Note - I know Garuda is Indian in origin. When I speak of the "Garuda motif," I am referring to an artistic motif which portrays him hovering above the heads of Buddhist figures.
Garuda is a bird deity that appears in both the Hindu and Buddhist Pantheon. In the Mahabharata
, he is the offspring of the creator-rishi Kashyapa and Vinata, one of the 13 daughters of the Prajapati Daksha. When he hatches from his egg, his powerful body resembles the fire that destroys the universe at the end of each cosmic cycle. He only reduces his size to a manageable level when the gods beg him to do so. Garuda later sets out on a quest to steal amrit
(immortal elixir) from the gods to exchange for his mother when she is enslaved by his aunt Kadru, mother of the Naga-serpents. The gods intervene and promise to help him free his mother. In the end, he saves her, becomes immortal, and acts as the mount of the god Vishnu. In Buddhism, Garuda is portrayed as either a singular protector deity or as an entire race of such birds.
Garuda is connected with the famous Song Dynasty general Yue Fei (1103-1142) in his Qing era folkore biography The Story of Yue Fei
(1684). In the story, Garuda, called “Great Peng, the Golden-winged Illumination King,” perches on the top of the Buddha’s throne. But after killing a celestial bat for farting during the Buddha’s sermon, he is exiled from heaven and later reborn as Yue Fei. Prior to this, Garuda made an appearance in chapters 74-77 of the noted Chinese classic Journey to the West
(1592). In the story, he is called the “Peng of a thousand miles of clouds,” who is portrayed as a demon king ruling over a foreign country west of China, as being as old as the cosmos itself, and a spiritual uncle of the Buddha. Because of this, he is so powerful that the Monkey King must enlist the help of the Enlightened One to subdue him. The Buddha casts the illusion that his halo is a raw piece of meat, and when Garuda latches on to it, Tathagata takes away the use of his wings, trapping him forever above his lotus throne. This serves as a folklore origin for why Garuda is sometimes portrayed as hovering above the heads of various Buddhist deities in Buddhist art.
I first stumbled upon this artistic motif while trying to find other mentions of Garuda in Chinese literature. I found numerous examples of it ranging from the 12th century to the present. Here is a Tibetan Thanka from the 15th century showing the motif (look above the deity's head):
I couldn’t find any other examples of it in China or India that weren’t influenced by Tibet, so I came to the conclusion that the motif was exclusive to Tibetan Buddhism. A passage in a research paper by Prof. Heather Stoddard, an expert in Asian Art, later confirmed this theory. The paper read: “This garuda mandorla is in fact present in all the main Tibetan styles, and is indeed unique to Tibetan art…The author has searched all over Asia, in Hindu or Buddhist cultures, without success, looking for the garuda in this pro-eminent position” (“Early Tibetan Paintings: Sources and Styles (Eleventh-Fourteenth Centuries A.D,” Archives of Asian Art
, Vol. 49 (1992), p. 41). The earliest example that I could find of the motif was the 12th century, so I figured it had to have made its way to China sometime after this to influence the novels. In fact, the Mongols were patrons of Tibetan Buddhism during the Yuan period (1271-1368). Some may be surprised to learn that Garuda appears on the “cloud platform” of the Great Wall’s Juyong pass (built in 1345):
(credit goes to snuffy on flickr)
A believe an early Qing emperor was a patron of Tibetan Buddhism as well. This would explain the presence of the motif in Beijing’s Yonghegong Lama Temple (built in 1694):
However, my theory about the motif coming from Tibet was later challenged. I took a class on the Buddhist art of China and Japan earlier this year. The teacher was going through slides of Chinese cave temples when she flipped to an interior picture of Yungang cave #12. It was of a relief sculpture of a building full of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. Above the heads of three Bodhisattvas on the second floor was a bird that bore a striking resemblance to Garuda:
It didn’t appear to be a phoenix because two of those where on either side of the bird in question:
What puzzled me was the fact that the Yungang caves dated from the late 5th century. Buddhism wasn’t introduced into Tibet until the middle of the 7th century, so why was the motif in China? The only answer I could think of was that the motif had actually evolved in China and later traveled to Tibet after the introduction of Buddhism.