Across the Himalayan region, colorful and, to the uneducated western eye, bizarre or even frightening, deity masks are displayed on exterior walls and for sale at street side vendors. These masks are (usually) replicas of the masks worn at special Tibetan Buddhist ceremonial events known as Cham.
Bright red, blue, black or unpainted wood, these intricate carvings depict faces with bulging eyes, fangs, a large third eye, and sometimes crowns of toothy skulls.
Guru Rinpoche came to Tibet from India to share the Buddhist teachings. At the time, the native people mostly followed ancient shamanistic religions, particularly Bon. Tradition holds that a great battle occurred between Padmasambhava and the old nature gods. Padmasambhava was victorious, subduing the old gods, who then had to agree to protect the teachings of Buddhism.
These dharmapalas, or protector deities, are depicted as wrathful figures. There are eight dharmapalas, but the one most commonly depicted is Mahakala.
The Cham dance commemorating Guru Rinpoche's victory is still held in Tibetan communities. I was lucky enough to attend one at Sherab Ling Monastery in the Tibetan exile settlement of Bir in India during 2010. The rest of images below were shot in Tibetan exile communities in both India and Nepal.
|Masked Monks Waiting to Perform at 2010 Sherab Ling Cham|
|Masked Monks Performing at Sherab Ling Tsechu Cham|
|Multi-colored Mahakala Masks at a Vendor in Boudha, KTM, Nepal|
|Metal Deity Masks with Flaming "Mane" in Kathmandu|
|Aged Deity Masks Outside a Shop in Boudha|
|Deity Mask on a Shop Door|
For additional information on Deity masks, I recommend this article, Masks of the Himalayas, by Thomas Murray.