Lot 294: A superb Darmāpala Mask - Protectorate of the Buddhist Faith; possibly Mahākāla

Circa 17th-19th century
H: 11 1/2"

This mask has all the classical characteristics of a traditional Darmāpala mask, ferocious looking with bulging eyes and protruding cheekbones, bared teeth and fangs, a third eye and a five-skull crown. Yet, being a relatively more animated interpretation of a classical m'gompo (monastery) mask - exhibiting a more spirited rendition than perhaps what the stricter edicts might have dictated a mask maker from a more classically trained background - this would likely have come from a local monastery in a more rural area.

Also known as Guru Rinpoche, and the second Buddha, the great Indian sage Padmasambhava, when bringing Buddhism with a Hindu pantheon to Tibet in the 8th century, ritually subdued the local Tibetan demons with his arcane knowledge and a magic wand called a phurba, converting them into wrathful protectorates of the faith called Darmāpala; protector of the Dharma, the Law that "upholds, supports or maintains the regulatory order of the universe". Merging local beliefs with magic, ancient knowledge and emerging practices went a long way toward convincing the superstitious Tibetans to embrace the new religion.

Mahākāla and other Darmāpala figures are usually depicted with a crown of five skulls, which represent the transmutation of the five kleshas (negative afflictions) into the five wisdoms. Depending on the tradition, the negative afflictions are varyingly described as, anxiety, fear, anger, jealousy, desire, depression, ignorance, attachment, aversion, pride, doubt, craving, clinging, greed, hate, delusion, conceit, wrong views, worry, torpor, restlessness, shamelessness and recklessness. The five wisdoms represent the essential five qualities of a Buddha, which would include, wisdom; compassion; power, or activity; energy/effort/persistence; the aspect of beauty, or spiritual riches; faith; mindfulness; concentration; mirror-like awareness; and discernment.

In Tibet, divine presences or deities would traditionally be kept in a home or even incorporated into the construction of a home to protect from malevolent forces. There will often be several seats for this in the average home for the male god that protects the house, which would be placated daily with the burning of juniper wood and leaves. The woman of the house also had a protecting deity, typically found in a kitchen recess or atop the pole supporting the roof. These would often take the form of a mask, and needless to say, lots of smoke inundated these objects.

Times of the year when different festivals and festivities would be taking place, masks that were otherwise kept hung in the home or ferreted away in a monastery would be paraded out and danced or used in pantomimes. Monks would perform traditional Ch'hams dances within and about the monasteries, and the laity would perform locally combining both Buddhist and animistic performances into their repertoire, like the Ache-Lhamo, the Yak Dance or the Deer Dance. It would not be uncommon to see the same mask portraying different characters in a variety of regional performances. In the same way, a mask and the power it evoked could be utilized for different purposes, whether embodying the spirit of the mask in dance, or relying on its ability to protect the household from evil or malevolent spirits.

This particular mask shows clear evidence of having great age, possibly 200 to 300 years old, or even more. The hard wood of this mask developed a heavy rich patina during many years of use and adoration. The facial detailing of the five skulls adorning the crown have long since worn away from centuries of handling, significant wear for such a relatively hard wood. Layers of dark glassine patina have almost obscured an indigenous repair at the top of the mask. In between its theatrical use during public events, a protectorate mask like this would have also been hung in a home or a monastery, to protect that local environment all year round.

Ghee (clarified butter), a staple in every Tibetan's diet and used liberally within their environment, was routinely applied to ceremoniously anoint masks and other ritual objects. There are carbon deposits over the entire surface of this mask, which would indicate its exposure to the dense smoke of fires perpetually used for cooking and heating a home or monastery, with little to no proper venting. There is also evidence of kaolin or "puja" (ritual) powder dusted and caked into the crevices around the eyes, mouth and crown. It would appear that the carbon deposits compounded with routine applications of butter and clay, as well as the ceremonial rubbing and handling of this Darmāpala mask had added to its rich surface glow, and perhaps even to its mojo.

Property of a Lawrence Hultberg, NY

Price Realized: $4,000

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