Buddhist practice and Buddhist art have been inseparable in the Himalayas ever since Buddhism arrived to the region in the eighth century. But for the casual observer it can be difficult to make sense of the complex iconography. Not to worry—Himalayan art scholar Jeff Watt is here to help. In this “Himalayan Buddhist Art 101” series, Jeff is making sense of this rich artistic tradition by presenting weekly images from the Himalayan Art Resources archives and explaining their roles in the Buddhist tradition. 

Himalayan Buddhist Art 101: Vajradaka’s Purification by Fire

While Vajrasattva practice is by far the most famous of all the tantric purification rituals, Vajradaka practice is likely the most fascinating and unique. Vajradaka is a male meditational deity described in the Chakrasamvara cycle of tantric literature and specifically found in the Vajradaka Tantra.

Vajradaka practice is unique in that it involves a fire ritual or fire offering technique for purification. To that end, either a metal or clay sculpture of Vajradaka is required. The iconography of such sculptures is easily recognizable. Depicted with a meager one face and two hands, Vajradaka is typically seated in a squatting posture with legs loose. His two hands hold a vajra and bell crossed at the heart. His head turns sharply back and stares upward with mouth open, leading into the hollow cavity of the sculpture.

Vajradaka sculptures are put together from two pieces. The top piece is the figure of Vajradaka and the bottom piece is a pedestal made to contain burning coals and embers. The pedestal can have either a flat bottom or tripod base. The upper Vajradaka piece simply rests on top of the pedestal without the need of a locking mechanism. Because of this, the majority of Vajradaka sculptures in museums and private collections around the world are missing their lower pieces.

At a specific point in the Vajradaka ritual, the practitioner inserts black sesame seeds into the mouth of the sculpture while reciting purification mantras in Sanskrit. The sesame seeds fall through the hollow body of the metal sculpture and onto the hot embers in the base, where they burn to create smoke which rises upward and dissipates from the mouth of Vajradaka, just as the defilements and sins of the practitioner are imagined to burn up through the power of the ritual.

While most sculptural representations of Vajradaka have him in either a squatting or seated position with legs loosely folded or arranged in front, a few examples portray him standing with right leg bent and the left one straight. In these cases, an additional metal structure is placed underneath the figure’s rear—like a small chair or stool—that acts as chute and chimney for the sesame seeds and the smoke they produce.

Learn more about Vajradaka and the sculptures pictured from Himalayan Art Resources, here.