Buddhist Nio Protectors or Temple Guardians

Jcollector has recently listed a remarkable pair of bronze temple guardians or Nio protectors (literally benevolent kings).   These dynamic figures are traditionally found at the entrance of most Japanese temples.  They are said to represent motion and emotion and serve as fierce protectors wherever they stand.

The Nio, which appear in some form in most Buddhist temples, are powerful bare-chested gods, wielding heavy cudgels to ward off evil spirits. They were conceived to lurk in the shadows, striking fear into those who would challenge their might.  The Nio’s fierce and threatening countenance is said to ward off evil spirits and keep the temple grounds free of demons and thieves.  By some accounts, the Nio are even thought to have followed and safeguarded the historical Buddha when he traveled throughout India.

Enormously muscled, half-nude figures, their features are skillfully exaggerated by artists well versed in the human form. Bulging muscles in their huge chests and arms communicate power even at a great distance. This embellished realism continues in the Nio’s popping veins, extended jaws, and even in their delicate fingernails and toenails.  A guardian’s hair, pulled tightly into a topknot, adds to its imposing height.

The most famous Nio in Japan are at the entrance gate of Todaiji Temple in Nara. These 26-feet-tall statues were crafted in 1203 AD. Todaiji was built in the 8th century by imperial order in this ancient capital city, near Kyoto, as a symbol of Japan’s emergence as an important center for Buddhist culture. The complex also includes a huge bronze image of a seated Buddha, housed in the world’s largest wooden building. The Great South Gate and the Nio were erected after parts of the temple were destroyed by warring clans in the late 12th century.

Many art historians regard these two sculptures, which weigh close to seven tons each, as the greatest works of two of Japan’s most renowned sculptors, Unkei and Kaikei. They are impressive for their size and the technological hurdles that their 13th-century creators had to overcome, but, beyond that, experts say, is the emotional intensity projected by the statues, each caught in a fearsome dance, their garments and ribbons flowing in a divine breeze, as they guard the sacred temple from demons. One Nio, called Ungyo, has a closed mouth, and represents the beginning of the universe.  The other, Agyo, has an open mouth, and symbolizes the end of the universe. Other explanations for the open/closed mouth include:  Mouth open to scare off demons; closed to shelter/keep in the good spirits.  “Ah” is the first sound in the Japanese alphabet, while “N” (pronounced “un” ) is the last, so the combination symbolically represents all possible outcomes (from alpha to omega) in the cosmos.

Interestingly, the Nio may be a case of the possible transmission of the image of the Greek hero Heracles to East Asia along the Silk Road. Heracles was used in Greco-Buddhist art to represent Vajrapani, the protector of the Buddha, and his representation was then used in China and Japan to depict the protector gods of Buddhist temples. This transmission is part of the wider Greco-Buddhist phenomenon, where Buddhism interacted with the Hellenistic culture of Central Asia from the 4th century BC to the 4th century AD.


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