The quality of this large gilt-bronze group of the bull-headed Yama and his sister Yami is rare to come across. The origins of the god Yama stretch back as far as the Rig Veda, a Brahmanic text thought to have been compiled in circa 1500 BC. Here he is distinguished for having resisted the incestuous approaches of his sister Yami and for being the first individual to die, and thus becoming the Lord of Death. In due course he became the Judge of the deceased as well as the Brahmanic guardian of the South, the direction of the land of the dead. He was incorporated into Tantric Buddhism and became one of the eight dharmapala or defenders of the faith.
According to a legend, Yama was once meditating in a cave, when two thieves with a buffalo entered and slaughtered the animal. Realising that Yama had witnessed their mortal sin, they decapitated Yama. Yama thereupon took up the head of the buffalo, placing it on his shoulders, slew the robbers and out of thirst for further revenge threatened to destroy all life in Tibet. The Tibetans prayed to the bodhisattva Manjushri to protect them. The latter assumed the form of Yamantaka and pacified Yama.
As mentionned above, it is very rare to find such figure of Yama together with Yami. One earlier Tibetan example from the 14th/15th century is illustrated in Buddhist Statues Tibet - The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum, Hong Kong 2003, pp.152-153, pl.146. Other examples are published but without the goddess: a Tibetan, 17th century figure of Yama, illustrated in P.Pal, The Art of Tibet, New York-Washington- Seattle 1969, p.102, pl.72 ; a Chinese, 18th century gilt-bronze figure of Yama, illustrated in U. Von Schroeder, Indo-Tibetan Bronzes, Hong Kong 1981, pp.550-551, pl.157E ; and a Tibetan, 18th century, gilt-bronze figure illustrated in Art Lamaïque, Bruxelles, Société Générale de Banque, 15 Mai-30 juin 1975, pl.87.