Machig Labdron as Vajradakini
This superb Tibetan bronze is a very rare image of the important tantric practitioner and teacher Machig Labdron (1031-1129). Made for a Buddhist monastic altar, it represents the yogini in deified form as Vajradakini (a female form of Samvara Buddha): she wears the skull necklace of Vajradakini and the drum (rather than vajra chopper) in her right hand identifies her as Machig. Her face is superbly and delicately modeled, her open mouth is expressive, and her slim body dances with a lively energy.
Machig Labdron is associated with codifying an important tantric ritual known as Chöd, or Severance, which had first developed in India. After marrying and having children, she felt drawn to advanced Buddhist practice. She left her husband (who later became her ritual consort) to develop and perfect the Chöd ritual. The ritual centers on summoning demons to eat one's body, a compassionate and generous offering that is considered a means for realizing the impermanence of the self, the body, and the gift of the body. Machig's fangs, skull necklace, skull-topped khatvanga staff, and mandorla of flames signal the fierce aspects of her teachings.
The sculpture was damaged in a fire, probably in the early 1960s shortly before it left the Tibetan plateau. The burnt lacquer coating that had been applied to the body and base (and protected its gilding) was removed, but the face, which was covered in "cold gold" paint typical of Tibetan Buddhist altarpieces, was left as is. It is one of 220 Tibetan Buddhist sculptures donated to the museums by the Alice Kandell Collection over a ten-year period (S2012.3-7).