been a Tibetan invention.

0:02:50.2 Dr. Beth Harris: Images of Mahakala go back centuries.

0:02:53.5 Dr. Karl Debreczeny: Mahakala came with Buddhism from India, and Mahakala is considered especially effective in military application, so the removal of physical threats and overcoming political obstacles.

0:03:05.2 Dr. Beth Harris: So I imagine this would make him a particularly important figure for political leaders, military leaders who might want to invoke his power.

0:03:14.5 Dr. Karl Debreczeny: And so this is one of the reasons that the Mongol Empire was particularly interested in Mahakala and his practices. Mahakala was credited with intervening in several key battles in the founding of the Yuan Dynasty, Kublai Khan’s empire in Asia. So a sculpture, for instance, in the Musée Guimet dated to 1292 has an inscription which names Kublai Khan and his Tibetan imperial preceptor, and is an interesting window into the political role that Tibetan Buddhism played in the courts of Asia. These states looked to Buddhism for answers to real-world problems, including military problems and political problems. And these state practices of wrathful deities in Mahakala continue to this day. It’s part of the living tradition.

0:03:58.1 Dr. Beth Harris: And we can see that in Bhutan.

0:04:00.9 Dr. Karl Debreczeny: Raven-headed Mahakala played a key role in the founding narrative of Bhutan in the 17th century, and the King of Bhutan’s crown is called the Raven Crown, a reference to this protector deity, and rituals to Mahakala to protect the state continue to this day in Bhutan.

0:04:15.5 Dr. Beth Harris: So this particular sculpture looks like metal, but we know that it’s not.

0:04:21.2 Dr. Karl Debreczeny: Damage on the back and the seam along the side indicates this is actually a clay image painted with gold pigment. If you look at the crown or the staff, you’ll see they’re not rendered completely in three-dimensional space. For instance, the finials of the crown and the ends of the staff have no backs. All the details are forward-facing, which is an indication that this is an impression from a stamp.

0:04:42.2 Dr. Beth Harris: And we get to look at this beautiful figure of Mahakala and all of those associations that he brings with him here at the McMullen Museum of Art.

About the Rubin Museum

The Rubin is a global museum dedicated to sharing Himalayan art through a dynamic digital platform, participatory experiences, exhibitions, and partnerships. Inspired and informed by Himalayan art, the Rubin invites people to contemplate the human experience and deepen connections with the world around them in order to expand awareness, enhance well-being, and cultivate compassion.

Images: Panjaranatha Mahakala; Tibet; 16th–17th century; clay; Rubin Museum of Art; C2002.27.3 (HAR65134)

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Cite this page as: Dr. Karl Debreczeny, Senior Curator, Rubin Museum of Art and Dr. Beth Harris, "Panjaranatha Mahakala," in Smarthistory, April 1, 2024, accessed June 13, 2024,