A chronology of Vajrapani statues from 100 CE to 800 CE
A chronology of Vajrapani statues from 300 B.C.E. to 800 C.E.

There are many statues to see when visiting temples in Japan the Buddha statue being the most important of course; but the first statues you will encounter are the Niō guardians. The artistic craftsmanship and effort that went into creating these expressive sculptures is very impressive. Some Niō guards are huge in size and others more human in scale but all are intimidating.

Niō Guards

The Niō guards are a pair of protectors or who stand guard at the outer most entrance gate of Japanese Buddhist temples, one on each side of the entrance. They look alike but each has his own stance and attributes and expressions, everything about them is symbolic even their facial expression are not coincidental. The open-mouth version is commonly (but not always) placed in the right niche of the temple gate, and a closed-mouth version to the left. In Japan, the gate that they guard is the Niō-mon (仁王門 , literally Niō Gate).

The Niō´s fierce and threatening appearance is said to ward off evil spirits and keep the temple grounds free of demons and thieves. Despite their looks the guardians are not demons themselves, but the protection explanation is just part of the story. The Niō guards were also said to have followed and protected the Historical Buddha when he travelled around India. Niō guardians have been adopted into the Buddhist pantheon from the very beginning, but not in the form that you see them now in Japan.

The Niō guards have their roots in India where they have a Sanskrit name, Vajrapani. At the time Vajrapani start to appear in Buddhist art there was only one Vajrapani guard. The stone image of this very early Vajrapani initially travelled from India through China and came via the Korea peninsula to Japan. The Niō guards found in the Horyuji temple near Nara city belong to the earliest Buddhist statues of Japan. But the artistic development from Vajrapani to Niō guard is much older.

Discovery of the earliest Vajrapani and Buddha images:

British archaeologists found signs of long lost Buddhist religion that prevailed in India only fragment by fragment from the 17th century onward. All signs of Buddhism in India were erased or not recognised and memory about it was actively suppressed by the dominant religions. One very interesting discovery were the Buddhist temples in the Peshawar valley in Afghanistan in the 19th century, here a Buddhist culture flourished in what is known as the Gandhara region. These Buddhist buildings were turned into ruins and Gandhara art had been forgotten and lost in dirt.

In 1848 British archaeologist Cunningham organised an expedition and discovered Buddhist sculptures north of Peshawar in Gandhara. From then on a large number of Buddhist statues have been discovered in the Peshawar valley. Archaeologists also discovered separate Greek, Parthian, and Kushan cities and a large number of stupa’s and monasteries. A lost chapter in Buddhist art history was unfolding. The buddhist statues where very special and of a kind never seen before. (ref.) Ashoka - the search for India's lost emperor by Charles Allen

At the time of unearthing historians had already pieced together that Buddhism had a long history in India. Historians also had knowledge of Buddhist statues in China and Japan. India produced statues for thousands of years they where there for everyone to see. So what made these statues so special ? After studying the newly discovered Buddha statues more carefully it was concluded that these where the oldest statues of the Buddha ever discovered! They where the first ones to depict the Buddha in human form ever made!

Before these Gandharan statues were made the Buddhist never depicted the Buddha in a human form, symbols were used representing the Buddha, for example a footprint carved in stone or the depiction of a Dharma wheel or an empty throne. Secondly, and this makes the Gandhara statues even more intriguing, is the fact that they were stylistically influenced strongly by Greek art and Greek mythical gods and heroes, a culture that developed 4000 km further in the West.

Gandhara is now covered by northern Pakistan and north-eastern Afghanistan. In the deep past it produced stone relief´s and statues of the Buddha in human form surrounded by figures telling episodes from Buddha´s live. Most interesting for our history of the Niō guards is a muscled figure standing next to the Buddha in almost all of these stories. Historians identified this figure being Vajrapani a deity who is mentioned in early Buddhist texts.

He stands out among all figurines because Vajrapani looks like a direct copy of the Greek demigod Herakles (Hercules to the Romans) in contrast to the surrounding statues that have Indian influences. Vajrapani is a single figure in all the depictions and not a couple like the Niō-Guards are now.

Vajrapani in his Herakles form alongside the Buddha - Greco-Buddhist art of Afghanistan - 2nd century CE and later

Selection of Gandhara Vajrapani examples, Vajrapani always alongside the Buddha looking like Herakles - 1nd century CE and later

Who is Vajrapani ?

Vajrapani is mentioned in the earliest Buddhist texts the so-called “Pali Canon”. The relief’s found in Gandhara are telling stories as they appear in the Buddhist teachings. In the Pali Canon Vajrapani assists the Buddha on moments he needed brute force to convert a very stubborn entity. It is Vajrapani that appears on these moments and uses his weapon the Thunderbolt. This is the task of Vajrapani and what gives him his name, he carries the weapon called thunderbolt and uses it to help the Buddha, the thunderbolt is called Vajra in the Buddhist texts.

In the Buddhist stories Vajrapani only appears a view times. But for some reason Gandhara artists included Vajrapani in most scenes right next to the Buddha as if he were a fixed companion of the Buddha.

The roots of Vajrapani in India:

In Indian tradition the Vajrapani of the Pali Canon was based on a native deity, a so-called Yaksa. Gandhara artists seem to have known about Vajrapani′s Yaksa roots as we can tell form one of his attributes, the fly whisk.

