Monday is Lord Shiva’s Day … and therefore …
Well, there’s something curious going on here. This fine carving is from the Lingquan temple complex in Anyang, China. It would be easy to declare it to be a rather Sinicized depiction of Lord Shiva, found in a Buddhist context. There are most certainly an array of iconographic features we would associate easily with Mahadev – most notably, the presence of the Trishula [Trident] and Bull .
However, the Chinese characters – 那羅延 – read ‘Naluoyan’, a calquing for ‘Narayana’. Although it is not, strictly speaking, intended to designate Vishnu – rather, this shrine-guardian carving is one of a pair (the other being similarly armed, with Sword and Trishula; although rather differently appointed in terms of garmentry – I may post this figure later).
This is part of a reasonably standard Buddhist temple architecture in Asia, particularly in China – for two ‘Guardians’ to stand at the entrance-way to the shrine, one often indeed named ‘Narayana’, and the other often ‘Guhyapada’. This would therefore, interestingly, posit the Swords to in fact be symbolic resonances of the Vajra, perhaps; as we should be expecting ‘Vajrapani’ [that is to say – ‘Bears Vajra in His Hand’, a customary epithet frequently applied to Lord Indra] in this role.
It would be tempting, therefore, to just declare the whole thing to be exactly what it is labelled as – Buddhist figures guarding a Buddhist shrine, and making usage of Sanskrit-origin conceptry as they so often do even well outside the Hindusphere.
Except here’s the thing – the iconographic features aforementioned … aren’t generally encountered in relation to the Buddhist figures in question. Some – the Swords – we do indeed expect; but others, it is quite clear that some form of iconographic syncreticism has occurred – and which appears, for some inscrutable reason, to have drawn quite directly from our Shaivite symbolism.
There is ready precedence for the occurrence of Shiva and such iconography even in Central Asia – brought there by Sogdian traders, as we had previously covered with the funerary sarcophagus of Wirkak in a recent article. [The headgear, I should probably expound upon at some future time – but appears to similarly draw from the Central Asian Iranic sphere – there are some potentially similar occurrences I may have seen on coinwork]
The situation of the other entryway guardian, ‘Kapila’, does not render things any clearer.
The iconography, again, is potentially Shaivite in at least some measure of inspiration – bearing not only the Trishula, but also what would appear to be armouring or clothing made from elephant skin and that of other wild animals. I mention this, because, of course, we find the Sanskrit term ‘Krittivasa’ invoked in reference to Rudra – and particularly with regard to the skin of a certain elephant(demon) and other formidable beasts. [‘Kritti’ as in ‘Skin/Hide’, ‘Vasa’ as in ‘Clothing’]
And while ‘Kapila’ IS a potential Shaivite theonym – it’s also encountered in … quite an array of other contexts, including a Krishna epithet, and other applications besides. Its meaning as, effectively, ‘Tawny’ would, nevertheless, track rather well for a Roudran understanding – that colouration being frequently identified with the Vedic divinity.
So what to make of all of this, then?
Well, it’s a curious recombination. There’s a reasonably standard Buddhist/Chinese formula at play here of having a ‘doubled’ Guardian, more usually derived in some sense from our Indra [albeit rather .. drawn out, so to speak]. Except instead of an Indra-resonant figure – we have a Shiva-resonant one. And quite clearly one, even if some understandings have evidently shifted along the way.
[Of note is that the notion of Rudra wielding a Vajra is NOT necessarily as unexpected as one might have thought – it’s quite reasonably and directly Vedically attested – although often overlooked by persons who think that there’s an irreducible linkage of Indra to the Vajra and that no other figure might wield it. However, often in iconography we tend to find that the Trishula has the symbolic resonancy of the Vajra]
I am personally more used to seeing a rather different Buddhist perception of Mahadev – the Tibetan Buddhist renderings which often pointedly sought to have their saints trampling upon Shiva so as to demonstrate purported superior power, for instance.
Or, from the Hindu end of things, various Vaishnavas insisting that Buddhism is some kind of Shaivite befuddlement plot (seriously – we’ve recently run into some modern sorts pushing this line, again, as well).
Perhaps the commissioners of this Buddhist shrine felt that they should have the most powerful of figures represented as the door-keepers, and so went with Shiva for the depictions. Perhaps there was some miscommunication somewhere along the line; or perhaps there was something else entirely going on here.
More research is needed to properly clarify.
But in any case – it is a surprisingly aesthetic representation.
Even if we can’t be sure that it is Shiva rather than just intentionally seeking to look like Him.