This frightening figure, with flaming hair, bulging eyes and a corpse in her mouth, is the Buddhist goddess Lhamo. Lhamo originated as a ferocious local deity of Tibet but became one of the eight Dharmapalas or Great Protectors of Buddhist law after the introduction of Buddhism into Tibet. She appears as a horrific and bloodthirsty character adorned with a crown of skulls, a garland of decapitated heads, and a human skin worn as a cape. However, despite her demonic appearance, she is considered a beneficent figure who aids Buddhist practitioners in their transcendence of earthly passions and fears and achievement of understanding and spiritual freedom from ignorance.
Lhamo’s Story and Attributes
Lhamo is the city goddess of Lhasa and the principal protector of the Gelukpa [PRONUNCIATION] sect of Varayhana Buddhism and the Dalai Lamas of Tibet. She is the Buddhist manifestation of the Hindu Death goddess Kali who embodies destruction. Like Kali, Lhamo brings death and destruction to opponents of the Buddhist law or Dharma.
Lhamo is the only female of the eight Dharmapalas and the most extreme in appearance. She is typically illustrated as a bloodthirsty and terrifying character riding a mule or donkey and adorned with a crown of skulls, garland of decapitated heads, and a human skin worn as a cape. The flayed skin of a human sacrifice extends over the back of her mount. She has flaming hair and bulging eyes and a corpse in her mouth. The goddess rides her mule through a sea of blood accompanied by two hybrid demons.
According to legend, Lhamo was once the queen of the demons of Sri Lanka. Her husband, the king, was addicted to enormous acts of violence and cannibalism. Lhamo attempted to convince the king of the hazards and severity of his behavior, but he ignored her warnings. On a day of mass sacrifice, the king asked his wife to lead out the victims, and she appeared leading their own children to be sacrificed. When the king attempted to detain her, the queen transformed into the ferocious goddess Lhamo and murdered the children. The king begged her to undo her deed, promising to end violence and human sacrifice in the kingdom. However, ignoring his pleas, the goddess rode off into the sky with hideous laughter and wild shrieks.
Lhamo is one of eight Dharmapalas, or Great Protectors, in the Buddhist tradition. Dharmapalas were originally hostile or demonic deities of Tibet’s indigenous Bon religion. According to the Bon tradition, these deities were the primary cause of hardship and suffering in life. In the ninth-century, Padmasambava [PRONUNCIATION], the “Lotus Born”, a Buddhist sage and Tantric master, confronted and tamed the local Bon deities, convincing them to swear allegiance to the developing Buddhist religion. Thus, the Dharmapalas became the ferocious protectors of Buddhist law and scripture against natural or supernatural harm.
The Dharmapalas appear as wrathful deities with fiery hair, flaming aureoles, and crowns made of skulls. Though they appear frightening and demonic, the Dharmapalas’ terrifying appearance is meant to symbolize the necessity of the Buddhist practitioner to relinquish earthly fears and desires in order to gain enlightenment. The Dharmapalas’s violent characteristics symbolize inner transformation and the determination needed to overcome the obstacles within the self to achieve Buddhism’s compassionate practice that renounces harmful thoughts and actions against other living beings. Buddhist devotees meditate in front of figures such as the DMA Lhamo, concentrating on transforming violent energy into the creative energy necessary to transcend the human ego and fear of death to ultimately achieve enlightenment.
The two most important centers of Himalayan and Tantric Buddhist art are Tibet and Nepal. Like the religion, the art of these areas was largely influenced by both India and China. Himalayan art typically consists of gilded and non-gilded bronze sculptures and thangkas [PRONUNCIATION] or paintings on cloth.
Himalayan art is almost exclusively religious in nature and primarily consists of objects that serve ritual and spiritual purposes. Many of these works are objects of veneration that are placed in monasteries. These objects serve as both visual aids for meditation and protective forces endowed with the depicted deity’s divine energy. Objects are believed to have religious power, imparted at consecration, and worshipers often visualize themselves as possessing the strengths of the deity depicted.
Vajrayana (Tantric) Buddhism
The two main religious traditions of Tibet are Bön and Buddhism. According to traditional Tibetan accounts, there was much rivalry between the two. Modern scholarship, however, presents a more complex relationship in which the two were heavily dependent on one another.
