In Mahayana Buddhism Mahakala rose to the apex and in Alchi type many monasteries Mahakala emerged as the presiding deity and as an essential image for Thangka art with almost every piece registering the presence of Mahakala. The deadly looking Mahakala, or Bhairava in the Shaivite line, is not the god of death or one who presides over destruction, as he is sometimes contended to be. In usual imagery, the Mahakala is conceived as neutralizing two human figures under his feet; almost identically in the Shaivite line Bhairava, or Shiva during Tandava, the dance of annihilation, has been conceived as neutralizing one human figure. In Mahakala imagery the two figures represent negative forces, and hence, Mahakala represents the death of negatives, and in Bhairava imagery, the figure of Apasmara represents inertia or ignorance, and hence, the end of ignorance. The artifact is a piece from Nepal, a Hindu/Shaiva country, though not without pockets of Buddhism, and hence it is more likely that it represents the Shaivite form of Mahakala, though it is difficult to say if it traveled from Tibet to Nepal and from Buddhism to Shaiva tradition or otherwise.
The horrible looking face of Mahakala – the Timeless One, that this mask represents, is the guardian of all directions and endowed with great energy is the universal protector. The Buddhists believe that he protects also the Buddhist Doctrine and sanctuary that it enshrines. The face in the mask has been conceived with a rectangular form with five tiny heads, as horrible looking as the Mahakala face, crowning it. It has a wide open mouth with large teeth and a partially visible tongue inside looking like a pyramid’s top. The round eye-balls, as made of black cat-eye stones fitted into as dark sockets with the third one on the forehead, and another piece of cat eye stone, comprising the tip of the nose, are awe-striking. Much more horrible, or rather loathsome, are the serpents-like coiling zigzag lines around the mouth suggesting moustaches and the beard’s hair growing under the lower lip, and on the forehead comprising strange eye-brows. A deep black cobra with bright red hood knotted round the neck like a piece of ornament shakes with fear. Ears shaped like the sole of a shoe and long ear-lobes with large holes and crude heavy rings with serpentine offshoots are alike repulsive.
This description by Prof. P.C. Jain and Dr. Daljeet. Prof. Jain specializes on the aesthetics of literature and is the author of numerous books on Indian art and culture. Dr. Daljeet is the curator of the Miniature Painting Gallery, National Museum, New Delhi. They have both collaborated together on a number of books.