Stone stele with the dharmapala Mahakala

From Tibet
17th century AD

The terrifying guardian of Buddhist monasteries

Several Tibetan Buddhist deities are protective figures (dharmapalas) who defend the Buddhist teaching. They often have a horrific and terrifying appearance, but are as compassionate as the gods and the protectors of the faithful.

This stone stele shows the dharmapala Mahakala as 'Lord of the Tent', an appropriate role given the nomadic lifestyle of many Tibetans. The garland of skulls, his fierce expression and the prone male figure being trampled underfoot all add to his terrifying appearance. These symbolize his ability to destroy all impediments to enlightenment.

Mahakala holds in the crooks of his arms the long wooden sounding board used to summon monks to assembly. This symbolizes Mahakala's vow to protect all monasteries, especially Nalanda, the great Buddhist 'university' in eastern India. He frequently appears at the entrance to Tibetan temples or has his own special shrine.

Other figures are depicted alongside Mahakala, including the hawk-man Garuda, a Hindu deity adopted as the eagle of wisdom by Tibetan Buddhism. In Mahakala's head-dress is his 'parent' Buddha, Akshobhya, identified by the right hand in the earth-touching gesture. Stone stele such as this are rare in Tibet.

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More information


R. Fisher, Art of Tibet (Thames and Hudson, 1997)


Museum number

Asia OA 1908.5-15.10



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