Yaksa (or Yaksha) in the mythology of India are generally benevolent nature spirits, either male or female, who are the guards of treasures that are hidden in the earth and in the roots of trees. Yaksas were often given homage as tutelary deities of a city, district, lake, or well. They are also amongst the earliest deities to be depicted in Indian art.

In the Yaksa-cult, the fly whisk was regarded as a mark of royalty or dignity. Several Gandhara narrative relief′s show Vajrapani carrying a whisk when he is next to the Buddha. The Yaksa was the root inspiration in the texts for Vajrapani but the Yaksa image seems to have contributed relatively little to the Gandhara iconography unlike Herakles.

Vajrapani in his Herakles form alongside the Buddha - Greco-Buddhist art of Afghanistan - 2nd century CE and later

Vajrapani and Fly Whisk made of a Yak tail

How Vajrapani and Herakles met.

Buddhism came from India / Nepal and was heavily influenced by Indian art and deities. Why would an artist in the 1st century CE in what is now Pakistan and Afghanistan consider a Greek demi-god to represent Vajrapani ? And how did he know about Herakles in the first place ? To find an answer on that question we have to look at the kingdoms and cultures that preceded this art.

It started with Alexander the Great, he conquered his Persian Empire around 330 B.C.E. he marched deep into the East reaching the Indus River in what is now Pakistan. His long supply lines presented him with logistic problems. A physical link was vital as his army drew supplies and reinforcement from Greece and Macedonia.

He found a solution by establishing military colonies and cities on strategic places along the supply line, the contact with Greece was secured. Greek mercenaries and Macedonian veterans settled in these cities, partly to retire and partly to keep the supply routes open. These cities and colonies became powerful instruments in the spread of Greek culture (Hellenistic) throughout the East. A wave of Greek immigration followed in Alexander’s footsteps. The east was not totally unfamiliar to the Greeks since Greek mercenaries were stationed on these borders by their Persian masters for considerable time before Alexander came.

Alexander the Great identified himself with Herakles and introduced Herakles into the eastern regions with his conquest of India. He also established a firm link between kingship status and the Herakles myth by claiming that he was a descendent from Herakles himself.

Vajrapani in his Herakles form alongside the Buddha - Greco-Buddhist art of Afghanistan - 2nd century CE and later

Greek vase depiction of Herakles holding the Delphi tripod a olive wood club and wearing the Nemean lion skin armour

Herakles and Alexander

Herakles is occasionally depicted with attributes collected from these tasks in addition to the lion skin. Herakles weapon of choice was a massive olive wood club.

Generations of Greek venerated Herakles. The kings of Sparta and Macedonia claimed to be descendants of the demigod, and in the Hellenistic age, many Greek colonies in the east claimed Herakles as their founder. Statues of the muscled naked Herakles carrying the impenetrable lion pelt and large olive club have been found in Afghanistan.

Alexander died in 323 B.C.E. and his empire collapsed. The empire was put shortly under the authority of a regent, and the territories were divided between Alexander’s generals, who thereby became satraps. The satrap of Bactria gave birth to a succession of break away Greek kingdoms in what is today’s Afghanistan and north Pakistan.

The Greek kingdoms are grouped under the names Indo-Greek (south of Hindu Kush) or Greco-Bactrians (north Hindu Kush) depending on what side of the Hindu-Kush mountains they settled. But the region was under pressure of several nomadic tribes, invading from the steppes in the North. The Greeks also fought among themselves right from the start of Alexander′s death and the area was divided up again and again.

However one of the long lasting legacy of Alexander’s expeditions was the introduction of Greek art, Greek writing system and religious/mythical ideas that remained alive next to long established Persian and Indian religions (Hinduism, Zoroastrianism). Buddhism at this time was still a local sect confined to a small part of Northern India. It took a mighty emperor and a safe trading climate to spread Buddhism through India before it finally reached the Gandhara region with its Greek culture.


New pressure on the Greek kingdoms after Alexander’s death came from the South in the form of emperor Chandragupta, founder of the Mauryan dynasty, he re-conquered north-western India upon the death of Alexander the Great. Chandragupta had met Alexander when he was a young man and probably fought on the side of the Macedonians and was familiar with their tactics.

He had pushed the Greeks further North in an area called Bactria. The New Indian emperor kept in contact with his Greek neighbours and during that period several Greeks, such as the historian Megasthenes, resided at the Mauryan court. Subsequently, each Mauryan emperor had a Greek ambassador at his court. But at this moment in time Buddhism was still not spread widely. (ref.) Ashoka - the search for India's lost emperor by Charles Allen

Chandragupta´s grandson Ashoka (304 - 232 B.C.E.) converted to Buddhism and became a great promoter of Buddhism. According to the Edicts of Ashoka (found on rocks and pillars), some of them written in Greek, he sent Buddhist emissaries as far as the Mediterranean. According to Pali sources, some of Ashoka's emissaries were Greek Buddhist monks, indicating close religious exchanges between the two cultures. But soon the Greeks would get a new opportunity to expand their kingdom in India again.

Asia map with estimated areas of kingdoms and empires ca-260BCE

Map with estimated areas of kingdoms and Ashoka's empire ca 260 B.C.E.


After Ashoka’s death the Greco-Bactrians invaded and subsequently occupied parts of northern India from around 180 B.C.E., more instances of interaction between Greeks and Buddhism are recorded.

The now called Indo-Greeks where separated by several generations form Alexander’s rule and probably rather isolated among the local inhabitants, and got involved with local religions such as Hinduism, Zoroastrianism and Buddhism. These religions blended with their traditional worship of the Classical pantheon of the Greek deities (Zeus, Herakles, Athena, Apollo, Atlas, Boreal etc.).

