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Niō: the guardians of sacredness

Today we will approach the sacred places par excellence, the temples. We will stop, however, at the threshold of the main entrance to discover the mythical figures who welcome the faithful: the Niō.

Positioned on both sides of the entrance to every Buddhist temple in Japan, the Niō are real guardians with a precise task to perform.

Positioned to the right and left of the temple gate, called Niō-mon, literally Niō Gate, they have not only an ornamental purpose.  

Let us therefore discover who the Niō are, what their history is and what meanings they conceal.


The Niō against evil

Apparently in contrast to the traditional pacifist tendency of Buddhism, the Niō are allowed to use force. This exemption has a very specific and important reason: the preservation of the values and integrity of Buddhist beliefs.

Of course, since they are statues, one speaks of ‘use of force’ in a metaphorical sense given their fierce and menacing appearance. The giant, heavily armoured or bare-breasted statues ensure the right distance between evil spirits and the temple. 

Some old folk beliefs see them as active participants alongside the Buddha. It is said, in fact, that it was they who provided him with protection and safety during his travels throughout India.

It is also likely that this protective function of the Niō came from the acts of violence that enemies and looters did not spare the places of worship over time. In any case, anyone wishing to enter a Buddhist temple today will be obliged to suffer the stern gaze of the two statues. 

From India to Japan via China

India is the original place of these guardians. Mythical figures that have crossed the centuries and travelled to many countries bringing legends and mysteries with them.

It seems that the Niō were generated by minor divinities called Yaksha in Sanskrit. From the 4th-3rd centuries B.C. they were worshipped in the Buddhist and Hindu pantheons. Linked to them was the belief that they were somehow protectors of villages and natural elements. 

They then began to adorn gates and to be associated with more important deities, eventually gaining the position of guardians at the entrances to shrines and temples.

They soon reached China, where their appearance changed considerably. They were adapted, in fact, to the patterns of the country’s culture. 

The same happened when they landed in Japan. Their aesthetics underwent many changes and revisions. What remained unchanged was their task and their meaning. It is in Japan that we find some of the oldest examples of Niō. These are the clay pair at the Hōryūji 法隆寺 temple and the 8th century lacquer sculptures at the Tōdaiji 東大寺 temple, both in Nara.

The symbolism of the Niō

There are several variants of these statues. For example, in Shintō shrines, the Niō guardians are replaced by a pair of animals. These are foxes, but also koma-inu (dog-lion) always positioned to the right and left of the main entrance. They are usually made of stone, but also bronze or ceramic and their function is the same. 

But let us come to the symbolism that these figures carry with them. 

When we talk about the art and culture of the Rising Sun, we are used to discovering great symbolism and hidden meanings. Often behind objects are hidden stories and legends that somehow live on through the centuries precisely because of them. Niō are no exception and each of them has its own characteristics and iconic references.

As mentioned above, they are positioned on either side of the entrance to the temples. The Niō on the right is called Agyō 阿形 and is represented with his mouth open to show his teeth in a threatening manner. He holds a Vajra, a legendary weapon that symbolises the properties of a diamond and lightning, indestructibility and irresistible strength respectively.  

The Niō on the left, called Ungyō 吽形, is depicted, on the contrary, with his mouth closed and holds nothing in his hands. His appearance, however, has the features of an extremely strong figure. Compared to the other, however, he possesses such self-confidence that he does not need weapons to show firmness in facing the forces of evil.

Tradition has it that the guardian on the right pronounces the sound ‘Ah’, while the one on the left emits a verse that sounds like ‘Hum’.  The union of the syllables uttered by the pair forms the word ‘Aum’, which in Sanskrit means the absolute whole.

This, combined with their position on either side of the gate, is symbolic of beginning and end, of the birth and death of all things.