18th century
Gilt bronze, semiprecious stones, traces of pigment
10 × 5 × 2 1/2 in. (25.4 × 12.7 × 6.35 cm)
Arts of Asia
Dallas Museum of Art, Foundation for the Arts Collection, gift of the Virginia C. and Floyd C. Ramsey Fund of Communities Foundation of Texas, Inc.
Image courtesy Dallas Museum of Art

General Description

Vajravarahi is one of the wrathful deities of Tantric Buddhism, and like other dakini (celestial female divinities) she possesses supernatural wisdom and power. The conventional iconography for Vajravarahi shows the deity holding a knife and a bowl of blood, and wearing other grotesque attributes that symbolize her power over worldly concerns and fear of death. In many images, she balances gracefully on her left foot while standing upon a prostrate humanlike figure. However, this bronze, gilded statue of Vajravarahi has been separated from its lower elements. The missing prostrate figure under her foot would have represented the "ultimate evil" of Buddhism: the delusion of a truly existent self (atmagraha). By standing upon this figure, Vajravarahi shows that she has vanquished the delusion, and that it will be conquered by all who successfully achieve her Tantra (mystical path to enlightenment).

Vajravarahi's name derives from vajra (the mystical tool of enlightenment) and varahi (sow). The sow aspect is seen in the pig head that emerges from the right side of her head. This cosmic pig represents the light of wisdom in the inner mind, and the light of the sun in the outer world, with its power to warm, nurture, and illuminate. Vajravarahi's dancing pose and kinetic energy demonstrate her power to suppress ignorance and greed, while her nudity and wrathful expression combine the seductiveness of feminine beauty with the fearsome attributes of a ferocious deity. She wears a long necklace of fifty-one severed heads representing the elimination of the fifty-one worldly states of mind. A crown of five skulls represents the extinction of the five poisons. The human skull cup in her left hand is filled with the scrambled brains of worldly thoughts and conceptions, while the upraised vajra-handled knife in her right hand cuts off all those worldly concepts and leaves only pristine awareness (jnana).

Vajravarahi's nakedness represents the purity of the mind and body, unencumbered by the "clothing" of the conventional world: misconceptions and delusions. Her beauty represents the sublime nature of pure awareness. The use of fine gold and jewels seen here represents the glory of supreme realization and is a traditional Buddhist way of paying homage to the deity embodied by the image. Images of deities are hollow-cast so that precious relic offerings and small scrolls of mantras or prayers relevant to that deity may be sealed within by a qualified monk or yogi, thus consecrating the image so that the deity abides within it. In this way the sculpture becomes a suitable object for worship, devotion, and meditation. The contrast between the jeweled luxury of the inlaid gilt-bronze sculpture and its harsh underlying meanings occurs frequently in Tantric art, where sex and death are seen as part of one universal reality, to be expressed in art by glowing colors, exuberant rhythms, lavish ornament, and expressive, earthy vigor.

Adapted from

  • Robert Warren Clark, "Vajravarahi" in The Arts of India, South East Asia, and the Himalayas, Anne R. Bromberg (Dallas: Dallas Museum of Art; New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013), 179.

  • Emily Sano, DMA unpublished material, 1992.

  • Label text, 2018.

Fun Facts

  • Also missing from the figure is the upper part of her staff. This is the khatvanga or staff that rests on the ground, goes up under left elbow, and rises over her left shoulder. It would have been topped with a spear, upon which three heads would have been impaled. This staff represents her unseen consort, the supreme tantric god Chakrasamvara.

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