Some historians suggest that the last great Indo-Greek king Menander I Soter “The Saviour” (165/155 B.C.E. - 130 B.C.E.), might already have converted to Buddhism and is historically described as a great benefactor of the religion in Indian texts.

But there is limited archaeological evidence to support this theory. The stone Buddha statues are very difficult to date even with modern scientific techniques. If no date is inscribed it needs to be dated indirectly for example with coins found with it, but much of this information is lost, many statues surface without any archaeological context.

Alexander had brought Herakles in the area and Ashoka had brought Buddhism in contact with Greek culture. Indo-Greek artistic skills and mythical background were used to tell the stories of Buddha in stone. But currently historians attribute statues found in Gandhara not to the Indo or Bactrian Greeks but instead to an invading tribe that came from the North.

The Indo-Greek territories were invaded several times by nomadic tribes (Scythians played a important role) from the north but finally it were the Kushans that got the strongest foothold. The Kushan tribe came from what is now the far west of China the Chinese called them the Yuezhi tribe (Yüeh-chih, Tokharians.) (ref. "Empires of the Silk Road; A History of Central Eurasia from the Bronze age to the Present" (Christopher I. Beckwith, 2009) p. 380.) The expanse and spread of Buddhism and its statues is usually associated with this Kushan Empire.

Greek culture in the area seems to have been resilient enough to survive the relatively rapid succession of invaders. Greek deities and Greek culture apparently appealed to a certain elite layer of Kushan society, even if they did not have direct links to Greece anymore. Descendant of the Greeks absorbed into Kushan empire together with their artistic, mythical and athletic culture. Greeks stayed to work under the Kushans as artists, architects, Olympic athletes, acrobats etc.

Asia map with estimated areas of kingdoms and empires ca-260BCE

Asia map with estimated areas of kingdoms and empires ca 180 B.C.E.

The Kushans

Currently most historians assume that it was under the Kushans that Greek mythology and artistic skills fully came together to produce the first Buddhist statues in human form.

The Yuezhi (Chinese name for the Kushans) tribe was originally settled in the grasslands of the eastern Tarim Basin, in what is today Xinjiang and western Gansu in China. The Yuezhi were pushed out following a chain-reaction of tribal displacements started by the Han Chinese. The Chinese wrestled control of the Tarim Basin at the end of the 1st century.

It is generally assumed that one branch of the Yuezhi tribe founded the Kushan Empire after they fled Westward over the Pamir mountains into Bactria and absorbed the local cultures including the Indo-Greek cultures, Buddhism, Zoroastrianism and Hinduism.

During the 1st and early 2nd centuries CE, the Kushan established themselves and started to expand across the Indian subcontinent as far south as Varanasi (Benares). And later expanded again back north of the Karakoram Mountains where they originally came from.

A direct route from Gandhara to China opened up and remained under Kushan control and would last for more than 100 years. The security offered by the Kushans encouraged trading caravans across the Hindu-Kush and Pamir mountains and facilitated the spread of overland Buddhism to China (Buddhism also travelled by sea trade but historical evidence for this route is less researched). The Kushan dynasty had diplomatic contacts with the Roman Empire, Sassanid Persia and Han China. 

The Kushans took elements of the Greek Hellenistic culture that still flourished in that region after their invasion. They adopted the Greek alphabet to suit their own language and soon began minting coinage on the Greek model. On their coins they also used Greek deities among them Herakles.

Buddhism was important enough religion to be supported by the ruling Kushan elite and more importantly by merchants. India´s cast based religions and Persian Zoroastrianism did not suit merchants who were on the road a lot and could not fulfil the housebound rituals. Buddhism was a much more portable religion that suited the travelling prosperous merchants.

Asia map with estimated areas of kingdoms and empires ca 100 CE

Map with estimated areas of Kushan Empire at its largest extent and Han Dynasty protectorates ca 100 C.E.

Why Herakles ?

Now we know why artists 4000 km East of Greece knew about its gods and heroes. But using Herakles as a template for Vajrapani was not the most obvious choice considering the Greek pantheon of gods and demi-gods. There are more important gods and above all gods that hold thunderbolts in Greek myth, Herakles had no thunderbolt.

Herakles is among the scope of Greek deities that were assimilated by the Kushans. Kushan rulers, who probably had no direct links to Greece (Greece was now under Roman control), still identified with this Demi-god as we can see on some of their coins. The Herakles myth was still strong in Kushan times and many architects, acrobats, athletes and craftsmen of Greek decent still worked in the Kushan empire.

Alexander the Great made the link between his kingship and his own decent from Herakles. This idea that Herakles equals kingship was continued by subsequent kings be it Greek or Kushan. Perhaps Vajrapani’s frequent appearance as Herakles in art made it easier for rulers to support this demi-god it would after all include a symbolic representation of their own kingship. “The powerful patron and defender of Buddhism that is always on the Buddha´s side.”,

Merchants were also important donors to the temples and monasteries and might also have felt an analogy with Herakles the travelling demigod who had to overcome difficult tasks during his lifetime.

Besides the Kingship argument there is one other important analogy in the myth of Herakles and that of the Vajrapani of the Pali texts, Herakles has the title of; “Alexikakos,´averter of evil´, because he purged the world of so many monsters and evildoers.” (ref. The Penguin Book of Classical Myths by Jenny March ) Vajrapani also purges evildoers, not by killing but by converting them to Buddhism.

