Garuda

In Angkorian art as inspired by Hindu mythology, Garuda is a hulking man-bird most commonly depicted as defeating or devouring serpents of various sizes or serving as a battle steed to the god Vishnu, either in his divine form or in his incarnate form as Krishna.  Impressive Angkorian depictions of Garuda include the haut relief sculptures on the city walls of Preah Khan, and the bas relief murals of Angkor Wat.

Three stories about Garuda’s life and deeds(The links are to online versions of the source texts at sacred-texts.com.)

How Garuda acquired immortality, became Vishnu’s mount, and became the mortal enemy of serpents: According to the great epic Mahabharata, Garuda’s mother was Vinata, who, having lost a foolish bet, found herself enslaved to her sister Kudra, the cunning matriarch of serpents, “those persecutors of all creatures.”  When Garuda burst forward from his mystical egg, “effulgent like a heap of fire” equal to the conflagration that consumes the earth at the end of every cosmic age, he vowed to liberate his mother from her servitude.  The agreement he reached with her captors was that she would be set free on the condition that Garuda seize the elixir of immortality held by the gods and bring it back to the serpents.  The gods were ready and in full array when Garuda arrived to take the elixir, but such was his might that he defeated them in a ferocious battle, scattering them in all directions.  He went on to extinguish a fierce fire they had built around the elixir, made himself so small as so sneak past a machine of rotating blades as sharp as razors, and mangled the poisonous snakes that constituted the last line of defense. He then took to the air with the elixir in his mouth, eager to bring it to the waiting serpents.  Along the way, he met Vishnu, and the two exchanged promises.  Vishnu promised Garuda immortality even without consumption of the elixir, and Garuda promised to become Vishnu’s mount.  Flying onward, Garuda was ambushed by the sky-god Indra, wielder of the thunderbolt vajra.  When the thunderbolt struck him without effect, Garuda mocked Indra for being unable even to knock a single feather from his body.  Rather than retaliate, however, he traded pledges with the sky-god.  Garuda promised that he would not drink the elixir and that after fulfilling his obligation to the snakes he would place it on the ground for Indra to pick up, and Indra promised Garuda the snakes for food.  Both parties were true to their word.  Garuda placed the elixir on the ground, thus liberating his mother from her servitude, and then caused a diversion that allowed Indra to assume its custody.  Indra made off with the elixir, much to the relief of his fellow deities.  For his part, Garuda became the implacable and terrible enemy of the serpents, killing and devouring them at every opportunity.

How Garuda learned of his own limitations:  According to the epic Mahabharata, Indra once bestowed the gift of immortality upon a serpent named Sumukha.  When the news of this bestowal reached Garuda, he grew quite angry.  To Indra and Vishnu he protested that by granting immortality to a serpent, they were restricting his food supply.  The complaint took on an air of menace when Garuda began to boast of his great strength, which he said was equal to that of Vishnu, and when he accused Vishnu of disgracing him by using him as a mount.  Vishnu soon grew tired of Garuda’s boasting, and decided to teach the bird-man a lesson.  Having heard Garuda declare how easy it was to carry Vishnu about, Vishnu challenged Garuda to support the weight of just his one arm.  Confident, Garuda agreed to the challenge.  Thereupon, Vishnu placed his arm across Garuda’s shoulders, who promptly fell to the ground, gasping for breath, and began to cast off his feathers.  On the verge of losing his senses, Garuda begged for mercy.  Rather than squash him, Vishnu let Garuda off with a stern reprimand, but required him to make friends with Sumukha the serpent.  Thus, Garuda learned of his limitations and was cured of his pride.

How a Buddha caused Garuda to change his ways:  A Buddhist tale relates how Garuda was moved finally to renounce his vendetta against the serpents and to abandon the life of a rapacious bird of prey.  The serpent king Vasuki had persuaded Garuda to kill only serpent per day for food, pointing out that if he continued the promiscuous slaughter to which he had become accustomed, he would soon run out of food altogether.  Every day, a member of the serpent tribe would be left at an appointed place as a meal for Garuda.  One day, the designated victim had the good fortune of encountering a young prince named Cloud-Chariot destined in a later life to become a Buddha.  Appalled by the impending sacrifice, the prince insisted on taking the snake’s place that day, so that one less innocent victim would have to suffer the horrifying end of being mangled by a gigantic raptor.  Garuda swooped down and began to tear at the young prince, but soon noticed that something was amiss, since the prince did not appear to object to being eaten.  When it dawned on him that he was in fact savaging a future Buddha, Garuda desisted and became repentent.  Reproached with his follly, he agreed not only to eat no more serpents, but also to restore to life those he had already eaten.  The young prince, however, returned to happy life with his family, having cemented his reputation as one who was merciful to all creatures.

Garuda as a symbol

Despite the Buddhist effort to convert Garuda from a rapacious bird of prey to a compassionate friend of sentient beings, in both the Hindu epics and in the popular culture, Garuda remained the symbol of such attributes as speed, impetuousity, violent force, and martial prowess.  In the Mahabharata, heroes meting out punishment to their foes or descending upon them for such purpose are frequently compared to Garuda.  The great hero Arjuna, for example, is reported to have lept onto an opponent’s chariot and to have seized him “as Garuda seizes a huge snake after agitating the waters of the ocean.”  Likewise, Arjuna’s brutish brother Bhima attempted to snatch an opponent off his chariot, “like Garuda snatching away a snake.”  Combining legend with history, the Angkorian Khmer adapted such imagery to flatter their own rulers.  A stele (stone tablet inscribed with writing) found in the area of modern Laos says that the Khmer King Suryavarman II, the builder of Angkor Wat, once jumped onto an opponent’s elephant in the heat of battle and killed him, like Garuda seizing a serpent in his talons.

