At once fierce and elegant, the present figure of Guhyakali is the tantric emanation of Kali, also known as “secret Kali,” and one of the Eight Mother Goddesses and Nine Durgas. While beloved in Nepal, her image is seldom depicted, making the present example extremely rare. Her counterpart is Pasupati, a manifestation of Shiva as Lord of the Animals and the national god of Nepal. Rising from Shaiva and Shakta literature, Guhyakali combines the strength of the divine mother with Shaivite tantric power; in this embellished and animated example, her expression remains poised and serene at the center of tiered wrathful animal heads. She strides upon prostrate figures on a base lined with heads of deities with her dog mount, perhaps a symbol of her absent counterpart, Shiva as Bhairava, gazing up at her.
This very example was published by Dr. Pal as a rare iconographic representation, and is also one of the earliest known sculptural images of the goddess. Singular representations of Guhyakali combine the deity and her counterpart with the presence of animal heads and the dog. A painting of Guhyakali from the Zimmerman Collection, exhibited and published alongside the present example in Dr. Pal’s Nepal: Where the Gods are Young (no.72, pp.105, 130), also depicts the fully articulated goddess: with multiple animal heads, standing upon a tiered base, and surrounded by a retinue of Shaivite deities.
Other examples depict Guhyakali in union with Shiva, such as a Nepalese fourteenth-century image from the J. and M. Meijer Collection, as well as an eleventh/twelfth-century Tibetan bronze figure at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (M.84.221.7). A sixteenth-century image of the couple at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (25.481), displays similarly elaborate casting details and iconographic composition. The couple stands atop prostrate figures over a tiered base, the lower tiers lined with figures of Shaivite deities similar to those along the base of the present example.
These few other known sculptural and painted examples support Guhyakali as a prominent and longstanding goddess who is worshiped within a specific tantric cult practice. The rarity, large size, and quality of the present example suggest it was was likely commissioned by the Hindu elite in Nepal.