These two arguments might explain why Herakles was a popular candidate for the role of Vajrapani, but why did Vajrapani appear always next to the Buddha? In the Buddhist text Vajrapani only appears a view times. For some reason Gandhara artists included Vajrapani in most scenes right next to the Buddha as if he were a fixed companion of the Buddha.

Historically Vajrapani in his Herakles appearance of a strong muscled man is described as a bodyguard or personal protector always at the side of the Buddha. This analysis is not without problems since the enlightened Buddha or the Shakyamuni does not need protection according to Buddhism. But maybe there is another explanation for Herakles continuous presence at the Buddha´s side.

One possibility is that Vajrapani is an assistant that accompanies the Buddha to carry the symbolic weapon of the Buddhist power (the Vajra) and only operates it when he is commanded to do so. In a text his presence would not always be mentioned but in visual art he would always be there, you could argue that Vajrapani's presence is not important he just happens to carry the instrument that symbolises the power of Buddhism and is always on ‘stand by’ so to say. But still currently the most used interpretation among historians is Vajrapani the protector / guard of Shakyamuni.

In the second century CE an artistic model for the Buddhist Vajrapani statue has matured under Kushan rule. Using Herakles as a template with his olive wood club, impenetrable lion pelt and muscled body, with a background in Indian Yaksa culture the fly whisk and the Vajra weapon based on the symbolic characteristics of a Diamond. Already during Gandharan time his appearance develops and his nakedness is covered with garments and his club is mostly omitted and replaced with the thunderbolt.

The role of guard is also how his position would be interpreted during his next transformation phase in China. During his stay in China the Herakles features of Vajrapani would fade but not get lost, Herakles features are even surfacing in the archaeological record among several other deities both Buddhist and with local religions in China. (ref: "Heracles in the East: The Diffusion and Transformation of His Image in the Arts of Central Asia, India, and Medieval China", I-Tien Hsing)

daimond vajra of Kushan Buddhist era

The Thunderbolt

The Vajra is mentioned already several times and is the reason for Vajrapani´s existence, translated from Sanskrit it means both thunderbolt and diamond. In Eurasia the thunderbolt or lightning bolt is a symbol for lightning cached in a hand weapon. The concept of the thunderbolt was very well known in Greek myth. The Indo-Greek kings had depicted a thunderbolt (called Keraunos by Greeks) on their coins associated with the god Zeus.

In India there was also a reference to the thunderbolt. The earliest mention of the Vajra in India is in the Rigveda, an ancient (2nd millennium B.C.E.) Indian sacred collection of hymns. One early example of a Buddhist thunderbolt can be seen in the Ajanta Buddhist caves in India , there the Vajra prongs actually correspond to lightning rays, similar to the Keraunos of Zeus in contrast with the Gandhara / Kushan diamond Vajra.

Comparative research between Indian and European thunderbolts discovered a striking resemblance between the weapon of Zeus, the Keraunos, and Asian (India / Tibet) representations of the thunder weapon. Most historians agree now that the Indian depiction of the Vajra in art does correspond and is the Greek Keraunos carried by Zeus.

This shape of the thunderbolt was also known in Kushan times as we can tell from their coins but was not used in this form in Buddhism. The Greek model of a thunderbolt was only used in Northern India and much later in Tibet. This is remarkable because in Gandhara the Greek influence was strongest after all. But the Keraunos of Zeus was not how the Kushan Buddhist understood the concept of a thunderbolt.

It is about interpretation of the texts and how to give this shape in visual art. The Kushan Buddhist interpreted the Vajra from their texts to be a weapon constructed of diamond. Here the diamond implies indestructibility, diamonds are harder than other gemstones. The Vajra as a diamond was common and well known in Gandharan times.

If we compare the Vajra in Indian Buddhism (and later Tibet) to the Vajra in Kushan Buddhism we can see that the development of shape and interpretation of its function as a weapon took different paths. The version used and developed in Kushan Buddhist art initially went north and entered China through the Tarim basin. We still find the Gandhara diamond shaped thunderbolt in China during the western - and eastern Wei dynasties. And Japanese Niō-Guards sometimes use Vajra´s that are more (squarish) diamond shaped. But ultimately the Gandhara thunderbolt version was replaced by the Tibetan Tantric version of the Vajra that we see everywhere now. That version also has its roots in Greco-Indian art of central Asia.

Asia map with Tarim basin and Taklamakan desert ca 100 CE

Map of the Tarim Basin with the Taklamakan desert at its centre, West of China and North of India ca 100 CE

The Tarim Basin

Vajrapani the diamond thunderbolt bearer of the Buddha found a corridor to China during Kushan rule. This interim period is important for the artistic appearance of Vajrapani, new art influences form India and the Sasanian empire (The Kushans lost their empire to the Sasanians) changed his appearance.

For the trading caravans to get to China they had to pass by the Taklamakan Desert located in the Tarim Basin. This area consisted of a string of independent oasis city-states that revolved around major caravansaries on this lucrative trade route. These city states were constantly under pressure of invasion by the other city-states or nomadic tribes and sometimes allied with (pay tribute to) Chinese empires for their own interest until the Tang dynasty took full control of the Tarim basin.

The Northerly route around the Taklamakan desert left most archaeological clues for Buddhism to study. Stone art and sand covered frescoes survived destruction by armies and weather long enough to be documented. The weather is another topic that is extensively researched, the Taklamakan was always a dessert but not as arid and dry then as it is now. Travelling here 2000 years ago would have gone through more favourable landscapes for humans and pack animals alike.