Bön is considered a pre-Buddhist religion that was suppressed by the introduction of Buddhism after the seventh-century. However, Bön may also refer to a religion that appeared in Tibet in the tenth and eleventh centuries as Buddhism spread through the region. This religion has continued into the present day. Bön is largely unexplored by modern scholars but believed to have focused on the imperial cult of a king, who was thought to have supernatural powers. Bön emphasizes religious authority, legitimation, and history over rituals, metaphysical doctrine, and monastic discipline. Bön religion purports that humans are victim to a variety of spiteful demons and temperamental local gods, who are the main cause of suffering in life. Some elements of the Bön religion have been borrowed from Tibetan Buddhism and some of its original wrathful deities and demons, the eight Dharmapalas [PRONUNCATION], were converted and tamed to serve as the guardians of Buddhism. In this sense both religions borrowed from one another.
Buddhism was introduced to Tibet by its first emperor, Songtsen-gampo [PRONUNCIATION] (617 – 649 A.D.). Vajrayana [PRONUNCIATION] Buddhism, also known as Tantric Buddhism, developed from Hinayana [PRONUNCIATION] and Mahayana [PRONUNCIATION] Buddhism and is still practiced in Tibet today. Vajrayana emphasizes Tantric beliefs which derive from a large body of Hindu and Buddhist traditions. These are based on the Tantra, a 1500 year old set of Indian spiritual practices that aim to transform the mind and body through radical and unconventional methods, such as ritual cannibalism and copulation with dead bodies. The purpose behind the Tantric practices is to transcend ordinary life and the emotions of fear and disgust into an enlightened state.
A key distinction between Tantric Buddhism and previous forms is the concept of a more rapid progression towards the achievement of enlightenment. Tantric Buddhists believe that Buddhahood can be attained in a lifetime rather than after many reincarnations. Tantric Buddhism began in Nepal and spread to Tibet in the seventh-century and Mongolia in the thirteenth-century. Today the Nepalese people practice both Hinduism and Buddhism. Whereas, in Tibet, Buddhism was incorporated into the preexisting Bön tradition, in Nepal it flourished side-by-side with Hinduism intimating influences between the two religions. The integration of Hindu and Buddhist iconography in Nepal later infiltrated Tibet as Buddhism spread.
Buddhism originated in India and is based on the teachings of Prince Siddhartha [sid-DAHR-thah] Gautama [go-ta-ma]. Prince Siddhartha was born in 567 B.C. and became known as the Buddha, or Enlightened One. He taught that all life is suffering, but renouncing desires and the self can lead to a state of enlightenment beyond both suffering and existence. Over time, diverse interpretations of the Buddha's teachings led to a variety of sects. Buddhism is no longer widely practiced in India, but has spread to Southeast Asia, Central Asia, and the Far East through missionary activity. Today it is one of the world’s largest religions.
Buddhist teachings are based on the Four Noble Truths: all existence is suffering, the cause of suffering is desire, to renounce desire is to renounce suffering, and one can achieve renunciation by following the Noble Eightfold Path. This path includes right view, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration.
Siddhartha is also often referred to as the Buddha Shakyamuni [SHAH-kyuh-moo-nee]. The Buddha was born into the Sakya clan, and the name Shakyamuni may mean “glory of the Sakya” or “sage of the Sakya.”
Since the Buddhists consider gold the supreme color, it is customary to gild images. Bronzes are sometimes coated with another metal before gilding. Then, the sculpture is treated with acid and a mixture of gold and mercury is applied in a thin coat. Next, the sculpture is heated, and as the mercury evaporates, the gold adheres to the bronze. Finally, the sculpture is polished with a smooth stone. However, because gilding is such an expensive process, many works simply “gold-coat” the face of the figures. “Gold-coating” is much simpler than gilding and simply requires that a mixture of gold powder and gelatin is applied with a fine brush.
1. Examine the expression and visual elements of this figure. How does the object make you feel?
2. What visual elements make this figure appear ferocious?
3. Why might it have been necessary for this figure to appear frightening? Who do you think it represents? What is their purpose?
4. Why would the artist choose to include gold and jewels as materials for this object?
5. Do you believe this object is secular or religious? Cite visual clues that support your hypothesis.
1. Lhamo is one of eight Dharmapalas that protect Buddhist law or Dharma. Research another Dharmapala and find an image (Hint: DMA collections online have The Dharmapala Vajrabhairava). In an essay, compare and contrast the two Dharmapalas based on visual elements and their individual stories.
