The Monkey King’s Cosmic Body

Sun Wukong is known for his limitless shape-changing powers, capable of taking the form of anything from gods, monsters, and humans to animals, insects, and even inanimate objects like buildings. But his most powerful transformation, that of a cosmic giant, is displayed only three times in the novel. It is used mostly in defense against other powerful characters, namely the god Erlang and the Bull Demon King. In this paper I will introduce the ancient astral-geographical term used to describe this phenomenon, associate the transformation with a divine giant from Chinese mythology, and explore possible ties to Hindu mythology.

I. Episodes from the Novel

The first instance takes place in chapter three after Monkey returns from the Dragon King’s undersea palace with his new weapon. The form is used to show off his magical abilities for his children (fig. 1).

Grasping the treasure [iron staff] in his hands, he began to perform the magic of cosmic imitation. Bending over, he cried, “Grow!” and at once grew to be [one hundred] thousand feet tall, [1] with a head like the Tai Mountain and a chest like a rugged peak, eyes like lightning and a mouth like a blood bowl, and teeth like swords and halberds. The rod in his hands was of such a size that its top reached the thirty-third Heaven and its bottom the eighteenth layer of Hell (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 138). (emphasis mine)

cosmic transformation

Fig. 1 – Monkey performs the cosmic transformation for his children (larger version). Original artist unknown. Found on this article.

The second takes place in chapter six during his battle with Erlang Shen. The form is used this time in response to the god’s own cosmic transformation.

The Immortal Master [Erlang] fought the Great Sage for more than three hundred rounds, but the result could still not be determined. The Immortal Master, therefore, summoned all of his magic powers; with a shake he made his body a hundred thousand feet tall. Holding with both hands the divine lance of three points and two blades like the peaks that cap the Hua Mountain, this green-faced, sabre-toothed figure with scarlet hair aimed a violent blow at the head of the Great Sage. But the Great Sage also exerted his magical power and changed himself into a figure having the features and height of Erlang. He wielded a compliant golden-hooped rod that resembled the Heaven-supporting pillar on top of Mount Kunlun to oppose the god Erlang (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 181).


Now we were telling you about the Immortal Master and the Great Sage, who had changed themselves into forms which imitated Heaven and Earth (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 182). (emphasis mine)

The third takes place in chapter sixty-one during Sun’s battle with the Bull Demon King (fig. 2). Again, the form is used in response to another powerful character’s transformation.

With a loud guffaw, the Bull King then revealed his original form of a gigantic white bull, with a head like a rugged mountain and eyes like bolts of lightning. The two horns were like two iron pagodas, and his teeth were like rows of sharp daggers. From head to toe, he measured more than ten thousand feet, while his height from hoof to neck was about eight [thousand]. [2]

“Wretched ape!” he roared at Pilgrim [Monkey]. “What will you do with me now?” Pilgrim also changed back to his true form; yanking out his golden-hooped rod, he bent his back and then straightened out, crying, “Grow!” At once he grew to a height of one hundred thousand feet, with a head like Mount Tai, eyes like the sun and moon, a mouth like a bloody pound, and teeth like doors (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 157).


[After Zhu Bajie returns from exterminating all of the demons in the Bull King’s cave] “You have achieved great merit, Worthy Brother,” said Pilgrim. “Congratulations! Old Monkey has waged in vain a contest of transformation with him [the Bull King], for I have not yet achieved victory. He finally changed into the biggest possible white bull, and I therefore assumed the appearance that imitated Heaven and Earth” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 158). (emphasis mine)

monkey vs bull king (cosmic transformations) - 1833

Fig. 2 – Monkey vs the Bull King, both in their cosmic transformations (larger version). An 1833 woodblock print by Yashima Gakutei. Photo by Prof. Vincent Durand-Dastès of the ‏National Institute for Oriental Languages and Civilizations. With permission. 

II. Ties to Ancient Chinese Astral-Geography and Mythology

The exact word used each time to describe Sun’s modus for attaining his cosmic form is Fatian Xiangdi (法天像地), or the “method of modeling Heaven on Earth”. This is actually related to ancient Pre-Qin and Han concepts of astral-geography later used in the construction of imperial Chinese cities. The ancient Chinese viewed the heavens as a complex system of seven star units set in four cardinal sections, making up the Twenty-Eight Lunar Mansions, all of which enclosed and revolved around a central star ruled by one of two supreme gods, Shangdi or Taiyi. Known as the “Purple Palace Enclosure” (Ziweiyuan, 紫微垣), this bound star system was the heavenly abode from which the supreme god oversaw reality, while the surrounding stars represented his civil and military officials and even outlying areas, such as dwellings and a marketplace. The Chinese emperor, commonly called the Son of Heaven, was considered the earthly counterpart of the great god, serving as the mediator between the will of heaven and the needs of man. Therefore, architects often modeled imperial cities on these celestial patterns, placing the emperor at the center surrounded by outer layers of courts, residential quarters, markets, and streets (Chan, 2008, pp. 8-19).

The arcane-sounding Fatian Xiangdi term was no doubt chosen simply because Monkey’s magic body mirrors the vastness of the cosmos (both heaven and earth), not that it borrowed particular celestial patterns like earthly architects. Interestingly, though, legend states the ancient Yuan capital of Dadu was modeled on the magic body of the child god Prince Nezha, who also appears in Journey to the West. [3]

The novel likens aspects of Sun’s cosmic form to earthly features and celestial bodies. This resembles stories of the ancient god Pangu (盤古) (fig. 3), the first being born into primordial chaos who slaved to separate heaven from earth, cleaving one from the other and forcing them apart. Stevens (1997) writes this monumental task took its toll on the titan:

He died as the task was reaching a climax and his body became features of the Earth. His head became the mountains, his breath the wind and clouds; his voice became thunder, his left eye the sun and his right eye the moon, and his four limbs became the four quarters of the Earth. His blood ran as rivers, his veins and muscles were the strata of the rocks, and his flesh the soil. His skin sprouted and became vegetable patches, forests and paddy fields, while his bones and teeth became the minerals. His sweat became the rain and to complete creation humanity sprang from the parasites on his body (p. 54).

Monkey in a way becomes a living embodiment of the divine giant because he too is described as having a head like a mountain, eyes like the sun and moon, and a mouth like a large body of liquid, which also happens to be blood.

pangu cleaves heaven and earth - 2

Fig. 3 – A modern (metal?) relief simultaneously symbolizing Pangu’s separation of heaven and earth and the decay of his body into earthly features and celestial bodies (larger version). Take note of the eye-like sun. Found on this news article about the god.

Giant characters were obviously not a new concept to Chinese literature by the Ming. An earlier example comes to us from Master of the Law, the 13th-century precursor of Journey to the West. Chapter six sees Monkey transform his golden-ringed monk’s staff “into a gigantic Yakşa whose head touched the sky and whose feet straddled the earth. In his hands he grasped a demon-subduing cudgel. His body was blue as indigo, his hair red as cinnabar” (Wivell, 1994, p. 1189) (fig. 4). This line simultaneously predicts Sun’s goliath form and blunt weapon (that touches heaven and earth like the head and feet of the yaksha) and Erlang’s monstrous appearance (i.e. his green skin and red hair).

yaksha guardian, bangkok, thailand

Fig. 4 – A guardian yaksha statue, Bangkok, Thailand (larger version). Take note of the large stature, blue skin, and club. Found on this article.

III. Possible ties to Hindu Mythology

Yakşas or Yakshas (Ch: Yecha, 夜叉) appear in Hindu, Jain, and Buddhist scriptures as the assistants or protectors of divine beings. They are possessed of great magical powers and can do anything from flying to shape-changing (Dalal, 2014, p. 470; Robert & David, 2013, p. 1018). These nature spirits are often depicted in early religious art as portly dwarves (fig. 5), an element of iconography that they share with Vamana, the fifth avatar of the supreme deva Vishnu. This connection is important because the avatar is celebrated for his ability to eclipse the universe. According to Hindu mythology, Vishnu takes the form of the dwarf Brahmin when a benevolent asura named Mahabali wrestles control of the cosmos from the gods. Vamana visits the king during a great sacrifice, during which the asura grants gifts, and humbly requests only as much land as he can cover in three strides. But when his wish is granted, the deceptively small priest grows to cosmic proportions, “mightily waxing, swelling in every limb, with his first stride stepp[ing] beyond the sun and moon, with his second reach[ing] the limits of the universe, and with his third return[ing] to set his foot on the heard of the conquered foe” (Zimmer & Campbell, 1992/1946, p. 132). With his feat (pun intended), Vishnu regains control of heaven (step one) and earth (step two), while simultaneously banishing the asura to the underworld (step three) (Dalal, 2014, p. 442).

yakshas - sanchi stupa, western gateway, 1st c.