The grottoes were a new phenomena here and maybe inspired by religious grottoes seen by the monks in India. These grottoes are a perfect time machine because they were in use over long period of time every dynasty creating its own caves. But since the earliest surviving Niō-Guards statues in Japan date to 711 CE, we have to consider grottoes from before the early 8th century in order to get an artistic chronology that could have influenced the art of Japan. The first Japanese Nio-Guards have roots in a period before Esoteric / Tantric Tibetan Buddhism gets a foothold in the Tarim Basin or China.

In the Tarim Basin Vajrapani's status has changed. An early example can be found at the Kizil Caves of the former Kucha state, it is not exactly known when Buddhism arrived in Kucha, but from what one can tell from the Chinese records, it seems that already by the end of third century to the beginning of fourth century. Vajrapani is depicted sitting next to the Buddha mostly looking at the Buddha.

Stylistically the Kizil cave Vajrapani is influenced both by Indian art and Gandharan art. Besides holding the Vajra and fly-whisk Vajrapani gets deity features such as a diadem (Influenced by Seleucid->Kushan->Sasanian development of crowns / diadems) again a reference to kingship, a urna ("third eye"), long earlobes, jewels and a halo (nimbus) behind his head. There is an abundant use of the expensive blue pigment "Lapis Lazuli" in the paintings this pigment is only found in Afghanistan indicating strong connections between the areas. Vajrapani is depicted with all decorations as the Gandhara Bodhisattva statues and loses Herakles features.


In the Tarim Basin Vajrapani appears in several styles, one branch has become militarised with full armour and sword a Vajra and often holding a fly-whisk aloft. The sword was already introduced in Gandhara art and reappears here. The armour is in the style of the warriors in the Tarim Basin and probably of central Asian origin. This armoured version will later inspire several other Chinese deities for example; Lokapala (the Four Heavenly Kings), the tomb-guards of the Tang dynasty, the Chinese deity Weituo, and much later as Daoist General Heng and General Ha.

There might be some logic behind the development of armour for Vajrapani. The myths tell that Herakles resorted to strangling the Nemean lion because no weapon could penetrate the lion´s skin. Wearing the lion pelt was equal to wearing impenetrable armour, this analogy could explain the lion pelt transforming into the armour in style of the local guards and warriors. The lion skin will appear in several Chinese guard figures through space and time, sometimes exchanged for the locally more familiar Tiger skin, and the olive wood club also appears regularly. (ref. Heracles in the East: The Diffusion and Transformation of His Image in the Arts of Central Asia, India, and Medieval China, by I-Tien Hsing translated by William G. Crowell)

Another form of Vajrapani based its looks on India nobility bearing the Vajra and fly-whisk. (see above image) Vajrapani's head is sometimes covered with a felid pelt (either tiger or lion) or he is wearing a wreath / diadem on his head inspired by Sasanian art (Greek Herakles is also depicted wearing a wreath sometimes). He is dressed in a dhoti (Indian type of skirt) and is bare chested, but not necessarily muscled, decorated with necklaces. His belly button is painted as a cross, something that Niō-Guards still have, supposedly inspired by Indian art. (However in my opinion in Kizil paintings this as a attempt by the artist to indicate abdominal muscles).

These two templates were found in the same grotto, different archetypes of Vajrapani's appearance existed side by side (but only one type of Vajrapani paired with one Buddha) at the same time and in the same place. One of these depictions is carbon dated to the early 5th century CE.

One other important observation is that Vajrapani is still next to the Buddha as a devote companion. This would change when we see the first versions of Vajrapani in China.

Chinese Vajrapani

Buddhism would influence the powerful Chinese dynasties and its society and art strongly. Vajrapani surfaces again in the archaeological record in the early 5th century at the Luoyang grottoes. Vajrapani has gone trough some major adaptations and changes and has taken different forms and functions in China.

Buddhism in China had to compete with two strong indigenous philosophies, Daoism and Confucianism, for its support of the ruling emperor. At several moments in history there are persecutions of Buddhism in China with major destructions of temples and statues. But new Buddhist text are introduced into China again and again and give rise to new sects. Big gaps exist in the chronology of Vajrapani´s development in China and many intermediate statues are lost due these periodic destructions. The older images / statues that survived are made of stone. The stone surviving imagery tends to be less expressive and detailed unlike their wooden counterparts we find in Japan.

Splitting Vajrapani

Under the Han dynasty (260 B.C.E. - 220CE) Buddhism was introduced and Buddhist texts were translated. But Buddhism was not accepted by Han people who detested the cult that brought dead bodies into the city (relics) and promoted abandoning the family, a total contradiction with the Confucian philosophy. If it was accepted it got tangled up with Daoism. (for a detailed history see : "Buddhism in China: A Historical Survey by Kenneth Ch'en") Again an invading nomadic tribe from the north would proof beneficial to Buddhism. In 386 CE the Turkish Tuoba tribe invaded northern China and established the Northern Wei Dynasty.

The ruling Tuoba were a minority and were illiterate. They had to integrate with the Han Chinese to rule and administrate them and chose foreign Buddhism over indigenous Confucianism and Daoism to be the foundation of their government policy. Buddhism allowed the Northern Wei leaders to claim define destiny to become kings, good karma in the past must have brought them in this fortunate position to rule the Chinese in the present.

