This thangka is a powerful depiction of the deity Outer Yama Dharmaraja, who serves as a protector of those engaged in the practices of the Vajrabhairava Tantra. Though common to all the Buddhist lineages of Tibet, the Gelugpas regard Yama Dharmaraja as one of their principal protectors along with Six-Armed Mahakala and Vaishravana.
Though often confused with Yama, the 'Lord of Death,' who presides over the Hell realms, Outer Yama Dharmaraja is actually a different figure. The present deity is part of the tradition of the Bhairava Root Tantra where Manjushri, Bodhisattva of Wisdom, assumes a variety of forms to conquer Yama (who represents samsara, the endless cycle of suffering arising from rebirth). This theme of vanquishing death in turn becomes a metaphor for the tantric practice itself.
Of the figures appearing here in Yama's retinue, the large figure to the right bearing a trident and skullcup is Chamundi, the female consort of Yama. To the left is the deity Inner Yama Dharmaraja, as well as small Yamas, each standing on a buffalo. Red, green, yellow and white in color, they represent the Buddhas of the four directions.
Rendered in bold blue and reds typical of Central Tibetan thangkas of the 15th century, this painting bears stylistic similarities to a depiction of Vajrabhairava in the Los Angeles County Museum, illustrated in P. Pal, Art of Tibet, 1983, pp. 146-147, no. P12, pl. 17; a painting of Vajramahabhairava on a mural in Gyantse Stupa, illustrated by F. Ricca and E. Lo Bue, The Great Stupa of Gyantse, 1993, p. 164, no. 49; and a thangka of Yamantaka illustrated in J. Casey, et al., Divine Presence, 2003, pp. 150-151, no. 49.