Fig. 5 – A detail of chubby Yakshas from the western gateway of Stupa 1 at Sanchi (1st-cent.) (larger version). Found on this article.

The noted art historian Heinrich Zimmer comments sculptures based on this story fall under a category of representationally kinetic art that he calls the “Phenomenon of Expanding Form”. One cited example is the Trivikrama Vishnu (lit: “three steps” Vishnu), a 6th-century Badami cave no. 2 relief (fig. 6) which presents a continuous narrative of the dwarf (fig. 7) growing to become the cosmic giant, the latter’s leg kicking high above his waist (fig. 8), symbolizing his mighty universe-spanning strides. Though the piece is carved in stone, the dynamic nature of the composition gives it a feeling of swelling energy (Zimmer & Campbell, 1992/1946, p. 132).

The carving portrays the cosmic giant holding all manner of weapons, including a club, a sword, a bow, and a chakram, all of which are attributes of Vishnu (Dalal, 2014, p. 460).

badami vamana carving (total for blog)

Fig. 6 – The Trivikrama Vishnu relief carving of Vamana’s story, Badami cave no. 2 (6th-cent.) (larger version). Fig. 7 – A detail of the dwarf Brahmin holding a parasol (larger version). Fig. 8 – A detail of the cosmic giant holding celestial weapons and taking a supernaturally large stride (larger version). Adapted from this wikipedia image.

The close association of the Yaksha and Vamana with a short, chubby body and shape-changing powers no doubt influenced the former to take on the latter’s ability to grow to huge proportions. In addition, after being absorbed into Buddhism, Yakshas are portrayed in scripture as divine warriors wielding clubs in defense of the dharma. Two prominent examples are Kubera (a.k.a. Vaisravana) and Vajrapani, both of whom are touted as the yaksha commander (Lutgendorf, 2007, p. 42; Robert & David, 2013, pp. 449 and 955). This surely influenced the later Chinese image of yakshas as club-wielding titans, such as the cited example from Master of the Law. In turn, this and related material could have easily influenced the cosmic transformations of Monkey and other characters and their weapons from Journey to the West.

IV. Conclusion

The novel describes Monkey taking on a giant cosmic form in chapters three, six, and sixty-one, the first time showing off his magic powers to his children and the second and third in response to the respective titanic transformations of Erlang and the Bull King. The magical spell used to achieve this form, titled Fatian Xiangdi (the “Method of modeling Heaven on Earth”), is based on ancient Pre-Qin and Han concepts of astral-geography later used in the construction of imperial Chinese cities. The idea of Sun’s body parts mirroring aspects of heaven and earth recalls the myth of the primordial god Pangu, whose body parts became the very building blocks of the cosmos after his death.

The cited episodes demonstrate that the characters involved transform both their bodies and weapons. Apart from being described as a 100,000-foot-tall juggernaut with a head like Mt. Tai, Monkey’s staff is said to inhabit the upper and lowermost reaches of the universe (“its top reached the thirty-third Heaven and its bottom the eighteenth layer of Hell”) or that it resembles “the Heaven-supporting pillar on top of Mount Kunlun”. Likewise, Erlang’s three-pointed polearm is said to resemble “the peaks that cap the Hua Mountain”. Such transformations are predicted, for example, by an episode in the 13th-century precursor of Journey to the West in which Sun changes a monk’s staff into a gigantic Yaksha wielding a club.

While Yakshas are portrayed in early South Asian religious art as chubby dwarves, they most likely gained the ability to grow to enormous sizes thanks to iconographic similarities to Vamana, the fifth avatar of Vishnu famed for traversing the cosmos in three mighty steps. One 6th-century stone carving of the story portrays the dwarf-turned-cosmic giant wielding all sorts of celestial weapons. Additionally, Buddhist scriptures would come to portray yakshas as club-wielding warriors. Therefore, we can see how Monkey’s cosmic transformation could have ultimately been influenced by Hindu and Buddhist religious material.


1) Here, Anthony C. Yu’s English translation says Monkey grows to be “ten thousand feet tall”. However, the original Chinese source reads “萬丈” (wanzhang), wan meaning 10,000 and zhang being a measure designating ten Chinese feet (10,000 x 10 = 100,000). Therefore, I have changed the source to read “One hundred thousand feet”, much like Yu translates it in chapters six and sixty-one (see above).

2) Yu’s translation reads “eight hundred”. But, again, the original source is different. It reads “八百丈” (ba bai zhang), or 800 x 10 Chinese feet = 8,000. This makes more sense as he is said to be 10,000 feet long.

3) While the city is square, it has eleven gates, which legend states correspond to the three heads, six arms, and two legs of the god. For more information, see Chan, 2008.


Chan, H. (2008). Legends of the building of old Peking. Seattle: University of Washington Press.

Dalal, R. (2014). Hinduism: An alphabetical guide. New Delhi, India: Penguin Books.

Lutgendorf, P. (2007). Hanuman’s tale: The messages of a divine monkey. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Robert, E. B. J., & David, S. L. J. (2013). The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism. Princeton University Press.

Stevens, K. G. (1997). Chinese gods: the unseen world of spirits and demons. London: Collins & Brown.

Wivell, C.S. (1994). The story of how the monk Tripitaka of the great country of T’ang brought back the Sūtras. In Mair, Victor H. The Columbia anthology of traditional Chinese literature (pp. 1181-1207). New York: Columbia University Press.

Wu, C., & Yu, A. C. (2012). The journey to the West: Vol. 1-4. Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press.

Zimmer, H. R., & Campbell, J. (1992). Myths and symbols in Indian art and civilization. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press. (Original work published 1946)


Archive #1 – Suen Wu-kung = Hanumat? The Progress of a Scholarly Debate

I have finally tracked down a digital version of Victor Mair’s often quoted summary of the scholarly debate on the possible connection between Sun Wukong (fig. 1) and the Hindu monkey god Hanuman (fig. 2). This paper is extremely hard to find, so I am archiving it here to aid both amateur and professional scholars who may not yet have access to it.

Sammy Torres Wukong - small

Fig. 1 – Sun Wukong from birth to the Great Sage. This marvelous sequential drawing is by Sammy Torres on twitter. The full drawing can be seen here.


The chief aim of this article is to restore the debate to its original scholarly intent, namely to determine whether H [Hanuman], the redoubtable simian devotee of Prince Rama in his quest to recover Sita from Lanka, had anything to do with the formation of the character of SWK [Sun Wukong], Tripitaka’s formidable Monkey-disciple during his pilgrimage to India to retrieve scriptures. This can only be achieved by remaining as impartial and objective as possible while presenting the pertinent evidence. A clinically dispassionate examination of the widely varying opinions of authorities concerning the apparent affinity between SWK and H is also required if the present impasse is to be broken. Hence, this article is necessarily as much an investigation of scholarly methods and attitudes as it is about the origins of SWK. Accordingly, it is divided into two main divisions, “Evidence” and “Authorities and Interpretations.” These are further subdivided into a number of sections, “Evidence” by geographical area and “Authorities and Interpretations” by a chronological listing of major participants in the debate.

Paper link

Fig. 2 – A religious portrait of Hanuman (larger version). Artist unknown.


This has been posted for educational purposes. No copyright infringement is intended.


Mair, V. (1989). Suen Wu-kung = Hanumat? The Progress of a Scholarly Debate, in Proceedings of the Second International Conference on Sinology (pp. 659-752). Taipei: Academia Sinica.


How the Hindu Bird God Garuda Came to Appear in Journey to the West

Last updated: 04-29-2018

Heroes from Chinese military fiction are often cast as reincarnations of celestial beings. For instance, the famous patriot General Yue Fei (岳飛, 1103–1141) is portrayed as a reincarnation of the Hindu-Buddhist bird deity Garuda (Jialouluo, 伽樓羅; Jialiuluo, 伽留羅) in his folk biography The Story of Yue Fei (Shuo Yue quan zhuan, 說岳全傳, 1684). The bird, called the “Great Roc, the Golden-Winged King of Illumination” (Dapeng jinchi mingwang, 大鵬金翅明王), sits at the head of the Buddha’s throne in the Western Paradise. His fiery temper is aroused when a bat-spirit (the embodiment of the Aquarius constellation) passes gas during the Enlightened One’s sermon on the Lotus Sutra. He swoops down from the throne and snatches her up in his beak, killing her instantly. The Buddha admonishes the bird for his transgression of Buddhist law and exiles him to earth. His rebirth in the human world actually serves to counterbalance the actions of a nomadic antagonist, originally a dragon sent from the Eastern Heaven to punish China (Qian, 2016). This storyline was influenced by a previous work, Journey to the West (Xiyouji, 西遊記, 1592), which explains how Garuda came to hold such an important position above the Buddha.

