Recognizing the “Guardians of the directions”: the lokapalas – Part 1

- through Fabrice Groult

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Legends, traditions, protective functions and iconography: who are the symbolic Tibetan rulers of the cardinal spaces?

The “Guardians of the directions” – called, in Sanskrit, lokapalas – are, in Asia, the sovereigns of the cardinal spaces assigned to them; they are, as such, responsible for protecting the faithful from the dangers associated with the directions they protect.

The story of their origin is lost in the mists of time; it has its source in the traditions of several countries, which has led to an evolution of their characteristics, functions and attributes, and an increase in their number with the creation of guardians assigned to the protection of any point in space.

The guardians of the directions are a perfect example of the process of elaboration of many characters and deities of the Buddhist pantheon. Over the course of centuries, their functions, their iconography, have been enriched by local traditions, indigenous beliefs and religions, originating from a vast space stretching from Central Asia to Eastern Asia.


In Indian Brahminical and Hindu tradition, they are called dikpalas; we find Indra in the east, Agni in the southeast, Yama in the south, Nirriti in the southwest, Varuna in the west, Vayu in the northwest, Kubera in the north and Isana in the northeast; these are the main guardian-deities because there are variants attached to other traditions such as Surya, Pavana, Soma...

In traditional Chinese cosmology, these guardians are at the crossroads of Indian traditions and ancient Taoist beliefs: to the east Qing Long is illustrated by a blue or sometimes green dragon; to the south, Zhu Que is an orange-red phoenix bird; in the north, Xuan Wu is a black tortoise sometimes embraced by a snake; in the west, Bai Hu is a white tiger. Finally, in the center, Qilin is a yellow unicorn. There are other traditions in ancient pre-Buddhist China; among the most famous we find Kou-mang in the east, Chu-yung in the south, Yü-chiang in the north, and Ju-shou in the west (1).

In Buddhism, the four guardians are referred to as loka-pala ("guardian(s) of the world"), catur-maha-raja ("four great kings") or sometimes simply maha-raja ("great kings”); they are the “defenders of the world”, the “heavenly kings guardians of the directions”, the four “protectors of the Dharma”; these are Vaisravana in the north, Dhrtarastra in the east, Virudhaka in the south and Virupaksa in the west.

Subsequent to the institutionalization of these great guardian kings of the four cardinal directions, developments multiplied the number of these guardians; by adding the intermediate directions of northeast, northwest, southeast and southwest, we have eight directions (or asta-loka-pala); finally by adding the zenith and the nadir the guardians increase to the number of ten (or dasadig-loka-pala).

It is important to clearly differentiate between the guardians of the four Orients, the lokapalas, whose sculptures or paintings are generally located at the doors of the temples, and the guardians of the temples, or dvarapalas (lit. "door guardian"), whose location is identical and similar iconography. Japan provides us with an illustration of this: from traditional Japanese cosmology, two guardian-kings (2) or Ni-o called Misshaku Kongo (or Agyo) and Naraen Kongo (or Ungyo), supposed to have been disciples of Gautama Buddha and having protected it, are regularly represented since the XNUMXth century at the gates of temples to ward off evil spirits and demons; they possess a wrathful form and, sometimes, attributes identical to those of guardians of the directions.

These wrathful giants with pronounced muscles and simply clad in a loincloth are found on either side of the main gate of almost every temple in Japan. According to the texts, they are manifestations of Vajrapaṇi or Mahasthamaprapta, Amitabha's assistant bodhisattva. Agyo, mouth open, is located to the right of the door, with his open mouth he generates the wind and pronounces the syllable Ah, symbol of birth; Ungyo, mouth closed, is located on the left and whispers the syllable Un, symbol of death. “They ward off evil spirits, thieves and protect children” (3).

