Deities of the Hindu pantheon are known to always exist with their vahanas. Like the accessories in their hands (ayudhas), the vahanas are also peculiar to each deity and
signifies that particular god. Vahanas are an essential part of iconography of the Indian sculptural genre, especially from the early medieval period, and is an identifying feature of the deity for the learners of iconography. Thus, it is difficult to conceive an image of Shiva without his ever faithful Nandi around him, Vishnu without his Garuda, Skanda without his peacock, or Brahma without his swan. Among the earliest representations of deities with vahanas, is a beautiful Kartikeya of 5th c. CE (Gupta era) sitting on his peacock vahana whose plumage is outstretched and forms a halo around the god. While vahanas occupied a relatively significant space in the early stages, they were later relegated to smaller spaces at the side or at the pedestal, a mere token or symbolism in the arena of iconography.
Garuda: the mount of Vishnu
Garuda in Indian literary history has had a long run, starting its flight from the Vedas as the Surya or Sun imagined as a bird. The Rigvedic hymn describes how beautiful Garutman looks with his splendid wings: divyah sa suparno Garutman. Garuda is also referred to as Tarksya in the Puranas and epics, though RV in its late verses denote Tarksya as a horse. In the Mahabharata, Garuda is shown as directly connected to the Vedic Garutman, and is the younger brother of Aruna (the charioteer of Surya); while in the Puranas and later developed parts of the epics we find Garuda as the son of rishi Kashyap and Vinata. Rishi Kashyapa had the Nagas as his children from another wife Kadru, thus making Garuda and Aruna half brothers of the Nagas.
In terms of iconography, Garuda is known as the king of birds with a Brahminy kite-like figure. In its theriomorphic form, Garuda is depicted as a giant bird with partially open wings; and in an anthropomorphic form Garuda is shown as a man with wings with some bird like features. In the Mahabharata it is seen that Garuda was seen on the dwaja-stambhs or ritual flagpoles . These dvaja stambhs are “placed opposite the entrance to the main shrine on axis with the central image [and] are an object of great importance and worship” (Dallapiccola, 2002, p. 60). Devotees pay respect to these stambhs before entering the temple. People with snake bites would often embrace these stambhs with a firm belief that Garuda would neutralize the Naga poison (Zimmer, 1946). The earliest of the stone dawajas still standing is the Heliodorus pillar (2nd c. BCE) built by a Bactrian-Greek ambassador in honor of Vishnu in Vidisha. While the Garuda is no longer present, the pillar is considered the first dated structure that can be associated with Vasudeva-Vishnu. To understand how the pillar may have looked like, one can study numismatic evidences, such as the golden dinar of King Samudragupta (335-375 CE) that depicts a Garuda dvaja.
In early Indian art, Garuda is shown as a huge parrot like bird, as seen in the architrave of the eastern gateway of Sanchi. In front of this parrot like Garuda (with earrings and a bushy tuft) is a five headed snake, the Naga (identified by Grunwedel).
In Gandhara art Garuda appears as a large eagle with earrings and wings, often carrying a naga and a nagini in his beak or with his long talons. As per the Vedanta Desika’s Garuda Panchashath and Garuda Dandaka, “Garuda wears the serpent Adisesha on his left wrist and the serpant Gulika on his right wrist. The serpent Vasuki forms his sacred thread. The cobra Takshaka forms his belt on his hip. The snake Karkotaka is worn as his necklace. The snakes Padma and Mahapadma are his ear rings. The snake Shankachuda adorns his divine hair.”
The enmity of Garuda with the Nagas is legendary, and the various stories in our literature place this enmity as the result of the the ill treatment meted out to his mother Vinata, by his stepmother (Kadru) and her sons (Nagas). In the Adiparva of Mahabharata we find that after losing a silly bet, Vinata becomes a slave of Kadru. In order to release his mother from the enslavement, Garuda was asked by the Nagas to get them Amrita or nectar. On his way to Indra’s capital, Garuda captured an elephant named Supratika and a tortoise named Vibhavasu from a lake named Alamba, and he later ate them. Once in Indra’s capital he defeated the guardsmen, carried away the pot of nectar, and handed it to the Nagas. His mother was freed as promised, but the Nagas failed to drink the nectar, as Indra arrived in disguise and took away the pot. It is said that Garuda had placed the pot of nectar on kusa grass, and as the nagas were busy making preparatory religious rites to drink the amrita, Indra carried the pot away. When the nagas returned they found the pot missing and in great disappointment they licked the kusa grass on which the pot of amrita was kept. The sharp edged kusa grass slit their tongues, and their tongues remained split thereafter.