Called the “Roc of Ten Thousand Cloudy Miles” (Yuncheng wanli peng, 雲程萬里鹏), [1] the bird is portrayed as a spiritual uncle of the Buddha and an ancient demon king with unequaled strength, speed, and powers of transformation (fig. 1). He wields two magic weapons, a halberd and a vase capable of trapping and killing even immortals. Garuda is so powerful, in fact, that not even Sun Wukong (孫悟空) is strong enough to pacify the beast. Therefore, the Buddha himself is forced to leave the Western Paradise to confront the demon headon. He casts the illusion of a bloody piece of meat above his head, and when the man-bird pounces on the bait, the Buddha takes away his ability to fly, thus trapping Garuda above his head in the demon’s original form as a golden-winged vulture (Dapeng jinchi diao, 大鵬金翅鵰) (fig. 2). After some struggle, the bird agrees to become a protector of Buddhist law (Sk: dharma; Ch: fa, 法). Thus, Chinese fiction portrays Garuda as a powerful demon king that submits to the Buddha and perches above his throne as a hot-tempered guardian deity. [2]

The fact that this literary motif appears in two famous Chinese classics points to some widely known religious concept circulating during the 16th– and 17th-centuries. In this paper I will trace the origins of the motif from ancient South Asian literature and religious architecture to Esoteric Buddhist art in East Asia. The path we walk is a complicated one spanning centuries, belief systems, and artistic mediums.

Gardua from both novels

Fig. 1 – A modern depiction of the Roc demon in his humanoid form (artist unknown) (larger version). Fig. 2 – A modern depiction of the roc trapped above the Buddha’s head (artist unknown) (larger version).

1. India – Where our search begins

1.1. Garuda’s appearance in ancient literature

The origin of the Chinese literary motif is over two thousand years old, first appearing in the 4th-century BCE Hindu epic the Mahabharata. The holy work states that Garuda is the son of the creator-sage Kashyapa and his second wife Vinata. After gestating in his egg for one thousand years, the bird bursts forth and his massive, fiery body grows to engulf the entire cosmos. His sun-like splendor is so bright that the devas mistake him for Agni, the god of holy fire. Garuda is forced to reduce his size and illumination when the devas ask him to do so out of fear. Falling prey to an ancient curse, his mother Vinata loses a bet and is enslaved by her sister Kadru, mother of the naga-serpents. Garuda agrees to steal the vessel containing the immortal elixir of amrita from the devas in order to secure his mother’s release. He uses his great strength and speed to defeat the celestial army and kill the serpents guarding the elixir, and he uses his powers of transformation to extinguish the fire surrounding the treasured substance and sneak past the magic discus charged with dismembering thieves. Upon his return trip, Garuda is halted by the supreme deva Vishnu who grants him the boon of immortality for partaking in such a difficult quest. In return, the bird grants him the boon of serving as the carrier of his celestial vehicle (vimana) and positions himself above Vishnu’s head atop the flagpole (dhvaja). Not long after, Indra, king of the devas, strikes the bird with a lightning bolt in an attempt to retrieve the amrita. The bird pays him respect by shedding a single feather and grants him the boon of eternal friendship. After learning the reason for the theft, the devaraja grants Garuda the boon of taking his enemies the nagas as his food. Both of them then orchestrate a plan in which the bird pays the amrita ransom to free his mother, but Indra takes the elixir away before the serpents can drink of it. Finally, Garuda slaughters all of the nagas (Ganguli, 2003, pp. 57-82).

It’s easy to discern several aspects from Chinese fiction in the ancient story: 1) a powerful golden bird with great strength, speed, and powers of transformation; 2) a vessel with magical properties; 3) conflict between the bird and heavenly forces; 4) his subjugation by a higher power; 5) his installment above a deva’s head; and 6) continued conflict between the bird and his serpent foes. This adds to existing literature showing that the Mahabharata influenced Journey to the West (Subbaraman, 2002).

1.2. Garuda’s appearance on religious architecture

Since the Mahabharata was published, Garuda has been depicted on a number of ritual flagpoles (dvaja) in India. The dvaja pillar “is placed opposite the entrance to the main shrine [of a Hindu temple], on axis with the central image…it is an object of great importance and worship” (Dallapiccola, 2002, p. 60). Adherents would have paid reverence to it before entering the temple. People affected by snake bites would often embrace these types of pillars because they believed Garuda’s powers over the nagas (and their serpentine kin) would neutralize the poison (Zimmer, 1946, p. 75). The oldest of the stone dvaja columns still standing is the Heliodorus pillar (2nd-cent. BCE) erected by a Bactrian-Greek envoy and convert of that name in honor of Vishnu in Vidisha (fig. 3) (Walker, 1968, p. 246). The Garuda is no longer extant, having been eroded by time or destroyed by iconoclasts. It is considered the “first dated monument linked with Vishnu” (Elgood, 2000, p. 56). Clues to what the original capital may have looked like can be drawn from numismatic evidence. The golden dinar of King Samudra (r. 335-375 CE) of the Gupta Empire, for example, features a Garuda dvaja (fig. 4) (Mookerji, 1973, p. 52). The capital is depicted as a bird, suggesting the eroded figure on the Heliodorus pillar may have originally taken such a form. This differs from later humanoid depictions of the god (see below).

pillar and coin

Fig. 3 – The Heliodorus pillar (2nd-cent. BCE), Vidisha, Madhya Pradesh, India (larger version). The Garuda capital is missing. Photo by the American Institute of Indian Studies (AIIS). Fig. 4 – The gold dinar of King Samudra (r. 335-375) of the Gupta Empire (larger version). The Garuda dvaja can be seen to the left. Photo by the American Council for Southern Asian Art (ACSAA).

Garuda’s association with Buddhism seems to be quite old. His appearance on a number of standing gateways and carved cave temple entrances, collectively known as toranas, from the 1st-century BCE onward points to him being absorbed into the religion’s pantheon within a few centuries of the historical Buddha’s death. The oldest extant representation of Garuda appears on the eastern gateway of the Great Stupa at Sanchi (fig. 5) (Iyer, 1977, p. 52). Dated to the 1st-century BCE, the standing torana has three tiered architraves, the middle of which portrays a bodhi tree, an iconoclastic representation of the Buddha, flanked by real and mythical creatures paying homage to it. The far right side of this stone relief features Garuda standing next to a five-headed king of serpents (nagaraja) (fig. 6). The bird is depicted as a husky parrot with a delicate, forward curling crest, a thick beak, a pierced human ear, small flapping wings, and lacey tail plumage. The relationship between the two is amicable since it is a scene of religious reverence. This “Garuda and serpent” motif appears on the partial remains of a slightly younger stone architrave discovered in Kankali Tila at Mathura (Smith, 1969, p. 28). [3] The circa 1st-century BCE relief depicts him as a large bird of prey with similar iconography, including the curling crest, thick beak, and pierced human ear. But the tail plumage is far more flowery and ornate, indicating that the artist built off of the earlier example. Also, unlike the architrave from the Sanchi stupa, this piece portrays Garuda locked in a tense standoff with a three-headed nagaraja; the bird has a firm grasp of the hissing serpent with his beak, but the foe’s body is wrapped twice around the god’s neck and the tail is anchored at the base of a nearby tree (fig. 7) (Vogal, 1972, p. 172).

Stupa details

Fig. 5 – The reverse side of the East Torana of the Great Stupa at Sanchi (1st-cent. BCE), Madhya Pradesh, India (larger version). The Garuda and serpent motif is visible on the right side of the central architrave. Fig. 6 – Detail of the Garuda and serpent motif (larger version). Photos by the The Huntington Archive of Buddhist and Related Art (HABRA), The Ohio State University. Fig. 7 – The partial architrave discovered in Kankali Tila (c. 1st-cent. BCE) in Mathura, Uttar Pradesh, India (larger version). Drawing from Smith, 1969, p. 28 .

