Dragons, Demons and More: A Guide to Buddhist Temple Guardians

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Dragons, Demons and More: A Guide to Buddhist Temple Guardians

Chinese Dragon, Thean Hou
Dragon statue at the Thean Hou temple, Kuala Lumpur. © Ed Norton / Getty Images

You might expect to see serene Buddhas and benevolent bodhisattvas in Buddhist temple art. But what's with the big, scary things guarding the door? Traditionally, Buddhist temples are guarded by a menagerie of often frightening mythological creatures, many from Asian folklore. Here is an illustrated guide to the most common temple guardians.

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Garuda: Part Bird, Part Human

garuda head
Head of a garuda statue at Wat Traimit, a Buddhist temple in Bangkok, Thailand. © Design Pics / Ray Laskowitz / Getty Images

The original Garuda was a character from Hindu mythology whose story is told in the Hindu epic poem The Mahabharata. In Buddhism, however, garudas are more like a mythical species than a single character.  Usually garudas have human torsos, arms and legs but birdlike heads, wings and talons. Garudas are huge and powerful but benevolent. They are fierce opponents of evil-doers.

Garudas have a long-standing feud with nagas, a snake-like creature that also protects temples.

Read More: Garuda: Divine Bird Creatures of Myth

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Garuda on a Temple

Garuda on Temple
A garuda adorns Wat Putta Mongkon, a temple in Phuket, Thailand. © John W Banagan / Getty Images

Here is another depiction of a garuda, adorning a temple in Thailand. In Thailand and elsewhere, garudas also guard important government buildings. The garuda is the national symbol of Thailand and Indonesia.

In most of Asia garudas have bird heads and beaks, but in later Hindu art, and in Nepal, they came to be more like humans with wings.

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Nagas: Snake Beings

Naga Guarding Temple
Nagas guard the steps to Wat Phra That Choeng Chum, a temple in Thailand. © John Elk

Like the garuda, nagas also originated in Hindu mythology. The original nagas of Hindu art were human from the waist up and snake from the waist down. In time they became entirely snake. They especially like to dwell in bodies of water.

In east Asia, a naga is considered to be a kind of dragon. In Tibet and other parts of Asia, however, the naga and the dragon are two different creatures. Sometimes nagas are depicted as legless dragons; sometimes they are more like giant cobras.

In Buddhist folklore, nagas are particularly known for protecting scriptures. They are worldly creatures who can spread disease and cause disaster if they are angered, however.

 Read More: Nagas: Mythical Serpent Beings

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The Buddha and the Naga Kings

Naga and Buddha
A naga at Nagadeepa, an ancient Buddhist temple site in Sri Lanka. © Imagebook / Theekshana Kumara / Getty Images

This photograph taken at Nagadeepa Purana Viharaya, an ancient Buddhist temple in Sri Lanka, portrays a naga as a multi-headed cobra who is protecting a seated Buddha figure. According to legends, the Buddha visited this temple after his enlightenment to settle a dispute between two naga kings. The naga kings were ever after devout protectors of the dharma.

Read More: Buddhism in Sri Lanka
 

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Guardian Lions With Magical Powers

Lion Guardians
Lions guard the entrance to Jing An Temple in Shanghai. © Peter Stuckings / Getty Images

Lions, or lion-dog-like beasts, are among the oldest and most common temple guardians.  Lions have appeared in Buddhist temple art as early as 208 BCE.

The stylized lions -- called shishi in China and Japan -- are thought to have magical powers to repel evil spirits. They are often found in carvings and paintings throughout a temple as well as stationed by the front doors. Shishi traditionally guarded imperial palaces and other important buildings as well.

In the right-hand side of the photograph is a replica of an Ashoka pillar topped by four lions, the emblem of Emperor Ashoka the Great (304-232 BCE). Ashoka was a great patron of Buddhism.

