Gilt Lacquered Nio Guardians
Gilt Lacquered Nio Guardians, each depicted standing in action above a rocky base, clad in billowing robes and beaded armour revealing muscular bodies, the faces bearing gruesome fierce expressions with highly arched brows and coiffed hair.
A Pair of Chinese Gilt Lacquered Wood Figures of Guardians
South China, Qing dynasty
Provenance: important US private collection.
Height of taller 24 3/4 in., 60.3 cm.
The temple guardians represent the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, birth and death (of the spiritual body of effort to reach the state of prolonged presence of the original Spirit). The left guardian has an open mouth and is saying Ah, the first syllable of the Japanese syllabary and the Sanskrit alphabet, which has the same meaning as the first yang line of the hexagram Heaven. The guardian on the right has a closed mouth, saying Om, a syllable from the Sanskrit alphabet or N, the last syllable of the Japanese Hiragana alphabet, which has the same meaning as the sixth line of the hexagram Heaven.
– Niō (仁王) are two wrathful and muscular guardians of the Buddha standing today at the entrance of many Buddhist temples in East Asian Buddhism in the form of frightening wrestler-like statues. They are dharmapala manifestations of the bodhisattva Vajrapāṇi, the oldest and most powerful of the Mahayana Buddhist pantheon. According to scriptures like the Pāli Canon as well as the Ambaṭṭha Sutta, they travelled with Gautama Buddha to protect him. Within the generally pacifist tradition of Buddhism, stories of dharmapalas justified the use of physical force to protect cherished values and beliefs against evil. They are also seen as a manifestation of Mahasthamaprapta, the bodhisattva of power that flanks Amitābha in Pure Land Buddhism and as Vajrasattva in Tibetan Buddhism.
They are usually portrayed as a pair of figures that stand guarding temple entrance gates usually called Shānmén (山門) in China, Niōmon (仁王門) in Japan and Geumgangmun (金剛門) in Korea. The right statue is traditionally called Guhyapāda and has his mouth open, representing the vocalization of the first grapheme of Sanskrit Devanāgarī (अ) which is pronounced “a”. The left statue is traditionally called Nārāyaṇa and has his mouth closed, representing the vocalization of the last grapheme of Devanāgarī (ह [ɦ]) which is pronounced “ɦūṃ” (हूँ). These two characters together (a-hūṃ/a-un) symbolize the birth and death of all things. (Men are supposedly born speaking the “a” sound with mouths open and die speaking an “ɦūṃ” and mouths closed.) Similar to Alpha and Omega in Christianity, they signify “everything” or “all creation”. The contraction of both is Aum (ॐ), which is Sanskrit for The Absolute.
Guhyapāda (Traditional Chinese: 密迹金剛; simplified Chinese: 密迹金刚; pinyin: Mìjī jīngāng; Japanese: Misshaku Kongō; Korean: Miljeok geumgang; Vietnamese: Mật tích kim cương ) is a symbol of overt violence: he wields a vajra mallet “vajra-pāṇi” (a diamond club, thunderbolt stick, or sun symbol) and bares his teeth. His mouth is depicted as being in the shape necessary to form the “ha” or “ah” sound. In China, he is also known as General Ha (哈将 Hā Jiāng) in reference to this iconographic detail. Similarly, he is also known as Agyō (阿形, “a”-form, general term open-mouthed statues in aum pair) in Japan due to this detail as well.
General Heng in Dadaocheng Cisheng Temple, Taiwan
Nārāyaṇa (Traditional Chinese: 那羅延金剛; simplified Chinese: 那罗延金刚; pinyin: Nàluōyán Jīngāng; Japanese: Naraen Kongō; Korean: Narayeon geumgang; Vietnamese: Na la diên kim cương) is depicted either bare-handed or wielding a sword. He symbolizes latent strength, holding his mouth tightly shut. His mouth is rendered to form the sound “hūṃ”, or “heng” or “un”. In China, he is also known as General Heng (哼将 Hēng Jiāng) in reference to this iconographic detail. Similarly, he is also known as Ungyō (吽形, “um”-form, general term closed-mouthed statues in aum pair) in Japan due to this detail as well.