In the pantheon of Vajrayana (esoteric) Buddhism, dharmapalas (protectors of the law) are wrathful deities who are fierce defenders of the faith, bent on removing any and all obstacles blocking the worship of those practitioners aspiring to reach enlightenment. In Tibet, the only female dharmapala is Penden Lhamo (in Sanskrit, Shri Devi), who, among other aspects, is revered among Tibetans as a spiritual protector. For their evocative apotropaic qualities, images of this goddess have graced the thangkas (paintings) and gilt-bronze statuary of Tibet for several centuries.
This sculpture depicts Penden Lhamo in her most vengeful of forms. Wrought out of shimmering gilt bronze and subsequently painted, the fiercesome goddess sits in fury atop her mount, a trotting mule, which carries her through a sea of blood and viscera. She is dressed in rich, diaphanous clothing and jewels and, in her right hand, aggressively wields a long sword that is suspended menacingly above her head. The ferocious expression on her face, augmented by a high crown incorporating the skull imagery favored by the Vajrayana sect in Tibet, is amplified by the presence of a diminutive, emaciated human caught between her jaws. The horrific and repugnant imagery reinforces the depth of Penden Lhamo’s capabilities to promote good through her unrelenting battle against ignorance. The keen sense of movement displayed in this composition, accentuated by ample use of gesture and crisp decorative patterning, conveys the active role of the deity in her omnipresent role as a dharmapala in the Buddhist pantheon.