2. Vajrayana Buddhism is a particular sect of the Buddhist tradition that is primarily practiced in the Himalayas. Research the other sects of Buddhism and create a map that visually illustrates where these various sects are most prevalent.
3. The DMA owns a thangka or cloth painting that also depicts Lhamo. Consider the various effects of two-dimensional versus three-dimensional representations. Create your own 2-D and 3-D representations of another Buddhist figure.
4. Lhamo is a protector of Dharma or Buddhist law and her visual elements communicate her role as ferocious guardian. Draw an image of your own protector, complete with all of the elements you believe necessary to serve the purpose of defender.
|Watch curator Anne Bromberg discuss protective figures in Asian art.|
Béguin, Gilles. Buddhist Art: An Historical and Cultural Journey. Bangkok: River Books, 2009.
Olson, Carl. The Different Paths to Buddhism: A Narrative-Historical Introduction. Chapel Hill, NC: Rutgers University Press, 2005.
Pal, Pratapaditya. Art of the Himalayas: Treasures from Nepal and Tibet. New York: Hudson Hills Press, 1991.
Pal Pratapaditya. On the Path to the Void: Buddhist Art of the Tibetan Realm. Mumbai: Marg Publications, 1996.
Pal Pratapaditya. Tibet: Tradition and Change. Albuquerque, NM: Albuquerque Museum, 1997.
Rawson, Philip. Tantra. London: Arts Council of Great Britain, 1972.
Rawson, Philip. The Art of Tantra. London: Thames and Hudson, 1973.
Sierksma, Fokke. Tibet's Terrifying Deities: Sex and Aggression in Religious Acculturation. The Hague: Mouton, 1966.
Thurman, Robert. The Jewel Tree of Tibet: The Enlightenment Engine of Tibetan Buddhism. Free Press, 2006.
Books for Students:
Dolphin, Laurie. Our Journey from Tibet. New York: Dutton (Penguin), 1997.
Hyde-Chambers, Frederick. Hyde-Chambers, Audrey. Tibetan Folk Tales. Boston: Shambhala, 2001.
Levy, Patricia. Cultures of the world – Tibet. New York: Marshall Cavendish, 2000.
Newman, Bruce. A Beginner’s Guide to Tibetan Buddhism. Boston: Snow Lion Publications, 2004.
Spilsbury, Louise. Spilsbury, Richard. World Cultures: Living in the Himalayas. Mankato, MN: Heinemann-Raintree, 2007.
Wilkinson, Philip. Morgan, Peggy. Buddhism (Eyewitness Book). London: DK Children, 2003.
This resource offers extensive information and teaching activitiesabout the Sacred Arts of Tibet.
The website provides an overview of Tibetan Buddhist Art.
This website provides images and information about Buddhist Sculpture from China.
Visit this educational resource guide to Himalayan Art.
Access a lesson plan for a study of trade along the Silk Road for elementary students.
This site offers secondary level lesson plans focused on reflection and comparison of world belief systems.
Access a pdf document full of teaching ideas for understanding South Asian Hindu and Buddhist art.
Learn the basic concepts of Buddhism.
This web site provides a summary and timeline of Buddhist religion, art, and culture.
This website provides a summary of the Buddha’s life.
Access tips for recognizing Hindu and Buddhist gods.
This website provides a summary and timeline of South Asian Culture through art.
Access rich educational materials focused on the Art of South and Southeast Asia
Explore concise and comparative presentations of world religions with connections to works of art.
Many works of art seen in museums have a religious or ceremonial significance that may not be readily apparent or easily understood. Because many of the beliefs, values, and traditions associated with these objects are complex or unfamiliar, teaching about these objects can be challenging. In a diverse and global world, it is important to maintain a high level of cultural sensitivity in the classroom and to promote cultural literacy. Presented here are several guidelines for teaching about the beliefs, values, and traditions related to these works of art in a sensitive and respectful manner.
- Consider the Museum Setting
Remember that these objects were not originally intended to be displayed in museums and many served utilitarian as well as aesthetic functions. Some objects were never meant to be preserved and others were only supposed to be seen by a small, elite group within the source culture. These issues make it all the more important for educators to provide relevant contextual information surrounding these objects. Older students can consider the ethical implications of the placement of these objects in museums, from the colonial expansions that encouraged their acquisition to the educational benefits of publicly accessible art.
