This posts contains affiliate links. I receive a percentage of sales, if you purchase the item after clicking on an advertising link at no expense to you. This will help keep the website running. Thanks, as always, for your support!
If you look close enough at temple paintings, you’ll probably notice a menacingly grotesque face staring back at you. To the uninitiated eye these faces appear to be nothing more than ornamental. However, these paintings do in fact have a meaning. So what are their meaning? What do they look like? And why are they are adorning Korean Buddhist temples?
The name of these ornamental designs that take up residence in and around temple shrine halls are known as Gwimyeon, or “Monster Masks” in English. These ornamental Monster Masks have noses with flaring nostrils. They can also have whiskers, horns, and sharp teeth. They have a broad, menacing grin, which invites you to look at them. Another name for a Gwimyeon is Nathwi. Nathwi is a compound word. “Nat” means “face” in English, while “Hwi” is a Chinese character that means “multi-coloured” in English.
There are two types of Gwimyeon. The first type holds nothing in its mouth, while the second can hold a variety of things in its mouth. Such objects are traditionally lotus vines, a lotus bud, or some sort of foliage. This helps to differentiate it from a dragon which traditionally holds a Cintamani (Wisdom Pearl) in its mouth. Of the two types of Gwimyeon, it’s more common to find one that has something in its mouth.
Also, if you look closely at the Gwimyeon image, you’ll notice that they are often times staring in different directions. If a Gwimyeon is by themselves, they will usually stare straight ahead; however, if they are in a group of two or more, they usually stare in different directions. The diversity of their gazes allow them to protect more space at the temple. And sometimes, if a Gwimyeon is by themselves, they will be cross-eyed. Like the group of Gwimyeon, this is done to help create two lines of vision instead of one, which doubles the amount of evil spirits that might be attempting to infiltrated the inner sanctum of the temple grounds.
The origins of Gwimyeon date back to India. Specifically, you can find this type of ornamental designs in Hindu temple architecture in India. The specific Gwimyeon iconography comes from the image of Kirtimukha. Kirtimukha is a Sanskrit compound word meaning “Fame Glory Face” in English: “Mukha” meaning “face,” while “Kirti” means “fame glory.” Traditionally in South Indian architecture, they are placed at the highest point or entry of a temple to create awe through their intimidatingly awe-inspiring appearance.
As a Kirtimukha, they appear as having a fierce monster face with large fangs and a wide-open mouth. The Kirtimukha, and the Gwimyeon for that matter, are often confused with a lion, or even a dragon. However, what differentiates Kirtimukha and Gwimyeon from lions and dragons is that Kirtimukha and Gwimyeon are eating or swallowing something in their mouths.
As for where they first can be found, Kirtimukha originate in a legend from the Skanda Purana (is the largest Mahāpurāṇa, a genre of 18 Hindu religious texts) and Shiva Purana (one of the eighteen major Purānas texts). The story of Kirtimukha starts with King Jalandhara. Through King Jalandhara’s extraordinary religious austerity, the king accumulated extraordinary powers. One day, through a prideful burst of anger, Kirtimukha sent forth his messenger, the monster Rahu, who represents materialism, mischief, fear, dissatisfaction, obsession and confusion. It was Rahu’s task to eclipse the moon. By doing this task, it would challenge Shiva. Shiva’s immediate response was to explode in a tremendous burst of power from his third eye. This created a ravenous demon lion onto the world. Terrified, Rahu begged for the mercy of Shiva. Benevolently, Shiva agreed. However, Shiva still had a famished demon lion to feed. To help solve this problem, Shiva suggested that Kirtimukha should feed upon the flesh of its own feet and hands. To help pacify and placate both Shiva and the demon lion, Kirtimukha ate his own body starting with its tail and stopping with only its face remaining. Shiva was pleased with this sacrificial gesture, so he named the messenger Kirtimukha (Fame Glory Face). Shiva also declared that Kirtimukha should always have its image placed at the entry of a temple as a symbol of sacrifice and devotion, as well as the very symbol of Shiva himself.
Through Buddhist and Korean influences, the Kirtimukha became more grotesque and colourful in appearance. Like the Kirtimukha, a Gwimyeon is meant to protect a temple from malevolent spirits. That’s why you’ll typically find Gwimyeon adorning the entryway to temple shrine halls or one of the five temple entry gates like the Iljumun Gate or the Cheonwangmun Gate.
You can find great examples of Gwimyeon throughout most Korean Buddhist temples. Some personal favourites of mine can be found at Geumsuam Hermitage and Anyangam Hermitage on the Tongdosa Temple grounds. Other great examples can be found on the Daeung-jeon Hall at Samgwangsa Temple in Busanjin-gu, Busan and the Myeongbu-jeon Hall at Buseoksa Temple in Yeongju, Gyeongsangbuk-do. A couple other great spots to see dazzling Gwimyeon are on the Daeung-jeon Hall at Pyochungsa Temple in Miryang, Gyeongsangnam-do and above the Cheongun-gyo Bridge (Blue Cloud Bridge) at Bulguksa Temple in Gyeongju.
So the next time you’re at a Korean Buddhist temple, especially around the temple entry and the temple shrine hall entryways, have a look for the colourful Gwimyeon that adorn these parts of the temple grounds. They’re typically masterfully executed with vibrant colours. Just try not to be too surprised or scared when you see them looking back at you!