Legends about the origin of lokapalas are numerous. One of the most famous (4) tells that at the creation of the world, two naga kings lived in the mountains; Being harassed by two Garuda kings, they decided to take refuge with the Buddha of their time, Kasyapa. They drew from it an exceptional force which made the admiration of the garudas; these asked them the origin of this energy and having learned the cause, they decided to convert to the teachings of the Buddha. After taking their vows, they decided to serve the next Buddha, Gautama, and so the two nagas became Vaisravana and Virupaksa and the two garudas, Dhrtarastra and Virudhaka.

Legendary tales abound in literature, and guardians intervene throughout Gautama's life. When the mother of the future Buddha was pregnant, they came every night to perform circumambulations around Queen Maya; they collect the child at birth in a cloth; when the young prince Siddhartha decides to leave the worldly life of Kapilavastu, they support the hooves of his horse Khantaka to avoid waking the inhabitants; they install him on a throne of jade; they offer him bowls of food after his enlightenment; they are finally present during his parinirvana.

Their representations appear, in part or in full, in the oldest Buddhist iconographies: on the barrier of the stupa of Bharhut (XNUMXnd century before our era), on the doors (torana) of the stupa of Sanci (XNUMXst century before our era), in statues of Gandhara (first centuries of our era), in the oldest caves of the oases of the Silk Road (IV century), in monasteries of Central Asia (Balkh, VI century), on banners found in Dunhuang caves...

In the current state of our knowledge, they do not seem to be represented in China then in Korea and Japan before the 593th century and in the sphere of Tibetan Buddhism before the 1945th or XNUMXth centuries. Thus the oldest known temple in Japan would be the Shi Tenno-ji of Osaka built, in XNUMX by prince Shotoku, in homage to the four guardians of the directions which had enabled him to win a battle; this temple destroyed during bombardments in XNUMX is now rebuilt identically.

Finally, their representations appear in all traditional forms, sculptures in wood, metal and clay; wall paintings, on rolls of cotton, silk, paper; illustrations of canonical works…

The four guardians of directions in Buddhism

In the ancient cosmology of the Abhidharmas (5), they are four in number, for the four cardinal points, and they reside “on the fourth terrace of Mount Meru… in person with their acolytes (6); likewise they have cities and towns on the seven golden mountains” (7); they also guard the four gates of Indra's palace on the summit plateau of Meru.

They are also found at the top of Yugaṃdhara, one of the seven concentric mountain ranges surrounding Mount Meru.

Depending on the country, region and era, they can be seated on animal mounts or seated on seats; when standing, they may or may not trample subjugated deities; they are bare-chested or wear simple clothes or armour; their headdresses, their attributes, the color of their skin and their hair, the number of their arms, also vary.


Its origin is very complex: Tucci (8) identifies the main influences which were at the origin of its characteristics. From India, he has links with the pre-Buddhist deities of the yakṣas and with the deity of riches Kubera; it is also mentioned in the Mahabarata where, as regent of Lanka, he is positioned in the south while Kubera is the protector of the north. From Central Asia first, then from China, it acquired its warrior form. This warrior aspect seems linked to the kingdom of Khotan, an oasis located on the southern route of the Tarim Basin. The first king of Khotan (9st century) would have come from the forehead of an ancient statue of Vaisravana, a deity perhaps of Iranian origin (10). The following kings considered, consequently, to be descended from this god. The northern location of Khotan predisposed Vaisravana to become the protector of the north; the assimilation of the Brahmanic deities – and therefore of the protectors of the directions – by Buddhism brought closer to Vaisravana the regent of the north and deity of wealth, Kubera (XNUMX), and allowed the regrouping of their functions.

The guardians of the directions are a perfect example of the process of elaboration of many characters and deities of the Buddhist pantheon. Over the centuries, their functions, their iconography, have been enriched by traditions

Vaisravana is the only guardian of the directions to be regularly represented alone; this singularity explains the thirty different forms identified by Lokesh Chandra (11). Its isolated presence in monasteries in Central Asia continued in China and Japan; two exhaustive studies detail its sources and forms, that of Lévi Sylvain & Junjiro Takakusu, in 1929-1930 (12), and that of Lokesh Chandra, in 1992 (13). These authors distinguish the many functions of Vaisravana, regent of the north, leader of the yaksas, god of wealth, god of war, they also analyze his suite.

