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Fragmentary figure of Vajravarahi


    • currently in research collection

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  • Early Himalayan Art by Amy Heller

    Early Himalayan Art

    This diminutive Vajravarahi is overtly erotic, as she deftly raises her right leg above the garland of skulls draped over her shoulders, clasping a skull cup to her chest and bringing the tip of a vajra-chopper to the lips of the sow's head protruding above her right ear. Vajravarahi is a Tantric goddess whose cult flourished in Indian Buddhism between the tenth and twelfth centuries, when her worship was imported to Nepal and Tibet [1]. She may be re p resented alone or as a partner of Samvara (cat. 4 8). Her name is in fact an epithet derived from the small sow's head, for Varahi literally means 'sow'.

    In this sculpture, Vajravarahi appears to be seated but in fact, there is a break at the proper left knee, and the calf and foot are now missing. Originally she stood with her left leg bent and the right leg raised in a dancing posture. If the foot and leg were present, the height of the full body would be 8 cm, calculated by measuring the length of the proper right calf and foot (which shows signs of a repair at the bend of the knee, at some undetermined time). This image is made in a dark copper alloy, with one remaining circle of pure copper inlay in the crown. The back is largely unfinished. There are traces of gilding all over her body, particularly visible on the draping of the triple chain necklaces from her shoulders to midriff, and at the belt. The body proportions are relatively slender and naturalistic. Her facial features are now quite flat, due to wear: in its present dimension, the image would have been very convenient for holding in the hand by devotees, and has obviously been much handled and rubbed. In its incomplete state, lacking its left leg, base, and torana, the body of this goddess had evidently become a potent talisman, to be held in the hand by devotees, during ritual worship or as a protective amulet.

    Vajravarahi wears a diadem above her forehead, now quite worn away. She has disc earrings with a cylindrical copper plug. Above her left ear there is a fan-shaped lateral ribbon; on the right is the small sow's head in profile, the eye in copper overlay. She brings the vajra tip to the sow's mouth. Due to the soft copper alloy, the chopper end of the vajra is not distinctly visible in the hand of her raised right arm. She has two very simple bracelets at her right wrist: judging from the anklets, which have similar proportions, there were two beaded bracelets of graduated size, leaving a space in between. She has three armbands with a triangular panel towards her right shoulder. On a completely different scale, for a sculpture of Vajravarahi 18 cm in height, the goddess wears very similar armbands and multiple chain necklace clinging to the contours of the breasts [2]. On her left arm, there are no armbands. Instead the edge of a shawl is draped in the crook of her arm. Her belt also has three sections; the central panel is broad and plain, the upper and lower belts were beads. To the right, there are small oval twirls of a fabric sash which tied at the back to keep the belt in place. The back is now quite abraded, but the outline of the sash is visible at the hips. Other than this shawl and belt, Vajravarahi has no garments. Her breasts are adorned with flat discs of copper overlay [3]. Similarities in scale and the slender lithe body with copper overlay for the breasts are found in a sculpture of the Tibetan yogini Ma cig, previously attributed to western Tibet or Tibet, circa fourteenth century [4]. The sash extending from the waist recalls earlier sculptures from Ladakh and the western Himalaya (e.g. the Maitreya, cat. 44).

    Above the nape of the neck, there is a small flat disc in the contrasting bright copper alloy. Sometimes such lugs are engraved with a mantra syllable during a consecration ceremony, but here there is only a horizontal line visible now. Thus it appears to be a lug with which the statue may have been formerly inserted into a torana. Probably there would have been a similar lug extending from the now missing left foot, to insert into a base.


    1 See English, Vajrayogini: Her Visualizations, Rituals and Forms, for discussion of Vajravarahi as an aspect of Vajrayogini.

    2 See von Schroeder, Buddhist Sculpture in Tibet, vol. 2, pl. 289B-C, Vajravarahi attributed to 1150-1250, now in the Jokhang at Lhasa; although the jewellery is similar, this sculpture is completely modelled in the round.

    3 See Reedy, 'Copper alloy casting and decorating technology', for the distinctive use of copper overlay in sculptures from the western Himalaya and western Tibet.

    4 This sculpture is 8 cm in height, including base and torana; the alloy analysis revealed a leaded copper-zinc-tin alloy: see Klimburg-Salter, The Silk Route and the Diamond Path, pl. 115, and Reedy, Himalayan Bronzes, U320, pp. 255-6. According to Reedy's data, this alloy would exclude a provenance from western Tibet.

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