Their first caves near Datong, the Yungang caves, are dedicated to the kings of the Northern Wei. Devotion to statues became more central to Buddhism instead of devotion of relics buried in stupa´s. Northern Wei art got a big impulse from absorbing the Dunhuang caves on their western border into their kingdom, the Northern Wei brought artisans back to their new capital to work on the Yungang caves near Datong.

One remarkable development under the Chinese is that Vajrapani doubled, a counterpart was added at the same time Vajrapani loses his position next to the Buddha and becomes a Dvarapala, a guard of the gate, one guard is placed on each side of a gate.

When examining the statues and the Chinese name of Vajrapani more closer, we might conclude that Vajrapani split rather then doubled. The Chinese translation of Vajrapani became: Jingang Lishi (金刚力士 ) = Vajra Strongman. These are two concepts that apparently have been split into (1) a Vajra carrying entity and (2) a Strongman entity (muscled, athletic, wrestler, warrior).

Jingang Lishi (金刚力士 ) = Vajra Strongman
Jingang (金刚 simplified) = Vajra or Diamond, it nowadays also means King Kong (ape).
Lishi (力士) = Strongman (Chinese) = Sumo Wrestler (Japanese)
Dvarapala = Gate guard (India Sanskrit)

split of vajrapani into jingang and lishi

Intact examples of Lishi Jingang couples contain at least one guard holding a Vajra. Some versions have beards but most tall statues are clean shaven, his face has a glaring / hostile expression (Later they will become more wrathful specially in Japan). His stance still is reminiscence of Herakles but his stylised arm/hand gestures are new. A scarf that forms a halo around his head, there are bare chested and armoured versions. The fly-whisk disappears in China. Later during the Tang dynasty he is decorated with jewels and necklaces a style that goes back to earlier trend as seen in the Kizil Caves.

The Vajra thunderbolt is also changing its design, the diamond shape conceived in Gandhara already became more pointed in Kucha at the Tarim Basin. This version survives in China, at least until the late Eastern Wei Dynasty (534 - 550 CE). It becomes more elongated in some cases half the body size of the Jingang Lishi a mix between a club and traditional Gandhara style Vajra. We also find examples of Jingang Lishi carrying a trident (tridents are another form of thunderbolts) or a Herakles style olive-wood club instead of a Vajra.

china variations of Jingang Lishi weapons or Vajra

Wrestling Strongman

Wrestling had a profound influence on Vajrapani's initial iconography in China. Herakles was already venerated by Bactrian-Greek Athletes as we can see from weights used by wrestlers decorated with depictions of Herakles. Wrestling had a long history in Chinese culture too and was already established as a (ritual) sport at least during the Han dynasty (206 B.C.E. - 220 CE) probably originating in the previous Qin state (246 - 221 B.C.E.). The Han organised ritual games called "the Juedixi Games" were acrobats performed and wrestling was a important part of the program. It is suggested that Kushana-Greek athletes participated in these games too.(ref: "Thought and Law in Qin and Han China" "Chapter; The Juedi games. p.140." by Michael Loewe, 1990) (ref: "Hellenes and Romans in Ancient China" by Lucas Christopoulos, Sino Platonic Papers, 2012)

However the Chinese had a different idea of what a ’Strongman’ looks like compared to the Greek athletic ideal. Chinese strongmen have a belly and are not necessary overly muscled. A good example of what Chinese perceive as strongman can be seen in contemporary Mongol wrestling (Bökh). Early Chinese example of wrestlers with bellies were found among the terracotta army of the Qin emperor (246 - 221 B.C.E.) in Shaanxi province. (see below image)

Greek versus chinese strongman

Wrestling at the Juedixi games was associated with bulls fighting, Han dynasty depictions show men with horned bull masks simulating two bulls wrestling. This reference to bull horns can still be seen in Niō-guards in my opinion, the two ends of the ribbon that binds the hair knot stand up to form symbolic horns. Apparently the Chinese also connected the strongman / wrestler function to Vajrapani as Herakles the strongman had done before for the Kushans.


Story of 500 Robbers Dunhuang Cave #285 Northern Wei, 4-6th Century. Showing strong wrestlers being the Dvarapala.

Some Vajrapani / Jingang Lishi have muscled upper-body combined with a belly what looks like a compromise between the two extremes, something we also see in Japanese Niō-guards. The Body types of Lishi are wide ranged between having a heavy belly and unrealistic muscled. The famous German explorer Albert Von Le Coq (1860 - 1930) made a striking comparison between Gandharan overly muscled men on a stone panel depicting river-deities and the Japanese Niō-guards in his book "Bilderatlas zur Kunst und Kulturgeschichte Mittel-Asiens" published in 1925.

It seems to be a strong analogy of artistic style. But these Gandhara panels of overly muscled river deities are the only examples found, it is not sure if these depictions were widespread in Gandhara art. His comparison suggest a direct transmission of exaggerated muscled body style from Gandhara art into China and onwards to Japan.

It would suggest that the Chinese strongman depictions of bellied wrestler / door guards were bypassed and the Vajrapani's found in the Taklamakan caves had little influence on the overall body style of the Vajrapani created at the end of the Northern Wei period, but it did set its reputation as a wrestler.

Strongman transmission of muscled body style

Even though we have a range of Jingang Lishi examples in stone in Grottoes and on stelea, many of them are missing arms or hands. That makes it difficult to determine if they would have hold a Vajra or not. Some Jingang Lishi do not carry a Vajra but just use hand gestures, strictly speaking they would not qualify to be a Vajrapani but just a Lishi (Strongman).