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The Nats of Burma

Nat of Burma
A nat in Alan Pya Temple, Yangon, Burma (Myanmar). © Richard Cummins / Getty Images

Most Buddhist temple guardians are frightening or even repulsive, but not so nats. You will see these beautiful, royally dressed characters in Buddhist temples in Burma (Myanmar).

Nats are spirits from ancient Burmese folk belief pre-dating Buddhism. King Anawratha (1014-1077), considered the father of the Burmese nation, made Theravada Buddhism the state religion. But the people refused to give up their belief in nats, and so the King incorporated them into Burmese Buddhism rather than argue about it. He named 37 "great" nats who, the King determined, were pious Buddhists and protectors of Buddhism. The beautiful images of the pious nats can be found in illustrated sutras as well as temples.

Read More: Buddhism in Burma

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A Nat in Schwedagon Pagoda

Nat Being Bathed
People bathing a nat statue in Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon, Burma. © Jim Holmes / Design Pics / Getty Images

This couple in Shwedagon Pagoda are ritually bathing a nat. It is believed that propitiating nats can bring good fortune. But you don't want to anger them.
 

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Wrathful Benevolent Kings

Nio Temple Guardian, Japan
A wrathful nio figure guards Rinnoji, a temple in Nikkō, Tochigi Prefecture, Japan. © Will Robb / Getty Images

Particularly in east Asia, pairs of scowling, muscular figures often stand on either side of temple doors. In spite of their wrathful appearance they are called the Benevolent Kings. They are thought to be emanations of a bodhisattva named Vajrapani. This bodhisattva represents the power of the Buddhas.

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Four Heavenly Kings

Komokuten, a Heavenly King
Komokuten, one of the Four Heavenly Kings, stands at Todai-ji, a temple in Nara, Japan. © Wibowo Rusli / Getty Images

In east Asia, especially in China and Japan, many temples are guarded by the Four Heavenly Kings. These are warrior figures who guard the four directions -- north, south, east, west. They ward off malicious spirits.  The figure standing in Todai-ji, a temple in Nara, Japan, is called Komokuten in Japanese, or Virupaksha in Sanskrit. He is king of the West. He sees and punishes evil and encourages enlightenment. In parts of Asia the King of the West is also the lord of nagas.

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Yaksha: Benevolent Nature Spirits

Yaksha of Thailand
This giant demon named Thotkhirithon is guarding the entrance of temple of Emerald Buddha (Wat Phra Kaew), Bangkok, Thailand. © Matteo Colombo / Getty Images

This handsome fellow is an example of a Yaksha, sometimes spelled Yaksa or Yakkha. In spite of his fierce appearance he is charged with taking care of precious things. In this case, he is guarding a temple in Thailand.

The Yaksha are not always given demon faces; they can be quite beautiful, also. There are guardian Yaksha but also evil Yaksha who haunt wild places and devour travelers.

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Dragon Wall to Stop Ghosts

Dragon Screen
Nine-Dragon wall, 1756, covered in majolica tiles, Beihai park, Beijing, China. © De Agostini / Archivio J. Lange / Getty Images

Not every temple has a dragon wall, but it's a high honor for those that do. Many temples have a kind of screen, called a shadow screen, placed directly in front. This is said to stop malevolent ghosts and evil spirits, who apparently are stymied by corners.

A dragon wall is a very high-status form of shadow screen that signifies the patronage of an emperor.

Read More: Dragons!

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Dragon! A Dragon Water Spout

Dragon Water Spout
A dragon water spout at Kiyomizu-dera Temple in Kyoto, Japan. This sort of fountain is used for ritual bathing before entering a temple. © Santi Rodriguez / Getty Images

 Dragons in Asian culture are not the monstrous beasts of western fantasy films. Dragons represent power, creativity, wisdom, and good fortune. Many Buddhist temples are populated generously with dragons that perch on the roofs and decorate the walls. This Japanese temple dragon also serves as a water spout.