Later depictions of the motif anthropomorphize Garuda. For instance, he makes an appearance standing over the torana of the carved Bhuta Lena cave shrine number forty (c. 100 CE) in Junnar (fig. 8) (Qureshi, 2010, p. 315). He is coupled with a nagaraja at the apex of the arched doorway; the two are presented as peaceful humanoid companions wearing matching hats and clothing and standing in a similar pose. This could be related to a birth tale (jataka) in which the Buddha, in his previous life as a hermit, reconciles the hatred between Garuda and a naga by “rehears[ing] the blessings of loving kindness until they [are] both at one. Thenceforward they abode together happily in peace and harmony” (Vogal, 1972, p. 142).

Garuda and Nagaraja above the arch of the Chaitya hall (#40) at Maharashtra, stone, 2nd-3rd c

Fig. 8 – Garuda (left) and Nataraja (right) above the torana entrance of the Bhuta Lena cave shrine no. 40 (c. 100 CE) in Junnar, Maharashtra, India (larger version). Photo by ACSAA.

Dhar (2009) notes that the standing gateway toranas were replaced in popularity by “the post, lintel, and eave-cornice (kapotapālikā) type entryways” sometime after the 2nd to 3rd-century CE (p. 16). She continues, “From the fifth century, such an entrance gateway became an integral part of temple doorframes…its posts served as pilaster-doorjambs (stamhaśākhās) and the eave-cornice integrated with the lintel” (p. 16). It was around this time that Hindus followed the example of their Buddhist neighbors and began to create carved religious structures (Dehejia, 1997, p. 124). Such temples were considered the home of a given deity when they left their heavenly abode (Dehejia, 1997, p. 141). As such, these temples were profusely decorated with images of the deva, including the entrance way, to aid in their worship. A related root word for torana “suggests its role as an architectural symbol of a rite of passage or liminality” (Dhar, 2009, p. 1). This means whoever steps into the world of the “other” does so under the watchful eye of the deity placed on the torana. In the case of temples devoted to Vishnu and lesser devas associated with him, the image is either Garuda by himself (being a symbol of the god) or bearing the deva on his back, a variation on his portrayal in the Mahabharata that came to dominate his traditional iconography (Zimmer, 1946, p. 76).

1.3. Appearance of the antagonistic Garuda and Serpents motif

Whether alone or coupled with Vishnu, the antagonistic version of the Garuda and serpents motif began to appear on Hindu toranas by at least the 7th to 8th-century. In fact, the only examples that I can find come from this time period. I have seen examples of the “Garuda and Vishnu” motif above entrance ways as late as the 11th-century, but these are missing the serpents. However, later Tibetan art featuring the serpent variation suggests there may be Indian examples that I am not aware of. The 7th-century example appears on the torana of the Gaudar Gudi Temple in Badami (Gupte, 1967, p. 54) (fig. 9). Garuda is portrayed in humanoid form wearing a hat and clothing similar to figure 8. He is squatting over the entrance while grasping the tails of naga-serpents flanking him on both sides. The first c. 700 example appears on the torana of the Durga (Fort) Temple in Aihole (fig. 10) (Tartakov, 1997, p. 192). He is depicted as a smiling human in an erect flying posture with his left leg tucked under his groin and his right trailing behind him. Just like the first piece, he is wearing similar attire and grasping the tails of nagas on his left and right sides. The second c. 700 example appears over the entranceway of the Rajivalocana Temple in Rajim (fig. 11) (Patel, 1992, p. 146). But this version has Garuda transporting a four armed Vishnu. The figure is again depicted in human form and grasping the tails of his serpentine foes.

Early examples

Fig. 9 – The Gaudar Gudi Temple Garuda with serpents (7th-cent.), Aihole, Karnataka, India (larger version). Photo by AIIS. Fig. 10 – The Durga (Fort) Temple Garuda with serpents (c. 700), Aihole, Karnataka, India (larger version). Photo by ACSAA. Fig. 11 – The Rajivalocana Temple Garuda and Vishnu with serpents (c. 700), Rajim, Chhattisgarh, India (larger version). Photo by the AIIS.

2. Cambodia – The motif achieves perfection

The torana spread to Southeast Asia by the late 6th– or early 7th-century. Next to India, Cambodia has the largest number of and most diverse toranas in all of Asia (Dhar, 2009, p. 214). In fact, I would dare say this is where the Garuda and serpents motif reached the point of perfection. Parul Pandya Dhar’s wonderful monograph The Torana in Indian and Southeast Asian Architecture (2009) features two beautiful examples from Buddhist temples carved in the unmistakable Khmer style. The first is an exquisitely crafted 9th-century entranceway from the Prasat Kok Po Temple in Siem Reap (pp. 222 and 228) (fig. 12 and 13). It portrays Garuda as a large, stout man-bird with pierced ears and wearing a Cambodian headdress and garment. He is standing on a pedestal and bearing a four-armed Vishnu on his back while grasping the flower garland-like tail of a three-headed nagaraja in each hand. The god is further flanked by two large creatures with gaping mouths known as “Faces of Glory” (Kīrtimukha). [4] Their arms interlock not only with the undulating serpents grasped by the man-bird, but two others located on the outermost left and right portion of the torana—the combination of arms and slithering serpentine bodies form a beautiful horizontal wave pattern with four crests. These larger nagarajas bear images of tiny Garudas standing on the back of their hoods. [5] The author notes that the “Kīrtimukha and makaras seen on Indian and Indonesian toranas are often replaced by the garuḍa-nāgas combination in Cambodia” (Dhar, 2009, p. 228). The second is a mid-10th-century entranceway from the Prasat thom Temple in Koh Ker (fig. 14 and 15). The depiction of Garuda is identical to the first example down to the clothing. But instead of bearing Vishnu and cooperating with the Kirtimukha to conquer nagas, he alone is grasping the long, flowery tails of his enemies who are positioned on pedestals at the same level as his own. Two small Buddhas use the bodies of the tightly drawn serpents as a place to meditate. Both nagarajas bear the Wheel of Buddhist Law (Dharmachakra) on their chests. The composition is therefore symbolic of Garuda and the nagas working together to literal “support” Buddhism.

Cambodian lintel with detail - 1

Fig. 12 – The Prasat Kok Po Temple lintel featuring the Garuda and Vishnu with serpents motif (9th-cent.), Siem Reap, Cambodia (larger version). Fig. 13 – A detail of the motif (larger version). Fig. 14 – The Prasat thom Temple lintel with the Garuda and serpents motif (mid-10th-cent.), Preah Vihear, Cambodia (larger version). Fig. 15 – A detail of the motif (larger version). Photos by Wikimedia commons.

3. The motif spreads to East Asia

3.1. Tibet – The motif jumps from architecture to art

The Buddhist examples from Cambodia appear to have been influenced by depictions of the Garuda and serpents motif from Hindu temples. This is because they depict Hindu deities like Vishnu and portray the bird and naga as (symbolic) enemies. The same can be said for Buddhist art and architecture in East Asia. For instance, Heather Stoddard (1996) comments that the motif “is in fact present in all the main Tibetan [Buddhist] styles, and is indeed unique to Tibetan art” (p. 40). She continues, “The author has searched all over Asia, in Hindu or Buddhist cultures, without success, looking for the garuda in this pro-eminent position” (p. 40). (It’s obvious that Stoddard was unaware of the architectural origins of the motif at the time of her study.) One of the three pieces that she cites as examples is a 13th-century Nepalese painting of Ratnasambhava (Baosheng rulai, 寶生如來, fig. 16), one of the five Esoteric Buddhas (Stoddard, 1996, p. 42). The painting shows the Buddha sitting on a throne comprised of a lotus flower base and a backrest framed by all sorts of real and mythical creatures. The Garuda and serpents motif crowns the apex of the throne. Art historians call this an “enlightenment torana” or a “gate of glory” (Beer, 1999, p. 88; Stoddard, 2008, p. 23). It’s clear that Buddhist artists came to equate the torana with the fiery halo that signifies a deity’s enlightened or divine nature. Robert Beer (1999) believes that these enlightenment toranas could have appeared as early as the 4th-century, but that it became a common fixture in Buddhist art from the 8th to the 12th-century (p. 90). Two beautiful examples of an enlightenment torana from the mid-6th-century appear in the Kanheri Temple Cave number ninety in Mumbai (Malandra, 1993, p. 110). It depicts two Buddhas standing under their own gates of glory, complete with what appears to be licks of heavenly flame (fig. 17). Though missing the motif, these examples are nearly identical to later Tibetan art, suggesting, as mentioned above, that there could be later Indian examples featuring the Garuda and serpents motif that I am unaware of.

