About the Artwork

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 (1924-1983), who lived in semi-retreat in his Himalayan hermitage in the Solu Khumbu district of northeast Nepal. Oleshey made these drawings in the late 1970s 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 twelve deities illustrated in this composition are:
1. Guru Rinpoche and Mandarava (top center). 2. Yeshe Tsogyal (upper center). 3. Dorje Drolo (top left), the 'Pot-bellied Vajra', one of the eight manifestations of Guru Rinpoche, 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. 4. Vajrakila (top right), 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 color, with four legs, six arms, and three ferocious faces. 5. Four-armed Mahakala (upper left), also known as the 'Great Black One' (Tib. nag po chen po). He is wrathful and black in color, with a fierce face, three round red eyes, gnashing fangs, and four arms. 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. 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. 6. Maning Mahakala (upper right). Known as the 'Glorious Lord of Pristine Awareness, the Black Eunuch' (dpal ye she gyi mgon po ma ning nag po), he is the body emanation of Mahakala. The Tibetan term maning (ma ning) implies that he is genderless and thus neither male nor female. 7. Legden Mahakala (center). Dominating the center 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' he is extremely wrathful and black in color, with three angry red eyes, a gaping mouth, sharp fangs, a twisting red tongue, and blazing facial hair. 8. Mahadeva and Consort (lower left). Mahadeva (lha chen-po), the 'Great God', is a title given to Ishvara or Shiva as the chief of all the gods (lha). 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. Mahadevi, his semi-wrathful red consort, straddles his left leg as she embraces his powerful body. 9. Shanpa Marnag (lower right). 'Yaksha, the Dark-red Butcher' (gnod spyin bshan pa dmar nag) 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. 10. Rahula (bottom left), 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. Rahula is dark-red or maroon in color with nine wrathful heads and the crowning black head of a raven. 11. Ekajati (bottom center), which in Sanskrit means the 'One braid' (eka-jat) 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. 12. Dorje Legpa (bottom right), 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 color, with three round red eyes, upward blazing facial hair, gnashing teeth, and a gaping mouth, from which he exhales a poisonous mist.

© text by Robert Beer

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