Mask of Bhairava

16th century
Gilt copper repoussé and gemstones
Overall: 32 1/2 x 36 1/2 x 17 in. (82.55 x 92.71 x 43.18 cm)
Arts of Asia
Dallas Museum of Art, gift of David T. Owsley via the Alvin and Lucy Owsley Foundation
Image courtesy Dallas Museum of Art

General Description

This mask of the ferocious Hindu god Bhairava was created by Newari artists in Nepal. Bhairava is a popular divinity in the Newar community. He also appears as a full figure in the Bhairava collar necklace [1987.470]. Bhairava is the wrathful aspect of Shiva, the warrior king of the gods. To a devotee, he is the master and creator of the universe, the Supreme Being (Ishvara) who protects from all dangers in this and future lives.

Bhairava has three bulging eyes, the third eye being the divine eye of Shiva that can project a beam of energy to incinerate enemies. Bhairava's diadem has four skulls on either side, and the head of Shiva in the center. This particular head of Shiva is modeled very much like the head of a buddha or bodhisattva. Indeed Newari tradition incorporates many Buddhist elements, and combines them with Hindu religious elements. Bhairava is sometimes described as a Hindu analogue of the Buddhist deity Mahakala. However, the worship of Bhairava often involves animal sacrifice, which is abhorrent to Buddhist culture.

Above the small head of Shiva and four skulls are five lobes with finely set precious and semiprecious jewels. At the very top are the crown attributes of Shiva: moon, snake, and skull. Behind the crown, Bhairava's red hair blazes up in flaming curls. His mouth has long fangs, and an opening used in rituals for dispensing beer and blessings and for receiving blood sacrifices.

This type of mask is famous for its role in the annual five-day Bhairava Jatra festival (Panchali Bhairab Indra Jatra festival). This Hindu festival takes place in Durbar Square, Kathmandu, Nepal. Bhairava is the main deity of the festival, and he is joined by Indra, the ten incarnations of Vishnu (Dasha Avatara), and many other Hindu gods and goddesses in processions and masked dances. On the third day of the festival, the incumbent "living goddess" Kumari is taken in a chariot around the square and receives the adulation of the crowds. Kumari is a prepubescent girl considered to be an incarnation of the goddess Taleju. During the festival, the Swet Bharab Hindu temple, near Kumari's palace, displays a large (approximately ten-foot-high) mask of Bhairava set into the front of the temple. Many devotees and religious groups bring other masks of Bhairava, large and small. Some are worn by costumed dancers as masks. Other larger Bhairava masks are mounted on carts or platforms. These have an opening for the mouth. A tube extends from a cask of beer behind each mask through the mouth. Devotees come to receive beer infused with the power and blessings of Bhairava. On the final day of the festival, Bhairava receives blood offerings from Hindu devotees. The larger masks receive the blood of goats that are killed right in front of them. Smaller masks receive the blood of chickens and ducks. The blood goes directly from the sacrificed animal into the mouth of the mask.

Excerpt 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), 197.