Nepalses Thangka with double gates of glory

Fig. 16 – Ratnasambhava, with Bodhisattvas (13th-cent.), Nepal (larger version). The Garuda and serpent motif can be seen at the apex of the throne. Photo by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Fig. 17 – Two Buddhas with enlightenment toranas, from Kanheri Temple Cave number ninety, Mumbai, Maharashtra, India (mid-6th-cent.) (larger version). Photo by the AIIS.

Nepalese-Tibetan Buddhist art featuring the motif doesn’t appear to predate the 11th-century, so this may have something to do with the second coming of Buddhism in Tibet. The religion became popular among the common folk during the 11th-century after lying dormant for nearly two hundred years. The Tibetan people embraced the Indian Buddhist faith and flocked to India in order to study in various monastic universities. Jan Casey Singer (1999) notes:

Within this international Buddhist community, the Tibetans stood apart by virtue of the particular zeal with which they sought to master the Indian Buddhist tradition. They had both the will and, since Tibet is relatively close to eastern India, the opportunity to observe closely and gradually absorbed the highly sophisticated traditions of Buddhism and Buddhist art that flourished in eastern India at this time” (p. 6).

Tibetans living and traveling in India no doubt came into contact with architecture featuring the Garuda and serpents motif. This is evidenced by their depiction of Garuda as a chubby man-bird (see fig. 22 below, for example). The Vishnudharmottara Purana (7th-century) contains a treatise on prescribed Hindu iconography that mentions the deity “should be made slightly pot-bellied and adorned by all ornaments” (Kramrisch, 1928, p. 80).

3.2. The fiery Garuda halo

Variations of the motif appeared as it spread eastward. For instance, an 11th-century wall mural of the Bodhisattva Vajrapani (Jingang shou pusa, 金剛手菩薩) in Kashmir features five colored Garudas flying about his flaming halo (fig. 18). Beer explains that these represent the five Buddhas or Buddhist families of Esoteric Buddhism. He adds: “a yellow garuda stands for earth, a white for water, a red for fire, a black for air, and a blue or multicoloured for space” (Beer, 1999, p. 62). This variation changed as it rapidly spread into China. An 11th-century painting from the famous Mogao caves of Dunhuang depicts the Bodhisattva Hayagriva (Matou Guanyin, 馬頭觀音), the “Horse-Headed Guanyin,” with three (of five?) fiery Garudas comprising his halo (Fig. 19). This “Garuda aureola” reached its zenith in Japan. One beautiful 11th-century example shows the Esoteric Buddhist guardian deity Fudō Myōō (Budong mingwang, 不動明王) set against a Garuda halo. The five Garudas are portrayed as flaming roosters encircling the god (fig. 20) (Akiyama, 1961, pp. 53 and 57). Thus, Esoteric Buddhism was the catalyst for the spread of the Garuda aureola motif towards the east.

Tibet, China, Japan

Fig. 18 – Five colored Garudas in the aureola of the the Lha khang Soma Vajrapani (11th-cent.), Kashmir (larger version). Photo by HABRA. Fig. 19 – Hayagriva with flaming Garudas (11th-cent.), Dunhuang, Gansu, China (larver version). The simplistic Garudas are located to the respective left and right of a Face of Glory, as well as in between his legs. Photo by the Musée national des Arts asiatiques. Fig. 20 – The God Fudo-myoo (Acala) and Two Attendants (11th-cent.), Japan (larger version). Photo by the University of California, San Diego.

3.3. China – The Mongols welcome the motif

The Mongol rulers of the Yuan Dynasty (1271–1368) were largely responsible for bringing the Garuda and serpents motif to China. They were ardent followers of Tibetan Buddhism, and so they invited Buddhist lamas to preach in the Middle Kingdom. The person who first introduced Tibetan Buddhist art to China was the Nepalese artist Anige (阿尼哥, 1245–1306). At the surprisingly young age of eighteen or nineteen years old, he arrived at the Mongol court in 1260 as the leader of twenty-four artisans. His most famous accomplishment is the White Pagoda of the Miaoying temple in Beijing (Stoddard, 2008, pp. 19-20). Anige is the father of a Tibetan Stylistic tradition that carried on long after his death.

For instance, the Mongols commissioned several stupa-arches to be constructed “on strategic roads leading to the capital [of Beijing]” (Stoddard, 2008, p. 23). The only surviving example is the cloud platform of Juyong Pass (Juyong guan, 居庸關), a later addition to the Great Wall of China built in 1354. It originally supported three Buddhist stupas, but these disappeared within a century of their completion. Multilingual inscriptions on the arch indicate that it was built “in order to bring happiness to the people who pass under the stupa and receive thus the Buddha’s blessings” (Stoddard, 2008, p. 23). The apex of the arch contains the Garuda and serpents motif (fig. 21 and 22). The man-bird is depicted as a stout, pot-bellied figure with the face, wings, and talons of a raptor bird and the ears, arms, and torso of a human. He wears a jeweled crown and his body is decorated with serpents on his wrists, arms, and chest. Hierarchy in scale is employed to portray the humanoid naga-spirits as smaller in stature and importance. They are trying to run away from him, but their scaly heels are pierced by his talons.

Juyong pass with detail

Fig. 21 – The Gate of Glory from the Cloud Platform of Juyong Pass (1345), Beijing, China (larger version). Photo by Snuffy on Flicker. Fig. 22 – A detail of the Garuda and serpents motif (photographer unknown) (larger version).

The motif continued to appear in Buddhist art into the Ming dynasty (1368–1644) after the Chinese had overthrown the Mongols. This is because some Chinese rulers, such as the Yongle Emperor (永樂帝, r. 1402–1424), upheld the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. Ming examples include a painting in the Sotheby’s collection dated to the 15th-century (fig. 23 and 24); a relief carving on a 15th-century pagoda at Zhenjue Temple (真覺寺) in Beijing (fig. 25 and 26); and a stone stele in the Freer Art Gallery collection dated to circa 1500 (fig. 27 and 28). All of these pieces depict a Buddhist deity sitting before an enlightenment torana lorded over by Garuda and his serpentine foes. What’s important here is that the variety of media suggests the motif became a standardized element of Sino-Tibetan Buddhist art at least a century prior to the publishing of Journey to the West (1592). The commonplace nature of the motif might then explain why it was included in the story. There are numerous occasions in the novel when the author/compiler provides folk origins for everyday concepts, such as why rings are put through the noses of buffalos. [6] So a bird attacking serpents above the head of the Buddha would certainly need a fanciful genesis story.

Ming examples

Fig. 23 – The Amitabha Buddha with an enlightenment torana (15th-cent.) (larger version). Fig. 24 – A detail of the Garuda and serpents motif (larger version). Photos by Sotheby’s. Fig. 25 – Zhenjue Temple relief carving (15th-cent.), Beijing, China (larger version). Fig. 26 – A detail of Garuda (larger version). Photos by Wikimedia commons. Fig. 27 – A stone stele of a Bodhisattva with an enlightenment torana (c. 1500) (larger version). Fig. 28 – A detail of the motif (larger version). Photos by the Freer Gallery of Art.

