The Nio Guardians of Japan

During my recent visits to Japanese Buddhist temples, I have been fascinated by the two fierce-looking Nio protectors guarding the gates at each one of them. These pair of protectors, one on either side of the entrance, are diverse in styles, but each of them with their bare-chested bodies rippling with muscles, fierce visages, and brandishing weapons, seem violent and threatening.

These Nio guardians are named, each after a particular cosmic sound. If you look closely at these mythical shrine protectors, you will notice that one of them has its mouth open while the other has its mouth closed. The open-mouth figure is commonly placed to the right of the temple and is known as Agyo, who is uttering the sound “ah,” meaning birth. Its closed-mouth partner generally stands to the left of the temple and is called Ungyo, pronouncing the sound “un” meaning death. The closed-mouth Nio is supposed to stop the evil from entering the temple while the open-mouth Nio welcomes the good spirits inside.

Origins of Nio

Buddhism began in India, and then became part of Chinese culture. Around 550 AD it was introduced into Japan via Korea. This non-native religion gradually became an important part of Japanese culture during the Nara period (710-790 AD), especially among the aristocracy.

The Nio guardians were introduced to Japan around the 8th century. The oldest standing statues of the two, date back to 711 AD, located at Horyuji Temple ( 法隆寺) in Nara.

The Nio guardians are said to originate from Hindu deities who were adopted by the Japanese into Buddhist teachings. In Buddhism they are regarded as protectors against evil spirits. The Nio’s fierce and threatening appearance is said to ward off evil spirits and keep the temple grounds free of demons. The most famous Nio in Japan can be found at the entrance gate of Todaiji Temple (東大寺) in Nara. These 26-feet-tall statues were made in 1203 AD, reportedly under the direction of the famous sculptors Unkei and Kaikei.

At Shinto shrines, however, the Nio guardians are replaced with a pair of Koma-Inu (Shishi Lion-Dogs) or with two foxes. These mythical shrine guardians are also depicted with similar postures – one mouth open, one closed.

Legends & Myths

The word Nio itself is said to mean “Benevolent Kings” and in some Japanese historical accounts, they were said to have followed and protected Buddha on his travels throughout India. Being an Indian, though I haven’t read anything along these lines in Indian historical records.

According to another Japanese mythology, there once was a king who had two wives. His first wife bore a thousand children who all decided to become monks and follow the Buddha’s law. His second wife had only two sons. The youngest was named Non-o and helped his monk brothers with their worship. The eldest, Kongo Rikishi (金剛力士), however, had a much more aggressive personality. He vowed to protect the Buddha and his worshipers by fighting against evil and ignorance.

Kongo Rikishi is considered to be the first of the heavenly kings, called Nio. Within the generally pacifist traditions of Buddhism, stories of Nio guardians like Kongo Rikishi justified the use of physical force to protect the cherished values and beliefs against evil. Many fragments of the Japanese mythology are unmistakably Indian. Kongo Rikishi, according to Japanese conception used to ride a mythical creature called Karura, very similar to Garuda, the magical bird from Ramayana in Indian mythology. Garuda is said to be the mount of the Lord Vishnu.

Conceived as a pair, the Nio complement each other. In other records the Nio are also referred to as Misshaku Kongo & Naeren Kongo. Misshaku Kongo, representing power in action, bares his teeth and raises his fist in action, while Naeren Kongo, representing potential might, holds his mouth tightly closed and waits with both arms tensed but lowered. In some ways they remind me how the Indian gods, Shiva & Vishnu, compliment each other. What is another hint of Indian influence is that Naeren sounds very much like Narayan in Sanskrit, which in Hindu mythology refers to Vishnu. My wife, Mani has done a thorough research on the connection between Indian Gods and Japanese mythology. Jump to this link if that interests you.

Nio Guardians Features

The features of the Nio guardians have been skillfully exaggerated by artists. Bulging muscles in their huge chests and arms communicate power. Their drapery always depicted as swirling around them like a dragon engulfing its prey. The exaggerated depiction continues in their extended jaws, and facial expressions. The Nio’s bulging eyes, furrowed brows, flaring nostrils, and distorted grimaces bring their faces to life. Their hair, flying in the wind, pulled tightly into topknots, adds to their imposing height.

How the Nio sculptures were created

The vast majority of Nio are made out of wood and are usually housed in their own gate houses to protect them from the weather.The Nio guardians were created by a joined woodblock carving technique called Yosegi. Hinoki, or Japanese cypress, a wood that ages remarkably well, was used. Each Nio is created from many pieces of wood pegged together with iron clamps and nails. This allowed the artists to create monumental figures with dynamic poses. The seams along the joints were covered with fabric or paper. The surface was then covered with layers of Gesso, (baked seashells and water) and black lacquer. Note that not all Nio sculptures are painted. The ones that are, have immense details such as the pupils of the eyes and the decorative pattern on the drapery.

Nio Guardians at Todai-ji, Nara

Todai-ji was built in the eighth century by imperial order in the ancient capital city of Nara, as a symbol of Japan’s emergence as an important center for Buddhist culture. The complex includes a huge bronze statue of a seated Buddha, housed inside the Daibutsen, claimed to be the world’s largest wooden building. The Nio at this temple were erected after parts of the temple were destroyed by warring clans in the 12th century.

Many art historians regard the two sculptures at Todai-ji, as the greatest works of two of Japan’s greatest sculptors, Unkei and Kaikei. They are impressive for their size and the technological hurdles that their 13th-century creators had to overcome. They were carved during the Kamakura Period (1192-1333) Each statue is over eight meters tall and weighs close to seven tons. Recently the Nio sculptures were repaired at a cost of 19 million yen ($187,500).

The Agyo Nio Guardian at Todai-ji

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The Agyo Nio Guardian at Todai-ji welcomes the good spirits inside the temple

Nio Guardians of Toshogu Shrine in Nikko, Tochigi

Agyo Nio Guardian

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Agyo Nio Guardian at Niomon Gate of Toshogu Shrine

Nio Guardians of Fudarakusanji Temple in Nachi, Wakayama

Agyo Nio Guardian at Fudarakusan-ji Temple

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The Agyo Nio Guardian welcoming the good spirits

Nio Guardians of Senso-ji, Tokyo

Agyo Nio Guardian at Sensoji Temple

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Agyo Nio Guardian at Senso-ji Temple

Nio Guardians of Yakushi-ji, Nara

Ungyo Nio Statue at Yakushi-ji

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Ungyo Nio Statue at Yakushi-ji

It was an interesting week for me researching through the history of Nio Guardians. I hope you find it interesting too. Leave your comments below and let me know if there is something I missed.

4 thoughts on “The Nio Guardians of Japan

  1. Abigail Barnes says:

    Do you citations or sources, because if you have legitimate citations, that means that I can cite you.

    1. Hi Abigail, I did not understand what you want to cite? This article draws knowledge from various books and internet articles but is written by me

  2. Merle McKeehan says:

    I have to say. It is nicely done between you and your wife! Being born into Nichiren Buddhism and still a member after over 40 years. It’s nice to see the folklore and history added. Kudos!

    1. Viki Pandit says:

      Thanks Merle

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