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The Buddhist protector deity Penden Lhamo

Enlarge this image. The Buddhist protector deity Penden Lhamo, 1700–1800. China; Qing Dynasty. Gilded bronze with inlaid jewels. Courtesy of the Asian Art Museum. The Avery Brundage Collection, B60B162.
Who is Penden Lhamo?
Penden Lhamo is one of the more wrathful female deities of Buddhism. Among her many roles, she is the special protector of the city of Lhasa, the Gelukpa Order, and the Dalai Lamas of Tibet. She was invited to Tibet in around the eleventh century from India. Legend has it that she was once the queen of the demons of Sri Lanka. She vowed to kill her only son if he did not promise not to lead the people of Lanka to greater violence and cannibalism. The flayed skin of her son used as the saddle blanket on her mule shows that he did not agree to his mother’s request. She rides across a sea of blood. Around her waist is a belt hung with severed heads. She holds a skull cup in her left hand. These images of violence are understood by initiates as sacred symbols of inner transformation in a compassionate religious culture that shuns every form of action, thought or word that might be harmful to other living beings.
Fierce figures like this symbolize the determination needed to overcome the obstacles within the self. The devotee would concentrate on transforming the anger and energy of Lhamo into the creative energy needed to transcend the human ego and achieve the unity of wisdom and compassion.

Who are the figures on either side of her?

Near the head of the mule is the lion-headed dakini. At the other end is a makara-headed dakini. Each of these dakinis (enlightened female divinities) is a goddess in her own right with a fascinating history of heroic deeds.
This object was made in Manchu-controlled China, but its form and style is Tibetan. The Manchu (Qing dynasty) emperors of China favored the Gelukpa Order of Tibetan Buddhism, therefore images of Penden Lhamo were common in China during this time. The Asian Art Museum has several Sino-Tibetan objects dating especially from the Qianlong era (1736–1795). The Qianlong emperor stated in 1792 that, “By patronizing the Gelukpa we maintain peaceful relations with the Mongols. This being an important task we cannot but protect this (religion).” In addition to wanting to impress the Mongols, who were devout followers of Tibetan Buddhism, the Qianlong emperor also had genuine personal devotion to Tibetan Buddhism. He had a close relationship with his venerated Tibetan religious teacher, the great Lama Rolpay Dorje (1717–1786), and took an interest in the many Buddhist art objects created in his palace workshops.

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