4. Garuda’s transformation from a god to a demon

The Ming dynasty examples suggest Garuda was considered a common element of the Buddha’s enlightenment torana. The bird god is in effect a guardian of the faith who watches over the world from an exalted position high atop the Buddha’s throne. So why then did the author/compiler of Journey to the West transform him into a monster who needed conquering? This obviously follows the novel’s theme of powerful demons, such as Sun Wukong, being subjugated and put to good use. This can be traced to the Thunder Ritual (Leifa, 雷法), a Daoist liturgy designed to subjugate powerful gods and demons to be wielded as weapons against evil forces. One such god is Sire Thunder (Leigong, 雷公), a native Chinese weather deity responsible for making dragons produce rain when needed. And since lightning is his weapon, he is also considered a heavenly executioner who kills mortals guilty of unpunished crimes. [7] The god was sometimes portrayed as a human, but it was around the Tang Dynasty (618–907) when he took on a bird-like appearance with a beak, wings, and talons. This avian transformation coincided with the appearance of Garuda and Esoteric Buddhism in China. Upon entering the Middle Kingdom, Garuda served many of the same functions as Sire Thunder. His power over dragons gave him control of rain and his fierce nature enabled him to be a heavenly executioner. Therefore, depictions of Sire Thunder came to absorb features of the bird god. Most importantly, Tang-era stories describe religious masters and certain brave individuals subjugating this demonic figure and using his powers for their own purposes. [8]

Artistic renderings of Sire Thunder after his metamorphosis are strikingly similar to Garuda. A prime example of this comes to us in the form of a 9th-century fresco from Xinjiang originally held in the Berlin Museum of Indian art. The piece depicts numerous beings paying homage to the Four Heavenly Kings (Sida tianwang, 四大天王) (fig. 29). The foreground depicts Sire Thunder caught in a hunter’s snare around his neck, while a hound bites at his leg. A larger figure, presumably a guardian deity of sorts, holds one of the god’s wrists and stands with a club held overhead ready to strike (fig. 30). This scene contrasts with the overall religious nature of the piece, giving the impression that this “demon” is being captured in the name of the heavenly kings. So here we have a bird monster being subjugated by Buddhist forces. Such art could have easily influenced Garuda’s depiction in Journey to the West.

Both hunting pics

Fig. 29 – A fresco showing the adoration of the Heavenly Kings (9th-cent.), Xinjiang, China (larger version). Fig. 30 – A detail of the subjugation of Sire Thunder (larger version).

5. Conclusion

A literary motif appearing in Journey to the West (1592) and The Story of Yue Fei (1684) depicts the Hindu-Buddhist bird deity Garuda as a demon-turned-Buddhist guardian who sits above the Buddha’s throne. This is based on the bird’s portrayal in the ancient Indian epic the Mahabharata (4th-century BCE), where he comes to sit above the deva Vishnu after taking part in a filial quest and agreeing to carry the god’s celestial vehicle (vimana). Beginning around the 2nd-century BCE, Garuda started appearing on Hindu and Buddhist architecture that depicted him on ritual flag poles and above torana doorways. A motif of Garuda gasping the tails of naga-serpents, his eternal foes from Hindu lore, appeared by at least the 7th-century and spread as far away as Cambodia by the 9th– or 10th-century. The motif was adopted by Tibetan Buddhist artists by the 11th-century and incorporated into wall murals, thus making the jump from architecture to paint. It never lost its association with architecture, however, since the torana came to be equated with the halo of Buddhist deities. This “enlightenment torana” or “gate of glory” became a common feature of Tibetan Buddhist art and even made its way to Japan. This feature was depicted as the backrest of a throne, hence the Chinese literary motif of Garuda sitting above the Buddha can be directly tied to this style of art. The Mongols were largely responsible for bringing the motif to China as they were adherents of Tibetan Buddhism. It continued into the Ming dynasty thanks to royal patronage of Esoteric Buddhism. The motif appeared in Ming religious architecture, paintings, and stele, making it commonplace enough for the author/compiler of Journey to the West to provide a folkloric explanation for the phenomenon. But the concept of a demonic bird being subjugated is most likely based on the Tang Dynasty Thunder Ritual and stories of Sire Thunder, a Daoist weather deity with bird-like features, being captured by mortals and compelled to use his powers in their service.

Update: 04-29-2018

Sire Thunder’s avian form has persisted to this day, having become his standard iconography. Here I present a late 19th to early 20th-century wooden altar statue depicting the deity with his counterpart the Mother of Lightening (Dianmu, 電母) (fig. 31). His similarities to Garuda are just as noticeable today.

20180428_171223 - small

Fig. 31 – Sire Thunder and the Mother of Lightning (19th to 20th-cent.), Taipei, Taiwan (larger version). In the author’s personal collection.

Sire Thunder actually appears with the Mother of Lightning (and other weather gods) in Journey to the West. Chapter 45 sees Monkey participating in a competition of transformations and ritual magic with three animal spirits disguised as Daoists. One competition involves making rain, during which time said gods appear. Although the spirit calling on the rain is powerful, Sun Wukong blocks his magic to make him look bad:

Becoming rather agitated, the Daoist loosened his hair, picked up his sword, and recited another spell as he burned a charm. Once more he brought down his tablet with a bang, and immediately the Heavenly Lord Deng arrived from the South Heaven Gate, trailed by the Squire of Thunder and the Mother of Lightning. When they saw Pilgrim [Sun Wukong] in midair, they saluted him, and he gave his explanation as before. “What powerful summons,” he said “brought you all here so quickly?” The Heavenly Lord said, “The proper magic of Five Thunder [Wulei fa, 五雷法] exercised by that Daoist was not faked.

He issued the summons and burned the document, which alerted the Jade Emperor. The Jade Emperor sent his decree to the residence of the Primordial Celestial Worthy of All-Pervading Thunderclap in the Ninefold Heaven. We in turn received his command to come here and assist with the rainmaking by providing thunder and lightning.” “In that case,” said Pilgrim, “just wait a moment. You can help old Monkey instead.” There was, therefore, neither the sound of thunder nor the flash of lightning (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 293).

The techniques used by the animal spirit for calling rain refers back to the aforementioned Thunder Ritual, where the powers of Sire Thunder are used in the service of another.


1) This name is a reference to the mythical Peng (鵬) bird mentioned in the first chapter of the Zhuangzi (莊子), a philosophical work of the 3rd-century BCE. The chapter details how the creature starts life as a small Kun (鯤) fish and changes into a bird of unfathomable size with wings that span the sky (Zhuangzi & Watson, 2003, pp. 23-24).

2) See Wu & Yu (2012) chapters 74 to 77.

3) The sources are actually conflicting on which relief is older. For instance, Iyer (1977) claims the first is the “earliest representation of garuda” (p. 52). On the contrary, Dhar (2009) lists the second as being from “c. second-first century BCE” (p. 10), which would make it older than the Sanchi example. I, however, believe the second is younger than the first because it is clearly an embellished version of the first.

4) Although some of its iconographical elements can be similar to the bird god, the Face of Glory shouldn’t be confused with Garuda because it represents the “monster of greed” (Beer, 1999, pp. 69-70). This is why it is constantly in the act of eating.

5) This recalls the story of Krishna defeating the serpent Kaliya by dancing on his head (Leeming, 2006, p. 232).

6) For example, in chapters 50 to 52, Laozi’s buffalo runs amuck on earth as a demon. The monster uses a diamond bracelet that he stole from his master to capture Monkey’s staff. The simian hero enlists the aid of the Daoist patriarch, who subjugates the beast and later puts the bracelet through its nose and uses a sash as a lead. The novel then explains: “Thus the custom of leading the buffalo with a ring in its nose was established, a custom in use even now” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 30).

7) People struck by lightning were thought to have been marked (scarred) with a sign of their guilt much like a convict in ancient China was tattooed (Meulenbeld, 2007).

8) See Meulenbeld (2007) chapter 4. See also section 6.4 for a discussion on Sun Wukong and his relationship to Sire Thunder and the Thunder Ritual.


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Iyer, K. B. (1977). Animals in Indian sculpture. Bombay: Taraporevala.

Kramrisch, S. (1928). The Vishnudharmottara (part III): A treatise on Indian painting and image-making. Calcutta: Calcutta University Press.

Leeming, D. A. (2006). The Oxford companion to world mythology. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

Malandra, G. H. (1993). Unfolding a maṇḍala: the Buddhist cave temples at Ellora. Albany, NY: State Univ. of New York Press.

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Singer, J. C. (1999). The cultural roots of early Central Tibetan painting In Kossak, Steven M., and Jane Casey Singer. 1999. Sacred visions: early paintings from Central Tibet (pp. 3-24). New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art.

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Stoddard, H. (1996). Early Tibetan Paintings: Sources and Styles (Eleventh-Fourteenth Centuries A.D.). Archives of Asian Art 49, pp. 26-50.

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Wu, C., & Yu, A. C. (2012). The journey to the west: volumes 1-4.. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Zhuangzi, & Watson, B. (2003). Zhuangzi: Basic writings. New York: Columbia University Press.

Zimmer, H. R., & Campbell, J. (1946). Myths and symbols in Indian art and civilization. [New York]: Pantheon Books.

