The Monster Mask – Nathwi

Hello Again Everyone!!

As a new segment to the blog, I will be writing more and more about the meaning behind the symbolic artwork, sculptures, pagodas, buildings, and so much more in the future. I thought it would help those that wanted to know a bit more behind the various meanings that adorn various Korean temples throughout the country.  So I hope you’ll enjoy this new segment.  So without further ado, here’s the first in the series.

If you look close enough at the 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 a monster mask.

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A Nathwi at Geumsuam Hermitage on the entrance gate.

These monster masks have wide noses with flaring nostrils, as well as whiskers, horns, and sharp teeth. With a broad and menacing grin they invite you to look at them. The monster masks actual name is Nathwi.  The name Nathwi can be divided into two parts: “Nat” meaning face in Korean; and “hwi” which is a Chinese character meaning multi-coloured. Specifically, they are divided into two different types of Nathwi looks: the first holds nothing in it’s mouth, while the second is holding either a lotus or vines in their mouths (this type is more common than the first type). In its mouth are lotus buds or foliage which differentiates it from a dragon that holds pearls in its mouth.

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Another Nathwi.  This one is on the front doors of the Daeungjeon Hall (Main Hall) at Pyochungsa Temple.

Historically, in India, a lion-like face called Kirttimukha (“Face of Glory” in Sanskrit), represented a wrathful side of Siva and is a protector of the faithful. Through Buddhist and Korean influences, these lion-like faces became monster like and colourful. And the purpose of the Nathwi, much like the lion-like faced Kirttimukha, is to protect a temple from evil spirits. If you look close enough at these Nathwi paintings or carvings, you can see they stare in a specific direction. If the Nathwi are by themselves, they usually stare straight ahead; but if there are two or more of them, they usually look in different directions. The diversity of the Nathwi gaze lets them protect every direction of the temple from potential evil spirits that might want to harm the temple or the people that are in it.

DSC04599The stone carved Nathwi at Samgwangsa Temple in Busan.

Great examples of the Nathwi artwork can be seen at Geumsuam Hermitage on the Tongdosa Temple compound.  Specifically, this Nathwi is painted on the backside of the entrance gate at the hermitage. The painted horned blue coloured Nathwi with vines coming out of its mouth is staring out over the hermitage courtyard protecting Geumsuam Hermitage from evil spirits. Another great painted example of the Nathwi is a similar looking creature on the front doors of the Daeung-jeon (Main Hall) at Pyochungsa Temple in Miryang, Gyeongsangnam-do. This long horned Nathwi is a bit different than the one at Geumsuam Hermitage in that it does’t have any vines coming out of its mouth; however, it does an equally fierce job in protecting the Main Hall from evil spirits.  And finally, there is a beautifully carved stone sculpture of a Nathwi at Samgwangsa Temple in Busan. This fierce sculpture is placed on the entrance walls to the beautifully ornate alcove that houses stone sculptures of the Buddha and Bodhisattvas and a towering pagoda. The stone sculpted Nathwi protects all from evil spirits. And one more is at the famous Bulguksa Temple in Gyeongju. Above the Cheongun-gyo (“Blue Cloud Bridge”), a set of the famous stairs at the temple, just before you pass through the gate to the main courtyard, there is a blue Nathwi with his eyes staring down at you.

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The beautiful blue Nathwi that stares down at you as you pass through the gate above the Cheongun-gyo (“Blue Cloud Bridge”) at Bulguksa Temple in Gyeongju.

So the next time you see a Nathwi painting or carving, you’ll know that they’re there to protect you and not just to scare you!

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