Finely carved with detailed armor and menacing faces, these four figures represent the Four Guardian Kings (Sitian Wang) who are on earth to guard the four cardinal points of the world and protect the Buddhist Law (dharma), according to Buddhist philosophy. The four kings, who are believed to have been present at every critical moment in Buddha’s life including his birth and his attainment of nirvana, were originally placed on the four sides of stupas to guard the Buddhist relics inside. They include Virudhaka, ‘He who enlarges the kingdom’, the Guardian of the South; Dhrtarastra, ‘He who maintains the kingdom of the Law’, the Guardian of the East; Vaishravana, ‘He who is knowing’, the Guardian of the North, and Virupaksha, ‘He who observes all things in the kingdom’, the Guardian of the West. Each guardian is depicted as a fierce warrior, with eyes wide open and muscular bodies visible through their armor, while their celestial nature is shown by their flowing scarves.
Wood figures of Four Guardian Kings, carved with full rounded faces and detailed armor as seen on the present are rare. Compare a standing wood figure of a guardian, sold at Christie’s New York, 20th March 2014, lot 2061. See also four much larger painted stucco sculptures dressed in a similar carved armor, from the Shuanglinsi temple in Pingyao, Shanxi province, illustrated in situ in Shuanglinsi cai su foxiang [Buddhist images of coloured stucco from Shuanglinsi], Taipei, 1997, pp 33 and 35.