This 8th century text, to be read aloud to the dying (respectively dead) person, is meant to guide her or him through the inner visions occurring during this phase of transition; a process that lasts twelve of the forty-nine days spent in bardo.
According to the text, the number of deities thus encountered number one hundred; fifty-eight of which are of a fierce countenance and forty-two of a gentle one.
To aid people in comprehending these visions and to be prepared for them when they occur, artists have sometimes laid them out in one single mandala that depicts all one hundred deities with their numerous symbols and associations.
Although one does find variations among these paintings, depending on their origin (different Buddhist orders sometimes follow slightly different texts), the thangka described below is very typical and fits most of the available translations of the Bardo Thödol.
First to appear, nude and in inseparable union (yab-yum) is the divine couple formed by Samantabhadri (the Great Mother who produces all Buddhas of the three ages) and Samantabhadra (the Primordial Adibuddha).
Together, the white Samantabhadri (refined and discerning wisdom) and the blue Samantabhadra (non-discriminating universal awareness) embody the most exalted principle of Tibetan Tantra; the union of skillful means and profound cognition, also known as the union of path and goal.
First of these to appear, on this very day, is the divine couple formed by Akasha Dhatvishvari (one of the Wisdom Dakinis) and Vairocana (one of the Sambhogakaya Buddhas). They too, are seen to be in deep union (yab-yum).
2nd to 5th days
Each of these couples (in yab-yum) is attended (and surrounded) by two of the eight Bodhisattva Dakinis and two corresponding male Bodhisattvas, so that each day six deities appear in the visionary mandala.
They are located outside the five couples that appeared earlier. Next, the six Buddhas of the Realms (gods, humans, hell etc.) make their appearance, closing the sequence of the forty-two gentle and peaceful deities.
As a transition between the host of 42 gentle deities, and the 58 fierce ones to appear from the 8th day onward, this day brings forth a mandala consisting of the five Dakini/Vidyadhara couples surrounded by a countless crowd of dakinis and protectors neither mild nor fierce of countenance.
8th to 12th days
The pattern of day 8 and the following days 9 to 12 follows that of the first 5 days described above. On each successive day, one couple appears; though this time around they each consist of a Krodeshvari emanation and a corresponding male Heruka.
Next in line appear the eight Phramenma or Pisaci, fierce aspects of the Boddhisattva Dakinis (2nd-5th days). Once more, as on the 6th day, four female guardians appear, this time heralding the arrival of the final twenty-eight deities, the fierce & powerful flesh-eating yoginis.