Palden Lhamo is one of the Eight Dharmapalas ( chos kyo ng), wrathful protectors of the Buddhist dharma, and the only female Dharmapala. She is considered the wrathful form of Shri Devi, the wrathful Dharmapalas are usually considered to be Tantric deities. The symbols that surround Palden Lhamo, as well as her extensive retinue, are characteristic of Dharmapalas in general with a few additional symbols unique to her important role.
Palden Lhamo gained ascendancy in the Lamaist world as the personal protector of the Dalai Lama and the capital city and home of the Dalai Lamas, Lhasa . Therefore, the Gelukpa sect makes wide use of her image and she is the most frequently represented Dharmapala in Dharamsala. Palden Lhamo is pictured as a wild and energetic force that defeats the harmful force of egotism.
Palden Lhamo has many symbolic items surrounding her person. Her right hand wields the surmounted vajra ( dorje ) while in vajratarjani mudra ( dorje khrobo digdzub chag gya ). The vajra is an ancient weapon that in Tibet is thought to cleave in two the enemies of dharma. Vajratarjani mudra, a variation of tarjani mudra, is a gesture of powerful menace. Palden Lhamo’s left hand holds a skullcap full of blood and substances used in esoteric rituals, proving her tantric connections. Her garb is impressively grotesque; a diadem of five skulls, human skins, lion and snake earrings and fresh tiger skins.
There are certain items that make Palden Lhamo easily distinguishable from other Dharmapalas. In her hair she wears a moon, and near her navel a sun, symbols that are mirrored in the heavens above. Palden Lhamo’s main distinctive mark is the peacock plumage in her hair. The peacock is known to be able to consume a great deal of poison without coming to harm, therefore it symbolizes the eradication of sin, the ‘spiritual poisons’.
Palden Lhamo has an expansive retinue that is often pictured with her. Below her are five important goddesses, the Five Sisters of Long Life. They are ancient goddesses of Tibet , converted to Buddhism and integrated into Buddhist iconography. They are said to reside on Jomo gangkar , the glacier portion of the peak known to westerners as Mount Everest . The goddess above the other four is the leader of the Long Life Sisters and carries a vase with the Water of Life. Each sister has their own special vehicle and bears different items to assist beings attain long lives. The wish for long life is common in Tibetan Buddhism and it is an especially popular wish for the long life of His Holiness the Dalai Lama.
A Sorrowful Song to Palden Lhamo
~ by His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama
Expanse of Great Bliss, all-pervading, free from elaborations,
with either angry or desirous forms related to those to be subdued,
You overpower the whole apparent world, Samsara and Nirvana.
Sole Mother, Lady Victorious Over the Three Worlds,
please pay attention here and now!
During numberless eons, by relying upon and accustoming Yourself to
the extensive conduct of the Bodhisattvas, which others find difficult
You obtained the power of the sublime Vajra Enlightenment;
Loving Mother, You watch and don’t miss the (right) time.
The winds of conceptuality dissolve into space.
Vajra-dance of the mind which produces all the animate and inanimate world,
as the sole friend yielding the pleasures of existence and peace,
Having conquered them all,
You are well praised as the Triumphant Mother.
By heroically guarding the Dharma and Dharma-holders, with the four types of actions, flashing like lightning
You soar up openly, like the full moon in the midst of a garland of powerful Dharma Protectors.
When from the troublesome nature of this most degenerated time
the hosts of evil omens — desire, anger, deceit — increasingly rise, even then
Your power is unimpeded, sharp, swift and limitless.
How wonderful! Longingly remembering You, O Goddess, from my heart,
I confess my broken vows and satisfy all Your pleasures.
Having enthroned You as the Supreme Protector, Greatest amongst the
Great, [I] accomplish Your appointed tasks with unflinching energy!
Fierce protecting deities and Your retinues who, in accordance with
the instructions of the Supreme Siddha, the Lotus-born Vajra, and by
the power of karma and prayers, have a close connection as Guardians
of Tibet, heighten Your majesty and increase Your powers!
All beings in the country of Tibet , although destroyed by the enemy and tormented by unbearable suffering,
Abide in the constant hope of glorious freedom.
How could they bear to not be given Your compassionate hand?
Thus please come forth to face the great murderers, the malevolent enemy.
O Lady who performs the actions of war and weapons;
Dakini, I summon You with this sorrowful song:
The time has come to bring forth
Your skill and power.