A few days ago, while visiting Kasuga Taisha in Nara, I dropped by the Shin-Yakushi-ji (新薬師寺) temple. Shin-Yakushi-ji is famous for Yakushi Nyorai (薬師如来) statue. Yakushi Nyorai is surrounded by a group of Twelve Divine Generals.
According to records at Tōdai-ji, Shin-Yakushi-ji was founded in March 747 as Kōyaku-ji (香薬寺) by Empress Kōmyō (光明皇后 – 701–760) wishing for the recovery of her husband, Emperor Shōmu (聖武天皇, 701 – June 4, 756), who suffered from an eye ailment. She had a large nine bay temple hall (Kon-dō) built and statues of the Seven Buddhas of Healing (七仏薬師) enshrined in it. Such statues were thought to be efficacious against the evil spirits of dead political figures.
In the Kamakura period the priests Jōkei (貞慶, 1155–1213) and Myōe (明恵, 1173–1232) restored the temple after the general decline. Around that time today’s East Gate, South Gate, belfry and Jizō Hall were built.
Buildings of Shin-Yakushi-ji temple: (courtesy Wikipedia)
Hon-dō (本堂): The Hon-dō, from the 8th century, Nara period is the oldest extant structure at Shin-Yakushi-ji and one of the oldest wooden buildings in Japan. However it was not designed as the main hall of the temple. The Kon-dō from the time of founding differed from the present main hall in size and its position within the temple grounds. Until about the mid-Heian period the two structures coexisted. During the Kengen era (1302–1303) the Hon-dō was thoroughly restored.
The construction features a large hip-and-gable irimoya style roof and white washed walls. Inside thick pillars placed on the dirt floor carry the roof. The open ceiling which used to be painted red, leaves the sheathing beams and rafters visible. There is a stained glass window in the East wall of the hall. The Hon-dō has been designated as a National Treasure and houses the main image of Yakushi Nyorai surrounded by a group of Twelve Heavenly Generals.
The South Gate (南門), an Important Cultural Property, is the oldest extant example of a four-legged gate (四脚門). It was built during the Kamakura period at the end of the 12th or the beginning of the 13th century. Gates in this style only appear in high ranking temples or Imperial Palace gates, thus indicating the former status of Shin-Yakushi-ji. The four posts of the gate have very wide chamfered edges and are placed on a platform of un-hewn rocks.
Yakushi Nyorai (薬師如来) 191.5 cm tall, Heian period seated Yakushi Nyorai is the principal image of Shin-Yakushi-ji. He is placed on a huge (9 m diameter, 90 cm high) circular platform which almost entirely fills the Hon-dō. Together with six small Buddha images (化仏) on its halo, the main statue forms a group of Seven Buddhas of Healing (七仏薬師). Yakushi Nyorai is protected by Twelve Heavenly Generals arranged in a circular fashion around it facing outward.
Twelve Divine Generals (十二神将); from the Nara period, roughly life-size standing group of Twelve Heavenly Generals from 729–749 is the oldest extant in Japan. It was made of unbaked clay and originally colored. The skin was salmon color. Beards were drawn with ink, cloths and armour painted in bright colors and gold foil applied in places. Not much of the original decoration remains.
The twelve statues in counter-clockwise order starting at the front right (south east) are:
Bazara (Meikira): 162.9 cm, with hair standing on ends and an open mouth as if crying out. He holds a sword in his right hand.
Anira (Anira): 154.2 cm, wearing a helmet and holding an arrow with both hands. He scrutinises the nock of the arrow. As a whole he appears rather plump compared to other statues like the one of Meikira.
Haira (Kubira): 159.5 cm. The original clay statue was damaged in an earthquake at the end of the Edo period. The present statue is wooden and dates to 1931. It is not a National Treasure. Haira is depicted wearing a helmet, holding a bow and arrow.
Bigyara (Bigyara): 162.1 cm, brandishing a pestle with three prongs at each end (三鈷杵), a type of vajra, in his raised right arm. His left hand rests on his waist. Some color is visible on the back of his armour.
Makora (Makora): 170.1 cm, carries an axe in his right hand. His left hand rests on his waist. The hakama falls below the knees, covering his shin armour. The area around his neck is covered by a cloth.
Kubira (Shōtora): 165.1 cm, has his right elbow raised to shoulder height, carrying a sword in his right hand. The tip of the sword is pointing at his left hand which is formed to a fist. Remains of a flower pattern are found on the skirt like garment (裙), and the gold ground on the armour shows a pattern of small plates.
Shōtora (Santera): 167.6 cm, his right hand with spread fingers resting on his waist and a sword in his left hand pointing down. His wild hair standing up is bound together in a topknot. One of his eyes is dark blue the other dark brown.
Shintara (Shintara): 165.5 cm, holds a sacred gem in his right hand and a staff in his left hand. He is standing on a sandbar shaped dais (洲浜座). The shin armour features a flame pattern painted with ink on gold ground.
Santera (Antera): 161.8 cm, is leaning on a trident with his right arm. His head is slightly turned to the left and his left hand rests on his waist. There is a shigami (獅噛) ornament of a biting lion on his shoulder armour. The posture is similar to that of Indara.
Meikira (Indara): 159.5 cm, with his right hand resting on his waist and the left arm raised high with the palm turned outward. His left leg is bend. He is standing on a sandbar shaped dais (洲浜座).
Antera (Bazara): 153.6 cm, wears a helmet with small curved panels on the left and right sides of the rim. He is carrying a fly swatter (hossu) in both hands in front of his left shoulder. His facial expression is peaceful.
Indara (Haira): 155.2 cm, wears a helmet with two curved panels on the left and right sides of the rim and a visor. He carries a trident in his right hand while the left hand rests on his waist. The posture is similar to that of Santera.