In Focus

Palden Lhamo

Palden Lhamo is modeled here in her most popular form as the Glorious Queen Magzor (also known as Palden Remati). She also appears in Indian and Tibetan sacred art in her other forms such as the four-armed Dudsolma. She rides her mule over an ocean of blood in this fine partial gilt bronze. She is joined by her two aco­lytes, Makaravaktra (seamonster-headed goddess) and Simhavaktra (lion-headed goddess). Both are important divinities of the dakini class of protective goddesses. Makaravaktra protects followers of the Buddha from dangers arising from the underworld, and Simhavaktra protects from dangers arising in the upper world. They serve Palden Lhamo and help extend her power to both worlds. The inner mean­ing of this relates to Palden Lhamo’s power to purify and transform both the upper world of the conscious mind and the underworld of the unconscious. Her fearsome appearance and numerous accoutrements embody the Buddhist ideal of the bodhisattva who can take any form and engage in any activity necessary for the salvation of living beings. Palden Lhamo is a wrathful protective goddess whose wisdom and compassion overcome every obstacle. She is the special protector of the Dalai Lamas and the Tibetan govern­ment, having been established in that role by the Second Dalai Lama, Gendun Gyatso (1475–1542).

Every detail of Palden Lhamo’s appear­ance and accoutrements is symbolic on three levels: outer, inner, and secret. The outer level is related in her history as the woman warrior who fought the demon king of Lanka. The inner level consists of symbolic meanings related to the path to liberation. On the secret level, taught only to initiates, every detail becomes signifi­cant as an element in the mystical practice of internal Tantric yoga.

Palden Lhamo has one face and two arms. On the inner level of symbolism, she holds in her mouth the demon of mental afflictions. She bites down on this demon with her sharp fangs of mindfulness, cir­cumspection, heedfulness, and diligence. Her red hair rising upward represents the blazing fire of perfect wisdom (jnana) that incinerates all worldly conceptions (vikalpa), which are the underlying causes of all misery. She wears the five-skull crown showing that she has extinguished the five poisons (greed, anger, ignorance, pride, and jealousy). The third eye of wis­dom is wide open in the middle of her forehead. The Tantric symbol of the sun of wisdom marks her navel, and the moon of compassion marks her crown. The peacock-feather parasol of ultimate attainment rises above her head. A long necklace of fifty severed heads is strung on a wire representing intestines. The fifty heads correspond to the fifty worldly states of mind that must be cut off.

As with most old bronzes, many attri­butes held in the hands and ornamenting the body are missing. They are cast sepa­rately and loosely fitted into the body. Originally Palden Lhamo would have had a poison snake as an earring on her left ear and a lion as an earring on the right. Her left hand holds a skull cup filled with brains deluded by confusion, superstition, and misconception. Her right hand held up a sandalwood cudgel marked with a vajra with which she conquers the demon of death. She wears a lower garment of tiger skin and belts and bracelets of poison snakes, showing that she has overcome every fear and danger.

On the left rear flank of her mule is an eye with which he sees the unseen worlds. Palden Lhamo sits on a saddle blanket that she fashioned from the flayed skin of her demonic son, whose head dangles below. A variety of implements and accou­trements such as flayed skins, a bag filled with diseases, weapons, and dice hang from the mule’s trappings. These indicate Palden Lhamo’s special skills and abilities to control, remove, or transform obstacles in order to advance followers on the path to enlightenment. She rides her mule through the ocean of blood whose waves can be seen below her. The ocean of blood symbolizes the cycle of birth and death (samsara). It is surrounded by a high range of mountains to show how difficult it is to get out of the endless rounds of birth, death, and rebirth. Palden Lhamo rides across this gruesome ocean and shows any who follow her the way to the far shore of nirvana.

Excerpt from

Robert Warren Clark, "Palden Lhamo," 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), 174-175.