Flower Fruit Mountain as the Center of the Universe and the Source of Monkey’s Power

Did you know JTTW presents Flower Fruit Mountain as the center of the universe? The end of a poem describing the mountain states, “This is indeed the pillar of Heaven, where a hundred rivers meet—/The Earth’s great axis, in ten thousand kalpas unchanged” (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 101). Eliade (1959) notes that “communication [between heaven, earth, and the underworld in world religions] is sometimes expressed through the image of a universal pillar, axis mundi, which at once connects and supports heaven and earth” (p. 36). Why is this important? Because the novel describes how Monkey was born from a stone that “had been nourished for a long period by the seeds of heaven and earth and by the essences of the sun and moon” (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 101). As a pillar of heaven, the height of Flower Fruit Mountain positions the boulder where heaven meets earth, allowing there to be a passage of energies between the two plains of existence through the stone, like electricity through a fuse. This ultimately explains why Sun is so powerful.

Click the image to open in full size.
A complex diagram of Mount Sumeru and the associated heavens above and hells below it. If this portrayed Flower Fruit Mountain, Sun Wukong’s boulder would have been located where the summit meets the first heaven (larger version).


As described here, the author of JTTW supplanted traditional Buddhist geography by placing China in the Southern Jambudvipa Continent and moving India to Western Godinyia. So by making Flower Fruit Mountain the axis mundi, it supplants Mount Sumeru as the center of the cosmos (fig. 1). Admittedly, there is a discrepancy between the literary narrative and the religious cosmology since the book states Flower Fruit Mountain is located “at the border of the small Aolai Country [傲來國], which lies to the east of the East Purvavideha Continent [東勝神洲]” (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 102). By definition, the mountain can’t be in the center of the world if it’s located to the east of the easternmost continent. But discrepancies are bound to arise when you tell and augment a story cycle for hundreds of years. Flower Fruit Mountain is mentioned in the 13th-century precursor to the JTTW titled The Story of How the Monk Tripitaka of the Great Country of T’ang Brought Back the Sūtras (see Wivell, 1994).


Eliade, M. (1959). The Sacred and the profane: The nature of religion (W. R. Trask, Trans.). New York: Harcourt, Brace & World.

Wivell, C.S. (1994). The story of how the monk Tripitaka of the great country of T’ang brought back the Sūtras. In Mair, Victor H. The Columbia anthology of traditional Chinese literature (pp 1181-1207). New York: Columbia University Press.

Wu, C., & Yu, A. C. (2012). The journey to the West: Volume 1. Chicago, Illinois : University of Chicago Press.

The Location of Monkey’s Home and the Origin of His Daoist Master

1) Despite being associated with China, did you know that Sun Wukong does not come from the Middle Kingdom? His home, Flower Fruit Mountain, is described in the first chapter as being located in a vast ocean “at the border of the small Aolai Country [傲來國], which lies to the east of the East Purvavideha Continent [東勝神洲]” (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 102). The cosmic geography of Indian Buddhism places this continent, along with the Western Godaniya (Aparagodaniya) continent, the Northern Uttarakuru continent, and the Southern Jambudvipa continent, around the four respective cardinal directions of Mt. Sumeru, a giant mountain that serves as the axis mundi of the cosmos and the abode of assorted gods and sages (Robert & David, 2013, p. 869)(fig. 1). While said geography traditionally associates Southern Jambudvipa with India (i.e. the known world to the ancient people of South Asia) (Robert & David, 2013, p. 377), the novel places the “Land of the East” within the continent and associates India with Western Godaniya (Wu & Yu, 2012, pp. 204-205). Most importantly, when Monkey goes in search of a Daoist master, he sails from Eastern Purvavideha to Southern Jambudvipa (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 108).

I suggest the author supplanted the traditional geography because Jambudvipa is associated with the “known world” (in this case China) and India is located to the west of the Middle Kingdom, which explains why South Asia is placed in Western Godaniya.

2) Did you know Sun studies Daoism in India? Failing to find a master to teach him how to prolong his life, Monkey sails further onto the Western Godaniya continent where he discovers the sage Subhuti (須菩提). Upon meeting the primate, the immortal asks him, “[H]ow is it that you mention the East Purvavideha Continent? Separating that place and mine are two great oceans and the entire region of the Southern Jambudvipa Continent. How could you possibly get here?” (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 114). Sun then tells him of his decade long search across the world. Placing the immortal in India leads me to my next point.

#14 - Monkey's Home and Subhuti

Fig. 1 – A diagram of sacred Buddhist geography (adapted from Robert & David, 2013, p. xxix) (larger version). Fig. 2 – A detail of Subhuti from a woodblock frontispiece appearing in an 868 CE copy of the Diamond Sutra (larger version). This document is the oldest known dated printed book in the world (full woodblock). 


3) Did you know Subhuti is based on a similarly named disciple of the Gautama Buddha? The historical Subhuti (fig. 2) was considered the most accomplished of the Buddha’s students in meditating on the concept of “loving-kindness” (Pali: Metta; Sanskrit: Maitri), or wishing for the happiness of others (Robert & David, 2013, pp. 518 and 861-862). The sage was also known for contemplating emptiness, a subject with many textual interpretations ranging from ridding oneself of sexual desires to “the absence of a falsely imagined type of existence” (Robert & David, 2013, pp. 872). Shao (2006) suggests the Daoist master was named after the Buddhist sage “to evoke a scriptural tradition that identifies Subhūti as the Buddhist at his best, one having the spiritual and intuitive approximation to “emptiness” (sunyatā) that the Chan Buddhists value tremendously” (p. 723). He continues:

Is it then possible that what the novelist tried to highlight with Subhūti’s name was his reputation as the epitome of emptiness? We can certainly find ample textual evidence to support this line of thinking. Although Monkey’s Taoist realization is worthy of heaven, his Buddhist given name Wukong, or Awaken to Emptiness, obviously represents Subhūti’s Buddhist heritage, for the name is exactly what distinguishes Subhūti in the Buddhist tradition. What gives proof of the power and vitality of this bequest is the fact that “emptiness” constitutes the core of Monkey’s religious being (p. 724).


Robert, E. B. J., & David, S. L. J. (2013). The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism. Princeton University Press.

Shao, P. (2006). “Huineng, Subhūti, and Monkey’s Religion in Xiyou ji,” The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 65 (No. 4), pp. 713-740

Wu, C., & Yu, A. C. (2012). The journey to the West: Volume 1. Chicago, Illinois : University of Chicago Press.

The Monkey King and Cinderella

Did you know that the Monkey King has a connection to Cinderella? The earliest known version of her story is based on Rhodopis, a tale set in ancient Egypt. It describes how the god Horus sends an eagle (or takes the form of one) to steal the slipper of the titular Greek slave and deliver it to an Egyptian Pharaoh, who launches a search for and eventually marries the woman. The tale was first recorded by the Greek geographer Strabo in 7 BCE (Ripley, 2010, pp. 185-188). However, the work is part of a wider story cycle evident throughout Asia and the Middle East.

The earliest version that appears to have many of the familiar elements from the final European version hails from China. Titled “Yexian” (葉限), the story describes the titular heroine working as an imprisoned servant for her evil stepmother, the bestowal of a beautiful dress and slippers by a female ancestor from heaven, her attendance of a local festival, the loss of one of her slippers while fleeing the festivities, the discovery of the shoe by a foreign king, and a search that results in their eventual marriage. The story is based on the oral tales of the Zhuang ethnic people (of the Vietnamese-Chinese border) and was first recorded by Duan Chengshi (段成式) in the 9th-century CE (Ripley, 2010, pp. 191-192; Beauchamp, n.d.).

Click the image to open in full size.

Hanuman giving Sita Rama’s ring (larger version)


Certain elements of the story appear to have been influenced by the great Hindu epic the Ramayana, written by Valmiki around 500 BCE. The story tells how Sita, the wife of Vishnu’s reincarnation Prince Rama, is kidnapped and held prisoner by the demon Ravana (with the intent of making her his wife) on the island of Lanka. It is during her time in captivity that she is visited by Rama’s servant, Hanuman, a monkey demi-god, who brings her the prince’s ring to prove himself a trustworthy ally. The simian character then brings her anklet to Rama to prove she is still alive. Rama’s army assaults Ranava’s fortress, and he is eventually reunited with his wife. This at first may not seem like it matches at all, but you have an imprisoned beauty (Sita vs Yexian), supernatural assistance from heaven (Hanuman vs. the female ancestor), the exchange of personal items to prove one’s identity (the ring and anklet vs the slipper), and a campaign that brings together the woman and a man of royal blood (Sita and Rama vs Yexian and the foreign king) (Beauchamp, n.d.).

