In Buddhist Mythology, a Kinnara is a celestial musician, part human and part bird and are two of the most beloved mythological characters. They are believed to come from the Himalayas and often watch over the well-being of humans in times of trouble or danger.
In Mahayana sutras, the Kinnaras are addressed as part of the Eight Legions (Astasenā), a group of Buddhist deities whose function is to protect the Dharma. They are also referred to as the “Eight Legions of Devas and Nāgas”.
Depictions of Kinnara in Different Southeast Asia Countries
As the Buddhism spreads towards the Southeast Asia, the depiction of Kinnaras took a different approach.
In Myanmar (Burma), kinnara are called keinnaya or kinnaya while female kinnara are called keinnayi or kinayi. Burmese Buddhists believe that out of the 136 past animal lives od Buddha, four were kinnara. The kinnara is also one of the 108 symbols on the footprint of Buddha.
In Cambodia, the kinnaras are known in the Khmer language as kenar. The female counterpart, the kinnari, are depicted in Cambodian art and literature more often than the make counterparts. Kinnari are considered symbols of beauty and are skilled dancers.
They are commonly seen carved into support figurines for the columns of post-Angkorian architecture.
In the Sanskrit language, the name kinnara contains a question mark, questioning if is this man?. In Hindu mythology, kinnara is described as half-man, half-horse, and half-bird. The Vishnudharmottarra describes kinnara as half-man and half-horse, but the correct nature of kinnara as Buddhists understood is half-man and half-bird which is different from the centaur-like kinnaras of the Hindu mythology.
The images of coupled kinnara and kinnari can be found in Borobudur, Mendut, Pawon, Sewu, Sari, and Prambanan temples. Usually, they are depicted as birds with human heads, or humans with lower limbs of birds. The pair of kinnara and kinnari usually is depicted guarding Kalpataru, the tree of life, and sometimes guarding a jar of treasure.
The kinnari, in Thai literature originates from India, but was modified to fit in with the Thai way of thinking. The Thai kinnari is depicted as a young women wearing an angel-like costume. The lower part of the body is similar to a bird, and should enable her to fly between the human and mystical worlds. The most popular portrayal of kinnaree in Thai art probably the golden figures of kinnaree adorned the Wat Phra Kaew in Bangkok, which desdcribe a half-maiden, half-goose figure.
In Tibet, the kinnara is known as the Miamchi or “shang-shang”. This mythology is depicted either with just the head or including the whole torso of a human including the arms with the lower body as that of a winged bird.
In Nyingma Mantrayana (oldest school of four major Tibetan Buddhism), the shang-shang symbolizes “enlightened activity”. The shang-shang is a celestial musician, and is often iconographically depicted with cymbals. A homonymic play on words is evident which is a marker of oral lore: the “shang” is a cymbal or gong like ritual instrrument in the indigenous traditions of the Himalaya. the shang-shang is sometimes depicted as the king of Garuda.