Garuda, the Devourer, was originally an ancient Hindu sun symbol, half vulture, half-man, who served as the vehicle of the god Vishnu and his wife, Lakshmi, and lived on a diet of nagas (snakes), the ultimate creatures of the earth. In Buddhist belief, Garuda became the vehicle of Vajrapani and, paired with a twin, the symbol of the transcendent Buddha Amoghasiddhi.
Garuda eventually took on another important role in Tibetan Buddhism as well, because of his similarity to the mythical Himalayan khyung bird. Four bull-horned khyung protected the four directions and a khyung appeared in the company of mountain spirits in the sacred dances of the Bon, the indigenous, pre-Buddhist religion of Tibet.(1) With his heavenly associations and his sworn enmity to the evil forces of the earth, Garuda appealed to Mongolian Buddhists, whose own native shamanism honored the sky above all, as a logical character for their own version of the tsam.
In the Mongolian tsam Garuda plays the role of one of the Lords of the Four Mountains, a group of local figures that won acceptance and popularity because they were taken directly from Mongolian shamanism and grafted onto Tibetan Buddhist belief. Garuda represents the God of Bogdo Ula, the sacred mountain south of modern Ulaanbaatar (see also cat. nos. 35 and 36).(2) All four mountain gods were "converted" to Tibetan Buddhism by the efforts of the Third Dalai Lama, whose campaign eventually became part of an official Manchu policy aimed at easing the differences between Mongolian folk beliefs and those of officially sanctioned Buddhism.
This Garuda mask was probably made as part of the renovation of tsam costumes in Da Kh,ree led by the monk-artist Puntsag-Osor at the end of the nineteenth century, for it appears in photographs of the last tsam held at the Bogdo Gegen's kh,ree in the late 1930s.(3) The fierce, orange bird is brilliantly conceived, with green curving bull's horns of the Himalayan khyung, bull's ears, and a bovine snout that rears up behind its pronged beak. It has flaming gilt eyebrows and cheeks, and a gilt finial, decorated with jewels bursting from a lotus, crowns its head. Its formidable jaws grip the hapless naga, a naive but expressive creature crafted of stuffed, patterned cotton. Garuda's frightful hair is made of red string and it wears an elegant headpiece and ear pendants of applique, Egrave, embroidered, and tasseled silk. -- P.B.
Published: Tsultem, Mongolian Sculpture, pls. 188-89; Rintschen, "Urgaer Pantomimen," fig. 3
1.Nebesky-Wojkowitz, Tibetan Religious Dances, pp. 256-58.
2.Heissig, The Religionss of Mongolia, p. 109.
3. See, e.g., Tsultem, Mongolian Sculpture, pl. 188.