Scholars believe that secularized snippets of the Rama story cycle came to China in several waves, one of which was via Southeast Asian Hindu converts who settled in Southern China from the 7th-century onwards (Walker, 1998).

As some of you may know, many scholars believe Monkey was influenced by Hanuman, and this fact is best illustrated in chapters 68 to 71. The episode sees a queen being kidnapped and held prisoner by a demon (with the intent of making her his wife) in a faraway land. Sun Wukong is employed to find her. He brings back a bracelet to her husband as proof of life and identity, and eventually reunites the couple after defeating the demon (Beauchamp, n.d.).

Beauchamp (n.d.) provides a diagram showing the similarities between the stories of Yexian, Sita, and the queen from Journey to the West.


(larger version)


Beauchamp, F. (n.d.). In the Realm of the Dragon King: Sita and Hanuman meet Cinderella and Sun Wukong. Retrieved from [Original link dead. Click on article title to read.]

Walker, H.S. (1998). Indigenous or foreign? A look at the origins of monkey hero Sun Wukong. Sino-Platonic Papers, 81, pp. 1-117.

Ripley, D. (2010). The maiden with a thousand slippers: Animal helpers and the hero(ine)’s journey In Patricia Monaghan (Ed.). Goddesses in world culture (pp. 185-200). Santa Barbara, California: Praeger.

A Historical Source for Monkey’s Staff?

Note: Since writing this article, I have come to appreciate a Chinese origin for the staff. Please see the last entry below. I am keeping this article up for posterity so other scholars may see my thought process.

Last updated12-09-16

Much of my recent work has focused on the origins of Monkey’s magic staff. This is because scholars have not attempted to trace the influences of the weapon beyond the earliest version of the story from the late Song Dynasty (960-1279). The most recent blog entry traces the staff to the ringed and metal staves carried by religious and martial Buddhist monks, respectively. The Song-era version sees Monkey using these two kinds of staves in defense of his master Xuanzang (玄奘) (Mair 1994: 1189-1190). Over time these were combined into a single weapon; the rings from the former were fused at the ends of the latter. This could have been the invention of Yuan/Ming storytellers or the author of the final Ming version (the novel was actually published anonymously) (Wu and Yu 2012: 21).

However, this doesn’t explain all aspects of the weapon. Take for example the initial description of the staff as a black iron pillar with an inscription:

[Sun] Wukong girded up his clothes and went forward to touch it: it was an iron rod more than twenty feet long and as thick as a barrel. Using all his might, he lifted it with both hands, saying, “It’s a little too long and too thick. It would be more serviceable if it were somewhat shorter and thinner.” Hardly had he finished speaking when the treasure shrunk a few feet in length and became a layer thinner. “Smaller still would be even better,” said Wukong, giving it another bounce in his hands. Again the treasure became smaller. Highly pleased, Wukong took it out of the ocean treasury to examine it. He found a golden hoop at each end, with solid black iron in between. Immediately adjacent to one of the hoops was the inscription, “The Compliant Golden-Hooped Rod. Weight: [seventeen thousand five hundred-fifty pounds]” (Wu and Yu 2012: 135). [1]

If the weapon is based on historical objects, could it be possible that this description is based on something real? I believe I have found the object that may have influenced Monkey’s treasure: the famous Iron Pillar of Delhi (fig. 1).

Click the image to open in full size.

Fig. 1 – The Iron Pillar of Delhi (4th-cent. CE).


This Hindu monument was erected by King Chandragupta II (r. 380–413) of the Gupta Empire and dedicated to the deva Vishnu (Balasubramaniam 2005: 14). It is nearly 24 feet long, 21 feet of which is sticking out of the ground (“an iron rod more than twenty feet long”). The shaft has a very wide diameter, 24 inches at the base and 17 inches at ground level (“as thick as a barrel”) (Balasubramaniam 2005: 30). It has an ornamental bell capital that was originally topped by a chakra disc (“He found a golden hoop at each end”) (fig. 2)(Balasubramaniam 2005: 36-42). [2] And it also carries an inscription describing the military feats of the king (“Immediately adjacent to one of the hoops was the inscription…”) (fig. 3) (Balasubramaniam 2005: 6-8).

Click the image to open in full size.Click the image to open in full size.

(Left) Fig. 2 – A reconstruction of the chakra disc (Balasubramaniam 2005: 42).

(Right) The inscription.


What’s most interesting is the fact that the pillar is famous for resisting corrosion over the last 1,600 years. Scientists have analyzed its composition to find that it has a high phosphorous content, which forms a protective barrier against corrosive agents (Balasubramaniam 2005: 3 and 50-51). This means that the metallurgists of ancient India were far more advanced than originally thought. In addition, a local tradition in Delhi associates the pillar with Bhima, a supernaturally strong warrior from the great Hindu epic the Mahabharata (4th-cent. BCE). A legend circulating from at least the 19th-century (maybe earlier) claims that he wielded the monument as a club in his ancient war against a rival army (Chunder 1869: 152). Therefore, a black iron rod that defies time and is associated with martial heroes would surely make a fine weapon for an immortal monkey, no?

I unfortunately don’t know of any Chinese sources mentioning the pillar, so connecting it directly to Xiyouji is difficult. However, the pillar was around for 1,200 years prior to the final Ming version, and Buddhist monks such as Faxian and the historical Xuanzang made pilgrimages to northern India were the monument is located. Not to mention there is the possibility that Indian and Chinese merchants traveling back and forth between the two countries could have spread tales about the marvelous iron rod to China. These oral tales could have then reached the ear of the novel’s author during the Ming. I’ve contacted experts in Chinese history, religion, and literature to determine whether or not I’m on the right path. I’ll make a sister entry in the future if I happen upon any more information.

Update: 06-04-14

I recently learned that famed Muslim sojourner Ibn Battuta (1304-1377) referenced the pillar in his travel log:

In the center of the [Mosque of Delhi] is the awe-inspiring column of which [it is said] nobody knows of what metal it is constructed. One of their learned men told me that it is called Haft Jūsh, which means ‘seven metals’, and that it is composed of these seven. A part of this column, of a finger’s length, has been polished, and this polished part gives out a brilliant gleam. Iron makes no impression on it. It is thirty cubits high, and we rolled a turban round it, and the portion which encircled it measured eight cubits (Ibn 2002: 622). [3]

Ibn Battuta traveled to China after his time in India, so this is just an example of how stories of the pillar could have come to the Middle Kingdom.

Update: 12-30-14

I just posted the third and final installment of my investigation on the history of Monkey’s staff. It can be read here.

Update: 09-26-16

Since writing the top entry, I’ve come to appreciate a Chinese origin for the staff’s depiction as an iron pillar. This entry serves as an addendum until I can write a longer blog on the subject…

Update: 12-09-16

I recently learned about the origins of Monkey’s birth from stone, which may have influenced the hero’s connection with Yu’s ruler.


[1] Emphasis added. Anthony Yu’s original translation uses the word “pounds.” However, Chinese versions of the novel use jin (斤), known in English as “catty.” Catty and pound are two different measures of weight, the former being heavier than the latter. Therefore, the English text has been altered to show this. The catty during the Ming Dynasty when the novel was compiled equaled 590 grams (Elvin 2004: 491 n. 133), so 13,500 catties would equal 17,550 lbs.

[2] Balasubramaniam (2005) states that the discus was probably removed during the Muslim era for iconoclastic reasons (43). I’m not sure when (if it all) stories of the pillar made it to China. Whether before or after the Muslim conquest, the ornamental nature of the discus and/or the remaining bell capital could have influenced the fusion of the rings from the religious staff to the ends of the martial iron staff.

[3] A big thanks to Historum member Jinit for bringing the reference to my attention.


Balasubramaniam, R. 2005. Story of the Delhi Iron Pillar. Delhi: Foundation Books.

Chunder, Bholanauth. 1869. The Travels of a Hindoo to Various Parts of Bengal and Upper India (Vol. 2). London: N. Trübner.

Elvin, Mark. 2004. The Retreat of the Elephants: An Environmental History of China. New Haven (Conn.): Yale university press.

Ibn Batuta, and H. A. R. Gibb. 2000. The Travels of Ibn Baṭṭūṭa, A.D. 1325-1354 (Vol. 3). London: Hakluyt Society.

Wu, Cheng’en, and Anthony C. Yu. 2012. The Journey to the West (Vol. 1). Chicago, Ill: University of Chicago Press.