Monumental Japanese Temple Guardians

Monumental Japanese Temple Guardians. Both standing astride with a bare muscular chest adorned with jewellery, wearing a knee-long skirt, and surrounded by a billowing shawl, the hair tied into a chignon, the hands in a gesture of fending off, Kongô Rikishi (aka Naraen Kongô) with an open mouth calling out the syllable ah (agyô) and holding a long vajra, the other, Misshaku Rikishi, with lips pressed together humming the syllable hum (ungyô) and holding a club. Each standing on a flat base. Remains of a white gesso undercoating and traces of pigment.

Pair of Monumental Japanese Lokapala Temple Guardians

Ranging in size: 72” x 27” x 14” (182 x 69 x 36 cm) to 71.5” x 26” x 14.5” (182 x 66 x 37 cm).

-Provenance: Sylvia and Philip Chaplain Collection, New Hampshire.

Japan, c. 1550 – c. 1650


-Compare a related temple guardians in the collection of the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, accession number AK-RAK-2007-1-A

The “Two Kings” (Niô), aka Kongô Rikishi, in the fierce posture of warding off an unseen enemy are Buddhist temple guardians placed behind a wooden fence in the enclosures to both sides of the main temple gate. To the worshippers and pilgrims, they symbolise good health and physical strength. In the Edo period they were especially worshipped by postal couriers who offered their worn sandals by tying them to the fence.

The Japanese Nio, or “benevolent kings,” are figures that were placed outside Buddhist temples, on each side of the entrance, to ward off evil spirits, demons, and thieves from the late Muromachi to early Edo periods — or roughly 1467 to 1652.

The Nio are Indian in origin — manifestations of Vajrapani Bodhisattvas. By some accounts, they protected the Buddha when he traveled throughout India.

Each figure is named after a cosmic sound. The closed-mouth figure is Ungyo, who utters “un” or “om,” meaning death. He is also called Nareen Kongo and is said to be a form of the Indian god Vishnu. With his tightly closed mouth and tensed both arms, he represents latent might. The open-mouthed partner is Misshaku Kongo (Agyo), who sounds “ah,” meaning birth. He is equated to the Indian deity Vajrapani, whose name means “thunderbolt holder.” He bares his teeth, raises his fist, and holds a Kongosho, which is a symbol of the power he represents.

The Nio are constructed in the traditional multi-block design. It is interesting to note that this pair — each figure standing 72 inches – 182 cm tall — is a close copy of the Nio guarding the south gate of the Todaiji in Japan. However, the Todaiji pair, completed in 1203, stands 26 feet tall.

In both examples, the classic, fierce and threatening expressions punctuate their purpose as protectors of the Buddhist temple.

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