An Eagle by Another Mother

The Magnificent Garuda

Sketch by Tree Langdon, author, at Angkor Wat 2013

The Garuda is a mythological bird creature that is found in both Buddhist and Hindu religious traditions. In Hinduism, it is a minor deity and serves as Vishnu’s mount, or means of transportation.

Garuda is a Hindu word and it is also the name for the constellation Aquila (latin for eagle). The Phoenix and the Brahminy Kite (a sea eagle) are modern representations of this legendary bird.

It symbolizes birth and heaven and is the enemy of snakes so it is often used on amulets to protect the wearer. It is a combination of eagle and human, usually with the upper body and wings of an eagle and the lower body of a human. There is a separate Upanishad devoted to the Garuda which gives this minor god more importance than others.

The Garuda is also mentioned in the Vedas, by the name of Syena, which means eagle in Sanskrit and in the Mahabharata. Usually these magnificent birds are sent to fetch something for a God.

 

A Row of Garuda in Bangkok at the Palace — image by clarkelz Pixabay

In the Mahabharata the Garuda eats evil men. In one story he ate a Brahman and his wife but the Brahman burned the its throat so he spit them out. In Buddhist mythology the Garuda are a race of winged beings who are rivals of Nagas, the serpentine creatures of the sea.

When I learned that the Garuda was a part of Hindu mythology I was intrigued because I saw them when we visited Cambodia several years ago. I found them fascinating and enjoyed learning more about their origin.

Angkor Wat is a famous temple complex in Cambodia and it’s considered by some to be the largest religious monument in the world. The site is approximately 163 hectares and there are many structures within the complex of ruins.

Photo by Paul Szewczyk on Unsplash

Many Garuda are carved on the face of walls and doors of the temples and they are in various states of disrepair. At Preah Khan, which is the royal sword temple at Angkor Wat, there are seventy two Garuda guarding the city wall. They are fifteen feet tall and are found all around the enclosure. Many of the walls are made from a reddish stone, so the sandstone Garuda stand out clearly against them. Sandstone is a softer material, so most of these wonderfully carved creatures are heavily eroded and damaged.

Garuda restorations are ongoing and organizations often adopt a specific Garuda and then create a fundraising campaign in order to stabilize and conserve it. Garuda #39 was recently supported by Friends of WMF (World Monuments Fund). After a large effort, they were able to begin work on the restoration in 2015. First #39 was disassembled, block by block. Then its base and the nearby wall was restored and stabilized. Finally this Garuda was reassembled and restored. When the work was finished on this one, almost half of the seventy two Garuda had been restored.

The Garuda are an important mythological creature and are often represented in sacred art in many temples and holy sites.

I am happy to see the effort to restore and preserve them for future generations as they provide a fascinating glimpse into the complex mythology of the Hindu and Buddhist traditions.

 

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