This stele of Mahakala is one of the rare works in stone from the early phase of Tibetan art. It retains much of its original polychromy, an even rarer occurence, the other notable examples being the large Mahakala from the Fournier Collection at the Musée Guimet and the Tara stele in the Herbert and Florence Irving Collection. The reverse of the stele is cut out revealing the back of the figure modeled in the round, a device known from Indian Pala Period sculpture, as is the stepped plinth.
The catalogue entry for "Wisdom and Compassion" states about this piece:
"Mahakala can be approached as an archetype deity, functioning as an enlightened being with whom the practitioner identifies, or, alternatively, as a fierce protector, a guardian of the Dharma and its adherents...
Mahakala appears to be master of his environment: stocky, almost jovial, and self-assured, with his large square head, huge hands, and chubby, red-soled feet. With his two main hands he holds a vajra chopper over a skull bowl, symbolizing the sharp edge of wisdom shredding all materialistic negative attitudes within the skull vessel of the understanding of voidness. His second pair of hands hold a broad-bladed sword of wisdom in the right and a trident-tipped khatvanga staff (representing power over the subtle nervous system) in the left. As a terrific manifestation, Mahakala has the power to conquer addictive emotions and to dispel inner, spiritual obstacles... His features somehow frightening and charming at the same time, he sits with calm composure in the pose of royal ease, on the prostrate, flesh-colored body of the devil of selfishness. Richly detailed jewels, flying ribbons, and scarves impart a decorative and animated aspect to this superbly carved sculpture... With its engaging, refined detail and massive body, the scupture relates to Pala Indian style of c. the 11th to the 12th century. This sculpture is one of the most perfect, handsome, and rare stone images from Tibet of ca. 12th century."
The meaning of the inscription on the reverse is not entirely clear. The first word (gva lo), however, is clearly a reference to Ga Lostawa (rgwa lo tsa ba), the Tibetan translator who features prominently in the lineage of Four-Armed Mahakala veneration in Tibet.