The gau is in the shape of the figure of the fierce Buddhist deity, Mahakala, surrounded by flames and dancing on a lotus throne. The deity is a popular protective Buddhist deity, who is frequently portrayed in Tibetan and Nepali art. Mahakala is usually shown in the form seen here. The surrounding flames indicate that he is one of the ferocious deities who protect the faithful, and the figure beneath his feet represents ignorance that hinders the worshipper in his quest for enlightenment. The chopper and skull cup brandished by Mahakala are his usual attributes, and refer to tantric rituals involving destruction of evil.
The gau is made of silver which has been cast using the lost wax process. Mahakala’s face, the chopper, the cup and the corpse’s face are gilded. The gau was intended to be tied to the upper body, or around the neck, by a cord that passed through lugs at either side, in order to provide protection during travel. It is accordingly filled with material including scraps of paper inscribed with sacred syllables, small figures and other auspicious material. It may also have functioned as a small shrine for a household altar.