Skip to content Skip to footer

Tracing the Royal, Romantic and Demonic Roots of the Nio Warrior Guardian

Author: Jennifer Norris

Source: Global Perspectives on Japan (GPJ), No.4 (2021), pp.92-121
Publisher: Forum Tauri Press
Keywords: Buddhist symbolism, Nio, Mythology, Vajrapani, Vajra, Kongo Rikishi, Mahayana


The Nio (or Kongo Rikishi 金剛力士) door guardian or dvarapala symbolic figures that guard the famed Todaiji Temple of Nara, trace an ancient history from primitive roots in the narrative figure of the Vajrapani, attendant of the Buddha Shakyamuni across Asia, and even further back. The origins of this figure remain relatively vaguely defined in comparison to the intrigue caused by contemporary and medieval applications of the figure, and this research clarifies some apparent historic connections evidenced through visual symbolism to connect the vajrapani to royalty through the vajra, through dvarapala positioning, associations with the vajra and other aesthetic traits. The study suggests a possible transformation from the channavira, a decorative chain associated with fertility, depicted in early versions of the vajrapani, with the evolved, inhuman musculature of the more modern Nio guardian figures. This study then branches from Grunwedel’s association of the vajrapani with Mara by positing a possible aesthetic connection between early depictions of Mara’s army (tempters through which the Buddha has to pass in order to achieve enlightenment) and the Nio through channavira symbolism, mudras, positioning and body postures of predominantly the Sanchi Stupa. The Nio figures, while seemingly outlying icons of Mahayana Buddhism, have found resounding significance in modern and historic martial societies and religious orders. Clarifying their branching ancestry from the earliest vajra bearers, along with their cultural and historic significance will inform a modern understanding of their symbolic value, and the cultural understandings of existential circumstances that they confer.