Masks have been used for a variety of purposes by many different people throughout history. Masks are often used to represent deities or spirits; in many cases, wearing masks during certain rituals is believed to allow the wearer of the mask to actually embody the spirit of the deity, or to become that deity during the ritual. This is true in the case of Mahakala, a deity that is worshipped both by members of the Hindu faith and by followers of Buddhism. There are a variety of ways that Mahakala is represented in physical forms. Statues and masks are commonly used to represent Mahakala, and devotees of certain sects of Buddhism often have Mahakala statues in their homes. Masks that represent Mahakala are used in a number of Buddhist rituals, including dances and parades. The following discussion will focus primarily on Mahakala in the context of Buddhism, and how this figure is used in ritual dances and other manifestations of this significant and important deity.
There are a number of different ways that the Mahakala is perceived by and represented by worshippers. In Tibetan Buddhism, Mahakala is considered to be a dharmapala, which means a “defender of religious law” (Edson, 2012). The Mahakala is typically represented in a grotesque manner; masks of Mahakala often feature a contorted face, and is intended to look ugly and terrifying. This representation of the Mahakala is used to ward off evil spirits, and representations of Mahakala can often be found near the entrances of Tibetan Buddhist temples. Mahakala is placed near the entrances to ensure that the evil spirits do not enter the temple (Stanton, 2012). Mahakala is one of eight different dharmapala, and is considered by many Buddhists to be the most powerful and fearful of the group (Stanton). Each dharmapala has a different function; some are intended to call out to friendly spirits, and others, like Mahakala, are considered to be guardians against evil spirits.
Buddhism takes many forms, and Buddhists in different cultures express their devotion and religious beliefs in a variety of ways. There are some common threads among many different sects of Buddhism, and rituals involving dances are among these commonalities. Not every different version of Buddhism uses ritual dancing, but it is seen in many regions throughout history. Ritual dances are typically intended to show devotion to the spirit world and to call out to the spirits for protection and guidance. In these ritual dances, those who are involved in the dances often wear masks that represent different spirits, and Mahakala is one that appears throughout many different sects of Buddhism (Stanton).
The Mahakala mask may be most prominently used in various regions of Tibet, where Buddhists have used images of Mahakala to ward off evil spirits for centuries. In many of the sects of Buddhism found in Tibet, dancing in rituals is a common practice. Such dancing often takes the form of “tantric” dancing, where participants enter a state of higher consciousness through dancing (Edson). In these tantric dancing rituals, masks representing different deities and spirits are worn by many of the participants. Those who wear such masks are believed to literally become the spirit represented by the masks they wear (Stanton). This is a common belief, and is seen in the use of ritual mask-wearing and dancing not just in Tibetan Buddhism, but in cultures throughout the world, such as in Africa, Australia, Central and South America, and other regions.
Tantric Buddhists use dancing as a common form of religious expression and celebration. Their dancing rituals are called Cham, and are typically performed by the higher-ranking monks in the region in which they are performed (Stanton). For the Cham, the monks dance within a mandala, or sacred space (Stanton). These mandalas are sometimes permanent areas on temple grounds, or they can be designed and set up specifically for temporary use for certain rituals. These dances are intended to ward off evil spirits in the local village or other area in which the temple is located. They are also intended to call out to the spirit world to ask for prosperity for the local followers. The Mahakala mask is considered to be one of the most important of the masks worn by the monks, and they are generally worn by one of the most high-ranking initiated monks.
The tantric dances are often very complicated, and can take months or even years for the monks to master (Stanton). They consist of a variety of bodily movements, hand gestures, and other actions that must be performed in a very precise manner. The dances are, in essence, a form of expressive meditation, intended to send messages to the spirit world while also inducing a state of tantric trance in the dancer. As the dancer enters this trance state, he is embodied by the spirit represented by the mask. Mahakala, while considered to be a protective spirit, is also a very powerful, forceful spirit. There are occasions where followers or even tourists who have come to watch the ritual dancing have somehow interfered with the dancers, and in turn have been attacked by one or more of the dancers (Stanton). Because the monks and the local followers believe the spirits have embodied the dancers, they believe that it is the spirit, and not the monk, who is attacking the onlooker, and therefore most choose not to interrupt the attack. Such events are rare, but not entirely uncommon.
The dancers engaging in the tantric dance rituals wear elaborate clothing and costumes; some wear long robes that are adorned with jewels and other ornaments, while others wear less elaborate outfits. The masks are put on last, and they are generally placed on the dancers before they appear in public, so by the time they exit the temple and enter the mandala they are already worn, and the observers from the surrounding areas do not see the monks who are wearing the masks, but only see the fully-costumed performers (Stanton). This is a way to ensure that the full power and significance of the spirits being represented are felt by the onlookers. In these rituals, the Mahakala dancer usually gets a prominent position, often appearing last, after the other dancers have entered the mandala.
