The Buddhist Guardian Mahabala

Period: Eastern Javanese period

Date: 11th century

Culture: Indonesia (Java)

Medium: Bronze

Dimensions: H. 6 1/2 in. (16.5 cm)

Classification: Sculpture

Credit Line: Gift of Evelyn Kossak, The Kronos Collections, 1995

Accession Number: 1995.570.4


According to certain traditional programs of Esoteric Buddhist iconography, Mahabala, similar to Yamantaka, is the conqueror of the lord of death and, by extension, of death itself. As a guardian of the faith (dharmapala), he is depicted as a fierce deity, shown here trampling a prostrate male, perhaps signifying death.

The powerful, corpulent protector adopts the aggressive stance of pratyalidha, a posture often used by figures trampling foes. His lowered right hand is in the boon-granting gesture and his raised left is in a sign of warning or menace. Mahabala is depicted with six heads, six legs, and twelve arms. Of the six faces, only one is pacific; the rest are wrathful, fanged, and terrifying. All of the heads wear diadems of skulls, and the deity wears a matching necklace and a sacred thread composed of skulls alternating with lotuses. Mahabala's hair is a series of spiraling conical forms, which heighten the sense of a great pyramidal mass being supported by the shoulders.

Mahabala frequents cemeteries, and his necropolitan associations—torsos, limbs, skull bones, and flayed skin—are graphically depicted around the base of the sculpture. Amid this grisly reminder of mortality, one macabre smiling head appears on the side of the base.