Buddhism in China went through tremendous changes, new deities were introduced (Weituo) and existing ones matured and got elevated in importance (Lokapala). It was based on information from new texts or direct contacts with India. Local deities were incorporated into Buddhism (Guanyin), deities accumulated rather then being replaced, functions or tasks were reshuffled among them.

Vajrapani became linked to new characters in the Buddhist pantheon that fulfilled similar guardian functions especially the "four heavenly kings" (aka The four directional guardians, Lokapala). Lokapala transmitted from India to China and elsewhere in Asia around the 6th century CE. One of the earliest representations of the four in China, dated to the late 6th century, is from the Dunhuang Caves. The Lokapala of the North is also venerated in its own right and became protector of China, Lokapala sometimes share the task of guarding the door / gate with Vajrapani and thus became Dvarapala (door guards).

At the end of the Northern Wei dynasty and during the following short lived Dynasties we see more Jingang / Lishi that resemble the Japanese Niō-Guards closest in style. At the same time these Jingang appear to have received influences directly from the old Gandhara styles. The collapse of the Northern Wei seems to have motivated their heirs to attract artisans from either central Asia or the Tarim basin to give a new impulse to the arts. They show the overly muscled bodies and diamond shaped Vajra's and it is at this transition moment that Buddhism and its art and technology transmits to the Korean peninsula and Japan.

Qi dynasty chinese strongman

Introduction to Japan

In the sixth century after the Northern Wei dynasty (386 - 535 CE) collapsed, a mission from the Korean peninsula brought Buddhism to Asuka Japan around 550 CE. At this point the image of Jingang Lishi in China developed into the stylistic form we find in Japan. One of the earliest Buddhist centers, the Horyu-ji temple, was founded near Nara ca 607 CE. Indirect contact with China became direct contact, the Japanese Asuka period ended but Buddhism got a stronger foothold in Japan during the following Nara Period (710 - 794 CE). It is from this era that we have the earliest wooden Niō-guards (dated 711 CE) still standing at the Horyu-ji temple.

Buddhism did not only come as a religion/philosophy but was packaged with much technological and cultural knowledge. First of all scripture, all texts needed to be copied and distributed, knowledge of paper-making and Chinese writing were passed on. Theories of Chinese Geomancy, building techniques for temples based on large Chinese wooden palace structures were new for Japan, artisans that used stencils to paint on walls, sculptural skills, dance and rituals were all included.

Artisans were essential for cultural artistic continuity (the world over, not only in Asia) they were not artists as we understand them today though, apprentices were taught to copy their masters trough lifelong training. This system still exists in Japan and resulted in statues being produced in the same style for hundreds of years.

Training a next generation of artisans is a essential way of transferring knowledge and not lose your cultural heritage. It is a system that stands opposed to our current day thought of art that requires originality and freedom of expression and experimentation. Modern 3D printing and digital documentation makes it much easier to keep the memory and knowledge of ideas and objects. However the skill to make an object can be lost in one generation.


All the ingredients to make a Niō-Guards are here but detailed knowledge and skill were missing while making this statue.

After the initial transfer of Buddhism from the Korean peninsula to Japan direct contact between Japan and China was established. The short-lived but statistically influential successors of the Northern Wei collapsed to make way for the Tang Dynasty (618 - 907 CE). The Tang dynasty is a highpoint in Chinese history and Vajrapani becomes a very popular figure, he will inspire several offshoot deities who in some cases carry Vajra's (Lokapala, Weituo and tomb guards). Tang civilisation has a big impact on Japan's culture and technology, it influences architecture, urban planning, landscaping, writing, poetry, dance, fashion etc. etc.

However the first Niō-Guards are introduced to Japan just before the stylistic alteration of the Tang dynasty made its stamp on it. The Niō-Guards were in the hands of artisans of Japan they reproduce them for centuries to come based on the initial style. Further Chinese developments influences the established Japanese Niō-Guards only in detail. One such detail could be flower shaped nipples and another body-colour.

The Tang influence on other Buddhist deities is obvious though, especially the Lokapala become important. They are placed in the second gate, right behind the outer-gate of the Niō-Guards, and are lavishly decorated in Tang style. And also esoteric Tantric influences will appear more frequent in the Buddhist pantheon of Japan soon after.

Japanese Naming

Kongo-rikishi (金剛力士) = Niō (仁王) = Jingang Lishi (金刚力士) = Vajra Strongman
Misshaku Kongo (密迹金剛) = Agyō (阿形) open-mouthed = Jingang (金刚 simplified) = Vajra or Diamond
Naraen Kongo (那羅延金剛) = Ungyō (吽形) closed-mouthed = Lishi (力士) = Strongman (Chinese) = Sumo Wrestler (Japanese)
Dvarapala = Gate guard (India Sanskrit)

Japan emphasises the open mouth versus closed mouth version of the guards rather than the wrestler versus Vajra bearer. According to popular explanation the open/closed mouth relates to "Ah" (open mouth) and Un (closed mouth). "Ah" is the first sound in the Japanese alphabet, while "N" (pronounced "un") is the last.