In the region known as Sikkim, in the Himalayan Mountains, similar ritual dances are regularly performed. Sikkim is an unusual area in terms of its rituals and religious practices. The primary religion in Sikkim is Buddhism, but it is heavily influenced by Hindu (Subba, 2008). This is not entirely surprising, for several reasons. Buddhism is an offshoot of Hindu, and the region of Sikkim borders India, which has many Hindu followers. The temples found in Sikkim are often very elaborate and beautifully decorated, and each has its own unique style. While these temples are considered to be Buddhist temples, they sometimes contain statues or other representations of the various Hindu deities (Subba). Again, this is not surprising considering the cross-cultural aspect of Sikkim and its proximity to India. As is the case in Tibet, the ritual dancers in Sikkim place great emphasis on the Mahakala, and dancers wearing Mahakala masks are seen in many of their ritual dancers.
These ritual dances that are common throughout many sects of Buddhism and are found in many different regions are examples of shamanic dancing (Stanton). Shamans and shamanic rituals are found in cultures throughout the world. Shamans are, in short, believed to have the ability to contact the spirit world (Stanton). Shamanic rituals are found in Africa, Asia, North and South America, Australia, and many other regions. The shamanic dancing seen in the Cham rituals are believed to predate the development of Buddhism, and were very likely adapted from Hindu rituals that have existed for many centuries. The devotion to the various spirits also reflects the fact that Buddhism is rooted in Hindu, a religion that is known for worshipping an enormous variety of spirits, gods, and other forms of deities.
Although the Mahakala takes many different forms in the various regions and cultures where it is found, it has some common features that are seen in every Mahakala mask. The masks are typically painted black, which is supposed to capture the attention of the evil spirits (Kohn, 2001). Mahakala masks are most often created to appear intimidating or even terrifying, and are sometimes adorned with small carved skulls attached to them, as well as carved teeth strung on beaded strings to appear as if they have been ripped from the mouths of enemies or other spirits (Nebesky-Wojkowitz, 1976). The Mahakala masks found in most rituals are carved from wood, though there are some masks that are created with other materials, such as clay or even metal. Each mask shares some common features, such as large white eyes with heavy brows above them, and wide, open mouths that show rows of sharp, fang-like teeth.
The earliest representations of the Mahakala were usually manifested in the form of statues (Kohn). These statues were placed near, or even inside, Buddhist temples to protect the monks from evil spirits. Mahakala can take several forms; he sometimes has four, six, or even eight arms (Nebesky-Wojkowitz). It is easy to see the influence of Hindu in the statues of Mahakala, as many Hindu deities are represented with multiple arms (Nebesky-Wojkowitz). For the Mahakala, the addition of extra arms is believed to show that he has strength and power, and many of the statues of Mahakala show him holding swords in each hand (Kohn). Mahakala actually originated in Hindu, and was used as an alternative representation of Shiva the Destroyer (Nebesky-Wojkowitz). The image of the Mahakala was adapted by Buddhists into the form of a protector many centuries ago, and is still seen in ritual dances and other forms to this day.
The Mahakala masks that exist today are very similar to the historical representations of this spirit, and have changed very little over the centuries. Images of Mahakala dating back hundreds of years, as seen in paintings and statues, look very much like the Mahakals masks worn by ritual dancers today. They are still commonly used by ritual dancers in Tibet, Nepal, and other parts of the world. Visitors to these regions can still have the experience of witnessing ritual dances that have changed very little over time, and can see Mahakala masks that look very much like those that would have been worn by ritual dancers hundreds of years ago. It is clear that Mahakala is a significant deity, and has maintained a place of prominence among many sects of Buddhism throughout the world.
Edson, G. (2012). Mysticism and alchemy through the ages: The quest for transformation. Jefferson, N.C: McFarland & Company.
Kohn, R. J. (2001). Lord of the dance: The Mani Rimdu Festival in Tibet and Nepal. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.
Nebesky-Wojkowitz, R. (1976). Tibetan religious dances: Tibetan text and annotated translation of the ʼChams yig. The Hague, The Netherlands: Mouton.
Stanton, A. L. (2012). Cultural sociology of the Middle East, Asia, & Africa: : an encyclopedia. Los Angeles, Calif. [u.a.: SAGE.
Subba, J. R. (2008). History, culture and customs of Sikkim. New Delhi, India: Gyan Pub. House.