Silparatna and Sritatvanidhi describe Garuda as two armed, but Silparatna also gives a description of Garutman as 8 armed, holding gada, sankha, chakra, sword, kamandala, a snake, and the feet of Vasudeva-Vishnu should be resting on his two front hands. Silparatna names two armed Garuda as Tarksya. According to Visnudharmottara, Garuda should be emerald in colour, with two powerful lustrous wings that are yellow in colour, four arms, a pot belly, two round eyes; and the beak, chest, knees, and legs must look like that of a kite. His two back hands should be carrying a pot of nectar and an umbrella, while his front hands should be in anjali mudra. When carrying Vishnu Garuda should be depicted as bejeweled and pot-bellied, and supporting his master’s legs instead of carrying the pot and umbrella. While Silparatna depicts only the 8 armed Garuda as carrying a snake, the Sritatvanidhi says that Garuda is the holder of a snake hood (phaniphanabhrt) and his head is adorned with snakes (phanimanditah). The epics and the Puranas also lay stress on his association with snakes. Sritatvanidhi also gives another description where it says Garuda should be shown kneeling on his left knee and wearing a crown of snakes. His face and body should be that of a human being, but his nose should be pointed and raised like a beak. He should be two armed which must be held in an anjali posture.
In medieval art Garuda is seen mainly in two forms: one as a capital of a Garudadhvaja or placed in front of the Vishnu temple; and the other where he is shown carrying Visnnu. He is mostly two armed showing anjali mudra, with a round eyed human face and bird like beak and wings. Some eastern Indian Garudas of a later period show him with four arms where the two back hands support Vishnu and Lakshmi. The Garuda on columns are mostly two-armed with elaborate wings, feet with claws, bejeweled, nose shaped like bird beak, and hair in coils.
Garuda is a popular figure not only in India, but is also highly revered in Nepal, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia and Indonesia. The Indonesian official coat of arms has the Garuda in it and the national emblem of Indonesia is known as Garuda Pancasila. The Indian Air Force also has the Garuda in their coat of arms, and their special operations unit is known as Garud Commando Force.
Garuda, second half of the 8th–early 9th century, Pandyas, Source: Met Museum.
Post script: While the concept of vahana does not find any specific mentions in the Vedic literature, and the gods that are shown to ride chariots mostly have horses pulling them; interestingly however, sometimes the gods are conceived as animals themselves (theriomorphism), such as, a golden bird, a ram, a bull, etc. Perhaps these were the animistic remains from a totemistic state, which were gradually sublimated through further evolution of religious iconography. While the Vedic hymns that invoked the gods gave the deities certain characteristics that associated them with the animals named, but in no manner do the hymns give a feeling that an actual animal is being invoked (as would have been in the case of animistic worship). While associating animals as vahanas seem to be of a later development, divinities being shown as humans with animals by their side is an old concept. Innumerable Harappan seals depict both animals and humans which were most likely divinities worshipped by the locals. There are also seals that depict humans riding animals, while some are composite art showing human and animal parts in one body. Harappan seals also show animals being carried by humans in ceremonial processions, a practice also depicted on Amaravati relief panels where a bull effigy is seen carried in a procession. Animals are again found on columns from the Ashokan era, which many scholars (Banerjea, KK Ganguli, KK Dasgupta, RP Chanda, etc) say are more likely to represent the various religious sects existing at that time, such as the bull would represent Shiva, Simha or lion would represent Durga, etc., much in the lines of the 1st c. BCE Garuda pillar of Besnagar representing Vishnu. Thus, it is quite clear that representing deities in one or the other animal form is an ancient practice. In terms of iconography it is seen that the deities liked sitting on their vahanas for some time (Shiva in Saka and Kushana eras), but later the vahanas got relegated to the pedestal and turned into just a token, reflecting their once significance as a mount.
Dallapicolla, A. L. (2002). Dictionary of Hindu lore and legend. New York: Thames & Hudson
TAG Rao, elements of Hindu iconography.
KK ganguli, The concept of vahana in Indian Iconography, Proceedings of the Indian History Congress Vol. 28 (1966), pp. 107-112.
Smith, V. A. (1901). The Jain stûpa and other antiquities of Mathurâ.
Zimmer, H. R., & Campbell, J. (1946). Myths and symbols in Indian art and civilization. [New York]: Pantheon Books.
(Photos taken from the internet are for representative purposes only, and has no commercial use)