This open and closed mouth duality is strictly uphold in Japan whereas in China we also find many examples with both mouths closed or both opened. In Japan the open mouth is combined with the Vajra wielding guard (the actual Vajrapani), the open mouth emphasises his dynamic expression. There are several explanations in Japan for the open/closed mouth version. I suspect this artistic visual expression is afterwards attached with a symbolic meaning (perhaps Tantric or Daoist).

gigaku mask and nio guard statue comparison

Gigaku Masks

Japanese wooden Niō-guards have more expressive faces then their surviving stone counterparts in China. The detailed expressive faces of the early Japanese Niō-guards is generally connected with wooden face masks that where introduced to Japan form the Korean peninsula. These masks where used in a mime comic dance performance called Gigaku. The masks arrived very early (ca 612 CE) and consists out of a large set of grotesque, face and ear covering, masks. Some masks are animal or demon like and some of the masks look remarkable similar to the faces of Japanese Niō-Guard statues.

The origin of the artistic style of the masks is under debate. The performer from the Korean peninsula who introduced the masks to Japan claimed to have learned the dances while staying at the southern Chinese court of Wu-hou. If the masks where modelled after existing Chinese statues of Jingang Lishi or the other way around we do not know for certain. China might have had more detailed wooden and stone statues after which both the masks and the Japanese Niō-Guards are modelled, if so they didn't survive except for possibly one. Anqiu city in China has a damaged standing Bodhisattva fragment with a temple guardian's head still attached beneath it in its collection. Only the head of this Jingang Lishi guard survived and its resemblance to Japanese Gigaku masks is very convincing.

Some historians argue that the masks are connected with Indonesian culture. (see: Globalizing the Prehistory of Japan Language, genes and civilization by prof. Ann Kumar) In my opinion the masks are part of a artistic heritage that is based in central Asia rather then south east Asia, bearing in mind that central Asian influences went to both areas.

Whatever the origins of the masks, the similarities between the Gigaku masks and Niō-Guards faces are striking. The masks arrived before these particular statues where made and could have inspired the artisans to create more detailed and expressive faces for the Niō-Guards.

Qi dynasty chinese strongman

Symbolic meaning of Vajrapani.

Joseph Campbell the mythologist, writer and lecturer, wrote extensively about myths and remarked after seeing the statue of Vajrapani that it is a symbol of our own fear holding on to our ego. The two fierce guards keep you out of the garden [he refers to the Garden of Eden guarded by the Cherubim, in Buddhism that would be enlightenment] and it is the Buddha who is already inside reassuring you and helping to guide you in. He made parallels with other religions that use similar symbolic guards in their pantheon. A gate is always symbolic, your first step trough it and concurring your fear of the guards and become a new person. The Hero's Journey: Joseph Campbell on His Life and Work. / Myths to live by: Joseph Campbell

Binary tree

Qi dynasty chinese strongman

Almost a thousand years after Gandhara's Vajrapani the Chinese develop general Heng and general Ha, their appearance originate in the Ming dynasty (1368 - 1644) novel Fengsheng Yanyi (The Investiture of the Gods). The author based them on Jingang and Lishi but because of their late introduction they had no artistic influence on the Niō-guards. General Heng and Ha are a accumulation of artistic influences and we can still see Herakles features represented in the lion like belt buckles they wear. They mostly carry a ring and staffs that have angular shapes derived from the diamond shaped Vajra.

generals heng and ha - shanxi - china near pingyao

A new Vajrapani is introduced to the Buddhist pantheon of China and Japan soon after the Nara guards are finished. This form of Vajrapani originates in Tantric Buddhism (expanding during the Tang dynasty in China), he is more compact and pot-bellied, he is accompanied by a wild array of flames. Colour also has great significance in esoteric statues were Vajrapani is red or blue, colours are also found on Niō-Guards (but colour is lost on old stone versions in China).

tantric vajrapani and vajra thunderbolt

A new shape of thunderbolt is also introduced the Tantric Vajra looks different with its stylised lightning rays. In China the Gandhara diamond-shaped Vajra disappears and is replaced with this version that is popular until this day. It has evolved from the thunderbolt of Zeus that the Kushans knew about but ignored. Via a different route and tradition it arrived at the same place, trough north India (and Nepal / Tibet) to China and then Japan.


- "Buddhism in China: A Historical Survey" (Kenneth Ch´en, 1972)
- "Bilderatlas zur Kunst und Kulturgeschichte Mittel-Asiens" (Albert von Le Coq, 1925 - online version)
- "The Human Past: World Prehistory and the Development of Human Societies" (Third Edition, Chris Scarre, 2013)
- "Buddha in the Dragon Gate" (Jan Van Alphen, 2001)
- "Chinese Sculpture" (A.F. Howard, Song Li, Hung Wu, Hong Yang, 2003)
- "Ashoka - the search for India´s lost emperor" (Charles Allen, 2012)
- "Empires of the Silk Road, A History of Central Eurasia from the Bronze age to the Present" (Christopher I. Beckwith, 2009)
- "The Penguin Book of Classical Myths" (Jenny March, 2009)
- "The Hero´s Journey: Joseph Campbell on His Life and Work", "Myths to live by" (Joseph Campbell)
- "Heracles in the East: The Diffusion and Transformation of His Image in the Arts of Central Asia, India, and Medieval China" (I-Tien Hsing)
- "Thought and Law in Qin and Han China" "Chapter; The Juedi games. p.140." (Michael Loewe, 1990)
- "Hellenes and Romans in Ancient China" (Lucas Christopoulos, Sino Platonic Papers, 2012)
- "Vajrapani in the Narrative Reliefs" (Monika Zin)
- "Herakles and the ´Perpetual Acolyte´ of the Buddha" (F. B. Flood, 1989)
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