Here is a summary of its main features. As regent of the north, Vaisravana resides on the continent north of Mount Meru, Uttarakuru, but also on Yugamdhara, one of the seven mountain ranges surrounding Meru, and finally, on the fourth terrace of Mount Meru. Meru; he has three towns, a park and a pond, and his residence communicates with those of the three other guardians who each own only one town and come to walk in the park of Vaisravana. In all the texts, he is the leader of the yaksas and often travels accompanied by the greatest number; he subjugates them when they are evil, instructs them and saves them from transmigrations. He is the god of material and spiritual wealth; he grants wishes, appears with gold which he distributes, but the principal treasures spread by his care consist of the teachings of the Buddha.

In China and Japan, he is the god of war: according to the Vaisravana Ritual, a text from the 685th century, in the middle of the 762th century it saved the besieged city of Ngansi, an oasis on the Silk Road, thanks to the invocations made by Emperor Xuanzong (XNUMX-XNUMX) and the monk Daikochi. As a result of this exploit, the emperor demanded that images of Vaisravana and his assistants be installed in the northwest of the cities and that the monasteries consecrate an edifice to him.

According to different texts, his retinue is made up of his father, his mother, his grandmother, his sons – generally ninety-one in number – and, finally, his eight brothers who are also his eight generals: Manibhadra, Purnabhadra , Pancika, Satagiri, Haimavata, Visakha, Atavaka and Pancala.

This complexity explains its many iconographies; thus as a deity of war, he is clothed in armor, a helmet, has a wrathful face and holds, depending on the case, a lotus, a vajra, a stupa, a sword, a staff, a spear three-pointed...

Dhrtarastra, Virudhaka and Virupaksa

The other three guardians are never depicted alone, but form a group of four with their leader, Vaisravavanna. Dhrtarastra, regent of the East, reigns over the gandharvas (14) and the putanas (15); Virudhaka, regent of the South, reigns over the kumbhandas (16). Finally, Virupaksa, regent of the West, reigns over the anagas (17).

According to Ts A-han king of theAsokavadana (text generally dated to the 18nd century), or “the destruction of the Law of the Buddha”, the Buddha said to the four devarajas: “Here I am soon going to enter nirvaṇa. After my nirvana, you devas, protect the Law of the Buddha”. Addressing Dhrtarastra aside, he said, "You must protect the Buddha Law from the eastern side." He said to Virudhaka, "You will protect the Buddha Fa from the southern side." He said to Virupaksa, "From now on you will protect the Buddha Law from the west side." He admonishes Vaisravana in these words: "From now on you will maintain the Law of the Buddha on the north side". (19 & XNUMX).

The origins and characteristics of three other lokapalas, Dhrtarastra, Virudhaka and Virupaksa are much less complex, but their iconography varies greatly according to the period, the country and the nature of the work, sculpture, painting, drawing.

Lokesh Chandra identifies a dozen forms of Dhrtarastra (20), which are differentiated by their attributes (sword, trident, bow and arrow, axe, vajra, cintamani, serpent, lute), their postures (standing, treading on an animal or a demon , seated in maharajalilasana), their headdresses, their clothes… He also identifies about ten forms of Virudhaka (21) and about twenty for Virupaksa (22) by describing the main specificities of each representation. The lokapalas are not subject to rituals, their mission is exclusively to protect the teachings of the Buddha and the faithful.

In partnership with the Institute of Buddhist Studies (

photo of author

Fabrice Groult

Fabrice Groult is an adventurer, photographer and Buddhist who has traveled the world since a young age. After studying Buddhism in India, he embarked on an eighteen-month journey through Asia that took him to the Himalayas, where he discovered his passion for photography. Since then, he has traveled the world capturing images of Buddhist beauty and wisdom. He was a guide for ten years, and is now a journalist with Buddhist News.

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