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Man-bird or Bird-man.


The Garuda is depicted as a winged man with the head of an eagle. Initially, in early Assyrian examples, the wings are attached to the back and the arms are free to bear other symbols. The younger hindu and buddhist versions sometimes have winged arms and the feet are more like bird’s claws to make the figure more bird-like.

The Garuda should not be confused with a Siren or an angel. The difference between a Garuda and a Siren is that the Garuda is a human being with a bird’s head and the Siren is a bird with a human head. Also the Garuda is not an angel because an angel is a human being with wings symbolizing its celestial origin.

The range of distribution of these celestial beings is also differrent. We find the Garuda mainly in the realm of hinduism and buddhism. The Siren, on the contrary, only occurs in the Hellenistic world. Also, the Garuda is of Assyrian origin and the Siren and the angel originate from Egypt.

The Garuda is a very good example of cultural diffusion and it has traveled from Assyria to Bali in about  fifteen centuries.

When the Siren is the manifestation of the living soul and the angel is the messenger from heaven, it is, for the time being, not known what the meaning of the Garuda in the Assyrian context is, nor is its name in Assyrian known. We cannot be sure if its meaning in Hinduism is not a much distorted version of the original Assyrian meaning.

The Garuda plays an important role in hindu and buddhist symbolism and its range of distribution coincides with the range of distribution of hinduism in history. In particular the Garuda is the vehicle of Vishnu or, in more human terms, the vehicle of the sovereign. Most of the examples of Garuda’s preserved are of Indian and Indonesian origin.


Garuda on a monumental relief

from the palace of the Assyrian king Assurnasirpal (883-859 B.C.) at Kalhu (Nimrod). H.: 232 cm


The inscription across the middle of the relief records (in a way common to all the slabs from this palace) the conquests of the king. The bucket and the cone he keeps in his hands are associated with purification.


In literature the Assyrian Garuda is called “griffin-demon” and about this being it is remarked: [1]

With possible antecedents from the Old Babylonian Period (ca. 1800-1600 B.C.), and with close analogues in Mitannian art (ca. 1600-1350 B.C.), the griffin-demon first appears in his familiar form - a human-bodied figure with bird’s head and wings - on Middle Assyrian seals, and became a very popular figure in Neo-Assyrian art, especially in the ninth century B.C.. After the seventh century B.C., the figure is rare, but occurs on Seleucid Period (312-64 B.C.) seals. The private quarters of the palace of Assurnasirpal II (r. 883-859 B.C.) were dominated by reliefs depicting this creature.

In the Neo-Assyrian Period figures of this type were explained as representations of the Babylonian Seven Sages, and groups of seven figurines of them were used as foundation deposits to protect houses and palaces -  alongside very different anthropomorphic figures.

From this citation we may deduce that the Garuda was introduced in India by way of  the Seleucids.


The Encyclopaedia of Indian Culture writes about the Garuda:

A half man and half bird. A vehicle of Vishnu. He was the son of Kaśyapa and Vinatā, the grand-son of Daksa. He was a great enemy of the serpents. He inherited this enmity from his mother who had  quarrelled with her senior co-wife, Kadru, the mother of serpents. At his birth, he shed such splendour from his limbs that even the deities worshipped him. That is why he is represented with a white face, red wings and golden limbs. He had  a son named Sampati, and his wife was Unnatit or Vināyaka. In the Mahābhārata it is related how his parents permitted him to devourhuman beings excepting Brāhmanas and once he consumed a Brāhamana couple who burnt his throat while passing thorugh it in such a way that he was compelled to disgorge them. He is accused of having stolen nectar (amrta) from paradise for buying his mother’s liberty from Kadru. He fought with Indra and in every fight worsted him and even destroyed his great weapon, the thunderbolt (vajra, tibetan dorje). He is known by several names Kaśyapi, from his parents, Garutman, the chief of birds; Daksaya, from his grand-father, Daksa; Śālmalī, Tarsya and Vināyaka from his ancestors. He has several epithets - Sītanātha, the white-faced; Suvarna-kāya (the golden limbed); Gaganeśvara, the king of the skies; Nāgāntaka and Pannāga Nāśana, the destryer of snakes; Rasāyana, moving lick quick silver; Kānacaru, going where he wished; Cirād, long-lived; Kāmāyus, dwelling at pleasure; Visnu-ratha, the vehicle of Vishnu; Amrta-harana, one who pilfered nectar; Surendra-jit, the conqueror of Indra and Vajra-jit, the vanquisher of the Thunderbolt.

He is well respresented in sculpture. He is installed in almost every Vaisnavite shrine opposite the central shrine, standing like a human figure of either stone or mortar with a beak-shaped nose and out-spread wings, proceeding from his back or shoulders. He is sometimes shown as seated as at Tanjore with folded hands resting on his chest, in an attitude of prayer. He has been notoiced in Gupta sculpture in the Vishnu Stone pillar of Kumāra Gupta dated A.D. 415. Garduda tokens are mentioned in the Allahabad praśasti of Samudra Gupta.

During the period of the Hoysala in Karnataka the term Garuda was applied to a particular type of warrior who vowed to die with his master. In A.D. 1220 when the Hoysala king Ballāla II died  his Minister-General Kumāra Laksmana whom that king had cherished like his own son, with his famous regiment of a thousand Garuda’s, bound by oath to die alomng with their king, surrendered their lives. Sculptures on a pillar near the Hoysāleśvara temple depict the self-immolation of these devout warriors, cutting off their limbs and heads. Kumāra Laksmana and his wife Suggala Devi “became united with Laksmi and with Garuda.”



Some 19th century examples of a Garuda [2]


 1. Indian

In the act of flying, holding a club and a  conch, symbols of armed and religious authority

2. Tibetan

With horns, fighting a Naga (snake) standing on a lotus, symbol of administrative authority







3. Siamese

Crowned, wings spread

4. Indonesian (Balinese)

The vehicle of Vishnu, holding a lotus and a conch shell, symbols of administrative and religious authority.




In the 19th century some Indian princes have chosen the Garuda as their symbol. Amongst them are the rulers of Jhalawar and Kota.

At the beginning of the 20th century the Garuda was introduced as the symbol of the Government of Thailand, thus characterizing it as the vehicle of the king of Siam, he himself a reincarnation of Vishnu. The idea was also adopted in Bhutan when the Garuda was introduced as a symbol of its first king, the ‘vehicle’ of the sovereign of Bhutan, the reincarnation of the founder of Bhutan. Also, the Garuda was proposed for the short-living Repoeblik Indonesia Serikat in 1949.


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© Hubert de Vries 2006-06-28

Updated 2010-03-12


[1] ) Black, Jeremy and Antony Green: Gods, Demons and Symbols of Ancient Mesopotamia. London 1998. From which the picture of the Assyrian Garuda. It should be kept in mind that a griffin is an eagle with a lion’s body and, as such, has nothing to do with our Garuda.

[2] ) 1. Centerpiece of a standard from Kota. From:  Rajastahan, Land der Könige. 2. From: Internet. 3. National Museum, Bangkok. 4. Photo Hubert de Vries.

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