Bahans: Vehicles of the Gods

Festival Issue 63 Jul, 2010
Text by Dinesh Rai

Thailand is full of surprises, especially  for a Hindu. Although a Buddhist country, its museums are full of idols depicting Hindu deities and the most numerous seem to be those of Vishnu, the preserver. In Bangkok, when I went to check out the royal barges that King Bhumibol still uses on special occasions, I was in for a surprise. These beautifully crafted barges all have exquisitely carved images of a garuda in the front. The first thing you see when the barge pulls out is the large garuda. Why the garuda? In former times the king of Thailand was considered an incarnation of Vishnu. King Bhumibol is known as Rama IX.

Garuda is the vehicle of Lord Vishnu and its statue is quite commonly seen in front of temples. These temples are dedicated mostly to Narayan and Krishna, two of the many incarnations of Vishnu. It is said the garuda image found in the Changu Narayan temple near Bhaktapur is one of the most important works of art and was made around the 5th –6th Cent. A.D. Other images of the garuda are seen in front of Krishna temples at the durbar squares. A very big stone image lies near the Kasthamandap, facing a small temple.

Similarly, Lord Shiva, the creator and destroyer, has the bull Nandi as his vehicle and the largest image of Nandi can be found in the Pashupati temple, one of the holiest Hindu shrines. This massive statue of the vehicle is gilded and sits facing the shrine of Shiva. Unfortunately, no photography is allowed within the temple premises, so we have to be content with a picture of a more humble likeness of Nandi.

A very popular god among Hindus is Ganesh, the son of Shiva. He is the remover of obstacles, hence people pray to him in the hope of achieving their goals. His vehicle is the rat and although Ganesh temples are common, the image of a rat is not. One of the biggest images is seen at Surya Binayak, south of Bhaktapur.

Among the goddesses, Saraswati’s vehicle is either a lotus or a swan. Lotuses are commonly seen under the feet of this goddess, but a swan is rare. In our search for  this vehicle, we chanced upon a wood carved image of the goddess and the swan. Saraswati, the consort of Lord Brahma is the goddess of learning.

Durga’s vehicle is the tiger but her idols rarely show her sitting on one. More often, we find paintings in which she is depicted sitting on her vehicle. She is also seen in the form of the fearsome goddess Kali who needs to be appeased with blood sacrifices. Many likenesses of Durga are made during the Dashain festival.

Laxmi, the goddess of wealth is Vishnu’s consort and her vehicle is the owl. She is however, not depicted sitting on one, just as you wouldn’t find Ganesh sitting on a rat. During the Tihar festival, this goddess is invited right into people’s homes and the special lights that are lit on this occasion are meant to attract her.