The present figure represents the ferocious, thirty-four-armed form of the deity Vajrabhairava, a manifestation of the bodhisattva Manjushri, with his consort, Vajra Vetali. Vajrabhairava is one of the principle meditational deities in the Gelug sect of Tibetan Buddhism, which from the 17th century was the dominant religious power in Tibet. The Qing emperors maintained direct links with the dignitaries of the Gelug sect, including the Dalai and Panchen Lamas, and propagated this form of Buddhism within China itself, sponsoring the lavish construction of numerous temples in and around the capital of Beijing. In the 18th century, the Qianlong Emperor promoted himself as a manifestation of Manjushri as well, underlining his wisdom, compassion, and spiritual transcendence. Images of Vajrabhairava, therefore, carried both a religious and political weight, fulfilling their role within Gelug worship and practice, while simultaneously promoting the lineage of the Emperor.
This impressive and heavily-cast figure is cleverly constructed in several pieces, including, unusually, the upper half of the goddess' body, which attaches to the lower half and the main figure with a tang and socket. The deity strides on the backs of Hindu gods, identified by Jeff Watt as Brahma, Indra, Vishnu, Shiva, Kartikkeya, Ganesha, Surya, and Chandra. Each deity, as well as each aspect of Vajrabhairava's appearance, acts as a mnemonic device for remembering the meditational worship of the god.