- Provide Context and Narrative
When discussing works that carry a religious or ceremonial significance, it is important to consider the original context in which the object would have been used. Where appropriate, emphasize that many of the ceremonies and religions studied are living traditions that are still practiced today. Additionally, providing a narrative through contextual storytelling engages students in learning about a culture or religion different from their own in a nonthreatening way.
Equally important to context is geography. Emphasize the diversity of the continents and encourage students to remember that Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Americas are made up of many countries and cultures. A great starting point is to locate where students live on a world map and then locate the country or region from which the artwork comes.
- Use Inclusive Language
Use language that is inclusive, and avoid indicating your own cultural or religious biases. By remaining neutral, all backgrounds can be respected and no one treated like an outsider. Avoid setting up a dichotomy of “us” and “them” when discussing these cultures and arbitrary categories such as “western” and “non-western.” Instead, be specific, and categorize the objects by country or religion. Specificity steers students away from the trap of oversimplifying diverse continents such as Asia or Africa into homogenous regions that serve as the “other” of the “western” world.
- Carefully Select Vocabulary
When discussing works of art with cultural and religious significance, avoid terms that carry a derogatory tone or that have typically been used to disparagingly describe works of art from other cultures. Avoiding loaded terms will discourage a value hierarchy between cultures and encourage both unbiased accuracy and sensitivity. Examples include: idol, myth, tribe, artifact, fetish, primitive, non-western, etc. This list is in no way exhaustive or without exception, and it is important to select words carefully when referring to various cultures or religions.
Insensitive vocabulary is sometimes compounded by the fact that there may not be English equivalents for the names of religions, belief systems, or peoples from other cultures (i.e. many of the belief systems practiced by various peoples throughout Africa).
- Avoid Decontextualizing Activities
Remember that religious and ceremonial objects have a very specific purpose and their own cultural context. Avoid the inclination to design open-ended, “make your own” exercises where the objects are directly appropriated and removed from their context. (i.e. make your own Hindu god or African spirit) Keep in mind how certain activities could be viewed as disrespectful or even blasphemous by peoples from the culture being studied.
- Find Common Connections
Humans throughout time and all over the world share a fundamental unity of experiences that reflect common concerns, instincts, and desires. We all seek to understand the world and our place within it. Universal themes and commonalities may be found among diverse peoples. Invite students to search for meaningful connections between the culture studied and his/her own. While honoring a common human experience, also encourage students to embrace particular nuances and maintain the integrity of differences of each culture or religion. Understanding both similarities and differences between cultures allows students to be more compassionate, culturally sensitive, and literate.
- Consider the Study of Cultures
In the last century, scholarship regarding Asian and African cultures and their associated religions and practices has expanded immensely. Information that was once scarce or obscure is now more accessible than ever and can provide greater understandings about the art and culture of these peoples. European and American art making and record keeping mostly emphasize the individual artist or artistic movement. This may differ from standards in African and Asian cultures. Consider the role art plays in various cultures, why makers may or may not be identified, how record keeping varies, and why some cultures emphasize certain aspects of objects and their history over others.
Breuilly, Elizabeth, and Joanne O’Brien, Martin Palmer, Martin E. Marty. Religions of the World: The Illustrated Guide to Origins, Beliefs, Traditions, and Festivals. New York: Facts on File, Inc., 2005.
Eck, Diana L. On Common Ground: World Religions in America. Columbia University Press, 2006.
Mbiti, John. African Religion and Philosophy (African Writers), 2nd sub edition. Hinemann, 1992.
Nash, Robert. Teaching Adolescents Religious Literacy in a Post-9/11 World. Information Age Publishing, 2009.
Prothero, Stephen. God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World—and Why Their Differences Matter. Harper One, 2010.
Prothero, Stephen. Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know-- and Doesn’t. San Francisco: Harper, 2007.
Ray, Benjamin. African Religions: Symbol, Ritual, and Community, 2nd edition. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.:Prentice-Hall, Inc., 2000.
Said, Edward. Orientalism. Vintage Books, 1979.
“A Teacher’s Guide to Religion in the Public Schools”