About the Artwork

This gold-on-black thangka of two entwined dancing skeletons, who are commonly known as Citipati or Chitipati, is a copy of a nineteenth century colour thangka from the Potala Palace in Lhasa, Tibet. The Sanskrit term chitipati means the 'Lord (pati) of the funeral pyre (chiti)'. According to a Buddhist legend these two figures were once monks that were beheaded by a thief while they were meditating, who later took revenge on this thief by manifesting in the terrifying forms of skeleton spirits. They thus came to be regarded as treasure guardians who protect from thieves.

In Vajrayana Buddhism they are known as the 'Lords of the charnel grounds, brother and sister consorts' (dur khrod bdag po lcam dral ), and in Sanskrit as Smashana-adhipati, meaning the 'Primordial Lords of the charnel grounds'. As the twin protectors of cemeteries they subjugate all the vicious and malevolent demons, ghosts and spirits that can spiritually hinder practitioners, through the power of their tantric activities of pacifying, enriching, subjugating, slaying, exorcising, paralyzing, bewildering, and causing enmity.

As the masters or heroes of the charnel grounds, the brother-and-sister are generated from the syllables HŪṂ and AṂ, that arise in the symbolic forms of a conch and cowrie shell upon a golden sun-disc, which then transform into the terrifying and radiant white deified forms of dancing skeletons. The brother stands on the right of the sun-disc and lotus in ardha-paryrika or dancing 'bow-and-arrow' posture, with his right leg and foot drawn upward at a sharp angle, and his extended left leg bent at the knee as his foot presses upon the white conch shell from which he is generated. The sister stands on the left of the sun disc in reversed 'bow-and-arrow' posture, with her bent left leg drawn partially upwards, and extended right leg bent at the knee as her foot presses on the white cowrie shell from which she is generated.

The background of this thangka depicts the funereal landscape of their abode in the realm of the dakinis, situated in the western land of Uddiyana, and the skeletal structure of their mansion or mandala palace appears behind the flames of their aura. The vertical beams of its roof are fashioned from human thighbones, with a horizontal frieze of skulls and vertebrae forming the roof beam and guttering below. A grinning skull adorns each end of the roof's guttering, its gable ends are adorned with a skull impaled on a skeletal arm and hand, and on each corner of the roof's golden canopy is a skull pierced by a blazing iron trident. On either side of the main palace roof appear two of the ornate canopies of its four directional gateways. Below each gateway's lower frieze of skulls are the black beams of its torana or archway, which are decorated with severed heads, crossed thighbones, and flayed human skins. This fearful palace stands at the center of a great charnel ground and amidst a grove of sandalwood trees.

© text by Robert Beer

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