Museum Dictionary

The Twelve Devas

The New Year always makes me excited. I feel almost like a cicada casting off its old skin as a new year begins. Perhaps since the creation of calendars, everyone has felt this way. The past year seems to sweep away all one's troubles and bad memories, creating a sense of anticipation that something special is about to happen as if we are about to step onto fresh snow that no one has yet tread upon. People in Japan make their customary first visit to the shrine to pray for their new wishes and resolutions to come true.

During this first shrine visit, people usually pray for their individual happiness. So what do you think happens when people pray for the good fortune of the entire country? This story goes back to the Heian period (794-1185) in Japan. In those days, the emperor and his court ran the government, and there they conducted various rituals to pray for the good fortune of all Japan. New Year's at court was so busy that there was no time to rest. Among the New Year's activities included a set of Buddhist rituals. The most efficacious of these was a ceremony called the Goshichinichi no mishiho (Rites of the Latter Seven Days), which was held to pray for the health of the emperor, prevention of disasters, and bountiful harvests.

Goshichinichi (the latter seven days) refers to the seven days of the second week after the first week of the New Year. Mishiho is composed of the honorific character mi, which indicates the importance of the rite, and the characters shiho (also read shuho or zuho), referring to esoteric Buddhism, which incorporated the powers of incantations and magical spells. This important ceremony held at court was conducted by a high-ranking esoteric Buddhist priest, who was given the title the Elder of To-ji Temple. Various Buddhist paintings were hung along side a central mandala, a sacred goma fire was lit, and prayers were fervently offered.

Year after year, the Elder of To-ji went to the Imperial Palace and solemnly held this ritual. Then in 1127, the paintings that were to be hung for this ritual were destroyed in a fire. Though this was devastating, new replacements were soon ordered, but since no one anticipated such an accident, there was a bit of a panic. In any case, the new paintings were based on a set dated to the great founder of the Shingon sect of Buddhism, Kukai (774-835). However, the Retired Emperor Gotoba (1180-1239), the most powerful man in court at the time, was not pleased with the finish and made the painters redo another set based on a different model. Since there are no records indicating that the retired emperor was displeased with the second set, he must have accepted it. This second set of paintings, which has amazingly been preserved, is the Twelve Devas that we have today in the collection of the Kyoto National Museum (designated as a National Treasure).

The Twelve Devas represent Indian gods that preside over the twelve direction-north, south, east, and west, the four semi-directions, up and down, and the sun and the moon. They include the gods of wind (J., Futen; Skt., Vayu), water (J., Suiten; Skt., Varuna), fire (J., Katen; Skt., Agni), and hell (J., Enmaten; Skt., Yama), who all have the special powers to protect ritual spaces.

  • Futen (Skt., Vayu)
    National Treasure
    Futen (Skt., Vayu)
    (Kyoto National Museum)
  • Suiten (Skt., Varuna)
    National Treasure
    Suiten (Skt., Varuna)
    (Kyoto National Museum)

Take a look at each image. Their graceful figures and well-balanced proportions are quite impressive. Some of the deva paintings have now look rather gray, however, most of the paintings still magnificently retain their original color with their fine detail and elaborate finish. The design on their robes were created from an extremely difficult, painstaking technique called cut gold, in which gold foil is cut in thin strips and applied to the painting. Such skill and attention to detail truly mark the elegance of the Heian court.

Even today, To-ji Temple, located in the south of Kyoto, performs this ceremony every New Year, making you feel the greatness of tradition.

Text by by Takeo Izumi, Department of Fine Arts
(Issued on January 10, 1998)

See more of the Twelve Devas.

A Message to Museum Visitors

↑ Back to Top