Related pages on this website: 3 Preah Khan  (Angkorian temple-city protected by huge stone Garudas); 14 Angkor Wat (murals show Garuda as the steed of Vishnu); 16 Naga (serpents, the legendary enemies of Garuda).



To Jayavarman VII, the Buddhist king of late 12th century Angkor, Garuda’s domination of the Nagas was a symbol of his own military power and victories over the invasionary forces of Champa.  In 1191 A.D., Jayavarman dedicated the Buddhist temple of Preah Khan (“Sacred Sword”), the center of a considerable city, on the site of such a victory.  He had the outer wall of the city, almost two kilometers around, decorated with massive stone carvings of a triumphant Garuda trampling one Naga underfoot and hoisting another overhead.  The temple itself, ironically, was dedicated to the bodhisattva of compassion Avalokiteshvara. 

The Youtube video below presents the gigantic stone relief sculptures of Garuda on the outer walls of Preah Khan.  The bas reliefs shown in the video are from the temple of Bayon at the center of the city of Angkor Thom, constructed at roughly the same time as Preah Khan and exhibiting roughly the same architetural style.

A gigantic stone Garuda stands guard at a corner of the outer city wall at Preah Khan.  I have found three distinguishable Garuda motifs in the sculpture of Preah Khan: (1) the triumphant Garuda shown in this row of pictures, (2) the Garuda against the fan of naga heads, as depicted at bottom, center, and (3) Garuda as an atlas or structural support, as in the Cham specimen below to the left.

Late in the 12th century and early in the 13th, the art of Champa belonging to the Thap Mam style bore traces of influence from Angkor.  This Cham Garuda of the 12th century is remarkably similar to the roughly contemporaneous Garuda depicted above from the walls of Preah Khan.

A Youtube video presents Cham sculptures of Garuda housed in the Champa Museum of Da Nang and the History Museum of Ha Noi in Vietnam.

The creation of Khmer style Garuda sculptures in Champa during this period can be explained in part by the fact that for the first 20 years of the 13th century, following the conquest of Champa by the troops of Jayavarman VII, Champa was essentially a province of Cambodia.  During this period a well-maintained imperial road connected Angkor with Vijaya, the capital of Champa, allowing for the easy transfer of cultural and artistic models.


The Cham sculptures of Garuda presented in the video to the left belong to the My Son A1 style of the 10th century and the Thap Mam style of the 12th and 13th centuries.  The latter include not only the Khmer-influenced Garuda depicted on the far left, but also specimens exhibiting artistic influence from Java, such as the sculpture shown above.

A bas relief at Angkor Wat depicts the rampant Garuda serving as Vishnu’s battle mount in a battle between Devas (gods) and Asuras (fallen gods or demons).  The bas relief also shows other prominent Devas fighting from the backs of their battle mounts, such as Brahma on the goose Hamsa and Kubera on a forest demon called a Yaksha.

A detail from a bas relief at Angkor Wat shows the human torso and belt of Garuda as he bears Krishna into a battle against the Asura Bana.  In the carving, Garuda’s feet are in the shape of talons, the legs are feathered and bird-like, and the head is that of a raptor, but the torso in between is human, as are the hands.During the great battle of Kurukshetra, in which Krishna served as the charioteer to the Pandava hero Arjuna, Krishna’s banner bore the image of Garuda.  According to the Mahabharata,  Krishna had only to think of Garuda in order to summon him.

Bana was an Asura with 1000 arms, who happened to enjoy the protection of Shiva.  Riding on Garuda, Krishna defeated Bana in battle and was about to kill him when Shiva intervened.  A vast bas relief at Angkor Wat depicts the battle as well as Krishna’s worship of Shiva at the end.  The photo above is a detail of Krishna standing on Garuda’s shoulders.

A youthful and haughty Garuda gazes down from the 10th century Hindu temple of Banteay Srei.  Above him (not pictured) is the goddess Lakshmi, the consort of Vishnu, for whom Garuda served as a mount.  Garuda is wearing an ornate headdress called a kiritamukuta and has human ears stretched by the use of heavy earrings.  With his hands he is making the abhaya mudra, the gesture of fearlessness: the hands are held rigidly, palms out, fingers upward, as in the sign for “stop.”

In a modern imitation of a popular Angkorian motif, a triumphant Garuda sits astride a the main head of a very worried-looking multi-headed Naga.  The impression is of a raptor taking off with a serpent in its claws.  Some scholars, however, believe that this type of sculpture represents a cooperative relationship between Garuda and Naga, as opposed to one of domination.  This modern sculpture is located in downtown Siem Reap.  Angkorian sculptures exhibiting the same motif may be observed at 12th century temples like Preah Khan.

An 11th century sculpture from Dai Viet (the north of modern Vietnam) in the time of the Ly Dynasty depicts a Kinnari, a mythical creature that is part human and part bird. In Hindu and Buddhist mythology, the Kinnari is associated with love and the arts, in particular with music. This Kinnari is playing a drum. Clearly, the Kinnari is quite different in character from the rapacious Garuda. In sculpture, this difference is represented by the fact that Garuda is given the face of an eagle, while the face of the Kinnari is human.