Steatite with color and gilding; H. 6 in. (15.2 cm)
Lent by Florence and Herbert Irving (L.1994.6.5)
This small stela shows a form of the Buddhist deity Mahakala, god of death, called Panjara Mahakala, who is the god of cemeteries. Panjara Mahakala is the symbolic destroyer of the corporeal self that binds each practitioner to ignorance. He is also the god of justice who punishes those who transgress and protects those who fulfill obligations. He holds a skull cup and chopper in his hands, traditional attributes of Mahakala, and balances a baton, his most salient attribute, in the crooks of his arms. The arch that frames the figure has four attendant deities on lotus bases and set against fiery haloes. Clockwise from top right they are Bhutadamara Vajrapani, Bhagavat Mahakala, Kamadhatvishvara (on a mule), and Ekajati. The images of birds of prey, dogs, and a garuda that embellish the interstices of the arch are associated with charnel grounds and therefore with Panjara Mahakala's wrathful role, which seeks liberation from the confines of the body. The iconography of this deity was purportedly brought to Tibet by the translator Rinchen Sangpo in the eleventh century and remains popular.